Five years ago today, I started this blog with two posts on the state of EPCOT. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, since I’ve never represented my work here as good, merely as a thing I do because it’s fun. But writing it has turned me on to the bigger Disney fan community and its feuding factions, and it’s led to my joining Twitter and getting to know some fantastic people there. I even got to ruin an episode of WEDway NOW!
Also, I’d be seriously remiss if I failed to acknowledge my main inspirations for starting this blog in the first place: EPCOT Central, Passport to Dreams Old and New, and Progress City U.S.A. All three of these blogs are vastly superior to this one, and your time would be much better spent reading them. But now: today’s topic.
I am by no means an Apple “fanboy” or a worshipper of Steve Jobs. But he said something once that I think really nails why the “old” Walt Disney Company that produced things like EPCOT Center and the Walt Disney World resort is nothing like today’s Walt Disney Company that has spent the last decade-and-a-half ruining those things. “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology” Jobs said shortly after his return to Apple in 1997. Obviously, he was not talking about the theme park industry when he said this, he was talking about the tech industry. But the principle is sound.
Think back to the birth of the online music store in the early 2000s. Starting in the late 90s, people would use file sharing networks like Napster or Kazaa to download music files and then burn them to CDs. (Kids, ask your parents) Now, the legality of this was rather questionable, and the truth was that most people welcomed a safe, easy, and legal option to buy music on the Internet. But when the recording industry first entered the online music business, that’s not how they approached it. First, they looked at the money that ISPs were making from monthly subscriptions and decided they wanted a piece of that, so their new services would be subscription based. Cancel your subscription, and the music you’ve paid for goes away. Next, they decided that they’d like to be able to make money on the various things people liked to do with their music, like burning it to CDs. So a fee was attached to that, too. The resulting services like Pressplay and MusicNet were utterly terrible. It was ridiculously obvious that the record companies started with how much money they wanted to make and worked backwards from that. A good customer experience was not important. Then in 2003, Apple came along with the iTunes store that made it easy to find the music you wanted and download it a reasonable price without a monthly subscription or extra fees. Five years later it was the biggest music retailer in the United States, and two years after that it became the biggest music retailer in the world. Clearly, working backward from the customer experience was the best way to go here.
Now let’s talk about Disney’s MyMagic+ program. I’ve talked in the past about why it’s bad for Disney’s customers. But why does it even exist? Is it because Disney’s theme park people identified some new experience they wanted to bring to customers and then worked backward to come up with a system to do that? In interviews, Disney’s executives always talk about how it’s going to enhance their revenues. They never mention any benefits that their customers will see from the system, except for the times when they confuse more personalized marketing with something that customers want. MyMagic+ is just another Pressplay/MusicNet fiasco waiting to happen. The only reason it may be more successful is that, whereas music lovers in the early 2000s could always just buy CDs, use online file-sharing services, or eventually the iTunes store, there are no other distribution channels for Disney theme park attractions. Anyone who wants to visit Disney World will have to submit themselves to MyMagic+. And since Disney has such a massive reservoir of cultural goodwill it’s built up over the decades, many customers may not even realize how much they’re being fleeced. I just wish Disney would remember where that massive amount of goodwill they enjoy came from.
For years, Disney used technology to delight and benefit their customers. Audio-Animatronics combined with ingenious projection, lighting, and other physical effects gave people experiences they couldn’t get anywhere else-experiences they were happy to pay for. When the company embarked on the construction of EPCOT Center, they used the two-and-a-half decades of experience they’d accumulated in the theme park business to make it the most crowd-friendly park ever. Spacious walkways and quick-loading, “people-eating” attractions kept crowding and long lines to a minimum. By the mid-90s Disney’s parks and resorts business was extremely popular and profitable, too.
But in the last decade or so Disney’s theme park innovations have had nothing to do with improving the customer experience. FastPass, the Dining Plan, and now MyMagic+ all serve to make it more difficult to experience attractions or eat in restaurants while providing nice “revenue enhancements” for Disney. Meanwhile, down the road Universal Studios is adding innovative new attractions left and right, and people are flocking to their parks like never before. Generally speaking, when Company A competes by offering a good experience while Company B merely tries to make more money through complicated revenue-generating schemes, Company A wins.
What will the final outcome of MyMagic+ be? There’s no way to know now, and any answer is likely years in the future. But I continue to wish that Disney will one day rediscover the philosophy of starting with the customer experience and working backward.