Sunday, July 11, 2021

let it go! let it go!

I love Disney.

For those of you that didn't groan and click to another website, begrudging another rambling post about my love for the multimedia giant, let me further explain. I don't especially like everything specifically Disney. I dislike the majority of the programming on The Disney Channel and their cable offshoot Freeform. Those teen-angst-y, overly hip dramas and overly precocious family comedies, of course, are not geared to me. Although I am a fan of iCarly, Sam & Cat and Victorious (Nickelodeon, in my opinion, have achieved a better result with their writing and casting), Disney's shows have only accomplished a pattern of sameness. Again, I know I am not the target audience, but Disney knows who is... and they constantly and consistently hit their mark.

I don't love every film that the Disney company has produced. Sure, I have my favorites, animated classics like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland and Sleeping Beauty. I really like the productions from Disney-owned Pixar Studios, like the Toy Story franchise and Ratatouille. But, Disney's recent acquisitions of the Marvel Comics and Star Wars intellectual properties do absolutely nothing for me. But Disney knows what fans of those particular genres like and they are only too happy to give them what they want... or at least tell them what it is that they want.

My real love is the Disney theme parks. I have been to Walt Disney World and Disneyland countless times. I am never bored, never disappointed and always joyful (That's right! I am capable of joy!) during every minute I spend in a Disney theme park... with the possible exception of Disney's Animal Kingdom. (Oh, I don't care what they say — it's a zoo.) My family and I regularly marvel at the attention to detail Disney has applied to the immersive theme park experience. They set the standard and continue to maintain and even become the standard by which all other theme parks are measured. If not for the concept that Walt Disney thought up as he sat on a bench eating peanuts while his daughters rode a simple merry-go-round, no other theme parks would exist. (For those of you who hate Disney, but decided to stick around past the first sentence — there is where you can direct your disdain.)

But, love them or not, there is no denying Disney's mastery of marketing. I can think of no other company that can dictate, influence and manipulate its customers like Disney. While Apple Computers has a cult-like grip on its loyal users, they are still a niche business as compared to the widespread number of ventures in which Disney has an interest.

Not them. They're too happy... and clean.
The families on either side of them. They're the typical ones.
Disney knows their customer and they market directly to them the kind of enticement they know their customer wants to hear. The interesting thing
— and what makes their marketing prowess so admirable — is there is a wide variety of people that make up the "Disney customer." The most obvious one is the "family." Mom, Dad and their 2.5 children. If you look around at the crowds in Walt Disney World, you will see an overwhelming amount of families that fit this description. Mom, with the unfolded guide map, busily checking off each attraction the family has experienced and noting which ones they've yet to conquer. Dad, silently calculating in his head how much this vacation is costing him per minute and how much overtime he'll have to work to make up for it when they return to the "real world." Brother, sister and baby, whose collective heads are about to explode amid an overload of familiar characters, eleven dollar caramel apples, twenty-two dollar popcorn in a commemorative bucket themed to the latest film release and a barrage of questions regarding the origins of Splash Mountain. This is Disney's prime target, their "bread & butter." The ones who have no problem being coaxed out of their hard-earned money to become the proud owners of a two-foot tall Sorcerer's Apprentice hat that will never ever be worn again once they leave the Orlando Airport. They're the ones who — on Day One — grumble about having to feed a family of five for $125 per meal and — by Day Three — don't bat an eye as they wave their magical Magic Band at the restaurant cashier, where Disney has allowed them to be shielded from the sight of any actual money exchanging hands. These families aren't quite sure why they want to go to Disney World, they just do. Perhaps it's because their neighbor or a guy at work or a well-to-do brother-in-law is taking his family to Disney World. It's the thing to do, you know... go "down to Disney" as they say in my part of the country. Even the most rural-dwelling families — those who wouldn't dare set foot outside of their cocoon-like community — will venture to the "big city" airport to walk down a little tunnel, sit is a padded seat for two hours, walk down another tunnel and poof! — they are in Florida, just a short shuttle ride to the Most Magical Place on Earth.

That is genius marketing.

Disney's other key target audience are the die-hard Disney "purists." These are the folks who know (or sort-of know) the history of Disney World, revealing trivial bits of Disney lore and pointing out hidden secrets to the uninitiated — whether they asked or not. This group will buy nearly anything that has Mickey Mouse or the iconic Disney logo emblazoned upon it. They happily pay the exorbitant food prices on Day One, because they know that's the "Disney Way." They also feel slighted when the Disney company doesn't consult with them before a change is made to a ride or attraction. When Walt Disney spoke the line "Disneyland is your land." in the opening day speech at his California theme park, some people took that literally.

Disney changes things constantly. They make changes for many reasons — advancements in technology, regular maintenance and upkeep, popularity of a particular film, character or property, even reasons they don't reveal because they really don't have to. Surprisingly (or unsurprisingly), both of these groups — vacationing families and Disney purists hate change. What's interesting is — there are some changes that one group hates, the other is indifferent to. 

Just last week, a popular restaurant in Disney's Polynesian Resort called Ohana's removed a beloved item from their menu. The dish, Pineapple Stir-Fried Noodles, was a secret, go-to concoction that was spoken about in hushed tones by those "in the know." (In reality, it was on the regular menu and could easily be ordered without a secret handshake or a covert nod to the chef.) The internet Disney community called the menu deletion "an outrage," "a disgrace," "a poor business decision," "a big disappointment" and a number of other derisions. After a week or so of angry commentary, an announcement was made informing the noodle-loving world that their precious noodles would be back. (Granted, Ohana's has not yet reopened since the beginning of the global pandemic that shuttered numerous restaurants across the country, not just Disney World. No one has had these noodles since March 2020. No one.) That buzz among potential and return customers is Disney's brilliant marketing at work. Get people talking. That's good marketing strategy.

A few days ago, several theme park guests realized that Walt Disney World had altered the familiar, pre-recorded announcement that precedes the nightly fireworks display in The Magic Kingdom. The words "Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls" had been excised, leaving the introduction to begin with "Good evening, dreamers of all ages." A Disney spokesperson explained to a network news source that the decision was made in a broader effort to be more inclusive regarding their guests. The amount of backlash was astounding. Fraught with blatant anti-gay sentiment, the comments posted to official and unofficial Disney websites expressed anger and disappointment. "Who is this offending?" said one person who this decision did not affect. "Disney has gone too far! I will never go there again!," said another person who will surely go to Disney World again, once they have forgotten the reason they said they weren't going. Disney, however, did not back down on this decision and the crowds at subsequent fireworks shows were just as large as they've even been.

Every year, Walt Disney World begins decorating The Magic Kingdom for Christmas during the first week of November. Seven percent of the US population does not celebrate Christmas. Although I include myself among that small percentage, I enjoy seeing the unique decorations. I am not offended by the decorations. To accompany those decorations, Disney releases a sleigh-full of Christmas themed merchandise. I like seeing the merchandise, too. When I collected Disney memorabilia, I purchased a respectable amount of Disney Christmas items to put on display. After a while, Disney mixed in some Hanukkah merchandise with the standard Christmas articles. The stuff was cute, but it appeared (to me) to be a placating afterthought. But to the average Hanukkah-celebrating Disney Fan (I don't consider myself in that group either.), this was a noble and welcome effort on Disney's part to be all-inclusive. In stores in Walt Disney World, however, I have witnessed people pointing and scoffing at the Hanukkah merchandise, some of them holding an armload of red and green colored items and sporting holly-appointed mouse ears. A larger percentage (40%) of Americans do not celebrate St. Patrick's Day. But every year, Disney stocks their gift shop shelves with Irish-themed items to entice those who do celebrate their affinity for the Emerald Isle. I am not offended by these items either, nor to I begrudge anyone who celebrates. In an all-inclusive attempt to be all-inclusive, Disney began offering rainbow-themed merchandise to celebrate Pride Month in June, specifically "Gay Day," an acknowledged, but unofficially sanctioned, event held in Walt Disney World. Disney knows that the LGBTQ community is known as a statistically affluent group with a high percentage of expendable income. "Expendable income" are two words — in that particular order — that Disney loves.

Gay Day, which began in 1991, now draws 150,000 members of the LGBTQ community (including ally friends and family) to the Orlando area the first week of June. Disney rolls out a slew of rainbow colored items — some subtle, some garish — to the delight of those there for Gay Day as well as those who just like rainbows. For some reason (we know the reason), there is an enormous amount of backlash from certain groups of people who consider themselves righteous Americans living their lives with righteous American values. The same ones who sneer at rainbows, will defend Mickey Mouse's right to wear a Santa hat to their dying breath — no matter how exclusive it is. Their battle cry? "Everyone celebrates Christmas!," they will maintain, because as far as they're concerned, everyone does. Even those who don't.

My point is (Oh... I promise you, there's a point here somewhere...) Disney does what it does to make money for their stockholders, first and foremost. That is the main function. That is why they exist. If they happen to bring happiness to someone along the way, that is just a by-product of their function. Every move, every decision, every assessment they make is calculated to bring the biggest monetary return to the company. They know that their customer is loyal, but will complain about a new policy, will threaten a boycott and promise never to give Disney another single red cent... until the next installment of the Captain America story or the next chapter in the Star Wars saga or the next time a football is tossed on ESPN.

Disney knows. 

Oh boy! do they know.

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