When I covered the recent 2022 IAAPA Expo in last week's edition of Live Active Cultures, I foolishly assumed that convention would constitute the climax of theme park industry events for the year. But only days after IAAPA attendees departed Orlando, Disney's board of directors dropped an unexpected bombshell that is reverberating far beyond the borders of the Magic Kingdom. The shocking sacking of Walt Disney Company CEO Bob Chapek — who reportedly learned of his firing shortly before he was scheduled to introduce Elton John's final U.S. performance — and the reinstatement of his predecessor Bob Iger after barely two years was definitely not a development I had on my Disney drama bingo card.
But although many fans (and employees) greeted the breaking news of Bob's replacement by the Bob he replaced with celebrations rivaling the Munchkins' rejoicing over Dorothy's drop-in, my delight is dulled by remembering the refrain from one of my favorite songs by the Who: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."
It's no secret that the pandemic-era acceleration in price hikes and service cuts across Disney's attractions has turned an increasing number of former die-hard Disney devotees against the company, with complaints about complicated new crowd control policies pushing more and more potential visitors toward competitors like Universal. Much of that online ire was aimed at Chapek personally, even though several of the most unpopular policies originated during Iger's reign or fall under the domain of Parks chairman Josh D'Amaro. And any pushback by annual passholders didn't prevent Disney's parks from reaching record-breaking revenues in the most recent fiscal quarter; if not for the stock price plunge precipitated by steep losses from the Disney+ streaming division, the parks' profitability might have preserved Chapek's job.
As fun as it is fantasizing about Iger charging in on a white horse to fix everything we park-watchers whine about, in reality he's got bigger things to worry about — like undoing Chapek's disastrous restructuring of the studio's content divisions and finding a suitable successor before his two-year contract expires. Even if Iger were to make wholesale changes to the resorts, it wouldn't necessarily represent a return to some idyllic age: Just watch Abigail Disney's documentary, The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales, for evidence of how frontline cast members fared under his reign. However, there is a legitimate hope that Iger might want to undo some of the most egregiously unpopular policies associated with his short-lived heir, if only to stanch the bloodletting of brand withdrawals and begin rebuilding trust with Mickey's most vocal customers.
Assuming that is the case, here are some completely unsolicited suggestions that Iger could implement within the next 30 days, instantly winning back the hearts and minds of pixie-dust addicts everywhere in time for the New Year:
- Eliminate theme park reservations for date-specific single-day and multi-day theme park tickets, and increase the number of advance park reservations annual passholders can make.
- Move the park-hopping eligibility time up from 2 p.m. to noon, and stop requiring passholders to enter their reserved park first if arriving in the afternoon.
- Resume running parking lot courtesy trams at all theme parks.
- Get rid of the virtual queue for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
- Include free Disney+ access with every theme park admission.
- Officially cancel the corporate relocation from California to Lake Nona, and recruit back some of the talented Imagineers who exited in recent years.
- Rehire remaining laid-off entertainers, with an emphasis on restarting shuttered street shows like Citizens of Hollywood.
- Increase after-hours preventative maintenance on major attractions to reduce rampant breakdown.
- Announce a firm opening date for the Magic Kingdom's Tron coaster, and begin limited previews before Christmas.
Unfortunately, implementing all of these ideas still wouldn't solve the biggest problem with the Walt Disney World theme parks. Surging attendance has outpaced the addition of new attractions, leading to a net loss in hourly per-capita carrying capacity that is only exacerbated by upcharge line-cutting schemes like Genie+. In fact, unless Iger can wave his magic wand and instantly apparate a couple of brand-new E-tickets inside each park, the most efficient way he could improve the park-going experience is by eliminating Genie+, which makes guests pay an extra $20-$30 for the privilege of spending all day refreshing their smartphones in hopes of snagging a Lightning Lane return time.
With more than 50 percent of visitors shelling out for the service, Iger is unlikely to kill this cash cow entirely. But capping sales at 10 percent of park attendance (while drastically increasing the price) would make the service more valuable for those who opt to purchase it, and much less detrimental to those who don't.
And if Iger is really interested in repairing what's rotten in the resorts, he merely has to make his top lieutenants do exactly what I did last week: Visit the parks with their families during a peak holiday season, without any special privileges. Let a few SVPs watch their kids cry while waiting three hours for a ride, and you'd see serious changes starting the very next day.