Written by Robert Niles
Published: September 12, 2004 at 5:22 PM
Sharp fans have complained about the declining quality of Disney's theme parks and entertainment for years. Soon after Eisner appointee Paul Pressler took control of Disneyland, the park's fans started grumbling about peeling paint and burnt light bulbs on a Usenet news group. A few started Web sites, complete with snapshots to illustrate the deteriorating conditions. Within a few years, Disney's slip became common knowledge to anyone who spent a fair amount of time on one of the many sites where theme park fans gathered online.
But their complaints did little to change the average consumer's view of the company. Not until Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney, stormed off the company's board upon being forced into retirement by Eisner earlier this year did people offline start seeing frequent news reports about declining quality at Disney and its parks.
What exactly did Eisner do wrong? Well, he brought in a team of managers to run the company's theme parks, led by Pressler, who had no experience working in them. They took a business-school, bottom-line approach to running the parks, cutting expenses with no consideration for how those cuts would affect the park's entertainment value.
Managers watered down plans for new "E-ticket"-quality attractions into clones of existing rides. Or worse, they ordered off-the-shelf versions of amusement carnival rides with little or no theming at all. And that was when they could be bothered to approve spending for new attractions at all.
But do not blame Eisner for Disney's penury. Want to blame Eisner for something? Blame him for following when he should have led. Blame him for listening to Wall Street rather than imposing an independent vision for the Walt Disney Company. But also recognize that had he done that, even more people might today be complaining about his leadership of the company.
Michael Eisner did with the Walt Disney Company exactly what hundreds of Wall Street analysts wanted him to do. Fresh out of business school, with little or no practical work experience, these young analysts talked up companies that operated like they were run by a rookie MBA -- where managers cut costs and pushed the short-term profit. Companies with mature leadership that resisted faced unfavorable reviews from these gung-ho analysts -- which brought declining stock prices and angry investors.
An investor revolt led to Eisner's installation as Disney chief in the 1980s, and the man's no dummy. So he did like almost every other major CEO and went along. He looked to the nation's business schools for new middle managers, and not to his company's theme parks, as his predecessors had once done. And they took out the axe.
Wall Street loved it, talking up Disney with one favorable review after another, even as fans put up new sites criticizing further declines at the parks. Ideally, those grassroots reviews would spread and fans would stay away from the parks, forcing even myopic pencil pushers to notice a substantial drop in the company's income.
But that didn't happen. And that's why the bulk of the blame for Michael Eisner's leadership of the Walt Disney Company must fall upon the company's fans.
Blinded by their love for the Disney brand name, they continued to fork over billions of dollars to the company for deteriorating amusement rides, hackneyed direct-to-video sequels and cheaply made consumer products. They passionately defended the company online against those who tried to point out its decline. And they flocked to Web sites that promised uncritical coverage of the Mouse, where never a harsh word would be said about the company, no matter how lame its productions.
When Universal opened a new theme park in Orlando that offered theming and attractions every bit the equal of a Disney theme park in its heyday, these fans did not take the opportunity to send Eisner a message by spending their money elsewhere. Indeed, many attacked anyone who dared suggest that Islands of Adventure offered more "magic" than Disney had in years.
When Lego opened a theme park in Southern California that provided age-appropriate and kid-friendly family entertainment unlike anything ever offered at Disneyland, these fans ignored Legoland California as if it didn't exist. No, if it didn't have the Disney brand name on it, it wasn't a worthy, family-friendly theme park. Period. No matter what.
So in the five-plus years Islands of Adventure's been open, it has not once beaten a Walt Disney World theme park in annual attendance. And Legoland's not come close to besting the attendance of Disneyland's weak sibling, California Adventure, much less Disneyland itself.
The message to Michael Eisner and his team was clear: Keep cutting back the quality. Millions of Disney's loyal fans won't care. They can't tell the pony from the poop -- all they look for is the Disney name.
So Eisner & Co. slapped it everywhere: From toothpaste to toasters, computers to cruise lines. Only after the American economy fell into recession in March 2001 did the numbers start to slip. Disney's fans began to run out of money to spend on all the Disney-branded stuff they company offered them for sale.
Yes, the criticism did have some effect. Disney was forced to discount theme park tickets more aggressively than it ever had in the past to keep attendance numbers up. And while not enough fans opted to visit places like Islands of Adventure and Legoland to drive them ahead of their Disney competition in annual attendance, many did discover and cherish alternatives to Disney parks. And Wall Street developed some skepticism after scandals toppled one-time Street favorites like Enron.
But let's not forget that it was fans' willingness to buy so much Disney branded stuff of dubious quality in the late 1990s that led Eisner & Co. to dilute the company's name with so many ill-advised productions and products. If those fans had abandoned Walt Disney World and Disneyland for Universal Orlando and Legoland five years ago, Disney and its theme parks never would have slipped to the condition they are in today. If animation fans had made "The Iron Giant" a blockbuster and left "Dinosaur" a flop, the company might have continued to value storytelling ability over gimmicks and formulas. Losing market share to competitors would have shown Eisner and his team the need to improve quality. Or the company's crashing income would have earned the scorn of even novice analysts, who would have demanded an executive change.
That didn't happen. Even as Eisner plans to step down, millions of Disney fans remain intolerant of the idea that another company can build or operate a theme park better than Disney. They live under the delusion that Michael Eisner's the reason they aren't enjoying their Disney World visits as much as they used to. They refuse to acknowledge that it is their own inability to recognize better alternatives that encouraged Eisner and his team to get greedy and slash quality.
And that it is their continued zeal for the Disney brand that will enable Eisner's successor do the same.