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Vote of the week: Was Jay Rasulo a success or failure at the Disney theme parks?

By Robert Niles
Published: November 13, 2009 at 8:55 AM
Following yesterday's news that Thomas Staggs would replace Jay Rasulo as head of the Walt Disney Company's theme parks, it's time to evaluate the job that Jay did during his time. (Rasulo will take Staggs' old job as Disney's Chief Financial Officer, so he's not leaving the company.)

Ultimately, this is a question about how the Disney theme parks, overall, did over the past four years. I see three criteria:

Financial performance: Did the theme parks make money for their corporate parent, and its shareholders?

Market share: Did the parks provide enough value - entertainment and customer service at a fair price - to keep and win over a growing number of visitors?

Creativity: Theme parks are, ultimately, a performing art. Did the Walt Disney theme parks serve and advance that art over the past four years? Yes, that's ultimately Imagineering's responsibility, but as Imagineering's "customer," if you will, Rasulo ultimately determined what Imagineering would be enabled to do in the parks. Remember as well, we're judging Rasulo's tenure as much for what as ordered as what was installed under his watch.

You might have your own criteria - ignoring some of mine, or adding others. Regardless, please tell us in the comments why you voted the way you did.

And, yes, I'm pushing the leaners here. No wishy, washy, "well, he was okay in this, but not in that" answers. Success or failure. You tell us.

Have a great weekend, and thanks again for reading Theme Park Insider!

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on November 13, 2009 at 8:59 AM
I would be in the middle. I only see failure perhaps in the theme park sphere, but I see it more as everybody catching up for Disney. So, for the most part, he was fine. Yes, I am wishy washy.
From 64.140.238.130 on November 13, 2009 at 10:25 AM
I am probably wrong but Toy Story Mania is the only major attraction I can think of that was started and completed during his time. I guess some would consider American Idol too...

(I believe EE was started back in '03)

So for him to be there 4 years from a theme park fan standpoint I am going to have to vote disappointment. I am all set with another Stitch like show.

From 72.37.244.68 on November 13, 2009 at 11:14 AM
Jay was way out of Touch with the Parks especially the domestic ones. I hope Tom will be more in touch and the "disney Parks" branding will end. All the the Disney parks are unique in their own and should be marketed that way. The comsumer should want to visit all of the parks (cause they are all different)and not be led to believe they are all the same.
From TH Creative on November 13, 2009 at 11:37 AM
During a difficult economy when their competitors were experiencing substantial drops in attendance, the Disney parks endured only a minor drop in their audience. The fact that the folks keep showing up is something of an indication that there was no great need for expensive investments in gate-crasher attractions.

While heavy discounts and gun-shy guest spending may have hurt the bottom line the fact that the parks continue to dominate the theme park industry-- outpacing the competition by tens of millions of visitors annually -- the work of Mr. Rasulo has to be regarded as a success. Period.

From Ray Schroeder on November 13, 2009 at 11:28 AM
For the first time or occasional visitor everything seem great. But for the frequent visitor you see all the cutbacks. In the past four years, there were a lot.
From TH Creative on November 13, 2009 at 11:31 AM
Mr. Schroeder writes: "But for the frequent visitor you see all the cutbacks. In the past four years, there were a lot."

I Respond: I visit the WDW parks at least a dozen times a year. Assuming that can be described "frequent" I am trying to figure out the specific cutbacks you are referring to and the quantity that constitutes a description of "a lot."

From TH Creative on November 13, 2009 at 11:36 AM
Anonymous writes: "All the the Disney parks are unique in their own and should be marketed that way."

I Respond: Why?! I mean, please explain how the marketing strategy employed by Disney has been lacking. Again, compared to other parks, Disney attendance has been solid.

From Amanda Jenkins on November 13, 2009 at 2:25 PM
My vote was for success. I think what he has brought forth is a variety. Granted I am one who would love to see a new E ticket ride each year, I understand that one needs to diversify for the massses. I mean we have seen something new pretty much every year, whether it be a show like AI or a new ride such as Toy Story. People still came and are still coming. And from one of the comments above: Epedition Everst opened in 2006. I was there right after it opened and thought it was amazing (of course the Yeti was in great shape and moving).
From TH Creative on November 13, 2009 at 7:35 PM
Simply put: There is no way anyone could regard Mr. Rasulo as a liability. He was no Paul Pressler ... thank goodness!
From 76.172.237.107 on November 14, 2009 at 12:36 AM
While working as a CM in TDA's finance department during Rasulo's time in charge of the parks, I experienced decision-making that went a little like this:

"OK, we're experiencing a huge jump in annual pass sales. AP holders generally take up more parking spaces, spend less on food and beverage in the park, create unmanageable crowds whenever something new opens, and generally throw off the who idea of peak and off seasons. Thus, parking is a mess, per-cap spending is down, and the park is over-crowded."

"So what should we do about this?"

"Clearly, we need to get more people to buy APs by raising the price of single day tickets proportionally more than APs and offering monthly payments, charge more for food while decreasing quality and quantity, and take away formerly free good-will, good value perks like free embroidery on overpriced Mickey ears."

"Wait, we're going to expand the AP ranks even though they hurt our bottom line while destroying any hint of value during the worst recession we've seen since this park opened, at the same time that deflationary forces are guiding every other business in the world to lower prices?"

"Yup"

"Brilliant idea. We should charge extra for putting tomatoes on the burgers too."

OK, so that conversation never happened (at least, not that I heard in person) but that about summarizes how the parks and resorts people reacted to economic problems. I've had the privilege of working with some really great guys in the finance department who really get it. They do their jobs well and provide value to both the company and the guests. Unfortunately, it seems like the prevailing attitude is that the best way to get more money from the guests is to charge them completely repulsive prices while relentlessly cutting quality and quantity. You can't blame that completely on Rasulo, but he allowed it to happen under his watch and he just didn't get the parks or take a real legitimate interest in what was really going on at the parks and resorts themselves. I judge him a failure and can't wait to see him go. Sure he was better than Presler, but that's just because you couldn't do any worse. Likewise, Staggs won't have to try to hard to do better than Rasulo. The bar remains very, very low.

From Michael Owen on November 14, 2009 at 4:55 AM
I'll take my hat off to anyone who can keep attendance at that level during one of the worst economic downturns in modern history.

The right strategy has been adopted throughout the slowdown, with an emphasis on keeping and gaining market share during the recession even if it does come at the cost of lower revenues and profit margins.

From 86.96.229.89 on November 14, 2009 at 4:56 AM
Rasulo was a step up from Pressler but that's not saying much. The new rides under his tenure have been underwhelming to say the least. Monster Laugh Factory... ugh... Nemo subs... boring.... Toy Story Mania... okay... The vastly under priced Annual Pass in DLR has made the best and original Disney park unbearably crowded. The queue just for parking in the Mickey and Friends structure now goes out to the bridge on Ball Rd. Jack the prices please so there's less of a mess in the parks. More guests through the turnstiles doesn't mean more spending in the parks as the numbers confirm.
From James Rao on November 14, 2009 at 6:20 AM
Jay Rasulo became King of Disney on September 29, 2002. Whether responsible or not, he was the man in charge when Stitch’s Great Escape was added in 2004 and the AIE was added in 2009. For those fiascoes alone he gets two thumbs down.

However, he was on hand in 2006 when Expedition Everest was added and in 2008 when TSMM hit both coasts, so at least one of those thumbs has to come back up. For good or for ill, most all of the Finding Nemo tie-ins (the subs, the Seas, and the musical at DAK) were added to the parks in 2006/2007 as well.

Additionally, with work proceeding on the Disney Cruise Line, a new park being added in Shanghai, and the expansion coming to both HKDL and DLP, the company is certainly headed in the right direction. Furthermore, the expansion that is currently taking place at DCA and coming to WDW's Fantasyland should be duly noted.

As an outsider looking in, and based on the superficial things I have listed, I'd have to say his tenure was pretty successful. Not perfect, but things could have been a lot worse, I guess.

From Allen Boerger on November 14, 2009 at 12:41 PM
TH wrote: I mean, please explain how the marketing strategy employed by Disney has been lacking. Again, compared to other parks, Disney attendance has been solid.

My thoughts? How can marketing the Disney parks as one big homogenous "product" ultimately result in positive outcomes for Disney? Sure, one could argue that "Disney Magic" is what the parks are hawking, and that this intangible (Disney Magic) is present in every park the world over. So--just as a customer should expect the riblets at Applebees to taste the same whether they were in stores in New York, Kansas City, or Shanghai--a guest to any Disney park the world over should expect the same "Magical" experience.

As theme park enthusiasts, we know that really isn't the case. A visit to Disney's Animal Kingdom is not the same as a visit to DCA. We can argue the subjective points of how similiar, or how different, these experiences are. But instead, just consider the confusion among guests who don't appreciate the nuances that some of us might...

How many people do you know who have gone to WDW for years and, upon visiting Disneyland for the first time, wonder why the castle is so small? How many guests think that they'll find Mr Toad at the Magic Kingdom?

The variety offered by the many Disney parks already creates confusion. Why compound that problem by presenting these parks as a single dagwood sandwich when no one destination will have the ingredients to deliver on that promise?

Consider this: When DCA opens its big new Carsland, what do you do? With the global "Disney Parks" approach, do you present that big new thing as if it exists at every park--furthering the confusion? Or, do you opt not to show off your new attraction, in essence not taking advantage of a huge capital expenditure?

The current marketing strategy is taking place in parallel with solid performance from the parks (given the global recession). Do not confuse that as a causal relationship.

And, even if that marketing strategy is working, ask yourself if it's sustainable. What do you do with World of Color, Carsland, the big Fantasyland Expansion, Mystic Manor, and all the other park-exclusive attractions that are rolling out over the next 5 years?

From David Sutter on November 14, 2009 at 9:21 AM
Wow what a cross section of ideas! Having been doing the Disney thing for years..as a Cast member, a guest, and pass holder..Ill anwser a simple question "Disney Magic". From a theme park junkies point of view is lost. Had been for years. The hosts and hostess no longer go thru a long trainning period.. "Traditions" step one in the grooming a cast member has been cut to 1 day not three like when Robert and I were there. Phase 2 "Day of Discovery" cut to 1/2 a day. And trainning reduced to a barebones session. And while most at the upper levels say it doesnt count in the over all quest experince..it does...
And the budget cuts to maintain the picture perfect look of the parks cut to lets just do what wee need to get by.
Lets be truthful Walt was all about the final "Show" what will the guest see? Does it work? Most of us know that he almost bankrupt the company a few times. But he alway proveded the big boys wrong.
ANd the promotion from within is lost to collage program students. A cast member reachs a point where he or she can jump thur all the hoops..Only to be told their not young enogh aka were not going to pay you for your experince..So keep up the good work but we have a stronger canadate aka a collage program student who will do it for less money.
Again does these show up in your over all guest experince..Yep sure does. So while I could go on and on about this and that and be picky..Ill end it by saying anyone at the top has a hard job. And does his or hers best to make it work so hats off to them. But as the trainning book states "The guest may not always be right but there still our guests".
From David Kirby on November 14, 2009 at 11:14 AM
He essentially tried to strip the domestic parks of their unique identities, rebranding everything as "DisneyParks" and constantly cloning attractions between the two resorts. He is also responsible for Pixar's increased presence in the park. Sadly, under him the parks were financially successful, which I'm sure means we will continue to see a further blurring of the lines between the WDW and DLR with a constant cloning of attractions using unoriginal ideas shoehorned into any space they fit.

Luckily in California, there is a huge local fan base, John Lasseter, and a group of imagineers who care a great deal about Disneyland and it's history so that resort was able to make a lot of great additions (or bring back some older ones) despite Jay's constant insistance on cartoonification. On the east coast, we're not so luckily and the parks will continue to decline by degrees certainly.

From TH Creative on November 14, 2009 at 1:25 PM
Mr. Boerger writes: "How can marketing the Disney parks as one big homogenous "product" ultimately result in positive outcomes for Disney?"

I respond: How has it hurt the bottom line? Marketing = sales. What exactly would have been a different strategy that would have resulted in increased revenue ... long or short term.

Mr. Kirby writes: He essentially tried to strip the domestic parks of their unique identities, rebranding everything as "DisneyParks" and constantly cloning attractions between the two resorts.

I respond: Nonsense! It's ridiculous to claim that the employment of the Disney Parks brand as a marketing strategy was motivated by an intent to "strip the domestic parks of their unique identities."

From TH Creative on November 14, 2009 at 1:36 PM
Mr. Kirby writes: "On the east coast, we're not so luckily and the parks will continue to decline by degrees certainly."

I respond: Yeah. The expansion of Fantasyland sure represents a "decline." The Star Tours retrofit sure represents a "decline." The conclusion that the parks will "decline" before finding out how Disney employs the use of the Marvel characters sure represents a "decline." Give me a break!

From Larry Zimmerman on November 14, 2009 at 2:20 PM
I think there's not enough paint going on the railings at the monorail station.
From James Rao on November 14, 2009 at 2:37 PM
The fact that the president of a publicly traded company wants to make money for his shareholders should not be a surprise to anyone. I don't think Jay Rasulo cornered the market on greed by any means. Furthermore, in looking at the Disney parks today, I think for the most part they are better off than they were in 2002 when Rasulo took charge. And looking down the line, I think they will be better still. Granted, Jay was no Walt Disney, but then who is? John Lasseter probably comes closest, but he is spread a little thin right now and maybe wearing a few too many hats to completely take over park operations.

Look, we'd all love to see someone like Walt Disney running the company again. He was a visionary and a very special man. Sadly, guys like Walt just don't come along every day. In the meantime, we have to cling to the hope that the person in charge has just enough vision and nostalgic love to keep things moving forward slowly but surely. Which is exactly what Jay Rasulo did: kept things moving slowly forward - which has to be considered a successful run at the helm.

From Will Chilcote on November 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM
I love Toy Story Mania. It's so much fun. I could probably ride it for hours and have a blast. If, if was a small crowd day. It should be interesting with the new boss. With Little Mermaid, Star Tours 2(heard it was being filmed now) and Cars Lands already in the planning stages, he has a good start. I hope he does well. I'm a huge disneyland fan.

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