This year's panel included Disney Legends Marty Sklar and Jack Lindquist, who were joined by two "outsiders" who have seen Disney's impact from a competitor's perspective — former Knott's Berry Farm vice president and current Ocean Park Hong Kong CEO Tom Mehrmann and Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet, who also once served in Lindquist's old job as Disneyland president.
"I thank the fact that Disney came to Hong Kong every day," Mehrmann said. "We wouldn't be who we are today if it weren't for Disney. We wouldn't have had the money. We wouldn't have had the motivated government [the Hong Kong government owns Ocean Park and operates it as a non-profit], we wouldn't have had the motivated board and staff to take on the task of redefining Ocean Park. It was the mere presence of Disney that engaged us and took us to a whole different level."
Under Mehrmann's leadership, Ocean Park's attendance has grown from fewer than four million visitors a year to nearly eight million a year since Hong Kong Disneyland opened.
"Being seven miles down the street [from Disneyland] for 21 years at Knott's Berry Farm," Mehrmann said, "we looked at what we called differential values. The idea wasn't to compete with Disney. It was to complement Disney. No one can out-Disney Disney."
"One thing we knew would be to our advantage in Hong Kong was that Disney was bringing America to Hong Kong. I was a Hong Kong authentic representative park. We focused on that as a differential value," he said. "Disney does fantasy better than anyone. But the one thing I can say, as an animal park, that we do reality better than anybody."
"I also like it [competition in the industry] because I probably could walk into Universal Creative and know 50 percent or 75 percent of the people there because they worked us at some point," Sklar added, to laughs from the audience.
"The number one thing I took away from Disney was... the most powerful thing you can have is employees who are proud of what they do," Ouimet said. "When I worked at Disney around the 50th anniversary, I worried that we had gotten behind the curve on that. If you think back to all of what we were able to do with the the 50th, as a platform, people were proud of what they did again."
Ouimet used an example from his time running the Disney Cruise Line to talk about the importance of encouraging employees applying external insights to their work.
"The number one port of call for [Disney Cruise Line] is Castaway Cay. There's never enough time in Castaway Cay," Ouimet said. But a solution to give guests more time on the island came from, of all places, an executive watching a stock car race on TV and being inspired by a pit stop. That led to changes in ships' docking and offload procedures.
"The guests probably had 25 minutes or more on the island because he watched a NASCAR race on the weekend. That's where you find insights. How can you take something that works so well [elsewhere] and put it into your business?"
"The other thing we saw was that when we docked at the island, guests would get into the stairway an hour ahead of time," Ouimet said. "If we've trained anything at Disney, it's lining up. It's not real fun, though. So why were they there? They were worried about getting a chair. The industrial engineers said there are 2,600 passengers, some of them are going to be in the water, so we need 872 chairs. We changed it and put 2,600 chairs out there. The night before, when you're eating dinner, they'll say, 'Hey, take your time in the morning. We're at the island a little bit longer and guess what? There's a chair for everybody.' It changed the dynamic. You've got to go looking for the insights - why is this happening and how can I make it better?"
Ouimet also talked about his career after leaving Disney.
"The things that you give up when you leave? You give up the brand. There's not a phone call in the world you can't make, to get someone to answer the phone, if you say you're from Disney. And the amount of resources. I had to retrain myself. Now, some of that is satisfying. I probably had 84 less people to ask, [but] I have 83 less people to do the work."
Still, fewer resources can still lead to success, provided you focus on what the public wants, that you do best.
"Knott's is having best year in its history," Ouimet said. "About three or four years ago, that was not the case. So we took a step back, went out, and talked to the consumers in the marketplace, and we were trying to figure out why [Knott's] wasn't doing as well as it had done before. Part of it was our fault. We'd starved the asset."
"We did focus groups, and we weren't getting much," Ouimet continued. "So the moderator said, 'I'm going to go back in the room and I'm going to tell them that Knott's is closing.' They started crying. Out of that, we came back to the basics."
Over the past three years, Knott's Berry Farm has moved from competing with Six Flags by building more iron rides to refocus on more family-friendly attractions. Under Ouimet's leadership at parent Cedar Fair, Knott's refurbished its Timber Mountain Log Ride and Calico Mine Train, added the Voyage to the Iron Reef interactive dark ride, and next year the park will celebrate the 75th anniversary of its Ghost Town with improvements throughout the land, including a rebuild of the Ghostrider coaster and Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant.
"We have a saying: Having fun should be fun," Ouimet said. "The day you go to the park, it shouldn't be about - with my apologies to the organization that did so well for us - it shouldn't be whether I'm going to get my $100 worth. It should be about, am I going to create a memories? I'm going to relax, enjoy the Chicken Dinner restaurant, ride the Timber Mountain Log Ride. It shouldn't be stressful."
Ouimet credited a focus on the community over the corporation in making a connection with potential customers.
"If you are trying to get someone's attention, it's not about them or get their endorsement, it's not about them. It's about their family," he said. "If someone gives me a tchotchke that's relevant to me, that's okay. If you give me a tchotchke that's relevant to my daughter, I'm going to pay attention and take it home."
When asked by moderator Bob Rogers whether the industry today still enjoyed the same entrepreneurial spirit that led to the creation of Disneyland, panelists responded unanimously.
"Today, there's more opportunity than ever," Linquist said, urging audience members to look to the future instead of dwelling in the past. "Look at the number of new facilities, water parks, amusement parks, and so forth. This industry growing, tremendously. I don't know where the next Walter Knott or Walt Disney is coming from, but it's not important because it's a new world, with new challenges, and you are the people who are going to make this happen in the future. We have all been there; we're in the past. The ideas are going to come from you."
"You have to love what you are doing, then you set your own pace. I don't think anything that I did is applicable today. You have to set your own standard."
"Fortune favors the bold," he said. "I don't think there is any less entrepreneurial spirit in our industry. I think it is only growing. And I think Matt raises a great point - the more limited you are, the greater creativity that will come out of the team. I've seen some amazing things come out of my team when they couldn't do it with what they wanted to have but what they've only got to work with."
But whatever you do in the industry, panelists said, don't get hung up worry about claiming credit.
Ouimet quoted a grandmother: "There are two types of people in the world, those that want the credit, and those that deserve the credit. Try to be in the second group, because there's a hell of a lot less competition."
But as much as Disney has shaped the theme park industry through its example and influence, the evolution of an integrated entertainment industry over the decades since Disneyland's opening has changed Disney as well.
"Walt didn't want to do sequels," Sklar said. "So much of the business today has become about sequels. A lot of the Disney business has become about sequels. Now, it's pretty hard to argue why wouldn't you do more with the big titles they have - my God, you've got Star Wars and Marvel and all the Pixar stuff - it's hard to break out and do something that's not related to something that can be marketed across all the platforms that Disney has.
"So in many ways, the creation of product for Disney has changed dramatically. It's pretty hard to say now, 'I'm going to sit down and do a brand-new [ride like] Pirates of the Caribbean.' It's pretty hard to take a story that only exists in a Disney park and has no relation with the rest of the business, and that is a dramatic change if we are talking about the effect of Disneyland over the years. That might be the biggest change of all. You can't do something from scratch [anymore], a story that doesn't exist somewhere else."
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