Disney, TCM, and the Potential for Targeted Partnerships

January 6, 2015, 11:31 AM · When the Disney-MGM Studios opened in May 1989, the “hooray for Hollywood!” theme was everywhere in the park. There were few attractions beyond a long studio tour, an Indiana Jones stunt show, and a ride through the movies called The Great Movie Ride. Even so, the park created a specific mood that recalled classic Hollywood. Over the years, Disney has slowly eroded this consistent theme by adding a mishmash of rides and shows. The backstage tour was watered down and recently closed, but The Great Movie Ride is still open despite being largely untouched since the start. Its location at the end of Hollywood Boulevard is prime real estate, and its popularity has waned with visitors that know little about the classics. Rumors were frequent that Disney would replace or drastically change the opening-day attraction. That situation made the announcement in late November even more surprising. A savior had arrived to keep The Great Movie Ride afloat, and its name was Turner Classic Movies (TCM).

The Great Movie Ride

TCM’s November 26 press release cited the partnership as a way to “broaden its reach in family entertainment with joint efforts centered on classic film.” This collaboration makes sense; The Great Movie Ride connects so closely to TCM’s mission statement. The pact also benefits Disney by giving it a chance to showcase past content in the “Treasures From the Disney Vault” nights on TCM. It’s a brilliant move that goes well beyond the typical sponsorships that we’ve seen in the Disney parks. This experiential marketing allows visitors to experience the world of classic films that’s framed as part of the TCM experience. While the updates for the spring will only involve the pre-show and finale, there’s a potential for future changes that could make The Great Movie Ride a popular attraction once again. Beyond this partnership, it also signals a possible route for Disney to use successfully in other areas.

There will be plenty of activity in Disney’s theme parks in 2015. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is receiving a major overhaul and beginning construction of the Avatar section. The Magic Kingdom is still drawing large crowds and completed its New Fantasyland last year. It’s only a matter of time before announcements come about a Star Wars project in the Hollywood Studios. The notable exception is Epcot’s Future World, which feels strangely removed from the rumors. A possible reason for the lack of upgrades is the challenge in getting sponsors for the pavilions. The original attractions each had a sponsor that footed much of the cost of their construction. For example, the Universe of Energy was sponsored by ExxonMobil until 2004. It’s remained without a sponsor for the past 10 years and has become very dated. It’s unlikely that Disney will spend the money for an update without a corporate backer.

The Universe of Energy is a perfect opportunity for a new partnership to join Disney and revitalize the fledgling attraction. An update would also benefit Disney by drawing larger crowds to Epcot. A smart company trying to grow its renewable energy business could benefit from collaborating with Disney. This partnership could also provide a PR boost by making Disney seem more socially responsible. The current show still cites the importance of fossil fuels and includes pop-culture references from 1996. Like The Great Movie Ride, the Universe of Energy needs a clearly framed message. Connecting with a sponsor that focuses on solar, wind, or other forms of renewable energy might change the game. Instead of just putting the sponsor’s name on the ride and accepting their checks, Disney would improve its marketing game and find a forward-thinking partner.

Tokyo Disney sponsor
Sponsorship messages are ubiquitous at the Tokyo Disney Resort.

A key factor with any new sponsor is whether it is popular with visitors. For a certain type of movie fan of any age, TCM is cool. Whom they connect with says a lot about Disney and where it's heading. Another Future World example is the Wonders of Life pavilion, which is only used at a meeting space for special events. Once MetLife’s sponsorship ended in 2001, Wonders of Life began the slow march towards its ultimate end six years later. It’s possible there isn’t enough interest to sell a pavilion devoted to health, but that seems unlikely given the frequent attention focused on the topic. A large website like WedMD might offer the right fit for a health pavilion. Disney could also get ahead of the curve and form a partnership with companies pushing the new frontiers of medical technology. Looking beyond Epcot, there’s potential in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom to improve that tired land. Forward-thinking sponsors like Apple, Google, or private companies looking at space exploration could successfully partner with Disney. The challenge with Future World and Tomorrowland is keeping up with the times, but there are ways around this obstacle with the right partner on board.

TCM’s sponsorship of The Great Movie Ride is so obvious in hindsight, yet the attraction was open more than two decades before it happened. The dwindling success of advertising in traditional mediums such as TV is forcing companies to get creative. There’s an incentive for them to recognize the value in communicating to the large quantity of people that visit Disney’s parks. A behemoth like Disney should employ more out-of-the-box thinking and move beyond traditional partners like HP and Siemens. There’s potential for both parties to gain from a sponsorship, and the biggest winners could be theme park fans. It could enhance the experience and ensure that Disney’s attractions stay relevant to the next generation.

Replies (7)

January 6, 2015 at 11:38 AM · Thanks, Dan. Great stuff to consider.

Disney has a long history of working with corporate sponsors, as the company wasn't always the well-capitalized conglomerate that it is today. Walt wouldn't have been able to build Disneyland without a sponsorship deal with ABC (which Disney did not own then). Former Walt Disney Imagineering chief Marty Sklar has said that Epcot wouldn't have been built without the Exxon deal.

In each case though, the relationship went beyond simply slapping a name on a sign. As Dan detailed, Disney has built relationships where there's synergy between sponsor and the sponsored. It's an active relationship, where ABC and TCM get video content, Exxon gets immense product placement, and Disney gets the money to build its new attractions.

Could Disney develop huge new attractions today without corporate support? Yes, but don't forget that Disney is in the business to make money. Without corporate sponsor income, Disney can build or expand a certain number of new attractions over any given period of time. But with additional money from corporate sponsors, that number of new or refreshed attractions increase.

The key to success in advertising (and this is advertising), is making the message feel natural. You want the viewer to think "Of course I'm interested in that, too!" when s/he hears a sponsor message, and not "Why are you intruding on something else that I am interested in?" The TCM deal achieves that. The stuff I see in Six Flags queues do not.

January 6, 2015 at 1:14 PM · I never understood why Disney needs sponsorship in the first place. Last time I checked, we pay admission fees to enter their parks.
January 6, 2015 at 1:21 PM · @Robert: So true. "The TCM deal achieves that. The stuff I see in Six Flags queues do not."

Also, the Great Movie Ride was sponsored by Coca-Cola, a brand that's very fitting in a movie theater, when it opened. Yet TCM, which didn't even exist when the park opened, is the perfect partner and I'm very excited by this deal, both in park and on TV.

January 6, 2015 at 2:14 PM · "But with additional money from corporate sponsors, that number of new or refreshed attractions increase."

Not necessarily. There are still limited resources from Imagineering. I would think Disney can only juggle a limited number of projects despite corporate sponsorships, which I generally think is revenue first and investment second.

The end result of corporate sponsorships is attractions that are boring and usually suffer from poor ridership. TCM is proping an attraction that is due for a replacement. Instead, the Great Movie Ride will remain for another 10 years of stagnation. We presume the TCM sponsorship will revive the attraction, but we cannot be sure since they haven't announced anything except for a new filmed prologue, epilogue, and some queue posters.

Anyways, I would love for them to scrap the James Cagney and western sections. Update the Indiana Jones and Wizard of Oz sections. Add more musical numbers. Give it a "Small World" treatment of musical numbers and adorable characters. Maybe even add FROZEN!!!

January 6, 2015 at 3:15 PM · @Anon Mouse - I have to respectfully disagree on a few counts.

First of all, there have been numerous examples in the past where attractions were closed or stopped receiving necessary maintenance after losing a sponsor. They often don't survive. This is especially true at EPCOT, where Disney will sometimes prefer to close an attraction or operate it seasonally rather than to run it without a sponsor. They're extremely important to the bottom line.

Looking specifically at the Great Movie Ride, I'm not one who believes it needs to be updated dramatically, though I know there are plenty who think that way. The James Cagney and Western sections are some of my favorite parts, though I could do without the awkward hostage-taking of our car. That's gotten old. The theme of the Great Movie Ride is the love of classic movies, so it makes sense to include greats from Hollywood's past instead of Frozen.

Of course, I'd love to see the effects be updated and wouldn't mind a few tweaks here and there (e.g., Tarzan). I think the prologue and epilogue are a great start. I might be naive in thinking there will be more updates down the road, but if nothing else the sponsorship should ensure it's still running well. How far it goes is anyone's guess.

January 6, 2015 at 3:32 PM · "First of all"

There are too many assertions in the first paragraph. Is the loss of maintenance caused the attraction to not survive, or what you didn't say is the lack of ridership that was prevalent since the beginning? Otherwise, it would still stay open since the ride would still be considered popular. In any case, corporate sponsorship for the decaying GMR hardly worth the effort. So it survived. So did EPCOT's Ellen's Energy Adventure, which isn't sponsored.

EPCOT has gradually lost its corporate sponsorships for many attractions, yet there isn't a wholesale closure of many rides (Imagination is still there). Maelstrom comes to mind as the recent example; however, this ride will return as not a corporate sponsorship, but a real popular IP of FROZEN. The Seas with Nemo and Friends is another example of a formerly corporate sponsored attraction that was replaced with Disney IP.

Bottomline: GMR survived barely with corporate sponsorship, but it is due for something else with Disney IP.

January 6, 2015 at 5:27 PM · Robert already mentioned it, but Disney has always used sponsors. The "classic" World's Fair rides were paid for by UNICEF, the State of Illinois, and GE.

Notice that the sponsorships all seemed to drop in the first decade of the 2000s. That was a tough decade for businesses and when it came to not laying off employees vs a ride at a theme park, they chose to ax the ride.

Building, running, and keeping up Disney Attractions is a very expensive business. I think it is sad that EPCOT has mostly lost all of its Sponsorships since it is the one park designed to showcase ingenuity and business.

I think the TCM agreement is outstanding! It fits perfectly into the theme and feel of the ride.

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