Disneyland is back, but the resort is not done with its reopening work. Expect changes to the parks' ticketing and reservation systems in the next few weeks, as well as ongoing changes to entertainment and attractions, as the resort prepares for a post-pandemic future.
Those are some of the messages that Disneyland President Ken Potrock delivered when he sat down in the 21 Royal suite, above New Orleans Square, with me and representatives from two other local theme park websites for an interview about the parks' reopening.
"This has been extraordinary. As you begin thinking about bringing back 15,000-plus cast members at generally at the same time - many of them going into new roles because of unions and seniority and all those kinds of things - it became a bit of a tricky proposition. Secondly, we had to train them not just on if they had a new role, but on all the [Covid prevention] protocols that you are seeing, and so we had to do that. And by the way, we needed to make them feel comfortable that their safety and all the components that go with that were top of mind as well, so that was a second part of it.
"A third part of it is, we haven't been sitting idly by. Over the course of the last 412 days, we have worked at trying to address the primary challenges that we're faced with overcrowding - how do we make the park feel more comfortable, less frenetic, things of that nature. So we had this period of time that allowed us to do extraordinary things, to use technology - not in a whiz-bang, sort of WDI thing - but in a way that made the experience better, that disperses crowds better, that managed capacity. It really was about how do you create a better Disneyland experience going forward.
"And then last but not least, we looked really, really hard at the assets of the resort under magnifying glasses. First, relevancy. We all talk about relevancy, and there were places in this park that were not as welcoming, or were not portrayals of people that would be acceptable today. It wasn't going to be good enough to just say, well, we did it 50 years ago, so it's okay. It's not okay.
"So as we begin to think about diversity and inclusion, and as we think about relevancy, we needed to take steps to [change] things. You are very familiar with some of the bigger things like Jungle Cruise and Splash Mountain, but there's little things [too]. So we've been doing that, non-stop. Not to be "woke" - I don't think that's our approach. I think it's to be welcomed."
Disneyland looked amazing today, in the best shape that we had seen the park in years, if ever. Potrock commented on the effort that the resort made not just to maintain the park during its downtime, but to improve it.
"Once we passed that two-week mark, and we felt this going to be prolonged, we immediately set out and protected the budgets to go forward, [starting with] the hard assets. Let's go paint things. Let's go improve lighting and enhanced audio systems. Let's make sure we have better WiFi within the parks, so we had a team of people we brought back immediately, or actually never let go, to do that kind of work.
"And that's paid real dividends for us because many of those things take a lot of time and it's really hard to do when the parks open and you're doing it on a third shift, versus the first two shifts because there's no guests here. I don't know if you noticed, but the entry of Adventureland is expanding. That was always a bottleneck. We did that relatively quickly [because] nobody was here to be disrupted by it. We called it the silver lining of time.
"We're not the first one to reopen. We're [nearly] the last one to reopen, because it takes us more time to do what we need to do. It takes us more time to bring our cast back, but it also takes us more time to bring the parks to life like this. I had so much fun walking in the park and seeing the landscapers digging up the beds and planting the beds, then seeing the flowers begin to come up. That was just awesome.
"We do ride cycling. These are complex machines. You can't just turn it on. Like if I didn't drive my car for a year, it probably wouldn't start. So we were cycling all of the attractions. We've opened with almost 50 attractions, so we needed to get all of that work done. We had to bring cast back for that, and then we have to certify all of that. Orange County Fire does certifications, so it's been what I would call it sort of an amazingly choreographed dance."
Potrock also promised improvements to the park ticketing and reservation systems and suggested that advance reservations may be here to stay at Disneyland.
"Having a reservation system more efficient than what you experienced, when you have to buy a ticket and then make a reservation and then link them... some number of weeks from now, you're not going to go through [those] three steps. That's going to get much more efficient for you, kind of one stop shopping.
"But having the ability to control capacity and maintain the optimal experience for our guests is actually really important. Now while it might be a little inconvenient [to make a reservation] - everybody wants to be spontaneous and all those kinds of things - it helps us operationally, to really understand how many rides we need to have operating, how many parades or shows do we need to have operating for how many people that we're going to bring into the park that day. And how do you think about what hours of operation [too], and so I think that's a vital tool.
"We're learning. We learned from A Touch of Disney, and we learned from the last three days of soft openings [that] the value of Mobile Order is [something] I think we underestimated. What we're seeing is very high degrees of guests using Mobile Order. Again, we'll continue to make that easier and we're adjusting that.
"Time is fun. The formula that we're working on is optimizing people's time to maximize their fun. Technology can help us do that. Another example is with Rise of the Resistance and the concept of a virtual queue. Rather than somebody standing there for two or three hours- and by the way, it's more challenging now because we can't put them in the interior queue right now, so then they're all standing outside, which makes the park look crowded, so we have to figure out how to balance that - but a virtual queue means sign up at 7am, or sign up at noon, depending on which one you're doing, and you'll come back and you'll wait 20 minutes 30 minutes, max. That's a really efficient use of people's time.
"So, again, I think that technology is really exciting. You'll see more technologies coming. I mean, wouldn't it be great - just a tease - if you could look at your phone and it told you how long the wait is it Pirates of the Caribbean? Well we can do that today. But wouldn't it be great if I could tell you what the wait will be at three o'clock this afternoon? And if there's a difference between 60 minutes now and 20 minutes then? That's a consumer choice where people can decide that's 40 minutes of more fun versus just waiting in the queue.
"I think technology is going to allow us to do so much of that as we begin to go forward. Again, a big part of the silver lining of the closure was working on all of those things."
Potrock also addresses the decision to end Disneyland's annual pass program and talked about the replacement membership program that he expects the resort to launch before the end of the year.
"We were able to recognize that we had a dilemma, [and] the dilemma was limited capacity. We had too many passholders. How are you going to manage that? Even if you could, you're going to be overrun by passholders. That's not the business model - we need a balanced business model. So that's why we sunsetted the program.
"But the beauty of that is we've been fielding research that's giving us extraordinary insight into what southern California guests or consumers want in a membership program going forward. They're telling us what's important and what's not important. We didn't have that insight. So that's what's being developed right now.
"We're learning from that we don't have it put together just yet. There are core groups of people - big buckets of guests and what they want - and we can solve for that, I think pretty comfortably. But there are also niche groups of guests -think about younger families, think about people that are most price sensitive, think about people that have greater flexibility on the days that they can come. There are niche groups that we can develop products for. Now that we know more about what people are wanting, I think that will lead us to a better membership program as we begin going forward. We're trying to figure out other things are they interested in - what surprise and delight can we bring along the way?
"We fully plan to launch the new membership program before the end of the year. I'm optimistic, it'll be better than that. But I just don't want to go on the hook just yet because we're learning. It's never going to be bad learning from the guests, your customer, your consumer, because they're going to tell you what works, and if you deliver on what they're telling you, you can't help but be successful."
While Disneyland reopened today, much of its signature entertainment did not. There are no fireworks, no Fantasmic!, no World of Color, no Frozen - Live at the Hyperion. I asked if returning Disneyland's large-scale entertainment productions was simply a matter of being allowed to increase capacity, or if the pandemic would force permanent changes.
"I think a lot of it is going to be predicated on what are the rules of engagement that the state is going to provide. So Governor Newsom and Dr. Mark Ghaly said that they're coming out with loosened restrictions on June 15. That sounds great - except I don't know what that means. So we are working on getting clarification of what does that mean and what impact does that have on facilities like ours that they categorize as large gathering places.
"What I would tell you is outdoors better than indoors. Well, we have a lot of outdoor [entertainment]. Think about a firework show. If we could socially distance people, is that an appropriate piece of entertainment to bring back? The answer is unequivocally yes.
"One of the things I'm most intrigued with is what are we doing with characters. We've identified new ways to bring characters to our guests that are not the traditional meet and greet [where] you get in the line and they sign the autograph. I'm not saying that won't come back. But I am saying what we're doing now won't all go away.
"Goofy and Max hanging out on the [Pacific Wharf] balcony fishing. That's a big deal. One of the things that we're thrilled about is if you look at the hub here in this park, or if you look at Carthay Circle in California Adventure, we're now programming characters in that hub. We did a count, and many more guests are seeing and interacting with the characters that we were ever able to do so with 20 minutes on/20 minutes off, people waiting in line for an autograph. We're trying to be very innovative and inventive in doing those kinds of things, and you'll see more of that, not less, even when this goes away.
"Then you begin thinking about theaters, and again, outside is easier than inside. What does that look like - what social distancing ground rules do we have to abide by? I think we're optimistic, on doing that again.
"We have a lot of entertainment in Avengers Campus, and it's outdoors. It's not a theater setting - you're looking at a building, and we can disperse the people very effectively in an environment like that, so it's a little bit of a different formula. I'm not saying we won't go back to the original formula. I think we're learning new things, and some of the things are better than what we were doing previously."
Potrock said that the Disneyland should not go back to the crowding that guests experienced before the pandemic.
"I don't want to grow and just jam more people in. The idea is to grow but continue to have a great experience. That will mean bringing on new rides [and] bringing back a firework show. Mobile Order is a great example. I don't have to have more people waiting in line to handle more volume, I just need to have more people in the kitchen to handle more buyers. Wouldn't that be great if I could bring more people back as we begin going forward?
"I think about the domestic market and what a profound impact the domestic market will have on our hotel business. Right now we only have a fraction of the Grand Californian open. The other two hotels are not open at all. How quickly, if the domestic market begins to come back, will we open up those hotels? That will be very rapid."
So what about allowing out-of-state visitors with proof of vaccination, as state rules currently allow?
"It's clear as mud. Operationally, what will we have to do to verify that they're out of state and that they're vaccinated, or if you're under 16, that they have a negative test? We're having those discussions. Now, once you figure out how you operationalize that, obviously you have to communicate it. The guy in Cleveland is not coming unless he feels confident that not only can he get a reservation, but he can get in the park.
"We are having conversations with the state on getting more clarity, and then for how long will those ground rules be in place. You're seeing arenas and stadiums and even other theme parks creating their way of doing this. We're a little bit of a different animal because so much of our audience are kids."
"With the state health department, we are in constant communication with them, and they are trying so hard to bring clarity to things that aren't clear. We’re in an ongoing dialogue with them, and we're making recommendations and putting forth proposals that say, 'would you consider this, would you consider that,' and they're asking us at the same kinds of things, so I think we'll have a better understanding of what June 15 will bring."
Finally, Potrock addressed the DisneylandForward proposal, which would allow the Disneyland Resort to expand theme park operations within its current borders.
"The City [of Anaheim] and the Disneyland Resort recognize that a symbiotic relationship versus an antagonistic relationship is much superior. How we can help one another, seems to be the question that we're asking one another. Mayor Sidhu was here a day ago and his staff was here, and we had a lovely series of conversations around how can we help the surrounding community. How can we think about what does DisneylandForward mean? How can we think about the residents in the perimeter around the resort and make sure that they're brought along in the journey so that there's no confusion, and that it's not about rumor and innuendo and fear?
"It's about clarity. We're working really hard to build relationships. I am talking with all the council members. I'm talking with community leaders. We're very, very engaged and listening. And by the way, I'll tell you, it doesn't hurt that everybody now more fully understands the importance of the economic engine that is the Disneyland Resort, and what we can do, if we work together to get this engine at even higher performance. It's exciting."
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