Does anyone else feel an enormous amount of anger and frustration within the Disney Parks fan community right now?
Negativity within fan communities has become a bigger and bigger issue ever since the Internet democratized the fan experience. Before the Internet, fan communities typically were cultivated by IP owners, with fleeting attention from limited major media sources. Fans who had problems with - or even just unique perspectives on - what was happening with the IP had very limited opportunities to share that point of view with other fans.
That kept the vibe around fan communities generally positive. If something went wrong with an IP, people just left the fan community and moved on to something else. Only the positive communities supporting working IP endured.
But no IP is perfect. The pre-Internet era allowed IP to get away with a certain level of laziness, bad value, or even ill will. Just so long as the transgressions did not push a critical mass of fans to abandon an IP, thus endangering its survival, its owner could get away with quite a bit without challenge.
The Internet changed that. Now, fans had a medium to amplify their voice. Fans who did not live near anyone who shared their interests now could connect with other fans all over the world. With those audiences now available, it became possible for writers to make a living covering beats that no newspaper, major magazine, or TV channel would have supported before.
At first, negativity in those emerging communities and platforms felt fresh and objective. Fans could discover more nuanced and insightful takes on their favorite IP. Creators now were getting honest feedback from fans not just in easily buried in-house customer surveys but through a global public forum. Unheralded excellence could find new advocates, while big names were held to higher standards.
All this helped fuel a new golden age in the creative arts, with some of the best TV, movies, media, and, yes, theme park attractions ever developed. Artists knew they needed to deliver better and better to win the support of fans online. That has given theme park fans new delights from Rocky Mountain Construction's rebuilds of declining wooden coasters to Universal's The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Disney's Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Yet even as many things were getting better, certain fans discovered that their sharp, negative posts attracted far more engagement than positive ones. When social media platforms discovered the same, they created an incentive for people to deliver that negative content by showing those posts more often to more followers.
Today, that leaves fans to navigate a seas of negativity, trying to figure out what is noise blasted to keep them angry and engaged online, and what might be genuine criticism that's worthy of their time, attention, and consideration. Unfortunately, the noise is making it harder and harder to find example of that unheralded excellence that drew so many of us online years ago, as social media algorithms reward the established and controversial, penalizing voices who try to lift up something truly creative and unique.
All this now brings us to Disney, but with the context I felt was necessary for me to write about what I believe is happening.
The Walt Disney World Resort remains the most popular theme park destination on the planet, drawing nearly 19 million visitors during a pandemic-marred 2020, according to the annual TEA/AECOM Theme Index attendance report. Its enduring popularity commands attention from its millions of visitors and fans from around the world. That makes the Walt Disney World a fat target for social media criticism.
But even if an unrealistic 99% of Walt Disney World's visitors left the resort completely satisfied, that would leave hundreds of thousands of guests a year with real criticisms to air. Not everything negative you might see about Disney World is clickbait. Yet among those real criticisms lie many that simply don't apply to other fans' unique situations and preferences.
Disney has promoted itself as a lifestyle brand and, at times, even as an upscale travel brand. But Disney usually left open back doors for budget-conscious fans. Today, Disney is closing more and more of those back doors. And that, I believe, is driving much of the negativity that I and other fans are seeing online at the moment.
Reservation requirements have limited the number of times that annual passholders can use their passes, effectively raising their cost per visit. Meanwhile, Disney has eliminated the free Fastpasses that some savvy fans used to experience dozens of attractions each day. In its place, Disney has introduced two new upcharge plans.
All this means fewer attractions experienced on fewer days - or higher costs - for Disney's most dedicated fans. Who wouldn't be upset with paying more or getting less?
Here's where things get contentious. One of the reasons why Disney's most dedicated fans have been so dedicated to the company was the fact that using these back doors - annual passes, Fastpass, and sometimes the Disney Vacation Club - could make visiting Florida's Walt Disney World (or Disneyland in California) a stupid good deal. There were some people visiting Disney and going on dozens of attractions per day for not much more than the cost of going to a movie.
Enough guests had figured out how to make the most of Disney's ticketing and reservation systems that they were crowding out other potential visitors. Disney was seeing its potential growth stalled by a lack of availability in part created by the stupid good deals it was providing to many of its fans.
Yes, Disney built us a bunch of new attractions and refurbished many areas to help create new capacity and manage its crowds. But at some point, any sane business manager is going to look at a situation such as this and decide that it's time to raise prices - not Disney's top-line prices, which already led the industry, but the effective bottom-line prices that the company's most active repeat customers were paying. That either generates more money to build more capacity or limits the demand on existing capacity. Either way, it's a win for the company.
That does not lessen the hurt for people who had grown used to getting such a good deal from Disney. In fact, that hurt only intensifies anytime some other fan (uh, like me now, I guess) points out that Disney is probably making the correct business move by closing the back doors that so many guests were swarming through. Universal, Six Flags, SeaWorld, and others for years have been charging more for their line-skipping passes than Disney is now charging for Disney Genie+. But many of the Disney fans who are complaining about the recent changes were not going to Universal, Six Flags, or SeaWorld. What those competitors are doing simply does not matter to those fans' situations and preferences. Bringing that up feels like a distraction, or even an attack, rather than the acknowledgement of loss that those fans sought by going online with their complaints.
Of course, a conflict like that is exactly the sort of thing that social media platforms love to elevate. So the anger and frustration get elevated, and any attempt to promote a more dispassionate analysis gets buried.
Frustrated Disney fans have other options. Like fans of broken IPs in the pre-Internet era, they can go elsewhere. One of the things I love so much about the Theme Park Insider community is that so many of you are not wedded to any single theme park brand. You understand that parks such as Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Legoland California, Efteling, Europa Park, Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi, Universal Studios Japan and more offer attractions every bit as good - and sometimes better - than Disney's. If social media weren't so fixated on trafficking anger, perhaps more Disney fans could hear more first-person endorsements of Disney's worthy rivals.
But fans do not have to ditch Disney to continue to find good deals from the company. They might not be the same deals that the company has offered in the past, but if you are willing to look at what is available with fresh eyes, you might see some nice value to be had. Especially if you look around to see them within the context of what Disney's competitors have to offer, too.
Getting angry won't get you those deals, however. Anger becomes its own product, crowding out your ability to think or feel anything else. No matter what you think about what Walt Disney World and Disneyland have been doing recently, I hope that you will continue to think and act like a savvy consumer. This is business. Yes, it's a creative business, where emotion is an important part of product. But as a smart, well-informed consumer, you have power to protect yourself when doing business - or not - with any company, including Disney.
And you have power to protect yourself when doing business with social media platforms online. Even if they're free, you still pay for them with your time. Unfollow sources that traffic in anger and share instead sources that promote understanding and appreciation. Anger might drive social media clicks, but it won't help you enjoy a great vacation.
Update: Here is my continuation of this - Why I Don't Want to Live in a Metaverse
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