Yesterday, Disney Parks officials invited me to the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale for a one-on-one interview with Disney Parks Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D'Amaro. We talked about the operational changes that Disney announced today for the Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts, as well as how Josh and the management team at Disney Parks came to the decision to make those changes.
I have detailed the changes in two posts: Disney World to Drop Reservation Requirement for Some Visitors and Disneyland to Cut Ticket Prices on Some Dates. In addition to those changes, Josh and I also talked about cast relations, hiring freezes, the status of DisneylandForward, and Florida's actions on the Reedy Creek Improvement District. Here is the transcript of our conversation:
Josh D'Amaro: So here we are flipping the calendar to a brand new year, and I had a chance to talk to my team on that first day back from vacation, although, as you well know, as a former cast member, vacation during the holiday period is not really vacation for for Disney cast members.
Robert: That would be the busiest time of the year.
Josh: It's full on, but we had to create a couple of minutes to close our eyes and reflect. I was just telling the team how proud I was of them and what we've accomplished - not only in the last year, but quite frankly, in the last two or three years or so coming out of a pandemic - and not losing sight of what's important to us - who we are, the best storytellers in the world. You see it showing up in our theme parks around the world, and we're not going to stop on that front.
[We are] making sure that we keep our arms around our guests and listen to our guests and change where we need to change - and we've been making changes over the last couple of years. And we're going to make some more that we'll begin to announce tomorrow to our cast members and to the world shortly thereafter.
Robert: You've got more guests than anyone in the world. The Disney Parks far outrank everyone else in the industry when it comes to the number of people that you have coming through the gates every single year, so there are a lot of voices to listen to, and sometimes, very often, these voices conflict. Tell me a little bit about your process for taking in all this information - and often conflicting information - and then making the decision about how you want to proceed based on that feedback.
Josh: I think I'll start with the fact that this is a true honor to have so many perspectives and so much interest in our theme parks and experiences around the world.
This is amazing that the world is watching us, [that] the world has a point of view, [and] the world is emotionally tied to these experiences.
I will also say [that] I am one of those fans. Before joining Disney, I was one of those fans who loved everything about it, and 25 years ago came to be part of it, and I still feel that same fandom, that same responsibility, that I've always felt. I spent a lot of time in theme parks. If I'm not in a meeting, that's my office. I will listen to as many cast members and guests as I possibly can. Oftentimes it'll be, 'Thank you,' and oftentimes it'll be 'Hey, Josh, what is that reservation thing and why do you guys have that in place?'
I read a lot of emails and get a lot of guests letters. It's a real part of the job. The most important part of the job is to take all of that input, combine it with my gut and my emotion about this place, and make the best decisions that we possibly can to make sure the places that we run continue to be the most special places in in the world.
You're never done, right? It's never, 'I'm going to make this one decision' and then you're done.
Robert: As if!
Josh: I think that's one of the things that we're pretty proud of at Disney, back to Walt's days - [you] try things. If you're going to be at the front, if you're going to pioneer, you better be ready to try and then adjust, and I think that's what we're all about. And you see us making those changes constantly, and we're announcing some new changes which are based on that listening.
Robert: There's a great challenge when trying to to read and react, if you will, to the public. You're in the creative business at Disney. You're creating things that the public does not know but it wants because it hasn't seen it yet. So how do you make a decision when you're working with your colleagues over at Walt Disney Imagineering and they come up with an idea, knowing what you perceive the public to want? How do you make a decision about what creative things you're going to go with now, or if you're gonna hold off and try some other day?
Josh: Well, the first thing is, I want more ideas and more opportunities than I can possibly ingest. So in the hallways here of Imagineering I'm telling our Imagineers, bring it all to me. If you've got crazy ideas, if you've got ideas that are reflective of the past, or reflective of the future, or reflective of one of our newest properties like an Avatar, like an Encanto, bring them to me.
It's got to be great story. It's got to elevate the experience that's already in the park. It has to leave you feeling something different than you would have otherwise felt anywhere else in in the world. And it's got to continue to surprise and delight, like Disney has always done. Again I feel very fortunate that we have no shortage of that in the pipeline. You see it showing up in our parks. You see it showing up in new shows on the castle or at Disney California Adventure, a new show for World of Color - One, that's coming soon. To your point, this is a creative company, [so] you've got to feel it. You've got to know it and appreciate what our guests want and what we're capable of from an imaginary and creative perspective.
Robert: But you also have to push for capacity, because you just talked about the the reservation issue. I feel, from observing this, that when people talk about or push back against the reservation issue, it's not necessarily [just about] getting the reservation. It's that the [parks'] capacity is not big enough to accommodate all the people who want reservations.
Josh: It's a guest experience issue. This all starts with guest experience, and having been in this business for as long as we have been, we know what constitutes a great guest experience. We know that there are certain attendance thresholds that can potentially deteriorate the experience. So the reservation system change that we've made is completely premised on wanting to deliver [you] the best experience I possibly can. And to do that, I'm asking my guests to make reservations, which is change. Change isn't easy, particularly for Disney, where everybody watches every single move that we make, and if you change something that's tradition, or the way that it's always been, it's hard.
Robert: Nostalgia is a big part of the branding.
Josh: It's a big part of it. So anytime we step into one of these areas, we know that there's going to be input, and we're going to take that input and listen, and we're going to react and adjust. But we will never sacrifice guest experience. I have these conversations with guests all the time in the theme parks - "Why do I have to make a reservation?" And the moment I sit down and talk to them about guest experience, and how we're continually trying to make that easier and more flexible, they completely get it and understand it. So we're going to keep pushing on that. If we're going to be pioneers, we're going to keep being pioneers to make that experience as great as it possibly can be.
Robert: I think that's an important point for a lot of people to understand - that it's not just necessarily what people are asking for, but what they intend. The classic example I always used from my days was when people would ask, 'What time is the three o'clock parade?' and I would tell them it's at 3:20 because that's when it got to where they were standing.
Josh: I love it.
Robert: You're just sussing that out. I think a big issue with the reservation program is that people are looking at it kind of superficially, 'I have to do this,' and they're not understanding, 'but I will get this in return.'
Josh: That's right. I think some of that's time. I think some of that is discussion. We see that changing right now. But we've always done this. We've always molded and adjusted with the intent always being the same: best stories in the world, best experiences in the world. And that will never never change
Robert: The situation in terms of capacity and demand is very different on the two coasts, obviously [now] with the change coming for the annual passholders in Florida.
Robert: You look at California and I think the population is more than four times what it is in Central Florida. I'm assuming - I cannot get this information out of you but I will keep trying - that the number of annual pass holders in California is at least that much more than it is in Central Florida.
Josh: Well, I won't answer that question specifically, Robert, but what I will tell you is your premise is right. The businesses are so different - both the experiences that we're offering, the footprint of those experiences, [and] how guests visit, and so for each of them, we're looking specifically at how do we make sure that experience is as good as possible? So we'll manage things a little bit differently. We're going to try and make sure it's as simple as possible. We'll continue to evolve these experiences so that we can integrate things so it's very simple. You're just in the park, enjoying the things that are around you, and not worrying about things, etc. But yeah, they're very different. So we'll address the input a little bit differently as we move forward.
Robert: Just how many people are working at Disney right now in collecting and analyzing the volume of feedback that you have from guests, not just from your inbox and statements and surveys, but also all the usage data that you collect on a daily basis that [tells you] here's what they're doing, as opposed to just what they're saying? How many people are involved in that process, and what does that look like on a daily, weekly, monthly basis?
Josh: I won't give you a number because I think it's almost impossible to give you a number, but I think it's safe to say there are thousands of people in our organization that are looking at this. I'll also say that we're so forward-looking in the way that we're deploying technology. If you take something like a Genie - not Genie+, but the Genie product - right now, as we sit here in the room today, Genie is hard at work, interpreting guests' wants and needs and movement around the park to make sure that we're creating the best itineraries possible to get guests everything they want out of their theme park visit, whether it's at Disneyland or Epcot or Magic Kingdom. That's happening right now. So the technology that we have in place is exponentially addressing this input that is coming back to us from guests based on their behavior and input. And the experience - again, as we're sitting here in this room today - it's getting better.
Robert: One of the changes coming is with the number of days at the Tier 0 at Disneyland on the individual tickets, which gets to the whole issue of the affordability of a Disney vacation. Obviously, with something that is so much a lifestyle brand for people - so close to people's hearts as Disney - they will pay extra for it, which is great in that it finances some wonderful attractions. But looking into the future, which is part of your job, and not just as running this [business], but as a custodian of of these parks, how do you balance the need for the company to maximize its income and profits today versus not killing the market - making sure that it can continue to afford the Disney park experience in the future?
Josh: What we're trying to do across all of our products and experiences is create as flexible and variable a model as we possibly can, so that people have choice at the at the end of the day. I want somebody to be able to make a decision on when they want to come to Disneyland or Walt Disney World based on the different pricing structures that we have in place. If you want to visit for $104 per day, you can do that. In fact, one of the announcements that we're making today is that we're going to have two months worth of $104, or Tier 0, days. That's a big deal. We want people to have access to the parks and be able to make that decision. If you want to come on New Year's Eve, the price is probably going to be a little bit different, and that's okay. At Walt Disney World we want to have you be able to choose between a Value Resort which could be $100 a night or one of our Deluxe Resorts, which will be much more expensive than that. We want to let you use the base Genie experience, which by the way has been phenomenally well received and it is actually changing the guest experience. But if you want Genie+, that's available for you as well. We want as much flexibility and variability so that we can invite as many guests as possible into the theme parks.
Robert: We've been talking a lot about the guest experience at this point, and guest feedback. I want to turn it around and talk a little bit about the cast for a moment. What is the message that you would like the cast - those people who are out there and dealing with with the guest experience on a minute to minute basis, what's the message you want them to hear from you right now? And then what are you looking to hear from them about how all of this is going?
Josh: The great thing, Robert is I think the cast know what I think because I speak with them so frequently. I am incredibly proud of our cast members. And I see our frontline casts and our leaders, quite frankly, as the difference makers. When you walk into a Disney theme park, what you feel is of course a byproduct of the great stories and attractions and parade and the fireworks. But it's that interaction with the cast members that you have which makes the Disney parks so incredibly special. And our cast members have dealt with a lot over the last several years - a lot. Not only making their way through the pandemic and standing these theme parks back up.
As much as we've talked about with this change for the guests, it's changed for them as well. Reservations are new to our cast members as well, in terms of how to orchestrate the operation. Genie is new to our cast members as well. Some of the the technology that we've put into the parks is new to our cast members as well. These people are best in class. They always stay focused on making sure that the guest experience is preserved, regardless of the number of changes that are coming in. And that is not an easy task to do. So when I'm walking the theme parks, as much as I will talk to guests and take their feedback, both good and bad, I probably do that even more with our cast members: "What are you seeing? What are you hearing? What would you do? How would you change some of these things?" And our cast members are very forthcoming. Why? Because they believe in this place. They love this place as much as I do. And some of the time the truth is right there - "Josh, you should probably think about doing this" or "If you change this a little bit over there..." and I take that stuff very seriously, and I hear it a lot. I hear a lot from our cast members. But my message to them is, I am so proud and so thankful for these cast members around the world.
Robert: Under the recently departed previous administration around here, there had been some talk about hiring freezes and layoffs and that sort of thing. Is any of that on the table for Disney Parks at this point? And if so, how do you balance that with the guest experience?
Josh: The response that I'll give you on that is we will not sacrifice anything from an operational perspective. So we have not frozen any operational jobs. I want to make sure that any time a guest goes into any one of our theme parks that we are fully staffed, and in fact we've made a lot of progress on that front and continue to make progress on that front, but we are not freezing any of our operations cast members.
Robert: I know that housekeeping and food and beverage have been a challenge ever since the lockdown started.
Josh: We've made an incredible amount of progress on that, Robert, and I don't think I'll go into detail on it right now, but from a staffing perspective, we're feeling very good. And why do we feel very good about that, in the context of this difficult world that we operate in? Because people want to work for Disney. I think they trust Disney. They trust the leadership, and they also see that - you know this being a [former] cast member - it's a special place to work, to be around great people who share a passion for delivering magic to people when they come into the theme park, to participating in some of the cast previews, some of which we're having a Disneyland for these new experiences that we're offering soon. It's a special place to be.
Robert: Talking about some of these changes that are coming - some you are announcing, and some you're not yet ready to announce - obviously you're not doing all of these things in a vacuum. There are outside side regulatory issues that you need to deal with, on both coasts. You've got a situation in Florida where the governor is trying to change the rules of the game, and you have this DisneylandForward proposal happening in Anaheim. I want to ask you, first of all here in Anaheim, what's the status of DisneylandForward at this point? Is there anything you can tell fans about that project and how it might affect the the parks going forward?
Josh: Nothing specifically new there, Robert, other than it is moving forward. What we've committed to publicly before, we are continuing to move forward on. I remain very excited about the prospects of what DisneylandForward can mean for the Disneyland Resort - more opportunities to tell more amazing stories, etc. But nothing specifically new on that front.
Robert: Just to remind people, what's the timeline on that? Because I know there's a long comment period that has to happen, and there's a long deliberation period.
Josh: I don't know that we committed to any specific timeline on that, but there's active work going on DisneylandForward, and we will continue to push on that.
Robert: Any comment on the situation in Florida?
Josh: I assume we're talking about Reedy Creek?
Josh: We're watching. We're watching, so we'll leave that one at that.
I am excited though, Robert, about the changes that we are making.... These are things that you hear back from guests, and we can make adjustments without sacrificing guest experience. We're gonna go ahead and do those things, and I'll end with the fact that this relationship that we have with guests and fans is pretty darn special. I think we have an obligation, and we always have done this, to listen to our guests, to continue to mold to make the experience better, more seamless, [and] easier for them. And I think as we continue to do that, the future of our theme parks and experiences are so bright.
If you think you're busy now, hold on. If you heard what I said at D23 [Expo], I mean it, and more. And I'm just proud of what this team has done.
Robert: And operationally these are not the end of the changes as you were talking about before, but this is a continuing process.
Josh: Always will be. And my ears are always open. Even if I'm not getting input from guests, we internally know what a good experience looks like and where to continue to push on it.
Robert: Excellent. Thank you very much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.
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What a great interview, fully agreed @TH.
Great interview, including your attempt to push on hot topics. It looks like Iger and D’Amaro are trying to win some goodwill back by rolling back some of the nickel and dime decisions like parking fees, and adding in bonuses like free ride photos (a gimme as this exists and requires little to no staff to maintain).
Josh D'Amaro exudes a lot of charm. It wouldn't surprise me if he is in the hunt to succeed Iger. But he loses some points for keeping the park hopping limitation at Walt Disney World. And of course the fact that his name isn't Bob.
Big companies like Disney run best when the C-suite understands they should let the people they put in charge to run each business...you know...run them. That way if things go well you know you can say good job and if things don't go well you know who to point the finger at.
When Bob Chapek was put in charge of the parks (well before he was CEO) you started to see major cuts in the projects that were going on and they opened to lackluster reviews. Look at Avatar, a movie TBH no one really cared about after its first few months in theaters. The project that was spearheaded under Tom Staggs, took a very long time to develop and build but was a smash hit and still draws huge crowds and gets amazing reviews all these years later.
Then look at Avengers at DCA, the most popular movie franchise of all time, the project under Chapek, is dogcrap. You would think considering how many billions that franchise is worth to Disney, and the park being in LA right in the heart and soul of the company, they would have wanted to knock it out of the park. And not only that they chintzed the other side of the park was well with a ridiculous "Pixar Pier" permanent overlay. I feel like Bob Iger saw the parks had increased their margins under Chapek and therefore thought was doing a good job...that was a huge misjudgement and mistake.
Ultimately who can you point the finger at? With Iger back now maybe he will give D'Amaro more control over what the parks are doing and we will see what happens. TBH I am not a huge fan of the direction Disney Parks have gone in over the past decade where every single thing they do has to be IP. I'm not against IP at all but when you are on vacation having every single thing be Disney IP is unsettling and quite frankly annoying.
The man definitely is not lying when he says he walks around and talks to people. I've even seen him park himself in the lobby at DVC resorts and talk to "members" which TBH is probably the most difficult and annoying thing any Disney executive can possibly do. At the end of the day its still his job to make money. Disney is still a huge publicly traded American mega-corporation. As long as so many people want to visit the place its still going to be insanely expensive and insanely crowded.
I think Disney and Bob Iger have a major co-dependency problem. It's not good for Disney that out of 360 million people in this country there is apparently only one person that can properly run the company, and its concerning to me that D'Amaro still isn't being given any assignments at the Studio in Hollywood to at least get some experience. This all leads me to believe that there is no way Iger leaves after his current 2 year assignment.
Basically, while I think D'Amaro and Iger may be good, hard working people, I don't see any of them as saints that are going to fix all the things we don't like about corporate America lol.
I have a hard time reading D'Amaro, but have never had an opportunity to really talk with him other than exchanging pleasantries during the Galactic Starcruiser Media Event. He does seem to provide a lot of "politically correct" answers to tough questions, and tends to stay in his box with most of his public comments. He obviously has the chops for the job coming through the operations pipeline (not through the executive ladder), but it's hard to tell if he has been the direct force for change over his tenure or if he's just doing the bidding of whomever is above him as a "yes" man.
I want to think Parks and Experiences has the freedom to develop their own business within the Walt Disney Company (that's why they separated the divisions the way they did a decade ago after all), but I always worry that pressure from above dictates more of what they do than the other way around.
It's good to hear D'Amaro reference to so many ideas in the works and the freedom WDI still has to develop new experiences and concepts. While the question about Reedy Creek was posed, I would be interested to hear D'Amaro's thoughts on the recent decisions surrounding Iger's "4-days in the office" announcement and updates on the relocation of WDI to Lake Nona.
Thanks so much for this excellent interview Robert, err… Russell, wait-it IS Robert is it not? Either way, your readers appreciate you, whoever you are :)
@The_Man: I think you make several fine points. But on one thing I disagree. I think that you underestimate the popularity of the Avatar franchise. It has lacked the ubiquitous nature of the MCU over the years, but that is due in large part because of Jim Cameron’s constant pushing of boundaries in his filmmaking, both creatively and technologically. I realize that it is sort of vogue to be contrarian to the popularity of the films, but the first one is literally the highest grossing film OF ALL TIME, due in large part because of multiple theatrical re-releases. The fact that people keep going back to enjoy the experience on the big screen I think speaks volumes about its lasting appeal. My opinion of course. Cheers!
I was given 15 minutes with Josh, which he allowed me to stretch to 20, but I would have loved to ask many additional questions about the D23 Expo Blue Sky proposals, his relationship with the Bobs, labor negotiations with cast member unions, and to see if I could get any reaction to Epic Universe.
I understand higher prices and reservations being the price for a better guest experience and less crowded parks. But when the People Mover has a one hour wait, I'm unable to see that as a better guest experience in a less crowded park. It's like they've accomplished steps 1 and 2, and decided to skip step 3.
@Marc - And I think that's where Disney needs to reconnect with their guests. There are clear expectations from management/operations about a guest's visit in the way Genie+ has been set up and the disclaimers provided by Disney before you purchase it. Disney now sets the bar for Genie+ at 2-3 attractions per day accessible through the system's LL, which was a recalibration from the initial 4-5 attractions touted when Genie+ was first announced (that was more in line with what most guests could achieve through FastPass+).
There have been numerous discussions about what Disney defines as an "ideal" number of attractions for a typical guest visit, but the Genie+ disclaimer is the only official hint we've been given into how managers have quantified a typical visit. I've read some unofficial reports and rumors that Disney management feels that a guest experiencing 6-8 attractions during a visit should be the expectation, which seems absurdly low to many of us who have visited theme parks around the world. Honestly, that seems like a reasonable expectation when you consider the desire from management to encourage repeat visits, and the fact that new guests tend to tour parks less efficiently, offsetting (and making room for) those of us who experience the parks at breakneck pace. While that expectation does seem reasonable, the disconnect comes from Disney becoming more accepting of lesser (and degrading) attractions filling in a guest's day. If those 6-8 attractions include 2-3 E-tickets, 1-2 D-tickets, and the remaining day filled with smaller experiences, that would be fine, but to get on 5 E/D tickets a day in a Disney park is becoming increasingly difficult these days, even for experienced park goers (and especially without purchasing Genie+), meaning that 6-8 attraction quota gets filled with an increasing number of lesser attractions. Over the past few years, Disney seems to have been OK with that, but it's clear this is where the decrease in guests satisfaction is tied to these expectations and Disney seemingly lowering the bar.
That is where Disney needs to adjust and better manage the guest experience. Whether it's finding ways to "plus" those lesser attractions/experiences, adding more E-ticket attractions (critical as former E-tickets age and slowly transition into D-Tickets), or better managing capacity and attraction throughput to ensure guests can more easily achieve an "ideal" visit, Disney needs to make more changes beyond what has been announced here.
So many enjoyable, family oriented and traditional venues/restaurants have been deleted at disneyland -
PLEASE BRING BACK/REOPEN THE DISNEYLAND KENNEL CLUB - so the entire family can enjoy the trip to disneyland, and those with service dogs can leave them at kennel and do not have to be harassed by security personnel. REOPEN STEAKHOUSE 55, THE REASON IT WAS CLOSED IS HORRID. THE MOVIE THEATRE WAS WONDERFUL AS ON A HOT DAY THOSE WHO COULD NOT TAKE THE HEAT COULD GO SEE A MOVIE and go back to the park when temperature was better, did not have to leave for home.
All the live animals are gone - baby goats, horses, cow, etc. You have let the firehouse five go with no replacement. Chip and Dale danced with park goers to the firehouse five. There is much more, but those are at the top of my list.
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For more than two decades TPI has set the standard for coverage of all things related to the themed entertainment industry. I am humbled to be associated with the site and the community Robert has created.
Well done, young man.