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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