By James Fratzke
Once upon a time Ryan and I were bullied at school. You’ll never guess why. Well, it’s because we are twins. Things were reaching a tipping point. One night our fairy godmother (aka our mom) came to us and said: “I don’t want you to get in a fight, but sometimes the only way to stop a bully is to punch them right in the nose.” -- “But Mom.” We said with uncertainty in our voice. “If we do that they’re going to suspend us.” -- “Don’t you worry.” She said, “If they suspend you, I’ll take you to Disneyland.”
And so the next day, as the group of bullies continued with their wicked ways, a great fight broke out, and our date with the happiest place on earth was set. To say we’re fanatic about Disneyland, and the Disney brand in general would be fair. When you grow up twenty minutes away from a place that some kids only dream about visiting, how could you not be? That’s why I never understood, why is it that some of Disneyland’s biggest fans are the ones that complain the most?
"To all that come to this happy place: Welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here, age relives fond memories of the past, and here, youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America... with a hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."
That was Walt Disney speaking at the grand opening of Disneyland sixty plus years ago, but you probably already knew that. That speech gets played a lot at Disneyland. Ryan and I worked at the resort for four years, so take it from me, Disney fans take that speech and turn it into a personal promise from Walt. To them, “Disneyland is your land” But here’s the problem. They only hear “This is your land” and they treat it with entitlement and ignore the rest of it. They’re missing the most important part: “Here, age relives fond memories of the past, and here, youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future.”
I was recently reading the Disney Parks blog, which I do from time to time, unapologetically. The article I was reading was about the reopening of some age-old attractions like Fantastic, and one of our favorite hide and seek locations, Tom Sawyer's Island. I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but I was reading the comments, and I came across this one:
“Finally!!!! (She writes with four exclamation marks) My last two trips to DL have been lacking with no F!, (I think she means fantastic) no Railroad, no riverboats, and no place to relax – Tom Sawyer Island. It might be easy to have one of these gone and still have a great day at DL. But to have all 4 down??? (three question marks) I felt like I was missing a whole chapter of the book.”
Missing a whole chapter? I mean come on! That’s a little dramatic right? But that’s at the heart of the issue. Fans believe that they are entitled to these classic attractions and that they belong to them. Here’s another one:
“As much as I enjoy Fantasmic!, I also get tired of the way the park clogs up with people waiting for Fantasmic! and fireworks and whatever parade is going at that time. Some evenings, I’d just like to ride the rides and not be corralled in a direction that I don’t want to go or have to step over and around the people waiting. First world problems! I know!”
At least she knows she’s got a problem. Not everyone does.
A few years back we were on the special events marketing team, and Disney California Adventure was about to reopen for reasons I’ll get into a little more later. But it would be fair to say that the park needed a do-over and it was beautiful. One of the marquee additions was Carsland. This new land was amazing, but do you know what the biggest criticism I kept hearing from the diehards was?
“I don’t like it because it doesn’t match the parks 1920’s theme.”
After hearing this about a dozen times, I finally snapped “It’s a theme park!” I said excitedly. “Not a historical reenactment!”
Do you know what Ryan and I always found most interesting when we walked down the same sidewalks that Walt Disney did? It wasn’t the magic of characters like Mickey Mouse coming to life; it wasn’t the sinfully perfect smell of the five dollar churros filling the atmosphere around us, it wasn’t even the fast-paced thrill rides like Space Mountain or Thunder Mountain (Our personal favorite). No, it was the construction walls. Kind of funny right? But it’s true. What was behind those walls perfectly captured Walt Disney’s vision.
“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”
But here’s the thing, when you talk to some of the most dedicated Disney fans in the world, they hate those construction walls, they can’t stand change, and they want everything to stay the same. When it comes to change at Disneyland, and by proxy Disney California Adventure, there are usually two schools of thought:
1. Keep everything the same - “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
2. Innovate and change.
In my several decades of Disney fandom, I feel like a large majority of Disney-Maniacs I come across subscribe to the first idea. For the record, I support change, and I’m not alone, so did Walt Disney.
Disney’s philosophy is still alive in the company today; Tower of Terror is an excellent example of that. I’m sure there are many political reasons why the attraction was reimagined earlier this year and transformed into Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Break Out, but hey at least it’s something new to enjoy.
It’s this commitment to change that has made The Walt Disney Company special. It’s often said that a company is either growing or dying. Disney continues to grow because it ignores critics and trusts in its ability to evolve and innovate for the betterment of the brand and fans. Even if the fans don’t know it at first.
So why do fans revolt against change? I think the key is fear. This is my childhood, this is my happy place, I don’t want it to change. Let’s take a minute to explore how fear can impact a company and how innovative leaders can look past fear to acknowledge the risks they could face if they refuse to change and evolve.
The fear of innovation in a company can be debilitating and triggered for many reasons. Hell speaking personally, I am afraid rejection, and from time to time I wonder if I lack the vision that is necessary to innovate. But then I’m reminded of what Richard Branson said in his book The Virgin Way:
“Leaders who spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror are seldom positioned to navigate the road ahead.”
Disney said it himself, “Relive fond memories of the past” and “Savor the challenge and promise of the future.” Drive to the future and don’t get caught looking in the rearview mirror.
We cannot tout our past success and expect others to give us a pass for creative stagnation. In high school, Ryan and I were the yearbook editor-in-chiefs. Although cool at the time, that means nothing today. In college, we delivered our graduating class’s commencement speech, it was an honor, but so what? Can you imagine if Disney rested their hat on making the first full-length animated film (Snow White) and said: “Okay we’re done!”
Can you think of a company that refused to innovate and paid the price? One that jumps to mind for me is Kodak. Everyone knows that the perfect picture is a “Kodak Moment.” Kodak has always been synonymous with photography, but when the industry shifted away from film and moved toward digital, Kodak refused to be the industry leader. They feared that growing their digital camera product line would cannibalize Kodak’s film products, which was the brands shining star. Can you imagine that? Kodak’s failure to innovate lead them to file for bankruptcy eventually.
Here’s an excellent example of innovation at its finest, even when the ten-thousand-pound gorilla in the room, named fear, is staring you right in the eyes. Mark Zuckerberg trusted his gut ten years ago when his team launched “News Feed.” Facebook launched News Feed, and almost instantaneously the general public hated it, I know because I was one of them. Some users even called for other users to boycott the site until News Feed was recalled. Do you think doubt started to creep in for the Facebook team? You bet, but ultimately Mark Zuckerberg decided to stay the course. Ten years later, I’m glad he didn’t listen to us. In the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell, “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.”
And that’s precisely the point I’m trying to make with my fellow Disney fans. If all they ever did was listen to us, complain about keeping things the same… It would never be what it is today!
Back in the early 2000’s Disney had a “Kodak Moment” of its own, and I’m not talking about the good type. Under the leadership of CEO Michael Eisner, the company stopped innovating.
I remember how excited Ryan and I were when one day our family pulled up to the Disneyland parking lot and we couldn’t park. That’s because they were building a new theme park in its place! California Adventure. But after the park opened it was clear this was not real innovation. Instead of creating new stories and attractions, they cut cost and forgot what made them special. Innovative storytelling.
This resulted in a nosedive of the brand's value and an attempted hostile takeover by Comcast in 2004, who reportedly made an unsolicited bid to buy Disney for $54 Billion. Luckily for Disney Fans, Eisner was asked to leave the company in 2005. He was replaced by Bob Igor, a man who recently said he wanted his executives to “have a love affair with technology.” Now that’s commitment to innovation.
Think about how you can apply Walt Disney’s philosophy to your life. Is there a relationship you are fostering that’s going awry? Are you trying to move up in your company? Are you leading a team? Are you building a business? Think about how you can infuse change, imagination, and innovation into your own life.
For the Disney Fanatics out there who are disappointed in Disney for replacing attractions like Tower of Terror, I want you to remember that it’s that kind of change, innovation, and risk-taking that makes the company great. Give them some creative license to do something different.