A tale of two Bobs
What Disney’s CEO shakeup may mean for the parks
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He just wasn't the right guy for the job. In a stunning bit of news, Disney showed embattled CEO Bob Chapek the door Sunday evening. It was so stunning, I initially thought the comments I was seeing were in response to a bogus satirical article in “The Onion” or some kind of viral Internet meme. But no, it was very real.
Disney’s companion piece of news, that Chapek’s successor would be his predecessor, Bob Iger, was equally, if not more shocking. Fans, shareholders, company employees, and virtually everybody else who cares a whit about the Mouse (which is to say, virtually everybody) rejoiced at the announcement.
There’s no doubt that something needed to be done, and I applaud Disney’s board for taking bold, decisive action. Having said that, I’ve long been fascinated by and curious about the intense ire directed at Chapek. For example, he has often been derisively referred to as “Bob Paycheck” for his bottom-line mentality. Anything negative–and Lord knows there’s been plenty of lousy news under his watch–was always loudly attributed to the CEO. On some level, that made sense; the buck stopped with him after all.
On the other hand, he rarely got credit for anything positive. Invariably, Josh D’Amaro, chairman, Disney parks, experiences, and products, received all of the accolades for any good news about the parks, but nary a hint of criticism for anything bad. I’d have to believe that D’Amaro played at least some kind of role, and likely a major role, in decisions regarding price hikes, annual passes, park reservations, and other issues that upset fans. Still, Chapek ended up wearing the black hat in these scenarios.
A lot has to do with perception. Chapek has an aura that makes it tough to relate to him. In contrast, Iger, who got his start as a TV weatherman, is telegenic, affable, and radiates warmth. Like the parks themselves, Iger projects reassurance. Chapek sows suspicion. I had a front-row seat to both of the CEOs when I had opportunities to interview them. The experiences were enlightening and emblematic of their leadership styles and images.
Once, Iger sat down with me at Shanghai Disneyland three days before the park officially opened. He was attentive, confident, cordial, and endearing as he talked, with obvious pride, about the mainland China park, which was one of the crowning achievements of his (first) tenure leading the company. When I spoke with Chapek, however, he was often dismissive, distracted, and bordering on rude. With his humorless, confrontational demeanor, he sometimes seemed to be angling for a fight. I’m certainly not on the level of Scarlett Johansson, but I too witnessed his social skills challenges firsthand.
What about the parks?
So, what might the amiable, returning Iger do about the parks? Despite the many things that are upsetting diehard and more casual fans alike these days, it’s unlikely he will do much, at least initially. His first order of business is to restructure the company and restore trust among employees. Then he will need to focus on Disney+, the struggling streaming service, and Disney’s studios, which has to figure out how to make money in a pandemic-decimated industry. The parks are actually doing quite well financially and therefore probably won’t be at or near the top of Iger’s to-do list.
But here’s hoping the parks will be getting some much-needed attention relatively soon. Sure, they may be generating record revenues, but that’s partly because of the up-charges guests are forking over for Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane, the line-management programs that are making many visitors crazy. It’s not just the cost, it’s also the convoluted ways people have to navigate the programs that are driving folks bonkers. Instead of being in the moment and enjoying the parks, they have to constantly fiddle with their smartphones. For a company that prides itself in making technology invisible and immersing guests in meticulously crafted attractions and lands, Genie+ is incredibly intrusive.
It’s doubtful Iger would bring back the complimentary Fastpass program. The Genie+ revenue stream is already out of the bottle. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that last one.) But the program needs to be radically modified and made much simpler. Universal Express, the skip-the-line service offered by Universal Orlando, is a great model. Guests pay one price for the pass and simply show it to ride attendants to get in the expedited lines. No phones, no scheduled ride times, no hassle.
One thing Iger could, and really should do fairly quickly is get rid of park reservations. Sure, they were necessary during the earlier days of the pandemic. But most parks have done away with them now, and Disney should as well. That would go a long way in making the guest experience better.
Yes, demand remains remarkably high at the Disney parks, despite all of their shortcomings. That’s because they are wonderful, and people have a longstanding and abiding appreciation for them. Really, the parks are victims of their own success; long lines and high prices are the result of that. But I have to believe that the annoyances of park reservations, Genie+, and the like will eventually erode goodwill and have an impact on the bottom line.
Attraction downtime is another problem that’s making lines long and nerves frayed. I’m not sure what Iger or anybody could do to address the inherent complexities of sophisticated attractions like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and Remy's Ratatouille Adventure. But it sure would be nice if they could be kept up and running at full capacity all of the time.
It’s also not Chapek’s, or really anybody’s fault, that Disney is having a hard time fully staffing its parks. That has an impact on service and wait times as well. I get why COVID threw a curveball at the workforce at large, but I don’t understand why so many people are still choosing not to work and how they are able to pay their bills. How is it that so many people are able to visit the Disney parks and pay inflated prices to do so, yet there are not enough cast members to serve them? Might Iger help develop an initiative to hire more staff?
A great way to reduce wait times would be to increase capacity. More high-profile, high-capacity attractions like TRON Lightcycle Run, which is coming next year to the Magic Kingdom at Disney World, would certainly help. Until Disney gets its finances in order, however, it might be difficult to come up with the cash for major investments.
It would make even more sense for both Disney World and Disneyland to each add new gated parks. That would really increase capacity. With Universal’s Epic Universe on track to open in 2025, it would especially make sense in Florida. It’s virtually impossible for Iger to develop and open a new gate in time to compete with Disney’s I-4 rival. But he could at least make some major announcements of things to come, thereby generating excitement and hogging a bit of the spotlight.
Well, that’s quite a laundry list I’ve prepared for Mr. Iger. As I said, with so much to fix throughout the company, it’s probable he won’t be concentrating on the parks much in the short term. Iger’s newly negotiated term at the helm is only for two years, and one of his primary mandates from Disney’s board is to develop a successor.
One of the names being tossed around as possible heir apparent is D’Amaro. He fits the Iger mold and certainly has the charisma and credibility for the position. Hey Josh, how about you pad your résumé by working with the new/old Bob to work on some of these issues at the parks?
What was your reaction when you heard the news about Chapek’s departure and Iger’s return? What would you like to see Iger address at the parks? Realistically, what do you think he will be able to accomplish?