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Is 2019 Disney’s “Annus Horribilis”?

In 1992, Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech to mark her 40th year on the British throne in which she used the term “annus horribilis”, Latin for horrible year, as a difficult year was drawing to a close. With all of the negative publicity the Walt Disney Company has been receiving and the lagging attendance at their parks, it begs asking the question…is 2019 Disney’s “annus horribilis”?


To consider the question, it’s important to look at the list of negative news stories, which include backlash over huge price increases for just about everything, lower than expected attendance at Disneyland and the Walt Disney World resorts in the United States, fights at Mickey’s Toon Town in Anaheim, large scale attraction and theme park construction, and what appears to be ever-increasing numbers of discounts to try to salvage sagging vacation package sales for the remainder of 2019.


First and foremost, it’s important to separate fact from fiction. Disney cannot ignore the challenges it faces and those critical of Disney have to consider the successes along the way which were victories for The Walt Disney Company this year.


Galaxy’s Edge

Without trying to be too controversial, Galaxy’s Edge is a success, attendance issues aside. People who have visited Batuu all have a positive reaction to what is an amazing new themed area at Disneyland in Anaheim and will do the same in Orlando in just over a month, regardless of your opinion of the new saga (if you even care). The issue with Galaxy’s Edge attendance is related to the annual passholder (AP) blackout and the fact that they opened the new land in the wrong order.


Disney’s mistake (if you can call it a mistake) was to assume that a resort visited primarily by APs would attract a huge number of non-local tourists to the Disneyland resort (which isn’t the normal guest pattern) instead of opening the new “Star Wars Land” at Walt Disney World which does attract more out of towners than passholders. Combine that with fear mongering about crowd sizes, increased prices, and AP blackouts, Anaheim is going to have fewer crowds until the blackouts end and passholders are allowed to return to the parks. Do not expect huge crowds in Orlando either, even with the discounts, until the holidays. Why? Opening Galaxy’s Edge just after US and UK kids go back to school and just before Canadian kids return means that families won’t be booking last minute vacations to be there for the opening of Galaxy’s Edge and real Star Wars have already been to the identical park area when it opened in Anaheim.


All of that said, the land is still not a failure. This is a long-term investment made by Disney, that can be reimagined easily (think Episodes 1-III in the early hours, Episodes IV through VI at lunch, and VII and IIX at night), items and pricing can be easily adjusted until they hit the right balance. Galaxy’s Edge is going to be an area of the park very similar to Pandora….you don’t have to know anything about Star Wars to appreciate the sights and sounds, if you’re a fan, there’s special Easter eggs for you to enjoy, and most people will buy a few pins and a plushie, leaving the Savi’s, Dok Endar’s, and the Droid Depot with virtually no line over the long run, and huge lines for Oga’s Cantina.


Negative Publicity

There has been a great deal of negative publicity for Disney in recent weeks and months, from the salaries they pay their employees, to fights in the parks, and tightening of rules around smoking, strollers, and ECVs. Will this have an impact? Yes, but that impact is minor. What is more alarming and risks greater damage is how Disney Public Relations have been responding to negative publicity. Disney PR has clearly changed from its positive and professional past to a more aggressive, less restrained approach to negative publicity which is very risky and if continued, may result in even more issues.


Walt Disney World Refurbishments

With EPCOT Future World about to be closed down for the foreseeable future to complete Project Gamma, new entrances at Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, hotel refurbishments, attractions down, and all of the ongoing construction virtually everywhere on property, it’s safe to say that there is a sizeable number of potential guests that have put-off a vacation until more of the ongoing projects are finally completed. Disney vacations are not cheap and for those put-off by all of the ongoing construction, holding off until late fall 2020 will see more open (Rise of the Resistance, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Mickey’s Runaway Railway just to name a few) before they go to Walt Disney World.


Price Increases and the Lack of Deals When People Planned Their Vacations

By far, the largest impact has to be the price increases and lack of deals available when planning family vacations in 2019. Annual Passholders are upset at their renewal costs, deals were nowhere to be found until this week (which was way too late to start offering them and with the numerous restrictions, aren’t very good), people have already spent the money they would normally use to plan a Disney vacation. The parks will be in their 2020 or 2021 plans, not 2019.


So, is 2019 annus horribilis for Disney? Not yet but if they continue on their current trajectory, it most certainly will be. Disney needs to take a few steps to put 2019 back on the proverbial Disney Railway rails or face a year that gets progressively worse as they approach December.


To start with, Disney has to repair the relationship they have with their Annual Passholders. And that can’t start with discounts annual passes at Sam’s Club locations in the US. Opening up Disneyland to APs sooner rather than later will help with the low crowds in Anaheim and coming up with ways to provide additional value for annual passes is a great place to stop.

Next, they need to recognize that their parks in Orlando are not appealing destinations for last-minute vacations while under construction and come up with better deals to attract more guests. Limiting the Disney Dining Plan on their offers and the resort hotel choices is making it less than appealing so opening it up to more people, including those with existing vacations (you can upgrade to other offers but most people do not qualify or find it not to be beneficial due to the current restrictions).


Finally, Disney needs to recognize they are no longer the only game in town that’s interesting. Universal Studios and Sea World have both taken steps this year to make them more appealing to out of town tourists with the opening of Hagrid’s and Sesame Street. Legoland is also becoming popular with those who love the movies. Pricing is starting to impact the decisions being made during the vacation planning process and for those from overseas (mainly the British), leaving Disney property to visit other theme parks and staying off-property at cheaper hotels in these areas is becoming more and more a part of their plans because of cost considerations, especially when new resorts at Disney World have less theming and look more like a Hyatt.


2019 does not have to the turning point where Disney starts on a path of decline. It doesn’t have to be their “annus horribilis”. For the turnaround to take place though, there needs to be a seismic shift from the current trajectory they seem to be committed to thus far. That said, if they can make that shift, 2021-2022 will be an amazing 2-year anniversary party!

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