The announcement earlier this week that Bob Iger would return as the CEO of the Walt Disney Company, replacing Bob Chapek after only two years, shocked Hollywood, where executives and agents tried to work out what the surprise firing might mean. Disney stock soared and insiders texted reporters, “Daddy’s back.” But this Bob-against-Bob palace intrigue had an impact in Orlando, too, where Walt Disney World, like other Disney parks, has had a difficult (if lucrative) couple of years. Pandemic closures and a dearth of new rides have made WDW fans restive; more recently, vacancies at the mega-expensive Galactic Starcruiser hotel and increased downtime for complicated rides have made headlines. How are Disney Parks superfans viewing the second Iger era? To find out, I called Len Testa, co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, president of the theme-park travel site Touring Plans, and co-host of the Disney Dish podcast. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Slate: How did the people who pay the most attention to Disney Parks greet this announcement?
Len Testa: I think it was uniformly positive, both within and outside the company. For a lot of people, there’s both a sense of relief and a sense of hope. Which is kind of ironic because if you look at all the attractions that opened recently in the parks, they were launched or announced when Bob Chapek was president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. So all the stuff that’s opened recently was probably his decision when he was that president. But as a CEO, he seems to have completely forgotten about the parks.
The stuff that Imagineering has done lately has lacked the well-designed, guest-centric approach of classic Imagineering. And I’ll give you a case in point: “Harmonious,” the nighttime spectacular in EPCOT, have you seen it?
All right. There are two notable things about it. One is it uses these taco-shaped barges that sit all day in the middle of World Showcase Lagoon, and they’re these black lumps in the middle of the lagoon.
Oh yeah, we saw those. They’re ugly as hell.
Exactly. Who in Imagineering approved this? Because there’s no way that you would blot out the view of the theme park 12 hours a day for a 20-minute show at the end of the night, right? It’s horrible. The second thing about this show—which, by the way, is canceled after only running for two years, it was that poorly received—is in order to watch it successfully, in order to have the best viewing angle, there are exactly two spots in the 360 degrees of World Showcase where you can see the entire show as it’s designed. It’s bad Imagineering.
And how do you lay these kinds of specific problems at the feet of Bob Chapek? Are those decisions he signed off on?
No, I think it’s the people that he put in charge. I think right now the Imagineering leadership team does a very good job of promoting themselves on Instagram and should spend more of that time on thinking about what guests see in the park. You can quote me directly on that.
It does seem really surprising that stuff like this happened when Chapek rose through the parks.
He was the president of Parks, right! He approved Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which has its good and bad points, but overall is very good. He did Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. But once he became CEO, I think he completely forgot about the parks. As I was preparing for this interview, I was trying to think of what has he announced as CEO that was not already planned when he was president. And honest to God, Dan, I can’t think of a single thing.
What happened with Galactic Starcruiser? Has the response to that affected how Chapek was viewed?
OK, have you done Galactic Starcruiser?
No, I don’t have $4,000.
Well, it’s five thousand, so you need to bring a friend. I did it. I think it’s one of the best things Disney’s ever done. Just today I heard of a friend who was offered a 30-percent-off discount code for Galactic Starcruiser, and this is the first I’ve ever heard of that. I think they were very happy with the first year, but I think they’re starting to see some softening of demand as people start to say, “In this economy, do I want to spend $5,000 for two people for two nights on a thing, or should I go to Europe for a couple weeks?”
What are other things that mark the Chapek era in Disney Parks?
To be fair, Chapek was handed a bad deal. He came in after Iger had risen revenue, and you know how Wall Street works, you’ve got to increase revenue every quarter. With Chapek, a lot of the ways that they could traditionally raise revenue—building hotels, opening rides—those are capital-intensive things that take a long time to do. All that was left for him to raise revenue fast was to cut back on things that used to be free.
So there’s Genie+, the ride reservation system that replaced the FastPass. FastPass was free, Genie+ now costs, what, $29 a day per person, as of this week. They got rid of the free bus service between Orlando International Airport and the Disney resorts, Magical Express. And depending on how you get to the parks now, it’s anywhere from $80 to $250 round trip for a family, that’s another expense. They cut back on other perks for staying at Disney resorts, like early theme park entry.
The other thing that we’ve looked at is rides are less reliable now than they have been in the past. So a ride like Rise of the Resistance at Disney Hollywood Studios, which I think is a fantastic ride, the best ride Disney’s done in 30 years, it breaks down, on average, two hours per day every day.
Because it’s unbelievably complicated.
Right. So if you are not willing to pay for individual Lightning Lane for Rise of the Resistance, you could conceivably wait two hours in line for that ride and right before you get on, have it break down. And Disney’s response to you if you’re in the standby line and it breaks down after you’ve waited two hours is, “Oh, I’m so sorry. Better luck next time.” It’s sort of like Pascal’s wager, right? The best thing to do in this case is to spring for the $25 per person to get in that faster line for Rise of the Resistance. That’s really a perverse incentive for Disney not to fix the problem.
It seems like the arc of the parks over the last few years is that they’re becoming more and more a luxury experience for the rich, and way less accessible for everyone else. But that sounds like a hallmark of success for a Disney CEO.
That’s the thing. If you’re a Disney shareholder, I mean, Bob Chapek has been generally very positive for the parks. In August they announced a record quarter of $7.4 billion in revenue for the parks.
So do you see a Bob Iger changing anything about this? Or is he going to look at all these policies and say, “Well, at least Chapek got that right”?
I don’t think that Iger’s immediate concern is going to be anything to do with the parks. I think it’s going to be in repairing relationships and streaming. I absolutely expect some people who have left the parks’ sphere, or retired, because they didn’t like Chapek, to come back in six months.
If Bob Iger makes a change as a concession to fans, it’s not going to impact revenue. The most popular thing he could do, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he did it, is to either eliminate or drastically scale back the park reservation system. Everything else, I really think his first six months are just going to be focused on streaming and repairing relationships in Hollywood.
Is there some bigger project coming soon that Iger can claim as his own, that would dramatically change the way superfans feel about the parks experience?
There’s literally nothing in the pipeline right now. I mean, there’s Tiana’s Bayou Adventure replacing Splash Mountain, but that’s not a new attraction.
Disneyland’s getting a version of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The interesting thing for me is, does Bob Iger announce in the next two years Disney World’s response to Universal Orlando’s Epic Universe? Or does he leave that for the next CEO? There’s a small but not zero chance that it flops—I don’t think it will. So do we put something in the pipeline now to address this, or do we wait until it opens and then see what we need to do? And I think he’s going to lean toward the latter, especially since he won’t be around for it. It would not shock me to see no major announcements in the parks under Bob Iger’s second reign.