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  • William Prevor

What is going on with character integrity? (Magic Spoilers)

Before you continue reading, I would like to give you a final warning: MAGIC SPOILERS AHEAD! Please do not look past the picture below unless you are ok with having some magic spoiled.

Disney executives often face a test: Are they willing to pay the price necessary to sustain the magic that defines the Disney experience, or do they take a risk and possibly break the magical experience in order to economize or launch a new event?

For most of its history, Disney has prioritized preserving the magic for its guests. This means, for example, making sure that a guest will never see Minnie Mouse in two different locations at the same time. In fact, you will never see a schedule with one character in two places at the same time. This is why Walt Disney World, for example, will never publish a schedule showing which characters are at which hotels during Christmas time. To do so would spoil the magic by revealing that the same characters may possibly be appearing in multiple hotel lobbies simultaneously.

Interestingly, a character’s autograph remains consistent everywhere – resorts, cruise line, etc. Disney executives have also, up until recently, been very good at keeping characters facial and body appearances very consistent. In other words, if a character gets a new look, it is consistently applied throughout a given Disney resort.

However, in the last few years, I have seen and heard of many gaffes. The first of which took place three years ago at the Easter Monday Brunch at Inventions Restaurant in the Disneyland Hotel at Disneyland Paris. Rabbit from Winnie the Pooh was in attendance at this brunch. Yet, as I was enjoying the brunch with friends and family, I looked out the window and saw Minnie's Spring Train rolling by, and guess who I saw on the train? Rabbit! I then looked back into the brunch room to see Rabbit standing there greeting a small child. This was the first time I would ever have an experience like this and considering how often I go to Disney, management overall does a pretty good job. However, this was just horrible and so very predictable. I knew, and so did Disney management, that Rabbit was going to be at this brunch several months beforehand. Disney should have known that the Spring Train would pass by during the brunch within view of the people in the restaurant. They could have at least timed the sets so that any characters who were on the Spring Train where not out when it passed.

I soon learned that that was only the beginning. During the 2015 Halloween season at Disneyland Paris, during Minnie Mouse's meet and greet in the park, somehow two separate Minnies showed up at the same time! Now seeing the same character out of a window is one thing, but having them appear right next to each other is quite a jarring experience, for a character fan and especially for a child. I have no reason to think this was anything other than an honest mistake by the cast members, but there needs to be someone at the character exit door before a character walks out who approves that they may go out into public view.

It is one thing to have operational issues. It is another, entirely, for executives to make decisions that consciously decide to spoil the magic.

When Happy debuted his new look at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party that same year, I was very excited and happy (pun absolutely intended!) with the new look. However, I was quite disturbed when I saw that in Mickey's Once Upon a Christmas Time Parade, Happy still had his old look. Now, doubtless, there is a very good business explanation for this. Perhaps they only had room in the budget for enough costumes for one continuous meet and greet. So they put his new look at the meet and greet and did not change it in the parade.

However, consider this very likely scenario: A family with small children, who still very much believe in these characters, wait a long time to meet the Seven Dwarfs. They have a magical experience meeting all Seven Dwarfs in their holiday finest. Then they go to watch the parade and from a small distance they see the Seven Dwarfs coming down the parade route. The kids then get excited hoping that the Seven Dwarfs remember them from the meet and greet. When the Seven Dwarfs pass the family along the parade route, the children start screaming the names of the dwarfs -- they practiced very hard before the trip to learn all their names -- and Happy runs over and gives them a big hug. But there is a look of confusion on the faces of the children, as they do not recognize this dwarf. After the parade is over, they ask their parents “who was that dwarf that just hugged us?” The kids look at the picture they took with all seven dwarfs and compare it with the picture that their parents took of them getting a hug during the parade. They try finding him in the picture of all seven, but he is not there! All night they keep bothering their parents about it, so the parents ask the cast member at the Seven Dwarfs meet and greet which dwarf hugged them earlier. The cast member tells the parents that it is Happy. Then the kids look at the picture and look at Happy standing right in front of them. They ask their parents why Happy looks so different. The parents try to explain by saying that he changed his hair for the parade, but then they point out that his face looks completely different. The parents give up and tell their kids that they are actually people in costumes and they were wearing two different costumes of the same character. The children then start to cry. For this family, for these children, their vacation ended with the magic being ruined for them.

Obviously there are many choices Disney executives could have made: Wait to launch Happy's new look until they have enough costumes to make it consistent throughout the resort. Alternatively, they could have cut the Seven Dwarfs from the parade, or have Happy leave the meet and greet during the parade so that they can use his costume in the parade.

The significant thing here, though, is that the Disney executives feel they have an option. They believe that one option on the table is to accept magic-destroying inconsistencies. It is as if they have forgotten that this is a company all about storytelling and stories must be consistent.

That said, in 2016, the Christmas parade problem was actually solved. Although Happy, to this day, has his old look in Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. However, now this problem has spread on a much larger scale. As you may know, recently Mickey and Minnie received new looks. As of this writing, they have only put the new looks on the Disney Cruise Line, in the Disneyland Resort, Hong Kong Disneyland Resort, Aulani, and Shanghai Disneyland Resort. Simultaneously, however, Mickey appears in his new articulated head look (with which he can move his mouth and blink) in Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland, Disneyland Resort, and Walt Disney World. Now I know what you might be thinking: "the articulated head looks have always looked different, just look at Donald!" That may be true, but Walt Disney World is not even consistent with the articulated heads as Mickey meets everyday in Magic Kingdom with his old articulated head.

Now imagine a child meeting Mickey Mouse and then going to see him in the castle show, where he looks completely different! Then after that, heading to the parade or a street party, where Mickey again looks completely different than he looked every other time the child has seen him today. Then the child will start asking questions, questions that parents most times just don't know how to respond to without ruining the magic. In all honesty, what does Disney expect them to say, "Mickey frequently gets plastic surgery on his face?"

Again, one can imagine a very good business reason to have Mickey in his new look during Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire at Magic Kingdom. These articulated heads are very expensive and it would cost money to purchase a new articulated head in the old model when creating a new show. Yet this is a very short term perspective. It places no value on having children feel connected to Mickey. Walt Disney World was obviously not yet ready to launch the new look everywhere and, rather than wait, executives decided to just proceed to use his new look in the castle show with the hope that guests didn’t notice. But they did notice. This problem has extended with Mickey and Minnie's new looks being featured in Mickey's Once Upon a Christmastime Parade, Mickey's Most Merriest Celebration, and Let the Magic Begin.

There are many ways Disney could have avoided all of the issues that I have mentioned. They could have designed Mickey and Minnie's costumes in the show so that their hats/head pieces could be easily put on and taken off. This would have allowed them to use the articulated heads from Dream Along with Mickey, the former show on the castle, and just put the hats on in a similar way to Goofy in both Dream Along with Mickey and Mickey's Royal Friendship Faire. Or executives could have decided they would, for the first few months of the show, not include articulated heads. Disney has purchased old style Mickey and Minnie heads for when they cannot use the articulated heads due to technical difficulties or weather. Alternatively, Disney executives could have felt that the articulated heads are important and should be part of the show, in which case they could have Mickey and Minnie not wear hats or head pieces for the first few months. They could just use their articulated heads from Dream Along with Mickey or press meet and greets, and then add the hats and head pieces later. I can all but guarantee this would increase attendance form hardcore character fans who want to see Mickey and Minnie in their new looks and hat/headpieces.

On December 1, 2016, we were visiting Magic Kingdom and saw Winnie the Pooh and Tigger walking to their meet and greet. I figured I would take a few pictures as they walked to their spots, and as I got closer to Pooh I noticed that he was in his old look!

I had to do a double take as I did not think it was possible since his new look has been around for several years now. At first I thought that for some reason they still had the old look backstage and accidentally put on the wrong costume. However upon further inspection, you will see that they intentionally put the new feet on the old body and old head! Now this could have been because of an honest mistake however, I question why they did not dispose of the old look costumes or put them in storage. When Winnie the Pooh switched out after his 20 minute set, Pooh was back, but in his new look! Then they switched out again, and Pooh was back in his old look! This is a text book case of inconsistency.

This situation is a major flaw that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Attention to detail is at the heart of this task. Disney executives must pay closer attention to making sure that if a resort launches a new character look, it must be EVERYWHERE across the resort on the SAME day (shows, parades, meets, character dining, etc.), and steps must be taken to ensure that the old look is stored where there can never be confusion. Character integrity must always take priority to ensure healthy brand management which will increase profit long term. One wonders what is driving these decisions. I fear that Disney executives are looking at short term metrics which might impact things like an annual bonus or stock option grant.

In another blog post, Was Discontinuing Disney Infinity A Mistake?, I argued that accounting procedures were not allowing the value of having children playing with Disney characters to be properly recognized. In today’s piece, we see a related problem: The long term value of story, character, and brand integrity which will rebound to the movie, TV and other Disney divisions, is not recognized in such a way that the park division thinks it worth spending money or forgoing revenue to make sure these values are sustained.

Thank you for reading this and keep reading 360 Degrees of Disney for posts like this and more.

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