“If Disney were to create a new Division of Enthusiast Affairs and give its executives a budget and expect them to make a profit, Disney would be able to please both the one-time visitor and the enthusiast.”
If you were fortunate enough to be at the celebration held at Disneyland Paris to mark the 25th anniversary of the park, you saw a grand parade of, by my count, at least 153 characters representing each land in Disneyland Paris. It was an awe-inspiring panoply of color and excitement – muted only by the fact that those 153 characters represent a small portion of the characters that Disney could put on parade.
Still, one has to be grateful for what one gets, and this vast array of characters is quite atypical. The Disney theme parks, in general, tend to not have a large variety of characters. They mostly keep the same group of characters appearing every day. While this serves the one-time visitors well, assuring they will have the opportunity to greet some of the most iconic characters, most notably Mickey Mouse, it is not optimal for the Enthusiast Market, which Disney also has but often does not service well.
Disney’s Super Fans Not Getting the Respect They Deserve
Disney has held several events within the past few years featuring very rare and exclusive characters to remedy this and get more enthusiast guests into the park more frequently. These events were Unleash the Villains, Long Lost Friends week one and two, Villains Unleashed, Rock Your Disney Side 24 Hour Event, and Disney's Photopass Day. All of these events, excluding the Long Lost Friends weeks, have had huge, indeed unmanageable, lines.
Unleash the Villains originated as part of Disney's Limited Time Magic promotion. In this promotion, something special would happen every week at Walt Disney World and Disneyland during the year of 2013. Even though Disney did not always deliver on this promise -- as some weeks nothing promotional in nature happened -- the park did hold some cool events especially for enthusiast fans.
At the Unleash the Villains event at the Hollywood Studios Park at Walt Disney World, guests arrived at the park to find huge lines of people who were left to guess what character they were in line for, as Disney cast members refused to say which lines were for what characters and there was no signage or other indication.
This led to chaos and mass hysteria when the character finally came out at each meet-and-greet location. Each location featured a villain, such as Maleficent, Evil Queen, and Jafar, who you could easily meet at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party. These easy-to-meet villains would eventually switch out with a very rare villain, such as Shan Yu, Bowler Hat Guy, and Oggie Boogie.
The more common villains came out first, which meant that the super fans who had been waiting all day would be forced to meet villains they could easily meet elsewhere in the park, and most likely had met before. Unless they stay for hours, the enthusiasts would miss out on meeting with the rare villain characters that had motivated them to come to this event in the first place.
So, quite understandably, the guests started a rebellion. They did not want to get into a fight, but they wanted to meet the rare characters. Many of these guests simply told the cast members that they had been waiting for hours and were going to wait for the rare character to show up. One their own accord, the customers basically created two lines, one for the rare characters and one for the more common characters. However, as the guests were mostly enthusiasts, there were few people, often nobody at all, in the non-rare character lines. As a result, people were just standing, so lines didn’t move and the cast members felt they had lost control and started trying to force people to meet the more common characters, but the guests were persistent.
Soon enough, some cast members started physically grabbing guests, including my brother, Matthew Prevor, who had to grab the railing and hold on as the cast member pulled his legs in an attempt to force him to leave the line where he was waiting to meet a rare character only to meet Jafar, whom he had met many times before.
Disney Fails to Understand the Mentality of the Enthusiast Customer
The root of this problem is that the Disney executives planning this event seemed to lack an understanding of what the Disney enthusiasts want. What Disney needs is a group of cast members who are in charge of enthusiast relations! They would be in charge of holding enthusiast events and making profits off the enthusiast market. If Disney were to put together this team, it could be charged with studying the enthusiast market and ascertaining what kind of events would maximize income from this customer group and what would produce the greatest satisfaction among these enthusiasts: encouraging them to renew their annual passes, stay at Disney hotels, buy food, merchandise and pay for tickets to special events. The team would also be charged with “executing with excellence,” which means being better able to predict lines and crowd sizes for different characters at events like this.
High attendance at the few enthusiast-oriented events that Disney has done, such as Unleash the Villains, Long Lost Friends Weeks, Rock Your Disney Side 24 Hour Event, and Disney's Photopass Day, proves there is a market for these types of events.
All these events had lots of enthusiasts attending. There seemed to be some learning going on, as at all events after the initial Unleash the Villains event, Disney would either announce the characters in advance or not formally promise a meet-and-greet at all.
During the Rock Your Disney Side 24 Hour Event, Disney did not formally announce where or when the meet-and-greets would take place, but had Disney researched the enthusiasts more, company executives would have realized that the times, locations, and specific character would leak. There was no possibility that this could be kept under wraps -- too many of the character-hunters have friends and family working for Disney in positions where these things become obvious.
This leaking led to huge lines at that event, including nearly a four-hour wait to meet Hades and Megera or Pain and Panic. However, the next event, Villains Unleashed, showed that there is a market for these types of events, even with an upcharge. Villains Unleashed was certainly a follow-up event to the Unleash the Villains event. This event, however, was a separately ticketed event, and it featured more characters and in more sections spread out in the park. Because Disney charged a separate fee to attend the Villains Unleashed event, this opened up the possibility of Disney generating revenue to support these events. However, since Disney does not fully understand the market for these events, there were still huge unmanageable lines for many of the characters.
Disney executives seem to think that lines can be reduced by creating more things for attendees to do, so at a character-based event, Disney tries to offer more characters, thinking it can divide attendees into more lines. What an enthusiast team would tell Disney is that it is not the number of characters, but their nature that determines where the lines go. No matter how many characters you put out, if they are characters that can be met elsewhere or regularly, the enthusiasts will still gravitate toward the few characters that offer something unique and that are difficult to meet otherwise. At this event, the characters of choice for enthusiasts were Maleficent (from the 2014 Film), Constantine (from Muppets Most Wanted), and Dr. Hamsterviel and Gantu (from Lilo and Stitch). While a few other characters had lines, none compared to those few characters.
There are only two ways to reallocate people to avoid lines: Either organize the meet-and-greets inside facilities designed to accommodate multiple meetings of the same character -- as Disney does on Main Street at the Town Square Theatre -- or make sure that each additional character is of a type that the enthusiast market would value.
In general the character hunting enthusiasts evaluate characters in four ways:
Is the character one I have never met?
Is the costume or overlay the character is wearing one that has never been seen before?
Is the backdrop or environment unique?
Is the character meeting with a group of other characters in a difficult-to-assemble combination?
If characters are not imbued with these four types of distinctiveness, the only alternative that will reduce lines is to reduce the total allowed into an event. This, of course, limits revenue, both from ticket sales and food and merchandise sales. At the Villains Unleashed event, Disney executives offered the worst of both worlds in terms of line control: It neither capped the total attendance at a level that would preclude long lines, nor did it make sure that all the characters offered something special for the enthusiast market. As a result, many guests were bitterly unhappy as they only got to see one character due to the long wait lines, and so Disney had to give out refunds and free tickets for other upcharge events.
After three failed attempts, Disney gave up on villain events featuring rare characters. Several years later, in 2016, Disney attempted to bring out some character that used to meet regularly but had since been cut and labeled the event as a special Photopass Day. Here, the characters were Mushu, the Queen of Hearts, Dopey, Foulfellow, Gideon, and Pinnochio. These characters had huge lines that were several hours long. So the cycle repeats.
Easy Solution That Will Make Profits For Disney And Satisfy Customers
If Disney were to create a new Division of Enthusiast Affairs and give its executives a budget and expect them to make a profit, Disney would be able to please both the one-time visitor and the enthusiast. The standard Disney fair would be offered and paid for as always, while the enthusiast division would generate revenue by better serving the enthusiast market. This division would regularly hold special events that would have to change regularly to keep enthusiasts coming back.
Beyond revenue, Disney has a substantial reason for paying attention to the enthusiast market. These are the people who post most on social media, maintain blogs and, in general, are great ambassadors. These are the people others turn to ask questions about the value of visiting theme parks. Flip an enthusiast and you will see an influencer – so it is well in Disney’s interest to keep this audience not just satisfied but thrilled about their Disney experiences.
Challenge to Disney
So, the questions is… Who, within the ranks of Disney executives, will take up this cause? Who will be the spear-carrier fighting for Disney to prioritize the enthusiast market? Who will fight for the enthusiasts and their interests within the company and the company’s interest in keeping enthusiasts satisfied? Who will see beyond the one-time guest?