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The disruption of Disney

The disruption of Disney

I believe that Disney is one of the smartest, most customer-centric corporate organisations in the world…but this paragon of service might well be under threat.

It’s down to disruptive technology! Disney could be heading for its own 'Kodak moment'!
It’s down to disruptive technology! Disney could be heading for its own 'Kodak moment'!


I’ve been privileged to spend the Christmas period on an extended visit to the USA, specifically on the east coast with an extended visit to the Orlando-centred Theme parks, including both Disney World and Universal Studios.

I believe that Disney is one of the smartest, most customer-centric corporate organisations in the world. Its investment in the customer experience is total and it positively exudes a culture requiring “Cast Members", in the Disney vernacular, to have totally bought into the spirit of the Magic Kingdom.

"Welcome Your Majesty!", I hear a pretzel-selling street vendor exclaim sincerely to an eight year-old dressed in a “Princess Jasmine” costume on one of the crowed thoroughfares. No hint of cynic or huckster here.... just a very clearly shared vision of the young patron having a fantastic life-experience from her visit. Along with clean toilets, perfectly manicured grounds, no litter and vibrant scenery that is invisibly transformed for the latest relevant celebration on a regular basis… the Disney patron-centric ethos is unsurpassed by any business I’ve seen.

So it was with some significant surprise I concluded that this paragon of service might well be under threat – if not of extinction, at least of falling back into the pack of theme parks the world over.

"Why?"...

It's down to disruptive technology! Disney could be heading for its own “Kodak moment”!

Let's back up and examine the environment that propagates the risk of such a fall:

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  • A long standing incumbent with substantial capital investment in physical infrastructure... check.
  • … and a growing target market of digital natives who have an entirely new attitude to what constitutes "entertainment".
  • A mature business model with a clearly understood channel to market, and a long history of successful delivery to its traditional customer base... check.
  • A reluctance to change its traditional offering - to "disrupt itself" due to the risk of alienating its historic clients... check!

... the signs are beginning to appear.

I know that when my wife goes to Disneyland she must, must, must travel on that little boat through “It’s a Small World” – regardless of the resulting jingle bouncing around inside one’s head for days afterward. Why? Because a key part of the experience for her is the nostalgia of reliving experiences she first had as a child herself. If the Park changes too rapidly or too much this very important rekindling of past experiences is lost.

Disney’s leverage of its fantastic movie franchise into rides at the Park is a long-standing hit. The synergies from theming merchandise, live rides and video creates a virtuous cycle of experience and familiarity that has proved to be a goldmine over decades.

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When competition for a theme park comes from a cellphone app and a 10-dollar piece of folded cardboard, you know you’ve got to rethink!


The new competition

But now digital natives bring their fast-degrading enthusiasm to the Disney experience. It wasn’t that my teenagers weren’t captivated by the environment and culture, and they still managed to use up a “five-day pass” – going hard long after I was suffering a substantial case of “Disney Fatigue”, but the engagement with the “fantasy” was minimal, and extended in some cases to technical critiques of the rides that I would never ever have seen in earlier cohorts of participants.

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What was of most concern, for Disney, was the blasé attitude toward the imaginative experience. Highly dated animatronics; clunky, slow physical rides and video simulators with low resolution screens all generated sub-optimal attention from this experience-saturated generation.

When competition for a theme park comes from a cellphone app and a 10-dollar piece of folded cardboard, you know you’ve got to rethink!

In some ways, Disney is leading the charge in technological innovation. Their use of personal RFID tags to manage both queue times and preferential entries to rides is certainly world-leading, and there is substantial use of the now ubiquitous cell phone app to inform customers of ride time waits and event schedules…. All good stuff. However, the level of engagement required to have a patron willingly stand in a queue for up to hours at a time needs to be very strong.

Owen McCall wrote an excellent article on the engagement generated by a couple of the new rides at the Disney competitor Universal Studios’ “Harry Potter World”. Having also attended this park over the period, I suspect that Owen is onto an important point, and providing both a pointer to the solution for Disney, and a useful lesson to us in the wider business community.

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IMHO Universal is nowhere near Disney for customer service. You can check Trip Advisor or others for a range of opinions, but having serving staff lurking at our table to try to move us on to get more patrons in serves as validation enough for me.

However - the Harry Potter World rides utilise a concept I’ve heard described as “blended reality”. That is, a single experience incorporating animatronics, physical simulation, virtual reality and what has been called '4G' technology, which is the judicious application of heat, water or other physical inputs into the ride.

The rides Owen described (and I tried) certainly engaged that digital native audience, and have the added advantage of being relatively easy to modify for new “adventures” in the future.

So - there appears to be two lessons for the rest of us from this ….

Firstly – nobody is immune to being “disrupted”, and the safer you might seem to be, the more precarious you probably are….

Secondly – the solution to many issues relating to technology are often found at the intersection or with the amalgamation of currently available technologies. Put simply…. look for answers at the edges and the intersections! (…and look out for Blended Reality… coming to a Theme Park near you!)

Vaughan Robertson
Vaughan Robertson


Vaughan Robertson is a self-confessed futurist and Group Manager – Technology Strategy for Beca.

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Tags startupsinnovationchange managementmillennialsbecaVaughan RobertsonkodakdisruptionOwen McCallIoTfuturistdigitaltransformation

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