Execs keep Walt's ideas alive but adapt for marketplace

The birth of Disneyland provides not only insight into the thinking of Walt Disney, but also the starting point of a tradition that has lived on for 50 years.

The story goes something like this: Disney took his daughters, Diane and Sharon, to amusement parks after Sunday school. As his daughters enjoyed the rides, Disney “studied the boredom of other parents, and he noted the squalor of the parks — paint cracking on carousel horses, the grounds dirty and littered, the ride operators cheerless and unfriendly,” wrote Bob Thomas in “Walt Disney: An American Original.”

Disney decided there had to be a better way for families to enjoy a day out together. “He really envisioned a place where every member of the family, from all generations — from the youngest child to the oldest adult — could all enjoy the entertainment,” says Jay Rasulo, president of Disney Parks and Resorts.

As a result, Disneyland opened in 1955 in Anaheim, Calif. Disney’s goal was for Disneyland to be a place where families could escape and enjoy clean, fun rides and attractions. He created a place that included a celebration of U.S. history as well as his movies.

Today, park executives and Imagineers continue his legacy, while at the same time, cope with new market demands. Rasulo says the company strives to stay as true to Disney’s dream as possible. In designing new rides and attractions — at Disneyland and other parks around the world — developers stick to a couple of basics that Disney built into the original park.

“First, everything is fundamentally story-based — we are storytellers. We use a broad variety of tools, technology and devices to deliver stories, (and) fundamentally every ride and attraction really is a story,” Rasulo says. “That’s a pretty strong grounding for us, and we really stick to it. Second, everything we design is for every member of the family.”

Indeed, there have been no major philosophical changes through the evolution of Disneyland and its other parks and resorts. But there have been significant changes in how the Disney experience is executed, Rasulo says.

“We constantly listen to our guests. We monitor their changes in lifestyle, and we try to continue to evolve to be right on the cutting edge in meeting our guests’ needs.”

For example, it’s clear that in 1955, when Disney designed the park, he had in mind what at the time was the typical nuclear family concept. Rides and attractions were designed around the needs of a family of four or five.

The concept of family has changed dramatically over the last 50 years, particularly in the U.S. The trend is toward larger and larger groups, because people often visit Disneyland and other resorts with multiple households or extended families.

To cater to those new groups, about 18 months ago, a new initiative was launched called Magical Gatherings.

“That’s targeted to groups of eight or nine and up,” Rasulo says. “The groups can dine together. Their rooms are close together. We have special events and activities that are designed for 12 people, not just for four or five.”

Such initiatives come at a time when theme parks stand to benefit from a recent rebound in travel, analysts say. While travel to destinations like Disneyland dropped in the post-Sept. 11 economy, attendance at Disney parks and resorts has returned to normal, thanks in part to a recovering in the economy.

But the key to long-term financial success for Disneyland and other resorts is not so much tied to attendance growth but getting visitors to spend more time and money at the venues. “Theme-park attendance in the recent past hasn’t changed much,” says Mike Kupinski, analyst at A.G. Edwards. “Investing in new attractions like California Adventure and mall-like venues like Downtown Disney is what is likely to grow revenue and profit in a more significant way.”

Rasulo says the company has plans to broaden its reach geographically. Opening Disneyland Hong Kong in May is one example. The Hong Kong park will be a flagship for the Disney brand in China, which is one of the fastest-growing tourism markets in the world.

“It’s the first truly family destination in Hong Kong,” he Rasulo says. “Hong Kong last year probably had about 23 million visitors, but most of those visitors were not family visitors. The fundamental reason for that is … there simply isn’t very much for families to do … in Hong Kong. So obviously Hong Kong Disneyland is going to change that picture in a very big way.”

In keeping with Disney’s way of doing things, company officials are implementing some of the same that first park 50 years ago.

In the 1950s, Disney hosted a TV show on ABC (the original investor in Disneyland), “The Wonderful World of Disney,” which he used to promote the new attraction. Similarly, the Walt Disney Co. airs a TV show in Asia called the “Magical World of Hong Kong Disneyland.” It shows a full-length Disney feature once a month with a lead-in like Disney used to do, only this one is from Chinese superstar Jacky Cheung.

Of course, Disney’s ways offer little insight into dealing with cultural challenges in opening parks in far-flung places like Hong Kong. Rasulo isn’t worried, though. People around the world go to Disney theme parks fully expecting to have an American experience.

Analyst Dennis McAlpine says Disney has learned a lot about dealing with cultural diversity since the opening of Euro Disney in France. “They tried to import a lot of the Americanization of the park into Paris and they forgot the norms and mores of the local society,” he says. “They’ve learned from that. They’ve used a lot more locals in setting things up in Hong Kong.” McAlpine points to Disney’s use of feng shui in designing Hong Kong Disneyland as an example.

He is confident that the Mouse’s foray into Asia will be a positive move for the company’s future. “The incremental gain of adding a park in Hong Kong is greater than adding a major attraction at Disneyland or Disneyworld,” he says.

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