Disneyland, or the Disneyland Resort as it is now called, is going through yet another transformation. An Orange Coast article (California [Mis}adventure) outlines the strategic missteps Disney has taken over the years with its “second gate” designed to keep people on property and keep them there longer.
The problem is the second gate hasn’t worked yet because the very customer-centric Disney franchise was very clear that this wasn’t an expansion for the customer. Every ride they update in the Magic Kingdom is customer-focused on its launch, It’s about enhancing the experience. Disney pulled no punches about opening the second venue in Southern California as a way to make more money. Although money may be the true source of the motivation, their strategy with theme parks was always focused on customer experience. The lack of strategic focus made what was eventually built in the former Disneyland parking lot a hodgepodge of non-integrated experiences that also appeared less-than-Disney in their attention to detail and their thematic continuity. People couldn’t figure out what the California Adventure was supposed to be, and perhaps in an even more onerous strategic misstep, they placed a contemporary California adventure, inside of California, just moments away from the real, gritty streets of Hollywood, or the nostalgic Santa Monica Pier, to name just a few places Disney tried to recreate. When you are too close to the real experience, in imitation seems so much less real.
On the strategic front, Disney lost its way with California Adventure Park. The new attempt, turning back the clock, may make the Californianess of the adventure more palatable, but it won’t deal with the nagging sense that the park was built just to make more money. The article, in passing, mentions a strategy that would have eliminated the second gate and expanded the Disneyland experience directly into the new park. Initially, I don’t think that would have worked either given the lackluster experience of the new venue. But the major reason for not doing so, at least as reported in the article, was the difficulty of transporting people around. Well, that probably looks like an inexpensive problem now compared to reinventing the park several times.
Soarin’ over California, which recently made its trip East to Walt Disney World (as just “Soarin’”) is the poster child of the strategic misfires. It was an innovative ride that was well contained and well imagined. In other words, it was relatively inexpensive and it drew crowds. Although it was contemporary, it provided an experience many could not afford and an expanse of reach not possible in a few minutes to the rider elsewhere. That kind of thinking, the experience, did not seem front-and-center to Disney with California Adventure. The success of Soarin’, its long lines and repeat riders, made the rest of the park seem small and pale. The park is a good example of throwing good money after bad as they try to repair what would have been better not being built without a solid strategic foundation.
If the strategy had shifted however, to inexpensive, second-tier complements to world class attractions, then California Adventure may have gotten it right. I seriously doubt that Disney intended that, they just lost sight of customer expectations and strategic imperatives while executing, and as a lesson to all, those can be very expensive mistakes, both in terms of retrofitting failed investments, and repairing public perceptions.