Disney heir apparent oversaw parks' success

Tom Staggs, Disney's new COO, implemented Cars Land, which made California Adventure a success

When Tom Staggs took the reins of Walt Disney Co.'s parks division in 2010, California Adventure was a mess, Cars Land was still a dream and Shanghai Disneyland had not broken ground.

Five years later, as he steps up the Disney ladder to become chief operating officer and heir apparent to current CEO Robert Iger, Staggs can take credit for overseeing the opening of a massively popular Cars Land attraction and an impressive rise in Disney parks attendance.

Disney analysts say that although Staggs has not initiated many of the company's latest expansions and attractions, he executed the ideas with his skills as a strong manager and a financial whiz.

"No one can deny that he's been integral in the parks' success," said Stephen Unger, a veteran executive recruiter who has worked alongside Staggs in a nonprofit group to promote film. "Notwithstanding a measles outbreak, he's had a great ride."

Staggs was named chief operating officer of the Walt Disney Co. on Thursday. He will retain his role as head of parks and resorts until a successor can be named.

Since Staggs took over as head of Disney's parks division, attendance at the five Disney resorts has grown by an estimated 10%, according to an study by AECOM, a Los Angeles engineering company.

At the same time, Disney has overhauled and expanded the floundering Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim and broken ground on the nearly $5-billion Shanghai Disneyland.

"He delivered Cars Land to completion without it falling apart, which can happen," said Robert Niles, a Disney expert and founder of Themeparkinsider.com. "Things can look good on paper but they don't always live up to the expectations."

Disney's parks division is a huge empire, with an estimated 132 million people visiting Disney resorts each year — more than the total visitors to all Universal Studios and Six Flags and Merlin Entertainment parks combined.

Among theme park fans, Staggs is known as a corporate insider, not a hands-on leader at the parks.

"He may be pulling all the strings, for all I know, but he doesn't have a public face in the same way the previous theme park leaders have," said David Koenig, an author of several books about Disney.

In Southern California, Staggs' biggest challenge was to breathe new life into Disney California Adventure, a $1-billion park that failed to generate the excitement of its sister park Disneyland when it opened in 2001.

An overhaul of the park was initiated by Staggs' predecessor, Jay Rasulo — now serving as Disney's chief financial officer.

But Staggs executed the $1.1-billion overhaul, including the opening of Cars Land, an expansion that pays tribute to America's love of the automobile.

"We knew that California Adventure didn't measure up to what we knew it could be and should be," Staggs said in 2012 during a preview tour of the expansion. "So we set out to change that."

The expansion has been a financial success. Attendance grew by nearly 10% at California Adventure in 2013 — growing faster than the 1.5% increase at Disneyland, according to an estimate by AECOM.

Staggs also oversaw the launch of the MagicBand a radio frequency identification bracelet that functions as a digital wallet, room key and FastPass voucher. It has been offered only at the Orlando park but is likely to expand to Disneyland soon.

During Disney's most recent earnings report, Iger attributed a boost in spending at the Orlando park to the MagicBand bracelet.

"What this adds up to is our ability to manage more people at a time," Iger said.

In the future, Disney will be focused on expanding in China, a country with a burgeoning middle class that is ready to spend on leisure activities.

Iger and Staggs recently announced that Disney was investing an extra $800 million to expand Shanghai Disneyland and push the opening date from December 2015 to the spring of 2016.

"The expansion underscores the tremendous opportunity we see in Shanghai and demonstrates our long-term commitment to and confidence in China," Staggs said.

In the U.S., analysts say Disney needs to refresh its domestic parks, incorporating characters and themes from the hugely popular intellectual Disney-owned properties such as "Star Wars" and Marvel Comics.

"The lifeblood of this industry is repeat visitation," theme park consultant Dennis Speigel said.

Staggs may not initiate new attractions, Speigel said, but "he will keep the balloon on the ground when the creative types try to take over. He will hold on to the purse strings."

While he does, Disney will be seeking a successor to run the parks. Company officials declined to say when a successor will be named, or to speculate on who will take over.

But industry experts say a likely candidate is George Kalogridis, a 43-year Disney veteran and president of the Disney resort in Orlando.

"If I were to put my money on anyone, it would be George," Niles said.

hugo.martin@latimes.com

 

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