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Commentary: The Chapek-era wasn’t the best of times for the Disneyland Resort

Bob Iger, left, and Bob Chapek
Bob Iger, left, and Bob Chapek in Disneyland’s Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Iger has returned to lead the Walt Disney Co. after the sudden and unexpected ouster of Chapek.
(Business Wire)

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, stationed here in Anaheim’s Disneyland Park and across the country at Walt Disney World’s Hollywood Studios, remains the most ambitious piece of theme park real estate ever envisioned. Galaxy’s Edge was designed as a place to play, where upon walking under its arches we could take on a new role, encounter countless characters, enjoy multiple shows and, most importantly, build a reputation. Be it a scoundrel, a member of the Rebellion or the follower of a fascist regime, Galaxy’s Edge offered the promise of role play.

And months before it opened, this was the narrative from the Walt Disney Co. and Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive department of the company responsible for theme park experiences, where Disney designers often talked about how a bounty hunter may tap you on the shoulder in the land’s cantina. There are bounty hunters in Galaxy’s Edge today, but they are largely photo opportunities, the chance to fleetingly see Mando and the so-called Baby Yoda or Boba Fett. These appearances are popular, as is seeing Mickey Mouse walk down Main Street, U.S.A. They give Galaxy’s Edge a sense of character and life, but fall short of the participatory adventure that was promised.

For Disney theme park fans, there was an indication when the land opened here in SoCal in the summer of 2019 that it may never fully realize its potential. That came direct from Bob Chapek, the long-standing but embattled Disney executive who Sunday evening was replaced by his predecessor, Bob Iger. There would be no need for the much-hyped actors, said Chapek in a 2019 interview, because each park employee — cast member, in Disney verbiage — would have a story to tell. This was a misjudgment, as no staffer dealing often with guests has the time or ability to constantly improvise. Galaxy’s Edge remains a triumph of experiential design, but it risks going down as an example of a theme park arena simply being too progressive for the corporate overlords who manage it.

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Walt Disney Co. ousted Bob Chapek and brought back Bob Iger to run the Burbank-based company, sending shockwaves through the industry.

Whether any of this will change under Iger’s second tenure as Walt Disney Co. chief remains to be seen, and is probably unlikely — Iger is signed on for only two years, and Galaxy’s Edge, with its showcase attraction Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance now operational, is surely not a priority. But more than its streaming services, movies or television series, the Walt Disney Co. matters because of its theme parks, and it is at institutions such as Disneyland and Walt Disney World that we can experience life inside a narrative-driven fantasy world that’s disassociated from the cacophony of daily life. We can, at long last, enter a place that puts us at ease. When it works.

Disneyland is a Southern California palace, a place as sacred as Griffith Park or Dodger Stadium. Sometimes derided as fake spaces, theme parks are no less real than the buildings that dot our city, in large part because they are storytelling devices. They are places we go to see our popular myths reflected back to us, allowing us to live inside them and define a role for ourselves. Over the decades, a place such as Disneyland has offered ideas about everything from urban planning to corporate synergy to how we play. The latter is key, as it empowers theme parks to become spaces that help us understand the stories that define our culture rather than simply provide an escape from it.

Disneyland endures no matter who is at the helm of the Walt Disney Co. in large part because of these ideals. But it also shifts with the times. And in recent years, especially in the months since it reopened after an extended, pandemic-forced closure, the tone of a visit to the Disneyland Resort had changed. One hopes that Iger and his new reorganized regime will take a close look at the current state of the parks and begin a reevaluation process. While a reservation system is surely here to stay, regulations that forbid park-hopping until 1 p.m. should be dropped, and a number of other operational choices can create headaches.

Prices have continued to go up, on everything from tickets to line-skipping smartphone app features such as Genie+, but the overall experience of a visit to the resort hasn’t risen with them. When Galaxy’s Edge was launched without some of its intended features, it foretold this current era of the Disney parks, one in which live entertainment offerings would be gradually trimmed and guests would soon be hit with an abundance of new planning tools, many of which come at a cost, to enjoy a day at Disneyland.

Disney’s biennial convention rolled out a few new attractions and some in the more distant future as the company’s big centennial looms.

While Disneyland guests have likely become used to a bit of sticker shock when it comes to theme park admittance — a one-day, two-park ticket during the holiday season can cost as much as $244 — issues arise when a ticket itself isn’t enough to have a relatively seamless Disney theme park experience. On Wednesday, Nov. 23, Genie+, which is designed to give guests quicker access to a number of attractions, will cost an extra $30 per person. And to guarantee a seat on the show-stopping Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, you’ll have to spend an extra $25 for an individual Lightning Lane. That’s an extra $55 per person, costs that guests are hit with after they walk through the turnstile.

Former Imagineers who worked under the Chapek regime spoke favorably of his retail acumen. Before leading the parks, Chapek ran Disney Consumer Products, and many speculated that Chapek was brought to the parks division with the directive to find ways to cut costs and raise revenue, pointing to Imagineering regime changes, buyouts, the retirements of a number of veteran creatives and a reimagining of what would become Avengers Campus.

But if so, the course correction has arguably swung too much in one direction. Once walking through the gates at Disneyland, one feels the immediate pull of retail up-sells. This may work well for a Target, but for a cultural institution such as Disneyland it saddles the day with sudden added planning and added costs. And mismanagement, such as a 2019 decision to turn the respite that is the Main Street Cinema into a gift shop.

Outsiders often compare newer lands such as Avengers Campus to riskier bets such as Galaxy’s Edge,noting that the Marvel-themed space lacks the large-scale theming and the promise of a dream-big attraction such as Rise of the Resistance. But it’s unfair to do so without access to Disney pocketbooks (those who worked on the project note that Avengers Campus was once pitched to Iger as a New York-themed land that would be held off-site in real estate earmarked for parking, but its budget was gradually reduced over the years).

Disney park leaders, of course, made bad, greed-focused decisions before Chapek took over the division in 2015. See the miscalculation that was the 2013 striking of the ornate and peaceful Court of Angels in New Orleans Square from everyday guests and turning it into a photo op for the rich when it became the entrance to the private Club 33. Yet projects launched under the Chapek-era telegraph an overall approach to Disney parks that view them as little more than Disney+ brand deposits.

The remake of Paradise Pier into Pixar Pier is largely a wash, as Paradise Pier and its amusement trappings were already an anomaly for a Disney theme park, but it was still distressing to see every inch of the area plastered with garish, static Pixar designs. “We’re putting in more Disney, more Pixar, more Marvel and more ‘Star Wars’ into our parks,” Chapek said at the 2019 D23 Expo. “Every live show and spectacular should bring your favorite stories to life in thrilling ways.”

“Avatar!” “Star Wars!” Marvel! As Disney theme parks shift focus to known franchises and brands — “IP” or intellectual property in Hollywood speak — are we losing the theme in our theme parks?

Maybe. There’s a difference between a Galaxy’s Edge and simply dotting a land with familiar art, recognizable characters and repackaged scenes from films. Galaxy’s Edge is built to surprise; the latter are built on a familiarity loop, one in which we are not given the chance to create our own narrative and are simply nodding at remembering a scene from something else.

This is why so many fans were disappointed at the theme park announcements out of this year’s D23 Expo. An Avengers ride will in fact make its way to Avengers Campus, although details and timelines remain scant, and concept art of the attraction has shifted over the years, distressingly showing a ride vehicle that now looks much more common than prior images. But take the makeover of a dining area of Disney California Adventure into a nod to San Fransokyo from the “Big Hero 6” films and series: It’s an unnecessary spend, remaking a relatively quiet slice of the park into another place for character meet-and-greets and merchandise kiosks.

It’s also reflective of a top-down approach that views theme park design as a transactional rather than a transformational experience, one where the Disney parks look like the physical embodiment of the Disney+ home screen. And a place where fans will pay not just for access, but for different tiers of access — Genie+ or no Genie+, ad-free or ads.

A trip to Disneyland today reminds me a bit of booting up a free-to-play mobile game. I can get by playing only for a little bit before I’m constantly prodded to spend more money, be it for Genie+, an individual Lightning Lane or even a Magic Band+, a wristband that starts at about $35 and is required to play a new walk-around video game in Galaxy’s Edge.

And it’s debatable if there’s even a valuable return on such accouterments. I’ve paid regularly for Genie+, and still stood in lines that could reach up to 30 or 40 minutes. That doesn’t create value so much as frustration.

It’s exhausting, and we haven’t even touched on age-old complaints like strollers.

‘Avatar’ has been derided as the cinematic equivalent of a theme park. But that’s exactly why fans stuck around so long for sequel ‘The Way of Water.’


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