Saving Disney's World

Turnstiles click both ways. I found that out the hard way this past Easter Sunday as a late-afternoon visit to Disney-MGM Studios in Florida found the Munarriz family in salmon mode. We were one of the few clans heading upstream -- into the park -- as hordes were funneling out. As a guest, I relish these contrarian times. We walked right on to the amazing Tower of Terror attraction and had the shortest of waits at the nearby Rock & Roller Coaster.

The tourist in me was grinning ear to ear. The shareholder in me was left wondering how much money was left on the table by all of these vacationers ducking out before dinner. At Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) newest gated park in Florida, Animal Kingdom, dinner really isn't even much of an option as the park's lack of rides, shade, and attractions has folks clearing out just after lunch.

Disney's other two parks are faring significantly better. Magic Kingdom, with far more rides than the two Florida theme parks that have opened during CEO Michael Eisner's tenure combined (though less than it had a dozen years ago), has always been the area's top draw. It was the addition of the white-knuckled Mission: Space thrill ride that saw EPCOT grow its attendance last year. The other parks weren't as fortunate.

Sticky Mickey
Yesterday marked Animal Kingdom's sixth birthday. It should have been perched on a throne last night, blowing out those six candles with lungs full of air and a heart full of panache, but instead it stuck to its early bedtime, closing at 5 p.m.

This may not be the best forum for a more brutal critique of that park's shortcomings. You can find that here. In a nutshell, attendance has fallen or flat-lined every single year in the young park's history, so we know what the public thinks of the place. It's easy to see why this park's poor planning has made it hard to live up to its huge potential. In an area where the weather is rarely forgiving and afternoon thunderstorms can run fierce, there is only one enclosed ride, and it is not one for families. In a park that is begging for air-conditioned comfort to help park explorers unwind and recharge, there isn't a single table-service restaurant indoors.

Where's the stickiness -- the stuff that keeps people coming back? How can an entertainment company mistake sandpaper for flypaper? Off in the park's manicured horizon, Disney is erecting Expedition Everest, a thrill ride that may very well kick-start -- aw, heck, let me go out on a faux tree limb and say that it will kick-start -- this park out of its 9-to-5 rut. Yet it won't be open until the end of next year at the earliest. Animal Kingdom needed this kind of marquee addition yesterday. If in that time the park doesn't add a few more family attractions and a posh safari-side eatery, my 10-year-old son should be able to whip Eisner handily in a game of Roller Coaster Tycoon.

The moral of the story
Disney calls its park employees cast members. Why? I'm told it's because Disney's emphasis on putting on a good show for its paying guests extends to its personnel training, but I know better. They are called cast members because the company's directors keep yelling "Cut!" all the time.

Investors love manufacturing companies that can shave costs. If Dell Computer (Nasdaq: DELL  ) can trim a few basis points off a new line of personal computers without sacrificing quality, bonus. If you want to build my McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) Happy Meal toy in Taiwan or outsource your call center to India, my patriotic heart may skip a beat but there's a good chance I won't notice.

But scaling back on in-park entertainment, trimming away the operating hours, or closing attractions seasonally isn't as transparent. When done while still hiking admission prices, it is heinous to me as a park guest and hazardous to me as an investor.

Last month, the Orlando Sentinel took a building inspector, a horticulturist, and a park regular on a tour of the Magic Kingdom to look for signs of negligence. From poorly pruned junipers to rusted awnings to mildew-infested water rides, the report (free registration required) wasn't pretty. Disney refuted the claims, but like a busted mad teacup, there's no way to spin this. Either the cost cuts are glaringly obvious or the lack of motivation speaks volumes about the lack of leadership respect.

Whet paint
It's never easy to live up to high standards, especially when the expectations might very well be irrational. However, the perception is out there. Word is that Disney and quality broke up -- something having to do with irreconcilable differences -- and that's why no one is flocking to Disney animated features at the multiplex and Disney Stores are being shuttered.

Did I lose you? See, Disney is a fashionable brand -- no different from Nike's (NYSE: NKE  ) signature Swoosh during good times -- that has been relegated to Members Only jacket and Vidal Sassoon denim status because it was cheapened after a series of direct-to-video clunkers and budget-minded park moves.

When all you do is aim for the bunt single, folks forget that you once used to swing for the fences. Slapping a triceratops head on Dumbo and calling it Triceratops Spin? Dragging the coinless cesspool for ABC's Are You Hot? series? Diluting an animated classic for the sake of a hurried, unwatchable sequel? These seemed like harmless, low-cost, low-risk moves, yet they all have proven to be far more expensive and risky than Disney bargained for. Setting the bar of quality and integrity so low dulled audience expectations and set a subpar level of performance as acceptable.

For better or worse, that's Disney's curse these days. Its community's eyeballs are dilated. But it all starts at its flagship resort park business. The company can release a dozen Pirates of the Caribbean blockbusters or a dozen Alamo duds. It would all wash by the wayside by purists and be replaced by seethed venom when they walk past a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction that has been closed for years.

It never should have come to this. Then again, the moment you start wondering how much sawdust you can cram into the sausage casings, you're as good as toast if you want to play the quality game.

Losing Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation Pixar (Nasdaq: PIXR  ) was bad. Watching ABC sink from first to fourth was horrible. Yet the key to Disney's brand rejuvenation -- and Eisner's one shot at public redemption -- lies in the reinvigoration of its theme parks. Make the park guests happy and the shareholders will follow. Make the traditionalists happy and they will form a wall of defense the next time dissident pension funds come calling. Even if the motivation is selfish, it serves the greater theme that the road to long-term gains is paved with short-term expenditures. Give the Mouse his groove back and the dance will follow.

Disney's starting to do this at its sluggish California Adventure in Disneyland. Finally. It would have been better to see Disney go for original E-ticket attractions, but at least they are porting over the right ones. EPCOT is also being upgraded. The Disney Decade that slipped into the Disney Decadence appears to be turning for the better at these two parks, but the bar needs to be raised higher systemwide, and it needs to be done vocally.

Anyone who has a passion for Disney's parks can grab a cocktail napkin and jot down dozens of viable ways to improve the theme parks, restore the company's integrity, and refocus the perception of quality. As a matter of fact, why don't you do just that in our active Disney discussion board?

It's the path to righteousness. It's the path to redemption. Reputations, like turnstiles, click both ways.

Rick Aristotle Munarriz has a second home just a couple of miles from the Animal Kingdom entrance. He thinks it would be bad show if Disney sent the wild beasts -- and wildebeests -- his way for payback. He owns shares in Disney and Pixar. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.


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