Disney is a bit like root beer or green jello. You have to be born on American soil to like it.
The most annoying thing about Disney people is how revered they are for the “experience” they provide in their theme parks. But the Disney experience is entirely staged by them. Not an ounce of customer co-creation there. If I’m a customer puppet whose strings are drawn by Disney designers, am I much more than Pinocchio longing to become human?
If you ever attend a class from the Disney Institute – yes, they have an Institute – they’ll teach you all about their view of experience. I’ve now been there three times, invited by companies who think the Disney Institute will teach the basics of experience in the morning and I’ll show them the future of experience as co-creation in the afternoon. And then my agony starts. A Hollywood executive once described the role of the producer on a movie project as watching a director make love to the girl of your dreams and having to pretend you like it. This is the way I feel listening to Disney teach about experience.
The class itself is offered by a teacher who only asks questions with ‘right” or wrong” answers. When you answer “right”, he gives you a small Disney character to take home. The last time in Orlando, my neighbor collected four of them. He reminded me of the dolphin being fed after every trick I had seen the day before at Seaworld. You’ll learn everything at Disney has been studied for you. The sidewalks of the theme park are red because they look good on pictures. The alley veering to the right is one or two feet larger than the one veering to the left because more people naturally go right than go left. Responding to a question during a tour of the underground premises, our guide volunteered that the characters don’t talk because “Disney would lose the ability to control the quality of the customer experience in an improvised dialogue”. Imagine the risk of it all, if Mickey could respond to the little girl in pink with her balloon (by the way, Mickey is a teamster, and his union contract may not include talking).
The intensity with which Disney focuses on experience – the manufactured kind – creates the very obstacle that prevents the company from moving to co-creation of that experience. Having been anointed as experience experts by pundits, why would Disney exhibit the humility to let customers design their own experience? By and large, this phenomenon extends to the entire fast-moving consumer goods industry, where companies such as Procter & Gamble and L’Oreal have blazed the experience trail, but have become laggards on the co-creation of the consumer experience.
Well, before I write Disney’s co-creative abilities off completely, let me point to two developments that show Disney may be coming off the experience ice age after all. Last Wednesday, the Epcot Center at Walt Disney’s Disney World opened a new attraction called Sum of All Thrills which lets kids design on a computer their own roller-coaster, bobsled track or plane ride, then actually experience that ride through virtual reality. Two other attractions in other theme parks – Toy Story Mania and Cyberspace Mountain – also exhibit personalization features of the same type.
Even more importantly, Disney is revamping its stores, coached by Steve Jobs who now sits on the Disney board through the Pixar relationship. The main idea behind the renovation is not particularly co-creative in that it involves making the stores into mini-theme parks providing kids with “an experience”, as opposed to the dolls warehouse that they are today. The co-creation comes in the process of developing the new store concept. As Apple did it in the development of its own store format, Jobs has talked the management of Disney Stores into opening a pilot store in a warehouse to figure out the right interactivity between customers, store personnel and the physical merchandise and store. He’s also coached them to consider community activities in the store, rather than focus on one-on-one sale.
The European cynic in me will probably never convince himself that going on a ride of It’s a Small World After All provides an authentic global experience, but Disney’s willingness to let customers participate in its value chain is encouraging. Slowly, Sleeping Beauty may be awakening after all.