Lots of companies are good at bludgeoning you with the necessity of their products (posted from my iPhone). But only Disney can take the most bizarre niche market opportunities and then sell the heck out of it to a captive audience. Is the Mouse House some kind of marketing Rain Main, with unexplainable abilities? Or is it Tom Cruising its way to a quick buck?
It seems to have exploded in the last 15 years. Weird stuff that no sane person would ever think worthy of selling in a theme park. But not only did Disney sell it, they figured out a way to make it pervasive, so much that many of these things are not only part of the normal Disney experience, but even the competitors are copying them.
And it all began with…
1. Pin Trading
As collectible markets go, little custom pins do not seem all that lucrative. Pins serve no practical purpose. They are decorative — even gaudy — and almost assuredly overpriced. You buy it for the design, and for their function as a small memento of your vacation, and to assuage that strange human desire to “collect them all.”
Yet somehow Disney took this little keepsake and rocketed it into mainstream tourist must-have. They did it with something called a lanyard.
“Lanyard” was not even in my vocabulary in the late 90s, maybe because I wasn’t going to a lot of sales conferences at that stage of my career. The first time I saw one, I thought it was a camera strap. (kids, a “camera strap” is a lanyard that used to carry an expensive and bulky photo-taking piece of equipment during the 40 years the Jews were wandering in the wilderness). Disney started tacking these collectible pins to these straps and allowing Cast Members and guests alike to wear them around their neck for display, like Flava Flav, only without any useful time management devices.
With the pins now fully on display, they next set up entire tents where guests could interact and trade them. A constitutional amendment was enacted, requiring Cast Members to perform any trade asked of them, setting the civil rights movement back several generations.
Disney started offering “limited” editions of some pins, and suddenly the commonplace art of buying crap at a theme park turned into some sort of Mel Brooks mad-cap adventure, with guests competing for the select few of each new design, which seem to get introduced every 2.6 seconds.
I honestly thought the pin trading craze would wear off in a year or two, as soon as people figured out just how much money was being flushed down the toilet in pursuit of a glorified tie tack. But the industry is bigger than ever.
I recall overhearing some collector at one of the trading stations (who carried all his pins in a matching 5-piece luggage set, with a few hundred left over for a chain mail vest). He was telling another guest that these pins represented his retirement portfolio. I wondered what had happened to common sense, and silently hoped that his back-up plan wasn’t Beanie Babies. I never got sucked into the craze myself.
2. Candy Apples
Okay, so this one isn’t as lucrative as the pin trading. For one thing, you can’t trade apples, because they turn brown too quickly. And if you stick too many on a lanyard, you just end up looking like you’re trying to ward off vampires. But there was a time when if your name wasn’t Snow White, Disney apples came in 2 flavors: Candy Apple Red and Carmel.
These days, if you’re eating a plain candy apple, you are identifying yourself as a member of a bygone American society that still churns butter and rides horse buggies.
Apple confections are everywhere now, from Mike Wazowski eyeballs to sugar-coated mouse undershorts. They’ve got marshmallows glued on in the shape of ears. Some half dipped in chocolate, half in butter, half in bacon grease (150% coverage!). A few of them have been merged with so many different unhealthy substances, they’re now honorary members of the Belushi family. The apple is just a frame to hold the candy-sugarfat masterpiece on. If you eat one of these things a day, the doctor isn’t going to stay away. He’s going to personally back the ambulance into your driveway.
3. Ear Hats
Like the apples, the traditional Disney mouse ears came in two flavors: Plain black, and Plain black with your name stitched on the back. They had a simple, dare I say elegant, design. Now they have so many different mouse hats, with so much crap stuck on them, you’d think they were iconic pieces of architecture.
Mouse hats are not just for mice anymore. Every major character has one. Mater, Dumbo, Goofy, Lightning, R2-D2. There are mouse hats with princess tiaras, mouse hats in the style of World Showcase pavilions, mouse ears that are actually rabbit ears from a character Walt once drew in the 1920s . Kids today are no longer content with a simple mouseketeer logo and chin strap. Now we need a Peter Pan feather, a duck bill, and some blinky LED lights to make sure we don’t feel ridiculous.
Even crazier, Disney has now started introducing souvenir miniature mouse hats, for when you want the mouse hat experience, but don’t want to cave to the societal pressures of wearing them on your head — or if you just have a really sick desire to humiliate your pet.
4. Disney Vacation Club
Disney didn’t invent the time share. That idea had been patented decades ago by Satan. But Disney did invent the idea of Time Share Kiosks in a theme park, and they seem to have crammed one into every major land of every theme park, and into every resort lobby, water park locker area, and soon into at least one restroom stall.
Part of the genius is that they never actually call them time-shares. It’s a “vacation club.” How awesome does that sound? I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like monthly get-togethers with other vacation aficionados, where we roast marshmallows, show slides, and get sneak peeks at exclusive vacations from celebrity guests. It certainly doesn’t give off the aura of bad real estate investment!
Forgive me, all you DVC members. I don’t mean to say you made a bad financial decision, and I’m sure all the perks are worth whatever child you had to sell into slave labor. It’s just that Disney had the impossible idea of putting not one, but dozens of booths into the parks, staffed by people whose job it is to get you to agree to leave said park (for which you probably paid upwards of $100 per head) for three hours to be shuttled to a sales pitch where you will be asked for a minimum investment of several thousand dollars. If that doesn’t sound like a setup for failure, I don’t know what does.
Yet somehow, it must be working, because these booths keep popping up and DVC is growing like wild fire. Soon there will be more DVC rooms available on Disney property than there are roving flocks of cheerleaders at Hollywood Studios, and that’s when we’ll know the terrorists have won.
5. Character Greeting Areas
This one isn’t something directly monetized, but to old timers like me, it’s almost inconceivable that today’s guests view the character experience as on par or even more important than hitting major attractions like Space Mountain, Big Thunder, or the Swiss Family Treehouse (hey, I can dream). Characters were part of the background scenery in the early days of the park, a bit of spice to season the mixture.
But something seemed to change in the last 15 years. Guests are now really excited to get their picture with a kid in a stuffy, vision-impaired costume. The idea of a cordoned-off, themed location with a proper queue and FastPass for a character meet-and-greet would have been crazy talk in 1985. But when princesses can command 60-minute wait times and entire buildings in Adventureland have been taken over by young women in fairy costumes, the old-fashioned rides and attractions are starting to take a back seat.
As a sign of the changing times, look no further than New Fantasyland. When it was first presented to the public, it did have a new Ariel ride, but the overwhelming majority of the land was taken up by acres of princess greeting areas. Snow White’s cottage, Sleeping Beauty’s cottage, Cinderella’s Chateau, Belle’s cottage (for princesses, they seem to spend a lot of time in log cabins). Someone finally wised up and axed most of the cottages, replacing them a rollercoaster so that somebody who wasn’t an 8-year-old girl would have something to do. But the characters didn’t go away. They just kicked out a Magic Kingdom original ride and turned it into a princess fairy tale hall.
Look at all the Disney marketing of the day. Along with the obligatory shots of spinning teacups and expertly photographed fireworks, it’s almost non-stop images of children running hand-in-hand with Woody and Buzz, teasing Chip and Dale, dancing with Sleeping Beauty.
The character craze shows no sign of abating, and Disney will cash in any way they can. Hiring a college girl for a summer to wear a mermaid fin is infinitely cheaper than building a replica of Mount Everest. They’ll sell blank books of stationary in the gift shop for those autograph hounds who love the thrill of getting a celebrity signature, but without the hassle of actually getting a celebrity signature.
And then, because Disney wants to see just how much the average consumer is willing to part with their cash for no good reason, they’ll staff these character greeting areas with something called…
The idea of an event photographer is not a new one, thanks to weddings, proms, and in some tasteless cases, funerals. But only Disney could take the great American tradition of family vacation photos and turn it into a chance to make some money. And rather than hiring some photographer to follow you around to a hundred different locations, they hired a hundred photographers to lurk in spots where you might turn up.
It used to be that Disney would market how friendly their Cast Members were, because they were always so willing to stop their jobs for a moment to snap a picture with your camera. Now those same Cast Members will use their own camera as well, and would love to be able to charge you for the privilege. The fact that the program is so successful is one of the great indicators of our society’s capacity for laziness. Rather than lug around a camera, we’d rather just pay some else to stash one reasonably close to attractive scenery. The fact that we all have 42 megapixel cameras on our iPhones apparently has yet to cross our minds.
At first, this doesn’t look like it belongs on this list. But that’s because you’re not the market. Surveys are big business in the company, and fetch top dollar. It doesn’t matter that the customer is internal. What matters is that Disney now has an intrusive, statistical monster that can prove whether the marketing campaign it has been running in Ames, Iowa is working.
Survey takers have multiplied in droves in the past decade. You simply cannot leave a park these days without seeing at least three or four of them roaming the exits, trying to ask you about your day. Or accosting you as you enter the gates, asking you your zipcode. It’s so bad they now roam in packs throughout the parks, circulating through various lands to garner that oh-so-valuable feedback and to devour the occasional wildebeest.
There is simply no logical reason why a guest would agree to be part of this, other than the sheer human guilt of saying no to a polite question. There is no tangible benefit offered to the customer, and in fact it is disruptive in the extreme. You are trying to get somewhere (usually in or out), and somebody with an ipad is stopping you and asking if you can answer 45 brief questions.
Want evidence that surveys play a huge part in the decision making of the company? Look no further than the NextGen roll-out, where more than a billion dollars in technology investment has been spent almost entirely because “surveys indicate our guests hate lines.” There are other reasons too, such as allowing Disney to sell Character-themed armbands at an upcharge (which will no doubt appear on this list 5 years from now as another crazy discovered market), but the line thing is the biggest. And somehow, they need commonsense to be verified by a survey.
All I can say is, I’m glad Walt always tried to give the public what he imagined they wanted, rather than what they told him they wanted. If it was up to them, we’d still be mired in Jack Sparrow sequels and Epcot would be overrun with Mickey and the gang.