Since the firing of Chapek and returning to the top spot, Disney CEO Bob Iger has already had a lot to say. He’s addressed common complaints of Cast Members and diehard Walt Disney World and Disneyland guests, both directly and indirectly. This post covers the latest–a letter he’s sent to the company’s “biggest fans.”
We aren’t going to recap everything that has transpired in the last month since Disney’s Bob Swap replaced Chapek with Iger; suffice to say, it’s been quite the saga. If you haven’t already read Disney’s Battle of the Bobs: Why Chapek Was Fired, How Iger Returned & What’s Next, that’s a good primer. There’s also the report that Bob Iger was “alarmed” by Walt Disney World price increases and fought with Chapek over layoff plans. Those articles cover some of what Iger has had to say indirectly, via leaks by his regime to the media.
When it comes to direct comments, Bob Iger held a Cast Member Town Hall upon returning to field questions and concerns from employees. During that, Iger was asked about the future of the Disney Park Pass reservation system and indicated that he had heard things that were “not positive.” He was also asked about Disney merging with or selling/buying businesses, indicating that there were no plans to buy or sell any of the company’s “great assets” but that nothing is forever.
Iger was also asked about the Reedy Creek dissolution, and indicated that he was “sorry to see us dragged into that battle” and that “Florida has been important to us for a long time, and we have been very important to the state of Florida. That is something I’m extremely mindful of and will articulate if I get the chance.” That just scratches the surface on the topics covered during the Town Hall.
In general, Iger tried to assuage concerned Cast Members that the company was heading back in the right direction. Now, he’s doing the same with an email sent directly to fans. (As with all email communications from Disney, receiving this is very hit-or-miss. This time, I got one but Sarah did not.)
In case you didn’t receive it, here’s the full text of Bob Iger’s email to fans:
As we approach the end of 2022, I wanted to take a moment to express my gratitude to the biggest Disney fans in the world – all of you.
Disney is fortunate to have the most devoted and enthusiastic fans, and I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I visited Disneyland Resort and attended the Candlelight Processional. It was invigorating to be surrounded by so many guests who make what we do possible. We love your passion for our company and your enthusiasm for what we create, and we will continue to do our best to exceed your highest expectations.
As you know, next year Disney will mark its 100th anniversary. We are immeasurably grateful to the generations of fans all around the globe who have invited our stories and characters into their lives, and we look forward to celebrating the groundbreaking moments, the cherished memories, and the creative visionaries that made Disney the most beloved name in entertainment over the past century.
During the coming year, D23 will launch a slate of exciting events to mark this historic milestone. More information can be found here.
Looking at all the opportunities ahead, I can honestly say there has never been a better time to be a Disney fan. It is an extraordinary privilege to lead this remarkable company again, and I am so grateful for your continued passion for Disney. On behalf of all of us at The Walt Disney Company, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a very happy and prosperous New Year.
In terms of commentary, there are basically two ways to view this. The first is to see through it as a hollow corporate end-of-year newsletter, one that talks a good game but is meaningless without action to support it. That’s no doubt how more cynical Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans will perceive Iger’s email, and it’s difficult to argue against that perspective.
After all, it’s been a rough few years for fans. If Iger thinks now (present tense) it has “never been a better time to be a Disney fan” and simply continues on the path that Chapek had charted, the company most definitely will not exceed the “highest expectations” of Disney’s biggest fans. If this is your outlook, your ‘cautious skepticism’ is likely well-founded.
The second is to view this as a step in the right direction, even if only incremental. Another signal that Bob Iger believes in the ‘magic’ of Disney and understands what fans need and crave from its leader. It’s a sharp contrast to Bob Chapek, who did not “get” Disney–or at least could not demonstrate in his public communications that he got it.
Messaging matters. This much is clear from all of the reader complaints we’ve received–loyal Annual Passholders who were hurt by being called “unfavorable” or those who didn’t appreciate the “waistlines” wisecrack or the constant use of “consumer” as opposed to guest. Or any number of combative comments Chapek and his camp made towards fans. (We’ve pointed to it before, but Chapek’s defensive comments during that WSJ tech panel really reiterated to us that he harbored hostility towards Disney fans.)
If you took offense or felt that those past comments demonstrated that Disney’s leadership took fans for granted (at best) or downright disliked them (at worst), that’s perfectly understandable. At its core, Disney is a company founded on emotional connections, nostalgia, and storytelling. Chapek did a spectacularly bad job at all of that.
In which case, this letter should come as a breath of fresh air. It’s a simple thing, sure, but it’s one that didn’t happen last year or the year before, etc. It suggests to me that Bob Iger realizes fan goodwill is frayed and that he needs to undo the damage done by the Chapek regime. We’ve mentioned repeatedly in the last ~10 months that guest satisfaction dropped precipitously late last year; Iger is undoubtedly aware of that. (It is definitely an area of concern for leaders on-the-ground in Florida.)
What Iger will do to repair tensions between the company and its biggest fans is unclear. As we pointed out in our List of Positive Changes CEO Bob Iger Could Make to “Fix” Walt Disney World, there’s some low-hanging fruit. However, there are also some changes that Iger will be hard-pressed to make given how the company’s streaming services are hemorrhaging money.
The Cast Member Town Hall was a good start for making employees feel that they’re voices and heard. He has also been highly visible in the last few weeks, making appearances at the Disney Ultimate Toy Drive benefiting Toys for Tots and more. Iger can improve Cast Member morale (something we have been told–repeatedly–is already happening), which will in turn have spillover effects for guests (happier Cast Members equals happier guests).
At this point, Iger’s best move is also making fans feel like their complaints are being heard and taken seriously–while striking a contrast to Chapek. Between this letter and Bob Iger’s appearance with Josh D’Amaro at Candlelight Processional, I’d say it’s a good start. Speaking of which, if you haven’t seen videos of Iger from Candlelight Processional, you should check them out.
While it’s easy for good PR people to fake a sincere letter, that ear-to-ear grin and glow as Iger chatted with fans is real. That was the look of a man who was happy to be back “home.” I get the cynicism and think skepticism is perfectly healthy (perhaps the best defense mechanism!), but I am cautiously optimistic.
I know Iger can’t wave a magic wand and undo a lot of the damage–much of which he likely supports–but he can make meaningful positive changes, and that starts with understanding and appreciating why the company’s “biggest fans” are diehard devotees of Disney.
What’s not reasonable is claiming to be upset about Chapek’s past comments and tones and also cynical about this letter. Either messaging matters, or it doesn’t. You can’t simply choose the ‘complaint path’ regardless of the circumstances.
Well, that’s not true. This is the internet, so perpetual outrage and inconsistency are par for the course. But you can’t choose to always be upset and still expect to be taken seriously. Always being angry is the easiest way to have your opinion disregarded entirely, and is precisely how companies end up writing off rabid fans as complaining even if a churro cart is moved 10 feet.
Ultimately, we’ll start to see pretty soon whether Bob Iger is all talk, or if he’ll walk the walk. Already, 2023 is shaping up to be a pivotal year for the Walt Disney Company. The 100th Anniversary is next year, and the festivities start on January 27, 2023 at Disneyland.
After the disappointment of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, this is an opportunity for a mulligan, of sorts. World of Color – One and Wondrous Journeys fireworks will usher in the Disney100 celebration at Disneyland, we still don’t know what’ll replace Harmonious at EPCOT or how Happily Ever After will evolve at Magic Kingdom.
Beyond that, a lot is on the horizon in the parks. The opening Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway plus the reimagined Toontown at Disneyland, TRON Lightcycle Run in Magic Kingdom, and Moana’s Journey of Water at EPCOT. Speaking of which, the transformation of that park is supposed to conclude next year, despite a lot being cut from the original plans.
Without much on the horizon for beyond next year, the Disney100 celebration would be the perfect time to unveil a new “Disney Decade” with expansion plans for Animal Kingdom (confirming the Dino-Rama replacement seems like a given), Magic Kingdom, and phase 2 of the EPCOT overhaul.
Much of that might be wishful thinking, as Bob Iger and the Walt Disney Company face numerous headwinds in 2023. The stock price has been on the decline as Wall Street reevaluates streaming service expectations and valuations, the company is saddled with tremendous debt due to the 21st Century Fox acquisition, succession planning needs to be a top priority, and the Reedy Creek saga is still not fully resolved (although it seems close).
It’s going to be a challenging year for Bob Iger and co., but hopefully he can navigate all of those issues while also delivering in ways that demonstrate why “there has never been a better time to be a Disney fan!”
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What’s your take on Bob Iger’s letter to the biggest Disney fans–are you cynical or cautiously optimistic? Think this demonstrates that he, unlike Chapek, actually believes in the ‘magic’ of Disney and understands what fans need and crave from its leader? Are you excited about the company’s future as the Walt Disney Company enters its 100th year? Think things will get better in 2023? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!