As the 21st century rolled around, Walt Disney World faced a problem that many of its competing resorts and theme parks also encountered: How to increase guest visits without having to build new multi-million rides every year?
While adding new attractions is a key to success, the approach of doing so every year—at increasing costs—presents a real challenge to theme park budgets. To counter this, several years ago, a small team of Disney executives worked at a breakneck pace to reform how the world’s most popular theme park resort sold itself. This working group, made up of less than 20 of the resort’s 5, 000 plus salaried employees, started from the premise that “affordability”—more than the lack of new attractions—was the biggest hurdle to increasing guest visits and lengths of stay.
The result from this effort was “Magic Your Way”—an initiative that has changed the way guests vacation at Disney more than almost any other program in the resort’s 40 year history.
Blooloop's Chad Emerson (left) recently reviewed key information and interviewed important “Magic Your Way” participants to examine the incredible story behind this groundbreaking effort.
A Change of Pace
In an organization as large as Disney, major changes typically come slowly and deliberately. That’s what makes the amazing speed at which “Magic Your Way” was conceived, developed, and implemented quite astonishing. More than anyone, the person who enabled this to happen was then-Disney World President Al Weiss (below).
Weiss, a long-time Disney employee who himself was raised in Central Florida, loved the excitement that new attractions and resorts brought to Disney World. At the same time, Weiss was, by training, a financial analyst who clearly understood that capital investments only made sense if they resulted in increased revenue. In a perfect world, theme parks could invest almost limitlessly and then recoup those capital expenditures through increased attendance and prices. Unfortunately, this theory conflicts with the reality that the vast majority of Disney’s guests did not have limitless budgets to spend.
At the time, Disney’s internal research increasingly revealed that affordability was one of the biggest problems facing potential guests. To address this, Weiss opted to analyze how Disney World could make its vacation more affordable without diminishing the guest experience or undermining revenue.
To lead this effort, Weiss tapped Joni Newkirk and Scott Sanders (below right)— two Disney World executives who specialized in the growing field of “analytics”. Their basic charge was to analyze nearly every aspect of a Disney World vacation and identify opportunities to enhance affordability while remaining profitable and increasing the guest experience. (See also: Joni Newkirk – Looking into the Future at Disney and Scott Sanders – Waterparks: What Sets Them Apart from Theme Parks?)
Adding to the challenge was the instruction to make this project happen quietly and make it happen quickly.
At least once a week, the leadership group gathered at the Team Disney headquarters near Downtown Disney for an extended work session. Weiss would typically chair the meeting whose attendees were limited to a very select group of Weiss’ senior executives and a small group from Newkirk and Sanders team. Though small in size, the group represented a diverse cross-section of the overall resort operations with senior leaders from departments such as legal, marketing, and IT as well as one of Weiss’ most respected executives Erin Wallace.
Along with Lee Cockerell and Karl Holz, Wallace had been a key figure in Disney World’s post 9/11 planning. During those days, Weiss had issued another bold challenge to his senior executives: he did not want any full-time Disney cast members laid off even though attendance quickly diminished in the immediate days and weeks after the terrorist attacks. Though the Magic Your Way effort paled in terms of the emotional impact, the logistical challenge represented an equally gargantuan effort.
Still, after only a few months of intensive work, the analytics team identified three key areas that, if strategically addressed, could meet the challenge of increased affordability without diminished revenue. The three focus areas were: unbundling the ticket products to give guests more choice; providing affordable food and beverage dine plans for resort guests; and providing value added offerings to entice more on-property stays.
Rolling Back Vacation Prices a Decade and a Half
The team quickly realized that the lead issue would involve the concept of ticket unbundling. This was the linchpin issue that had to be figured out first before any of the other strategies would work. The challenge was great but the premise simple: reduce vacation costs through a less expensive ticketing strategy.
The basic idea was to dramatically reduce the cost of a Disney World ticket the longer that a guest stayed at the resort. This was designed to incentivize guests to vacation longer with the trade back being a 7 day Disney World vacation that cost significantly less than it did prior to “Magic Your Way”.
As one former Disney executive explained, this effort “rolled back vacation prices fifteen years” at Disney World. That’s not to say, though, it was a win-win for every vacationer.
For instance, the significant reduction in 5 plus day tickets was countered with a noticeable increase in shorter 1, 2, and 3 day ticket prices. Under this new structure, the weekend vacationer would end up paying more than those who stayed longer. To mitigate this effect, the working group also offered a relative solution by increasing Florida resident discounts since that market segment was identified as the most common weekend or short-term vacationer at Disney World.
Indeed, when the numbers are fully examined, the only guest segment to bear a significant cost increase was the non-Florida resident, short term vacationer—a segment that Disney’s research showed was both smaller and more affluent than most other guest segments.
With the ticket unbundling strategy set, the team next turned to resort dining and how Disney World could decrease total dining costs during a vacation. Somewhat similar to a cruise ship, the dining plan allowed guests to avoid the sometimes unpredictable a la carte cost of dining and replace that with a flat rate plan that allowed guests to more predictably budget food costs for their vacation. While the program did not necessarily make eating individual meals at Disney World cheaper, it did make it more affordable if you purchased the dining plan for the entire length of your stay (again, similar to how a cruise dining plan works). In fact, if your purchased the plan for your length of stay, the overall total food costs were reduced by up to 40%–a significant savings in the aggregate.
The next area focused on giving guests who stayed at a Disney World hotel other valuable perks at no cost —the opportunity to stay in the park longer than other non-resort guests and Disney’s Magical Express . While Disney World had offered extended hour programs in the past, they had historically not been as predictable as the new effort would allow. By increasing predictability in this area, guests could better plan their vacation in advance by knowing when and where this perk would be offered on a regular basis.
In addition, the analytics team crunched, crunched, and re-crunched the numbers to determine the feasibility of offering guests direct bus transportation from Orlando International Airport to Disney World without a surcharge. Until then, most guests paid private bus operators, taxi cabs, and town cars a per person fee for the ride to Disney World. Not only did this add to the cost of a vacation but it also lended to a wildly uneven guest experiences as some operators transported guests in a comfortable and friendly way while others lacked these attributes.
After months of analysis, Disney realized that it could overcome potential logistical hurdles as well as financial ones to offer guests a streamlined process where they could drop their bags at their departure airport and not worry about them until they arrived at their Disney World resort room. The savings of not paying for this previous per person transportation, combined with the convenience of receiving a Disney-level of quality service from touchdown to arrival at the resort was one of the “analytics-groups” crowning achievements.
According to Lee Cockerell, the former Executive Vice President for Operations at Disney World, this was one of the project’s crowning achievements. “The thing that impressed me most about the Magic Your Way project, ” explained Cockerell “was the ability of the Disney team to gain agreements with the Orlando International Airport and all of the airlines to handle millions of bags.”
The Major Change of Magic Your Way
“Magic Your Way” was implemented in 2005 less than 24 months after it was first conceived—an astonishing result for a program than required the modification of a vast number of internal processes from ticketing to logistics to food and beverage service and a host of others. New schedules, new software, and a wide variety of new processes all had to be created, many from scratch.
Despite this, multiple Disney sources have confirmed that the program was rolled out almost exactly as it was originally promised.
Today, millions of Disney World guests enjoy a more affordable and convenient vacation as the result of a small band of analytical experts who responded to the challenge that Al Weiss placed before them just months prior.
While Newkirk and Sanders have left the company to start Integrated Insight Inc.—a consulting firm that offers analytics advice to other industry companies, the work that their team developed under the direction of Weiss (who recently retired from Disney after a highly successful career) significantly changed how theme park resorts operate.
How do we know this? Because some of Disney’s key competitors are themselves embarking on analytics driven efforts to improve their companies. Impressive proof of the important changes that Magic Your Way has brought to the amusement industry.
Images: Kind courtesy Walt Disney World. The Walt Disney Company