Tuesday, June 20, 2006
That's an Exit, Not an Entrance
Walt Disney’s disdain for the hard sell was a cornerstone philosophy in his creation of Disneyland. Guests of the Magic Kingdom wouldn’t have to deal with the sideshow barkers and pushy salesmen so common in carnivals and state fairs anymore. Their ability to move about the park unencumbered and make spending choices purely of their own volition was important to Disney when he debuted his new form of family entertainment. History has shown this respect for the paying customer pays off handsomely.
Examples of Walt’s kinder gentler retail ideology start on Main Street and continue throughout the park. Sounds, smells and sights gently lure guests into spaces that make the shopping experience an organic extension of their own unique adventure rather than one of high pressure. The intoxicating smell of fresh fudge wafting from the candy shop, the hiss and flare of the glass blower in New Orleans Square, the whimsical art of the window display begging for closer inspection; all of it cleverly designed to nudge guests into a spending comfort zone without degrading their sense of personal choice and freedom.
But in the last couple decades Disney Management has completely turned the tables on Walt’s soft sell / escapist sell paradigm. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the company’s current trend to assure that no new attraction debut unless guests are forcibly corralled through one or more shopping venues before they exit while other attractions are shape-shifted to conform to this new profit driven model.
In Florida alone the list of attractions cum tchotchke traps seems endless. Tower of Terror, Star Tours, Test Track, Stitch’s Great Escape, Winnie the Pooh, Maelstrom, Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and many more all demand guests exit through assaultive merchandising gauntlets before they’re allowed back on neutral ground. In California, where once you could hear the gentle tick-tock of Small World’s animated clock as you wandered from the exit, now the clatter of registers quickly overwhelms it as you’re briskly shepherded into a merchandising kiosk to the left of the attraction.
Often these pocketbook shakedowns are complimented by the ubiquitous flood of post-ride video screens begging you to take home yet another high-priced snapshot of your latest thrill ride climax. And even where the climax is questionable at best, as with DINOSAUR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom or Space Ranger Spin at the Magic Kingdom, you can bet Disney execs have found somewhere along the ride path to pop off yet another flash-bulb.
Selling souvenirs based on a theme park attraction is certainly an admirable service, especially when the attraction is as transporting and magical as, say, Pirates of the Caribbean. But back in 1967 Disney designers weren’t under the jurisdiction of profit addicted M.B.A.’s and still retained a deep respect for a guests free-will. 'Pirates Arcade Museum', the Pirates themed shop and arcade that opened concurrently with the attraction, was not only placed outside and to the right of the show’s exit, but was an organic addition to the New Orleans Square street scape. Guests could enter or exit at their free will, confident that if they made a purchase it was based on their own personal inspiration, not on a company’s shrill insistence.
This new trend to force guests into retail spaces whether they want to be there or not is damaging on several levels, not least of which is the degradation of the ‘theme’ in the very theme park Walt Disney pioneered. With the immediate onslaught of registers, photo video screens and endless racks of cotton tees immediately appearing after a trip to a 1930’s Hollywood Hotel or an enchanting Himalayan village guests are quickly ripped from the surrounding ambiance and thrown into the cynical here and now of profits and price-margins, any lasting glow from their magical adventure snuffed out, their buzz killed, with careless abandon.
Secondly, savvy guests can’t help but feel they’re being manipulated and pan-handled the moment they leave their ride vehicles, now caught in a retail web not of their own choosing. Where once they had free choice in whatever shopping venue they preferred, now it’s Disney Marketing that chooses for them whether they like it or not. The difference is far from subtle and deeply discouraging.
Lastly this whole retail trend at the parks is just transparently condescending. Rock n' Roller Coaster, it appears, is only an elaborate advertisement for the Aerosmith Mugs you’re pressured to purchase as you exit. Whether or not you’ve even enjoyed the last attraction you visited (Stitch’s Great Escape anyone?), the Disney Company is now shamelessly proclaiming that they don’t care. They just want your money.