The Monthly Theme Park Thread Meets the New Boss (Same as the Old Boss)

Well, so much for working through that news backlog, eh?

On the evening of Sunday, November 20th, an announcement came down the wire stating that Bob Chapek, the unpopular and perpetually embattled CEO of the Walt Disney Company since February of 2020, would be stepping down from his post, effective immediately. Aside from the unexpected timing of the change,1 two facts made this bit of news particularly surprising. The first was that Disney’s board already had an easy opportunity to be rid of Chapek back in June, when his contract came due for renegotiation; they instead chose to keep him on until at least 2025. The second and much more interesting wrinkle was the man brought in to replace him: Bob Iger, his own predecessor.

Under Bob Chapek’s leadership, a number of major changes were made to the Disney Parks, and if you ask the average visitor, most of them were for the worse. The ineffectual day-planning Genie app, its pay-to-ride add-on Genie+, and the almost universally loathed park reservation system were the most headline-grabbing alterations, and will all likely be the subject of future columns. Maintenance budgets were slashed, live entertainment was cut, and the Annual Pass program was changed in ways that resulted in two different class-action lawsuits being filed against the company — one on each coast. The overwhelming sense was of of a parks experience that charged more while offering less.

Now, an even-handed observer might note that while Mr. Chapek certainly made his share of missteps — and they were, objectively, missteps — his ‘profit at any cost’ mindset makes a lot more sense when one considers the $46B debt that the Walt Disney Company currently holds. This debt was incurred by none other than Bob Iger himself when he finalized the 2019 purchase of 20th Century Fox for $71B,2 only to announce his retirement less than a year later. It must also be observed that Bob Chapek, as the head of an entire company, likely didn’t have the time or wherewithal to spend all day micro-managing the Parks division, no matter how crucial it may be to Disney’s bottom line. To that end, the company’s current head of Parks, Experiences and Products is a blandly handsome, seemingly affable man by the name of Josh D’Amaro, and if he hasn’t quite managed to completely escape fans’ ire, he certainly hasn’t caught nearly as much flak as his boss. Some even portray him as a would-be savior, poised to usher in a new era of magic and prosperity if only he weren’t forced to go along with his evil overlord’s wishes. I for one find this notable, given that when Mr. Chapek held D’Amaro’s current title under Bob Iger, the perception of culpability was entirely reversed: in those years, the blame for anything parkgoers didn’t like fell squarely on the head of Parks, who was, one assumes, sneaking those dastardly changes behind the saintly CEO’s back.

Pictured: Oldest brother Bob Iger (left), middlest brother Bob Chapek (top right), sweet baby brother Josh D’Amaro (bottom right). Credit: Disney

The good news (for those of us who find these things of intellectual interest, anyway) is that the Chapek variable has now been removed from this equation for good and all, allowing us to finally see just how much of the Disney Parks’ trajectory over the last decade was actually his doing. During Iger’s first tenure as CEO, the Parks may not have experienced a golden age — as a leader, he never cared about them as much as Walt Disney, Michael Eisner, or Tom Staggs3 — but he at least respected them enough to prioritize guest experience. During D’Amaro’s tenure as head of Parks… well, we’ve already recapped all of that. With these two effectively the last men standing,4 we’ll be able to see whose authority wins out, and take a better guess at whether or not D’Amaro ever truly endorsed this kind of money-grubbing management strategy.

But what do you all think? Who are the good and bad guys in this scenario? Are there even any good or bad guys in this scenario?

Feel free to use this space to discuss all things theme- or amusement park!

Optional Discussion Question: What, if anything, do you think Bob Iger will change or undo in the Parks now that he’s back on top?