On Tuesday, the shocking news came out that Bob Iger will be stepping down from his role as CEO of Disney effective immediately and will be replaced by Bob Chapek. Iger’s contract, which has been extended many times during his CEO tenure, was set to end in 2021. While it did appear that this would finally be the end of his reign as head of the company, stepping down so quickly came as a shock. Disney has said that Iger will still be in charge of creative and be a board member through the end of his contract, although there’s always a chance that could always be lip service to calm Wall Street nerves.
Before I get any further in this post I want to say that I generally stay away from commenting on the shake ups in the Disney company and probably will so in the future, as well. Frankly, nearly all of my interest in the company comes from the theme parks and I know that’s just a slice of the pie when it comes to the massive media conglomerate that is Disney. That makes me feel unfit, or maybe less interested, in commenting on such things as people losing their jobs or getting new ones. Not to speak for Michaela (the other writer on this site), but we prefer just to talk about theme parks. All this to say, if you want a more informed opinion on this matter they are easy to find. I’m going to look at Iger stepping down and Chapek taking over from a theme parks perspective alone while being fully aware that there’s more to this puzzle.
Bob Iger stepping down immediately is the most shocking aspect of the news. As I referred to earlier, it did seem apparent that Iger was nearing the end of his Disney road judginge from a few interviews he’d given in the last few years. But why so soon and sudden? Your guess is as good as mine. We won’t dive into any rumors but sincerely hope that Iger was truly just ready to be done or is aspiring to do something else as opposed to anything health related or tragic. I’d imagine there’s more to this story than is being told right now but who knows?
The reason why I think there’s more to this story? It seemed like Disney had a prime opportunity to have a smooth transition into their next CEO, naming him/her leading up to Iger’s retirement. Instead this all happened immediately and not at the easiest time for the company. With the company’s movie slate primed to take a step back from the massive 2019 and international parks struggling financially due to Coronavirus closures, this isn’t an enviable time to take over the company. Nor is it a great time for the company to ease shareholders minds by going through such a drastic change.
Bob Iger’s legacy in terms of the theme parks is a complicated one. Unlike the incredible success he’s had in purchasing franchises and Disney’s best stretch in terms of animation and live-action films in decades, there are many levels to dive into when it comes to the parks. Like his successor, Iger took the job at a tough time when tourism was in flux due to post 9/11 fears. That the parks survived and now have become more popular than ever is a clear feather in Iger’s cap. Just looking at his time with the company from a dollars and cents perspective, it’s hard to call Iger anything but extremely successful.
Instead, I’m looking at it through a lens of a theme park fan. While the early 2000’s were a period of stagnation for the parks, again mostly due to post-9/11 tourism, Iger and Disney steadily increased theme park investing over his tenure. In recent years WDW and Disneyland have experienced giant expansions and that spending doesn’t seem to be slowing down at all, current tourism and economic fears aside. Investing is important and the resorts have improved in varying degrees over the last decade.
My problem in the last decade has been where those investments went. Like being a fan of a sports team, rooting for the parks to become better versions of themselves can be difficult. Ultimately I’m happy if my team is spending money to improve but I can still have quibbles with where that money is going. I can’t speak to Shanghai Disney, which Iger and Disney obviously spent a fortune on, as I haven’t been there and don’t know enough about the business side to feel confident writing on it. Investing billions of dollars into My Disney Experience at Disney World has proven to be a failure. Generally I’m in favor of theme parks trying to get a leg up on the competition via technology but MDE has proven to be not worth the money the (checks notes) billions(!?!) poured into it.
Likewise, I’m lukewarm on actual investments inside of the theme parks as there’s been a step away from original and creative storytelling in favor of corporate synergy. Nearly everything built over the last decade in the American parks has been connected to an IP and that’s a negative for me. Obviously, there are others that would disagree. And this isn’t to say some of those additions aren’t wonderful – Galaxy’s Edge is an incredible success in this site’s eyes and Pandora isn’t far behind. That said, Disney’s theme parks aren’t as creative or artistically driven now as they were years ago.
Over time, I expect Iger’s legacy to improve much like Michael Eisner’s has. It’s hard to not look at the last decade of additions and not come away impressed, whether it’s connected to IP or not.
As for Bob Chapek, the new CEO, I can’t say that I was his biggest fan as the head of Parks & Resorts which was his previous job before being named CEO. There was a not-so-subtle move away from improving the guest experience while increasing costs and add-ons. Entertainment cuts in Disney World last year have made those parks worse while saving minimal (at least for Disney) amounts of money. Obvioiusly, this is me looking for a scapegoat for these moves. Not all of these were probably directly from the mouth of Chapek. But it’s hard to ignore the cost cutting trend in Disney Parks over the last few years under his watch.
More than anything related to these moves, I’m eager to see who is put in charge of Parks & Resorts in the near future. It’s always hard to know how much these changes will actually affect our park experience in the future. To be sure, this is is significant news and I’m very interested on where the company goes from here.
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