It was April 1986 and I was the Operations Lead for Walt Disney World Epcot’s Harvest Theater and it’s terribly boring movie Symbiosis. At closing time, 11:00 PM, we began the last show. Five minute later, a man came running up to the theater. I told him the attraction was now closed. This started an impressive display of histrionics. The man, simultaneously heated and disappointed—a hard mix to pull off—began complaining that he had come all the way from North Dakota to see Symbiosis. I wondered why, if seeing Symbiosis was so important, he waited until AFTER closing to come to the theater. But there he was exclaiming that his whole vacation was ruined. We ran a special show for him that night. His life was then, apparently, complete.
Symbiosis came to mind recently because Walt Disney Parks has been cutting back operating hours at attractions in its parks. In Walt Disney’s day everything, with a few exceptions, opened at opening and everything closed at closing. Managers since the 1990s have been gradually cutting attraction hours. It has gotten to the point where you need a program guide just to figure out what attractions are open at any given time of day.
The situation got worse recently when whole parks saw their operating hours shortened, attractions got even shorter operating hours and entertainment groups disappeared from the daily schedule.
There has been a lot of talk from the Disney fan base lately about these cutbacks. Several reports have linked the cuts to cost overruns at Shanghai Disneyland. That resort was originally slated to open in late 2015 was postponed until mid 2016. Another supposed culprit is Disneyland Paris which is, yet again, experiencing financial difficulties. Another reported factor is the natural corporate inclination to find ways to trim its costs. The reports suggest, in this case, that cutbacks are an experiment to see if the Walt Disney World fan base will miss the offerings that were cut back.
All of these reasons may be true and my sources indicate as much. There is, also, a basic truth that determines where cutbacks should be made. It’s not one I have seen discussed even though it is the likely decider of what will or won’t be cut back.
In 1985, I was considering accepting a position at Epcot and asked a then current part-time cast member (Disney’s term for employee) named Tim for advice. Tim explained that I would have a wonderful time as long as I understood a basic truth about Disney theme park operations. What he explained follows.
Once the guests leave, the third shift team enters. The lights are still on, the air condition still runs and the rides still operate (for Maintenance purposes). The costs for electrical power, vehicles, ride repairs, street cleaning, etc. are somewhat fixed. The only costs that is variable is labor.
Whenever the Walt Disney Company must reduce park division operating expenses, employee labor costs are the easiest thing to reduce. There are several ways to accomplish labor reductions. Where a Jungle Cruise boat ride might have enough attendance to warrant placing 12 boats on the river, reducing the number of boats to six would, although it makes the line a longer, deliver a 50 percent location labor savings. In another example, cutting a park’s closing time from 11:00 pm to 9:00 pm cuts all the labor hours that would have been incurred from 9:00 pm to 11:00 pp. And an added savings results if you can move third shift personnel from an overnight shift to a late night one, reducing shift differential labor costs.
Ultimately, Walt Disney is a business. It must maintain its balance sheet or risk becoming a hostile takeover target (as happened in the 1980s). Whether labor cost control is good or bad is hard to judge. But next time you hear that Disney Parks are cutting back operating hours or not running attractions as often as before, remember that it may have little to do with attendance or the need to conserve power or attraction wear and tear. It is more likely that the Mouse House is simply managing the one cost it has variable control over: Labor.