Bob Chapek, Pandora and the Disney bubble

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Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts: “I’m a very big believer in what we call the Disney bubble, that when somebody comes for a Disney vacation they want a 360-degree, immersive experience.”
Bob Chapek, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts: “I’m a very big believer in what we call the Disney bubble, that when somebody comes for a Disney vacation they want a 360-degree, immersive experience.” Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

Last week was a big one for Bob Chapek, chairman of Disney Parks and Resorts. He was simultaneously opening a new "land," Pandora, in Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom in Orlando and a major attraction, Guardians of the Galaxy -- Mission: Breakout, at Disney's California Adventure in Anaheim.

Chapek, who has been in his current role for a little more than two years, sees connective tissue between the two openings and what he has planned for the future. His previous roles at Disney over the past 20 years -- president of the Consumer Products division, where he licensed, franchised, published and retailed Disney, Pixar, Star Wars and Marvel platforms, and president of Disney Studios Distribution and Home Entertainment divisions -- clearly inform his current vision for the parks and resorts.

I sat down with him at the Pandora dedication to get a sense of that vision: How it was playing out in Pandora, and how it will impact Parks and Resorts going forward. We touched on the role of technology, guest experience, the evolution of resorts and his focused drive to maintain and expand an immersive, seamless "Disney bubble."

Arnie Weissmann: I just experienced the two rides in Pandora, and my thought, in terms of Disney chronology, is that the Na'vi River Journey is the great-great- great-great-great-great-grandchild of It's a Small World, and that Avatar Flight of Passage is maybe the grandchild of Soarin'. The technology develops so quickly, and the bar gets raised so fast. How do you address the challenge of keeping the legacy rides of interest to guests?

Bob Chapek: The way I look at it is that our goal, from a technology standpoint, is to make the technology transparent. We really don't want guests thinking about technology when they're on a ride, and maybe the most technological ride we have is Flight of Passage, right? But as soon as that screen comes up -- which you don't even see come up -- you forget that you're on an attraction. And that's the goal. The best technology is when it's seamless. In the Na'vi River Journey, you don't see the seams between what's media and what's practical. They're gone. All you do is feel like you're on a Pandorian river.

Do we have legacy attractions? Yes. Are they beloved? Yes, absolutely. I think that the opportunity we have at Disney is the degree of freedom that Walt gave us years ago when he said, "Disneyland will never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world."

And that's why we're bold. Guardians of the Galaxy -- Mission: Breakout infused that intellectual property [to replace] a guest-preferred attraction [Twilight Zone Tower of Terror]. We weren't going to be complacent and say, "Guests like it, OK, let's move on." We're always going to top ourselves, because when we top ourselves no one will ever top us. We took what was a very good attraction and made a great attraction.

There are certain things in our portfolio that we will never touch because of what they are, and there are others that will become the opportunities for dramatic step function advancement. Managing that balance is what we do, but we will never become complacent. I feel we've been given that degree of freedom from our founder.

Bob Iger, left, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., and “Avatar” director James Cameron onstage at the dedication of Pandora in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.
Bob Iger, left, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., and “Avatar” director James Cameron onstage at the dedication of Pandora in Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

AW: On the topic of intellectual property: Pandora comes out of [the film] "Avatar," and many of the major attractions you've opened come from other existing franchises or platforms. Pirates of the Caribbean flipped the other way; it was a ride first, and then a movie franchise. Are the days of developing something that is originally conceived of as a stand-alone ride or attraction in the past?

BC: I tend to look at it as a gradient as opposed to on and off. We have attractions around the world that are based in movies. We have attractions that are original, and everywhere in between. For example, Mystic Manor in Hong Kong is essentially a stand-alone intellectual property. However, it does have its root in the Society of Explorers and Adventurers [SEA], which is one of the deepest, longest, most organic mythologies out there. [Inspired by the former Pleasure Island Adventurers Club, SEA has been woven into the backstory of various Disney attractions]. It's sort of a little bit in the know for the superfans, and the superfans are tuned into it. But it shows that it's not really an on/off button; it's a rheostat.

Guests expect that when they come to a Disney theme park, [they'll] see things that they recognize as Disney. And that's what we're going to give them. As a company we owe a large part of our success to that. I've had the luxury of being able to work in the movie studio, which tends to start some of these things, and consumer products, which is another one of these pieces of the machinery. And now I'm in theme parks. So I've had a bit of a perch to be able to see this thing work out, and it works really, really well.

The Walt Disney Co. is on a tear, and it's on a tear because we're all aligned with the franchise strategy. It makes all the difference in the world in terms of the success rate when you make investments [in] a guest-satisfying property. I'm not saying that we'll never do stand-alone attractions based on something that is a new and fresh idea, [but] as part of the Walt Disney Co., [extending franchises is] sort of what we do. The movies or content get made and then it goes through the machine, as sometimes it's called, and nobody does it is as well as we do. If others could, they would be thrilled.

AW: The MagicBand connects park admission, marketing, sales, even admission to your room. But there's been some advancements in the related wearable technologies that go beyond radio-frequency identification. Do you see future MagicBands interacting with rides?

BC: They actually already do.

AW: Where is that?

BC: In It's a Small World. It will read where you're from and make a recognition of you at a particular point in the attraction.

AW: So even It's a Small World continues to evolve?

BC: It continues to evolve. I think it's really important when it comes to a vibrant, dynamic, technophilic company to never look at something and say, "Well, this is the endpoint." We're on a journey with technology, where technology embellishes and aids our storytelling. And if it has some functional benefits along the way, that's good. Yes, [MagicBands] open a room door. Functional utility. Yes, you can tap to pay. Functional utility. But that's not why we got into these things.

AW: Regarding the room: About nine years ago I had a chance to see the apartment -- the Dream Suite -- in Anaheim, and I wrote that I could imagine hotel rooms in the future having elements of entertainment. Within Disney, you've created worlds that are wonderful, and then you go back to your room. Your room may have a themed touch or two, but are you looking at putting entertainment into the rooms themselves?

BC: I think what we're doing is catering to our guests' needs, and what we find is that we have a bell curve of what our guests want. There are certain guests who want a pure room experience. There are certain guests who want a heavily themed experience. And the majority of our guests want suggestions. Hints. Light touches.

Right now, [rooms are] a little bit skewed toward one side rather than representing all the needs. There are places in the world where we've really gone toward more heavily themed rooms, and they're the first to sell out. So maybe we are a little bit left of center rather than center.

I'm a very big believer in what we call the Disney bubble, that when somebody comes for a Disney vacation, they want a 360-degree, immersive experience that includes food and beverage that feels like it's not generic; merchandise that feels like it's not generic; transportation that feels like it's not generic; and, obviously, the actual lands and theme parks that are not generic.

It's a stew, but the thread of DNA through all that is Disney intellectual property, and that will continue to grow over time as we get more and more properties in our portfolio. Marvel is a perfect example of how it just continues to grow and expand.

AW: I assume you're not going to rest on your laurels with Pandora. To the extent that a public company executive can say, what are you aiming to do next? You must have things on the drawing board. What's next?

BC: Our goal, our north star, is to exceed guest expectations every day, and the way we achieve that is through the Disney immersive bubble. What I can tell you is that everything going forward will be even more immersive than it is today. When you walk into a Disney vacation and you stay at a Disney property and you jump on Disney transportation and you eat Disney food and you buy Disney merchandise, it will all be completely seamless. Look at Pandora. There are no placards, no marquees that say, "You're about to enter the Na'vi River Journey." Or, "You're about to enter Flight of Passage." Right? That's not there, because it's seamless. What's land and what's attraction? What's queue and what's attraction? You don't know where it starts and ends here, because it's completely immersive

If you talk to our cast members, they are completely in-story. Go out and challenge them and say, "How did you get here?" You're not going to hear, "Oh, I'm from Des Moines, Iowa, and I graduated college and joined the program." That's what you hear elsewhere. You're going to find out how they arrived on this planet, and they're an archaeologist and they'll pull out a book and show you their Darwinian drawings. That they made themselves. Because everyone has to have a story.

It's that complete immersion, that's where we're going, and in order to have that complete immersion, you have to have something to base it on, which is what? That intellectual property that people already have some resonance with. Now, coming full story with our conversation, yes, it's based on Disney intellectual property. You're in a Disney bubble, and it's something that, frankly, our cast plays a huge role in. And you're not going to be able to get it anywhere else.

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