How I Spent My Summer Vacation

Brent, you just got back from a vacation in Disneyland. What are you going to do now?

“I’m going to Chuck E. Cheese!”

Call me a glutton for punishment but this should at least wrap up my tour of rodent-themed children’s attractions for a while. Our trip to the “House of the Mouse,” as Disneyland has been called, was ostensibly in honor of my daughter’s graduation with her bachelor’s degree but was really more for her daughter, our 3 ½-year-old granddaughter. Less than 48 hours after arriving home we were in the car for a two-our drive to our identical twin grandnieces’ fifth birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese.

Longtime empty nesters, it’s been a while since my wife and I set have foot in either. It was fun, if exhausting, but as an unrecovered business advisor I couldn’t stop myself from making observations.

Both places have changed since my last visits. Disneyland looked familiar when we first walked in the gate, with the iconic Mickey Mouse shaped flower garden and entrance to Main Street. A closer look showed a number of new rides and changes to old favorites. Disney opened California Adventure next door in 2001; many of its attractions are geared at the newer characters my granddaughter is more familiar with and we spent a lot of time there.

I am old enough to remember the system of five levels of ride tickets, dubbed A through E, which was dropped in 1982. Rides and other attractions are still covered by the cost of admission but that does not mean Disney has gone soft on separating the happiest guests on earth from their cash. Basically, we hemorrhaged the stuff. I will not know the full extent of the damage until I go over the charge card bills and I am in no hurry. Disney has largely cornered the market on big name family entertainment, having picked up Star Wars, Pixar, and other big names in recent years, and that doesn’t count what they’ve created themselves. The 2013 animated film “Frozen” is already the top grossing animated film of all time in face of pretty stiff competition, largely from Disney itself.

They also know how to milk a good franchise. If you have a girl under the age of 10 in your family you are probably aware of the princess phenomenon, with just about every little girl having dolls, books, dresses, costume jewelry, tiaras, and about anything else based on Disney princesses. My granddaughter went to Anaheim with about every Disney princess dress you can think of including Snow White from the 1936 movie, Cinderella from 1950, and Sleeping Beauty from 1959; she walked out with about everything she was missing. Who, besides Disney, is making a bundle from dress-up items introduced in the 1930s?

Chuck hasn’t fared as well from what I’ve read over the years, though the location we went to was clean, well maintained, and doing a bang up business on a Sunday afternoon. The franchise lost a number of locations during a period of financial struggles, which some analysts blamed on a failure to innovate and update the original concept. During the mid 1980s through the late 1990s when my kids were interested in such things years, the changes I saw could best be described as decay. Chuck got rattier (not in a good way) and many of the franchises were run down with older equipment that needed replacement more than repairs

That seems to have changed. For one, Chuck is apparently no longer a rat, having taken on distinctly mouse-like characteristics (though unlike Mickey, his voice has changed). Founder Nolan Bushnell, who also founded Atari, made no secret of his admiration of Disney and in many ways his concept is borrowed from Disney theme parks, reducing them to a dining setting. The mouse thing has worked pretty well for Mickey so maybe it’s helping Chuck. Chuck also seems to have picked up music, a Disney staple, though with a rock.

Disney has had their challenges over the years too but have managed to keep a hand deep in consumers’ pockets. Books have been written on Disney’s success; I won’t recap them here but a lot of it comes down to a balance of honoring the original concept while not being afraid to innovate, take risks, and even fail once in a while (anyone remember the 2013 movie “Super Buddies”?). If Chuck has learned anything from Mickey in recent years, it may be that.

About the Author

+Brent Morrison is managing principal at Morrison, providing business valuations, business planning (including budgeting, cash flow forecasting, strategic planning), feasibility studies, recruitment, interim executive CFO services, competitive grant writing and special projects that don't fit into any conventional category. You can contact Brent directly at bmorrison@morrisonco.net or via telephone at 530-893-4764 ext. 202.

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