Last updated: 09:30 AM ET, Mon June 01 2015

Disney: Marrying Technology with Tradition

Hotel & Resort | Ryan Rudnansky | June 01, 2015

Disney: Marrying Technology with Tradition

Photo by Ryan Rudnansky

If there’s any company that can sit back, rely on tradition, and watch the customers roll in, it’s the Walt Disney Company.

Plop Mickey and Minnie Mouse in front of kids and they pretty much don’t need anything else.

But Disney didn’t get to where it’s at by sitting back. It’s become a model company for the power of innovation. And the company’s focus on technology these days is a prime example.

Disneyland recently held its 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration. For the celebration, the resort/theme park introduced three new live shows: a new World of Color show, the Paint the Night parade, and the Disneyland Forever fireworks spectacular. Each show showcased advanced technology. The World of Color show and Disneyland Forever used projection technology to beam different colors, patterns, and animated Disney scenes across water and Main Street buildings, respectively. The Paint the Night parade featured 1.5 million lights adorned on floats, Disney characters, and performers, all of them individually controlled and many of them of the LED variety.

In an intimate session with media, Kenneth Svendsen, senior vice president of global sales at the Walt Disney Company, talked about the important role technology is playing for Disney today. He admitted Disney “had not invested enough (in technology) in the last half decade.”

That has changed recently.

In addition to a re-envisioning of the World of Color show and the classic Main Street Electrical Parade (courtesy of Imagineer extraordinaire Steve Davison), Disney is using technology to its advantage in a number of different ways.

For example, six to eight months ago travel agents couldn’t make modifications to bookings online, but now they can.

“This was a big desire from travel agents for years,” Svendsen said.

While bookings aren’t mobile-friendly yet (another major request from travel professionals), Disney is taking the steps to make bookings seamless via mobile devices in the future.

That seamless online experience extends to the guest, from updating and introducing mobile apps to fast and responsive customer service, to improving online browsing and download speeds.

“The guest wants multiple (online) channels,” Svendsen said. “You gotta live 24/7 all the time.”

Technology and the Internet has also allowed the world to access different points of view and ways of thinking quickly and on a broad scale, Svendsen added.

“If we just lived in isolation, those (local) ideas would never stretch our minds,” he said.

But while keeping up with technological trends (and trends in general) is a key component to staying ahead of the curve and propelling innovation, Svendsen said Disney doesn’t just ride any new trend that is causing buzz for a “fast buck.” Oftentimes, the trend has to sustain globally for Disney to focus on it.

For instance, Disney isn’t focusing that much on technological trends in China right now primarily because technology in China is moving too fast and trends are coming and going at a great rate, Svendsen said. Sure, attaching to a new fad in China may be a good way of making a fast buck these days (considering the population growth and the rise in income in the country), but it’s about sustainability for Disney.

Svendsen also talked about having a “consumer-centric focus on doing the right thing.” In other words, don’t just throw something out there that might not be developed properly to ride a trend, regardless of how the overall experience will be for the guest.

“Let’s do this in a controlled format so there’s not an uncomfortable experience for the customer,” he said.

During all his time with Disney, Svendsen said this was the one philosophy of Disney that stood out the most for him.

Of course, if Disney simply said, “Out with the old, and in with the new,” the company would probably hurt itself. Disney’s blueprint is just as much about maintaining a balance between technology and tradition as it is keeping up with technological trends.

Traditional Disney characters such as Mickey and Minnie Mouse still appear just about everywhere, in Disneyland and beyond. Mickey Mouse ears are still the top-selling merchandise for Disney. Mickey and Minnie mugs were introduced for the Diamond Celebration. Even the new popcorn buckets recreate the look of the 1955 Mickey ear balloons.

The goal for the Diamond Celebration itself was to create “a nostalgic look at the past” while also looking toward the future, Disneyland Ambassador Jessica Bernard said at a pre-Diamond Celebration media event.

Tinker Bell’s wand from the original Main Street Electrical Parade was included in the Paint the Night parade, for example, while numerous traditional Disney characters appeared on floats. Scenes depicting “Fantasia,” “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King” were projected onto buildings for Disneyland Forever. The World of Color show was a tribute to the creator himself, Walt Disney, with Mickey as the co-host.

“Disney memories are precious to us all,” said Lynn Clark, vice president of travel agency sales and national accounts for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts. “They sparkle like diamonds.”

Finding that right balance is key for Disney, whether it is appealing to old fans or attracting the next generation of guests.

So, how does Disney do this effectively?

“Part of the secret sauce,” according to Svendsen, is monitoring “the pulse” of guests.

Once again, technology meets tradition in this respect. Not only does Disney conduct online surveys of guests and research them digitally, but it also makes sure to assess the needs of guests at the physical parks. Putting a face to the name, so to speak.

“You can’t be anchored to things you don’t stay close to,” Svendsen said. “You have to be close to the pulse.”

Judging by the reaction to the Diamond Celebration and the visitor count during Disneyland’s 60th year, it’s safe to say Disney has found that pulse.

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