TCS Daily

When You Wish Upon a Buck

By Michael Rosen - March 14, 2007 12:00 AM

ANAHEIM, CALIF. (MAIN STREET, DISNEYLAND) - Next year marks the 80th anniversary of the debut of Walt Disney's Steamboat Willie - thought to be the first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse, who is arguably the best-known brand in the world.

Steamboat Willie - along with Disneyland, the forward-looking theme park inaugurated in 1955 - are emblematic of the trajectory and future of the empire that Disney built. As I returned to Disneyland earlier this year for the first time in 17 years to celebrate my son's fourth birthday, I had occasion to reflect on both the park and the cartoon, which screens on a constant loop in the Main Street Cinema.

First, both symbolize Disney's future-oriented approach - and its challenges. Steamboat Willie, one of the earliest animations to feature sound, ushered in the era of popular cartoons and branded characters. It foreshadowed decades of marketing and strategy carefully calibrated to consumer tastes.

Steamboat Willie itself is a decidedly politically incorrect film, depicting frightening violence (Mickey brandishes a sharp knife and is forcefully tossed around by his nemesis, Captain Pete), cruelty to animals (Mickey force-feeds a cow, hits a parrot with a potato, and yanks the tails of numerous beasts), and sexual harassment (Mickey deploys a hook to peek under Minnie's skirt). Today's MPAA would probably award it a PG-13 rating.

But such were the demands of the market at the time when the animation genre was still experimental and not explicitly directed at children. Once Disney figured out that the road to parents' wallets ran through their children's hearts and minds, he softened and shaped his characters appropriately.

The company took another major step forward in 1995 when along with its partner, Pixar, it released Toy Story - the first fully computer-animated feature-length film. Toy Story grossed over $350 million; all future Pixar films - such as Monsters Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004), and Cars (2006) - became runaway box-office (and critical) hits.

The future seems to lie in this direction. After Pixar briefly split in 2004, Disney quickly realized that its own CG arm just couldn't compete with the best. So once Robert Iger took the helm at Disney, he promptly acquired Pixar for a cool $7 billion. John Lasseter, one of Pixar's founders and the man with the idea behind Cars, was recently named Disney's "chief creative animation officer" and earned a fawning New York Times spread.

But nostalgia has made a comeback. After Disney shuttered its hand-drawn animation outfit in 2005, IMDB recently reported that a restoration was underway. Thus, uncertainty reigns in the debate over the future of animation.

Disneyland, too, reflects the creative tension that put Disney at the cutting-edge of innovation - and at a perennial inflection point. The park, like the animation, was way ahead of its time: its monorail is advertised as the first in the Western Hemisphere; its "Tomorrowland" sector is dedicated to inventions and space travel; and the park is thought to be the first venue to give children the opportunity to interact with real-life manifestations of their favorite characters. The enduring popularity of the Main Street Parade is a testament to this idea.

The park has also been at the forefront of creative solutions to managing traffic. The original, flawed system of E-ticket rides gave way to universal admission for a common (and uncommonly high) ticket price. And lately, the park has experimented with FastPass, a way to reserve a spot on the most popular rides without waiting in line.

But the park is also showing its age. During our visit, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Finding Nemo, and Dumbo's ride were all shut down for parts or all of the day. Many of the underused attractions - including Honey I Shrunk the Audience and Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin - signify the overestimation of the sticking power of certain films and characters. The Small World ride was still on "holiday" mode - three weeks into January. And of course, the $63 general admission price tag is incredibly steep.

Yet since big public companies need to keep growing to keep up with Wall Street expectations, Disney built a giant new amusement park on its old parking lot. California Adventure, which opened in 2001, targeted a more mature audience with scarier rides and alcohol for sale. Yet the park has largely failed to keep up with expectations, reportedly prompting Iger to acknowledge last year that "we're still working to assure [California Adventure] is successful...In the spirit of candor, we have been challenged."

Thus, Disney's theme park business, while ahead of its time and continually adapting, faces an uncertain future.

But in addition to an obsession with the future, Walt Disney crafted a strategy of tight control. Once consumer tastes were identified, the company would respond definitively and firmly, tendencies to which both Steamboat Willie and Disneyland bear witness.

In the animation context, this propensity manifested itself in a fierce insistence on intellectual property rights. Disney lobbied for the 1998 Copyright Term Extension Act, which lengthened the life of corporate copyrighted works to 95 years. Thus, Steamboat Willie won't fall into the public domain - where it can be freely copied - until approximately 2023. (To be fair, while 95 years is indeed a long period of time, Congress passed the 1998 bill in order to keep up with the comparably lengthy European copyright term.)

Disney ardently protects its brands on a worldwide basis and has proven more than willing to vindicate its IP rights in and out of court. At Disney's request, YouTube apparently removed Steamboat Willie from its servers.

In the Park that Walt Built, the stern, controlling aspect of the Company is also readily apparent. The streets and greenery are impeccably manicured and Main Street itself is designed to evoke a more innocent (some might say conformist) time in our history, all the way down to City Hall (the daily marching band performance of the anthems of all five military services, along with the striking (and folding) of the colors, is actually quite moving).

And the very format of the park is redolent of old-fashioned, pre-Internet consumer entertainment: take-it-or-leave-it, wait-on-line, one-size-fits-all, receive-what-we-give-you rides. Disney has wisely begun to expand its video gaming offerings, to enlarge its Internet presence, and even to make more interactive its Disney Channel programming, like Little Einsteins and the revitalized Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. But the bricks-and-mortar theme park is ever so slowly beginning to feel less like a creative innovation than a rigid anachronism.

Much as in Las Vegas casinos, it's darn near impossible to find a clock anywhere in the park, the idea being that happiness (along with fast food and souvenirs) transcends time.

This is not to say that Disney lacks a human touch. Ride attendants, cleaning crew, and parade performers alike went out of their way to shower smiles and attention on my birthday-boy son.

And in general, none of this is meant to criticize or exalt Disney. The company is a profit-maximizing concern that advances its bottom line, along the way brightening children's moods - and lightening their parents' pocketbooks.

But as Disney prepares to commemorate another major milestone in 2008, its future seems as wobbly as when Mickey first set out on his steamboat.

Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property columnist, is an attorney in San Diego. He dedicates this article to Eytan.


1 Comment

A little narrow here
When you make generalizations about Disney's theme park business facing an uncertain future, it would be a bit more believable if you at least considered the Orlando DisneyWorld complex. Disneyland may have history, but it certainly isn't the core of Disney's themepark venture.

The Orlando complex is stunning in scope. There is nothing old or run-down about it. Plenty of cutting edge themes and offerings.
Expensive, yes, but certainly worth it. It should be a life-experience for every child. My 3yr old loved it beyond words, and I'm looking forward to later years when he's tall enough to ride to more serious rides.

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