Evaluating Changes at Disney

There’s a quote by Walt Disney that’s well-known with Disney fans and historians: “In this volatile business of ours, we can ill afford to rest on our laurels, even to pause in retrospect. Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.”

Walt was famous for “plussing” his attractions at Disneyland. In 1959, just 4 years after Disneyland opened to the public, Walt was already changing Tomorrowland, a problematic land he knew would always need changes as we moved toward the future. Even the most classic attractions, long-time favorites like The Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, have undergone many changes over the years. The Haunted Mansion didn’t always have an endless staircase or a floating Madame Leota, and Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t always feature Jack Sparrow and Captain Barbosa. Other classics like Jungle Cruise, Space Mountain, Matterhorn Bobsleds, and Spaceship Earth were provided with updates as well (many don’t realize Spaceship Earth is currently in its fourth version after a major refurbishment in 2007, which followed another major refurbishment in 1994).

“In this volatile business of ours, we can ill afford to rest on our laurels, even to pause in retrospect. Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.” – Walt Disney

In addition to attraction enhancements, we’ve also seen many attraction replacements: Test Track was once World of Motion; Mission: SPACE was once Horizons; Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin was once Delta Dreamflight; and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was once Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. While many original attractions were beloved, there’s no doubting the replacements stand the test of time. Could you imagine Epcot without Test Track or Disneyland without Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? They wouldn’t exist without change. In a [Disney] world with limited space and resources, sometimes the only option is to replace an old ride (although there’s no doubting in a perfect world we’d be able to experience extinct attractions alongside new favorites).

Could you imagine Epcot without Test Track or Disneyland without Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? They wouldn’t exist without change.

With every new change at Disney, there’s always a bit of resistance, especially now that Social Media has become a common form of communication: we gather around comments and posts that echo our own sentiments, so pockets of doubt become echo chambers of resistance. When it was announced that Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout would replace Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure Park, fans were up in arms. The same happened when Frozen Ever After was announced to replace Maelstrom at Epcot. Somehow, despite the resistance, these new attractions became instant classics at their respective parks, and while many still miss their old favorites, the majority of fans (both new visitors and repeat guests) adore the replacements.

The immediate resistance to change is human nature. In fact, according to a 2020 article from Columbia University, “when you try to convince people to overcome their confirmation bias, to show that a fact does not confirm their bias, their brains react as if they were in pain.” No wonder we dislike change. Our brains instinctively react as if we’re in pain.

Beyond the biological resistance to change, we also have to factor in the positive associations we have with our favorite Disney attractions. Almost everyone who visits Disney experiences strongly positive emotions. When we think about Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, we’re not attached to the ride itself but to the memories we have with the attraction. We remember the times we laughed the whole way through the Mad Tea Party alongside our siblings or faced our fears and held our mom’s hand riding Expedition Everest. When we experience positive memories with a part of Disney, our brains attach the attraction to the positive experience, so we mourn its change or replacement as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.

The issue with this nostalgia to a business like Disney is that it’s unsustainable. Instead, Disney is constantly working to keep its parks relevant and competitive while still enabling families to form new happy memories together. To do so, Disney must be constantly looking to keep ahead of parks like Universal Studios, Busch Gardens, and other competing destinations.

When we experience positive memories with a part of Disney, our brains attach the attraction to the positive experience, so we mourn its change or replacement as if we’re losing a part of ourselves.

Having visited Walt Disney World and Disneyland more times than I can recall, I have countless positive memories and nostalgic feelings about this place I call my second home. In fact, my first trip to Disney was at 4 months old and my earliest memory is visiting Epcot as a toddler. Still, I’m always excited about changes at the parks and have formed a strategy to overcome what I term “nostalgia bias” (not a scientific term but I think it applies).

The strategy I have formed is very easy to follow: simply pretend the change happened in reverse. This method removes nostalgia because nostalgia is always focused on the past, not the future, so when we imagine new attractions becoming old attractions, we trick our brain into thinking differently about our emotional attachment. It’s not a foolproof method, but I’ll share a few examples.

Imagine if the current version of Journey Into Imagination (with Dr. Nigel Channing) was the original and the oldest version (with Dreamfinder) was announced as a refurbishment. In this case, I would personally perceive the change as positive, so I can conclude that I truly find the original to be better than the current version.

Now let’s focus on a more recent announcement like the change of Splash Mountain. Imagine that the attraction was always focused on Princess and the Frog, featuring characters and songs from this animated Disney film. You’ll have to imagine what the attraction might be like for this exercise. Got it? Now pretend Disney made the following announcement: “Splash Mountain will be rethemed from Princess and the Frog to pay tribute to the songs and characters from Song of the South“. Especially since most people these days have not seen Song of the South, the change would likely be perceived as largely negative. In this case, we can conclude that the change to a Princess and the Frog theme will probably be largely positive.

For one more example, let’s pretend that Frozen Ever After was going to be replaced by Maelstrom. This one might be more of a toss-up, especially if you enjoy original attractions over rides based on existing films. Some might perceive the change as positive because we’d be getting a new kind of experience while others might perceive the change as negative because they love seeing their favorite characters and hearing their favorite songs from the hit film Frozen while at Epcot.

Again, this system isn’t foolproof, but I’ve found it really helps me to remove nostalgia when thinking about changes at Disney. While some changes mean we lose classic favorites, it always means we get something new: a new attraction to experience for the first time (we only get to experience something for the first time once in our lives), a new attraction to build new memories with our families, and a new experience through which the Imagineers get to impress us once again with their innovative technology and creative storytelling. Speaking of which, changes keep Imagineers employed at Disney! Without changes or additions, there’d be no reason to even have an Imagineering department.

While some changes mean we lose classic favorites, it always means we get something new…

Even when I’ve been resistant, I’ve come to love the replacements and changes at Disney. Looking back, the parks have truly changed for the better since I was a kid, and still, my positive sentiments around Disney have not waned in the slightest. If anything, they’ve only become stronger. The next time you hear about a change at Disney, think back to some of the biological reasons for that change and employ this method to remove “nostalgia bias”. What other ways do you objectively evaluate changes at Disney?

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