A Theme Park University reader recently posed the following on our TPU Facebook wall: “When did Walt Disney world get away from sponsors of restaurants and attractions? Coca-Cola used to sponsor The American Adventure and Kraft Foods then later Nestle sponsored The Land.” He’s right. Sponsorships are hard to come by these days and seem to be dwindling in numbers from Walt Disney World as well as Universal Orlando and Sea World.
As expected, the answer is complicated. I am not a spokesperson for Walt Disney World, Universal Studios or any other theme park entity, so the response I can give is based purely on conversations I have had with various managers, creative consultants and even third-party vendors who are all involved in the attraction design process. Over the years, this very subject has come up several times (yes, I am THAT kind of nerd) and when speaking candidly (as well as off the record), I think I have a pretty good grip on the situation.
First, it’s important to understand how important corporate sponsorship has helped drive theme parks like Disney over the years. When Walt opened Disneyland in 1955, he needed corporate sponsors just to get some attractions open for opening day. Kaiser’s Hall of Aluminum Fame, Dutch Boy Paint Color Gallery and The Monsanto Hall of Chemistry were all a way to get sponsors to help pay for Disneyland as well as offer an attraction to the public, most often without having to use an A through E Ticket.
When Epcot Center opened in 1982, the budget sky rocketed well over $1 billion. That is a heckuva lot of money to open a theme park, even by 2014 standards. However, Disney forked over next to none of it considering that nearly every single attraction or pavilion had a sponsor. In Disney Legend Jack Lindquist’s book, “In Service to the Mouse,” he goes into great detail about what it was like having to try and find sponsors for Future World and World Showcase attractions before Epcot Center opened to the public. It’s a fascinating read and if it’s not in your home library, click on any of the Amazon links on this page and type in his name and you can purchase it right now.
Those sponsorships paid for the majority of Epcot Center. Either countries or corporations paid millions of dollars a year on either a five-or 10-year contract and in return, millions of guests a year would see their name associated with a Disney attraction. The flip side, of course, is that those corporations often dictate what “their” attraction will look like to make sure they are spending their marketing dollars wisely.
Take, for example, a rather mild version with Kodak’s sponsoring of the original Journey Into Imagination pavilion. They changed Figment’s color from green (the color of rival Fuji film’s logo) to purple and slapped a yellow and red sweater on the little guy, which also happens to be the colors of their logo. Indeed, there is a moment where your picture was taken in the ride and later displayed on a screen – definitely not a coincidence. In addition, there are many spots in the ride where you’ll see film strips including the finale seen where you could see Figment shaking his tush on a reel of film.
Next door, the pre-show to the Magic Eye Theater featured a song written by the Sherman Brothers called “Making Memories.” You remember…
Making memories, making memories
Taking pictures is making memories
Catching little pieces of time
Making them yours, making them mine.
Great vacations and celebrations
Can fade away in a year.
But when we’re making memories,
Happy days can reappear!
A catchy tune for sure, but make no mistake about it, it’s a jingle for Kodak film. Back in 1982, this was a great way to get your message across. However, now it’s 2014 and my how times have changed. In order to keep Kodak happy (and to get them to renew their sponsorship contract), they neutered the original Journey Into Imagination and shortened the ride significantly so guests would have to walk through an interactive space at the exit of the ride (instead of using the Imageworks on the second floor) that showcased interactive kiosks where guests could take digital photos of themselves, tweak them with various fun effects and then upload them to an e-mail account (where you could also receive news from Kodak).
Kodak ultimately called the shots and Disney fans paid the price for one of their beloved attractions was gone. A few months after the second version of the attraction opened, Kodak added a post-show with a giant digital camera and a live “lab technician” in a ten-minute presentation all about the joys of digital photography. Turns out, Kodak was now in the digital photo business and they could sell you a camera that you could upload pics of your Disney vacation and e-mail them to Grandma and save on postage!
Funny thing, as of 2012, Kodak no longer sells cameras of any kind, digital or film. They got in the printer business for a little while and now that has flickered out too. Thanks to the internet, the world truly is in a global marketplace. Big corporations have to be nimble in order to compete, or else competition can come in and “squash you like a cockroach” as Kevin O’Leary on ABC’s “Shark Tank” often says.
Let’s continue to use Kodak as an example, shall we? Let’s say that Kodak agreed to continue to sponsor Journey Into Imagination in 2011, just before the decision to nix sales of digital cameras and printers. Hypothetically, they just signed a 10-year deal that ends in 2021. As of 2014, Kodak no longer sells consumer products. At all. They create digital presses that can create a 260-page novel in 2.5 seconds, flexographic systems that can make packaging more vibrant for consumers and they have come up with a manufacturing process that streamlines the mass-production of touch screen sensors. Try to get that message across in an attraction. More importantly, consumers no longer need to hear from Kodak, meaning they don’t need to advertise to the family of four from Boise anymore.
Now let’s use another example: Coca-Cola. Most likely, the soft drink giant won’t be getting out of the carbonated beverage business anytime soon (but ya never know!), so it’s safe to sign a sponsorship for, let’s say, the new Avatar attraction opening at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Coke wants to make sure their message gets across, so they ink a deal as soon as Disney announces working with James Cameron in 2011. Let’s pretend that they design a Coke Avatar character (red and white striped, of course) and even a beverage exclusive to the land from its new Coca-Cola Freestyle machines.
Disney, for better or worse, takes a lot of time in R&D as well as an insane amount of time fine tuning the details of new attractions like Avatarland in Animal Kingdom. Now, this new land is scheduled to open until sometime in 2017. Not kidding, that’s the real opening date as of this writing. Now let’s say that in 2016, Coca-Cola gets a new CEO and an entirely new marketing team that changes their brand colors from red and white to orange and purple. In addition, hypothetically, they have been sued over their Freestyle soda machine due to an issue with the patent and are no longer allowed to use it. Seems silly, but using Kodak as an example, crazier things have happened.
Now let’s say Coke wants to create a new marketing strategy. A new jingle, new ads, new products and more. They create a new mobile app for smart phones, viral videos and pay for product placement on every major reality competition show in the 2015 season in addition to a brand new 30-second spot television ad. All that can be done in a few months, the message isn’t tied into any other corporation (like Disney) and there is no waiting several years for anyone to see those marketing dollars put to use.
Bear in mind, I am not saying corporations don’t or shouldn’t sponsor attractions in a theme park. Clearly, General Motors did a great job retrofitting Test Track with all new technology and a great way for guests to interact with their product. However, the world is changing and there are a lot more options out there to market your brand. Disney, Universal, Sea World and virtually any other theme park still welcome sponsors with open arms, but it’s not as easy of a sell as it was back in 1955 when Disneyland opened.
I know this is an incredibly detailed and complex answer to your question, but sometimes answers don’t always come in a bite size package. Your thoughts?