After a career that changed the landscape of the media and entertainment industry, as well as the literal landscapes of Disney Parks, today is Bob Iger’s last day working for the Walt Disney Company. In 2005, Iger was selected as the sixth person to serve as the Chief Executive Officer of the company. When that title was transferred to Bob Chapek in February of 2020, Iger was the second longest serving CEO in company history, with only Walt’s brother Roy having served longer in that role.
Over such a long tenure at the company, Iger’s impact and decision making can be analyzed in any number of ways. For this feed, it seems fitting to do a quick review on Iger’s legacy when it comes to Disney Parks and executing Walt’s vision for them.
First, it’s essential to remember the state of Disney Parks, and the rest of the company, at the time of Iger’s hiring as CEO in 2005 following the resignation of his predecessor, Michael Eisner. At that point, three major Disney Parks projects had recently been completed – Disney’s California Adventure (DCA), Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland – and all generally underwhelmed to put it mildly. But Iger initially faced even bigger challenges when he became CEO. As he recapped during an interview in a 2011 issue of the Harvard Business Review:
“We had been through a rough five-year period, with a hostile takeover attempt, a shareholder revolt, and a battle with two prominent board members. Those things created a tremendous amount of distraction and a negative perception of the company.”
The failures at the parks, like DCA, were largely due to the fact they were built on the cheap and the creative talents at Imagineering weren’t fully utilized. For example, a host of DCA attractions were “off the shelf” rides purchased from industry vendors rather than wholly developed by Imagineering like the wildly popular Soarin’ Over California. This theme of restrained investment in creative channels plagued Disney across the company.
In a quote that just as easily could have come from Walt himself, Iger has said “Fear of failure destroys creativity.” And like Walt, Iger quickly recognized that if you build theme park experiences that are truly exceptional and unlike anything else in the world, the business-side will work itself out. In the fall of 2007, Disney announced a 5-year, $1.1 billion renovation and expansion for DCA, featuring an all-new land based on the popular Cars movie. Cars Land opened in 2012 to rave reviews for its majestic Radiator Springs backdrops and a true E-ticket attraction in Radiator Springs Racers. It demonstrated the incredible talents of Disney’s Imagineers to bring worlds from its films to life in a new, completely immersive way. The detail and creativity that was poured into every aspect of the project, not just the attractions, is what sets it apart. It’s something that others often skip over and dismiss as something guests don’t value. Like Walt, Iger believed guests would notice and appreciate it.
Cars Land would become a model for Disney Parks in the years to come. In 2017, Pandora – The World of Avatar debuted at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Once again, Imagineers designed an immersive land that transported guests inside a fictional world they had only experienced before on a screen. In addition, Imagineers were given the ability (meaning budget) to again push the limits in terms of technology and audio-animatronics used in attractions. The Avatar Flight of Passage attraction significantly raised the bar on what a 3D simulator could achieve. The Na’Vi River Journey features an audio-animatronic shaman that is one of the most advanced figures ever attempted. There’s no doubt Walt would be delighted with its life-like movements.
It’s worth noting that Iger was not a theme park guy. He rose through the ranks of ABC, starting at the network before it was even acquired by Disney. His first interactions with the theme park side of the business didn’t really occur until he was named by Eisner as the company’s President and Chief Operating Officer in 2000. After becoming CEO, Iger’s key decisions involved major acquisitions, including Pixar (2006), Marvel (2009), and Lucasfilm (2012). While it’s hard to quantify how much of a factor theme park opportunities played in those acquisitions, they were surely not the predominant motivating factor in any of them.
Ultimately, the Lucasfilm acquisition set in motion what would eventually become the biggest addition to Disneyland in the park’s history. At the D23 Expo in 2015, Bob announced that a Star Wars-themed land was coming to both Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Walt Disney World. As with Cars Land and Pandora, Disney Imagineers were given tremendous resources to design an immersive world based on the Star Wars universe. The results were again tremendously successful and managed to somehow exceed the high expectations of even the most passionate Star Wars fans.
Walt’s design for Disneyland in 1955 featured “wienies” in each land that would draw the attention of park guests and motivate them to explore the land. While the Millennium Falcon in Galaxy’s Edge keeps a lower profile than other wienies in the park, it’s perhaps the most impressive. Meanwhile, the Rise of the Resistance attraction is the most ambitious attraction ever built in the history of the amusement park industry. Like a number of other great Disney attractions, Imagineers were forced to make technological breakthroughs in order to make the attraction a reality.
Disneyland enthusiasts can certainly debate whether or not a Star Wars-themed land is a good “fit” inside Walt’s original park. However, there can be no debate about whether or not the spirit of Walt’s intentions are reflected in the level of detail, imagination and guest experience.
Following in Walt’s footsteps at the top of the Walt Disney Company is no easy task, especially with so many Disney fans who hold such a close emotional connection with its parks, movies and characters. Iger explained in that Harvard Business Review interview how he balances tradition with innovation at Walt’s company:
“We have discussions about Mickey Mouse: What should he look like? How should he act? How do you take a character who was created in the 1920s—and is the number one licensed character in the world— and keep him relevant? Some people say, “Can’t touch that.” Well, Walt did. Walt innovated constantly. There are people who believe you should only do things “the way Walt did.” That’s kind of silly. Walt died in 1966. If we completely stuck to his script, we would probably look more like the 1960s than like this decade.”
According to Variety, “Disney’s value has shot up nearly five times what it was when Iger took over: Its market cap increased from $48.5 billion to $240 billion — close to a 400% increase.” The success of Disney Parks during the Iger era was a significant contributor to that record. Disney Parks fans, of course, use different metrics. As Walt would tell you, they show their approval by lining up for attractions and with their smiles as they ride them. He once stepped into his Main Street apartment from the balcony and told his guests, “there are a lot of happy people out there.” If you walk around the lands and attractions built during the Iger-era and observe the guests you’ll notice the same thing.