Bob Iger “Alarmed” By Disney World Price Increases & Disliked Layoff Plans

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With each passing day following Disney’s Bob Swap–firing Chapek and rehiring Iger–new revelations come to light about what led to the board ousting one Bob and bringing back the other, as well as the fallout between the dueling Bobs. Today, we have an update on that drama, along with Iger’s next moves as he looks to restore the “soul” of the Walt Disney Company.

We aren’t going to recap everything that has transpired thus far, just the details pertinent to understanding today’s drama. Late Sunday night, Disney Fired CEO Bob Chapek and Rehired Bob Iger as CEO. In case you missed it, that article recapped this saga dating back to 2020, covered why we weren’t surprised by this development, and also offered words of ‘warning’ for overly-excited Walt Disney World fans about the changes that might be on the horizon (more on that last point towards the end of this article).

Following that, Disney’s Battle of the Bobs: Why Chapek Was Fired, How Iger Returned & What’s Next offered more palace intrigue about the sequence of events since this summer when Disney’s board of directors renewed Chapek’s contract. It also covered Bob Iger’s new salary, how much Chapek was paid to go away, alternate candidates Disney’s board considered, who Iger fired on day one, restructuring changes he has planned, how he’s already made a positive difference, what else Iger can do to score easy wins as he reclaims the throne, and more…

This brings us to the third full day of Iger’s second reign as CEO, which has brought with it a slew of new revelations about the fallout between the Bobs, pictured together above. (Hey, we warned you that it was going to be a slow-trickle of rumors about the downfall of Chapek and Iger reclaiming the throne!) There’s also new cause for optimism about the future of Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and the company as a whole.

Let’s start with the past. According to a new report in the Wall Street Journal, there was tension from the beginning between Iger and Chapek. It all began a few weeks after the stunning change in CEOs, when the two sparred over layoffs. Iger wanted to delay any COVID-related layoffs until the CARES Act, a massive spending bill making its way through Congress meant to blunt the pandemic’s economic impact, was signed into law.

Iger argued that this would allow laid-off Disney Cast Members and employees to take full advantage of its statutory protections and government relief. At this point in time, there was already bipartisan agreement on providing an economic safety net so as to avoid mass unemployment and cataclysmic consequences–it was a foregone conclusion that relief was on the way, it was just a question of when and how much. Iger’s calculation was that it was better to wait–both for the sake of Cast Members and the company.

Chapek, pictured above, wanted to rush the layoffs, feeling enormous pressure to cut costs and preserve cash. As you might recall, the international parks were all closed–some for a couple of months–by this point, and the company was hemorrhaging money. Then in mid-March, both Walt Disney World and Disneyland closed.

In the end, Iger “overruled” Chapek, and convinced Disney’s board of directors that it was pragmatic to wait. Disney continued to pay Cast Members from then until late March, despite the closure. Iger ended up being vindicated, in both the short and long term. Had Disney laid off tens of thousands of Cast Members then, they would’ve been among the first high-profile companies to do so; even in that climate, it would’ve been highly controversial.

That’s to say nothing of the human impact on Cast Members. Then-President Trump signed the CARES Act into law on March 27, a little over a week after the domestic parks closed. Once the CARES Act was signed into law and Cast Members would have protection via that, Disney began to furlough tens of thousands of workers in early April. Disaster averted–or at least delayed.

Ultimately, both Walt Disney World and Disneyland laid off over 28,000 Cast Members in Fall 2020, which was one of several waves of company-wide layoffs. It was heartbreaking news then, and one we said was chosen from a “veritable buffet of least-bad choices” at the time. Now we know how much worse things could’ve been if Chapek had gotten his way.

As a result of the layoffs at Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and area hotels, Central Florida had the highest unemployment rate in the country. This has been quickly forgotten as the broader economy and theme parks have bounced back, but that was truly a tough fall and holiday season–and one that saw many Cast Members reliant upon food banks to survive.

With the benefit of hindsight, the layoffs were also a bad long-term decision for Walt Disney World and Disneyland. On both coasts, the parks have struggled to rehire and retain new Cast Members. Capacity is reduced as a result in a multitude of ways, most of which have meant Disney is leaving money on the table during a period of unprecedented demand and consumer spending on travel. (The more vindictive among you might experience a sense of schadenfreude at Disney experiencing financial loss due to the decision to lay off Cast Members. Sadly, I doubt that’s the lesson learned by many at the company.)

According to the Wall Street Journal, Chapek was infuriated by Iger doing an end-run around him to prevent the layoffs in March, complaining to his inner circle that “he was being undermined from the minute he was promoted.” Chapek was frustrated because Iger had indicated he would focus exclusively on creative work in his new role as executive chairman, but was interfering in day-to-day matters that were supposed to be the CEO’s domain. This was something we covered back in April 2020–turns out those rumors were very much accurate.

Over the past two years, there were multiple stories like this. Iger made it known to friends and former colleagues that he disapproved of changes Chapek was making at Disney, setting off a whisper campaign across Hollywood that never allowed Chapek to escape his predecessor’s shadow. Chapek also never escaped critique, as these ‘whispers’ were inevitably published in the Hollywood trades, New York Times, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, it doesn’t really seem like Chapek had any friends or allies in Hollywood.

Iger’s disdain for Chapek was an open secret in the entertainment industry. Several people who dined with Iger in Los Angeles over the past several months have told a multitude of media sources that Chapek’s mishandling of the Disney brand and legacy was a frequent lunch conversation topic. Iger felt that Chapek was taking Disney in the wrong direction, and Iger would fixate on the topic so much that it became “uncomfortable,” according to some associates. (Perhaps Iger should’ve dined and with some of the folks in the comments section here for proper and mutual commiseration!)

Iger felt that Chapek had prioritized streaming business growth at the expense of the rest of Disney, like cable television and the theme parks. Disney+ was one of the few bright spots for the company, and Chapek dramatically boosted growth projections. Honestly, it was difficult to fault Chapek for that at the time–the theme parks were closed or slowing recovering and losing billions of dollars per quarter at the time. Streaming was really the only card he had to play for at least his first 6 months as CEO.

Nevertheless, Iger thought Chapek’s projections went too far, and that he was too beholden to changes in Disney’s stock price. Iger was also “alarmed by increases in prices at Disney theme parks that Mr. Chapek argued would boost revenue and limit overcrowding,” according to people who spoke with Iger.

As previously mentioned, Iger received countless calls from creative executives and former colleagues at Disney who were frustrated with Chapek. The feeling was mutual. “He’s killing the soul of the company,” said Iger on more than one occasion. This refrain might as well have come from Walt Disney World and Disneyland fans, as it echoes so much sentiment shared here over the last couple of years. (Doesn’t it feel vindicating to know that someone in a position of power–the position of power–at Disney agrees with you?!)

In another move that might as well be pulled from the fandom, Iger drove a car with a customized license-plate frame that asked: “Is there life after Disney?” It appears that Iger’s life outside Disney mirrored his final years inside the company, when it appeared that he did not want to leave, and repeatedly delayed his retirement plans.

Bob Iger has wasted no time in reshaping Disney after returning as CEO. In a memo to division leadership, Iger announced restructuring will begin “in the coming weeks.” As part of that, Kareem Daniel, chairman of Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution and protege of Bob Chapek, was fired.

Prior to leaving, Chapek sent a memo to executives that “tough and uncomfortable” cost-cutting decisions would be made, including a hiring freeze, layoffs, and other austerity measures. This mandate reportedly blindsided multiple high-level leaders and alienated them even further from Chapek. (However, it is what many unprofitable tech ventures are doing right now, which is how you’d categorize the Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution that currently controls Disney+ and other streaming services.)

Iger now has the chance to undo this yet-unmade decision. He has indicated that correcting the company’s finances is a top priority, and it’s widely expected that Iger’s early emphasis will be to stem the bleeding and ensure that Disney’s streaming businesses are actually on a path to profitability. That might mean more layoffs are in store for DMED, as well as more scrutiny over spending, production, and distribution plans for media.

After hitting the ground running, Iger sent out an email before the Thanksgiving break informing employees and Cast Members about an upcoming town hall on November 28, 2022 at 9 am Pacific. During this, Iger will discuss his vision for the future of the Walt Disney Company and field questions from employees. He’s expected to use the discussion as an opportunity to further boost Cast Member morale, which has already jumped considerably since Iger’s return.

Iger says that he is focused on building on the company’s rich history and legacy of “creativity, innovation, and inspiration.” Thus far, he hasn’t offer specifics about his plans for the future, beyond the “organizational and operating changes” coming to DMED and other areas of the company that will “restructure things in a way that honors and respects creativity as the heart and soul of who we are.”

When it comes to commentary, there’s a lot to unpack here. I already peppered the portion about layoffs and furloughs with my personal thoughts, but want to underscore what a significant positive difference Iger made there. While it’s fair to say we don’t know the full story, we do know that it would’ve been worse had Iger not intervened. (And it was already pretty bad back in mid to late 2020.)

From my perspective, this anecdote is a worthwhile prism through which to view much of the last two years. If you asked many fans for their ‘reaction’ to the furloughs and layoffs at the time, and how they viewed Bob Iger and Josh D’Amaro as a result, the majority likely would’ve had unkind words (mild understatement) to say. To be sure, we certainly wouldn’t have been lavishing praise on either of them at that specific moment. And yet, behind the scenes, at least one of them was fighting to do the right thing.

More recently, we have repeatedly expressed confidence in both D’Amaro and Jeff Vahle, the president of Walt Disney World. We’ve also repeatedly noted that, as difficult as it might be to believe, there are individuals who care and are pushing for positive changes at the parks, but their hands are tied due to orders from above.

Hopefully the anecdote about layoffs illustrates how even high-level leaders are powerless when there’s a mandate from above. In this case, Chapek was overruled by the board of directors by way of Bob Iger, literally the only person on earth who could’ve pulled off such a move. Does anyone now have any doubt that other Chapek mandates were unpopular with his subordinates, but they didn’t have the leverage or influence to do anything about it?

In case there’s any question about where Josh D’Amaro stands with Iger, it’s worth noting that he was promoted multiple times (including to the high-profile position of Walt Disney World President) under the first Iger regime. He also was not fired as soon as Iger returned, a la Kareem Daniel. Most notably, D’Amaro was floated as a potential CEO successor in recent reporting, much of which was almost certainly sourced from the Iger camp.

Knowing that Iger was in active communications with past colleagues and that he was “alarmed” by Chapek’s price increases, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if Iger and D’Amaro spoke directly about this topic over the last two years. This could be one reason why D’Amaro kept a low profile when it came to most unpopular decisions. (As I’ve said before, I will readily admit it if my defense of D’Amaro ends up being a bad take–but I’ve heard enough positive things about him from people I trust that I’m willing to go out on a limb and believe that he was backed into a corner over the last couple years.)

Bob Iger will have the chance to undo more of this damage in the days and weeks to come. Next week’s town hall will be particularly illuminating in that regard. While I’m expecting it’ll be mostly a morale booster that’s vague on specifics, it will presumably reveal some insight into the future of the media divisions and parks & resorts, if not direct details.

In an earlier post, we wrote that “Walt Disney World fans should not overestimate what’s in the purview of the Walt Disney Company’s CEO. Bob Iger is not going to come in this holiday season and give the gift of Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, unlimited Park Hopping, Annual Pass sales, reservation-free visits, lower prices, or the Disney Dining Plan.”

Honestly, I’m now much less confident in that assessment today than I was two days ago. I still think it’s probably true that none of those things will immediately change. Even though I believe Iger was being sincere about his alarm over the pace and degree of price increases, I also think he’ll have a difficult time rolling back any of that.

It’s very difficult to put the genie back in the bottle–both literally and figuratively–once the company gets a taste of that sweet upcharge revenue. Many of the highly-touted 40% increases to per guest spending have been driven by ticket and resort price increases, and further fueled by monetizing FastPass.

Given that he was brought it to stem the bleeding and improve Disney’s financials, I have a difficult time believing that Iger is going to take the immediate hit on Genie+ and the other upcharges just to improve goodwill among Walt Disney World fans. It’s very difficult to envision a way that he does that in the near-term given the uphill battle that Disney+ and Hulu face.

With that said, I’m heartened by the very fact that price increases are on Bob Iger’s radar as something he disliked at all. To be sure, prices increased a lot under throughout Iger’s first tenure as CEO (a trend that really got going at the end of Eisner’s run), so it’s not like he’s totally “innocent” in that regard.

However, I can recall at least a couple of times when the Iger regime made comments about deliberate and measured (or something to that effect) price increases that were below what the market would bear. At the time, I wrote this off as posturing, but maybe there was truth to it? Perhaps there was a reason why paid FastPass was long-rumored under Iger, but never actually came to fruition?

In short, this has me believing that Iger will specifically roll back some of the unpopular changes at Walt Disney World and Disneyland over time. I’m not going to pretend to know when or what form that’ll take, as this is a really difficult needle to thread and bell to unring for investors and other stakeholders.

Perhaps Iger will pause the previously-announced but not yet implemented ticket price increase slated for Walt Disney World in December 2022? Maybe other, bigger changes will occur next spring, coinciding with an expected economic downturn or exhaustion of pent-up demand? This would be my guess. I doubt we see many, if any, tangible fruits of Iger’s return at Walt Disney World or Disneyland until 2023. I think Iger will have his hands full with streaming and other problem points until then.

Ultimately, this opens the door for a lot of positive, guest-friendly changes at Walt Disney World in the not-too-distant future. A lot of revealing information has come to light in the last few days, and it further reinforces what many of us suspected for a while about the night and day differences between Chapek and Iger. Even if they carried out some similar initiatives, there are very clear contrasts between how the two view the history and legacy of the Walt Disney Company, and their visions for its future. Personally, I’m excited to see a return to Iger’s version of that, especially now that he is thinking more about his legacy and knows how things could go without him.

With that said, just as I warned you against getting overly excited about the tangible improvements resulting from Iger’s return, I’m now trying to do the same, myself. While this may simply seem like a rumored statement or insignificant remark, the important thing to remember is that Iger is nothing like Chapek when it comes to communications. Everything Iger does is meticulously scripted and choreographed–the man is a master at messaging. He would not have allowed his camp to leak this without there being any greater purpose. I don’t know about you all, but I’m once again optimistic for what the future holds with the Walt Disney Company’s leadership.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think about the Iger’s efforts to thwart Chapek from laying off Cast Members? What about Iger’s claim that he was “alarmed” by price increases at Walt Disney World and Disneyland? Thoughts on anything else discussed here? Think Iger will bring back Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, unlimited Park Hopping, Annual Pass sales, reservation-free visits, lower prices, or the Disney Dining Plan? Or, do you think we’re reading too much into his comment? Are you bullish or bearish about the company’s future as the Walt Disney Company enters its 100th year? Think things will get better or worse throughout 2023? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

 

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