retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

Back in my high school days I was something of a mediocre track runner. Yet I gleefully explain to people that my personal best time could have won me an Olympic medal if only I had been born 40 years earlier and if I were a woman.

Context matters in any story and it’s especially important when it comes to competition. Any business can look fabulous in one light and weak in another. It matters most when that other light includes your main competitor, who finds ways to make you look tired and dated.

Consider this lesson from the city of mega-theme parks, Orlando, Florida.

First, an explanation: For reasons I still can’t fathom, my two young-adult-aged children pushed for a family excursion to Orlando this winter. Although they have grown up nicely and maturely, when given the choice of where to go for a short vacation, one said the relatively new Harry Potter theme park at Universal, and the other opted for the new Fantasyland expansion in Disney’s Magic Kingdom.

In the process, we got a lesson in competition.

Harry Potter’s World is amazing. The detail is incredible, whether in the Hogwarts School or the hidden wizard shops of London or Hogsmeade. The park features two roller coasters, one of which has nicely themed features. Best of all is a ride through Hogwarts that combines elements of a flight simulator, a roller coaster and the Potter movies. In short, it works!

But that’s it. While I love the Harry Potter books and movies, the park held me (and the family) for just so long. Once we wondered out of that section, into Universal’s “Islands of Adventure," the experience starts to wane. The Jurassic Park area is as lifeless as some of the films. The cartoon area features comic strips that I vaguely recall my parents talking about. (Gasoline Alley? Really?) And I have no idea what the Atlantis/Poseidon area is all about other than a trip through theme park attractions that starting failing in the 1960s.

Beyond Harry Potter, only the Dr. Seuss area seemed interesting at all to me, my family and, best I could tell, most of the other people at the park that day. Somehow the staff seemed in sync with us. The only non-performing staffers who seemed firmly in character where the safety person who used Seuss-like rhymes to give us instructions and the bartender in Harry Potter land who said she doesn’t serve Muggle (non-wizard) beverages, when I asked for a Diet Coke.

(In truth, the single best performer at Universal was outside the park at Margaritaville. The young woman on stilts making balloon animals was worth the price of admission herself!)

All that said the biggest problem Universal has is just down the road. Because in Mickey Mouse, Harry Potter seems to have met his match.

Disney's Magic Kingdom doesn’t try to match the firepower of Universal’s roller coasters. While it has thrill rides, Disney clearly doesn’t bank on them as the attraction. Disney just works. Let me offer some ways beyond the long-known devotion to cleanliness and logistics (which remain stunning.)

Disney clearly stumbled onto something big with the entire princess thing. Over the past decade Disney pulled together its generations of princesses—from Cinderella to Belle—into a marketing powerhouse that draws little girls at the speed of light. Now they come to the park dressed as their favorite, can buy endless accessories and even get a “beauty” appointment. It made me endlessly happy that my daughter is far too old for this. It’s great marketing and it ensures an incredibly expensive day at the park.

Recognizing that little boys won’t want to dress as Jasmine or Mulan, Disney is pushing the male heroes of movies including pirates and princes. So even the boys can dress in costumes and accessorize with swords or Buzz Lightyear gear.

But really, those are only the window-dressing on the big package. What Disney continues to master is the narrative it has with customers. Inside Disney properties the real world ends and happiness—as Disney projects it—follows. Nearly every worker (cast member, of course) stays in line with the theme. New technologies like the Fast Pass (to hold a place in line) or the high tech experimental wristbands Kevin wrote about last week enhance the experience.

Likewise, while the attention is on new attractions like areas for Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, Disney made sure to add new features to old favorites like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean among others. Nothing major but just enough to show that no part of the park or no emerging franchise, like Captain Jack Sparrow, is forgotten.

And just like that, Disney delivers the lesson. It is the undisputed heavyweight champ, looking for ways to get bigger, better and more profitable, while down the road befuddled children look at an actress playing Betty Boop and wonder exactly who she is.

Context is everything.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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