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Disney's Tom Staggs Talks about Aulani and Avatar

An Interview with the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman

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Tom Staggs talks about the parks and resorts at the grand opening of Aulani.

Tom Staggs talks about the parks and resorts at the grand opening of Aulani, Disney's resort on Hawaii.

© Arthur Levine, 2011. Licensed to About.com.

As part of the grand opening at Disney's Aulani resort on Oahu, Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts joined President and CEO Bob Iger in a ceremony complete with pomp, circumstance, and, of course, pixie dust and fireworks. I had a chance to sit down with the affable chairman prior to the hoopla for a free-ranging discussion about the parks. The following is an abridged and edited version of my interview with Staggs:

Q: How does Aulani fit into the company's parks and resorts business?

Tom Staggs: The best way to think about [what we do] is not to think of the physical things we build, but the essence of the experiences we create. Obviously we have the theme parks, but with the cruise ships, Adventures by Disney, and now with Aulani, it's about holistically creating experiences that are meant to be shared by families. So this is part and parcel to who we are; we don't think of it as a departure at all.

 

Q: Who do you see as your audience for Aulani?

There is the core Disney audience who has vacationed with us in the past. We're also going to have folks who are excited about going to Hawaii and also think [Aulani] is a nice way to check out Disney. I think we're going to see new folks who we haven't entertained before. It's broad geographically, which is true of Hawaii in general, in that it appeals to the States as well as the whole Pacific Rim. Disney has a very strong brand and reputation in Japan in particular.

In the cruise business, we find ourselves happily entertaining many multi-generational families, and I think we'll see that at Aulani as well -- parents, children, and grandparents vacationing together. There is something for everyone, and they can bond around the place and what they get to do here.

 

Q: Might there be other standalone Disney resorts, and if so, where? Are there any plans for the Washington, DC-area property the company purchased a couple of years ago?

If you look at everything we are doing, we have a really exciting array of projects going on, including the second of our two new cruise ships, Shanghai Disneyland, Avatar, and, of course Aulani. We have a real confidence in this business and a confidence in our ability to expand the Disney vacation brand. There are plenty more exciting things ahead. I'm not ready to announce the next thing yet, but we're going to continue to look for ways to create new experiences for our guests.

Most companies when they find something successful, they try to repeat their success. What we do [at Aulani] will factor into how we think about the business and our future expansion.

 

Q: To follow up, given the challenging economy, it's interesting to note that Disney is nonetheless forging ahead with new projects. Why are you investing when the prevailing wisdom among companies seems to be to stockpile their cash?

When we build things, we really do build them for the long term. By necessity -- and I guess we have the luxury -- we look beyond business cycles. Where the economy happens to be at any point in time tends not to have a dramatic effect on our outlook for the business. It can actually be a good idea to build when the economy is down; we've got that part of the equation right, I guess.

 

Q: Moving to Avatar, when did discussions begin with James Cameron?

[Disney has] been in touch about various projects with Jim through the years, but last spring we began talking in earnest and went to him with a vision for trying to realize Avatar in a pretty expansive way. We were excited, he was excited, and we spent the summer hammering out the deal.

 

Q: I get the sense that Cameron is a hands-on guy and that Avatar is his baby. Do you know what his role will be and what influence he will have on the project?

We're excited about him being heavily involved. It is his vision, and there is so much about the story that he has yet to tell. [Two more Avatar sequels are in the works.] We need his participation. This is something that will last for generations. We have experience with these kinds of collaborations: George Lucas with Star Wars and Steven Spielberg with Indiana Jones. Being able to tap into these legendary storytellers, even if their stories were created outside of our walls, has been really successful for us.

 

Q: When you've talked about the new Avatar land at Disney's Animal Kingdom, you've used the plural word, "attractions." Might there be multiple E-ticket rides?

We're too early in blue-sky to say how much E or D-ticket, but a good analogy is Cars Land that we're building at Disney California Adventure where we've got multiple attractions, entertainment, dining, and everything else that goes with that mini land. I walked that the other day and you are in Radiator Springs. That's what we want with our guests. We want them to forget the rest of the world around them and be immersed in the storytelling. And Avatar, when we pull that off, it's going to transport our guests.

 

Q: Might there be breakthrough technology used for the attractions?

We are already thinking about ways that we can leverage some of the technological innovation that we've been working on. This now gives us a new palette for storytelling. John Lasseter likes to talk about the art inspiring the technology and the technology inspiring the art. This is one of those projects where I see that loop kicking into gear.

 

Q: Can you envision the size and the scope of the Avatar land?

We anticipate it being a big addition to Animal Kingdom. We need to [have sufficient size and scope] to make sure guests are not pulled out of the story. It will be encompassing.

 

Q: Since the Avatar land may not open until 2015 or 2016, why did you announce the project so early?

We made the deal, and we figured since the deal was inked, and since we wanted to go to work in earnest, we might as well let people know what we're up to. In an ideal world, we would have talked about t at D23 [the Disney fan expo held in late August], but truth be told, we weren't done with the deal yet.

 

Q: I wonder whether the nature of today's news cycle and the Internet prompted you to release the info early and take control of it from the start.

We couldn't wait to tell people. But it will be a long time before we can invite people to cross the threshold.

 

Q: What is going on with Marvel?

We have restrictions on the way we can use Marvel in Florida, so the focus becomes our other venues around the world. This is a set of properties we are excited about exploring in the parks. We want to be very careful about how we explore them. The Marvel characters inhabit a real world. In the comics, the president of the United States is Barack Obama. I'm not saying Spider-Man is real -- and I'm not saying he isn't.

Our parks tend to be about fantasy worlds that we ask you to visit. Contemporary superheroes and villains strolling through Fantasyland? Not a good idea. How we place them in the parks is really important. We want to be really thoughtful about them. But you will see [Marvel] in the parks.

 

Q: Disney is reportedly spending a billion dollars into a "NextGen" project to capitalize on technology and create more personalized experiences at the parks. There has been little information released about this. When might we see something rolling out and what is the status of the project?

I talked in February at an investor conference about our ongoing effort to make sure that we are pushing our thinking and capabilities around the guest experience. It is driven by the realization that the consumer today is given more choice, more opportunity, and more expectations for customization and personalization. We are hard at work developing the tools to take advantage of the trend, and we think that there are really exciting ways to make it happen.

You're already seeing a little bit of it, such as the new queue lines at Winnie the Pooh and the Haunted Mansion in Florida, and we've talked about our plans for the new Dumbo attraction. We're taking what would otherwise be thought of as wait time and turning it into fundamental entertainment. Now the whole experience is an attraction, and we've upped your overall satisfaction level. That's what it's all about. But we've got other things up our sleeve as to how we can push ahead on what the guest experience at Disney means.

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