The Disney Echo has received permission from the St. Petersburg Times to reprint for you this imaginary letter from a depressed and worn out Mickey Mouse to Walt Disney expressing his concerns over the Disney Company's recent economic performance and business decisions.
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Where has the magic gone?
Facing drops in park attendance, a failed Web business, lawsuits and labor problems, among others, Disney has fallen from its perch on top of the entertainment industry.
By ROBERT TRIGAUX
Copyright © St. Petersburg Times 2001,
published July 8, 2001
To: Walt Disney
From: Mickey Mouse
Re: What's a kingdom without magic?
Walt, I've resisted writing you all those years when things looked bleak at your Walt Disney Co. But now there's no one left to turn to. I know you're in no position to respond to this letter. In fact, I'm not even sure where to send it!
When I try to squeak my mind these days, CEO Michael Eisner just pats my ears and says: "Mickey, you're 72. Go nibble some soft cheese!" He won't even share the keys to the executive washroom with me.
I just feel I had to write somebody.
Walt, there's little magic left in my wand. I haven't whistled while I worked in years. It's tougher than ever for this old mouse to stand tall as the great Disney symbol when so many new things we try turn to lead.
The Magic Kingdom's sprung so many leaks, I'm not sure where to begin. Well, here goes:
Our "sure-hit" summer movie blockbuster -- Pearl Harbor -- did not wow the critics and probably won't reach our profit expectations. And the ABC TV network -- we own that now, Walt -- is suffering from declining ad sales from a lack of prime-time hits.
We just opened a brand new theme park right next to good ol' Disneyland in Anaheim. But this one ... I don't know. We call it California Adventure. It's only two-thirds the size of Disneyland and has just 22 attractions, compared with 60 at Disneyland. For the same entrance fee, it's a big yawn with what amounts to a big plug for Mondavi wines sitting in the middle of it. (They even serve ... alcohol!)
And between you and me, Walt, that Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando isn't bowling over the tourists, either. Now we've started heavy discounting to keep the crowds coming.
I hesitate to tell you this, Walt, but we lost money last quarter! More than half a billion dollars lost from write-downs of our online business and shuttering nearly 70 of our weakest-selling Disney stores around the country.
Can you believe we're firing people? We're nearly done cutting 4,000 jobs to trim expenses. The last time we felt such a big pinch was way back in 1974.
We've got a terrible, ongoing brain drain of top creative talent and executives who are leaving our company. (Do you think it's mouse breath?)
Our stock is under ฬ a share -- pretty much sitting where it was two years ago. And Warren Buffett -- the high priest of stock investors -- gave us the heave-ho when he slashed his stake of 20-million shares by 80 percent early this year. Now analysts like Richard Simon at Goldman Sachs are downgrading Disney and lowering fiscal 2002 earnings estimates, citing a continuing decline in ad revenue from our television networks.
Disney is firing on one cylinder, says another analyst, Scott Davis at First Union.
There's more, Walt. So much more. But I'm not the spry mouse of old. Can't even give Minnie a good chase anymore. Give me a moment to catch my breath.
Before I go on, Walt, let me say it's not all bad. You'd never recognize your own company, that's for sure. We're big, Walt, even colossal with 117,000 employees. From revenues of ũ.65-billion back in 1984, we're now topping ษ-billion annually. Our market value is ้-billion.
That Eisner. Notoriously tightfisted, but grew up affluent in a Park Avenue apartment in Manhattan. Sure is full of himself. Filled Disney's board with directors who are his buddies. Gets paid megabucks by that same board, too.
Walt, you'd be spinning if I told you how much. (During the last five years, Eisner's made 辁-million.)
Still, running Disney is no picnic. So big. So much to live up to. Always under pressure to make the next great family movie, the next great theme park, the next great prime time TV show or the next great cruise ship, the next great Broadway show to top The Lion King. (Come to think of it, our takeover of Manhattan's Times Square was one Eisner initiative that showed your old boldness and imagination.)
And Walt, the entertainment competition! AOL Time Warner is a behemoth. Vivendi Universal, Viacom, Sony -- even a frighteningly powerful business called Microsoft (that's a whole different memo, Walt) -- they're all like sharks waiting for one another to bleed!
But they still respect Disney. I remember back in 1994 when Warner Brothers wanted to release a new movie version of the story Thumbelina. Warner did a test screening and the response was flat. On a whim, Warner stripped its own name off and put Disney's atop the same movie clip. The test audience loved it.
Walt, that's clout.
We still have some of it. But we're burning through our reputation with too many bonehead actions, like these:
We've tried to become an entertainment powerhouse on something called the Internet -- Walt, you wouldn't believe how it works -- but we've pretty much screwed it all up. We got in late and spent a fortune trying to build a Web portal called Go.com. But it was a dud.
Here's one that really burns me. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge recently scolded us for failing to turn over a list of people who claim to have suffered brain injuries after riding on Disneyland attractions. We've gone nuts trying to make rides that make people feel like they're in a blender. Now there are new concerns over high-speed roller coasters. Will this all come back to haunt us with class-action injury lawsuits?
We've got labor complaints aplenty, Walt! Just Friday, after months of bumpy negotiations, lower-wage union workers -- including some who dress up as me and Goofy, Pluto, Cinderella, Minnie and Donald -- finally endorsed a new wage agreement covering 25,000 of our 55,000 employees at Disney World. Starting minimum wage would increase to Ů.50 an hour this year, up 15 cents. And workers in the highest labor grade at Disney World could earn ย.88 an hour.
Even the Baptists are after us, Walt! Conservative groups like the Southern Baptist Convention want the company to change its policy on gays.
I'm so ashamed, Walt. We're toying with gambling by backing a pay-to-play online game venture. Our execs pooh-pooh my concerns. They say unlike actual gambling, where the payout is determined by chance or a "contingent event" such as a horse race or a pro sports contest, these Internet games involve pure skill or knowledge. I'm not sure people will see the difference.
We had great nationwide expansion plans for a souped-up video arcade in downtown Chicago called DisneyQuest. Instead, we will close its doors in September after a two-year run. Why? It failed to live up to our financial expectations. Chicago was our first location outside Orlando for our "indoor interactive entertainment venue."
This one is so embarrassing, Walt. A circuit judge last fall upheld a 趐-million verdict against us for stealing the idea for an Orlando sports complex from two businessmen. Our attorneys are appealing, but we still expect to discuss a possible settlement this summer with All Pro Sports Camps Inc. The 趐-million blow is one of the largest jury verdicts in our history.
Wages aren't the only employee beef. After months of negotiations, Disney World workers who play important characters such as me recently won an important concession: clean undergarments. Now workers will be assigned individual undergarments they can take home each night to clean instead of relying on our apparently less-than-thorough launderers.
Now don't get upset, Walt. You did your part -- magnificently -- to make your company an American gem. Now we're paying the price of such high expectations of Disney by tourists, moviegoers, TV viewers and Wall Street investors.
If you could respond to my letter, Walt, I think I'd know what advice you'd offer. I well remember one of your favorite lines -- one so appropriate for our company today.
Just when everybody's saying how great you are, that's when you're most vulnerable.
You got that right, old buddy.
Well, Walt, thanks for listening. You've helped this old mouse more than you know. It's time to stop my whining, fix that magic wand and get back to the job of making Disney a worldwide name to remember.
I'll write again, Walt. Right now, it's off to work I go.
This is no Mickey Mouse job, you know.
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Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email=mailto:email@example.com]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email] or (727) 893-8405.
Copyright St. Petersburg Times 2001
Reprinted by permission