Skift Take

It's extremely rare for a company to make it to 100 years old, especially in this era of global competition. Watch Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro discuss how the company will continue to thrive and push boundaries around storytelling and experiences.

In one year, the Walt Disney Company will be an astounding 100 years old. At Skift Global Forum, Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Chairman Josh D’Amaro excitedly talked to Skift Senior Research Analyst Seth Borko about the company’s upcoming birthday and its dreams for the next 100 years.

In the on-stage conversation, D’Amaro spoke about how Walt Disney’s original business plans were far ahead of his time. Now, the company can further their founder’s vision with immersive storytelling that mixes virtual and physical experiences, he said. Borko and D’Amaro also discussed how Disney’s has recovered revenue and staff since the pandemic, ongoing projects, what it’s like to work there and D’Amaro’s leadership style.

Watch the the video blow, read the transcript and learn how this centenarian company plans to stay fresh.

Interview Transcript

Seth Borko: Hello, everybody. How are you all doing?

Josh D’Amaro: These are actually pretty good.

Borko: Yeah, they’re better than they could seem.

D’Amaro: Yeah, it’s comfortable for me.

Borko: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Josh. We have Disney here at Skift. It’s really exciting for all of us. We love it.

D’Amaro: Thanks for having me.

Borko: Yeah. You run Parks, Experience, Products. That’s a pretty big division. I don’t know if people here really know just how big a job you really have. Maybe tell us about what you are in charge of here.

D’Amaro: Well, first of all, it’s very cool.

Borko: Yeah.

D’Amaro: That’s Parks, Experiences and Products. It’s a big organization. We’ve got about 170,000 cast members in the organization. I oversee resorts around the world. We have six resort destinations around the world. We have 12 theme parks. We’ve got now five cruise ships, a couple more on their way. We’re the biggest licenser in the world from a products perspective, the biggest children’s publisher in the world, et cetera, et cetera. So there’s a lot going on inside of the business.

Borko: Yeah. Skift, we need to ask the hard hidden questions, what everyone in the room wants to know. How do you get that job? How do I work or run a Disney park?

D’Amaro: How do you get that job? Well, send me your resume afterwards and we’ll take a look at that. I’ve been with a company for just less than 25 years. I’m on my 25th year right now.

Borko:I think we have a picture, by the way.

D’Amaro: Yeah, I’m sure. So 25 years. I started at the Disneyland resort. The moment that I came into the Disneyland resort, I can remember distinctly sitting in a room with a bunch of leaders talking about trash cans on Main Street and talking about a parade on Main Street. I couldn’t believe the amount of attention and care that went into every single detail in terms of making that guest experience so special. So that first week, I knew I was going to be there.

I was interested in everything and everyone around me. I had a chance, with the company, to move around the world, to be in different divisions. I’ve lived in Hong Kong. I ran marketing for Hong Kong Disneyland. I got a chance to run Adventures by Disney, which is our family tour and travel business. I got to be the president of Disneyland. I got to run Disney Animal Kingdom. I got to be the president of Walt Disney World. I’ve done a lot of cool stuff.

Now, I have this job as the chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. I’ll tell you what. We were talking backstage a moment ago. Are there some hard days, like everybody in the industry? Of course. But do I love it? I love every minute of it.

Nice picture, by the way. Get that one down as quickly as you possibly can.

Borko: All right. Let’s take it down. Let’s take it down. 

Well, so you have a lot of insight into the Disney business of theme parks. I think it’s not a secret to anyone who’s paying attention that it’s been a huge cashflow profit center for Disney recently. Are theme parks recession-proof? Are you still seeing a lot of demand?

D’Amaro: I don’t think there’s anybody in this room that would suggest that their businesses are completely recession-proof. We have been doing exceptionally well, as you reported. Anybody following our earnings calls can see that. We continue to see really strong demand in the theme parks.

One of the things, coming out of the pandemic, is we did restructure how we think about our business from a commercial perspective, from a guest experience perspective, et cetera. I think that has given us a lot more levers, so to speak, or a dashboard that can help us be much more flexible in an environment where the economy maybe isn’t cooperating as it had before.

So we feel very comfortable with where we are right now from a demand perspective, and we feel good about our ability to navigate much more effectively than we have in the past.

Borko: Are you seeing any slowdown of pent up demand, or people are still really want to get to Disneyland?

D’Amaro: Yeah. Listen. We’re fortunate. I know a lot of us in the industry are fortunate in that demand has been very, very strong for this year. As we reported in our last Q3 earnings report, it continues to be strong.

We’ve got a lot of great stuff happening around the theme parks, and a new cruise line, a lot of celebrations taking place. We continue to invest very aggressively in the business, and did through the pandemic. Certainly, people wanted to get out of their homes and come visit, but there’s a lot in the pipeline, from an experience perspective, that are keeping people coming. So we’re feeling very good from a demand standpoint.

Seth Borko: One of the things I was thinking about as I was prepping for this. We’re at a travel conference. Do you consider yourself a travel CEO or travel chairman? Is Disney in the travel business, or is it its own thing?

D’Amaro: Well, I think you can’t really separate who we are from the travel industry. I think that we have incredibly strong relationships with hoteliers around the world, with airlines, travel companies, et cetera.

We are in the business of providing experiences and memories. I think that’s something that we’ve been exceptionally good at for the last 100 years of the company’s existence, and we’ll continue that into the future.

Borko: Awesome. Actually, 100 years, that’s a good segue. Disney is going to turn 100 years in 2023.

D’Amaro: That’s right.

Borko: What’s the secret to that kind of long … Very few companies can turn 100 years old. How do you guys do it?

D’Amaro: Yeah. We’ll turn 100 years old and still be incredibly successful and thriving. I think it’s pretty simple in that we have never compromised on creativity and storytelling. In everything that we do, we are focused on making sure there’s a story, whether that is walking down Main Street and understanding the history of the Disneyland resort, or creating an all new land, like Avengers Campus that we just opened in Paris, and we have it in Disney California adventure as well.

There’s an incredible amount of detail that goes into all of these, an incredible amount of rich story that goes in. That’s never, never stopped in 100 years. We’ve got a 100 more plus years to come.

I think if you go all the way back to Walt’s time at Disneyland, he was telling stories at that time, and inventing at that time, and taking a lot of risks. We continue to do that. You’ve seen it with some of the products that I know you and I have even talked about, the Galactic Starcruiser, just inventing new things, always focused on story. We will continue to do that.

Borko: We’re going to come back to that Starcruiser. We actually have a poll. We asked, “What do you think attracts guests to the Disney experience?” Love of characters and stories. So I guess there’s some free market research for you. I think it sounds like you’ve-

D’Amaro: I’ll take it.

Borko: I guess one of my interesting … How do you keep it fresh? You’ve got this weird mix, because you’ve got people who are so in love with the traditional stuff, but you want to keep innovating and pushing the stories. How do you balance that?

D’Amaro: Yeah. It’s an interesting dilemma. It’s actually a dilemma that I quite frankly love. As I said, I started at Disneyland, and so I oftentimes got a chance to get out of my office and be in the park.

We have some passionate Disney fans out there. I love that. They know where everything is. They know where every tree on Main Street or Adventureland, where it is, and why it’s there, and how it’s somehow associated with Walt. They know every piece of that theme park, in all of our theme parks for that matter.

So when you touch something, when you move something, when you change something, there are going to be people watching and maybe second guessing what you do. That’s a good issue to have, I think. I think all of us would like businesses that people are paying very close attention to.

It’s then my responsibility, my team’s responsibility, to make sure that we’re listening and holding on to that heritage, to that legacy, but also pushing forward to the future.

I’ll stick with Disneyland for a second. One of my favorite things at the Disneyland resort is something called the Candlelight Ceremony. It’s something that Walt started when Disneyland opened in 1955. That ceremony is the same ceremony he started back in ’55 to today, so holding on to that tradition and legacy.

At the same time, we’re opening up brand new lands that are about one of the most contemporary brands in the world, Marvel, and wowing people with completely new attractions.

So there is a balance to be had for sure. I think we do a good job of it, but you can’t forget where things started, and what we’re all about, and making sure that you’re paying attention and listening to those guests, but still taking risks and pushing forward.

Borko: Speaking about Walt, we’ve got this cool graphic we’ll throw up. I think it’s one of Walt’s original business plans that he sketched out.

D’Amaro: Yeah. This was probably from the ’40s, maybe the early ’50s. Walt was way, way ahead of his time. Essentially what’s happening here, is back to that statement, Seth, that I made on creativity. If you put creativity at the center of this film, this is what Walt was calling that at the time, and if you can extend those stories out into an ecosystem, which is now the Walt Disney Company as we know it, it’s a very, very powerful flywheel, so to speak. A great movie comes out. There’s going to be a great book that follows that. There will be a land in one of the theme parks, and there’ll be a character. You’re going to find it on television, et cetera. He essentially created this way back then, and fulfilled it and more. I also think this is a good picture, potentially, of what the future could look like. Maybe we’ll get to that in a moment.

Borko: Yeah. Is there anything that Disney can’t do with this? If you put the stories and stuff, is there any story they can’t tell?

D’Amaro: I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I think we can absolutely do anything we want with this system. Like I said, it continues to expand, and those connections become stronger.

Borko: Let me ask you this. There’s been, I think, maybe in corporate America, a trend towards being more focused. You divest non-core businesses. In the hotel space, asset light. When I look at this chart, this is not asset light. This is not … You guys are doing something different. Does everyone else have it wrong? How are you guys able to make such a big …

D’Amaro: Well, listen. What’s very important for us, and I referred to this a little bit earlier, is the details. We want to make sure that, up and down, we are controlling that experience for the guests, and make sure that we’re delivering every single step of the way. The more vertical we are, the more control that we have.

Now, we don’t do everything ourselves. I talked about being the number one licenser in the world. There, we’re selecting the best partners that we possibly can in the industry, making sure that the product that’s hitting shelves is quality product. But whether you’re a partner of ours, or we’re doing it directly, we’re going to make sure that every step of the way, every single detail is paid attention to.

Borko: Talking about details, it’s down to your leadership. I know you spend a lot of time in the parks. Why is that so important to you?

D’Amaro: Well, first of all, I love it.

Borko: Fair.

D’Amaro: I grew up in this industry. I grew up in this company. I know it well. I’m very comfortable being in that environment. So if I’m not in a meeting, if I’m not reviewing an annual operating plan or thinking about a strategic plan, you will find me in the park.

I will walk every corner of that park, or the cruise ship, if I can get on the cruise ship, or a store, if I’m going to be into a store. I will talk to anyone who crosses my path, whether it’s a cast member who’s out on Main Street selling balloons, or in a dish room, or a guest who may have a question or might have a concern, may have some thoughts for me. I will not shy away from any of that.

I think, from an industry perspective, as leaders, it’s incredibly important that we all do that. Show up. Make sure that you are there. You’re not someone who sits in an office and pushes a couple buttons. You have to be in these businesses. If you want to be delivering great experiences, you better be feeling it for yourself. If you’re not feeling it, you better be out there making changes.

I think the other important thing is I love doing it. I think it’s incredibly important for the business when you do it. As a senior leader, you know what happens next. Everybody follows. If you look at the president of Disneyland, you look at the president of Walt Disney World, the president of our cruise lines, plus, plus, plus, they’re essentially going to do the same thing. “Well, if Josh is out in the theme parks, it must be important that I’m out in my specific business,” and it carries on.

What happens then? You’ve got 170,000 cast members who see their leaders, trust their leaders, know who they are and what they represent. They’re going to show up at work differently. This is not a small thing. That’s how life works. I think particularly in the industry that all of us are in, it is incredibly important, from a leadership standpoint.

Borko: Sometimes it can be hard for you to brag on stage, so I’ll brag for Josh. When I talk to some of your employees, they all said, “It’s so cool. I always see him at the parks. That’s great.” I think it’s a powerful lesson.

D’Amaro: Well, I will talk to all of them. I know a lot of them. I think that’s a good measure for everybody. If you can get out there, and feel comfortable, and talk to somebody, and reconnect with somebody, know who their family is and what their hopes and dreams are, it’s powerful.

Borko: There’s this huge labor crisis in travel and hospitality right now. Are you having the same issue?

D’Amaro: We’re actually faring quite well. I will tell you, like everyone in this room, those couple of years during COVID were absolutely miserable. One of, if not the most important thing to me is our cast members, and making sure that they’re protected and feeling good. So having to go through what we all went through was an incredibly big challenge.

Similar to the way that we talked about walking the parks, I and my team, we were making sure that we were connected with those cast members as we went through that rough period of time. It was kind of a reaffirmation, for me, of how important this place is to our cast, to our guests, et cetera. We put our arms around them the best that we possibly could.

When the theme parks opened back up, they came back. So again, 170,000 cast members essentially coming back. Now, were there some areas that were challenging, like the industry’s feeling? Yeah. But essentially, we came back quickly, which allowed us then to get those theme parks reopened and throttling again.

Borko: Just to underline that, that’s fascinating to me. Because I don’t think a lot of people in this room could say that when they reopened, their staff members came back. The fact that yours did, I think, speaks to something.

D’Amaro: Well, working for Disney, and I can attest to this, it’s more than a job. You feel attached to something. Our cast members, they can get a free education if they want. They’re coming into our theme parks. They’re making these connections with other cast members. They’re part of the story. Talking to somebody on Main Street and driving these memories, it’s a meaningful thing.

So again, right when we reopened, they came back. We were very fortunate in that regard. I don’t take that for granted, back to your point about how we lead, making sure we’re connecting with them all the time.

Borko: Your cast members are so important. You’re trying to support them. If they have political beliefs that might be different from the states they work in, how do you deal with that kind of conflict?

D’Amaro: Well, I think, listen, the world is dealing with a division everywhere. What I do in this regard is I make sure that I am listening to absolutely everyone. Everyone has a voice at my table.

Making sure that when our cast members come to work, they’re able to express themselves in the ways that they want to express themselves. You may have seen some changes that we’ve made across the Walt Disney Company in terms of costume and dress codes, ecetera. I want people to feel comfortable. I’m going to give you a good example, Seth, and then you’re going to have to move me on.

Borko: Okay.

D’Amaro: Tattoos were something, for a long period of time, that we didn’t allow at the Disney Company. If you look at the statistics with who has tattoos, I won’t drag you through all the gory detail here, it’s that a lot of the younger generation have tattoos. By the way, some of the best people in the service industry have tattoos. So we thought, let’s invite them in, and let’s not have them hide things that are important to them.

Quick story on that, in terms of walking around the park. I can remember a security officer at Walt Disney World, who I had known just by walking around and saying hello and understanding who he was. The moment that we made that change, he came running up to my car. I put the window down and he said, “Josh, you remember our conversation.” I said, “Yeah. I absolutely remember the conversation.” He showed me his arm, and he then talked about the tattoo that he had on his arm, and how it was important to him, and it represented the different people in his family. He was beaming.

What does that mean? That it’s a small step, but a step that essentially says I can show up and talk about who I am. If I can show up and talk about who I am, that makes me a lot more comfortable in front of a guest. What does that mean to the guests? Then the guests has a better experience.

So while our guests love Space Mountain, they love our parades and our fireworks, what they really love is those interactions with our cast members. So for me, making sure that people feel included, making sure their voices are heard is incredibly important. I think as leaders in this industry, that’s what you have to do. It doesn’t mean it’s always comfortable, because oftentimes, our employees are … They’re representative of the world. Everybody doesn’t always have to agree. You just have to listen and make sure people can show up as who they really are.

Borko: Love that message.

 Let’s talk a bit about some travel experiences. You mentioned earlier … I’m a big Star Wars fan. I’m obsessed with this Galactic Starcruiser. What is it? It’s like a cruise ship and a hotel? An experience? Is it a hotel? No?

D’Amaro: Yeah. No. You’re getting on a spaceship and traveling to space.

Borko: Of course, naturally.

D’Amaro: Well, listen, here’s the way I’ll start on this. We have been pressed … We continue to press to do things very differently than we have in the past. So the idea here was how do we create an immersive experience that is surrounded by Star Wars, based on Star Wars, take guests into space for a two day cruise, and feel like it, be totally in it. So think about theater over the course of two days. You’re staying on this Galactic Starcruiser.

When we launched this, I will say there were a fair amount of skeptics. “What is it that you’re doing? That doesn’t make any sense. Why would somebody want to do that?” Well, the answer is it is an incredibly differentiated, difficult to explain, experience. It’s 100 room ship. As you probably know, it’s been selling out pretty consistently here.

But this is what … Listen. Walt did this back in 1955. He invented something that didn’t exist before, and he changed the course of the industry. We’re continuing to invent. The Galactic Starcruiser is an example of that. New attractions coming out, new shows coming out all of the time.

You’re going to have to face some questions when you push into that space, which we did. Then I think once the media and our guests got aboard, you see what happened next.

Borko: Yeah. I will say one thing. It’s quite an expensive trip. It feels like your competition for this is the Aman Hotel in New York, not the …

D’Amaro: I think our competition for this is those that want to be fully immersed into Star Wars and theater, and feel transformed when you come out. So I think, again, the demand speaks for itself in terms of this experience.

A quick story on this one. I got a chance to test it out with my son before the general public got a chance to come on. He didn’t quite know exactly what it was. I did my best to describe. I said, “We’re basically going to go on a ship.” He’s 20 years old, by the way. “We’re basically going to go on a ship. We’re going to go up into space for two days. We’re going to have missions. It’s going to be fun. Come along with me, Alex.” He did.

On the second day on the Starcruiser, we’re sitting at breakfast. I’m going to destroy a little magic here. But he says to me, “Where do the cast members stay? Where are their quarters?” I sat there looking at him like, I’m not sure if the team took me through that. I’m not sure where they stay. Well, the answer is they don’t stay. But you get so absorbed into this world, you think you’re actually flying in …

Borko: You forget you’re not in space.

D’Amaro: So it is a transformational, incredible experience that no one is doing today.

Borko: Well, we talk a lot about an experiential traveler. That feels like a real experience for me.

You have this concept. We were talking about it a little bit. You call it next generation storytelling. Someone else, a different CEO might call it the metaverse. What’s the future of physical and digital experiences, in your mind?

D’Amaro: Yeah. For the Disney company, I would definitely call it next generation storytelling. You had a page up a moment ago that showed Walt’s scribble of what he envisioned the company to be. I think that was probably the earliest iteration of what next generation storytelling could be. You can call it metaverse or whatever you want, but figuring out a way to connect the physical and the virtual, figuring out a way to move a guest through experiences seamlessly.

He was way ahead of his time. The tools that we now have available to us today, with the chart that you saw up there in a moment, they are just explosive.

If we stick with what I said at the front here, we are all about storytelling. That’s why we’ve been successful. We’ve never deviated from that in 100 years, nor will we ever deviate. You think about the palette that we now have, combining technology with the assets that you referred to a little bit earlier, it’s unbelievable in terms of what our creatives, our artists are going to be able to do.

A book doesn’t have to end on the last chapter. A painting can have a canvas that is infinite. We are going to be able to do some amazing things here to take what you all know as Disney today and build so much more dimension into it.

You think about Haunted Mansion. Yeah. How many times do you think guests have thought, as they’re in their doom buggy, making their way around to the dance scene, “I wonder what’s on the other side of that.” Well, we’ll be able to tell stories on that front.

The possibilities are without bound here. I think we can go absolutely anywhere that we want. We’re already doing it today, by the way, integrating the two together.

Borko: Is Marriott going to need to buy a film studio to compete with you guys pretty soon? What do you think?

D’Amaro: I won’t answer that.

Borko: All right. Well, let’s go to some audience questions. I think we’ve got a nice one here from Jill. You’re looking towards the future. What of the future roadmap you’ve got are you most excited about?

D’Amaro: Well, I think this idea of next generation storytelling, and continuing to push the envelope, is something I’m really excited about.

We just had our D23 conference a few weeks ago in Anaheim, where I talked about some of the new things that are coming. I had the Hulk come out on stage with me standing 12 feet tall or whatever his height is. I think that we just have so much more coming that will continue this narrative of creativity and storytelling, and bringing it into the next generation.

I think all of us in this space need to be thinking about how we can push ourselves to not just deliver what we delivered yesterday incrementally better, but deliver it in a completely new way. I think that’s what guests are expecting of us. These next 100 years, you will see that in spades.

Borko: Love it. I think that’s fascinating. I think it really hits on a lot of the key points of what makes a great experience. Thank you so much, Josh.

D’Amaro: Thank you, Seth.

Borko: Wonderful. Thank you.

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Tags: ceo interviews, disney, disney parks, interviews, sgf2022

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