The “Happiest Place on Earth”
Disneyland has been a beacon for California entertainment since opening in 1955. However, media coverage regarding the park has changed drastically between opening day and the current multibillion dollar corporation. Between 1955 and 2003 there have been eleven fatalities in the Park and although only two of these incidents have been proven to be the park’s fault, Disneyland has still received skepticism regarding their procedures and ability to communicate to media. By creating two separate departments within the company designed to deal with public relations and media, Disney has developed an image campaign that insures the park is continuously the ‘Happiest Place on Earth.’ The Public Relations department, which focuses purely on positive public relations issues, has connected with media locally as well as nationally to create a successful brand name for the company. With extra emphasis in pleasing media and ensuring that stories which positively impact the park are well broadcasted, Disney manages to maintain an 85 percent positive, 15 percent negative ratio in coverage. The Public Affairs department, which focuses entirely on negative public relations issues, works to ensure that the park is not seen in a negative light. In an attempt to not highlight negative coverage, Disney is extremely selective in the information they will release to the public and has only openly admitted fault in one incident in 2003. Although negative coverage concerns Disney fans, the surplus of positive coverage settles any qualms they have regarding the park. By comparing negative and positive coverage, as well as Disney’s actions amidst press the reasoning behind Disney’s continuous strong attendance and brand image is determined.
Historically, the majority of negative coverage Disney receives is in regard to malfunctions within the park. Two of the largest and most publicized malfunctions were a result of park error thus increasing the amount of negativity towards the park.
December 24th, 1998 marked one of the largest incidents in Disneyland history. During the docking of the 18th century inspired Columbia ship at 10:40 am, two Disneyland visitors suffered critical injuries and one visitor died when a metal cleat broke loose from the ship in Frontier land, snapping like a rubber band into the crowd. In an analysis printed in the Los Angeles Times, John Howard Cal/OSHA chief states, “Through interviews and review of training records and procedures our investigators determined that the injured employee had not received training on the specific procedures to follow in docking the Columbia. The employee never performed a docking of the ship prior to the one that led to the bow cleat being ripped off the hull and propelled back toward the waiting passengers.” The investigation revealed that the accident occurred because the cleat on the ship was designed to hold the ship at the dock and was not strong enough to be used to brake the vessel’s forward motion. The employee placed the docking line on the cleat even though the ship was moving too fast to stop at the dock. Although the accident was deemed to have been caused by faulty mechanics and poor training, Disneyland has been criticized for their prompt covering of the incident. Within ten minutes of the accident cast members had cleared visitors from the area stating, ‘Go on and enjoy your day. This isn’t any fun to watch’ and had begun cleaning blood splatters stating that the area was ‘unsightly for guests not affected by the incident’. In an article for the Topeka Capital-Journal, reporter Michelle DeArmond addressed the prompt cleaning efforts of Disneyland. “When a Disneyland visitor was fatally injured by a flying piece of metal last month, the folks at the proclaimed “Happiest Place on Earth” had the blood and debris cleaned up within a half-hour, before investigators could get a look at the scene.” Although investigators understand the park’s attempt to keep visitors happy and unaware of the incident, prompt cleaning shows there may have been foul play or serious mechanical problems at fault. DeArmond also includes Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez’s explanation of why the mess was cleaned up quickly. “Because it was in a very visible location in the park, it could easily be seen from several viewpoints. It was Christmas Eve and there were a huge number of children in the area.” Gomez denied the statement that Disneyland neglects its responsibility to protect guests, saying “safety is part and parcel of our guests’ having a good experience.” Disneyland guests, however, have no way of knowing how safe the rides are. DeArmond highlighted that Disneyland immediately contacted paramedics via a special, direct line but didn’t call Anaheim police. Police learned of the accident from the paramedics and arrived 40 minutes after it happened. By then most of the evidence had been cleaned by Disneyland’s maintenance staff and any witnesses had dispersed from the area. Investigators showed up about two hours after and were briefed by park officials in the office before finally arriving at the dock, police reports and dispatch logs showed. Yakima Herald-Republic newspaper highlighted that Anaheim officials relied solely on park cast members for accounts of the accident rather than interviewing visitors who had witnessed the accident. Bret Colson, an Anaheim city spokesman, said “that while police have no reason to believe any crime was committed in the accident; detectives would prefer to examine a scene themselves instead of letting Disneyland authorities make that determination for them. We’re attempting to make sure that there’s not a repeat.” Similarly, the California Occupational Safety & Health Administration, which is investigating due to an employee being injured, would prefer that an accident scene not be disturbed, spokesman Dean Fryer said. But there is no such requirement under the law. Legally, Disneyland did nothing wrong. However by responding quickly to ‘cover up’ the scene Disneyland received several investigations into proper regulation. The quick clean up illustrated corporate arrogance and an extreme desire to preserve the Disneyland image of innocence. In an interview with Tom Chushman of Olympia, Wash., Chushman explained his irritation of not being able to visit the Columbia-a favorite of his-and his questioning of workers about why the vessel was not at its dock on the Rivers of America. “They were completely tight-lipped,” he said. “They wouldn’t say a word about what happened. Every question I asked, they told me: ‘I can’t tell you.’” A sign at the dock read: “Sorry Folks, Due to River Construction, the Columbia and Mark Twain Will Not be Sailing.”  Legislation spawned by the accident ended a three-decade battle to regulate the state’s amusement parks. Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, the bill’s author, said news reports after the accident raised public awareness that the state did not inspect theme park rides and that parks were not required to report accidents. California had been one of only 12 states that did not regulate parks. In September2000, Governor Gray Davis signed the bill, creating the first state inspection program for theme parks. The program will set statewide safety standards for rides and requirements for accident reporting and inspections. Implemented in 2001, the bill aided in a proper investigation of later incidents. Although the bill created positive consequences from the tragedy, coverage of the incident shed a negative light on Disney parks and their procedures regarding mechanical repair and employees.
Following the Columbia Accident and the media’s concerns regarding Disney’s openness of incidents, the park developed a new public relations campaign in response. By endorsing a safety partnership between Disneyland and their visitors, both parties became responsible for safety. Through discussion of safety and training statistics, the park showed concern while providing guests information regarding the park. With the implementation of press releases, fact sheets, website info, and trading pins for kids, Disney successfully incorporated the magic of the park and information that made visitors feel well informed and safe during visits. In 2003, Disney improved their education campaign by creating the program ‘Wild About Safety.’ By directly addressing issues that guests were having in the park, Disney broadened the amount of information they disclosure to the public regarding attractions. Through activity books, theme park guide maps, audio safety reminders in five languages, trading pins, and safety tip cards (see appendix) the park disclosed desired information while maintain the image of the park. Through the improved public relations approach and education campaign, Disney improved issues mentioned in several critiques received during the Columbia incident.
After Disney’s implementation of Wild About Safety, the park did not encounter any major incidents until 2003. On September 5th the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad locomotive lost a “bogie”- the assembly that carries the rear wheels – and derailed, decoupled from the rest of the train, and struck the roof of Safety Tunnel One, according to reports by Anaheim police and the county coroner’s office. The first passenger car ran underneath the airborne locomotive and the bottom of the locomotive fatally struck the head and chest of Marcelo Torres, 22, the coroner’s report said. “The cause of Torres’ death was blunt force trauma to the chest, with rib fractures and the report also details severe blows to his head that cut his forehead down to the bone. The investigation that Cal/OSHA and Disney Corporation conducted focused on Yellow and Green maintenance tags. These tags indicate which vehicles are cleared to be used with passengers (Green Tags), and which are still undergoing maintenance (Yellow Tags). Interviews of the cast members assigned to Big Thunder revealed “an inadequate understanding” of how the tag system worked. The cast members also commented that they were shorthanded. In a televised statement Disneyland Resort President Cynthia Harris said “I’d like to share with you that on behalf of the entire cast of the Disneyland Resort that we are shocked and saddened by this incident and accident that occurred today that resulted in a death of one of our guests. Our hearts and prayers go out to the family of the victim and all of the individuals that have been injured. Thank you.” This differs from any accident previous to the 2001 Wild About Safety Campaign because the Park took responsibility for their actions. In a press release with Michael Eisner, CEO of Disney, and Jay Rasulo, President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, the park executives made themselves available to the press and concerned public to answer questions regarding the incident. “Our top concern remains the safety and security of our guests in our theme parks. Let me tell you that every attraction at Disneyland is inspected every morning before any guest rides any of the attractions. We take a systematic approach to maintenance, a systematic approach to the safety of our guests at any and all times when they’re in our parks.” Rasulo continued “As I said, we have a very systematic approach to our maintenance and safety. We entertain millions of guests every year here and around the world in a very safe environment. And as I said any comparison to the history for this attraction really is premature and, I think, a little irresponsible at this point.” By responding to press rather than blaming Park visitors as in previous incidents, Disneyland was praised for their accountability. However, the state’s report ignited debates on websites for Disney fans. Many were surprised that Disneyland officials acknowledged that they were at fault while many expressed disappointment over the shoddy maintenance detailed by inspectors. A Disney spokeswoman for stated that the Park was addressing all concerns and had already begun to retrain ride maintenance workers, but she declined to say whether any employees were adhering to the retraining. “The safety of our guests and cast has been and continues to be our top priority, and we strive to make sure that accidents do not occur,” Leslie Goodman, senior vice president of strategic communications for Disney Parks and Resorts, said in a prepared statement. “Unfortunately, in this case, a failure to follow procedures resulted in grave consequences, which we deeply regret.” The state ordered Disneyland to retrain maintenance workers, managers and ride operators; required a test run before passengers were loaded; and required that maintenance workers sign forms showing that the work was completed. The state report did note that staffing on the roller coaster was adequate. It also found no problems with its design and said Disneyland’s emergency response was proper, as was its effort to secure and preserve the accident site for state investigators.
Through the Wild About Safety campaign and new policies regarding media relations, Disneyland has slowly improved their ability to inform the public of issues that occur at the park. With a combination of negative and positive coverage, Disney has maintained a positive brand image and continuous to be one of the largest contributors to the city of Anaheim and Los Angeles.
To maintain the “Happiest Place on Earth’ image, Disney must continuously present the media with new forms of coverage. With 15 percent of media coverage of the park focused on incidents regarding malfunctioning, the 85 percent of positive coverage must highlight multiple aspects within the park. With new promotions occurring annually and special events happening practically continuously, Disneyland is a constant source for media. Through these promotions, Disney is constantly searching for mediums used to promote coverage and one of the most innovative forms of alternative coverage is social media. Disney plans to do social media marketing for its parks as part of its national and regional plans. By using Twitter, Facebook, and social media games, Disney hopes to gain the attention of those who are not frequently exposed to typical news coverage of events. For example, at the June premiere of Disney’s nighttime water show, Disney’s World of Color, winners of a Twitter contest got to see the show alongside celebrities such as Teri Hatcher and Wayne Brady. By inviting bloggers from Disney fan sites, Disney was able to gain coverage from twitter fans and bloggers rather than just from typical journalists. Social media “is a great medium that provides this level of interactivity and a pass-along factor, which a TV spot wouldn’t necessarily do,”. Through highly covered publicity campaigns and social media, Disney gains positive coverage.
In 2001, Disneyland focused all of their attention on the opening of a second Southern California park, Disney’s California Adventure. A PR Newswire article praised Disneyland for the innovative ideas that are included in the second park. “The creative concept for `Disney’s California Adventure’ is to celebrate the special magic of the California dream,” commented Barry Braverman, executive producer of Walt Disney Imagineering, and creative director of the project. “Our goal is to immerse guests in compelling stories, evocative places and fantastic adventures that will bring the California dream to life.” In 1955 Walt Disney stated that “Disneyland will never be complete as long as there is imagination left in the world” The creativity and imagination shown in California Adventure draws a younger crowd to the California Disney resort and gains the resort media coverage from sources that are not typically interested in traditional Disney events. Although California Adventure received some concerns regarding the amount of attractions and size, the amount of positive media coverage they received outnumbered the concerns and caused Disneyland resort to be the largest and most advertised amusement park in California.
In 2005, Disney’s attention transitioned to what media outlets have considered ‘the largest homecoming of all time’ In a 18 month long celebration, Disney focused on ensuring that both local and nation media outlets were well aware of the festivities. Media outlets were encouraged to experience the park throughout the celebration and engage in the visitor’s experience. In an Associated Press article, Charleston Daily Mail encouraged readers to experience the park first hand. “Between the new 17-minute fireworks spectacular, ‘Remember – Dreams Come True,’ and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, Disneyland has revamped the 50 year old park and renewed the magic. In a Pr Newswire article, Disneyland’s innovative advertising attempts are analyzed. Beginning Tuesday May 3, 2005 Disneyland Resort will “podcast” three days of celebrity-filled festivities leading to the May 5 launch of the “Happiest Celebration on Earth,” an 18-month global commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Disneyland in California that will simultaneously kick-off ceremonies at Disney parks around the world. By engaging in the rapidly growing medium of podcasting, Disney hopes to engage an audience that typical advertising does not reach as well as include detailed information that an average article cannot include. “The podcast will incorporate a collection of exclusive celebrity- interviews, music, historic anecdotes and live event coverage that convey the excitement of the event and the story of what has made Disneyland a national treasure over the past five decades. The podcasts will include behind the scenes interviews as well as audio content detailing the debut of exciting new entertainment spectaculars and groundbreaking adventures and attractions premiering at the Disneyland Resort as part of the 50th anniversary celebration.”Duncan Wardle, Vice President of Press and Publicity expressed excitement regarding this form of advertising. “Through this truly cutting-edge technology we can literally bring the fun, magic and excitement of this global launch to Disney fans everywhere,” he said. Specialized events throughout the 18 month long celebration ensure that frequent quests experience a unique Disney moment during every visit according to Los Angeles Times.
Daily, there are averages of 40,000 guests that travel to the Disneyland Resort. Whether they are celebrating a holiday, found a good deal, or read about a current promotion, each visitor has seen some form of advertisement or media coverage of the park. During the 50th anniversary of Disneyland, 120 stations nationwide showed 244 broadcast hours of coverage and during the opening of Disney’s California Adventure, 1,528,523,145 viewers saw some form of coverage resulting in a media value of $108,325,643.The statistics support multiple theories regarding coverage of Disneyland and prove that the large amounts of coverage, whether positive or negative, still encourage people to visit the parks. Although incidents occur within the park and negative press coverage will occur, Disneyland has managed to maintain a positive brand image within the past 55 years to ensure that guests will continue to travel to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’ for many years to come.
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