An Open Letter to Disney: What I Learned Sitting On The Floor at EPCOT’s American Adventure

Dear Disney Parks & Resorts (and the Tampa Bay Rays, and other brands with in-person performance components),

You’re missing out on an opportunity to increase revenue.

Now that I have your attention, let me explain the context for this observation. My family and I spent five days at EPCOT last week as part of an annual pre-Christmas retreat to take in the park’s holiday-themed performances – the storytellers, music groups and concerts. We particularly focus on the Candlelight Processional and the Christmas Carols of the Voices of Liberty a cappella group, as well as the more gospel-style Joyful! group.

What I noticed in a new way this year was the number of Voices of Liberty “followers” who came every day, watched multiple sets, and engaged with the cast members after each set as friends. One couple from Pennsylvania was there for a week, triumphant that these two old guys could sit on the floor at the feet of the singers (“because the dome overhead enhances their sound”) despite one of them going through chemo for most of the past year. Several millennials who live locally were there regularly, too. And we were there again this year, because when our kid was a toddler, she bonded with one of the singers, and as she’s grown, we’ve used the annual trip to reconnect with her and the other members of the group we’ve met over the years. This year we were especially proud that our erstwhile-toddler was now performing (with her high school chorus) in the Candlelight Processional she’d sang along with for every year of her life; this year she just got to do it onstage instead of standing in the back of the crowd, joining with professional singers we’d met over the years while sitting on the American Adventure floor. And because the Voices of Liberty had a special expanded set for the last few days before Christmas, we visited the park one day more than we planned.

What struck me this time was that I’ve seen people like the folks around us before. We went to Chicago last month to see the local production of Hamilton before it closes, and at the stage door afterwards met someone who had seen the show more than 20 times. She knew each of the cast members personally and could tell us who was most likely to come greet fans and what they were like, and they knew her. When I worked for the Devil Rays, I saw it there, too; among season ticket holders, there were a few who found ways to connect personally with members of the team and build relationships that were the foundation of their choice to attend games. They came to watch their friends perform. (And in the era I was there, that was probably the only compelling reason to be there.)

With a little unease,* let me delineate between fans and followers. Fans are those who know about performers; followers actually know (and are known by) the performers. These aren’t necessarily deep relationships, but they are mutual ones. Live performance-driven brands like sports teams and theatrical productions focus on cultivating fans; very few commit to developing followers. Which is where you’re missing the boat.

I’ll write another day on the idea of relational economics as opposed to transactional economics, because it extends much more broadly than the performing world. Basically, while most of our economic activity and almost all of the marketing is driven by transactional economic values – cost, efficiency, ease, product satisfaction – there are areas in our lives where we may choose to spend our money not based on those values but on the relationships we have with the people providing the goods or services. If you have a favorite hair stylist, medical provider, or barista, it may be because they are cheaper or make a better cappuccino, but if you also have gotten to know them a little as a person, and they recognize you in return, you’ll be less likely to keep comparison shopping, be more open to their suggestions, and be a little more forgiving if they get your order wrong once in a while.

Specifically, the followers I see spend a considerable part of their discretionary income on following, but they do it differently than fans. While Disney focuses its marketing on an audience that does once-in-a-lifetime blowout vacations, followers tend toward more cost-sensitive choices (of accommodations, food and beverage, tickets), but with an eye on longer stays and more regular attendance. I think of the Devil Rays ticket holders who would buy outfield seats (because they were cheaper than infield), would buy snacks but not full meals, but would be there every single night to chat with and root for their favorites (who usually were outfielders or relievers, because the outfield seats were also closer to the bullpen). Brands make good money off of followers, but the spending pattern is different. They spend more than they would ever rationalize on a blow-out experience; but they tend to do it in cost-sensitive ways that don’t show up on a corporate radar.

I tend to focus a lot of my Facebook posting and other writing on the crisis of loneliness in our culture and how the institutions that have been the foundation for connection and belonging in the past are in potentially existential transition; even if you don’t want to buy in to my belief that opportunities for connection and belonging – communities in which we can know others and be known in return – are becoming rarer and will become much more valuable, just know this: as it has been for the last few decades I’ve been around this stuff, people have been creating live-performance followerships even though they haven’t been intentionally cultivated by the producers, because that sense of belonging and being known meets a basic human need.

Someday, a smart organization will realize that there is a way to maximize the opportunity for relational economic impact; the organization that does will have a significant advantage over their competitors. It’s worth noting that there’s not a zero-sum relationship between followers and fans, really. Plenty of people watched the same sets I did, then went on to the American Adventure attraction and the rest of their day filled with Fast Passes and dining reservations around the park. Growing opportunities for followers does not mean reducing your commitment to fan experiences.

Based on my observation, here are the four things that are necessary for developing a followership. (A fifth thing, sufficiency of product, is true for both fans and followers; if your show is bad, people won’t keep coming back forever, unless they’re actual blood relatives.):

  1. Authenticity – You can be a fan of a character, but ultimately, followers attach to performers they can get to know as real people. It’s the difference between rooting for an anonymous person in a costume or uniform verses following a performer who performs as themselves. While social media is a double-edged sword on this front, at its best, it can be used to augment the authentic view of performers as real people.
  2. Stability – In order to build a follower relationship, you need performers to be there over a long period of time. For example, if every year, we saw an entirely different set of cast members for the Voices of Liberty, we wouldn’t have become followers or any of them. This is the Rays’ fatal flaw, and in the case of sports, it affects not only followers but fans. My daughter never really built a relationship with a Rays’ player, but she was a fan of the team for a few years, until her favorite players had all been traded away or let go.
  3. Openness – I worked directly with world-class athletes a couple of times – when I interned with the chaplain for the Atlanta Braves while in seminary, and when I was director of media relations for an American Basketball League team that featured a couple of Olympians and several other former collegiate All-Americans, and what I noticed is that some of them got it and some of them didn’t. For those who didn’t get it, there was either a sense of confusion at why fans didn’t see them as normal people or a sense of entitlement that they deserved to get paid simply because of their excellence at their sport. But those who did get it understood that the relationship between performers and audience was the very heart of what they did.  You can be excellent at lots of things that, because nobody cares about them, won’t get you paid a dime; on the other hand, if you are a performer who was once a fan or follower, you know the power a performer has to change lives by making time for personal connections with the audience. (My sense is that theater and music performers tend to “get it” more consistently than athletes. Elite athletes often aren’t ones who are historians or even fans of the game they play; almost every actor on Broadway, it seems, spent some time standing outside a stage door after a show and knows how tenuous their hold on relative fame is.)
  4. Opportunity – What makes the Voices of Liberty such a good example is that their performance space is literally in a lobby of an attraction, without a stage or any other barrier to their audience, and they have enough time between sets that they can mingle with their audience right after they finish performing. That’s almost unique for that level of performer; the closest comparison I can draw is the custom in spring training baseball of players going to sign autographs and mingle with the crowd as soon as they are taken out of the game.

In the case of the Voices of Liberty, the general stability of the group over time, the fact that, while costumed, you can actually see who they are and they go by their real names, their openness to spend time with, ask about, and get to know their followers, and the opportunity created by their staging and the timing of their sets has worked together to make a culture of community that develops followers. Just out of our family, here are the outcomes for Disney:

  • We’ve come to the parks more frequently, stayed longer and bought more expensive annual passes than we otherwise would
  • We’ve spent money on food and beverage (even at outrageous prices; who pays that much for water?!? (We do.))
  • We have not added to the crowds for rides or lines for character greetings popular with fans
  • We have been “net promoters” of the parks to friends and family (and, heck, strangers)
  • To the extent Disney focuses on talent acquisition, it’s worth noting that this followership is directly related to our daughter’s career desires to be a Disney college program participant, cast member and/or Imagineer.

To the extent that Disney has historical data on its customer base, it should have some awareness of the potential impact expanding followers could have on your bottom line. Several years ago, EPCOT ended the runs of a number of other performers who had similar followings – Off Kilter, Mo Rockin’, the World Showcase Players (whose loss we still mourn).  In each case, there were followers who attached to the performers; studying their pre and post closing purchase behavior would reveal to what degree they either adjusted to follow a new set of performers or drifted away.

In closing, I’d suggest to Disney (and other brands) to consider how it could better systematize, expand and market opportunities for locals and annual pass holders to move from fan to follower. It’s good for your bottom line, aside from the opportunity to support the less-transactional, more relational economy we all need in a time of flux. The organization’s values lend themselves to openness. You can use social media to more extensively tell the stories of your performers in an authentic way. You can reshape your performance spaces to offer more opportunity for cultivating fans. And you’re Disney; you can do it all more creatively than I can (though in a few years, my kid can help you figure it out. Just file that away.). You even have a Festival for the Arts that is custom-made for experimenting in this. You have workshops on visual and culinary arts; surely you could test an offering for an immersive experience with one of your groups of performers.

Thanks for offering a chance for followership-by-accident. I look forward to seeing how you make it an intentional part of the world you create.


Jeff Johnson

20-year annual pass holder

*The follower-fan distinction is pulled from Kyle Idleman’s excellent and funny Not a Fan. That it is focused on Christian discipleship gives me a little pause in applying it here, but it’s still useful here. You should read his book, though.

3 responses to “An Open Letter to Disney: What I Learned Sitting On The Floor at EPCOT’s American Adventure”

  1. Two OLD (????????????????????????) guys from Pennsylvania

    1. They really weren’t old; but sitting on terrazzo for multiple sets made us all feel our age.

      1. you wiggled out of that one!

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