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While we knew that Bob Iger's time as CEO of The Walt Disney Company was coming to a close, nobody was quite expecting the news yesterday that the decision had been made to have Iger step down as CEO effective immediately. While he will remain with the company in an executive role through the end of 2021, his role as CEO will be taken up by Bob Chapek, who most recently was the Chairman of Disney's Parks, Experiences, and Merchandise.
From a business standpoint, the decision makes a lot of sense. An internal promotion implies that Disney will remain on the path that Bob Iger set it on, which prevents uncertainty, which is the thing that Wall Street hates above all. And certainly, decisions like this are made primarily from a stock value perspective. Having said that, if you're a fan of Disney theme parks, there's a lot of reason to be excited by the choice of Bob Chapek. The two major reasons, though they might appear to be conflicting, work very much in concert with each other. For the first time a former head of the Parks division is the CEO, and the new CEO is longer head of the Parks division.
Most Disney CEOs Have Been New To Theme Parks
Most obviously, Bob Chapek formerly was the head of the division that included the theme parks, which makes him the first Disney CEO to have been directly involved in that segment of the business. Nearly every CEO, from Walt Disney himself on forward has been excited by the idea of the theme parks, and put a lot of effort, especially in the early days, into making them successful, but they pretty much all had to learn what the parks were first. Once they did, however, several have seen the parks as a way to leave a lasting mark on the Walt Disney Company and the world.
Card Walker, who became CEO in the 1970s, oversaw the development of Epcot, the first Non-Disney to open a theme park, but his job previously had been advertising.
When Michael Eisner took the job in the early 1980s he became the first, and so far only, CEO to come from outside the Disney organization. Eisner's history was film production and he was specifically brought in because the studio side of the business was stumbling. The theme parks were basically keeping the company afloat. Having said that, Eisner spent a lot of time dealing with the theme park side. He spearheaded major improvements to Disneyland, and eventually opened EuroDisneyland, as well as two new gates at Walt Disney World at Disney's California Adventure.
Bob Iger had joined the Disney company when it purchased ABC in the '90s. When he moved up from President of the company to CEO, he also made big strides in fixing theme parks, specifically, EuroDisneyland, which became Disneyland Paris, and Disney California Adventure, which saw significant reinvestment. And he opened new parks in Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Bob Chapek Already Gets It
While previous CEOs came to understand the parks and did great things with them, Bob Chapek already does. He's already been through the theme park learning curve, even if merchandise has always been his strong suit. Clearly, the man will have a lot to learn about the Walt Disney Company as a whole, but he won't need to understand this. Assuming that Bob Chapek enjoyed his old job, and there's every indication that he did, then the Disney parks are going to be the part of his new job where he will be the most comfortable. Disney theme parks are by and large, doing well, and Chapek will likely have a personal interest in making sure that continues.
While it's true that previous Disney CEOs gave the parks attention early in their tenure, it's difficult to argue that they all kept that enthusiasm until their last day. Epcot's creation was done almost out of obligation by the last generation to have worked directly for Walt Disney. While Michael Eisner helped update Disneyland and oversaw the creation of major attractions like Star Tours and Splash Mountain at the beginning, following the lackluster response to the supremely over budget EuroDisney, both its sister park Disney Studios and Disney California Adventure were built on tight budgets that failed to impress.
Today, things are a little different. Following the completion of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, the parks are doing well overall, at least domestically. The newest attraction, Rise of the Resistance, is seeing massive crowds. In addition, major updates to Epcot, Magic Kingdom, and Disney California Adventure are currently underway. Chapek taking over means a smoother transition on these current projects since he's the one that started them.
Having said all that, there is a vocal contingent of Disney parks fans, many of them on Twitter, who don't seem to like Bob Chapek very much. The exact reason for this is unclear beyond just a general feeling that everything about the parks should be better than it is. The fact that Epcot has added a lot more Disney IP something which the original park design lacked, and that Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge didn't turn out quite as amazing as was originally described are some of the reasons. But if you're somebody that doesn't think Chapek was a good steward of the parks for some reason, then the good news is that he's not anymore.
There Will Be A New Head Of Disney Parks
The fact that Bob Chapek will understand the parks as the new CEO is good news, but make no mistake, he won't be the one calling the shots there. Since everybody seemed to like to blame Chapek and not Iger for whatever perceived slight the themes parks were allegedly enduring, then the praise or the blame for whatever comes next will belong to whoever takes Bob Chapk's old job, not Chapek himself. Unless the criticism was entirely disingenuous , of course.
And whether you loved Bob Chapek's tenure in charge of the parks or not, there's almost no down side to somebody new taking on that job. The entire idea of Disneyland as a park was designed around the belief that it would never be finished, that new things would always come along, and new blood, with new ideas, is good for that. If you didn't like Chapek, he's out of the position, if you loved him, it was probably time for a fresh perspective anyway.
To be sure, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the parks and they will remain unanswered until a new Chairman of Parks is named, which is set to occur at some nebulous future time.. Depending on who it is, we might even have to wait a bit longer until they actually start, you know, doing stuff, before we really know what the future holds.
Odds are the new Chairman will come from within Bob Chapek's previous chain of command. Former Disneyland and current Walt Disney World President Josh D'Amaro seems like a solid choice, although, since this division handles consumer products, and that was Chapek's own focus, somebody like Kevin Potrock, current President of Consumer Products can't be overlooked. Either way, it will bring new voices into positions of significant leadership, and that's good for any organization. Maybe the next Disney CEO will be in there somewhere.