Disney’s slogan for its parks, “where dreams come true,” became a nightmare on Wednesday with this headline: “Missing 2-year-old Boy Snatched by Alligator in Disney World Found Dead.” What can Disney’s marketers tell scared parents reading headlines like this one in the New York Daily News?
Disney and Walt Disney World hadn’t yet reacted on Twitter or on wdwnews.com on Friday. Meanwhile, the company was responding to journalists, taking steps to enhance warning signs and muting celebration of its new $5.5 billion Shanghai Disneyland dedicated on Thursday.
At the time when the boy, Lane Graves of Nebraska, was still missing after being pulled into a man-made lake at the resort by a nearly 7-foot-long alligator on Tuesday night, company representatives said to Omaha TV station KETV, "Everyone here at the Walt Disney World Resort is devastated by this tragic accident. Our thoughts are with the family. We are helping the family and doing everything we can to assist law enforcement.”
What can Disney do to reassure parents who may have saved for years to bring their children to the Magic Kingdom? What can other travel marketers do when faced with similar tragedies?
1. Be Transparent and Authentic
Disney’s shown its representatives can be compassionate. On Tuesday, shortly before news broke about Lane Graves, Walt Disney World tweeted its condolences and the announcement of the company’s $1 million donation to the OneOrlando Fund, set up to help the victims of the Orlando nightclub shooting and their families. (News broke separately that the Orlando nightclub shooter had visited the theme park, perhaps considering it for an attack, and that post-attack, Disney World stepped-up security measures.)
"We mourn the loss of the victims & offer our condolences to their families, friends and loved ones.” - Bob Chapek https://t.co/OWqbgpTqmq
— Walt Disney World (@WaltDisneyWorld) June 14, 2016
While the toddler was still missing, Disney World representatives worked to be transparent and authentic with the media. After authorities found the boy's body, Disney CEO Bob Iger called the Graves family, reports CNNMoney.
"As a parent and a grandparent, my heart goes out to the Graves family during this time of devastating loss," Iger said in a statement Wednesday evening that CNNMoney and many other news outlets released. "My thoughts and prayers are with them, and I know everyone at Disney joins me in offering our deepest sympathies."
On Thursday, ABC reported that the Graves family had publicly requested privacy to grieve for their son.
2. Say What You’re Doing to Prevent It From Happening Again
First, Disney could provide better warning signs and brief parents as they arrive to the resorts. The company seems to be doing this without making an official announcement about it. On Thursday the Disney Blog, a fan-run site, reported that theme park officials were considering adding signs, but human behavior may thwart security efforts. Tourists feed gators right from the bungalow decks, the post says. All resort signs say not to feed the wildlife or swim in the water and two resorts house signs warning of alligators, according to the blog. Still, Disney World had this to say: Disney spokeswoman Jacquee [Wahler stated] that the Walt Disney World Resort is “conducting a swift and thorough review of all of our processes and protocols. This includes the number, placement and wording of our signage and warnings.” Beaches are also closed.
Another Disney fan and parent, in a blog post titled "Walt Disney World Gator Attack: Why I’ll Still Continue to Visit," said swimming and wading are two different activities to her. Graves was seen wading before the alligator pulled him under. Blogger Karyn Locke writes on Thursday: "The Kid and I have waded in the water on the beach shore of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort have never thought twice about what could be in it." (That's where the Disney Blog reported guests "feeding the wildlife from the decks.")
For years, Disney World guests have seen alligators at the park and at least once at Splash Mountain. Here, a park staffer is shooing away the reptile without harming it.
In the effort to find Lane Graves, authorities killed five alligators in a lagoon near the Grand Floridian, where there were no signs warning of gators. There, the Nebraska family had been watching a movie as their toddler played in the lake.
“But there are notices posted against swimming in the lake,” says the Orlando Sentinel on Wednesday. “… It's unknown how many gators are in the lake, which spans roughly 172 acres and connects to other waterways.”
Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who now teaches at UCF's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, told the Sentinel that traffic on the lake during the day keeps the alligators away, but twilight brings them back.
- Disney could add lifeguards by the lake, instead of just by pools. The guards may just be there to warn tourists of the dangers. “Witnesses ran and got a lifeguard from a nearby pool, but by the time he got there the boy was gone,” writes the Daily News.
- Tell parents that the park does monitor for alligators. “The park has a full-time team that monitors the complex, and if they spot a potentially threatening animal they call the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, which then responds,” says CNN.
3. Say What You’re Doing for the Family
On Friday, Disney hadn’t yet said what it was doing for the family. In the absence of information, speculation may emerge.
An article in People on Thursday said the Graves family had returned to Nebraska and the article offered this hypothesis: "Disney Could Face Multi-Million Dollar Lawsuit in Tragic Alligator Case, But Will Likely Offer Settlement, Legal Experts Say."
@Disney is going2pay huge to Graves family who lost their son to an alligator. And justly so. "NO SWIMMING" signage clearly ineffective.
— AndThat'sTheWayItIs (@ABWright824) June 16, 2016
That also leaves the possibility for speculation about the brand. Some say there will be a short-term downturn in Orlando tourism, including trips to Disney World, but others say no one's canceled flights. Speaking to AFP on Tuesday, Disney visitor Jay Pierce of Indiana said he would've canceled the family trip if the nightclub massacre had happened at the resort instead of a spot for locals.
Speculation About the Brand
On Friday, TheStreet.com says Disney will weather the "PR nightmares" because it's "built 45 years of goodwill and brand equity with safe parks."
"Disney's Orlando operation can weather the bad news because of the reputation it has forged with consumers for the rigor in which it maintains a safe environment at its parks and hotels," Groves quotes of Peter Kreisky, chairman of Kreisky Media Consultancy, who has advised companies planning to build their own theme parks and studied Disney's worldwide network of parks. Kreisky continues: "Not only is the Disney brand strong enough to withstand terrorist scares and this alligator incident, but the company takes extraordinary measures to protect itself from the unpredictable behaviors of millions of diverse visitors and the negative publicity that can generate."
Meanwhile, Disney stock continued to climb on Friday.
What do you think, marketers?
Please respond in the comments section below.