Year of a Million Dreams: Drinking Deeply of the Kool-Aid

17 Oct

I have tasted the Kool-Aid, and it is sweet. After my trip last week to Walt Disney World, I couldn’t resist taking a few minutes to summarize my thoughts on their new marketing campaign, and my personal experience of it. (My husband, a senior reporter for Brandweek, also interviewed me for this week’s issue, which includes a much-abbreviated version of this article.)

Having just wrapped up Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary Happiest Homecoming on Earth campaign, it was time for Disney to launch the Next Big Thing. The Homecoming had perhaps even outworn its welcome; the 18-month campaign had lasted well past Disneyland’s 51st birthday. So, in the first week of October, Disney Parks launched the new campaign, Year of a Million Dreams.

Dreams display
Year of a Million Dreams display at Epcot
Sure, the Year of a Million Dreams promises some new attractions at Disney parks, including new rides and shows. But that’s pretty much a constant; theme parks generally launch new attractions to keep pace. More to the point, YOMD promises in its major press release:

. . . for the first time, during the “Year of a Million Dreams” celebration, Disney cast members will award a million dreams – both large and small, including many “money-can’t-buy” experiences – to guests selected through a random process as part of a unique “Disney Dreams Giveaway” promotion.

Throughout this incredible celebration, special dreams and unique experiences once thought impossible will be awarded by our cast every day,” said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. “Disney parks are always the place where dreams come true – but even more so during the ‘Year of a Million Dreams.'”

The Disney fan community (yours truly included) greeted this new campaign with great skepticism when it was first announced in the spring. Rumors floated on the internet suggested that the campaign had been launched by marketing with little or no input from operations. An overnight stay was promised in Cinderella Castle; had the logistics folks even been consulted? Leaks from within Disney seemed to suggest internal chaos, and the Disney Faithful grew snarkier by the day, as speculations ran rampant about what the actual million prizes would be. Would this be the Year of a Million Churros, as wondered by

The release of the official prize list didn’t help much. The WDW Today podcast dissed almost every prize, especially the economy-class accomodations and airfare for the Grand Marshall World Tour, one of the top prizes. And a lot of the lower-level prizes could hardly be called Dreams. Was anybody out there really dreaming of a free pair of Mouse Ears? An extra hour in Epcot, estimated retail value of $4.76? Yours truly blogged about it with some distaste, dubbing it the Year of 50,000 Photo Vouchers.

Year of a Million Strollers
Fantasyland on a Saturday . . . Year of a Million Strollers?

But then, I had a taste of the Kool-Aid.

The first sip came one Friday morning at Disney/MGM Studios, where a Cast Member on custodial duty handed me a matching pair of Disney trading pins. One was for me, one I was instructed to give to another guest. My son gave the pin to a bored-looking pre-pubescent boy, who looked happy and puzzled but was speechless (the boy’s mother thanked my son).

But we took a long, deep draught that evening. We’d ordered dinner at a counter service restaurant at Epcot, the Liberty Inn. The food seemed to be taking an unusually long time, at least by Disney’s customer service standards. Then I noticed that the tray with our dinner was covered with confetti, with a few toys scattered about. Next thing we know, a Cast Member is ringing a bell, people are cheering and clapping, and we’re being led to a special, decorated table. We’re given pennies to throw in the wishing well, a signed picture of beloved Disney characters, a note from Mickey himself, and a certificate of our Magical Moment. Our picture is taken. A dessert is brought for my friend Lisa, the birthday girl (her special day bringing its very own set of special Disney privileges). And I am thrilled. We have won one of the million dreams! We had won a prize Disney’s dubbed the American Wishing Tale.

Dreaming a little dream
Lisa, Greg, and I (right to left) dreaming a little Dream at the Liberty Inn

Twenty minutes later, I’m laughing at myself. I’d felt like I’d won the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes, when all I’d really won was a seat at a table with paper tablecloths, a couple pieces of paper, and one shiny red penny (which I’d dutifully thrown into the wishing well, of course). But the Cast Members did a great job of convincing me that this was, in fact, a dream come true. They made us feel like royalty.

on our table
Our Magical Moments certificate, plus a few of the million desserts we consumed that weekend. Photo credit: Lisa Farry

And this is where the brilliance of this new campaign lies. A lot of Cast Members appear to truly delight in making guests feel extra-special, granting them small favors and acts of kindness. (They may in fact not delight in this . . . I heard from one Cast Member that “backstage,” everybody’s complaining about this new campaign, and hating the fact that they have new responsibilities to hand out “Dreams.”)

By and large, my experiences at Disney parks have always been enhanced by small favors and special treatment. Just on this latest three-day trip, there were many such moments that did not appear to be officially sanctioned and certified Dreams, and which in fact brought us a deeper satisfaction. The monorail driver who let us sit up front, slowed down the train to show us a particular feature we’d expressed interest in, and gave us co-pilots licenses and a trading card. The Segway-riding Cast Member Chris at Epcot who chatted with us about Disney, about geeky rock music, about our home towns, and then bypassed the lines for us to Spaceship Earth, giving us the VIP treatment. The Cast Member who let my son hang onto his Peter Pan Fast Pass, giving him quick entrance for another spin on the much-loved ride later on. Cast Member Jack at the Crystal Palace, who laughed with us for multiple photo ops on Lisa’s birthday, the Year of a Million Desserts.

Lisa and Jack
Jack singing Happy Birthday to Lisa

The success of the campaign over the long haul may depend in part on how well Disney continues to support its Cast Members in creating the magic, and in managing Guest expectations. Will the Cast Members burn out after month upon month of going beyond even their usual level of consistent cheerfulness? Have the Guests’ expectations been raised to an unreasonable level, and will there be backlash from those whose Dreams don’t come true? Already The Disney Blog has raised the question of whether low-level prizes are being awarded in a manner inconsistent with the rules (and perhaps in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act), and certainly plenty of Guests have been frustrated to be almost in the right place at the right time, as they watch Dreams awarded to others. But the casual, occasional Disney visitor probably isn’t paying enough attention to have their hopes raiesed as high, and it’s hard to imagine the Disney Faithful changing their park attendance patterns just because they didn’t get handed a free pin.

Year of a Million Dreams might well turn out to be a stroke of marketing genius, if Disney can keep it up. But the real heart of the Disney magic is the Cast Members who go above and beyond the call of duty to create those special moments for Guests. Our Segway-riding friend Chris didn’t need any special campaign backing him up to make our evening a little more magic, he just did. Let’s hope that Disney gives Chris and all his colleagues the support they need to keep that magic going.

3 Responses to “Year of a Million Dreams: Drinking Deeply of the Kool-Aid”

  1. tgtby2 October 17, 2006 at 10:37 pm #

    ahhh yes, i remember it well, the strollers, the desserts, the pixie dust, the kool aid!!!!!! at least jack will be glad you chose the more flattering shot! i need more time to compose a thoughtful response to the above entry, but just couldn’t resist thanking you for the photo credit!!!!

  2. Kitty-chan October 22, 2006 at 4:04 pm #

    Another sign of a sucessful kickoff for YOMD? The DISBoards have set up a special forumfor people to share their experiences with the new campaign. That’s the kind of campaign support you really can’t buy, at least not directly.


  1. Year Of A Million Dreams, where the real magic lies | The Disney Blog - April 30, 2008

    […] as mentioned elsewhere in the article, it takes a certain breed of cast member to find the joy in this ‘extra work’. But it […]

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