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Sponsorship in the 21st Century

When most Disney enthusiasts think of Eastern Airlines, The Florida Citrus Commission, and Kodak we have fuzzy feelings about Airplanes, Oranges and Film due in large part to their association with the Mouse. This is the promise of a Disney Sponsorship deal or in today’s nomenclature “Corporate Alliance” (yes, I guess we’re preparing for war with the Axis of Universal). It’s a deal that requires enormous amounts of revenue and millions upon millions of dollars in discretionary spending just to make the whole thing work. In fact, all contract negotiations explicitly state that you (the non-Disney party) will probably never see a single cent of profits generated by the agreement to sponsor one of our endeavors.  Sure, we’ll provide you with company-wide discounts on theme park admission and in the best cases a super cool private lounge to have meetings and drinks but that’s it. With such persuasive terms, just about anyone today would jump at the chance to spend tens of millions of dollars to help Disney bring more people back through its theme park gates, right?

Whenever I read discussions about the future development of Epcot the topic of sponsorships inevitably comes up. This indicates that practically no growth at Epcot can occur unless an outside company is willing to put forth at least 40% of the development costs. After all EPCOT Center was built on sponsorships. ALL pavilions had at least one sponsor absorbing some of the project’s monumental budget. One of the least appreciated accomplishments of EPCOT Center was its impressive feat of financial engineering and it’s amazing ability bring more than 16 companies together to create a prophetic taste of the 21st Century in 1982.

Now things are similar as we’re skyrocketing out of recession and multi-national corporations have billions of dollars to spare on helping a (in many cases) competing company. Especially, since the park is already the number six most visited park in the world. … Oh wait, some of that isn’t exactly true.

Whenever, I hear a report about a ‘new’ sponsorship deal whether it is Siemens of more recently GM Chrysler, I ‘m consistently amazed. Just think… in today’s dramatically different financial climate a select few corporations still find a few million dollars to invest in the permanent World’s Fair of Epcot. But keep in mind, these are exceptions and far from the rule. I’m inclined to believe that the days of corporate sponsorships are numbered. It’s simply too costly for nearly all companies to invest in something with little-to-no ROI. Conversely, companies with deep pockets usually own one or more of our competitors (GE-NBC-Universal) or have a reputation that we can’t publicly associate with (BP at Universe of Energy).

The argument put forth that the reason for a lack of new countries or the less than futuristic conditions of Future World is due to insufficient third party capital/corporate involvement simply falls on its face when you consider the rest of Disney’s World. There are two concepts in play here. First is the aspect of ownership, Epcot is a wholly owned subsidiary of the WDC, and the 5th most profitable one at that! As such, Disney should invest more into a business that is already lucrative to make it much more so. Second, is a matter of corporate identity/responsibility, this requires a bit of exemplification/exaggeration: if a guest comes out of Rockin’ Roller Coaster and had a less than thrilling time do they think: “This Hanes attraction sucks!”? Furthermore, if Dinosaur isn’t fun anymore do they think: “McDonald’s really dropped the ball on this one!”? No, they would naturally (and rightfully) place blame on Disney for a substandard experience. In much the same way, Kodak, GM, Siemens, and ExxonMobil’s reputations are intact regardless of the attractions they sponsor.

Much like the twenty-somethings living at home with no expenses, the park must now take full responsibility for its future. Although the financial implications can be daunting, the benefits far outweigh the costs. For as wonderful as it is to use another company’s money, the freedom to express concepts and narrative free of exterior corporate objectives can be quite liberating. After all if it were not for Kodak, the original Image Works would still be in operation, Universe of Energy wouldn’t be so oil-biased, and The Land could have been development to incorporate both ecological as well as agricultural concerns. Remember that with money comes influence, which is almost never a good thing.

It excites the mind to contemplate a Future World where company influence only resides in the halls of Innoventions. Or a World Showcase of almost 20 nations with representatives from every continent - The freedom to design a place where who we are and where we want to be can be exhibited with a narrative unencumbered by the bias of company interest or country nationalism. That is and Epcot I want to see! And I’m sure that with the proper vision and strong conviction of investment the financial benefits would immediately outweigh any of costs.

Any thoughts, additions, counter-points, alternate perceptions, and other discussions are greatly welcomed!

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Reader Comments (4)

I never thought of it that way. For some reason, the sponsorships made these rides all a little bit more legit. They also made it a little bit more nostalgic for me. But, you're right, the truth is, without them, Disney does what it wants.

March 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNathan Smart

I have never thought of it in that way either. To me, the sponsorship was more of a subtle advert for the corporation rather than a negotiation tool. But I don't think that the state of the park is the reason that there have been no sponsors, but rather (as you pointed out) the cost and the reach that it has. It is far more effective and cheaper to make a website that you can update constantly, push out new tv ads, etc. rather than have your name on a building for 10-20 years.

I'm trying to think, but haven't had any hits yet on any new attractions that have sponsors since 1995 or so (vs those that change sponsorship or get tacked on at a later date).

March 30, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkc

In some cases, being a sponsor, or "Corporate Alliance Partner" (pick your own term), does provide significant financial benefits for a company. Take, for example, Coca Cola. In exchange for providing their products to WDW at a drastically reduced price (I've heard in the neighborhood of around 25 cents each for a bottled soda, far less for fountain drinks), Coke gets a percentage of every sale. (Again, I'm not sure of the specific amount, but I've heard that it's around 50%.

Or, take GM. Despite their hesitation to continue sponsoring Test Track, they get not only the branding opportunity, but also, nearly every WDW company vehicle is a GM product. That's a number of vehicles that is large enough to be a somewhat decent sized drop in the bucket that is GMs profit.

April 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric

Cool Facts Eric! I hope I don’t come off as being against exterior corporate involvement – far from it, I welcome as much “help” as possible! (Just as you stated) These partnerships can be very lucrative if conditions are right. However, I do believe that the exceedingly slow evolution/updating and non-existent expansion of the park cannot and should not be attributed to a lack of outside funding. Responsibility for the quality and well-being of one’s assets must reside with the owner. Furthermore, an independent company cannot blame a completely separate company (or companies) for the condition of its products.
On a lighter note, I am very interested in the scope and aesthetic of Test Track’s ongoing overhaul. If the new logo and graphics are any indication, we should have a much more futuristic pavilion in Future World very soon!

April 18, 2012 | Registered CommenterJoshua L Harris

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