These days, technology continues to change at such a rapid pace that just keeping up with the changes can be a challenge. This challenge, though, can present a unique opportunity for theme parks in key areas such as publicity and marketing operations.
Many of the industry’s larger parks and resorts are, in fact, seizing this opportunity and using a whole host of new technologies to generate increased awareness and, hopefully, attendance.
One of the industry leaders is this area is Disney. Earlier than many, the company decided to invite non-traditional media outlets (often termed “new media”) to cover its various attraction openings and other announcements. According to multiple people familiar with the situation, the decision was (and continues to be) somewhat controversially within Disney’s publicity and marketing operations.
Part of this results from the debate regarding whether new media outlets effectively reach potential new customers or simply re-enforce the decision of existing guests after they have already decided to visit. Even so, Disney continues to reach out to an increasing number of bloggers, podcasters and other new media writers for coverage opportunities.
For this month’s Large Park Report, we visited with John Frost, founder of The Disney Blog—one of the most popular new media outlets that covers Disney—and discussed how evolving online technologies have reshaped the way major theme parks market and publicize themselves.
Large Park Report: When did you start the Disney Blog?
John Frost: I started working on The Disney Blog in early June of 2004 and went public with it on June 24, 2004. Before that I was a staff writer for LaughingPlace.com since August 1999 and had written about Disney off and on various websites and Usenet groups since 1992.
LP: What were your goals when you started it?
Frost: I had been keeping a personal online diary since 1998, before they were called blogs. I called mine “You Are Your URL” with the theory being that everyone would eventually be known by their online footprint, so you might as well start managing yours. By 2004, I had moved away from Disneyland for the first time in 11 years and was looking for some way to stay more in touch with the park. I searched online for other Disney blogs, but could not find any. Since I liked blogging, I thought why not create my own Disney Blog.
The goal was never to be comprehensive, but rather to provide useful news with a small bit of analysis for Disney fans like myself. I saw there was a growing group of Disney fans out there on the internet but no central hub for news in the blogosphere. The blog would also serve as a way to connect everyone together by pointing out great work from other Disney fans.
Initially, I wanted to post three to five times a week, but the triple hurricanes that tore through Central Florida (and later the San Diego fires) that year changed that. I found myself posting three or more stories a day. That stayed pretty consistent until earlier this year when I upped the frequency to five to six posts a day.
LPR: How has theme park publicity changed since you first started the Disney Blog?
Frost: I’d like to back up just a bit before we get to The Disney Blog. July 1999, when the US Women’s Soccer Team won the World Cup for the first time, is the first time online media were invited to cover a media event at Disneyland. Myself and the owner of Laughing Place took photos and ran around with a notepad to interview guests (mostly screaming young girls attired in soccer gear). I’ll never forget seeing the LA Times reporter watching me interview two young girls then heading over to ask them some questions too. The next day, before my story could run in Laughing Place, the LA Times had an interview with the same girls. I was crushed, but also elated as that helped justify online media playing on the same field.
When I started The Disney Blog, I was well known to Disneyland Press and Publicity as a writer for LaughingPlace.com. At one event, I simply introduced that I had started a blog and that I would be writing for both LP and the blog. There was no trouble there.
When I moved to Orlando in 2005, I had covered some events for LaughingPlace.com in 2004 and was able to get access for myself via those contacts. I was not invited to all the events, but was able to get enough coverage from the WDWNews website and other sources that it worked out.
Initially, Disney tried to silo Online Media into a special track. They created events just for us (like a wonderful day long tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Animal Care program in April 2008) or invited us to events, but not into the main area for media and without our own media host.
The biggest change over time at Walt Disney World is that online media are now treated nearly the same as print or broadcast media. We’re given the same access to events, a space to stand on the same riser as broadcast media, and similar interview opportunities. Yes, there are different needs for larger media (live radio broadcasts, for instance) and resource issues. In general, online media understands that we aren’t going to get the same access when resources are limited. We have also been asked to move when a TV station needs camera space. That’s understandable and I’m okay with that.
I still get invites to the minor and mid-range events at Disneyland, but since I don’t have a regular writer on the ground there, I’m not getting invites to the larger events. If I did have more regular coverage, I suspect The Disney Blog would get invited to those as well.
In that way, there is some you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. I am working when I cover an event, but it is a bit of a perk too. Disney knows I’m a much bigger brand defender than I am a brand critic. The perks are not going to shade my editorial, but then my editorial was never going to be all that scathing anyway.
Still, I do call them as I see them. I just try to keep Disney’s business needs in mind at the same time. I define Online Media as any travel planning website with a Disney news emphasis, any online news sites focused on Disney (The Disney Blog, Inside The Magic, LaughingPlace.com, Orlando Attractions are good examples), and other related websites (Mommy Bloggers, Entertainment bloggers, and cross over bloggers, like inviting bloggers with an emphasis on black entertainment for the “Princess and the Frog” events). It’s a pretty fluid definition and Disney has a black box somewhere or a dart board with a bunch of names on it. No one really knows how they make their decisions on which sites to invite to which events. I’m just thankful that they continue to invite The Disney Blog.
LPR: Beyond the blog, what other new media tools (if any) do you use for your theme park industry coverage?
Frost: I have Twitter and YouTube accounts that are closely integrated to The Disney Blog’s identity. Even though I was a bit late to the game, I am now a big fan of Facebook as far as reaching readers. I also use Google Reader’s shared links functionality to provide a list of stories I find interesting, but just don’t have time to cover in depth on the blog. I did try a forum, but was not able to obtain the escape velocity required to create an engaging community there.
I constantly keep an eye on what tools are available and test them out to see if they’re a good match for The Disney Blog. Some ones on the horizon I’m interested in are Stellar (stellar.io) from Jason Kottke, Jing (a screencasting tool), and Google +1.
(Reach contributor Chad Emerson at firstname.lastname@example.org.)