Starbucks at Disney: The Siren Call for Balance

Let me say at the outset of this article that I don’t drink coffee. Or tea. Never have, never been interested.

I have visited Starbucks locations on many an occasion–usually going through airports, where I purchased a non-caffeinated beverage or some sandwich or pastry. I have no problem with Starbucks. Neither do I have an affection toward it like I do with Disney.

Disney released a statement through their blog late on a Friday afternoon that the Main Street Bakery at the Magic Kingdom and that Fountain View at Epcot would close and reopen as Starbucks next summer. Curiously (or not). there are few comments on the official Disney blog site. But go over to other websites and you will see pages of comments, and many, if not most of them, are fairly negative.

I think the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe* is a great presence at Disney California Adventure. It doesn’t matter to me that they serve Starbucks, as there are so many other things on the menu. I’m only bothered by the fact that the brand creates an enormous queue which means I must wait longer for those wanting coffee. I have found the cafe to be popular. Fortunately, they make up for it on the back side by offering a lot of places to grab a seat–both inside and outside the cafe.

Likewise, I’m not phased by Starbucks coming to the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street bakery. I usually don’t eat there anyway because the queue is so poorly designed/managed that I simply choose to go elsewhere to get a bite to eat. Perhaps this will force them to re-design their queuing process, which is one of the poorest in the park. But the new DCA cafe has lots of seating, and lots of space to wait in line, and there isn’t much of either available at the Magic Kingdom. It’s already “standing room only.”

Curiously, the culprit to the long wait at the Bakery has to do with people waiting to get drinks at the end of the queue. Meanwhile, the middle of the Bakery sits empty with drinks ready to go that no one grabs.

On Valentine’s Day, 2007 Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz e-mailed CEO Jim Donald and his team about what he referred to as “The Commoditization of the Starbucks Experience.” That memo leaked and quickly went viral off the internet. As Howard notes in his book, Onward:

“Stunned as I was that the memo had been leaked, I was also astonished by the depth of the conversation it unleashed, as well as the speed. It seemed that everyone–customers, partners, analysts, reporters, industry insiders, and business “experts”–had an opinion about the memo, its motive, what it meant for the future of the company as well as what it said about me as a leader.”

“Reactions swung to extremes. Some praised the memo as an entrepreneur’s bold move to try to save his company. Others used my criticisms to support their own critiques. Yes, they agreed, Starbucks had expanded too far outside its coffee roots and was diluting the experience…Anonymous posts chastised me for not realizing that my words would get out; others insisted the leaked memo was a public relations stunt.

“Amid the circus of speculation, we captured the company’s quandary in an interview with The New York Times: “The question is always, how do you keep things in balance?”

It would seem that those have been Disney’s own challenges. There is no better example of this than The Disney Stores, which in the beginning, were “little theme park gems” scattered across the country. But as their numbers increased, and as the quality of their retailing experience cheapened, people walked away. After selling the stores, then taking them back over, Disney has had to work hard in recent years to reinvent the Disney Store experience.

One of the Three Little Pigs inside the Disney Store in Chicago

So it is with Disney’s parks. The experience must be kept in balance. Done right, it could really add to the guest experience in the parks. Done poorly, it will probably go the way of McDonalds, who at one time was a major sponsor. There is nothing wrong with bringing a great product. But it must be supported by a great people to serve it, an amazing place to enjoy it, and solid processes to make the wait reasonable. It’s about the entire experience.

What is the experience of going to Fountain View at Epcot? Will it be any better served, or less served by being a Starbucks?

What do you think? Do you like the cafe at Disney California Adventure? Do you think it will add or subtract to the experience at Walt Disney World? Will it be like Be Our Guest is turning out to be? Or will it be simply become extinct like the McDonald’s Petrifies at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

PS: As of later this evening, I’m happy to say that Disney’s blog has finally added a more balanced listing of comments, including a large number of critical comments since this blog was posted.

*Fiddler, Fifer and Practical refer to Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs. Humorously, there is a Silly Symphonies sequel where the wolf dresses up as a Mermaid to capture Fidler and Fifer. This is just after they dismiss Practical as being “Crazy in the bean” for trying to capture the wolf.

J. Jeff Kober

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