Open 365 days a year, Disneyland in Anaheim, California was opened in 1955 by Walt Disney and the Walt Disney Company. Florida’s Walt Disney World was opened in Orlando, Florida in 1971 by the Walt Disney Company alone. Founded in 1923, the Walt Disney Company is the “leading diversified international family entertainment and media enterprise….” A company based on storytelling, the Walt Disney Company prides itself on turning the ordinary into the extraordinary, “Making dreams come true everyday is central to our global growth strategy.” The Walt Disney Company gears each of their projects towards children and adults alike – believing that every individual enjoys and benefits from magical experiences and childlike entertainment.
There were eight deaths at the Disney parks between 1964 and 1998. All but one of these mortalities was due to patron’s failure to comply with the parks’ safety regulations – such as unbuckling their friend’s seatbelts and jumping from cart to cart while the rides were moving.
The accident that brought Disney the most negative media attention was Disneyland’s Columbia Ship accident in 1998. When the Columbia Ship was docking, a mooring rope snapped and hit a 33-year-old man and his wife. The wife and a Disney cast member were injured, while the man died. The death was attention enough for the park, but Disney brought more negative media attention to itself by cleaning the site of the accident before the investigators arrived. In addition, the park did not take accountability for the accident – instead blaming it solely on the cast member’s failure to perform her duties correctly. This led the public to view Disney as working to protect its own image, rather than working to protect its visitors.
The final accident to happen at Disney before the Walt Disney Company made any changes in their park procedures happened in 2000. A four-year-old child slipped out from under his lap bar on the Roger Rabbit Ride at Disneyland – subsequently getting stuck under the moving car and sustaining irreversible brain injuries. Again, Disney refused to accept responsibility – this time trying to blame the victim and his parents. There was no statement released to make the public feel safe, and instead Disney publically argued with the state investigation findings.
In 2001 the Walt Disney Company decided to work towards diminishing the negative attention it was receiving, and the company began to smarten up to safety concerns from its publics. Four full-time paramedics from the Anaheim, California fire department were stations year round at Disneyland. This venture costs the park $1.4 Million annually. However, Disney’s biggest push for safety did not begin until 2002.
Disney’s safety campaign can be looked at in terms of the Message Development Objectives laid out by Robert Heath and Timothy Coombs in their book Today’s Public Relations; an Introduction. The first Message Development Objective is gaining attention. Disney had been receiving a lot of negative media attention, but none of it had been intentionally worked for by the company. The first intentional media acknowledgment Disney sought was coverage of a press conference announcing the release of the Walt Disney Company’s first annual report on safety.
On June 4, 2002, the Walt Disney Company held a three hour press conference on safety run by Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Paul Pressler. The conference announced Disney’s first annual report on safety. In addition, the previous Engineering VP, Greg Hale, was named the Chief Safety Officer – a position created specifically for the safety campaign. The press conference came as a shock to many because Disney “In an effort to preserve what company officials often call the ‘Disney Magic,’” had always “treated discussions of accidents as taboo.”
While Disney did not make mention of the recent negative press surrounding their lack of safety regulations, they also failed to mention a law that had passed earlier that year which required theme parks to inspect their rides and report injuries. The law was passed after a series of high-profile accidents – including the 1998 incident at Disneyland. Disney most likely decided to leave out this information in the hopes that people would see their efforts as self-created rather than as damage control.
The number of people that read the initial media coverage about Disney’s lack of safety reporting is most likely much lower than the number of people who have a positive experience with Disney every day. Disney highly publicized the new report on safety, claiming they wished to better serve their patrons; however, Hale made very clear to those paying attention that Disney realized they needed to step their game up in the safety arena to maintain their theme parks’ number one position when he stated, “This is an ongoing process and we’re constantly working on new technologies…the rest of the industry watches us very closely. We recognize our leadership position and want to live up to that.” In other words, Disney did not want to lose any money because they were not making their publics happy, since “customer relations is vital to businesses.”
The safety report was created due to regulation, in an attempt to follow new laws, and as an attempt to quell media attention, however Disney failed to mention these reasons and instead used the report on safety as a crisis management tactic while making themselves seem positive and helpful in the eyes of the public. No media outlets reported on Disney’s failure to include the real reasons for their new safety campaign. Therefore, it was a smart move on Disney’s part not to include them.
Disney’s report on safety was 30 pages long and included operator guidelines, accident reporting procedures, and information on how rides are designed with safety in mind. The report also detailed all of the things Disney had done well. In addition to ride testing and approval, the report outlined newly implemented safety features including “10,000 new signs with standardized language and pictographs; standardized yellow and black stripes in ride load and unload areas; standardized safety announcements and increased use of gates, fencing or wait lines in areas where visitors prepare to board a ride vehicle.”
The safety report attempted to, and succeeded in, showing the general public that Disney was now willing to acknowledge accidents and to work together with the state to investigate any problems that were found, or any accidents that happened. The park also promised that each new ride would be approved by state qualified safety inspectors.
The annual report on safety continues to be a yearly reminder to park visitors about Disney’s promise to keep them safe in the place “Where Dreams Come True.” Disney’s main objective of the safety report was to use it to enhance the safety of its attractions in the minds of its customers who were beginning to show more concern for their own safety.
The report is “both a powerful corporate PR campaign and a step toward productive public dialogue about accident prevention.” Aside from the issue of safety being discussed at the 2002 press conference, Disney representatives also strongly stressed the idea of Disney employees and Disney guests working closely together to maintain a safe environment. The campaign called for a “Safety Partnership” between Disney and its visitors – asking both to be responsible for ensuring safety at the parks. The Walt Disney Company used the report release to call for a mutually beneficial relationship between its company and its park visitors.
The next accident that happened after the implementation of Disney’s new safety guidelines was handled in a much more acceptable way in the eyes of the media and the public. Disney’s Big Thunder Mountain railroad rollercoaster had a mechanical failure, causing minor injuries to park guests. Disney immediately informed authorities, held press conferences, and offered a toll free number for the public to obtain information about the accident’s victims. Disney even took full responsibility for the event and worked with local authorities to find the cause of the ride failure. This was a complete 360 degree turn around for the Walt Disney Company concerning safety.
Each year the annual report on safety builds on information from the original 2002 report. This year’s report, signed by current Chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Jay Rasulo, states that “while safety is part of everyone’s job, we have a full-time team of more than 1,500 engineers, mechanics and electricians dedicated to attraction safety and maintenance at Disney resorts in the United States.” Disney’s main goal is to ensure a safe environment for park guests and cast members, “Our commitment to safety is as much a part of our culture as our dedication to making dreams come true for our guests.” Since the first safety report was released, Disney has not received any outstanding negative media critiques concerning safety at their parks.
One year after the initial report on safety was launched, an entertaining and educational campaign aimed at Disney park guests was created. This addition to Disney’s safety campaign gained the Walt Disney Company further attention in the media. The Walt Disney Company partnered with Underwriters Laboratories Inc. – a non-profit, safety testing and certification company – to create the campaign materials. Rasulo stated, “we are fortunate to be joined in this effort by one of the most trusted names in safety – Underwriters Laboratories…They epitomize the very high standards and safety first culture we insist on in every aspect of Disney Resort operations.” Started in 1894, Underwriters Laboratories focuses on the United States and evaluates more than 19,000 types of products, components, materials and systems each year. Underwriters Laboratories expanded on its already existing safety education program for children ages 5-12 by developing curriculum with Disney – for both inside and outside of the parks.
Titled “Disney’s Wild About Safety Campaign,” Disney named the Lion King’s Meerkat, Timon, and Warthog, Pumbaa, as the campaign’s spokes-characters. Disney’s reason for producing an entertaining, character campaign was that “Part of the Disney experience depends on the patron’s willingness to suspend disbeliefs and enter fully into fantasy. How do you lose yourself in a fantasy, yet pay careful attention to safety at the same time? It’s hard enough for adults to separate fantasy from reality at Disneyland. Imagine how hard it is for a kid. When children walk through the gates of Disneyland, they believe they’re in a magical place where elephants fly and pirates do battle and ghosts ride in the seat next to you. How do you teach mechanical cause-and-effect to a 4-year-old – or his equally spellbound parent? One way is to incorporate safety lessons into the fantasy…Kids and parents are more likely to pay attention if safety instruction is part of the entertainment experience.” Disney’s goal of the safety campaign was to educate guests about park resort safety in a “fun and uniquely Disney way.”
As they did with the initial campaign strategy, the safety report, Disney urged patrons to help them maintain park safety, “Even with a cast of thousands working around the clock, we can’t do it alone. This program is a fun and effective way to give guests the information they need to partner with us and take an active role in their own safety.” While not exactly engaging in collaborative decision making, Disney does listen to patrons concerns and asks for their help in maintaining the new safety regulations. The Wild About Safety Campaign was initially scheduled to run 18 months, however it is still in effect today.
The campaign consists of 12 safety messages developed by veteran Disney employees, the Imagineering artists at Disney, and Underwriters Laboratories. The 12 messages depict “Timon and Pumbaa’s ‘misadventures’” in the Disney parks. Each safety message includes a “colorful tagline” to entertain both children and adults while educating them, “Entertaining information is easy to remember. That’s why two of Disney’s most popular characters – Timon and Pumbaa from the Lion King – are telling the Wild About Safety illustrated story to millions of guests who visit the Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort each year. By demonstrating the potential consequences of unsafe behavior, Timon and Pumbaa show guests how to stay safe and enjoy their visits.”
The campaign consists of activity books, theme park guide maps, personal translation units (in 5 languages) , brochures distributed at guest services, 12 “Safety Tip Cards,” food menus, and 12 trading pins – all depicting safety messages from Timon and Pumbaa. Cast members throughout the park distribute the 12 Safety Tip Cards to children. In addition, the 12 safety trading pins were created in 2003 and were only given to cast members with the idea that children would trade their own pins to receive a limited-edition safety pin. This is an extremely well thought out idea, as pin trading in the parks is huge for children, and getting a pin they cannot purchase anywhere would be highly sought after. Two pins were released each month for six months. On the 7th month, a 13th pin was created. This pin showed the logo of the safety campaign, and as before, was only handed out to cast members.
The 12 safety messages speak towards sun safety, following the rules, holding onto your belongings on the rides, staying with your family at all times, walking carefully, being aware of your surroundings, staying behind the ride line barriers, not forcing children to ride if they are afraid, making sure your family is healthy enough to ride, keeping hands and arms inside the rides, respecting park property, and remaining seated. Each safety illustration details the consequences of unsafe park behavior.
These safety messages are the second step of Message Development Objectives as they provide useful information desired by the Walt Disney Company’s markets, audiences and publics (MAPs). These MAPs consist primarily of park visitors and future visitors, but also include any child or adult touched at some point by the Disney brand. Disney also works to maintain positive relations with the media to ensure a low release of negative news about their company. The 12 messages persuade audiences to view the Disney brand as safe and caring. The cards create meaning through narratives and storytelling – both created through the illustrations, as well as through individual’s previous knowledge of Timon and Pumbaa.
The illustrations are not only entertaining and whimsical, they also bring safety messages to park guests without them having to read the taglines. Each illustration is clear and humorous – leading children who cannot read, to understand the meanings, as well as understand why certain behaviors may not be safe. The team who worked on the illustrations did a fantastic job keeping Timon and Pumbaa in their natural character state in each scene. Timon is always the more cautious and serious one, although he is occasionally shown disobeying the rules and receiving the same consequences as Pumbaa – which helps children realize more clearly the dangers of not staying safe, as they may equate Pumbaa’s personality with always screwing up, and not think it could happen to them, but Timon is not known for his mishaps.
For those who can read, the taglines that go along with the images are very entertaining. The taglines pertain not only to safety, but also to the characters of Timon and Pumbaa who in the Lion King are animals who live in the jungle. Therefore, many of the safety rules are written with animal body parts listed rather than human, and in the same light, jungle terms are used instead of more straightforward guidelines.
The taglines are:
-Have Fun in the Sun, Don’t Get Overdone
-Follow the Rules of the Jungle
-Hold On To Your Gear
-Watch Over Your Herd
-Be Aware, It’s A Jungle Out There
-Paws Behind the Line!
-Let the Cubs Decide If They Want To Ride
-Make Sure You Are Well Enough To Ride
-Keep Arms, Hooves, Tusks and Tails inside the Vehicle
-Stay on Your Feet, It’s Not a Seat
-Stay Seated At All Times
These taglines match perfectly with the fun, inviting feeling of the illustrations. Presenting safety in this way helps kids understand in not only a way that they comprehend, but also in a way that they will remember more clearly. It also helps adults remember the rules as well because it helps them pay attention to the rules rather than seeing a typical list or sign with guidelines and ignoring it. This safety campaign uses illustrations and colorful taglines to draw attention and infiltrate memory.
Aside from its prominence within the park, Disney’s Wild About Safety Campaign is promoted in many additional places. Hale stated about the campaign, “This is a comprehensive program to get the message out…it uses a variety of vehicles to reinforce people’s behavior, but does it in a fun way.” In January 2008 Disney Education Productions (DEP) teamed with Underwriters Laboratories to produce two safety DVDs to be shown in the classroom. The first DVD, titled “Wild About Safety: Timon and Pumbaa Safety Smart at Home!,” is aimed at children ages 5-8 and includes the campaign’s Timon and Pumbaa characters. The significance of the DVD is that “students realize the importance of safety and learn a variety of ways to help themselves and others avoid injuries.”
The second DVD is aimed at children ages 9-12 and is titled “Safety Smart Science with Bill Nye the Science Guy: Electricity.” In this video, “students learn to manage their environment and assume responsibility for behaviors that reduce injuries.” This was Disney’s end of the bargain between their partnership with Underwriters Laboratories. While Disney was primarily concerned with park safety, Underwriters Laboratories wanted to build on their already established campaign to educate school-aged children about safety.
Underwriters Laboratories use Timon and Pumbaa to educate kids about electrical safety, fire safety and water safety. Interestingly, only the DVD including the Disney characters is available in 15 different languages, “to make a global impact on our children’s safety particularly in nations where there exists a limited understanding and awareness for safety.” The Bill Nye DVD is only available in English and Spanish.
Through 2008, Underwriters Laboratories and Disney will have teamed up to host more than 250 live, interactive Safety Smart Super Challenge School Assemblies throughout the United States. While Underwriters Laboratories sends Safety Ambassadors from their company, Disney uses Radio Disney’s Road Crew members to run these events. In addition to hosting the Safety Smart School Assemblies, Radio Disney airs PSAs for the Wild About Safety Campaign throughout the country. In addition to radio, the campaign materials are also available on Disney.go.com/safety and UL.com (Underwriters Laboratories).
The Disney safety site has a section aimed at parents as well as a section aimed at children. The pages designed for adults discuss sun safety. Disney has partnered with the Sun Safety Alliance Organization for this effort. Other pages discuss theme park traveling tips, as well as descriptions of the parks safety symbols. The safety pages designed for children include interactive online adventures to teach safety while educating. Both the Disney safety site and the Disney section of Underwriters Laboratories include printable versions of the Wild About Safety Campaign messages and illustrations.
Through each media vehicle Disney uses to bring their campaign to their audiences, they reach every desired target for their campaign. Any child or adult that the company does not reach at their parks they reach online (for children and adults) or in schools (children). Disney sought to reach all ages with their campaign – primarily those individuals visiting or planning to visit their parks. Disney looks at their partnership with Underwriters Laboratories as an added audience of children who they might not otherwise reach. Disney reaches all ages at their parks with their safety messages, by including safety tips on their park maps and hanging signs and pictures throughout the park.
Perspectives and Summary
It is clear that the Walt Disney Company has reached its publics in the way they intended, otherwise the campaign would have ended at its 18 month mark as planned, rather than continue on for five years and counting. The campaign as a whole reaches park visitors, intending park visitors, visitors to the Disney website, visitors to the Underwriters Laboratory website, listeners of Radio Disney, and children in classrooms and school assemblies. Each of the media channels Disney chose to use for this campaign was brilliant. The company never throws information at people just to get it out there, they always consider where they are reaching their audience and if it will be effective. Disney constantly works to not only promote safety, but also to use the safety campaign to promote their parks, resorts and movies. Disney clearly understands its audience and its brand, and used the media outlets it chose as a way to strengthen its image continually.
Disney’s main goal in the campaign seemed to be to quell negative media attention, which it did. From the initial safety report on, Disney has not received anywhere near the amount of negative media attention it had before the report was released. Disney also hoped to educate park visitors about safety while at the same time showing to those hopeful visitors that Disney was a reliable brand that was concerned about park guest’s safety above its own image. Through its safety campaign, the Walt Disney Company has achieved its goal of regaining its unfaltering brand image of fun, entertainment, education, and safety.
Anton, M (2003). “New Role for Safety at Disney.” http://www.articles.latimes.com
(2008). Disney’s Safety Report.
Heath, R, & Coombs, W.T (2006). Today’s public relations; An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.
“Safety Smart Seeks to ‘Edu-Tain’ Kids of All Ages.” http://www.ul.com/newsroom
“UL Joins Hands with Disney to Advance Youth Safety Education.”
“UL’s Public Safety Education Initiatives.” http://www.ul.com/newsroom
(2007). “Underwriters Laboratories and Disney Expand Successful Youth Safety Education Program ‘Wild About Safety.’” Northbrook, Ill: http://www.ul.com/newsroom
Yoshino, K (2002). “Disney to Let Public In On Its Society Plan.” http://www.articles.latimes.com .