Beating the big guns on the Disney beat

Last week, the Walt Disney Company announced a $1 billion-plus revamp of its Disney’s California Adventure theme park, which has been plagued by low paid attendance and poor customer reviews since it opened in Anaheim in February 2001. The Los Angeles Times detailed the plans in a story the morning of Disney’s press conference, writing that the plans were “first reported on the Wall Street Journal’s website.”

Actually, the plans first had been reported months earlier, on a website called MiceAge, run by long-time Disney-watcher Al Lutz.

I’ve been covering theme parks, online and off, for more than a decade. But Lutz is the dean of theme park reporters on the Internet. A former music recording producer, Lutz started writing about Disneyland on USENET, then on a series of websites. For fans used to ever-positive coverage about Disney and its theme parks in the traditional press, Lutz provided a bracing splash of reality. His reports detailed an ugly side at the so-called Happiest Place on Earth, from chipped paint and burned-out lights to maintenance cutbacks that other critics charged endangered the public safety. Two fatal accidents at the park, later blamed on park personnel and mainentance failures, brought more attention to Lutz’s critical work.

In 2003, he left MousePlanet, a Disneyland news site founded by a group of USENET veterans, to go solo on MiceAge. Since then, he’s added other writers his site, where they’ve broken many stories about developments at Walt Disney theme parks, including the plans to revamp California Adventure.

Despite the fact that we’ve covered the same industry for years, I’d not had the chance to meet Lutz in person. So last week, I called and arranged a get-together, where we talked about how Lutz found his way into Web publishing, as well as how he’s managed to build a part-time interest into a news-breaking bully pulpit about a multi-billion-dollar industry. An edited transcript follows:

OJR: Tell us about your background and how you got into reporting news about Disney on the Web.

Lutz: It wasn’t anything that was planned. I used to work for RCA Records; spent 10 years there. When the problems started hitting in the music business, I got out. Then I got into helping with my family business, the [real estate] appraisal business, which isn’t going so good right now. [Smiles.] But I had started going on to USENET, because that had fascinated me when we’d started talking about it in the music business.

I started on alt.disney.disneyland. There was one guy handling the Disneyland FAQ at that point, and he’d kind of given up on it so I took it over because I got tired of answering the same questions all the time — what time is Fantasmic! this weekend?, you know. Then Werner Weiss from Yesterland [a website devoted to now-closed Disneyland attractions] contacted me and said ‘You really should have a website,’ and that was the start of the DIG [Disneyland Information Guide].

It just started as an FAQ, but then we developed it into a gossip column. I think having the viewpoint is what’s important to me. Because that’s one thing they’ll kill you for on the Web is not having one.

OJR: How often do you file a Disneyland update on MiceAge, and what goes into preparing each update?

Lutz: I don’t determine the timing. The timing is determined by when I confirm things and when there’s some news to report. To me, a press event is not news. News is finding out about a make-over of a park, or an attraction getting a new ride system.

OJR: What’s been Disney’s reaction to what you’ve done?

Lutz: It depends upon the arm of the company. The parks division; they’re not real happy. The other divisions, movies and music, they’re fine. They appreciate the coverage and we have a good working relationship with them.

Did you see the coverage on Finding Nemo [a new attraction at Disneyland] and what happened with that? They invited in all the media, but they put the bloggers in the walkway by the Matterhorn [a location many yards away from the Finding Nemo ride]. That’s what they think of the Web. They put them in Siberia. I feel badly that they don’t understand that we reach more people in one day than all of these podunk newspapers that they fly out to cover these events.

You have a culture there which is very secretive. So for employees, instead of getting information from their bosses, they are getting it from the Web. And it creates this hostile environment toward the Web. They could correct it by informing their own people about stuff. There was one time when someone told me that they’d walked through Team Disney Anaheim on a Tuesday after an update and all the computer screens were up and they were reading it to find out what was going on. What’s funny is that I’d taken that same walk through the Simpsons animation people and they had all their computer screens on MiceAge, too. It’s interesting the people it reaches to.

OJR: How long did it take for you to cultivate a network of sources within the Walt Disney Company?

Lutz: It just kind of happened. People wanted to get the word out about stuff. Particularly during the [former Disneyland president Paul] Pressler era. There were a lot of people who were concerned. Before the Columbia accident, before the Big Thunder accident [two fatal accidents involving rides at Disneyland], people were concerned and they started talking.

I think that it is important to put a light on some of this stuff.

OJR: Compare and contrast what you do in covering Disney with what’s happening at local newspapers and TV?

Lutz: I like to sit down with a newspaper and learn something. I don’t learn anything from most of the reporting that’s going on nowadays. They tell you something that’s happened, but they don’t give you analysis or insight. The political area still maintains that, but the business area, in particular, has been lacking.

The other things that gets me is that they don’t do more alliances with the Web. Saying ‘hey, we can’t have a specialist reporter, so why don’t we put you on and make you exclusive to us for so much a month. So don’t talk to the other guys; talk to us first when anything breaks and you’ll be our stringer at a lower cost than maintaining a full-priced person.’

Everything’s in transition right now. I think the future is quite bright for the Web. But it’s very painful getting there.

The good thing is that we’re reaching a point traffic-wise where the numbers are finally starting to make some sense.

OJR: Tell me a little about the business side of MiceAge.

Lutz: There’s nothing formal. All the alliances we have are informal. It’s not a real business per se because we haven’t reached those levels where I can pay my rent with it, though it is certainly a lot better than it used to be.

OJR: Are you doing a revenue split with the other writers?

Lutz: They all benefit is some way or another. Alain [Littaye, who covers Disneyland Paris], for example, sells books. And he sells quite a few. At ninety bucks a pop, seventy bucks, he does pretty good. Kevin [Yee, who covers Walt Disney World,] sells a lot of books and he gets coverage from other areas for what he does. For Sue [Kruse], it’s pretty simple. She likes covering the press events and doing all that fun stuff. She runs an antique store, normally. So there’s a trade-off for everybody.

What they do is they submit a story then I handle all the layout, design and pick the graphics and do all that stuff. I’m a real big believer in a magazine-type of layout. I like blogs, but I don’t think they have a soul, or a life like a magazine does.

OJR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to start their own “MiceAge”-style site, covering some other topic?

Lutz: Two words: Be honest. Have a viewpoint and be honest. People respond to opinion. They might not like what you have to say, but they will respond to it.

OJR: Some traditional journalists might find that statement a bit contradictory.

Lutz: Well, I’m not a newspaper. I think that in a balanced world, you’d have both, just like a newspaper has a columnist. If I’m telling you something and giving you my opinion on it then I expect you to be smart enough to know what the facts are and what my opinion is about the facts.

When you say theme parks or Disney, people just don’t take you seriously. What’s funny is that when Eisner and Wells came in, they had a plan to sell all the parks. Then they looked at the books and said ‘my God, these Disney brothers knew what they were doing.’ Whenever they had a bad period, the parks fueled everything. It just happened with NBC Universal. They were going to sell everything, then they looked at the books and said ‘my God, this is a cash cow.’ I don’t think that even the business reporting elite in the mainstream media understand what the theme park business is.

Dick Cook and John Lasseter are former theme park people. All the people at Disney who are involved in films are former theme park people. There’s going to be an even tighter integration now, then ever before between these properties, because it works. It brings in cold, hard cash that they don’t have to split with anyone, like they have to do in a theater.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at