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Disney In Depth: Examining Tom Staggs’ Unexpected Exit
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Brett Nachman   |  @   |  
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This week Disney announced that Tom Staggs, chief operating officer of The Walt Disney Company, would be stepping down from his pivotal role. Disney sees major players change jobs within the organization all the time – sometimes even switching key positions entirely – but this exit is monumental.

Staggs had been viewed as the probable successor to CEO Bob Iger, to retire from the Mouse House’s top spot in 2018. What Staggs’ departure from Disney means for the company requires examination.

A recent Reuters article indicates that Staggs was notified that he was not assured Iger’s position, hence his exit. Staggs, who had previously served as the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts for five years, and as Disney’s chief financial officer for a decade prior, is one of the company’s most important figures. He was deeply involved in Disney’s major recent acquisitions, including Pixar and Marvel, and spearheaded many elements of theme park expansions, such as Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland and the forthcoming Pandora: The World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Needless to say, Staggs is as much a reflection of Disney’s coups as Iger. His departure signals an element of uncertainty, and perhaps unrest within, the future of The Walt Disney Company.

Every so often, a turnover in roles occurs. It’s the nature of a business, of course. The anticipation leading up to Iger’s exit prompted many to believe Staggs would be the heir apparent. After all, prior to Iger serving as CEO, he was chief operating officer during the latter years of Michael Eisner’s time as CEO. It would seem like natural ascension. Not so, apparently. Staggs leaving Disney after more than 25 years of service is regrettable and perhaps indicative of the state of flux of many elements of the organization, such as the parks and media networks divisions.

The theme parks that he has overseen have experienced a number of strides, in terms of attendance and creativity. Take one look at New Fantasyland and you can see Staggs’ influence. Had it not been for switching roles with Jay Rasulo, who was chairman of Parks and Resorts when the reenvisioned land was announced in late 2009, perhaps Seven Dwarfs Mine Train would not have seen the light of day. Disney’s “job swap” between Staggs and Rasulo caused Staggs to have a key role in the evolution of the land. Staggs’ sons felt the renovated land, as shown in concept art, lacked enough experiences for boys. So out went Pixie Hollow and the individual meet-and-greet experiences with princesses – the latter now housed in the Princess Fantasy Faire – and in came Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The coaster that pays homage to the Snow White dark ride and plays up the (minor) thrills of Big Thunder Mountain is in great thanks to Staggs and his sons.

Tom Staggs has been known to have a humorous side, as evidenced in this video – posted by the Inside the Magic YouTube channel – from the 2011 D23 Expo, where he “held the roles” of various types of Disney cast members.

Staggs was also a key player during the later stages of the Disney California Adventure overhaul from five years ago, as seen in the video from WDWDailyNews on YouTube below, depicting the Cars Land opening, as well as the newer offerings at Animal Kingdom. Perhaps most importantly was Tom Staggs’ role with Shanghai Disneyland, which finally debuts in June after a series of delays and an extremely inflated cost of hundreds of millions of dollars over budget. Whether or not Shanghai’s financial issues are directly attributable to Staggs cannot be answered. Nor should it. What is disappointing is that Staggs will be leaving his post only weeks before the park’s opening after many years of development, even if he remains with the company as a special adviser through September. Meanwhile, the stateside parks have seen the fiscal and real costs of Shanghai’s struggles. Many attractions – mostly at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, in the early stages of a gigantic overhaul – have closed entirely, whereas others have cut hours. This all comes during a time when ticket prices and guests’ frustrations are rising.

I believe in the value of the Disney theme parks, even if I do not believe in the financial value as much as I had a decade ago. I also have faith in Disney’s ability to find an appropriate successor to Iger. That will be no easy task. It is unclear if that person will come from within, as nobody seemed to hold a candle to Staggs, but Disney may likely bring in someone new. Remember the entrance of Michael Eisner three decades ago, then chairman of Paramount Pictures? He just about transformed Disney upon stepping into those shoes, taking the sinking company to massive heights in less than a decade. Iger has done similarly well, yet in different ways. Staggs seemed like he could have done the job, too. But now it appears that a new leader that nobody suspected will surface. Soon enough we shall know.

As for Staggs, I have no doubt that he will find success in his future endeavors. He has been a huge asset to Disney and will likely bring those traits to whatever he pursues. It may not be a departure that recalls notions of a “happily ever after” story, but business is business. Not everything operates as smoothly as what we see from a distance. But we raise our Mouse Ears to Tom Staggs, wishing him well and thanking him for his contributions to Disney for the past quarter-century.

This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, released on the first and third Thursdays of each month on Geeks of Doom.

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