Walt Disney World has historically set its hotels apart by designing them with over-the-top themes, from an African village to a national park lodge to a sprawling ode to popular culture.
Now, however, the giant resort is focusing on improving the less-glamorous guts of its 22,000 rooms — with mini-refrigerators, wireless Internet access and extra mattresses.
The additions follow one of the most in-depth guest-research studies Disney says it has ever conducted. More than 10,000 recent hotel guests — both domestic and international — were surveyed and used to distill a list of more than 100 potential amenities to a core 32 items, which were then pitted against one another and prioritized.
The findings are now steering capital-spending decisions at Walt Disney Co. hotels around the world.
Disney is buttressing its hotel rooms as it continues to dig out from under the global economic collapse. Average spending in its U.S. hotel rooms has only recently returned to pre-recession levels: $241 per room during Disney's 2011 fiscal year, up 8 percent from 2010 but just 3 percent higher than 2008.
And many rooms are still going unfilled. Occupancy in Disney hotels was 82 percent in fiscal 2011, the same as 2010 but down from 89 percent in 2008.
"With the economy the way it is, you drop back to the basics: 'How can we steal business from our competitors because our hotels aren't full?' " said Scott Smith, a faculty member at the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management. "One of the things you can do is lower your rate, which is not smart. But the other thing you can do is offer things that people see value in."
Disney must also boost its basic room standards simply to keep from cannibalizing itself. The company is in the midst of adding inventory at both ends of its pricing scale in Orlando: the 2,000-room Art of Animation Resort, a lower-priced hotel that will begin opening next month; and a 147-unit time-share addition to the posh Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, which is expected by the end of next year.
Executives don't want the new rooms to make the old ones appear stale.
The top-ranked amenities in Disney's survey often varied by the type of guest; whether they typically stayed at the bottom-of-the-scale Disney's Pop Century Resort at Walt Disney World, for instance, or the high-priced Disney's Grand Californian Hotel & Spa at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.
But one item consistently topped wish lists across all segments: free wireless Internet access.
Though some of Disney's convention-oriented hotels already offered some Wi-Fi access — for a fee — the surveys showed people wanted it available in their rooms. And they didn't think they should have to pay extra for it.
Disney said it had planned to expand Wi-Fi in its hotels eventually. But the research persuaded executives to accelerate those plans; crews began rewiring the resort's hotels in November and completed the work last month. The cabins in Disney's Fort Wilderness campground were the final units to get it.
The research "helped us prioritize our thinking," said Mark Rucker, vice president of lodging for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Other results varied by segment. For guests in Disney's "value" hotels — the lowest of its three price categories, followed by "moderate" and "deluxe" — mini-refrigerators proved particularly important. Disney World is now adding them in all of its 8,500 value hotel rooms; the work should be completed by the end of the spring.
"That was probably the one that surprised me," said Kevin Myers, Disney World's vice president of resort operations. "I think there's a convenience factor. And even if you don't use it, it's the idea that it's there."
Extra beds tested particularly well among Disney's mid-market-hotel guests. The puzzle there, Rucker said, was to devise something other than a conventional rollout cot, which might clash with a room's theme.
Disney ultimately had its Imagineers, the company's creative engineers, build customized armoires that open to reveal a hidden mattress. The first of those are now being installed in a wing of Disney's Port Orleans Resort; Disney says it is "evaluating" whether to add them to other moderate hotels, as well.
Disney declined to identify all 32 items it tested in its research because only some will ultimately be added to its rooms.
Smith predicted Disney will have little difficulty recouping whatever money it spends on room amenities.
Travelers, he said, tend to assign values to "free" room extras, such as free continental breakfasts or Wi-Fi access, when choosing between competing hotels. And though a mini-fridge might be worth only an extra $5 a night to one person, it might be worth an extra $10 or $20 a night to others — say, a budget-conscious family visiting theme parks with young children.
"You start to look at things like that, and a mini-fridge pays for itself in a week," Smith said.
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