Meet the man responsible for everything you see at Disney parks - The Points Guy (2024)

Josh D'Amaro notices chipped paint as he passes by the entrance to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

"It bugs me, absolutely bugs me," he says.

We are walking through Disneyland, and D'Amaro is on the hunt for burned-out lightbulbs, trash on walkways and anything else that can take away from the magic.

But this 52-year-old isn't just any Disney employee (or "cast member," as he would note).

D'Amaro is in charge of Disneyland and the 11 other Disney theme parks around the world, plus Disney Cruise Line, a timeshare business, 50 hotels, an adventure tour company and all the merchandise (think: toys, books, games and clothing) The Walt Disney Company produces and licenses globally.

Yet on this June afternoon, the chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products is obsessing over a paint chip on a little-used railing. Doesn't one of the company's top executives have better things to do with his time?

"Absolutely not," he quickly shoots back. "That's all part of the show."

D'Amaro is one of the most powerful theme park executives in the world. He has to balance, among other things, keeping the magic and nostalgia of Walt Disney's vision alive with innovating rides and attractions for a younger tech-savvy generation.

Not to mention, D'Amaro has the difficult task of juggling the conflicting goals of creating profits for shareholders and making a Disney vacation affordable — or, at least, within reach — for families that dream of such a trip.

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Disney parks are, in some ways, the ultimate aspirational trip for kids of all ages. Children dream of visiting, and Super Bowl champions have turned it into a winning catchphrase.

"This is a place for everyone," D'Amaro says. "When you go walk around, you'll see people from everywhere, from all walks of life."

Yet prices keep climbing.

Disney experimented with a "Star Wars"-themed "hotel," a one-of-a-kind immersive experience that ultimately failed due to its high cost (rates started at $5,000 for two nights). Now, the company is launching a $115,000 private jet tour that takes passengers to all 12 parks around the world, plus the Taj Mahal, the pyramids of Giza and the Eiffel Tower. It's only open to 75 people.

"We have to have options for guests," D'Amaro says. "I want to make sure there are as many choices presented to you as simply as they can be. You could stay at a value resort if you choose to, or you could stay at the Grand Floridian or the Grand Californian if you'd like to."

That choice includes visiting during peak school breaks when prices are higher or on cheaper off-peak dates, though not every family has the flexibility or feels comfortable pulling their kids out of school to enjoy a less expensive ride on Space Mountain.

D'Amaro notes that there are now more days available at the lowest price (about $100 per person per day). Earlier this year, The Walt Disney Company also eliminated self-parking fees for Disney World hotel guests, a 4-year-old charge that angered many Disney fans. It represented the beginning of a multiyear era that removed some previous inclusions, such as the Magical Express bus and MagicBands, and saw the addition of new add-on charges like Genie+ and Lightning Lanes.

Related: Disney World making changes to simplify visits and bringing back a fan-favorite perk

It's a balancing act, D'Amaro acknowledges. If the price is too low, lines will be unbearable, souring the experience for all. But if it is too high, the parks become inaccessible for a large share of the population.

"I'll repeat the same thing I said before: We don't always get it right," he notes.

That led me to ask about Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, Disney's attempt to turn a themed hotel into an immersive "Star Wars" drama with actors, battles and adventures that brought guests into the story and experience.

D'Amaro said he's always pushing the park designers (known as Imagineers) to take risks and not be afraid to try something new.

"Raise the bar. Try things that the guests aren't even asking for because they don't know to ask for that," he says. "I know not everything's going to work. What did work, though, is we took creativity and storytelling to a completely new level, to a level that had never existed before. ... It didn't work commercially. And so, when we realized that, you just make a call and move on."

So, what will become of the hotel after the last guests check out in September?

"No hints yet," D'Amaro says, smiling, "but something will happen."

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There are few people as close to Disney's evolution as D'Amaro.

For the past 25 years, he's been working in the parks, starting with a team at Disneyland that planned out park operations.

"On day one, I sat in a meeting with probably 14 people and I could not believe what was happening in front of me," he recalls. "These people, cast members, were talking about the most granular details on Main Street. Where should the trash bins go? What if we moved this from here to there, which way do we think the guests are going to go? The pain and the detail and the concern that the people in that room were taking ... is burned in my memory."

He eventually rose to become president of California's Disneyland Resort, where he opened the wildly popular Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land before moving on to become president of Walt Disney World Resort in Florida in 2019.

Then, in 2020, Bob Chapek, who was the chairman of parks and resorts, was promoted to CEO of the entire Walt Disney Company, opening up the opportunity for D'Amaro to become the one responsible for overseeing the entire parks and experiences empire.

Chapek's tenure as CEO didn't last long, and Bob Iger came out of retirement in late 2022 to once again take the helm. But given Chapek's rise from chairman of parks to CEO, it isn't all that surprising to learn that D'Amaro's name has been floated as Iger's replacement when he steps down for good. If that happens, many Disney fans will likely be pleased, as they are already familiar with D'Amaro. In fact, he's a bit of a celebrity when he's in the parks.

As we walked through Disneyland on a Friday afternoon, people would scream out his name: "Josh! Josh! Can I get a photo please?"

And it wasn't just one fan. It was dozens, all within minutes, including a couple from Louisiana spending five nights of their honeymoon at the California resort.

"You're a celebrity to me, actually," the newly married man said. "It's nice to meet you."

A few paces later, a middle-aged woman getting a selfie told him, "This is a big day for a Disney adult."

It was almost like Anna and Elsa were strolling the parks in terms of excited fans making requests for photos. (For the record, D'Amaro's three favorite characters are Mickey, Goofy and Buzz Lightyear, while his favorite villain is Maleficent.)

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"I don't love the recognition for the sake of the recognition," he says. "I love the fact that people will come up and talk to me and tell me what they love and tell me when their family first came here and tell me what they would love to see change."

For some politicians, Disney doesn't warrant the same reaction. To them, Disney has become the villain in America's fairy tale.

Around the globe, guests can stroll Main Street, U.S.A., Walt Disney's sanitized vision of what a small town should look like — a place where a band still plays "God Bless America" in the afternoon.

Yet Disney, as a company, has thousands of employees and millions of consumers who care about modern-day issues and don't want executives frozen in some idealized past vision of America.

Most notably, Disney has clashed with some Florida Republicans over a new law restricting classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity, a measure dubbed "Don't Say Gay" by its opponents. The company also battled California officials over when to reopen the parks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Add to that the politics and challenges of operating parks in China during the past few years, and it's safe to say that D'Amaro's job of keeping sometimes conflicting groups happy isn't easy.

D'Amaro acknowledges the political struggles but says he tells his team to just focus on what they do best.

"That is telling incredible stories, continuing to innovate and making sure that every one of these guests out here have a great time when they're in our theme parks," he says.

Sometimes, those debates spill over to the parks themselves.

Disney recently shut down Splash Mountain, a water ride that featured characters from the 1946 film "Song of the South," which has been criticized for its racist themes. The ride will be reopened as Tiana's Bayou Adventure, a ride based around Disney's first Black princess.

Related: These are the best rides at Disneyland

While many praised the change, there were plenty of critics, some accusing Disney of being "woke."

"I think that as guests have points of view on what we might do inside of the theme park, changing an attraction or changing a walkway, what that says to me is: People care about our product," D'Amaro says. "What am I going to do? I'm going to listen and make sure that I do the best for all the guests that I possibly can."

Almost on cue, a mom with an 8-year-old daughter approaches D'Amaro. Her daughter has never been on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. They have a Lightning Lane pass to skip the line, but the girl is frightened.

"I'll tell you what's going to happen," D'Amaro tells the girl. "You're going to finish it up. You're going to be laughing and you're going to say: 'I can't believe I was worried about going on that.' You're going to tell all your friends, and you're going to look cool. I would do it."

They pose for a photo, then the mom says, "He makes this park amazing. He's the reason why."

The walk continues on, and the conversation shifts to hidden Mickeys (abstract circles that look like the famous mouse hidden in plain sight) and other more hush-hush aspects of the parks.

Naturally, I ask if he has ever been questioned about and revealed the locations of the park's secret tunnels.

"Yes," D'Amaro says. "And I don't tell them."

Then, we entered the land D'Amaro opened as Disneyland president. He recalls watching the first guests come into Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge on opening day. Kids were running around, and 50-year-old men were crying.

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Before long, he hints at another park secret.

"When we opened this land and before everything was kind of sealed up and ready to go," he says, pausing and smiling, "I had a chance to get out here and do some fun things that I think will go down — maybe — someday in history."

Then, like the great show master that he is, D'Amaro moves the conversation on, not offering up any more details about his own contribution to the "Star Wars" universe.

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Much of the modern-day Disney empire developed well after Walt Disney's death in 1966.

The first "Star Wars" movie wouldn't hit theaters for another decade. Disney World wouldn't even open for five additional years. Yet Walt Disney's force, attention to detail and belief that nothing is ever truly finished are still very much felt in the parks today, especially with executives like D'Amaro focusing with Walt-like attention on the small details, like ensuring that paint isn't chipped.

So, what would Walt think about the "Star Wars" campus?

"I think he'd be pretty proud. I think he would actually be pretty amazed at the evolution of storytelling," D'Amaro said. "I don't think he could have ever imagined it was this, but at its core, we're doing the same thing he wanted to do. We could just do it so much more effectively now."

Related reading:

  • Tips for visiting Disney World in 2023: 18 ways to save money and have more fun
  • How paying $7.99 a month can save you hundreds of dollars on your next trip to Disney World
  • Disneyland vs. Disney World: Which is the better park to visit?
  • Where to stay at Disneyland: The best on- and off-property hotels
  • 8 magical new reasons to visit Disneyland this year

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Meet the man responsible for everything you see at Disney parks - The Points Guy (2024)
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