By Tom Nugent
Photo by Jay Rasulo/Disney

I’m convinced that if we can continue to tell our great stories in a unique and powerful way we’ll keep bringing lots of people to all the parks in the Magic Kingdom.”
—Jay A. Rasulo

In his spare time Jay A. Rasulo, chair of the Walt Disney Company’s $12 billion-a-year Parks and Resorts division, fly-fishes in the wilds of Alaska or Montana. “What I like most is the way it forces you to focus intently on the present moment and deal with what’s right there in front of you,” he says. “There’s nothing more present than standing in 40-degree water in a pair of waders and trying to coax a trout to jump up and eat that fly.”

Rasulo, AM’82, MBA’84, who revitalized 11 Disney parks and resorts after taking the helm of the playground division in 2002, focuses intently on “how to tell our wonderful stories even better”—the tales of Disney icons such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Dumbo. Doing so has helped bring millions of new visitors to his fantasy-fueled properties in the United States and abroad; more than 2 billion visitors have walked through the company’s turnstiles since the first Disney theme park opened in Anaheim back in 1955.

Since 2005 Rasulo has managed Walt Disney’s family-vacation resort business, which employs 100,000 people and stretches from the landmark destinations in California and Florida to its theme parks in Europe, Japan, and Hong Kong. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “a passionate leader who understands the cultural nuances of foreign markets,” Rasulo manages day-to-day operations at Disney’s parks and resorts. He’s been especially effective at boosting attendance overseas in places—Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong—where one might not expect the citizenry to get excited about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Delivering Good Value

Yet in the midst of a recession, attendance isn't what it was. Although Disney’s traffic declined by only 4 percent in the last quarter of 2008, Rasulo readily admits that it won’t be easy to keep customers and bring new visitors to the parks during the recession. Despite broad nostalgia for Disney, “in difficult economic times we know we have to deliver good value,” he says. So Rasulo came up with a new offer: free admission to any Disney park on a visitor’s birthday during 2009.

The Rasulo birthday special is an astute marketing move, says Cornell University consumer-behavior professor Mike Lynn. “Admitting an extra [non-paying] customer doesn’t cost them anything, and those people are still a benefit because they buy food and drinks, and their friends and family members are with them.”

Whether Disney can sustain the success in the current market is unknown, but Rasulo remains optimistic. Determined to keep the crowds coming, he’s bringing the same intense focus he applies to his fly-fishing hobby to marketing. “I’m convinced that if we can continue to tell our great stories in a unique and powerful way,” he says, “we’ll keep bringing lots of people to all the parks in the Magic Kingdom.”

By Tom Nugent, courtesy the University of Chicago Magazine

Originally published on August 17, 2009.