Thursday, April 27, 2006

Walt Disney Talks His Business Philosophy

The following interview with Walt Disney was conducted by NBC in 1966. On the surface, in his highly informal, friendly way, Walt's business philosophy seems relatively simplistic. Translated, however, it provides an understanding as to why he was so highly rated by the business world.

NBC: Walt, why did you pick Anaheim as the site for Disneyland?

WALT: The Disneyland concept kept growing and growing and it finally ended up where I felt I needed two-three hundred acres. So, I wanted it in the Southern California area, there were certain things that I felt that I needed, such as flat land, because I wanted to make my own hills. I didn't want it near the ocean, I wanted it sort of inland, so I had a survey group go out and hunt for areas that might be useful. And they finally came back with several different areas and we settled on Anaheim because the price of the acreage was right. But there was more to it than that. And that is that Anaheim was sort of a growing area. The freeway projection was such that we could see that the freeway would set Anaheim as sort of a hub. Well, that's how we selected Anaheim.

NBC: Do you feel Anaheim has lived up to expectations?

WALT: In every way, the city fathers have been wonderful. They've given us wonderful cooperation right from the start and they are still cooperating.

NBC: What has been your biggest problem?

WALT: Well, I'd say it's been my biggest problem all my life - it's money. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true. From the very start it was a problem of getting the money to open Disneyland. About 17 million dollars it took. We had everything mortgaged, including my family. We were able to get it open and for ten or eleven years now we've been pouring more money back in. In other words, like the old farmer, you've got to pour it back into the ground if you want to get it out. That's been my brother's philosophy and mine too.

NBC: What plans for the future do you have at Disneyland?

WALT: There's a little plaque out there that says, "As long as there is imagination left in the world, Disneyland will never be complete." We have big plans. This year, we finished over $20 million in new things. Next June, I hope, we'll have a new Tomorrowland; and starting from the ground up, building a whole new Tomorrowland. And it's going to run about $20 million bucks.

NBC: What steps have you taken to see that Disneyland will always be good, family entertainment?

WALT: Well, by this time, my staff, my young group of executives are convinced that Walt is right, that quality will win out, and so I think they will stay with this policy because it's proven it's a good business policy. Give the public everything you can give them, keep the place as clean as you can keep it, keep it friendly - I think they're convinced and I think they'll hang on after - as you say, "after Disney."

Thus, in the space of a brief, four-minute interview, Walt Disney covered no less than eight business considerations which went into the decision making process affecting Disneyland. Masterplanning... analyzing alternatives... evaluating costs... growth potential... working with government... taking risks... looking at investments and re-investment... up-grading, continually improving the product.

There is an old adage in the film industry... "You're only as good as your last picture." Actually, in business anywhere today, the standard is even tougher: "you're only as good as next year's results." Success today is not a vaccine for future economic ills. Many great businesses at one time or another, practically institutions and permanent fixtures on the American scene, have fallen by the wayside. Ironically, among the publishing giants on hand in 1955 as Disneyland struggled through its "Black Sunday" press opening were Look magazine, Collier's, The Saturday Evening Post, and Life. And among the cars in the parking lot were new Hudsons, Studebakers, Packards, and DeSotos. In 1955, they all had a vital, thriving part in the American scene. By 1975 they were all gone... along with dozens of other companies with long histories and great traditions.

Realistically speaking, what guarantee does the Disney organization have that some competition, perhaps not even in existence as we know it today, doesn't surpass us or worse yet... gain control of our organization? Walt Disney developed his own guarantee. He always said that we could never stand still. He had to explore, innovate and experiment and he was never satisfied with his work.

"If any of you starts to rest on your laurels, forget it," he told his staff. That was his guarantee for the future.

(The above was an archival article originally published in the mid-1970's).

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Decline of the River

Once upon a time along Disneyland’s Rivers of America guests could truly feel as if they’d been transported to another time and place. Along the waterfront beside New Orleans Square and across the busy waterway every last detail added to the impression of a somewhere totally removed from the present day. This was easily one of the most beautiful and charming vistas in the entire park.

Across the river was Tom Sawyer Island, its dense foliage draped paths snaking along the shore beckoning explorers to discover their hidden secrets. Against the backdrop of majestic Cascade Falls the Mark Twain Steamboat or Columbia could be seen coming 'round the bend. On the southernmost tip of the island sat 'Ol Harper's Mill, half covered in creeping vines, its waterwheel slowly spinning through another lazy summer's afternoon.

At night the riverfront was never more lovely; as romantic and evocative as could ever be imagined: the sound of a jazz band drifting from the alleys of New Orleans Square, the Mark Twain, trimmed in thousands of tiny lights, churning peacefully beneath the stars, the old fashioned gas lamps flickering along the water's edge, the moon hovering over a stately southern mansion as it peeked from behind the trees.

Over the last fifteen years, however, so many changes have been made to the area that the illusion of being back in Frontier America has been severely compromised. Today Disneyland’s Rivers of America is looking far more like the Rivers of Marriot's Great America than the very special place it once was.

Cascade Falls was torn down some time ago due to age and neglect and the Keel boats are history too. Fort Wilderness is still there on the back of the island but it’s long been shuttered and is currently rotting away.

By far the biggest changes to the area were done to accommodate the Fantasmic show. Walkways in front of New Orleans square were re-graded and built up into a series of tiered amphitheater levels, giant metal planks were thrown down along walkways near the river’s edge to hide the show’s gargantuan lighting rigs and the once charming home of the ‘Ol Mill was turned into what appears to be some sort of bizarre overblown plastic grade school playland.

It’s time to bring the Disneyland river front back to it’s original glory.

• Time to move Fantasmic over to the DCA lagoon where it’s badly needed.

• Time to repair and reopen the fort with perhaps some new and exciting show elements.

• Time to bring back another impressive waterfall, one with integrity and authenticity.

• And most importantly, time to redesign the front of Tom Sawyer Island so that it looks like something you might actually see along a 1850’s American river.

Here’s hoping there's a bright new frontier on the horizon for Imagineering.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

It's Fun To Be A Freeway

It’s no secret that Disney has sought out and enjoyed company sponsorship of its many shows and attractions ever since Crane Plumbing touted a new toilet at Disneyland during the parks earliest years. Companies got top drawer Disney showmanship to help sell the company ethos and Disney got much needed funds to jumpstart the park.

But with guest satisfaction being goal number one, Walt drove a hard bargain with incoming corporate sponsorship, making sure that visitors never became victims of the hard sell. Carny barkers, hucksters and shills had no place in Disneyland and he made this clear to the companies that helped bankroll his new park.

This tradition of the corporate soft sell at the Disney Parks has enjoyed a successful run for well over four decades. From Adventure Thru Inner Space and the Carousel of Progress to Spaceship Earth and Ellen’s Energy Adventure, guests enjoyed a singularly transporting experience while companies enjoyed the assurance that their brand became synonymous with all that was warm, wonderful and Walt Disney.

But as the Disney Company slowly morphed into the corporate monster it once insulated itself from that protective wall between the guests and the corporate sponsors started to show signs of erosion.

Current case in point is General Motors Test Track at Epcot Center. Initially GM’s presence at Epcot was by way of ‘World of Motion’, an extravagant and whimsical ride through the history of transportation, from foot and animal power to planes, trains and automobiles. With a cast of 188 animatronic figures performing on 24 elaborate stage sets, a catchy theme song written by X. Atencio of Pirates and Mansion fame and the wry humor of veteran animator Ward Kimball this was an attraction seeped in the rich traditions of Disney Imagineering at it’s finest.

But somewhere between 1995 when the attraction closed for renovation and 1999 when it reopened as ‘Test Track’, GM somehow had found a way to storm the castle and turn World of Motion into the World of General Motors.

Where once the pavilion was a simple sleek circular statement in perfect harmony with the five other Future World buildings, now the outer shell was festooned with miles of cheap steel girding, plastic canvassing and rows of urban city streetlights. It was as if a hurricane had dropped the tangled remains of a Home Depot right on top of World of Motion.

Inside the pre-show queue visitors are ‘transported’ to a GM testing facility, a giant room full of exposed wires, corrogated tin and wire mesh cages filled to the brim with the detritus of auto wrecking yards. Testing labs throughout buzz, slam and pound around us, all in the glare of harsh white lights while overhead speakers hammer out a musical cacophony of clanking metal pipes. Never before in Disney theme park history was a room so singularly dedicated to the unbridaled joy of the migraine.

Eventually guests are loaded into test cars to embark on a skidding, braking, jittery slog over bumpy pavement, around orange traffic cones and past robotic auto spray painters, culminating in a 65 mph drive on a faithfully recreated freeway.

Yes, the very experience guests had driving into Walt Disney World is the one GM was confident would make a thrilling climax to their very own Test Track. So much for not being reminded of the real world while in a Disney Park.

The artists, designers and storytellers at Imagineering can stand to learn important lessons from the gargantuan anomaly that is Test Track. For all the bankloads of money dropped on this endeavor, for all the state of the art engineering and technology that were employed in its creation, no resource can save an ill-conceived idea.

An idea with little interest in the Disney ‘guest’ and every interest in the General Motors ‘customer’. An idea with aspirations no higher than to transport the public from a GM testing facility back to the freeway where they came from.

Once apon a time it was indeed fun to be free.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Escape to Paradise

From the earliest days, Disneyland sought to create a convincing place-of-being for the guest. You became the “star” of a specific story - - or a visitor to exotic environments of another time and place.

The first Fantasyland rides cast each guest as the lead character. Snow White, Peter Pan, Mr. Toad and Alice were not seen in the original versions of the rides so you could take their place in the adventure. Likewise, walk-through set pieces like Captain Hook’s Pirate Ship, Tom Sawyer Island and the House of the Future, to name just a few, were meant to be experienced as complete virtual environments, not just “themed” modern attractions.

One of the most elaborate and lasting examples of this approach was the Swiss Family Treehouse.

For Christmas 1960, Walt Disney released one of his biggest motion picture blockbusters, an elaborate reinvention of the literary classic Swiss Family Robinson. The Panavision spectacular is noted for being shot nearly entirely on location, the then-remote Caribbean island of Tobago. Built in a real tree and fitted with “modern” conveniences scavenged from the remains of their ship, the Robinson treehouse was the film’s signature set, conceived from the sort of clever cartoon conventions on which the studio was founded.

In 1962, the Robinsons found a permanent home at Disneyland when their treehouse was recreated as an artificial “Disneydendron” looming high above the Jungle Cruise as Adventureland’s biggest “weenie.”

All of the amazing inventions of the clever castaways were built into this working model for the delight of Disneyland guests. A water wheel carried running water from a stream up to the main floors of the treehouse, a sunroof allowed the master bedroom to greet the skies, there were magnificent vistas of the jungle below, a fully equipped tropical kitchen and a library complete with an organ playing Buddy Baker’s catchy Swisskapolka. Heard throughout Adventureland and Frontierland (and beyond), the Robinson’s pumping pipe organ became one of the signature sounds of Disneyland.

Best of all, the treehouse was built as a you-are-there experience. With no figures or character representations to be seen, it was as if the guest had stepped into the Robinson home, into that other time and place, to find the house just as they left it. You were the star.

One felt as if the family were out battling pirates for the day and might return at any time. We were to momentarily take their place, making ourselves at home to appreciate their craft and ingenuity, their ability to survive – and thrive – through sheer imagination, resolve and stick-to-it-ivity. We could imagine ourselves living in their balmy world for just a few moments. This was truly an escape to paradise. Anaheim and the 20th Century were places far, far away.

The Swiss Family Treehouse became a staple of Disney parks around the world and all was well for the Robinson clan until the cost-cutting, brand harvesting management of the 1990’s, when much of Disneyland fell into disrepair for lack of maintenance reinvestment (via an executive apathy toward the historic treasures of Walt’s era). Since Swiss Family Robinson was not part of a contemporary merchandising scheme it was felt to be passé.

It was way past time for a major rehab. Limbs of the “Disneydendron” began to fall from neglect.

Ironically, the tree itself may have been saved by a synergistic opportunity. It would be reborn as a marketing tie-in to the upcoming animated feature Tarzan. With a corporate agenda to be serviced, a budget became available to makeover the attraction and the Robinsons were evicted from their treetop home.

But it wasn’t just the theme that changed, it was the very experience. When Tarzan’s Treehouse reopened to the public, it still had the same floor plan, but was now inhabited by stiff Disney Store-like mannequins posed in unmoving representational set pieces as seen in the Tarzan film. This changed the guest experience from a personal adventure on location to an observational viewpoint more akin to a wax museum.

The charming inventions of Walt and the Robinsons had been stripped-away, now replaced by children’s museum gimmicks like video projections and trick mirrors, tasked to sell a diorama story of Tarzan and his friends. The water wheel, ropes and pulleys were gone.... It was no longer a convincing walk-through, but a themed walk-past. We remained firmly grounded in the modern world of Southern California.

The once joyous Swisskapolka was now but a whisper, confined to a scratchy record in the trashed base camp as an homage to fans.

While Tarzan, as a new property, was certainly more familiar to young children, the original Swiss Family Treehouse never required a familiarity with the film or story to succeed in its illusion. All we needed to know was that a castaway family built a home in a tree. The new treehouse story was tied directly to Tarzan's marketable characters and scenes.

While we can be grateful that this maneuver may have spared the tree from extinction during Disneyland’s Dark Ages, we’ll have to echo the ennui of star James MacArthur who lamented, “It’s not every man who outlives his own monument,” at a screening of Swiss Family Robinson soon after the renovation.

As you read this, Disney’s big budget remake of Swiss Family Robinson is underway, with location shooting in Australia planned for later this year. Wouldn’t this be the perfect time to reconnect Disneyland’s past with its future, to again provide guests with a tropical home-away-from-home; to let them be the star of their own exotic island adventure?

Just say Swisskapolka!

Tarzan photo by Jeff Keller:

Sunday, April 02, 2006

When Birds Attack!

When Walt Disney World’s version of Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room got a head to tail makeover in 1998 as ‘Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management’ little did those involved with the rewrite realize they were actually creating a potent metaphor for the management style of the entire Walt Disney Company.

It was from within this corporate culture of greed, cynicism and condescension that management stopped making any effort to understand the true Disney audience and instead kowtowed to those who actually despised those corny animatronic birds, indeed the entire Disney brand, as much as they did.

Enter Lion King’s Zazu and Aladdin’s Iago into the Tiki Room to actively trumpet the new corporate cynicism. Where the original was all charm and harmony, this once warm tropical oasis now became the setting of an ugly animatronic cock fight.

Iago doesn’t waste a moment to tow the new corporate line.

“If you’re gonna keep your jobs ya gotta get hip!” he shrieks down from his perch. “You are boring, Tiki Birds. That’s why I’m gonna change your show!”

“Can you birds sing in punk or rap?” he continues. “Can ya rock and roll? It’s a whole new world so you better get hip or your audience will disappear!”

One can easily imagine a similar speech at any Disney executive retreat.

Dutifully the birds in attendance get in lock step behind their new mandate. The now ‘down and funky’ Zazu introduces the, ‘pop idols of Polynesia’, the lady birds of the bird-mobile do the conga and the tiki chorus rap like good urban birds are supposed to rap.

It’s difficult to express the feelings of violation audiences who witness this bastardization of one of their favorite Disney classics feel as they exit. It’s not just that they’ve seen the heart and soul of this extraordinary show stomped on before their eyes, it’s that their very respect for the original has been dismissed; that they’re somehow second class citizens of the Magic Kingdom because their opinions are out of step with the Hip New Disney. Guests don’t come to the Disney parks to be lectured on how un-cool they are.

Surely even the most revered attractions at the Disney Parks are going to see dwindling numbers over time and difficult decisions will have to be made. But it’s at times like this that Imagineers need to take a deep breath, remove themselves from the corporate cacophony and then take careful stock of what it was about the original that enraptured audiences once upon a time before placating solely to the lowest common denominator. In staying true to the tone and spirit of the original vision Imagineers will not only embrace the faithful audiences that came before but garner new loyal converts to the Disney brand honestly and with all due respect.

For those wondering what venerable E-ticket attraction at Disney World might be next in line for a pop culture injection of cynicism and self mockery you may not need to look any further than Iago’s send off line in ‘Under New Management’:

“Boy, I’m tired! I think I’ll head over to The Hall of Presidents and take a nap.”