Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Slow Sad Sinking of Uti

Most visitors to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland are quite familiar with the charming pre-show roll call of Tiki Gods and Goddesses in the courtyard waiting area. All eight whimsically carved sculptures come to life and share a bit of their history and mythology before guests enter into the show building.

What most visitors don’t realize is that one figure is missing, arguably the most evocative and magical of the bunch.

Her name was Uti, the Goddess of fishing, and for nearly four decades she towered proudly over the main entryway to the Tiki Room’s tropical garden pre-show, the very first of Master Imagineer Rolly Crump’s fanciful Tiki sculptures guests would encounter during their visit. Holding a fully functioning gas flame torch and sporting door knocker sized hoop earrings, Uti stood inside an enormous outrigger canoe sheltered beneath a towering A-frame thatched roof.

Like most every detail of Disneyland’s classic attractions, Uti wasn’t mere window dressing but had a unique history all her own. Rolly Crump, a stickler for context and storytelling, sought inspiration from the book “Voices on the Wind; Polynesian Myths and Chants” by Katherine Luomala and found Uti’s backstory in a legend regarding Hawaiian gods who taught village fisherman to catch fish at night by holding a torch above their heads when out in their canoes. The fish, attracted by the firelight, could then easily be speared.

From such research Uti was born, a freshly caught fish in one hand and a torch in the other, her seductive flame now attracting Disney guests beneath her elaborate canoe instead of fish.

But Uti and her prime piece of real-estate wouldn’t last through the approaching maelstrom of Disney’s corporate restructuring. It started inconspicuously enough when the gas line to her torch was turned off in the mid-90’s. And then, like a tropical typhoon, the Pressler and Harris era of neglect hit the Tiki Room with a vengeance. Painted wood peeled and rotted, roof thatching deteriorated and the original 60’s tiles on the lanai floor were kicked loose by guest traffic and then stowed away and carried off in the pockets of others.

But the worst was yet to come. In the early morning of January 8, 2000, wood rot caused the support poles on Uti’s giant A-frame home to collapse against the turnstile and juice bar. The Tiki Room was closed for the day and barricades quickly set up. Uti and her noble perch were then unceremoniously removed.

Facilities promised that the entire structure would be restored and re-installed in due time but as the days went on it became clear that this was a pie-crust promise, easily made and easily broken. A series of cheap patio style umbrellas were installed over the entrance while Uti sat grounded in the makeshift boneyard behind Pirates of the Caribbean, still bolted onto her canoe. Eventually a cast member pried her loose and took her home while the hand-crafted outrigger was reportedly thrown away. Being one of a kind, there was no mold to reproduce it.

In March of 2005 the Disneyland 50th restoration of Walt’s famous Tiki Room unveiled a new but much less impressive marquee to the attraction. Though park marketing touted the re-hab as a return to Tiki Room’s original glory the fishing goddess was nowhere to be found.

Uti’s demise is admittedly a very small example of the recent degradation of the Disney Parks. But she stands as a much bigger metaphor for management so out of step with the meaning and magic behind the parks that to them the corporate stratagem, “If it’s broke, don’t fix it” makes perfectly good business sense.

But there’s hope. Plenty of Disney creatives continue to embrace the legacy of the classic Imagineers, firm in their belief that quality is still the best business plan. It’s no accident, for instance, that Uti makes no less than four appearances in the recent collection of Disneyland 50th collectibles, from limited edition figurines to pins and scale models, all of them long since sold out.

To those who truly care, keeping her torch lit is merely the first step on the long road ahead. It’s time for Imagineering to call her spirit home.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

What's in a Name?

The formation of WED Enterprises in 1952 was a major turning point for Walt Disney Productions and in the personal lives of Walt and Roy Disney.

As biographer Bob Thomas recounts in Building a Company: “Lacking any encouragement from Roy, Walt decided to finance the planning stages of Disneyland himself. He established Walt Disney, Incorporated, installing himself as president…”

“…Roy was deeply concerned that stockholders would be disturbed over possible conflict of interest between Walt Disney Productions and Walt Disney, Incorporated. He suggested that Walt change the name of his company, and it became WED Enterprises, the initials of Walt’s name (Walter Elias Disney).”

Walt said, “Well, WED is, you might call it my backyard laboratory, my workshop away from work. It served a purpose in that some of the things I was planning, like Disneyland for example… it’s pretty hard for banking minds to go with it… so I had to go ahead on my own and develop it to a point where they could begin to comprehend what I had on my mind.”

Author Steven Watts describes WED’s original working environment in The Magic Kingdom: “As these endeavors unfolded, Walt developed a special fondness for WED. He spent many hours roaming its premises, inspecting mockups in the model room, tossing around ideas, and brainstorming with the staff about potential projects. The pressures that attended the Disney Studio’s extensive production schedule of movies and television shows had become overwhelming, and Walt found a kind of respite by escaping into this smaller, more innovative group.”

WED was soon in the business of Imagineering, the Disneyspeak union of imagination and engineering.

Out of WED’s Imagineering braintrust came the theories, aesthetics, design and engineering of Disneyland, the advancement of three-dimensional storytelling, the development of robotic techniques in Audio-Animatronics and the perpetuation of an “architecture of reassurance” as inspired by Walt Disney’s personal sense of optimistic futurism.

The Disney theme parks we all know and love would never have existed without the risks taken by Walt and WED. In this protected environment, capital served the creative, mighty corporations funded new technology for our amusement and business was never “as-usual.”

WED was not operated for short-term return-on-investment, but was the playground of artists who excelled in making the impossible tangible, exploring new avenues of entertainment and imagining a bettered society through the miracles of science and industry.

But such a subjective enterprise was never popular with Walt’s longtime adversaries, “the sharp-pencil boys.” The experimental research and development at WED was considered a money-pit, though the end-results of Imagineering birthed the inspirational, lasting assets that still drive profits today.

As the holding company for Walt’s personal services and royalties for the Walt Disney name, WED became a divisive business point between Walt and Roy Disney as their small operation grew into a larger enterprise beholden to investors.

When Walt Disney Productions finally purchased WED’s design and engineering operations from Walt in the 1960’s, Roy himself intervened in the increasingly contentious negotiations by refocusing his legal team on the creative contributions of his brother, “Let me say a few words. You seem to forget how important Walt Disney has been to you and your lives. None of us would be here in these offices if it hadn’t been for Walt. All your jobs, all the benefits you have, all came from Walt and his contributions. He deserves better treatment than what has been shown here.”

After Walt’s death, Roy stepped in to realize his brother’s dream of Walt Disney World. WED’s legacy was all but assured.

But in 1987, as Michael Eisner reinvented boutique Walt Disney Productions as the global corporate entity known as The Walt Disney Company, WED Enterprises was rechristened Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in the bargain. Gone was WED’s cool mid-century modern logo. In its place was the bland corporate brand and letterhead font.

Along with the name change came a chilling transformation in culture.

“There was a severe power shift at Walt Disney Imagineering in the early-90s, which completely changed the creative landscape. The best ideas no longer made it into the parks, and WDI fell victim to the kind of personal politics and rampant cronyism that is often associated with Hollywood studios,” reported in 2004. “Many talented Imagineers were laid off or put out to pasture, while finance executives were given the power to make creative decisions.”

Under WED, artists were nurtured and brought up in the company for a lifelong career. At WDI, creatives became contractors hired from project-to-project, when the work was not outsourced completely.

The theme parks were now seen as little more than branded retail outlets. Increasingly risk-averse new offerings, attraction closures, budget-conscious re-dos, and slapdash merchandise-kin dark rides documented the change.

WED had been the Toymaker’s Workshop, domain of artists, entertainers, designers and dreamers.

WDI was the no-nonsense workplace of MBAs, real-estate developers, marketers and screamers.

The name of the game was now selling, not storytelling. Instead of WED’s otherworldly Pirates, ghosts and mighty microscopes, WDI built time-share condominiums, cruise ships and Mickey dolls that send consumer messages.

Yet this too has passed into history… Finally, after a very dark age for the Magic Kingdom, we stand at the dawn of a new era of empowered creators through the appointment of Pixar’s John Lasseter as the creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering.

As John told Fortune recently, “I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have all these new roles. I do what I do in life because of Walt Disney - his films and his theme park and his characters and his joy in entertaining. The emotional feeling that his creations gave me is something that I want to turn around and give to others.”

To that end, wouldn’t it be a fittingly symbolic gesture to return Walt’s original acronym – WED - to the division?

The return of WED Enterprises would loudly announce that the artists have come home to stay. Ideas are back in vogue. Innovation, quality and a reassuring experience beyond all expectations are once again the name of the game.

WED – Walter Elias Disney - is a name for Walt Disney Imagineering to live up to.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Attention Must Be Paid

Although Re-imagineering’s goal is to catalog the litany of missteps within WDI over the last couple decades, when an Imagineer and his team not only 'get it' but get it right, attention MUST be paid.

Expedition Everest, the new themed coaster at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, continues to expand upon and advance the rich traditions of Disney's classic attractions. Hats off to Joe Rohde and the entire team of passionate designers, craftspeople and storytellers who stayed true to their vision despite the constant threat of corporate meddling.

• Most notable, this is an attraction not based on a preconceived film property. In a hobbled WDI culture where nothing gets off the ground unless it’s firmly hog-tied to a synergistic game plan, getting an original idea to fly is next to impossible. Let us hope this is the beginning of a beautiful trend.

• This is an attraction with timeless appeal. Yesterday, today and tomorrow the legend of the Yeti isn’t going away anytime soon. Here is an investment with built in resonance decades from today.

• Working in the Eisner era of relentless penny pinching, Joe Rohde and his team fought for and somehow secured several tours of China, India and the Himalayas to research the culture, architecture and landscapes that informed this attraction. Is the exorbitant cost of sending a team halfway across the earth to do research for a theme park attraction really going to make any difference?


Such obsessive attention to the tiniest detail is what the theme in Disney theme park is all about, every bit of it in the service of transporting guests to a wholly authentic world that not only delights but challenges and informs. Who knows how many countless visitors will be inspired to learn more about the architecture of ancient temples of China, backpack through Paro Bhutan or study the rich history of Nepal?

• Expedition Everest is an attraction that explicitly understands that a loving regard for story is at the very core of Disney’s best theme park attractions. From the first curve in the pre-show queue, the tall tale of the legendary Yeti of the Himalayas has already begun to cleverly unfold. Surrounded on all sides by the rich visual mythology of the region (in the fictional village of Serka Zong) guests instantly become active participants in their own adventure with the promise of danger and excitement just over the hill. Within the ride itself carefully choreographed set-ups and pay-offs, complications and resolutions, cliff-hangers both literal and figurative and a well orchestrated climax add to the rich storytelling tradition that is Disney Imagineering at it finest.

• For the first time in years a Disney theme park attraction brings the art of audio-animatronics back into the spotlight and this time bigger and more sophisticated than ever.

Though Expedition Everest is a success on nearly all counts we wouldn’t be doing our jobs at Re-imagineering without noting a handful of minor criticisms for the record:

• This isn’t the first Disney runaway mine train attraction (Big Thunder) nor the first Disney rollercoaster with a Yeti (Matterhorn Mountain).

• Expedition Everest is yet another thrill ride wrapped in designer rock-work.

• Other than the state of the art Yeti figure, the largest and most powerful to date, the remaining technology within Expedition Everest doesn’t appear to have been pushed to levels heretofore unseen. Universal’s Mummy attractions got to the forward-backward gimmick several years before Disney and the actual ride system (though sporting a whisper quiet lift) doesn’t break any new ground.

• A huge chunk of Expedition Everest’s backside, with all the support structure, walkways and show girding exposed, can be clearly viewed from the parking lot, contributing to the infamous “bad show” cast members are all too familiar.

• Finally, and this can perhaps be seen as a compliment, the show is just too short. With a ride time well under four minutes and the climactic brush with the Yeti coming in at around five seconds one wonders when guests will ever see another 15 minute fully immersive attraction again. Here’s hoping that’s Joe Rohde’s next assignment.

Still, these are quibbles. When Disney Imagineering gets it as right as they do here all involved deserve every accolade thrown their way.

To Joe Rohde and his exemplary team of designers and craftspeople, kudos of the highest order. You guys truly “get it”. Against all odds you fought for your vision within a politically charged and often toxic corporate culture and you succeeded beautifully. Let us hope that your expertise will touch many more Imagineering projects in the years to come.