Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Nature of the Business


For decades, the relentless expanding and contracting of Walt Disney Imagineering has been explained away as "the nature of the business." WDI (formerly WED Enterprises) has existed for over fifty years, and has been conducting cyclical mass layoffs since the early 1970s. The most notable layoffs have taken place after the completion of Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland (1982-1983), after the completion of Disneyland Paris (1992) and after opening three theme parks in nineteen months, Disney's California Adventure, Tokyo Disney Sea and the Walt Disney Studios Park in Paris (2001 - 2002). Perhaps Disney's twenty-five year massive worldwide theme park expansion is taking a breather--providing us with the perfect opportunity to reevaluate the validity of the oft-used phrase: "It's just the nature of the business."

Why is it the nature of the business? Perhaps because WDI is project driven and projects fluctuate based on the needs of their clients. WDI however has only two clients; the Walt Disney Company (WDI's own parent) and the Oriental land Company (which operates Tokyo Disneyland and is beholden to the Walt Disney Company per their licensing agreement).

WDI doesn't exactly have to exist in the competitive world of independent design firms. If fact, for decades WDI held all the cards. They dictated every little detail to the park operators. But things changed and now the park operations folks are in charge. Park executives order what they want from WDI the same way a client would from an independent firm. This causes WDI to behave like an independent firm, always looking to sell its wears to whatever park executive has the money to spend. WDI is constantly begging for work, which leaves no time or motivation to prepare for the future, and no opportunity to play the role of master planner.

WDI is a reactive organization, not a proactive one.


For Your Consideration

Consider that it’s WDI's job to maintain the identity and theme of eleven parks around the world as well as dozens of resort experiences. Consider that WDI is responsible for painstakingly designing and updating minute details on a canvas that covers more than 35,000 acres of land around the world and must do so in a four dimensional environment (in addition don't forget about the basic wear and tear of time). Consider that the attention to detail, which is one hallmark of WDI, is actually what first separated Disney Theme Parks from amusement parks, and the consistency and continuity of those details creates the show that elevates Disney theme parks above all the rest (along with the contribution of a tireless front line operations cast).

Consider that the other hallmark of Imagineering is creative and technological innovation, which generates new attractions and drives repeat guests to return to Disney parks (again, with considerable help from cast members). And let's be practical here, too; this attention to detail plus innovation is what allows The Walt Disney Company to charge more for their parks than any other firm, and thus create a distinctive experience for which the public is willing to pay a premium price--wider margins and more profit.

Considering all this, if you were an executive at the Walt Disney Company and your jurisdiction included theme parks, shouldn’t it be important to make sure that Disney maintains its premium status, and shouldn’t you know the role that Imagineering plays in that maintenance?

With all that considered, let's move to the topic in hand.

Photo courtesy Bernie at disney.rocket9.net

The Nature of the Business

The decade-long cycle of layoff, rebuild, expand, reinvent, innovate, renew, release, and layoff, has had some positive effects. It allowed the addition of new blood, people from different fields and backgrounds to come into WDI and to keep the perspective fresh and vital. It allowed WDI to explore new directions. A fluid work force adapts quickly to change.

But, it also had a very serious downside. The choice to layoff uniquely talented and experienced workers is like ringing the dinner bell for the competition. Arguably the most impressive non-Disney theme park in the world is Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, just a few miles up I-4 from Walt Disney World. Islands of Adventure was designed almost entirely by laid-off Imagineers and now sits on Disney's front door step siphoning off guests who could be spending an extra day of their vacation on Disney property. Add Harry Potter to the mix and suddenly the trickle of departing muggles becomes a flood.

But the concern of losing good talent to the competition is minor in comparison to the other drawback created by WDI's expand-and-contract cycle. In the wrong hands, the constant threat of layoffs can be used as a political tool by management. It enables a corrupt management to rule through fear and in doing so negate all the positive effects of a cyclical change-out of talent. Unfortunately, this is exactly what has happened at Walt Disney Imagineering for the past several years.

Dream On Silly Imagineer

Try to imagine, just for a moment, that you have, since the age of eight, wanted to work in a magical place called Imagineering. In your mind, it is a dream factory more spectacular than any created by Santa Claus or Willy Wonka, and you work your whole life to get there. Then one day the Flower Street gates open to you and you are allowed in. Walt Disney Imagineering! (For a more visceral explanation of this emotion please see the wonderful short film "Dream on Silly Dreamer" by Dan Lund. Much of what happened at Animation applies to Imagineering as well).

Now you're working, you're drawing, you're building and it's great. But then one day you discover you've said something to upset an executive. You didn't realize it at the time, because it was a brainstorming meeting and it was a free exchange of ideas. You were just trying to contribute the best input possible with no idea that saying, "We need more Audio-Animatronics figures in the parks," or, "Why don't we write original songs anymore?" could upset someone, but it did...and does...a lot.

You see, some executives at WDI believe that it is just as effective to tell a "story" by using film rather than Audio-Animatronics figures. And loads cheaper. Those executives just made an argument that the AA guys and gals need to go and the filmmakers need to stay, and your little comment is not helping their agenda. So, a friend tells you that you need to keep your mouth shut or they’ll get rid of you during the next round of layoffs. At WDI nobody needs an actual reason to fire you.

So, now you choose your words carefully in “brainstorming” meetings, you try to appear dispassionate about your work, moving silently from task to task. After all, dispassionate people are less likely to have strong opinions and are therefore easier to manage. Maybe you even try to fit in with the cool kids; best way to do that is to make fun of diehard Disney fans; call them geeks or foamers (because they foam at the mouth when they see something Disney).

And most important, you don’t suggest anything that might be original or creative. You never ever suggest building an original attraction as you now understand it’s better to just repackage an old idea (unless that old idea was created by somebody now unpopular with management, or unless it necessitates the involvement of a department management is trying to eliminate.) Hmm...maybe it’s best if you just don’t speak at all.

Welcome to WDI. Welcome to a culture of fear.



The WDI of 2001 - 2007

So let’s recap. WDI’s role is vital to maintaining the Disney Theme Parks’ position in the minds of the consumers as a premium product. The culture of fear created by WDI’s management (the guys who wear jeans and sit behind desks in Glendale) discourages innovation and creates a hostile work environment for creative people. The results of this culture of fear are quite evident. We call them Disney’s California Adventure, Walt Disney Studios Paris, Stitch’s Great Escape, Tiki Room Under New Management, DinoRama, and Journey into YOUR Imagination among others.

Unfortunately the management of the Walt Disney Company (the guys who wear suits and sit behind desks in Burbank) don’t have the time or the interest to look at the problems within Imagineering. They just see that their newest parks are losing money and that the Imagineers are spending too much. Like most of the world they see Imagineering as one solid amorphous blob, and they are more than happy to throw out the baby with the bath water. What they don’t see is the enormous talent that still exists at WDI just below the surface.

On the promising side WDI just went through yet another restructuring in the hope that a new management team will succeed where their predecessors failed. And despite what some people think, this blog’s mission is to help build a happier, healthier, more creative, more efficient WDI by chronicling past mistakes in the hope that WDI can learn from its own history to build a better future.

What could the new Walt Disney Company management do if they wanted to?


Let's return to the original question. Is the constant expanding and contracting of Walt Disney Imagineering necessary? Is it really the nature of the business? This contributor would have to say, "no". Even if it was unavoidable once, it’s not today.

The Walt Disney Company has 11 theme parks around the world, plus water parks, resort hotels, entertainment districts, a sports complex, cruise ships, a private island, and all of these things need to be held up to Disney quality. A steady stream of work should be coming into WDI from all these sources, because every one of them needs attention. Because of the aforementioned client/design firm relationship, however, this is not the case.

If WDI were given a standard budget to make improvements and enhancements (which could be as small as a flower bed or as big as an E-ticket attraction) to existing parks, the basic staff of WDI should be kept busy indefinitely. WDI would have a set amount of money to work with (adjusted for inflation each year) and the Walt Disney Company management should prioritize what work needs to be done first. When a big project comes along like a new theme park or two huge cruise ships then some of the work on the existing park would have to be deferred. If this sounds like harsh neglect of the existing parks, it's important to note that this is work not being done at all today.

Of course there is no way to eliminate layoffs completely. Economic fluctuations make that an impossibility. But given the size of the Disney empire and the constant need for updates and improvements to existing parks, a smart management team could minimize the modulation...if they wanted to. And the payoff for guests and stockholders would be enormous.

Walt Disney Feature Animation was at its best when it was only making one film a year. Those were the days of Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, and Pixar is enjoying an incredible run making new films every 18 months. There is something to be said for restraint, especially when it comes to creative organizations. The Walt Disney Company’s decision to build three theme parks at the same time is what doomed WDI (like its decision to make multiple animated features and dozens of cheap sequels destroyed Animation a few years back). With three park projects to feed, Imagineers were promoted to lofty positions and given even loftier salaries. Labor rates soared. This was all digested into the budgets of three very large-scale projects. But when all three parks opened, WDI was left with a gaggle of Vice Presidents with no work to do. Try justifying absorbing those salaries into overhead costs.

The fatten-up-slim-down fad diet WDI has been on for the past three decades just isn’t healthy. WDI will be fifty-five years old in December, and it’s time to appreciate the value of moderation. As for the culture of fear that resides within WDI, it will take a lot more than a steady stream of work to fix that problem, but removing the constant fear of layoffs is a good first step.

Unfortunately the fear of layoffs has proven such an effective tool for controlling unruly creative types so some old executives at WDI may see no reason to change it. Here's hoping some renegade executive has the courage to make a selfless decision that would be in the best interests of the company and remove the culture of fear at Imagineering; to challenge the very 'nature of the business'.

All of us here at Re-Imagineering wish them the best of luck.

.

34 comments:

Eric Scales said...

Excellent, excellent article. Simple sound advice. The thing that baffles everyone about Pixar is that they don't behave the way we've come to believe you "have to" behave to get ahead nowadays. They look at the long term and respect the culture they've created. Hopefully their influence at WDI will fix some of these problems.

Geoffrey said...

I agree with eric this a very well written post, hopefully someone at WDI will take this advice to heart and actually nurture the culture that they helped to create...

StrangeVoices said...

I wholeheartedly agree that WDI has become a culture of fear and politics. And I agree that this, probably more than any other issue, is what most threatens Disney today - not only from outside competition, but also falling apart within.

But I think the root cause of all this lies deeper than management skills. I think it hints at a fault much more central to the whole corporation - one that has been around for decades now and has fundamentally changed how the company operates and is slowly eroding away at the quality of the company's productions and tearing the company apart. And that is, to be blunt, marketing.

Now, Disney has always been about marketing. Walt knew the value of a weenie, and knew just how to reach his audience at an emotional level. But he also knew when to stop - where to draw the line so that your customer kept coming back for more.

Today, the Disney company is driven by promotion. The parks are no longer run by Imagineering - Park Management decides what they want, and how it is going to be themed, and what it is going to be promoting. Imagineering's job is simply to deliver a product to management's specification. And that management has become dominated by marketing and promotion.

Now, instead of designing the attractios, shows, and shops of the park to create a guest experience, management is simply seeking a way to market and exploit the latest releases. The idea of providing a whole experience has given way to providing a whole selling approach. Ironically, as other parks and attractions have started to learn from Disney and offer more attractive experiences themselves, Disney has started becoming more of a branding experience than a vacation experience.

Will a shake-up at WDI's management help? Would providing more job security to the Imagineers help? Absolutely! But you are never going to return to providing the best product, or for that matter providing the best working environment, until you fix the underlying problem. And that problem is that Disney needs to focus, once again, on producing quality products that sell themselves, instead of producing vast quantities of marketing and branding in hopes of elevating a so-so product.

Dale Baker said...

Wonderful article. It's nice to see practical dreamers out there, idealists who still hope. Keep up the great writing and thinking. Peace!

M said...

From the view point of a life-long Disney fan, these articles are hard to stomach. However, the public needs to see what is wrong within WDI.

I feel so helpless reading these articles. If I ever wound up within WDI, I WOULD stop at nothing to return it to glory.

Figment571 said...

Oh no. I've wanted to work in WDI since I was five. I saw a TV special on the Tower of Terror. I knew there were layoffs, but not that bad. I truly hopes it changes soon. This is very disappointing to a generation of new dreamers whose dreams will be wrested from them by greedy executives.

Anonymous said...

THAT is the single BEST article ever written on this blog. And the BEST reason for to NOT shut it down, you numbskulls. The boat cannot be turned in an instant, and things ARE getting better. The "long term" is the best way to look at things.

THANK YOU for this blog.

Alex "Toon" Deligiannis said...

My new favorite blog. Thank you.

Amy said...

What an excellent post!

"So, now you choose your words carefully in “brainstorming” meetings, you try to appear dispassionate about your work, moving silently from task to task. After all, dispassionate people are less likely to have strong opinions and are therefore easier to manage."

This paragraph says so much and could be used to describe the corrosive effect this sort of culture has had on many companies. It breeds resentment and paranoia, which surely has a negative impact on productivity.

In general, American corporations have become reactive and safe as they manage expenses and pursue the quarterly revenue goals they have to meet to satisfy the stock market. Profit is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of initiatives that would pay larger dividends in the long run. This type of thinking discourages innovation and creates a culture where being safe is the only path to success. I hope they can turn this around at Walt Disney Imagineering.

Tink in Manhattan said...

This is my favorite article (and comments) I've seen on here. Bravo!

This negative dynamic you cite isn't only at WDI, unfortunately. I've sung in two animated Disney features (and have friends who have sung in many more).

Every time a new score was being recorded, a few NY actor/singers were brought out to LA to do the dummy tracks, and then the deciders (grin) would try to cut costs by doing the finals with LA studio singers (very talented, but not singing *actors* from musical theatre backgrounds, able to convey character as opposed to just making beautiful sounds). After spending the money on *those* finals, the deciders would relent and go back and do the complete finals over again in NYC. All in the interest of saving money.

This pattern was repeated again and again, as each time some new exec tried to lower the bottom line. (Not to mention jerririgging the royalty pool so that musicians made less and less with each subsequent film.)

Don't even get me started about all the newest animated films, either with no songs/scores, or with one or two songs written by a pop icon and sung off-screen, not by the characters.

Such a wasted opportunity to add to the rich library of Disney classics...

Thank you for a wonderful outlet to read supportive and hopeful information from Disney insiders still dreaming big.

Signed,
Not Quite A Foamer (Yet)

P.S. YES to the shortsightedness of the run-by-promotion mentality. It's clear to everyone that Disney's current formula is to find some reason to plan 18-month celebrations end-to-end. I almost hope the success of these promotions start to fail, after visiting Disneyland each year for the past five years or so, only to discover enormous crowds and understaffed parks, with numerous food shops closed, annoyingly long lines just to get in to the parks, etc.

Biblioadonis said...

Great post.

Another area to look at is the guests.

Where are the guests spending their money and time?

All of the debacle about adding Pixar to Tomorrowland and Epcot. Well...where were people spending their time? Were they visiting these attractions? Were they perusing the gift shops? Were they spending money?

Park Operations has to take its cues from the Executives and from the guest's spending habits (time and money). If an attraction isn't pulling in time or money, who will Park Ops blame? Our short attention span? Imagineering?

This isn't just about Imagineering vs the Suits vs Park Ops. We are involved and vested as well.

Kudos to this blog and for all of the comments for showing how passionate we are. Maybe somebody is listening!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article as always. I'm nearing completion of my BA in mechanical engineering, and I had always bemused myself to work at WDI. Then I began to hear the horror stories of what was going on inside. Hopefully this restructuring will give back the creativity, energy, and pull of WED back to WDI by the time I am out of academics.

Bernie said...

Great site, enjoy reading it, and share the optimism of getting things back to right, but when you use pictures from others, please give credit where due.... Picture #3 on this write up is my, taken from my Disney photo site: http://disney.rocket9.net/

I'm flattered that one of my pictures is appreciated enough to be used, but a "Photo courtesy of..." link would appropriate and appreciated.

-Bernie
http://disney.rocket9.net/

Anonymous said...

I just got back from a quick trip to Orlando, spending 1 day at the Universal parks and 2 at WDW. I'm an outsider, having never worked for Disney or WDI. I paid for one day at Disney on my own and received a media pass for the second.

You're absolutely right about Islands being the next-best themed park in the world. From a design and integration perspective, it totally surpassed everything except Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. It won't take them much work to add Harry Potter to the mix. The single most stunning attraction of my entire trip was the Spider-Man ride, which brought motion-simulation and 3-D projection to a level of integration I didn't know was possible. Kudos to those designers.

Epcot is a disjointed mess these days. (The Seas with Nemo feels like a cheap traveling science center exhibit you can see anywhere in the country.) Disney/MGM has always been a mediocre park, but it's made worse by the awful Aerosmith coaster, tucked away in a corner as if the designers knew what a boring ride it was going to be. The new auto stunt show combined good stunts with a laughable script that ruined the experience.

The biggest Disney highlight was Everest, which showed there are still some designers who know how to put on a good show. Sure, elements of the ride had been done before (at Disney and outside parks), but none of those previous efforts rise to the level of great show and a thrilling ride that they brought to Everest.

I couldn't help but notice all the elements of "bad show" throughout the parks. Animatronic servos were clearly missing or disabled on several rides, even the newly refurbished Pirates.

Lilo & Stitch relies on binaural audio, but both my seat and my companion's seat had broken speakers! How do you run an attraction that relies on binaural audio and NOT check each seat every morning for broken speakers?

On almost every ride that relies on a doom buggy-type vehicle, the ride stopped while we were on it, including Haunted Mansion, Nemo, Spaceship Earth, and Buzz Lightyear. (Thankfully not Imagination, or else I might not be here typing this now.) I realize there are reasons why a ride like that has to stop occasionally for safety reasons, but when it happens so consistently, it makes you wonder what's going wrong.

By the end of our first day at the Magic Kingdom, both the Tomorrowland Transit Authority and Space Mountain were broken completely.

From my outsider perspective, it appears there's no coordination between Imagineering and park ops. The level of quality control was embarrassing at times. Whether that's a budget issue or a morale issue (or both), someone at the top of the company needs to step up and turn WDW back into the world-class experience it once was.

Anonymous said...

All these points are good, but at the end of the day, managment looks for how much money they can make.

StrangeVoices said...

...which is why they need someone to focus them on the fact that there is more to the bottom line than just adding up the various attendance figures of all the rides and the sales receipts of the stores and restaurants.

Disney is an experience. Each element adds to that experience. While individually few would stand on their own, together they make a whole. As you focus more and more on individual big ticket rides and forget about the little distractions and experiences, you start to loose that all important sense of place. People don't go to Disney because they want to ride the latest coaster. They go to Disney becasue they want a whole magical experience that only Disney can provide. It's like the supporting actors in a movie 0 no matter how good the main actor is, if the supporting cast doesn't cut it, the whole movie is going to be a flop.

Anonymous said...

I was in the college program at Walt Disney World a few years back and I remember going to a college program sponsored night where various departments from the Walt Disney Company were in attendance. Seeing that my background is in engineering and animation, I asked one of the departments related to Imagineering what they thought about their job and what I should do to try and get in and the response was, "You don't want to be in Imagineering. It is constantly ramping up and ramping down, never a secure environment. You would be much better off joining a different department at Disney."

As you can imagine, I decided to leave Disney after the college program and pursue a different company for a desire of better job stability. But......I've always wondered about working at Imagineering!

Anonymous said...

"Unfortunately the management of the Walt Disney Company (the guys who wear suits and sit behind desks in Burbank) don’t have the time or the interest to look at the problems within Imagineering."

Its one of THOSE entries again. The authors of this blog obviously are concerned with craft and story, but fail to look at both sides of the argument. This in-fighting between various departments takes place within all companies. Everyone wants their department to hire more staff, and get better funding. This resentment happens all across the corporate world.

The real issue is that Disney, in their quest to expand, failed to scale their talent across the board. Do the math. Were they hiring the correct ratio of creative people in relation to their expanded properties? Probably not.

Is the existence of WDI really in service of the Disney Parks? The secrets of imagineering have long be open to the public. Since Disney is allegedly treating WDI as a contractor, why not dissolve WDI and hire outwardly?

Many will contest that imagineers are special and that no outside contractor can match the work of WDI. I beg to differ. Imgaineering is an open concept today. When Walt opened his parks, his unique ideas resulted in him having to find individuals and form a company to bring them to life. Today, there are many contractor design companies that not only emulate the imagineering style, but in many ways exceed it. WDI is a relic of a company that was comfortable a few theme parks, all within the US. The ideal hope that the creatives will rule the company was pretty much dissolved when Disney attempted to expand its reach.

I think re-imagineering should be more of an open idea, rather than focusing on Disney's inability to grasp the very idea it created. Obviously, Disney has failed at their own game several times. When a company decides to expand into all medias and then go global, there will be some downfalls. Imagineering isn't specific to Disney anymore. Malls, museums, office buildings, restaurants, and various other locations have utilized the techniques. I think its time to let go of the idea that the Disney company has to succeed at imagineering, and start embracing the concept in all manifestations.

StrangeVoices said...

But it DOES have to succeed in Imagineering. THAT'S Disney's (at least the parks division's)ace card - the ability to go so far beyond what anyone else can do. Already it is being outsourced - and everyone else is catching up. Disney is loosing it's main advantage, and that is going to cost them dearly, because when you have so much of a market cornered (those looking for an immersive vacation experience), any growth another company will get will come at your loss.

Many other companies are already experts at the cross sell. Disney may top them out, but the reality is that at a certain point people see through it. ROI just doesn't pan out for going over the top. Sure Disney has some really marketable properties. But other companies are building up their portfolio of features and characters. And Disney's latest creations have been less than stellar.

Getting rid of Imagineering is like Gillete getting rid of their engineering division. Sure, you can simply rebrand other companies products, sell the same old stuff with a new marketing twist. But to really rise above the competitio, you have to set yourself apart - offer a better product. THAT is what Imagineering is to the parks division - their product development division. GEtting rid of that will essentially put them into the same field as every other park and museum. Why not stay out in front of the pack?

Digital Jedi said...

I think the reason this is one of the best posts to date, is because it cuts to the heart of the matter in more depth then before. There's a unique relationship between these two entities that people inside and out the industry are failing to see. They keep trying to take the model of "every other corporation" out there and make it fit to the Disney model, and it doesn't work.

Disney only functions as the unique entity it was designed to be. Not as the corporate monolith that some managers are trying to shape it into. They don't see that, because their looking through their special spy glasses they got with their business degrees. You know, the ones that ordinary people like me don't get, because we foam at the mouth to much.

Thanks you for this, and for the insight it provides us. It's for this kind of insider information the the Internet exists in the first place.

Digital Jedi said...

Anonymous said:
>>>On almost every ride that relies on a doom buggy-type vehicle, the ride stopped while we were on it, including Haunted Mansion, Nemo, Spaceship Earth, and Buzz Lightyear. (Thankfully not Imagination, or else I might not be here typing this now.) I realize there are reasons why a ride like that has to stop occasionally for safety reasons, but when it happens so consistently, it makes you wonder what's going wrong.<<<

Also keep in mind, that rides like this usually have to stop to load and unload handicap and disabled passengers. It's the only way to do this (at the moment) for a ride that is continuously in motion. Though we might not notice, there are a lot of disabled folks frequenting Disney parks.

Doombuggie11@sbcglobal.net said...

I'm am 16, and even being so young, you would not belive how much I agree with you articles. I spend hours a day searching the internet for what Disney should be. I see the old photos of yesterday and it almost makes me cry to see what I could of had if I had only been born a couple of years before. I want to be an Imagineer, kind of like the story in this article. But I don't want to be the spinless wimp who won't stand up for whats right. Some one should unfreez Walt and tell him what the hell is goin on.

P.S. Does this mean I'm a foamer :)

Anonymous said...

The Walt Disney Company has a film background which is layoff everybody after the production is finished.

Will Robison said...

I have often wondered what specifically was the cause of all this infighting at WDI. Now I understand. Of course, the truth is, this kind of politics is the norm in most large businesses. Its just sad to see Disney succumb to it.

StrangeVoices said...

It IS sad see Disney become just another mega corporation. And that brings about a dreaded question, but one that I think it is becoming time to ask:

What is truer to the original Disney Spirit(and Walt's Vision)- the Disney name and collection of Disney intellectual and physical properties, or the dream of creating magic and that special feeling?

There are many who either want to or wanted to become Imagineers, yet are unable to because of the situation within the company. In some ways, however, that is changing - as more projects get outsourced, those people who create the magic are moving to private companies. Those private companies are no longer limited to working just with Disney, but are starting to spread the gospel of Pixie Dust to other parks, museums, restaurants, and shops. The Magic of Disney no longer requires going to or working for Disney. So in some ways, we are actually spreading that talent around. It has broken free of the bounds of Orlando and Anaheim. The word is spreading, and we need to be it's prophets, not it's doom sayers.

Anonymous said...

I agree - this is the best article on this site thus far. Having worked for Disney as a writer for the theme parks, I can say that this is SPOT ON. You didn't want to piss off the wrong people. My boss, the head writer, was a victim of this type of attitude because he said one too many things that our director did not like.

I have been out of Disney for years now but hope that one day I can go back in a culture that has shifted, although who knows if this will happen?

spokkersan said...

Excellent article. This might not be quite on topic but the article got me thinking about a bunch of things which led to this.

I read this on a Disneyland message board about the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage:

"The ride fits perfectly with their target audience...families. Little kids don't care about life-like explorations to the lost city of Atlantis, or discovering the secrets to the Bermuda Triangle. Most people who go to Disneyland bring children, and their children love to see all their favorite characters from the Disney movies."

I really hope the people who think this way aren't in the majority, but I would bet the farm that they probably are. Why do we have to underestimate children so much?

Are they only interested in seeing the brightly colored cartoon fish that they see on the TV at home every day? Do they not deserve an engaging, richly detailed imaginative experience?

Are they only pawns in the Walt Disney Disney Co.'s shameless game of synergy? Nag your parents to see the movie, see the ride, get the DVD, get the plushies, get the coloring book, wash, rinse, repeat.

Walt supposedly said, "Adults are interested if you don't play down to the little 2 or 3 year olds or talk down. I don't believe in talking down to children. I don't believe in talking down to any certain segment. I like to kind of just talk in a general way to the audience. Children are always reaching."

Maybe I'm a moron and I just don't understand, but it's insulting to give kids such low-grade moronic braindead entertainment. Direct to video sequels. The off the shelf carnival rides that pass for "kid's lands" these days.

I give kids the benefit of the doubt and feel they can appreciate the classics as much as us Disney nerds do if we gave them a chance.

But instead they are dragged by the collar by their parents to "A Bug's Land" so they can spin around in a circle for 30 seconds at a time.

Attractions based on movies aren't all bad and neither are the spinny rides if done in moderation, but where's the originality? I mean, I thought the Nemo Subs were okay and all, but it's still very childish and lame, and retains little of what made the movie so special.

Are they losing sight of what's important by talking down to children, and in effect talking down to all of us? I hope that whatever WDI turns into, they remember to cater to the only demographic that should matter at Disney, people with a sense of adventure and most importantly, imagination, no matter what age they are.

Anonymous said...

Back around '95/'96 Judson Green rolled out Performance Excellence which was a WDW-wide initiative focused on dramatically changing how WDW management operated. I don't recall all of the specifics, but one component was a series of key attritubtes of management that are held by them and/or should be demonstrated by them. The one that I clearly remember went something to the effect of 'We have an emotional bond with the Walt Disney Company, its experiences and its heritage'. The idea was that a good Disney leader felt an emotional connection with the company and as a result feels a driving inward desire to passionately ensure that adult guests would have the opportunity to once again feel what they did as children and that children would experience something similar.

The idea is that someone who feels an emotional connection to a job or place is more prone to act in a manner that will be in the best interest of the thing invovled.

David H
WDW Cast '93-02
Ex-Disney and Proud that I've left

Anonymous said...

Please help me on this one....Why in the world are the"cool kids" at WDI making fun of the people the help contribute to their paychecks and why wouldn't you want people to be passionate about what they are working on? Being a "Disney Dork" and a "Foamer" as well as a wannabe Imagineering I don't understand what's wrong with having brand loyality? Granted I've met more die hard fans than myself and even I can't talk about the Haunted Mansion for 3 hours straight with out gettig a tad bored, but it seems to me in order to fit in you have to go into the Disney closet. I'm sure that helps somewhat in dumbing downi the "dream on" factor....but wouldn't you consider some of the Golden Imagineers to be foamers? Have you seen the inside of Tony Baxter's house???

Anonymous said...

Great leadership can cover a multitude of sins. The military has all the same politics and disfunction, but when you have great leaders that know what they want and convey a clear shared vision, others can accomplish it because they are given permission to be a part of it, and a team can do great things. Overcome huge life and death obstacles. People leave managers, not jobs. Mutiny does not happen when the Captain knows what he's doing. But even those leaders had the American dream in the hearts of each soldier, there was something bigger worth the effort. I think WDI is defending an ethic of Walt that is not really supported by the Corporation. Without the "mother country" behind them, why fight for the dream? How can you measure success? That breeds fear! It takes leadership at the top.

Great Creative Leaders know and love the product more than their name on the door. If they do, all those they lead will happily kill themselves to get the show there because they know the leader will fall on their own sword for them for making the show right. A vision means more than the story, but a deeper reason for the why we're building these things, and it must be instilled in every Imagineer. You work there because you love to be a part of a team that exists only to make other people happy, and you believe the world is a fraction better for those guests because you are in that business of providing "escape". YOUR name is not on the product, it is the Disney name and you are there to deliver the excellence that brand has handed you as it's legacy. You must also be pushed by the leader to take the vision further and exceed expectations till they cannot explain what they've seen. You've done it when all they can say is that it's "magic". Great leaders can give Tomorrowland hope and a reason for being. Great Leaders take risks with the paradigm and know when enough detail is enough. Giving "good set" is not enough. Experience is king. It's fighting and not being everyone's friend. It's pissing off those who work for you because they are not driven to push harder to get the details right. They may hate you at first, but if they know the vision, they'll hate themselves more because they know WHY you are making them do it. And you must live the project. Great leaders go to the field and must live the trauma of their show getting gutted and must save it from disaster on the table and revive it by opening day. The toughest choices are made in the field and can compromise your show.

I say screw the fear, risk your job and speak out, if you sit in silence it's your fault, the job isn't the one you signed for anyway. When I figured that out I left.

Bob Iger and John Lassiter need to have a vision summit. Vision starts at home. Give WDI it's confidence back and make them earn the right to continue the legacy.

It was fun while it lasted..

Anonymous said...

As a former Imagineer, I also agree completely (based upon first hand, painfull knowledge) with this article. What many are not aware of, however, is the growing power of another Disney entity that gets their projects approved directly by Iger, completely (for the most part) bypassing WDI: this group is Disney Creative Entertainment (DCE)and headed by Anne Hamburger. Be afraid...very afraid.

Lidstrom said...

The best part about Disney was that they weren't like every other company. They did things better than other companies. They had standards higher than other companies. If all of that is going to be true, they must behave in all ways better than the rest of the pack. Therefore, defending anything that happens in Disney with the usual 'that happens in all companies' is still a negative. Doing anything like everybody else is a sure sign of decline and is a great example of making excuses for failure. Concepts like "norm for the industry" is code for "it's okay to suck."

emmaco said...

Ironic to read some of the very thoughts I've kept to myself for so many years now. Like many former Imagineers, one tended to look upon management as a hindrance rather than help once Ron Miller got the axe.

I don't think an injection of Pixar folks can make much of a difference at WDI. However talented they are, one must recognize that Disney is now controlled by folks with television backgrounds. Their requirement for immediate gratification conflicts with the long lifespans of theme park attractions.

thom said...

I will wholeheartedly agree. I am in management (not Disney, I'm afraid), and I have to say that poor leadership is a bigger problem than poor product. I consider Imagineering to be one of the best job locations in the world, but only if it is allowed to live up to its full potential. There are SO many areas within the Disney spectrum that can use a bit more magic, and I've noticed it since my firs trip to WDW in 1982. Politics and creativity are not good bedfellows; and management that sacrifices the creativity and imagination of its workers has no place in the Disney culture. This goes to the top of of the company, since it has been created and exists within. Please, Mr. Iger, do something that makes me believe that the future of Disney involves creativity, imagination, surprise, and delight, rather than flat films and budget-conscious activities that mean little.