Sunday, January 28, 2007
Visit Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion and you’ll notice the faceless bride with the beating heart in the attic has been replaced with Bride 2.0. Her name is Constance and the technology that brings her to life is state of the art. Before her, Leota 2.0 was unveiled now floating freely along with her table.
Just down the path from the Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean sports a spiffy new dry for wet waterfall illusion, more vibrant splash effects in the fort bombardment scene and a souped up sound system to complement the recent addition of all things Captain Jack Sparrow.
In Tomorrowland, Space Mountain 2.0 arrived in July of 2005 with a smoother ride, a handful of eye-popping lighting effects and a considerably darker interior. On it’s heels the temporary 2.0.1 version, Rockit Mountain, debuted, a bewildering tumble through a Red Hot Chili Peppers psychotropic hallucination replete with teeny bopping projections, swirling multi-colored kliegs and a pulse-pounding heavy metal soundtrack (not to mention a day-glo view of the once mysterious track layout).
It would be disingenuous to poo-poo all of these recent additions. At the best these touch-ups are delightful steps forward in the art of Imagineering, especially when they remain in their original creative context and don’t significantly alter classic scenes, characters or staging. At their worst they come with the promise of being mercifully temporary.
Still, there is a troubling current running beneath this trend to pimp up classic E-ticket adventures. With millions of dollars being allocated to these projects, what validates the cost of modifying attractions that aren’t broken?
Save for Pirates, where the addition of Jack Sparrow tied in with the marketing of the movie franchise, the justification for creative embellishments to the Haunted Mansion and Space Mountain is virtually non-existent.
Were these attractions in need of Sistine Ceiling level restorations? Other than the necessity of switching out Space Mountain’s track for safety concerns, annual refurbishment budgets should be more than enough to address blown speakers, chipped paint and burned out lights.
Were these attractions failing aesthetically or creatively? Most assuredly not. None of them truly needed additional or upgraded effects. The cannonball splashing in Pirates of the Caribbean may be more spectacular today, but the original splash effects were still operational and entertaining.
Were these changes instigated to bring guests back to attractions they’d grown tired of? Hardly. There isn’t a shred of evidence to suggest these bad boys, three of the brightest stars in the Disney attractions firmament, were seeing dwindling numbers. Arguing that the public was losing interest in these classics doesn’t hold up.
Was there an effort to drive up over-all attendance at Disneyland? In the case of the Haunted Mansion, no. Not a single television, radio or newpaper ad made mention of it's upgraded effects. As for Space Mountain's re-opening in '05, promotion placed more emphasis on the coaster's return than its make-over.
And despite Jack Sparrow's much ballyhood addition to Pirates of the Caribbean neither the movie nor the attraction needed any help getting noticed. Had it only been an issue of letting guests bond with their favorite new pop culture heartthrob, Jack Sparrow would’ve served the same purpose doing a meet and greet out in the queue.
The lack of justification for these expensive pet projects is made all the more distressing when there are myriad areas at Disneyland that could benefit from a few dollars being thrown at them.
In lieu of writing the Red Hot Chili Peppers a big check why not spruce up the currently closed Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-thru with cutting edge special effects instead?
What about that dead fountain in Tomorrowland? The resuscitation of that giant corpse called Innoventions? Electro-shocking the Peoplemover back to life?
Should funds be allocated for an axe wielding bride or instead be used to address the neglected space in Carnation Plaza, the under-performing Petting Zoo, the exposed florescent lighting along the track of the Casey Jr. Circus Train, the ‘eerie’ canals of the former Motor Boat Cruise? The list of Disneyland real-estate in dire need of tender loving care is extensive.
Perhaps the most egregious example of misallocated funds can be found back at the Magic Kingdom in Florida. While Imagineers fine tuned the effects on the new free floating Leota, Disney World’s Haunted Mansion continued to lay in ruin. Torn scrims, faulty animation, out of sync show tracks and static filled speakers only hint at the aggressively bad show this has become.
And while they erect giant Mickey Wands and Sorcerer’s hats throughout the property, the classic Bear Country Jamboree is left to wilt and die. Visit it today and you’ll witness torn and faded fur, arthritic animation and a sound system so off kilter the show is now nearly incomprehensible.
Is this trend really a matter of misguided Imagineering priorities? Is there some developmental desire for today's creators to make their own mark on the classics, whether or not it is needed or warranted. Are Imagineers just trying to stand proud next to Walt's ghost in the absence of opportunities to shine with their own stellar E-tickets. Or are some trying to make work for themselves on the only assets management deems worthy of reinvestment?
After an earlier series of highly subjective alterations to Pirates of the Caribbean, creator and Disney Legend Marc Davis noted that it was better the way they had originally designed it.
It’s time for Disney Management to take a hard look at budgetary priorities, to start using funds to reinvigorate orphaned real-estate rather than to gild yet another lily.
To stop fixing what isn’t broken and start fixing what is.
Monday, January 22, 2007
"You guys get down there at least twice a month. For God's sake, don't eat off the lot. Stay there... lunch with the guests... talk to them."
For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’ve been given a reasonable level of influence at the Disney Theme Parks. You immediately decide to take on the guest experience on a regular basis. For your first on-the-job visit to Anaheim you decide to only address your experiences leading up to your entry into Disneyland’s Main Street, having recognized that this is the very experience a vast majority of the Executives within Walt Disney Parks and Resorts choose to bypass.
What would be some of the things you would encounter?
You have always understood that waiting in lines at Disneyland is one of the most oft heard guest complaints on record. What you didn’t fully realize is that the waiting game begins well before entering the park. In addition, you're shocked by exactly how many of these lines there are; five in all, with each wait feeling more substantial than the last, especially if you’re arriving with the morning rush.
The first line is for the entrance to the parking lot/structure. Unlike the lines inside the Park, this one asks you to surrender $11.00 for a regular vehicle. Your first impression of the “Disney Magic” is decidedly less than magical.
Relying on cones and Cast Members, having been stripped of your common sense approach to finding the best space available, you secure your spot and leave your vehicle. Immediately you take note of the land of enchantment Disney designers have laid out for your all important initial greeting (and later farewell) at the Disneyland Resort. If first impressions count for everything, this one leaves much to be desired.
In the case of the Mickey & Friends parking structure, it is cold, unpainted concrete surfaces and sticky stained floors often littered with trash. Off-model Disney characters adorn pillars to categorize which level you’re on. If you’re fortunate enough to be in the minority parked close to the escalators, you have access to trash cans and a brief walk to the trams, but the rest must traverse a near endless dark maze of cars while on their way to that location. Even with the Parking Lot days of yore, frequent tram stop locations guaranteed a short walk for anyone not willing or capable of making the longer journey on foot. You are bewildered by why that is not an option for guests anymore.
The second line you encounter is for the tram itself. Other than open spaces between planters, you are immediately struck by the lack of order here. Guests are left to proactively ascertain which horde of fellow guests is grouped smaller, and then join them. For those with a wheelchair or a stroller, their options are narrowed, and the line they’re required to join is larger and slower.
The third queue is at the security checkpoints. Camping out here for a while, you immediately recognize how extremely rare it is to find all queues being utilized at any given time. The crowds squeezing in to this bottleneck are numerous and, once again, there is no perceived structure or conformity to rules here. If you do not create intentional organization, chaos becomes the common default and chaos is what is too often present here. You are struck by the irony of it all, being that this is the one spot at the Disney Resort that should work overtime to put guests at ease but instead seems to actively solicit anxiety, frustration and sometimes even anger.
The fifth and last line is for entrance into the theme park itself. You are immediately aware of what a zoo this area is. Just like the lines for the parking lot tram there’s no clear sense of where to queue up. Where’s a friendly Cast Member guiding guests into the least filled line? Why aren’t all entry points being utilized? Having already spent upwards of 30-60 minutes waiting in lines, having to traverse a several acre mass of anxious hyper-caffeinated guests only to end up in yet another line is not your idea of a dream coming true.
Regardless, you have finally arrived inside the Happiest Place on Earth, thrilled to be wrapped up in the real land of Disney, honored to be entrusted with spearheading proactive change at the park; to be truly ‘walking in Walt’s footsteps’.
You close up your note pad and decide to take a quick bathroom break before heading to lunch.
Spotting the restrooms by City Hall, you head on over and get in line.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
The following vintage Walt Disney Productions article remains a relevant reminder for today's Re-Imagineers.
Disney entertainment speaks an international language that spans oceans, boundaries and cultural barriers. To people of all ages, everywhere around the world, the Disney name immediately communicates three things: Quality, Uniqueness and Value. And the Disney organization communicates a vivid understanding and relationship with its family audience, friendliness, and a dynamic inter-related diversity. Walt Disney's legacy for the future is far greater than the physical assets of our company. It involves a sacred public trust...an intangible that can't be bought at any price...an integrity that must be protected at any cost.
"When we consider a new project, we really study it - not just the surface idea, but everything about it. And when we go into the new project, we believe in it all the way. We have confidence in our ability to do it right. And we work hard to do the best possible job."
Today, the subject of Quality concerns itself with everything we do in the Disney organization. Disney is the only studio left in the world where a team of animators shun the gimmicks of cut-rate animation so prevalent elsewhere and adhere to the meticulous, painstaking, costly Disney approach to cartoons.
At Disneyland and Walt Disney World, extraordinary efforts are made on a daily basis to be the best by maintaining the quality of our show...guest service, food, merchandise and the thousand other factors which together make up a Disney theme experience.
Throughout the entire world-wide Disney organization, we try to do the best possible job with good taste in everything we do. To maintain these high standards, we monitor ourselves according to the toughest possible internal and external standards.
"You hate to repeat yourself. I don't like to make sequels to my pictures. I like to take a new thing and develop something. There's really no secret about our approach. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we're curious... and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. We're always exploring and experimenting."
Exploring, experimenting and pioneering. They were all a part of the Disney tradition of Uniqueness that began on "day one" in 1923. Walt took the medium of animation and gave it a voice, introduced color, added depth to the visual dimension with the multi-plane camera, and finally proved that if done with Disney quality it could even be expanded into full-length features. Never to be content with the status quo, however, he then expanded the audio dimension with the first stereophonic sound.
Dissatisfied with "run-down" amusement parks, he bet his entire organization on a new idea...a unique concept called Disneyland and revolutionized American outdoor entertainment. He brought his animated characters "to life" through an electronic pixie-dust called Audio-Animatronics®. He proved to a nation that color television programming was a viable means of entertainment. And he started to prove to the world that the problems of man could be solved by the technology of man...someone just needed to pull it together. And the project would be the most unique of all...Walt Disney World.
These are just the highlights of the remarkable list of unique accomplishments and projects generated throughout the Disney organization during its relatively young history.
And we have always protected that Uniqueness...protected every character we created from outside misuse and duplications. And we keep our product unique...we don't franchise Disneylands across the face of the earth although we've had ample opportunity. Uniqueness will always be Disney.
"We're not out to make a fast dollar with gimmicks. We're interested in doing things that are fun - in bringing pleasure and especially laughter to people...it's proven it's a good business policy. Give the public everything you can give them..."
Throughout the organization, we always try to provide the best possible value to our public while maintaining reasonable profitability within good business sense. Like many other entertainment organizations often do, we could command far higher prices from our "captive audience" at our theme parks, or through our films which today practically have a monopoly in the "G" rated sector. However, there is an absolute Disney policy against "price-gouging." Our paying guests must feel that they have gotten their money's worth...they must feel that they have received good value. We want them to keep coming back...it's not a one-time shot. We want our guests telling their friends, "It was worth every cent." The greatest Disney advertisement strength is "word-of-mouth."
4. UNDERSTANDING THE DISNEY AUDIENCE
Disney entertainment is not aimed toward the intelligentsia. You can take all the PhD's and CPA's, all the philosophers, psychiatrists and psychologists and all the intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals in the U.S. and together they wouldn't keep Walt Disney Productions in business for one week. The American families do. Everybody always said that Walt had some magical sixth sense for how something would be accepted by the public. Actually, he kept sight of who our public was. He said:
"Movie makers are often too introverted about their production. They tend to build up myths about audiences and to prattle glibly about shifting public taste and its unpredictables. In considering one thing: Americans are a sociable folk, we like to enjoy ourselves in crowds, at sports arenas, at picnics, fairs and carnivals, at concerts and at the theater."
"Above all, we like to laugh together - even at our own shortcomings. I don't like to kid myself about the intelligence and taste of audiences. They are made up of my neighbors, people I know and meet every day. Folks I trade with, go to church with, vote with, compete in business with, help build and preserve a nation with."
"Most of my life I have done what I wanted to do. I have had fun on the job. I have never been able to confine that fun to office hours."
Walt Disney Productions has been something of an anachronism in major industry by adhering to a first-name, open-door, informal code of behavior for its employees. And yet, these are the proven factors that lead directly to having fun on the job, maintaining a sense of humor and strong sense of internal friendliness. Ultimately, as Walt and Roy knew, it would lead to a strong external friendliness...a friendly efficiency with the public that would pay off in large dividends. No one can create the kind of friendly entertainment product we demand in a formal, unfriendly atmosphere. This important aspect of the Disney philosophy is universally recognized today by the public and press alike. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote that "You can see more respectful, courteous people in Disney World in an afternoon than in New York in a year."
6. THE DISNEY DYNAMIC: SYNERGETICS
"My greatest reward is that I've been able to build this wonderful organization."
Walt Disney developed the most diversified and synergetic organization the entertainment world has ever seen. Walt Disney Productions is actually what the conglomerates attempt to be...that is, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. This is because the Disney diversification is completely inter-related within our Disney product.
One sophisticated author writing for the Nation magazine as far back as 1967 put this diversification in excellent perspective, calling Disney a "ship of fantasy that is now a flotilla, all vessels controlled from a single port but each a separate identity and cargo. Until Disney, horizontal diversification was unknown in show business. In fact, it has a tighter logic than the fingers on one's hand. Disneyland advertises Disney movies and animal personalities. Disney TV plugs the park, where commercial exhibits by TV advertisers reduce overhead and raise profits. And the same golden symbiosis applies to publications, comic strips, toys and 2,000 other products."
Further, elaboration on the Disney synergetics and breaking it down even further, a long-time WED Imagineer said, "The individual things we do in Walt Disney World or Disneyland don't have to stand as separate profit entities like in other companies. We tell outsiders this and they think we're crazy, but that's the real secret to how it all works. We're looking for the total effect on the guest. That's the payoff. There's not a thing in either place that could be placed on the outside and stay in business. Not the Jungle Cruise...not the Liberty Tree Tavern...and not even our popcorn machines. But when you put it all together, and mix in the employees, the whole effect becomes something that creates the "Disney Experience."
"And frankly, you can apply that to our entire organization. Every Disney company and division draws strength from the other parts. It's a curious, in fact, a downright incredible phenomena." —Walt Disney
Uniqueness... Quality... Value... three vitally important aspects found throughout Disney entertainment. Understanding the Disney Audience...Friendliness...The Disney Dynamic of Synergetics...three vitally important aspects found throughout the Disney organization. All of these make up the basic foundation of our Disney business; producing "The Finest in Family Entertainment."