Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Little Things

"Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things."
-- Robert Brault
In the rush to create the latest and greatest multi-million dollar E-ticket, one has to wonder why Walt Disney Imagineering doesn't pay more attention to the power-- and value-- of investing in the multitude of smaller touches that separate Disney's themed environments from the rest of the pack.

Fortunately, those smaller yet extremely satisfying projects aren't completely out of vogue. Witness the wonder of the newly refurbished Sleeping Beauty Castle walkthrough at Disneyland. It's not the only reason someone would visit the park, but it's definitely one of the reasons people keep coming back for more.

In a self-contained park such as Disneyland, those smaller touches are arguably easier to conjure and create. It's not difficult to add layer after layer of detail when you have a relatively small canvas to work with. Walt's park is also blessed with the power of nostalgia. Anything added at Disneyland needs to have that Disney look and feel. The guests demand it, and the company and Imagineers deserve a great deal of credit for respecting and adhering to those "old school" principles that, while sometimes creatively frustrating, have served the park well for decades.

In the early days of Walt Disney World, back when the Florida property was much smaller and easier to manage, that famously obsessive attention to detail flourished. For nearly a quarter of a century, Walt Disney World had the genuine look and feel of a true Disney environment. It seemed back then as if Imagineers held sway over everything--right down to the manhole covers and beyond.

But as the canvas expanded, and new parks and resorts emerged, Walt Disney World lost its creative focus. Today, the respect for theme has all but disappeared; lost are many of those wonderful "worlds within the World" that transformed the soggy swamp into an escapist utopia.

Recently, I had the wonderful (if not exhausting) privilege of escorting my energetic and inquisitive pre-schooler through the grounds of the Fort Wilderness Campground, truly one of the crown jewels of Walt Disney World. After taking a leisurely stroll, we headed back to the parking lot via the resort's internal bus system.

As the pine trees and campsites passed by our windows, a recorded voice came over the loudspeakers to tell us more about what we were seeing. This new automated voice system now operates on busses throughout Walt Disney World, and while the technology that makes it possible is undoubtedly cool, the attention to theme falls just a bit short. There is themed music on the bus, but the voice on the loudspeaker is "the" voice of Walt Disney World, the same voice you hear on the monorail, the same voice you hear on bus after bus after bus. And while the announcer's deep monotone is certainly attention grabbing, on the internal bus at Ft. Wilderness, it also, sadly, seems woefully out of place. Gone is the suspension of disbelief, gone is the feeling of being lost in the wilderness. Yes, we are on a bus in the wilderness, but it's the voice that breaks the illusion, reminding us, after all, that it's not really the wilderness, it's only Walt Disney World. Perhaps they were going for a Jack Wagner kind of presence here, but the execution is jarring-- and misses the mark. An opportunity to add to the immersion has been squandered, or at the very least, overlooked.

By way of contrast, cast your mind back to the early days of Walt Disney World. You're about to enjoy a trip down one of the water slides at River Country. You ascend the rock formation that serves as a staircase and peruse the "wanted" posters at the summit. The fresh Florida breeze blows through the partly cloudy sky over your slightly sunburned skin. Suddenly, a voice calls out over the uptempo banjo music:

"Welcome to 'Whoop 'n' Holler Hollow'! Now the water below us is up to six feet deep, and has a strong current. Only experienced swimmers should use the slide."

Those of us who remember River Country can instantly hear the old cowpoke's voice as he implores us to use caution. They didn't have to do it that way back then, but they did, and that simple themed voice-over remains a fond memory to this day, one of those small but inexplicably satisfying finishing touches that transforms mundacity into pure magic.

Yes, I know, some would argue that the typical Florida guest doesn't care about the details anymore. And harping about the voice on the bus is admittedly very, very picky. But Walt Disney World is supposed to be a collection of unparalleled immersive environments. Anything that detracts from that immersion needs to be addressed.

Fortunately, it won't cost a fortune to remedy the situation. Curbing the internal busses at Ft. Wilderness in favor of the old steam trains that used to traverse the campground would be beyond wonderful; but for now, let's be reasonable, and focus on the little things. In this uncertain time of smaller budgets and economic anxiety, a series of very small fixes might be just what the doctor ordered.

Walt Disney Imagineering would be wise to seize this opportunity, visit Florida, and take a much-needed inventory of all those missing details at Walt Disney World. Start by separating the property back into its individually themed environments. What works? What doesn't? What's missing? What can we add?

A holistic approach by Imagineering-- a renewed interest in, and creative ownership of, all of Walt Disney World-- would refresh the property and restore the Disney shine like never before. It's a simple, cost-effective approach. And here in Florida, it represents some tender loving care that's long overdue.

"Never neglect the little things. You can never do your best, which should always be your trademark, if you are cutting corners and shirking responsibilities. You are special. Act it. Never neglect the little things."
-- Og Mandino


Andy Castro said...

When Imagineering is allowed to shine, they usually do. Just look at the beautiful Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough that just reopened -- that little A-Ticket is easily one of the brightest gems of Disneyland now.

I think the issue here isn't necessarily Imagineering (although, that isn't to say WDI is without its problems) -- its Walt Disney World's management. They don't care. All TDO cares about is money -- and they're willing to cut back as much as they possibly can before guests start to really notice.

It's unfortunate, because while TDA in California is money hungry, too, they also understand they have to give a little to get a little. And luckily Tony Baxter has gotten good at being able to make deals with TDA and marketing in order to get long-closed attractions back open (SBC and Subs).

Hopefully it's just a matter of time before WDW takes a look at DLR and realizes that Anaheim is doing something right and starts allowing the World to shine once again.

Anonymous said...

The management perception at WDW is that guests come as tourists every 7 years and therefore don't recall what was there last time. WDW is more like an "all you can eat" buffet where you are motivated more by quantity than quality. The spaghetti does not have to be very good but there's lots of it. The goal is to consume as much as you can experientially checking off the boxes on the list, and not to pause too long for anything as the meter is running on your vacation and your show schedule woos you on to the next park. Who spends three days in the MK when they can see three parks in that time? And they do. To a ten year old, those little details in the park compete with the waterslide back at the hotel pool.
The voice of WDW is the process talking, the means of you getting back and forth to all that stuff. The "theme" is merely "doing it all".

DL is supported mostly by locals and APs who derive pleasure from the refreshment and detail to return. Expectations are higher and since they have seen it all, they now you want to see it richer, and deeper. I guess the IASM upgrade was supposed to be one of those little things..

Anonymous said...

It is the "little" things that make Disney parks so special. I should clarify that I have only ever been to Disneyland and not the Florida park.

That being said, I love showing those who accompany me each time I visit the Anaheim property all the fine details. Some appreciate them while others yawn. I still enjoy sharing.

Spokker said...

When John Hench remarked that the stagecoach at Disneyland was too authentic and that no guest would "get it", Walt Disney tackled him and beat the snot out of him.

It was that kind of attention to detail that made Disneyland what it is today. The Sleeping Beauty Castle walk-through is a small restoration, but a restoration nonetheless.

Disneyland still has a long way to go to restoring some of those things that were lost such as the Disney Gallery, the Rocket Jets, the People Movers, the Keel Boats, the Motor Boat Lagoon, etc. I'm not saying that they should necessarily be brought back as they were, but equivalent experiences should be offered.

Now if only the Subs could have been restored without a tacky Nemo theme. I feel that a proper Jules Verne remake of the Submarine Voyage would have been grand.

Anonymous said...

The second posting by Anonymous, above, is very accurate and beautifully articulate when describing the differences of the guest and guest experience between Disneyland and the Walt Disney World Resort.

Your warm description of Fort Wilderness highlights its best feature: It is a very human-scaled place with lots and lots of mature trees, the smell of pine sap and open fires, and small, highly themed wooden log buildings that trigger something deep in our emotional cortex. Few places in WDW are like that. The sheer size of the Florida operation and its parks seem to eat detail, swallowing it whole.

I know that over the years, particularly in the '90's, the parks, Magic Kingdom in particular, had millions upon millions of dollars lavished upon them. These dollars generated no direct revenue or additional guest spending. What they paid for was more layers of detail that the guest might see, might hear, and might appreciate. Many of the exterior enhancements were designed specifically to make the scale of the spaces feel more intimate, more human, like Disneyland. But in places like the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, where the exterior spaces in particular are so much larger than Disneyland, the detail gets pretty diluted.

Conversely, Animal Kingdom is also a big park, but it is so highly detailed that even the most myopic guest would notice its artistry. Done right, Animal Kingdom is easily a two-day experience if a guest gives it the time and attention it deserves. But, most guests blow through the place in about 6 hours and think they've seen enough. What's an Imagineer to do?

So, don't beat up too badly on WDW... it's done its share of show-driven, aesthetic enhancements. But, the mind-set of the guest and the scale of the beast are big hurdles, conspiring against Imagineering's ability to make a big impression.

Disneyana World said...

Those small details mean a lot to me and still do.

My childhood memories of Walt Disney World revolve around those details.

The original safety dialogue of Big Thunder is something I will always remember loving when I was younger.

Virtual Toad said...

"'Cause this here's the wildest ride in the wilderness!"

I *loved* that original voiceover when I was a kid! They updated the safety spiel a few years back, and even though the tag line is the same, they changed the "read." I always wondered why they didn't just keep the original ending. It used to set the whole tone of the ride, but now the experience falls short for anyone who remembers the original. Just another of those "little things"...

Anonymous said...

In reading the blog, I realized that I don't really remember that 'wonderful' monorail spiel, but that the echo of Big Thunder Mountain echos in my ears "Hang onto your hats and glasses, folks, cause this here's the wildest ride in the wilderness!" The method of the announcer does make a difference. In fact, I can still hear some of the background music at the front desk.

David H
Fort Cast 1995-2001

P.S. There is nothing on this Earth that matches walking through the 1400 loop and hearing 'When you wish upon a Star' drifting over the treetops from the Campfire Singalong. (...and if they could just bring back Marshmallow Marsh!)

Anonymous said...

Having worked at WDW, EDL, TDL/TDS & WDI, without exception I believe that Paris' first gate is the company's best effort in terms of attention to detail with TDS coming in a close second. It is a shame that most folks are not able to visit the non-US parks.

U.S. management attempts at globalization have been admirable, but somewhat laughable. God bless those industrial engineers, MBA's, et al whose hearts are in the right places but are just, as an Entertainment Show Producer once said, blissfully cluefree.

Just as the pendulum swings, I can see increased emphasis on local control in the future which encourages attention to and funding of the little things that incrementally improve each park. Given that a WDI VP with whom I spoke at IAAPA a few weeks ago said, they are trying their best to backstop layoffs of the troops below them so as to prevent their own layoff. But I don't think that a major culling at the mother ship in Glendale would be such a bad thing, especially given the recent freezing of capital expenditures.

So, glad to see that the little things are being implemented and appreciated; however, hopefully WDW MK will get a big thing in celebration of it's upcoming 40th anniversary ....

Anonymous said...

First, I am glad to see new topics posted! Happy Holidays to all of the Re-Imagineering bloggers..

I just have to also add that the Disneyland theme park experience is approximately 70 percent attention to the small details, and 30 percent about the rides and shopping. It is the little things that stick with you most and help to engulf the sense of being somewhere else.

I recently went to Disneyland(Nov.,'08), and was a bit dissapointed that the Sleeping Beautys Castle walk through with the dioramas was closed AGAIN...I asked a cast member that "Didn't they just reopen after a long hiatus and refurbishment?" The cast member said yes, but they had problems with the visual effects, and they decided to shut it down again for another unknown amount of time.

My question is Doesn't the "Imagineers" test the effects before rushing to install them? I know that on all of the Disney's Wonderful World of Color, and Walt Disney Presents: Disneyland, you can see all the sets, mock ups, and testing taking place in the WED/Imagineering studio.

I just don't get it when Disney screws up the very things they refurbished. Small things indeed, but it is part of the "hidden in plain sight" magic that Disneyland once provided in abundance. I know that it isn't all that common when mechanical/visual errors arise, but one would think that the planning and Imagineer departments would have this sort of stuff down to a science by now!

Backtracking a moment, I also enjoy the exit area of Thunder Mountain, as across the pathway lies a lake(part of Rivers of America), where you can watch "fish" jump out of the water. I know they were not working for a long while, but seem to be up and running again. My girl thought they were real for about 6 jumps, and then she figured it out...haha, but it is that exact magic that Disneyland had provided throughout the park that people remember.

I am also glad to hear Lincoln will be making a return to Main Street. Lincoln was Walt's favorite President, and it shows respect by bringing him back. I applaud that decision, although I think it would be a bit more enticing if they had multiple random Lincoln scripts that would play throughout the day, covering different events in Lincoln's life.

I do disagree with some of the bloggers here regarding the Submarine Voyage. The Subs are way over rated. I went for the first time recently, with an open mind, and have to say that I just do not dig the realistic fish mixed with animated fish. The pre-Nemo Subs were much funner when you were "Submerged" into an enviroment of uncertainty. The feeling as a child exploring the underwater world was both fun and educational at the same time, something our children of today need more than ever, and something Tomorrowland used to represent in many ways.

Our children already have their Sony Playstations and Nintendo wii's at home, we shouldn't it at the park. Which brings me to Toy Story Mania. One word here, folks....UNSANITARY. The battered and beat looking guns dangle from the ride cars, and having to pick them up, after some little kid had his fingers up his nose, or in his mouth while waiting in line definately makes me avoid that whole nightmare. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't consider myself a germaphobe, but it is disturbing to watch what goes on in line, leading into the attraction. The ride itself doesn't even seem like an attraction. Once seated in the ride vehicle, you get that videogame mentality, and dont even realize it until the end, that it actually was a ride. I personally think it was a bad concept, and not very well thought out.

I go to Disneyland to immerse my senses into what seems another Time, World or place. However, with additions like Nemo and Toy Story Mania, it brings me right back to reality.

Lastly, I was pleasantly suprised with DCA. Californias Adventure has a ride that I thought was good in theme...Monsters Inc was very well planned out for the amount of space it absorbs. Maybe they should flip Toy Story Mania with Monsters Inc ride. At least "Mike" looks like an alien which come from outerspace, so fitting into Tomorrowland would be cake.

Anonymous said...

You're missing the bigger point that they need to ditch those horrible buses. I thought the appeal of WDW as a self contained resort was supposed to be that you can stay on site and have easy and quick access to the different parks. When I visited recently with my family I was shocked to find out that we had to spend probably a couple hours out of each day either riding on noisy, dirty urban buses, or sitting around waiting for them to arrive. Walt would have never stood for those buses.

They either need to expand the monorail system or move to smaller shuttles that go directly between each hotel and each park, rather than stopping at 5 or 6 different hotels along the way.

Anonymous said...

What makes the "little things" so crucial is that they are the things that reinforce the suspension of disbelief. For instance, the voices coming out of the upstairs windows on Main Street (or on Big Thunder) reinforces that someone lives there, you can imagine what they look like from the sounds. It's a cumulative effect.

The little things make the big things possible.

Anonymous said...

FYI-Re: post on Main Street Windows-
Back in the 90's there was a realization that many of those "little things" had vanished when new attractions were added, and there needed to be a program whereas things could be added back to the park without having a justification of return on investment. A million a year or so was put into a kitty called "enhancements". There were specific rules about what qualified as such and then WDI and DL jointly met and decided which ones gave you most show value for the money. This was how the Storybookland Attraction was enhanced with more recent properties, etc. Or the bronze "talking" Apple landed in front of Snow White, or voices were added into the upstairs Main Street windows. They were mentioned above and I thought it might be interesting to know how the park realized those things were important and needed to be there.

You can argue which enhancements are worthy changes (like IASM), but it's nice to know they are valued.

Anonymous said...

You REALLY don't want today's imagineers messing with WDW. They haven't produce anything but crap in the last 10 years.

Anonymous said...

"You REALLY don't want today's imagineers messing with WDW. They haven't produce anything but crap in the last 10 years."

Is "Expedition Everest" crap?

Spokker said...

"Is "Expedition Everest" crap?"

Not when it opened, but they are letting to go to crap, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Is "Expedition Everest" crap?
No, but the attraction itself is just a copy of the Matterhorn drizzled with steroids. It's really not much of an original concept at all.

David said...

A couple of comments (RE:WDW)...

1) I asked someone in management at the resort level (e.g. overall theme parks) about the Small World/Haunted Mansion overlays. He responded that the decision had been made NOT to spend the money as the majority of the a guests are tourists and not locals as with DL. (But wait a minute...what about the Flower & Garden Festival and Food & Wine...)

2) Those DAMN buses! There have been *multiple* master transportation plans which all include more (monorail) beamway. Back before I left, it wasn't too difficult to find a WDW master plan showing the as-is and the 'proposed'. There were several at DU and a couple in Team Disney. (One in TD actually dated back to the early 70's and showed an expansion of Seven Seas Lagoon to the West of the Grand Floridian with a hotel site on the shore. Ever wonder why the monorail beam shoots up 20 some feet between the Grand and MK?). Now for the interesting bit - In the mad heyday to put everything under the Destination Disney project umbrella, there was a Transportation project team. The team's task was to develop & implement a new transportation master plan. The plan was nearly complete with just a few details to sort out, but it did include additional monorail beamway and a spoke and hub approach. Buses would be used from the non-monorail hotels to transportation hubs. Alas though 9/11 happened and the company put pretty much *everything* on the chopping block without regard to the 5 or 10 year impact (or benefits). So you now have Osama to blame for those buses.

3) The buses are direct from Hotel to attraction. However, it seems to take forever because the design of Caribe, Port/Dixie, All-Star, Pop and the Fort are such that multiple stops have to be made because the resorts are so spread out. In the case of the Yacht/Beach its just a matter of cheap-anomics. For the DVC resorts, the DVC members actually pay for the service via assessments. (Yes you heard me.) Because the DVC members belong to a HOA, its the HOA that pays for the bus service and ergo the members. The combined DVC/WDW resorts do receive some subsidy from the company but not much. (Damn Those sneaky Disney finance people!)

4)When I started in '93 on the College Program, I distinctly remember how there was a very elaborate trash receptacle rehab program to ensure that they were constantly repainted. This of course was no longer necessary when 'they' went to generic and simply (cheaply) painted trash cans. Look at them the next time you're there - they're all green!

5)If I were VP for a day, I'd mandate that all non-costumed staff had to spend time in the parks as a part of their regular duties. The higher up, the more required hours with the VP'S in the parks an entire, consecutive 8 hours a week. (Before you bring up their workload, one word - DELEGATION!)

6) (And finally...) What the hell ever happened to featuring 'show pieces' in the merchandise shops - that $1500 10' Mickey Plush or the $10,000 chair? Yeah they took up space and maybe were sold only once a year (if that), but the point was to showcase them. (Hey! gods of the Reimagineering blog how about an article about those items.)

David H
WDW '93 - '02

Anonymous said...

"What the hell ever happened to featuring 'show pieces' in the merchandise shops"

I get the idea of a displaying an over the top piece of "one of a kind" merchandise to provide a halo of uniqueness over all the generic stuff in the store, but supersizing a mickey plush and not improving the rest of the shop seems like "lipstick on a mouse".

I'd vote for "one of a kind" shops over "one of a kind" displays.

Spokker said...

"I'd vote for "one of a kind" shops over "one of a kind" displays."

Knott's has always done two things better than Disneyland.

1. The steam train. It makes Disneyland's locomotives look like model trains.

2. The shops in Ghost Town. This is one of the few instances where I will actually walk through the shops in a theme park. The knife/gun shop is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Spokker, you are living in the past. You are right in that they we're great and had a "soul" DL shops never had. The model train shop was my favorite, now long gone. Knott's shops now are an abomination to their founder. I'd rather remember them as you do.

You are right, technically DL trains are model trains. KBF's D&RGS Steam Train although authentic itself, takes it guests through the armpit of the park. BTW- Although they are scaled down, Disneyland Trains are not all scratch built, they are based (#3 and 4 namely) on real salvaged locomotive chassis and boilers so they are to a degree "authentic". In any other category than a direct history, I would give Disney trains my vote over KBF.

Anonymous said...

"I'd vote for "one of a kind" shops over "one of a kind" displays."

Back in the day when the shops did feature the 'one of a kind' displays, the shops were also 'one of a kind'. The lands featured merchandise specific to the land. Any non-Disney merchandise was supplemented by merchandise appropriate for the area. (I still remember the leather belt that my parents bought me that had the characters faces on it which was only available in Frontierland.) But now, instead of hundreds of different shops, its just one big shop with the same basic merchandise that you can by anywhere in the park.

David H
First Visit - 1973

Anonymous said...

You have to give them credit. They are trying to be unique with efforts like the new "Fortuosity Shop" at DL.

IMHO it doesn't quite come off with the watch artist still in there and lots of Mickey jewelry. They should have called it "Blings and Things". Nevertheless, a good step in the right direction.

Kirstin said...

I love this blog, and this post perfectly described our expectations of Disney (or at least of park imagineering). It WOULD feel wrong for a voice to be off, to be anything less than enchanting and immersive. Keep up the good work, folks.

Unknown said...

I feel exactly the same way about the little things. Disney is known for having everything done perfectly down to the last detail and I think that the voice on the bus was probably just an oversight by the Imagineers. It would be a quick and cheap fix for them to do...and I'm sure people like you and I will notice that change right away.

One detail that I believe it not little though....and I don't know if it's an oversight as much as just looking at cost vs quality of keeping with the Disney attention to detail. The back of Expedition Everest truly is an eye-sore. I was hoping they would eventually finish that so it wouldn't look so ugly in the distance.

Me and my family love pointing out all the Disney iconic points of interest while we're waiting in line at the Teamboat Springs in Blizzard Beach.

Every other Disney building has a back...why not Expedition Everest?

Imagine if the back of the Tower of Terror were just a wall...or if Space Mountain only had a curve in the front of it. I've not seen the backside of the Haunted Mansion...but I bet even that was actually completed instead of left wide it was built with the original Disney attention to detail.

Please oh please let us know if there will ever be a back-side to Expedition Everest!

Unknown said...

The Anoymous Imagineer (5th posting) who wrote this:

"Conversely, Animal Kingdom is also a big park, but it is so highly detailed that even the most myopic guest would notice its artistry. Done right, Animal Kingdom is easily a two-day experience if a guest gives it the time and attention it deserves. But, most guests blow through the place in about 6 hours and think they've seen enough. What's an Imagineer to do?"

--- obviously was one of the Imagineers who worked on the Animal Kingdom project and feels the park was done with more detail than any of the other parks.

I feel that's quite the opposite. None of the other parks have huge monumental attractions missing their back-sides. I reminds me of the old back-side of Mount Rushmore picture my grandparents had on a souvenir plate where 4 men's butts were showing as they were pulling themselves up to get their faces to show.

Until Expedition Everest has a back-side, it's going to remain to show how WDW Imagineers have lost their Disney attention to De-tail.

Anonymous said...

I remember as a child in the late 60's going to Anaheim. and after a day at Knox we went then to DL. I often had my 7 year old arm pulled to come along because I was gaping at the man hole covers or some other detail. My first experience at WDW was similar but by then my parents gave up on pushing me to go faster. now I have my own little ones and we are DVC members and go every year now. I miss the detail. some appears to be coming back, but not to the level of my boyhood wonderment. It also appears to be a hot topic on the DVC owners website. Perhaps the input from these WDW "investors" will be able to get the bean counters attention.

Anonymous said...

Its just to bold of a statment to say that the creative focus of the Disney team has lost touch. Just look at the Animal Kingdom theres a whole world of deatail in every inch of the park. Another important thing is that poeple back when Disneyland opened had a better eye for deatail now a day thats a bit hard to come by.

Matt K said...

"Just look at the Animal Kingdom theres a whole world of deatail in every inch of the park"

Really? Maybe every inch besides the 500 square feet that's missing behind Expedition Everest.

Imagine if they did only the front side of the Cinderella Castle....or just the front side of the Hollywood Tower of Terror. Because Animal Kingdom is the newest park and farther away from the others, I guess they thought they could skimp corners on that project and no one would notice.

Head to the top of Mount Gushmore at Blizzard Beach and look around. ALL the other buildings you see are complete EXCEPT Expedition Everest.