Saturday, October 17, 2009

Rainy Days and Mondays

Two of WDI's senior Imagineers just were given their walking papers, leaving a tsunami of questions in their wake.

Tim Delaney had been with Imagineering since 1976. As Executive Designer, Vice President, his high points were easily Discoveryland at Disneyland Paris, the centerpeice of which is the incredible re-imagining of Space Mountain, and The Living Seas at Epcot.

On the low end Tim brought us California Adventure's inaugural entryway and Paradise Pier. Just two days before California Adventure opened, Tim defended the park with a ferocious tenacity not seen since the Queen Mother Alien fought off Ellen Ripley.

Doobie Moseley - Laughing Place: Have you been confident this whole time that this park (California Adventure) would be able to please Disney guests?

Tim Delaney: Absolutely, no question in my mind. Absolutely. The reason is because of the combination of the way it’s laid out and the art direction, everything about it...They’re going to love it and this is how I felt about this entire California project from the very beginning.

Dubious taste aside, Tim was still an old school champion of quality at Imagineering and always fought for the better show. It could easily be argued that getting even the most basic elements of quality green-lit for an Eisner-era project whose very manifesto was about cheaper than cheap meant a fight to the finish, something Tim hinted at in the same interview.

Tim: I like Paradise Pier. I knew it would be challenging but I knew we could do it. I knew that there was something there so I had to fight. It’s a fight.

It was that very spirit of holding firm to ones ideals that very well may have been Tim's undoing. Infact, most recently Tim fought hard for a truly first class version of Pirates of the Caribbean for Hong Kong Disneyland, but Jay Rasulo squashed the idea and sent him back to his room without supper.

Perhaps even more bewildering is the dismissal of Valerie Edwards, WDI's head sculpter, who had been with the company for 21 years and was a featured guest artist on the D23 webzine as recently as this August. She oversaw the creation of character sculptures for Disney parks throughout the world and just recently finished the sculpt of Barack Obama for The Magic Kingdom's Hall of Presidents.

As with Tim Delaney, she was known as a fearless champion of quality at Disney, something her mentors, master sculpter Blaine Gibson, Imagineering legend John Hench and animation artist and father George Edwards would have been proud of.

Judging by the emotional fallout over at WDI these past few days, her colleagues were equally proud.

Unfortunately current management saw her tenure a bit differently. Where previous mangement saw her value, today's leadership saw her as 'difficult'. Seems Valerie read John Lasseter's "Quality is a great business plan" memo too literally.

For the creative professionals who remain at WDI the message is both clear and ominous. Along with their feelings of loss and sadness comes a creeping fear that the company will continue to jettison those who fight for quality in order to promote those who just say, 'yes'.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Why We Whine

“Get it?” “Got it.” “Good.”

You’ll hear the phrase thrown around a lot on Disney boards and blogs, mostly in the context of critics of Disney Theme Parks and those who they feel share their way of thinking. “That guy get’s it!”

So what is this “it” that they get? What set’s them apart from the rest of the critical, mean spirited blogosphere out to get Disney?

Would You Like Some Cheese With That Whine?

First off, let’s just drop the notion that every Disney critic is just complaining because it’s fun or because they have an axe to grind or because they're just miserable, as that’s simply not true. Criticism of Disney is not the same as armchair movie critiquing, browser wars or debates over favorite sports teams. Disney Critiquing is fueled by a whole other animal.

The vast majority of truly sincere Disney critics are the old timers, the ones who've seen Disney in its prime. We've witnessed a business model all the experts said wouldn’t succeed succeed in ways no one could have imagined. Now we witness the budding growth of those principles plowed over before they've fully blossomed.

We know what Disney can be but now we don’t always see it trying.

Take Space Mountain. Bereft of any Disney characters, the Mountain has been one of those must-ride attractions for guests of Walt Disney World and Disneyland for generations. How ingenious is a ride design that, with only moderate refurbishing, still manages year after year to draw not only the most jaded teens and thrill seekers but even coaster-phobics whose greater fear is missing out on a truly magical Disney experience? Plain and simple, that is a well crafted attraction; a success that has as much to do with the spirit and principles that went into it's creation as it does with the steel and plaster comprising its parts.

But when we look at something like the recent character infusions in "it’s a small world" or Epcot's Grand Fiesta Tour we see a completely different Disney than the one we knew; a Disney not trying to put its best foot forward but its hand into our wallets. We don’t see craftsmanship, we see crass commercialism, a directly antithetical concept to the ones laid out by Disney’s founders, a philosophy that Disney already proved didn’t work in the long run.

That’s Not Nostalgic. That’s Just Boring.

And that brings us to another misrepresentation. The nostalgists.

If you think that all the Disney critics are a bunch of sour, grumpy old men living life in the past, then you’re about as far away from accurate as Carl Fredricksen was from Paradise Falls. You’ve taken one characterization of nostalgia and over emphasized it. Nostalgia is so much more then pining away for the days of old.

The type of nostalgia were talking about here isn’t just about remembering something fondly from our youth. It’s about rekindling that fondness each and every time we hear the name, watch the films or visit the parks.

Walt and his gang understood the concept of nostalgia quite well, even if that was never a stated or exclusive goal. By pouring so much energy, talent and money into their theme parks they succeeded in creating timeless worlds of fantasy and adventure that guests were eager to revisit, even after their sour old disposition should have overtaken them. You could never got tired of, or tired in, a Disney theme park.

It didn’t mean stagnation. It meant that, despite the occasional refurbishment or freshening-up, you still had a sense of connection and familiarity with the place, one you’d want to share with your friends, family and loved ones. How masterful a business it is if it can not only keep customers patronizing them throughout the entirety of their life but actively recruiting converts to the Disney theme park experience.

The Disney parks were, of course, designed to be be enjoyed by young and old alike, not as a place kids merely dragged their parents to. Without that spirit, without that sense of kindling nostalgia in all its guests, Disney would stagnate on the back of one demographic. Disney already proved that trying to include everyone is a much more successful strategy in the long term. It's a business model that not only worked, it worked in spades.

And this is what mostly younger, post-Eisner era Disney fans generally do not understand. They see a thread or blog post lamenting the dismantling of Horizons, the desecration of Future World or the inclusion of some Disney characters in "it's a small world", and they don’t get it. They only see the surface elements: the destruction of something old, the inclusion of something new and 'old people' not happy about it. They don’t necessarily understand that the much maligned slogan “Disneyland will never be complete” didn’t mean the total destruction of an attraction because it was merely old, nor the carte blanche inclusion of anything because it’s new and shiny.

Sell-Out, Don't Sellout

True fans never wanted Horizons to just continue to take us past a giant outdated microprocessor or present video chatting as a future technology for all time. Nor did we wish for World of Motion and "it's a small world" to be covered in lacquer and preserved as is for future generations. What we expected, what vintage Disney delivered over several generations, was an elevation of the principles that made it a cultural phenomenon in the first place.

The new company buzzward 'synergy' so often implemented today is just the opposite. In some cases it’s successful in the sense that it often causes an explosion of cash in every corner of the company, but often at the cost of an even more lucrative long term investment. Ellen may have made Universe of Energy more tolerable, but how long did it take for the gag to wear thin? How many times can any one guest tolerate another belch from an animatronic Stitch? Martin Short? Sure, he's funny. When he tells a different joke ever so often.

Our arguments are not about calcifying the past. They're about learning from it; not dismissing the best tenets of success as if they were dumb luck or happenstance but applying them to modern times. In an age where corporate leaders play internal politics for the betterment of themselves rather than the company, we understand how difficult it can be for a top executive to focus less on on their bonus check and more on returning the Peoplemover to Disneyland. But we also know that the founding father of the company would have had nothing to do with that reality.
“Some people worship money as something you've got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere. I've only thought about money in one way, and that is to do something with it. I don't think there's a thing I own that I will ever get the benefit of except through doing things with it… I'd rather have that in (the company) working…”

-Walt Disney

The Disney brand is, by and large, all about heart. We’ve no delusions that it’s not a business. But if you understand the basic concept of a business that puts emphasis on its customers to the Nth degree, understand the difference between genuine synergy and pandering, understand that the causes and events that made fans so demanding are the exact same causes and events that made Disney Disney, then maybe, just maybe, you’ll understand us whiners and get “it” too.

We complain, critique and whine because we love Disney that much. Imagineering's Golden Age trained us to expect more, and to never settle for less. We’re simply byproducts of the same philosophy that made the company such a success.

Contributed by Re-Imagineering reader Digital Jedi

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