Usually it's the other way around. Universal Studios sends its middle managers snooping around the local Disney theme parks, hoping to gain a competitive advantage from learning what its rival down south is up to.
But if Disneyland's incoming president, Matt Ouimet, and his newly named lieutenants are smart, they'll pay close attention to the changes that are about to get underway at Universal. NBCthe new majority owner of Universal's theme parkswill be spending all of this week and next on site at Universal Studios Hollywood, both in the public areas and in the offices, looking for waste.
On the surface, it might sound like a precursor to another round of budget cutbacks sure to result in less live entertainment and less ambitious attractions. But word has it NBC could be different. Their primary focus is said to be not on eliminating entertainment, but on improving it by thinning the bureaucracy.
NBC has already let go some of the USH [Universal Studios-Hollywood] administrative assistants. It seemed like every manager had hired one the last couple of years, revealed one insider. Senior managers were told [last] week that there are too many wasted dollars and resources on the tour, and that major changes must come to the fiscal and office management.
He admits, Less Office/More Show does sound too good to be true. Personally, I'll believe it when I see it. Yet the Teamsters (tram drivers), American Guild of Variety Artists (the USH characters union), and the Screen Actors Guild (which consults AGVA) were recently able to communicate their concerns to senior NBC management regarding the 10-year shift from 'small office staff/lots of characters and street shows' to just the opposite now. We will see if NBC makes major changes, but they do have a reputation for running a tight fiscal operation, and they have stated to the above unions that they do want labor peace at Universal.
The bloated bureaucracies at both Disney and Universal are problematic for countless reasons. Decision-making is slowed and diluted (case in point: the still-not-yet-finalized plans for Disneyland's 50th Anniversary). Office politics fester. And, worst of all, finances are diverted from onstage (adequate staffing, operating hours, adding new attractions, maintenance) to pay for the monolith growing offstage.
In addition, the layers of separation increase between the front lines and the true decision-makers. As the ranks of administrators grow, they forget where the magic is really being made. The theme park becomes a product to market and manipulate, not a place to visit. In turn, the hourly guest contact employees become faceless; they're just numbers on a spreadsheet.
Now, Disney didn't always Manage by Memo. Walt was himself a hands-on leader, and he insisted that management at Disneyland spend as much time as possible onstage, watching and assisting the guests play and the cast members work. It resulted in a long line of Operations executives who believed in being visible in the parks, from Dick Nunis, Bob Mathieson, Bill Sullivan and Ron Dominguez on down.
Although support functions, such as administration and security, might be housed in a non-descript office or converted ranch house backstage, for decades Operations management at Disneyland had their offices well inside the berm, such as above the Adventureland Bazaar or in Frontierland behind the false storefronts of Rainbow Ridge. When Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom was designed in the late 1960s, the top management offices were placed on the second story of the Main Street shops.
As Disney World added theme parks and other attractions, it became more practical to base the top Operations executives at a separate Team Disney facility. About 10 years ago, when Disneyland got its own plush quartersthe Team Disney Anaheim Buildingold-timers just shook their heads.
Walt never wanted the managers to get too comfortable in their offices. He wanted the guestsnot company executivesto be the VIPs. Walt hated spending money offstage, confided the late Van Arsdale France, founder of the Disney University. He wanted to spend it on the guests. The only reason he built the old administration building was because they needed a building for the Primeval World diorama.
Let's hope that NBC gets things right at Universal and reduces the barriers between park management and the front linesand that a certain competitor takes note.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.