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While last week's findings on the Big Thunder accident did not legally absolve Disneyland, the Company sounded all but exonerated in its preemptive admission of blame released the day before the report from the State of California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH) came out.

Disneyland emphasized that its policies and procedures were safe; individual employees who followed them improperly were at fault.


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Analysts and other admirers reacted jubilantly that the determination was that employees erred. Blame fell to a machinist who didn't tighten a bolt and secure safety wiring, and a manager who erroneously signed off that the work was completed. See!, supporters shouted. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with Disneyland's maintenance department! There's no evidence of widespread deterioration caused by budget cuts. The system itself, they argued, is fine.

I'm not so sure. Certainly it's possible these were isolated errors. Maybe, there's more to it. Consider the spotless record of Disneyland's maintenance department for 42 years—until it's turned on its head in 1997. Then, in the ensuing five years, innocent bystanders start getting maimed and killed by these same once-safe attractions.

So what exactly happened to Disneyland's maintenance department in 1997? That's when the Management Consultants from McKinsey & Co. arrived, young MBAs fresh out of Harvard, ready to show grizzled theme park veterans how to provide “world class” service. Of course, the typical management consultant can't actually tell you what “world class” means. In the revealing book Dangerous Company: The Consulting Powerhouses and the Businesses They Save And Ruin, even renowned consultants who have authored books on becoming a “world class” organization can't define the term.

Evidently, becoming world class entails abandoning everything you've ever known about your industry and squeezing your business through a pre-set template of changes. It's like your company goes through a Play-Doh Fun Factory and comes out the other end with the minimum number of employees working as much as they can in the minimum amount of time.

Employee morale isn't factored into the equation. Most of the old-timers, who may be more likely to resist change (and coincidentally are higher paid), are the first to go. And anyone else who doesn't publicly embrace the new system is next in line.

I recently spoke with a former executive at another large company that enlisted McKinsey shortly before Disneyland did. He and others were skeptical of the consultants' drastic suggestions, but his arguments were ignored by the firm's chief executive (who, ironically, currently sits on Disney's board of directors).

“The problem is these consultants come in with no knowledge of the business they're hired to assess,” he explained. “They think that success is determined by the process, the system, and that people are interchangeable. No, people must take ownership of the system or it will fail.”

The result is a toxic workplace. The employees who remain are typically lower paid, less experienced, and less motivated. Remember, it's a key component of the system that individuals are unimportant.

This is the opposite of the age-old “Disney Way,” in which every job was crucial in “creating happiness” for each guest. For decades, Disneyland maintenance workers were part of a team, a family, dedicated to perfection. They took pride in their work because they felt a connection to and affinity for the finished product. Now, demoralized, they see themselves as part of the machinery.

This is the atmosphere backstage at Disneyland, where once-unimaginable tragedies are not so surprising anymore.

The culture at Disneyland must change. It's not a store or a factory; it's a unique entertainment business.

There may be a glimmer of hope, if judged by the speed with which the names are changing on the office doors at the corporate Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) building. In the past, these newcomers have demonstrated their belief that people do matter, that theme park experience, a sense of history, and guest satisfaction count for something.

Management by Merchandisers appears to be out of favor. Retail-minded Resort president Cynthia Harriss has left, followed by most of her lieutenants, including director Tammi Harrington (the Disney Stores veteran charged with overseeing a McKinsey-like overhaul of Disneyland's security department), as well as senior vice presidents Randy Baumberger, Marilyn Alexander and Howard Pickett.

The last man standing seems to be the one most thought would be first to go: T Irby, the retired Army general who implemented the McKinsey-mandated changes in the Facilities department. Through last week, rumors persisted that Irby, too, had departed. Yet, as of Tuesday afternoon, Disneyland's Human Resources Department insisted that Irby was “currently actively employed” by the company.

Despite Irby's employment status (his departure possibly postponed to distance it from the Big Thunder incident?), he's badly outranked by many of the newly transferred executives.

Irby has lost oversight of Attractions (and many other operations) to the likes of Greg Emmer. Said one Disney World old-timer who has known Emmer since his first tour at Disneyland 30 years ago:

“Greg will be a real asset to Disneyland. He worked his way up from the parking lot to the Executive Suite. When it comes to running the Park, he is in my words, Un-Horsesh*ttable—that is to say he knows what he's doing and what's important. If given the backing, he'll put the proper emphasis on guests, profits, and employees (cast). He is truly someone who has earned the right to lead.”

The bad news is that caveat: if given the backing. The resignation letters from departing directors Roy Disney and Stanley Gold show that disappointment in Disney isn't confined to maintenance workers in Anaheim or us kooks on the Internet. The criticisms are founded—and point all the way to the top.

To matter, any changes instituted by the new TDA will require the blessing of the Big Cheese. If they don't happen, you now know whom to blame.



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(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.