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David Koenig
Are the Bears going bye-bye?
Overheard about a month ago in the Monorail queue…

Guest (pointing to an empty lagoon): Are you ever going to bring the submarines back?

Cast Member: No, not the old submarine ride. That wasn't very popular. We're going to replace it with miniature, radio-controlled submarines operated by the guests.

Guest: Are you sure?

Cast Member: Oh, I just read it on the Internet!

If you want to know with absolute certainty if a new attraction is coming or an old one is going, there are three places you should NOT turn to:

(1) Disneyland's Public Relations Department, which still insists that unpopularity sunk the subs;

(2) The Internet, where anyone can post anything and make it sound real, and

(3) Hourly Cast Members, who look like they're speaking for the Company, even though they are rarely invited to sit in on WDI planning meetings.

The problem isn't that any of these sources can't be reliable. Often they are. It's just that Disney constantly changes its mind on adding and subtracting attractions. Projects can be greenlighted then gutted a moment later. Or drastically altered then delayed. Just because something doesn't happen, doesn't mean it wasn't at one time approved.

Take, for instance, the long-expected Winnie the Pooh attraction at Disneyland. Over the last ten years, Imagineers have designed scads of Pooh rides. The most logical site, of course, is Critter Country, specifically the under-utilized Country Bear Playhouse. That a changeover from Teddi and Trixie to Tigger is possible, even probable, is fact. But, as the old saying goes, "nothing's concrete at Disneyland—except Splash Mountain."

Critter Country entry sign
Critter Country entry sign

That hasn't stopped cast members from taking matters into their own hands. Over the last two weeks, City Hall has been "flooded" with guest complaints about Disneyland evicting the Country Bears from their Playhouse. Guest Relations personnel have calmly tried to explain that there has been no official announcement of the show closing (confirmed to me by Disney PR). Still, the guests insist that the cast member introducing the show urged guests to visit while they could since Big Al and his brethren were in their "farewell season." Guests Relations then called Attractions to ask about the announcement, but management didn't know what they were talking about.

Apparently, a renegade cast member had taken it upon himself to create a new theater and lobby spiel to announce the show's imminent closure. The nice, well meaning employee probably had grown a bit too attached to his work location. Eventually, his superiors figured out what was happening and explained to him what was and was not appropriate to say to guests regarding possible attraction closures.

Hungry Bear Restaurant
Hungry Bear Restaurant

Problem solved, right? Wrong. By this weekend, Foods workers at the Hungry Bear Restaurant also heard the rumor and were advising guests to complain to City Hall about the Bears' impending eviction.

Certainly, this may in fact be the Bear's final summer in Anaheim. A high-ranking park executive was heard inquiring about reviving the original Jamboree show for one last summer, reminiscent of how CircleVision in its final days reran "America the Beautiful." Due to the cost of the changeover—about $7,000 per theater—the attraction likely will stay with the current Hoedown show until closing quietly, with little fanfare.

"We still haven't been given an exact closure date," said one Critter Country employee. "I would expect Labor Day, or maybe October 1 to coincide with the new 2002 fiscal year."

The flood of complaints, though, does raise the question of how the public will react when the show finally does close. The show seems to have a small but vocal following. A sudden, unannounced closure might spark the type of heated protests that came after the last time Disney added a Pooh dark ride—and suddenly shuttered Disney World's Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.


Now that we've established how silly it is to speculate on unbuilt attractions, let's speculate on an unbuilt attraction! It turns out that Imagineering likes one of my suggestions for how to use the Soarin' over California technology at Walt Disney World—since it sounds like they had a similar idea months before I did.

Here's the word from WDI on the most likely concept: "Look for a new ride for the Fantasyland section of the Magic Kingdom in Florida. This ride will incorporate 3-D film so that you are flying with Dumbo or Tinker Bell or other classic Disney characters. This is very close to a green light because it could be used in at least four different parks. One possibility is using digital animation and 3-D technology with the Soarin' ride system. You might think of this as a high-tech Peter Pan where instead of flying in a ship over models of London and Neverland, you actually fly through it with characters interacting all around you."


As for the original attraction at Disney's California Adventure, reader Kevin Kenney reports:

Soarin' has a single-rider line now a la rocket Rods. It uses the FastPass entrance, where you get a coupon. At the T where the theater lines split, you use separate aisles to get up to the front of the queue, where you then wait for the next showing's entry areas to be mostly filled, and then you get slotted in wherever there's a space left, often in the third (lowest) row. It's mildly possible for a group of two singles to end up together. Saturday night I got into the next show twice this way (vs. 60 and 25 minute main queue times).

Of course, once this gets online…


According to a maintenance worker with attentive ears, several major vehicles for attractions are being hung up during rehab.

Exhibit One: Remember the Ursula barge from Fantasmic? About nine months ago, the barge was sent for repairs. After the work was completed, the cast member reports, "The Mouse said that the barge was beyond hope. I'm guessing that (the vendor) was blamed for this, and thus were denied payment for services rendered." Goodbye, Ursula.

Exhibit Two: The park sent Casey Jr. train Number 9 to the same vendor "to perform some sort of lead abatement program on the bodies," he says. "The first of these cars was to be returned two weeks ago, and yet none have arrived. Seems that none WILL arrive until Ursula is paid for! They're holding Casey Jr. hostage!"

California Screamin'
California Screamin'

Exhibit Three: One of the California Screamin' trains was sent to the shop for a safety inspection. The crew, though, soon discovered that the train was not constructed with disassembly in mind.

"If it could be done wrong on the train, it was," the maintenance worker says. "Cables have to be severed to remove them. Speakers can't be removed without removing the body, but the body can't be removed until the speakers come out! The specified wiring connectors leave a lot to be desired, to the point they're going to replace them. Major rewiring will have to be done on every vehicle, and the Staff Shop has some major fiberglass work to do as well."


With Disneyland Facilities still in turmoil, the department is undertaking yet another reorganization, realigning the park's four maintenance teams into three. "Coasters will be broken up, and the management moved," says a source. "North team is going to be broken up, back to North and West. Current North management will become West management, with Coaster management taking over North Team responsibilities, particularly Fantasyland, ToonTown, and Small World. The Steam Trains and Monorails will become North team responsibility, Space Mountain and Matterhorn are supposed to go to South Team, and Big Thunder goes to West Team. Coasters crew will be divided accordingly. All gasoline attractions (Autopia, Casey Jr., Main Street vehicles) will be grouped together. The alleged reason for the change is that four teams doesn't work well, and that three will be better."

He is still unsure as to what the ramifications may be, but speculates that "project work, much of which is being done on overtime, will suffer some consequences. Overtime is being cut back to the 'essentials.' This idea will evaporate about the time they try to start up Rocket Rods, but we're getting ahead of the program."


Official announcement of the reorganization came about the same time as Michael Eisner and Bob Iger's infamous downsizing memo sent last week to salaried Disney employees. For the morbidly curious, here's the complete text (many cast members received only a digested version):

3/27/01

A message from Michael and Bob

Dear Fellow Cast Members:

As you know, during the past several months The Walt Disney Company has undertaken a wide range of strategic initiatives designed to help us achieve our goals for reasonable long-term growth and profitability and to ensure that our businesses retain their industry leadership and creative strength. And as we've discussed many times over the years, a financially strong company results in a creatively strong company.

We have been working equally hard to make sure we are operating in the most efficient way possible by cutting our costs in almost every area. But despite our progress, the economy has become more challenging in recent months and we must continue to seek ways to manage our businesses even more productively.

Our company has grown rapidly over the past two decades. But we cannot rest on our record. We need to face up to the increasingly pressing challenges of the softening economic environment. We must also uphold investors' confidence in our future while maintaining our core commitment to quality and creativity in all that we do, including our important and unique relationship with our guests.

Therefore, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to reduce the company's worldwide workforce by approximately 4,000 fulltime employees. This reduction will affect business units in all of our operations, as well as corporate staff.

While we adjust our strategies to reflect economic reality, we believe that we must continue to provide our guests with the Disney magic they expect. Therefore, we will manage this program so that guest service and safety will not be impacted.

We intend to achieve the reduction to the greatest extent possible through a voluntary separation program that will provide participating employees with special severance incentives, extended benefits and outplacement services.

We hope that a sufficient number will choose to participate in this voluntary plan. However, if our goal is not met through the voluntary plan, mandatory workforce reductions with lower severance benefits will be required.

The voluntary program will be available on a one-time basis only. In some cases, we may not be able to accept employees who wish to participate in the voluntary program, although every effort will be made to do so.

Obviously, a reduction of this kind imposes stress on all cast members -those who are staying and those who are not. We will make every reasonable effort to minimize the stress, and to complete the program within the shortest time possible, with the goal of reaching our reduced workforce level in July.

Those of you who will be eligible for the voluntary separation program will receive additional information about the program within the next ten days. You will then have three weeks to determine whether it is an appropriate option for you.

This may be the most difficult series of decisions that the company has made in the last twenty years. Building a company as dynamic as Disney, and all of the individual businesses that make it so special, is gratifying and challenging. Cutting costs is hard. By utilizing a voluntary program, we hope that we will be able to minimize the pain.

As we implement the reductions, we will provide you with additional information that should answer most of your questions. We know that this is an important decision for you and your families to consider. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact your human resources representative.

Sincerely,

Michael Bob

How will the cutbacks play out in Anaheim? A cast member explains, "As Disneyland's contribution to the cutbacks is to be about 250, all management are going to receive (this) week, at home, a 'settlement offer' to leave voluntarily. Should there not be enough volunteers, then anyone who is then let go will get nothing but a pink slip. Until the dust settles, we won't know who is still standing and who is in any semblance of control."

Agrees a co-worker: "There were a lot of long faces in management when the dreaded memo was released. We were joking that we were waiting for a call that someone jumped off Grizzly Peak."


You can write to David atthis link..

Are the Bears going bye-bye?

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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