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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of January 11, 2001

Ear-Mail - Virtual Lead

Readers, especially current and former cast members, are critical of Disneyland's new Cast Deployment (a.k.a. "Virtual Lead") program, which replaces the time-worn system of rotational breaks on attractions.

Cal Jabour asked:

If the system seems to work at the Magic Kingdom, why don't they just use the same system at Disneyland? How much do they save at WDW using this system? Could that be translated to Disneyland ?

In the future, we will probably see more accidents like at Roger Rabbit (and the new rules that the state has enforced on Disney).

ParrotHead, proprietor of www.wdwblues.com, wrote:

What a coincidence that you should publish the item about Cast Deployment. I just received a message from a seasonal cast member about this (I had never heard of it before). I figured you might be interested in what he had to say about how this is working here in sunny Florida:

"Recently, Walt Disney World instigated what is called Cast Deployment. Personally, anything with the prefix "de" in front of it seems to be negative in my mind. De-activate. De-moralizing…you get the picture?

"What Cast Deployment amounts to is a computerized system in nearly each area where a computer tells each cast member what to do, where to be every minute of the day, etc. You punch in your number and are given directions, a position, or a task. Without this system, we used to move around more and have more interaction with the public. Now I hardly see a guest in my job.

"A greeter job is at the entrance to an attraction or at an exit to welcome the guest. Now they are dropping the exit greeter.

"The system keeps us all so busy that we are 'on the clock' with the computer and cannot stop to take the proper time to chat with guests, give directions, and be personable—even to each other! (Walt would do a rollover here.)

"To be happy, you have to live happy and work happy! If we enjoy our jobs, we can enjoy our guests.

"Besides that the system has us so busy and worried about jobs, that we turn into royal bitches with a chip on our shoulders from the STRESS…and God help the guest who asks us a question!! We are stressed.

"Further, the computer is in error sometimes. It failed to give me my entitled two 15-minute breaks (6-hour day) yesterday and I had NO supper! One would have been sufficient for me, but I am to have two. I was furious. I was in a very bad frame of mind and after this season may never be back to work at Disney."

I thought the latter comment was interesting, because by law employees must be given breaks at certain intervals. If the computers aren't properly scheduling them, Disney could have some trouble on its hands.

What I find amazing is that the "success" of a program like this is apparently measured solely by the amount of money it saves the company. Such "unimportant" factors as cast member morale and positive interaction with guests don't seem to be considered.

A Disneyland cast member wrote:

"The current cast member outlook for the new virtual lead is very poor. If this system stays around for more than a month we stand to lose about 10% of the cast members who have job knowledge on certain attractions. With the current lack of cast members this whole process is very poorly timed. Splash Mountain started scheduled breaks on December 24; cast members from this attraction are calling in sick when scheduled to work the mountain. Consequently, there has been a problem with staffing the mountain. Several cast members have talked about walking out when the system goes into effect park wide. Unfortunately, given the cost of the system ($70,000 per computer, that is why they are only installing so few in the park) the only way which this will change is if someone gets hurt. I would really hate to see it come to that, we already have enough problems as it is."

Kevin Remington wrote:

Matterhorn loading area
Matterhorn loading area

Thanks for your article on Cast Deployment. You mention early in the article that the rotation system of attractions operation suffers from "tenuous accountability." As a former cast member, I have to strongly disagree. If a cast member on, say, Jungle Cruise returns even two or three minutes late from a lunch or a break, they hear about it, believe me. Not just from a lead but from the rest of the crew. When you return late the entire rotation can be put in a holding pattern, and the guy you're supposed to bump out of a boat has to take another trip; everyone stays where they are until you return. It may not be immediately apparent who's gumming up the works, but it never takes long to figure it out. It only took one or two instances of returning late from a break or a lunch and catching holy hell from everyone on the crew to realize I'd better keep a sharp eye on the clock whenever I stepped away from whichever attraction I happened to be working.

Keeping attractions hosts and hostesses (especially on the "big rides") at a position for longer than 15 to 20 minutes before bump or break is idiotic—moving through the rotation does indeed keep you very alert, fresh and ready for the next position. It's a system that has worked for 30+ years; it ain't broke.

I also doubt strongly the 4% labor savings figure that was quoted to you from WDW. I can imagine that they did not account for all of variables you mention in your article—the "unpredictables" of guest behavior (lost children, guests in distress, etc.). Factoring in those and other "intangibles" would considerably reduce that percentage. Each day as an attractions cast member has a slightly different "rhythm" and the rotation system was like the bass line, or backbeat—flexible enough to respond to changing conditions but constant enough to make sure that cast members kept the show going and guests going through the show.

One more thing: the "Optimized Task" is ridiculous for a few reasons. First of all, back in the "good old days," cast members were scrupulously trained to constantly be on the lookout for "magic moment" opportunities to the point that it became second nature, even for the most jaded cast members. Having a computer tell a cast member to go and seek out a magic moment makes for an awfully insincere moment and turns it into a chore. It also reveals that current management sees value in these moments, but they've forgotten how to inspire them into happening naturally. Training, training, training—which I understand they've cut way back on.

Also, what happens if there's no magic moment to be found right then and there? Do you just go to the break area and smoke another cigarette instead? "Magic Moments" have to be spontaneous or they're void of magic. Optimized tasks such as checking FastPass machines or other attractions "housekeeping" duties were also trained into us until they were second nature. We didn't need a computer to tell us it was time to call custodial or check for burnt out bulbs. Besides, leads checked animation, light bulbs, and myriad other show safety/quality/efficiency items via a daily checklist.

Thanks for the article, it gives insight into how a seemingly good business practice can harm the overall business at hand.

I can see your point about rotations providing "tenuous accountability." I was taking the viewpoint not of hourly CM or lead, but of upper management. Rotations don't provide them with concrete data they can analyze and quantify and incorporate into nice charts and diagrams they can show their bosses and use to justify certain changes.

As for Optimized Tasks, Disneyland and Disney World workforces evidently have become so large and so diluted that nothing can be left to chance.

Why is it that most of the Disney cast members who "get it" seem to be former cast members?

WDW alumnus Steve wrote:

Thanks once again for a great article. As a former Walt Disney World cast lead, I can tell you that the Virtual Lead computer program is terrible. There are two main flaws in the thinking that it saves money and is equitable.

(1) It assumes that a rotation means that everyone is in a position for 15 minutes. That, of course, is not reality. Even on a normal day it usually takes 20 to 25 minutes for breaks and 35 to 45 minutes for a rotation to move one position. But a larger issue for me is that during slow time I appreciated the fact that my cast members got more breaks. It made up for the busy days when they went a long time without one because of crowds or were asked to go above and beyond to maintain a good show. I always felt that they deserved what they got.

(2) It takes the human element out of it and there really is no one watching the system. The computer doesn't know if there is a delay in the park or consider all the variables that running a theme park requires. A cast member who leaves for lunch and gets involved with a lost child is penalized for being late. Or if we need to bring up an extra vehicle or tram at an attraction because of a breakdown or because it is busy, the computer program needs to be adjusted and when it is busy who has the time to sit and do that?

At least on the old system a thinking human being can ensure that the operation is running as smoothly as possible considering ALL the variables that we encounter daily. As always, on paper the computer system (which has been touted by a group of people in upper management who have never actually worked in the park) looks like a reliable, equitable system, but in actuality no one really likes it, not even management.

More Tiki Talk

Readers also remain concerned about the deteriorating Tiki Room. MousePlanet's main WDW connection, Brian Bennett, contacted Dole directly and received the following response:

From: dole_consumer_center@na.dole.com

Dear Mr. Bennett:

Thank you for contacting us.

We appreciate your comments about the Dole-sponsored "Enchanted Tiki Room."

They were shared with senior management at Dole and Disneyland, so the situation can be reviewed and corrected. We apologize for the disappointment and are glad you took the time to share your thoughts and observations.

We appreciate having the opportunity to respond to your concern and hope we may continue to serve you as a consumer of our products.

Sincerely,
Consumer Response Staff
Consumer Center
Dole Food Company, Inc.

Old friend Daniel Roth wrote:

The deteriorated entryway to the Tiki Room
The deteriorated entryway to the Tiki Room

For some reason the Tiki Room has been perhaps my favorite attraction at Disneyland, and it's been sad to see the way it has been treated the last few years by the powers-that-be.

I do not see any improvements yet. One can only hope. I've visited the attraction four times over the last four weeks—including tonight. A very interesting thing happen at the start of the show. Before the hostess began her usual spiel to awake Jose, she said (I hope I got this right), " Before we begin the show, we would like to point out that the Dole Company sponsors this attraction and has so for the last 25 years." The hostess said those lines like she had a gun pointed to her head. They did not flow very naturally. This occurred about 7 p.m. and, of course, Dole's Juice Bar was already cleaned up and closed.

It would be great if they would do one of those special events nights there sometime. I would pay up to $100 for that one. Doing the Tiki theme for one of those events would be a blast. Due to small capacity of the ride, it probably won't happen.

I think a Tiki Room special event would be great. Space shouldn't be a problem, since they've built events around Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and other limited capacity attractions. They could utilize Aladdin's Oasis and other areas of Adventureland.

What might prevent Disney from showcasing the Tiki Room at such an event, though, would be the necessity of first restoring the attraction to pristine condition.

DisneyBert bemoaned:

It's hard for me not to sigh every time I read such sad stories about Disneyland crumbling right before our eyes. It's a shame that Disney went from being a fun, clean money-making machine to just being a money-making machine. I'm disgusted with this Paul Presser guy…can we write to him directly?

A comment regarding the Disneyland Hotel: A year back, I stayed at the Disneyland Hotel with all my in-laws and my family, 12 of us in all. We spent a fortune on two one-bedroom suites and an extra room, and paid to upgrade to concierge service. We paid an extra $300 for the privilege, but when we got there,

(1) We had to wait in the same line as everybody else did to check in,

(2) Our rooms weren't ready, so we had to check our bags into the extra room, and then lug our stuff back to our rooms after a seven-hour car ride and 10 hours in the park,

(3) When we did get to our room, we were greeted with a pile of soiled linens and wet towels,

(4) One of our keys didn't work, and we had to go back to the main tower to get it fixed,

(5) When we went to the "exclusive breakfast bar", we were stopped for trying to take a glass of juice with us to our room, and there was nothing more than fruit and cookies to eat, and

(6) Whenever we tried to make reservations, for anything from Goofy's Kitchen to parade seats to the Golden Horseshoe Review, we were told they were "unable to accommodate" us!

So many other things happened that could have made our trip miserable, but I waited until I got home and then called and demanded our money back. They credited my account pronto, and promised to forward my complaint to a higher-up, but I never heard another thing. I was hoping that somebody from Disney Hotels would call me back to apologize, if not explain what exactly I was getting when I "upgraded," but I may as well have waited for the price for Disneyland admission to come down.

Back when my kids were babies, I dreamed of taking them every year to Disneyland. But watching how everything is just going to pot is pretty much erasing that dream for me. Disneyland was such a famous landmark in our country, so clean and fun and wholesome. I totally blame Michael Eisner and his type-A obsession with being rich.

Even though I, too, see that a lot of the accidents that occur in the park are the fault of the riders themselves, it bothers me that Disney's only immediate response is image control. Even fast food restaurants will call 911 first and ask questions afterwards!

I hope that the Disney family, especially Roy or whoever is still living, takes the park back from those money-hungry, plastic-smile megalomaniacal billionaires who have to make just THAT MUCH MORE every year. The sad thing is, if they are let go, Disney will pay them all a huge annual pension, as a consolation prize, but won't fork over a few thousand dollars so that Jose the Parrot can sing again.

Finally, Mark J. Guttag wrote:

As always, it was very interesting reading your column on January 3, including your responses to reader email. In particular, I agree with you about the following:

"As far as the 4-year-old on Roger Rabbit, we'll probably never know if the boy fell or climbed out. I have always maintained (and the just-released OSHA report confirms) that the main contributing factor was that the boy was allowed to sit near the vehicle opening, next to his brother, not his mother. New seating requirements should eliminate this condition in the future."

However, what bothers me is that Cal-OSHA went beyond requiring Disney to improve procedures to require a bunch of new mechanical, electrical and computer systems be added to the Roger Rabbit ride that to me at least seem unnecessary. There are times, such as when there is a pattern of recurring injuries on a ride, when a technological fix of some sort is the right solution to improving safety. However, I am totally unconvinced in the case of the RR ride or any of the other Disney dark rides that new technology based safety systems need to be installed. I recently posted the following about the RR ride accident on a discussion board:

"Like most people, the only facts I have about this accident is what I read on the Internet. However, I do have a few concerns:

"1. The "technological fix" that Cal-OSHA is proposing does not seem like a great idea to me for a variety of reasons. First, it seems like it is requiring a lot of fairly expensive fixes for a ride with an accident rate of one or two people per every 10 million or more riders. Second, a seemingly cheaper remedy had it been followed would probably have prevented an accident of this type: require CMs to load vehicles with children and an adult so that the adult is nearer the open door of the car. If necessary, Cal-OSHA could do periodic unannounced inspections to insure this procedure is carried out. Third, given how low the current accident rate is on the ride, adding all of this new "safety" technology could significantly increase the chance of a future accidents due to the "law of unintended consequence." For example, adding closing doors to the ride vehicles could create the added hazard of a door closing on a guest's leg or arm, etc.

"2. My second major concern is that Cal-OSHA is suggesting that other similar types of attractions at Disneyland have similar "safety technology" added to them. Given the extremely low accident rates on the other Dark rides at Disneyland, this seems an irresponsible suggestion on the part of Cal-OSHA. Once again, adding such technology would probably be expensive and, given the very low accident rates on these rides, possibly create as many accidents as it prevents.

"And I don't mean to sound like a technological luddite here; I have two brothers who are engineers and I work with engineers all of the time at work. However, the accident rates on Disneyland rides are currently so low that it is hard to imagine any technological fix that would be guaranteed to prevent as many accidents as it might create.

"In contrast, requiring a load procedure that puts parents by the open door just seems like common sense to me, and is apparently a procedure followed at other amusement parks."

I agree that the OSHA-mandated changes go too far. Certainly positioning an adult between a child and the door would offer the same protection as installing netted doors. It doesn't make sense to install new devices and procedures for a one in a million occurrence (check that, one in 10 million). I think this time, though, OSHA was not paying attention to the percentages. It was going on:

A: Most importantly, the severity of the accident. The boy's injuries were so heart-wrenching, I think OSHA was determined to demand whatever changes it could think of that, if they had been installed months earlier, would have prevented the accident.

And B: Disney's recent track record. Whereas before OSHA paid infrequent visits to Disneyland and assumed serious accidents were rare, ever since the Columbia OSHA has had to investigate mishaps of seemingly increasing frequency, which are uncovering disturbing traits the park never had before, such as reduced training and maintenance. Disneyland used to get the benefit of the doubt. Nowadays, unfortunately, doubt is the investigators' first reaction.

It makes me think of legislation that is being proposed in Massachusetts, spurred by a recent spate of accidents in which customers at a few Home Depots were injured or killed by falling merchandise. Instead of addressing the cause of the incidents (untrained forklift operators, shoppers getting too close to the forklift), the bill would force customers at warehouse stores to wear hard hats when they shop. Maybe that's next for Disneyland…

Virtual Lead

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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