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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of February 7, 2002

Time to catch up on reader mail, starting with some fascinating changes at Autopia…

Mailbag

As one Autopia operator reported:

Cal OSHA has decided that Autopia is fairly unsafe. Since guests bump and hurt other guests and cast members during loading and unloading, OSHA set up some rules that took effect Sunday (January 27).

We now have to have three cast members on each track instead of the old two cast members, so we need more cast members to work at the same capacity… Autopia's labor costs go up! (The company, of course, doesn't like that).

We do have the option still of having two cast members on each track, but then we can only group up to six (as opposed to eight), meaning a 25% decrease in capacity and 25% longer lines

I'm sure the company is thinking twice about renewing that contract with Chevron in eight years. As I said before, Autopia's days are probably numbered.

I was talking with management and the reason they say they wont put any "shut-off sensors" in the cars is because the sensors run on a commonly used radio frequency. The frequency would apparently disrupt radio traffic near by the resort. Apparently other radio frequency bands are taken by the FCC.

The Chevron sponsor lounge under the Autopia Tower
The Chevron sponsor lounge under the Autopia Tower

In slightly off news, add Chevron to the list of disgruntled sponsors. As you may know, due to FastPass, guests just walk right though the tower that plays the Chevron cartoons (They are, of course, advertisements). Chevron took offense and now demands that FastPass keep a "Two Minute" line inside the tower.

Sadly, the FastPass cast member at the merge point cannot see where the "Two Minute" mark is and now has to blindly send guests into the tower, thus making the FastPass return line 10 to 20 minutes long, instead of the old five minutes.

Lastly, Autopia got its Cast Deployment System computer Monday (January 21). It is a great change from the two whiteboards we had before (we had some idiot leads)… I'd still prefer the old breaking system.

Heather, the former Disneyland cast member campaigning to convince the park to pay tribute to the late saxman of New Orleans Square, Edwin Pleasants. She wrote:

Edwin Pleasants

I have to thank you soooo much for posting the info on Edwin for your readers. The response has been amazing so far and there is no telling where it will end! I am truly touched.

I'm going to send all the responses to his companion, Inther, who is a great lady and will be overwhelmed. I'll keep you informed on our progress.

I've gotten a number of wonderful testimonials, but they have slowed down over the weekend. Hopefully, they'll pick up again. I would like a lot more to convince Ms. Harriss.

Readers, please continue to send your memories to Heather at DsnyRed1@cs.com

Reader predictions for 2002 continued to arrive. Wade Newer prognosticated:

Guess I'll add my 10 cents to the 2002 predictions.

1. Disney stock will begin to slip as a hostile take over looms on the horizon.

2. A new add campaign for DCA will unsuccessfully target CA teens.

3. Michael Jackson will offer to buy the Disneyland Resort.

4. Michael Eisner will seriously consider Jackson's offer.

5. Walt Disney World will lose its unique self government status and be split between the two counties.

6. Disney Vacation Club will announce a new time share program that utilize empty resort rooms while they sell off Vero Beach.

Disney Cruise Line -Photo  Disney
Disney Cruise Line -Photo Disney

7. Disney Cruise Line will (along with other cruse lines) face new problems of security and safety as the War on Terrorism expands to the seas.

8. The Angels will win the pennant, and then be sold.

9. Return to Neverland will be just successful enough for Eisner to blow off the "Sequel Critics."

10. Atlantis "Bumper Boats" will be placed in the Disneyland and Disney World submarine lagoons.

Bonus prediction: "Disney's Fantasmic On Ice" will debut.

Andrew Salter predicted:

I've noticed a lot of your readers being sarcastic and downright cruel to the parks about their renovations for 2002. So, here's one for all you happy people:

(6) A massive refurbishment drive will solve many nagging problems in the parks and prevent massive accidents.

(5) The Pooh ride will draw more visitors to the back of the park, making it seem more lively, thanks to the addition of a new attraction there. The Pooh ride will also make due with the budget cuts that it is getting and impress the curious.

(4) Disney's California Adventure will lay plans for a lagoon spectacular, utilizing effects (in pyrotechnics) pioneered in LuminAria. They will solve the problems that they have now by doing repairs to the Paradise Pier, although it may cause some congestion. Remember, these are only plans. The show itself will require a dry rehab of the lagoon.

(3) Fantasmic! will return in all its glory and reclaim the crown as the king of nighttime spectaculars. Formerly disused effects will come back into play and the show will glow like it was meant to.

(2) DCA will slowly decline in popularity until there are enough rides to draw attention. I know that rides aren't the important thing, but for the younger population, they are! Once DCA realizes their mistakes, they will work on improving show quality, despite the iron fist of Paul Pressler.

(1) Tomorrowland may get an E-ticket, or at least one in construction. This may be a long-term project, but the important thing is that there will be one!

The outlook on the resort is not so gloomy. I myself love to visit despite the problems they have at the moment. Besides, could you look for this quality at Universal? Close, but not quite.

I don't know if yours are the most probable predictions, but they sure are the ones I hope happen.

Tony forecast:

Here is my prediction for the next decade. Either one of these two things will happen:

1. Disney will somehow regain its image and become a great place to go again. This will happen preferably with Eisner completely out of the picture. Then the company would go to its rightful owner, Roy E. Disney (he is part of the actual family). Then they would realize that pins and other memorabilia aren't the biggest cash cows, but rather the parks themselves, and give the Imagineers some money to come up with better ideas and more freedom for rides/parks/attractions at all the parks in the U.S. Things better than a tortilla machine and a boring limo ride.

Hunchback of Notre Dame II -Promo art  Disney
Hunchback of Notre Dame II -Promo art Disney

And they might give the film division some money, too, so they might be able to produce great theater-quality movies, rather than our current hoard of direct-to-video sequels. They're turning everything into the Land Before Time. Then they might put some better shows on ABC, rather than pathetic and overrated game shows like The Chair and Millionaire. This type of turnaround would require some real pixie dust though.

OR… this is probably more likely…

2. Thanks to Eisner and Pressler, The Walt Disney Company will be run into the ground and cease to exist.

Michael wrote:

In your mailbag for the week of January 22, you responded to Susan Schaar's suggestion (that consumers strike the parks to send a message to shareholders) by saying, "Disney stock is held by so many small investors that organizing a coup may be impossible."

Perhaps what we need is for Dreamworks SKG to be the "white knight" and organize a leveraged buyout of Disney. Then the "talent" Susan referred to, Jeffrey Katzenberg, can return to Disney, help restore the company's former image and vision, and also have the pleasure of removing his former boss, Michael Eisner.

A Disneyland cast member wrote:

I just read the last message on the mailbag today and I totally agree with everything you and your reader wrote. The only way to make management see the light is to go through the stockholders, since management won't listen to the paying public.

But, you said at the end of the message that a "coup would be impossible." I don't think it's impossible. Didn't a "coup" happen in the early 1980s when Eisner and Wells came on? Didn't the shareholders, with the help of Roy E. Disney, oust Ron Miller, et al?

Maybe history will repeat itself and Roy E. will lead another "coup"? Who knows?

Another coup would require someone like Roy to lead, but remember Eisner is Roy's man. I don't think he'd turn on his own appointee.

Also, you'd have to find an individual (or, for a merger, a larger company) willing to put up the billions.

Finally, the business community (not Disney fans) would have to come to the realization that the leadership was incompetent and the company drastically under-performing. We're not there yet. The business community remembers Eisner turned the company around once, and is hoping he'll repeat. That Ron Miller was in over his head was apparent to everyone.

Let's see what happens. If the company continues to stumble, something's gotta give.

Allison Ramirez, "life-long Disney fan," wrote:

After reading Susan Schaar's contribution to the 2002 predictions (what a great article!), it brought back to memory something I had thought about long ago. I had wondered about the stockholders on many occasions. Could they really be that out of touch with what is going on with their money? I just don't see how anyone paying any attention to Disney matters at all, could fail to see the total debauchery going on.

My only investment with Walt Disney Company is with my heart, and my wallet, and as for my heart, it has been breaking for the Disney name and all it used imply for quite some time now. I keep waiting for the people who have real dollars invested to wise up and demand the complete change of the present mismanagement, before this once great Icon of all Icons is really gone forever!

I am a loyal reader of MousePlanet, and a great fan of your books. Have you and Mr. Lutz ever considered going to the television media with any of these stories? Surely there would be no shortage of back up from people with plenty of proof to show. You are well known, and MousePlanet seems to be known by a lot of people. Perhaps there are legalities involved, or you both have worked hard getting where you are, and don't want to cause that kind of an uproar, but I wish someone with some clout would take a hold of the reigns and just get this stuff out to the people! I really believe there are so many of us out there that really love Disney, that things could be forced to change, I just don't know how to go about it. I thought Ms. Shaar's ideas were great.

Maybe a video taken at both U.S. resorts, showing all the decay, and lack of training for cast members, etc., and distributed to stockholders, something Eisner couldn't schmooze his way out of… Well, my hot air is deflating. I will end this by saying you guys are doing a great job there at MousePlanet. I love your site even though I end up upset after every new round of bad news. I have your books, and enjoyed them immensely. Thanks for taking the time to let me sound off.

P.S. One more try: How about a 60 Minutes expose! I realize 20/20 is out…

A former Disney Company executive wrote

Susan Schaar is almost right. Raising a stink might have some effect, getting the media involved is always a smart thing—but the fact is many Disney lovers don't come across particularly well or intelligently on camera. They are too focused on "Walt's legacy" to be taken seriously… except by other people who care deeply. (And, make no doubt, caring deeply is a good thing.)

But there is something that Disney fears. The thought of it makes Eisner and Staggs and everyone else in lofty positions absolutely cower.

What they DON'T want, what they absolutely go to GREAT lengths to avoid, is anyone raising a stink at the annual shareholders' meeting.

It's not for nothing that the last few years have seen shareholders meetings take place in Fort Worth, Texas, in Seattle, in Chicago and, this year, in Hartford, Connecticut. Hartford, Connecticut, you ask? Yes, indeed. Why? Because it's not Orlando or Anaheim. It's not even New York City. It's hard to get to. It's cold. It's hardly the place people clamor to go to. In short, they figure no one's gonna go.

And if no one goes, no one can get in front of a microphone and start belittling management. No one will get irate or raise sensitive issues that they don't want to address.

Of course, for decades, Disney held its annual meetings in Orlando and Anaheim. They wanted people to come. They wanted people to see the parks. Back in the 1970s, they even showed a movie after the meeting, just to make people feel good. They gave away park passes. The whole event was a (fun) circus—held in huge convention centers that sometimes saw two or three thousand attendees. The question-and-answer period sometimes lasted an hour.

Michael Eisner, whats-his-name and Cynthia Harris September 24th at Disneyland
Michael Eisner, whats-his-name and Cynthia Harris September 24th at Disneyland

The last time the meeting was held in Anaheim, at the Pond (not next door to Disneyland), the question-and-answer session got really ugly. Cast members asked very pointed questions. Shareholders applauded when Michael and Co. were chastised for their management and for turning their backs on core businesses.

The LAST thing anyone wants to see is a repeat of THAT. They KNOW people are unhappy. They KNOW they're pissing people off. And they don't care. Their answer is to run and hide and hold a meeting in the dead of winter in Connecticut.

So … if you're really committed to making a difference, hop onto Orbitz and book a flight to Hartford and plan to attend the shareholders' meeting on Feb. 19. If you're really, really determined, bring an attorney with you to ensure that the microphone isn't cut off and that you can say what you came to say. Even better, alert some local reporters to the fact that you're going to make a stink at the annual meeting. They'll be all over it. It will be effective negative publicity—and Susan is right, negative publicity is one thing that Disney really hates. Almost as much as people saying rude things at the Annual Meeting.

Attention Disney shareholders: Your company wants to run itself without your input, even once a year. Are you going to let them?

I'd like believe this would have some effect, but I was at that last shareholders meeting in Anaheim, nearly in the center of the front row, so close I could see the sweat beading up on Eisner's forehead. I saw how ugly it got. I saw how uncomfortable that made him. I saw how he quickly got defensive and short, how he started to cut people off.

That's when I knew the meeting wasn't going to be in Anaheim again for a long time. And that Disney, publicly, was all about excuses and posturing; they wouldn't listen to or learn from criticism, they thought everything was just peachy. And I knew that things at Disney would get much, much worse for a long, long time.

So, I optimistically admit, it might help. If I could make it, I would. I encourage others to try to find a way to attend and give voice to common sense. Then, just don't be surprised if next year's shareholders meeting is in Iceland.

The ex-exec responded:

It won't help if it's just a couple of people raising random concerns. The trick would be to try (quickly) to organize an effort. That way, if Michael or Tom Staggs tries to cut the first person off, the next person can be right behind to say, "Please answer the first question and, also, here's my comment." And if it continues, the next person does the same.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. I can only muse, though, how the L.A. Times or the Hartford Courant would react if they knew they had a great story about shareholders ganging up on a reluctant Eisner. He can't shut down the meeting, because by law they have to build a Q&A session. He can shut up and refuse to answer, he can evade and try to make jokes. But the headline, "Eisner Upstaged By Angry Shareholders" makes it across the country (and around the world), the pressure might finally be on.

(It would also be very smart to address some of the board members directly and ask them questions about finances, the audit committee, their attendance records, and their reluctance to make any moves against their good buddy.)

I know it's unlikely this will happen, but like I said, first-hand experience (and involvement) has told me that a public shareholder outcry at the meeting is one of the few things that absolutely makes Michael and the rest quake in their boots.

Keith McDaniel wrote:

My two sons and I were regular Disneyland visitors for several years, but have now become—to put it mildly—disenchanted with the place.

Our last three visits to Disneyland were quite disappointing because of rude or indifferent cast members and lack of friendliness. The magic is gone when the cast members no longer smile, look at the kids, talk to them, or are helpful with requests. We received curt answers to questions, sarcasm, and a general irritability with the staff there. Disneyland has made a huge error in not paying cast members more and being more selective in hiring staff. I overheard one cast member complaining about their pay to guests! I also witnessed rude behavior of cast members towards guests with questions. It used to be a favorite place to go, but now it is just disappointing if you remember how it used to be.

At our last visit (March 2001), we went to DCA for the first time. There is a slide that is in a fabricated tree in a section of DCA. This is kind of a tube slide which goes inside the tree. There are no height restrictions listed near or at the ride, or directions. I went down the slide on the right side in a sitting position, after my two sons. I am 5 feet 7 inches tall.

At the bottom of the slide my head went smack right into the top part of the bottom of the tube. This really hurt and threw me backwards where I laid for about five minutes because I was stunned. I think it was because of my height that my head hit the top part of the end of the slide. If I had been lying down this wouldn't have occurred; it was the design of the slide that caused you to go into the bottom part if you are sitting up and taller than a child.

There were two staff people manning the ride. Neither one of them came down to inquire or to assist me although I lay there for over five minutes. There were very few people on the ride; it was not crowded at all. The staff did notice I was lying down and hurt because I couldn't immediately get up. My two young sons came over to me. One staff member called down, "Are you okay?," and I said, "No," but they still did not offer to help or come down. My head was really hurting. I had to get up and go up the stairs to where the staff were (two people!) and tell them they should warn people to not go down the slide in a sitting position or their head will hit the bottom of the slide. They were whispering to each other, but did not express any concern or seem interested in how it happened. No one even spoke to my two boys.

They then called over some managers who huddled together with the staff and barely talked to me. They asked me if I wanted to go with their nurse. I knew there wasn't much she could do for me, so I declined after which the staff did not even speak with me. I am a physician and knew what to do: I took some Tylenol. I had a headache the rest of the day; it ruined the day for me. I checked later and there was no sign put up at the ride.

I spoke with customer assistance later and they just gave me free pass. I checked the next day and they still did not have a warning sign up. I was really appalled by the lack of concern, lack of helpfulness, and that they did not follow through with a warning sign or directions to prevent the same thing from happening to another person.

The attitude and response of the staff made me never want to return to the place. I wrote a written complaint, but no one ever contacted me. I found this to be unbelievable.

I'm sorry to hear about your miserable day at Disneyland/California Adventure. The cast member indifference annoys me as a guest and enrages me as a shareholder.

Please know that there are many cast members who care about their jobs—just fewer than there used to be.

Finally, Scalper pointed out that anyone in the market for a used fiberglass flying elephant should head over to Ebay.

Autopia

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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