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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of July 16, 2001

"All the Wrong Moves," which noted the similarities between recent moves by the Disney Co. and mistakes of 20 years ago by Walt Disney Productions, generated dozens of passionate notes from readers. Now we just have to get the message to Roy!

Mailbag

A Disneyland cast member wrote:

Loved your latest article. What you wrote is something I (and many old-timers) believe is happening to the company. Will things get worse? I believe so.

Many at the park (and some I know at the studios) are afraid that we are going to hit bottom again real soon. Something like that Frank Sinatra song where a verse goes, "life keeps running in cycles, first the laughter, then those tears."

Team Disney Anaheim
Team Disney Anaheim

A ride operator friend who had to visit TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) told me he saw security officers manning every entrance to the building. When asked why, they were tight- lipped.

Speculation going around is management is scared of retaliation from those who were laid off to some kind of sabotage. The officers ask for ID from cast members they are not sure about. My friend said the officers he encountered were very nice, and a little apologetic for what they had to put the cast members through. Gee, Cynthia, are you really scared of us???

On the subject of DCA, I find it laughable how management is trying to save the park. When DCA was about to open, their managers bragged ("and were quite full of themselves," one cast member told me) that the new park didn't need Mickey & Friends' help, "but those managers are eating crow, big time."

Character shows have been added to every district in the park (Bountiful Valley Farm -Mickey's Garden, Golden Dreams - Max Joins LaFeet, Grizzly Waterfalls -Donald's Vision, Hollywood Backlot -Cruella's Story and Goofy's Beach Party Bash, Condor Flats -Minnie Earheart: Mouse With Mettle)

Wayne Campbell wrote:

What a well-written column today! It was especially clever (and, somewhat eerie) to start it with the excerpts from the 1977 letter.

What I wouldn't give to know what Roy's thinking these days, because—as you point out—the parallels between now and the dark days of the late '70s are quite clear. I'm tempted to pull out my old copy of Storming the Magic Kingdom for a re-read. Wonder if Roy and Stanley Gold are plotting anything over grappa these days?

Anyway, thanks for a sane and reasoned update. While I enjoy all of MousePlanet and read every one of Al's updates, sometimes he's just so emotional that I think people miss the point. Your calm voice of reason is a nice counterbalance.

A cast member wrote:

I was told about MousePlanet by a hard core Disney fan. Anyway, ever since that day I couldn't stop reading the questions, comments and secrets made by true hard-core Disney fans. However, as to reading the remarks made by the guest to the cast members is rather disappointing.

As a cast member I give it my all to please the guest and uphold the Disney way. I am not the only one who does this but many cast members whom I work with, and the cast members I've seen while entering the park as a guest.

Yes, I admit that there are some bad apples in the bunch, but there are those who give it their all and go out of their way to make everybody happy and have a good Disney experience.

I feel that today's cast members respect Disneyland and, most importantly, Walt Disney. We are Mr. Disney's biggest fans. I remember when I was little, I always wanted to work at Disneyland. Finally, at the age of 20 I made it. It has now been one year for me and I will continue to go out of my way to deliver the best Disney experience I can.

So don't think of us as employees, instead look at us as Disney fans like yourselves.

I think you'll find a common thread among all the columnists on MousePlanet is an appreciation for Disney's average cast member, who works very hard so that the rest of us can play.

Criticism usually is directed toward the occasional bad apple or management that has lost touch with "going out of their way to deliver the best Disney experience they can."

Andy wrote:

I have read all of your books on the Disney Co. and have been following you faithfully since you began writing for MousePlanet. I love your honest and nostalgic views of Disney, whether they are cherished memories or harsh criticisms. In your words I hear what countless other lifelong, die-hard Disney fans are saying about the current state of the company, especially the theme parks division.

I just finished reading your article, "All the Wrong Moves,"  and felt compelled to write to you and let you know that what you said is exactly what I have been saying for the last couple of years.

Promotional image of Tokyo DisneySeas © Disney
Promotional image of Tokyo DisneySeas © Disney

I have one question for you: With the obvious mismanagement of the company and the continuous lack of that famous Walt Disney touch in the parks, has anyone considered the Oriental Land Co. taking over the parks? From what I've been hearing, they've done a fabulous job with Tokyo Disneyland and the new Tokyo DisneySeas. It seems that they hold Walt's ideals up on a pedestal and even take them to the next level. They understand the concept of spending money to make money and creating the best show possible to entice guests to come, even in a sagging economy. I think that they should make there way to the U.S. and somehow get their hands on the parks division and make things right.

I know that Eisner is probably building up his share so he can make a quick getaway when the time comes and pawn the company off on one of his cronies, but someone should come along and bump him out of the picture before things hit rock bottom.

It only makes sense that someone run the company the way Walt did: create a great show and an innovative product and people will come. There's more money to be made if you do things right and wow people right off the bat, rather than endure months of negative press and criticism, only to spend even more money on a band aid. DCA could have been great, if the right people were allowed to be creative and not shot down by suits.

We could only hope that management as quality-minded as Oriental Land Company (OLC) would assume oversight of Disney's parks. But as for OLC itself taking over the parks, I don't think Disney would do it (they're currently in a more profitable position with greater control) and OLC strikes me as a company that funds quality projects out of allegiance to its homeland audience, rather than allegiance to preserving Walt's creative heritage.

Chris Kitamura wrote:

I always enjoy reading your articles on this Web site. I think you have a special insight into some of these matters. In response to your recent article, I am a bit concerned over the future state of Disney. At first, I was skeptical and highly optimistic. I tried to keep on passing off anyone's hard criticism as jealousy or just stupid comments. I am definitely getting concerned now. I'm still optimistic with the company.

Like you said, it's still a big lots o' money-making corporation. I am definitely not down on the management. My thoughts are that they've made some poor decisions, but not bad ones. DCA is not, in my opinion, a bad or poor decision, and I say this because of the recent slanderous criticism it's received. My opinions are that things are fine in other areas of the company, but better decisions need to be made with the parks. Relying on the theme parks may not be a mistake if they actually focused on them.

The faded red paint on Gadget's Go Coaster at Disneyland
The faded red paint on Gadget's Go Coaster at Disneyland

I'm disappointed in the low maintenance at the Disneyland Resort parks. I also wish that they would put a little more time and effort into the parks' attractions. I think the big attractions at DCA are some of the best, but they haven't been developing any for Disneyland, or so it seems. I'm wondering if they haven't been putting too much money aside for the Hong Kong park. In my opinion, if they focused on the parks already built, and maybe sacrificed a little out of their big profit pockets that it would eventually build the other parks.

I'm no businessman, though, but I believe that if you build great attractions at the cost of going a little down in profit results in better profits after a couple of years of low profit. The Disney Co. is wanting instant turnover. Give it time. The parks will be great again, they won't worry about the cost to maintain them and build new ones.

Walt often risked everything on big projects. I've heard that he mortgaged his house to help build Disneyland. It's that kind of risk that Disney needs to do now. It may be hard now because they may not have the money to even begin to do that, though.

Unfortunately, Disney currently disagrees. It wants maximum return from Day One. It views Disneyland Paris as one of its biggest catastrophes since Eisner took over, the problem being they made the park too high in quality and too expensive, dooming it to lose money. What they fail to realize is that DL Paris, after a rocky start, has been profitable for years—something it might not be if it were made on the cheap.

Ken Coates wrote:

Thanks for another great article. I can only hope you are right and Roy Disney resigns soon.

I also hope that Disney is learning that you can't build a new park (i.e., DCA) on the cheap. I think the best long-term result for Disney fans is for DCA to continue to have low attendance.

Robert K. Johnson Jr. wrote:

I work at Knott's, and today Knott's is closer to the Old Disneyland than Disneyland is. Disneyland is mired in bureaucracy, WAY too many layers of management and WAY too little flexibility. Knott's is the most disorganized place on earth, we have way too little management. and virtually no bureaucracy to speak of. It's possible to get something fixed the same day, much less the week it took at Disney.

A good example is, for the whole months I worked (at Disneyland) there was a burned-out light bulb on the Hungry Bear porch. As of one month ago, it was still burned out… some 6 months later. My manager called on it, I called on it, and that stupid light bulb didn't get replaced. Whereas, I had a bulb out in my shop at Knott's, and I simply went and got a bulb and replaced it myself. It took all of five minutes. Knott's is non-union, which helps us a great deal. We have fewer people who seem to have no job, but are always there. People tend to disappear, but our morale is low, and there is little to no job security, and it can take up to two years to make part time.

You would be amazed by the shortages we have. If something isn't nailed down, or locked up, it disappears. But, if I have a problem, I can go to any supervisor in my division and deal with it. No union, no filling out forms in triplicate, simple and easy. If Knott's votes for a union, I will probably vote it down. I've been union, and I don't want to be again.

I sort of got off track. Disney is at a crossroads. They need to turn the boat around, but I'm not sure it's possible anymore.

Doug Higley wrote:

Thanks David for an excellent piece. I've been squawking for months that the obvious (too obvious) motivation for the Anti-Walt was to rake in all the personal doubloons he can for his money bin and bail no matter the expense to the company or a personal legacy he has long since abandoned. Whatever initial heart he put into it has since pinched down to pure personal greed. (Though I never once thought there was any heart other than that put into a rather phony act, a front for the cameras of Wonderful World.)

I'm glad you see an opportunity for change to be grabbed. Actually there is only one. An OLC/Dreamworks buy out and a big tent for all the former geniuses to come home. As to Disneyland, an unprecedented three-month closure for a full rehab and the biggest re-opening bash in history, and a gigantic new E attraction in the current 'space' between the two parks which would tie them together into the world's greatest mega-park. Other than that, I'm going to Legoland.

Percy wrote:

I have often wondered when and why the current Disney regime started to unfold. All businesses are cyclic in nature to varying degrees, Disney included, but this fact cannot explain every event of the last few years.

It seems to me the genesis of today's problems can be found in 1994 with the death of Frank Wells. I have read many second-hand accounts about the personal impact this made on Mr. Eisner. From the moment of his passing Disney seems to have lost much of its direction and success.

I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on this. In your estimation, do you think Bob Iger is the proper replacement?

I don't know enough about Iger, but I doubt he can be the Frank Wells counterpart that Eisner needs so badly.

Eisner needs (but no longer seems to want) someone to stand up to him. Unfortunately, I can't think of anyone who would.

Brad Lauzon wrote:

Kudos sir on your new editorial at MP!!!

I am almost speechless with agreement and dumbfounded with shock at the sheer stupidity of the current administration. I could understand if they were just plain greedy. They are not. They are grossly inept and stupid.

If Ei$ner had the brains to understand that by giving the "go ahead" to a new, eye-popping, knock your socks off E-Ticket in each of the four parks in Orlando (and I don'tT count the lackluster Mission: Space as one of them), or that by building something of lasting quality in Anaheim, he could actually make hundreds of millions more.

I mean, it's not like it's his money, is it?

Is it…….?

Kelly wrote:

Just wanted to thank you for your excellently written, poignant posting to MousePlanet today. I'm an over-emotional 30-year-old, but I must say I have a couple tears in my eyes after reading it. Also as a former entertainment cast member from '92 to '98, it especially reminds me of the constant downward spiral I experienced (most notably Very Merry Christmas Parade getting so small it finally transformed into the cheaper Christmas Fantasy) until I finally had to quit at the end of Light Magic.

I hope Eisner and his team do read these pages occasionally so they can take a break from the cash crunching and become real people again.

I do wonder how Eisner and his team would react if they did read the article—would they grumble that someone was on to them, deny everything even to themselves, or have an awakening and change their ways? I guess Number 2.

Mark Thurow wrote:

You wrote, "Today, Disney's most-publicized attractions, such DCA's California Screamin', were bought 'off the shelf.'"

Paradise Pier
Paradise Pier

This is not quite accurate. California Screamin' was purchased from an outside contractor, Intamin, but it's a custom design. Anyone with enough money can buy a roller coaster from Intamin, but I doubt they would sell a copy of Screamin', since it was designed specifically for DCA.

Similarly, Vekoma, a Dutch company whose coasters can be found in dozens of parks in the U.S. and elsewhere (Six Flags included), provided the ride systems for Space Mountain and Big Thunder at DLP. These attractions could hardly be considered "off the shelf."

Sun Wheel, Maliboomer and Mulholland Madness, on the other hand, are indeed off the shelf' rides. Any park could purchase essentially similar rides from their respective manufacturers (Mack for MM, S&S Power for Maliboomer, and I think Huss for the Sun Wheel).

Dave wrote:

Like most of the readers that mail you, let me open by thanking you for the time you devote to writing these insightful, and informative articles and books. I enjoy them immensely.

I'm sure you have heard my story being recanted endlessly by most of your readers who bother to write: As a young child, I remember visiting the Magic Kingdom throughout the late '60s and early '70s at least once a year with my grandparents. All three of us, (Grandma, Grandpa and little me, dragging them around all day) at Grandma's insistence, would wear the same color shirts so she could keep track of us. And as I remember it, I would spend most of the day riding on Grandpa's shoulders, taking in the magic of the moments.

As a result of this early imprinting, I find that I have to visit the resort at least once a year, or I begin pacing around like a tiger in a zoo cage. My friends call me a Disney Freak, as I can seem to come up with some little bit of meaningless trivia about almost anything in the park.

It was only natural, that I jumped at the chance to give a friend and his family transportation from our homes in Bakersfield down to the resort for a day trip. My better half and I decided to use the day to explore Disney's California Adventure.

After reading the reviews for the new expansion on MousePlanet and other sources on the Internet, I must admit that we did not have very high expectations from the new park. But I must also admit that we had a very good time despite the bad press.

Grizzly River Run raft ride
Grizzly River Run raft ride

Without being too negative, my first impression of DCA is that it is a good foundation upon which to build. When I first heard of the idea of a park that showcased the "California lifestyle," I had reservations as to how that would interest Californians, but I did find several things of interest there.

On the negative side, I found very little of interest on the Hollywood Pictures Backlot. Except, of course, I was very interested in how the Superstar Limousine attraction ever got past the "Hey, I got an idea" stage. (Although it was mildly interesting to find out that if, during the ride, you put your arm across the back of the seat next to you, at the ride's end, the seatbar from the seat behind you traps your elbow. The cast members just advance the car to the loading station, and the bar releases. There was no pain involved, but it was disconcerting to have the threat of having to go again.)

Ironically, one of the best attractions we experienced was also in the area. The Disney Animation attraction was truly magical.

We both agreed that the Bountiful Farms area could very easily be a place holder for later development as it can be removed with out much work at all, and be replaced with almost anything. The "It's Tough to Be a Bug!" attraction was very well presented, and very entertaining.

Paradise Pier slightly misses the mark in my view. While the rides themselves are very fun, and exciting, I fail to see the innovation that is so very trademark Disney in Disneyland. The rides just seem to be there for the sake of riding. There's not much special about them, leading me to call them rides and not attractions. And what good is a boardwalk without bumper cars?

All and all, though, it was a very good visit. My thoughts are that the park has been just advertised with the wrong approach. The goal of expanding the Disneyland Resort, as I was to understand it, was to make Disneyland a true multi- day destination, and yet they are advertising DCA as a separate park instead of a reason to extend your stay. California Adventure should be advertised as part of the whole resort (after a day with the kids in the Magic Kingdom, come and enjoy some of the laid-back lifestyle that makes California so special.)

One closing thought: I have read much of the discontent being blamed on the current management with growing sadness. It is not hard to see that precious little innovation is budgeted these days. The thoughts of bringing in copies of existing attractions to Disneyland instead of creating new ones boarders on blasphemy of the Disney ideal. The reason for this seems clear to me: Disneyland was created successfully by balancing Walt Disney's dreams with Roy Disney's cash control. It would appear today, that there are too many Roys, and not enough Walts.

Other readers also stuck up for DCA.

Andrea Gonzales wrote:

I am surprised at how many people are so disappointed by Disney's new park. I keep hearing the same complaint, "It's not Disneyland!" My response to them is, "It isn't suppose to be!"

I am one of those dedicated, fanatic Disneyland fans. I am also a two-park passholder. My 9-year-old son and I have a great time whenever we go to DCA. We actually prefer DCA to Disneyland. It is much more relaxed and quiet. Soarin' over California is awesome and the Rapids ride is very enjoyable. My son loves going into the Wilderness area and the rock traversing.

People need to take there blinders off, and enjoy the new park for what it is. Take the time to enjoy all it has to offer. You need to go to the Hyperion Theater and see the wonderful musical shows they perform. Spend time in the Disney Animation building. Very informative. Take a leisurely walk around the boardwalk and play a few games. See Golden Dreams where Whoopi Goldberg narrates and participates in a moving re-enactment of how California came to be. The Bountiful Valley with all the plots of fresh fruit and vegetables is fun for young kids to see who think that all their veggies come from the grocery store.

It is a wonderful concept of demonstrating all that California has to offer. That is what DCA is all about. If you want Disneyland, and wall to wall people, by all means go there. You can find me having a relaxing glass of wine across the way at the Mondavi Winery before I head to Wolfgang Puck's restaurant for a fabulous dinner by the waterside.

Mondavi Winery
Mondavi Winery

Similarly, Stephanie Jewell wrote:

Having just returned from Disneyland and the new DCA and having heard about your site from a Disney cast member, I logged on to "see." Pish posh to all the naysayers. We had a wonderful time.

Our family is my husband, myself, three children, ages 17, 15 and 13. We visited the parks for four days and every portion of our visit was well worth our time and money. We found the employees to be considerate, accommodating, and interested in our having a good time.

It was our 15-year-old's birthday and the Disney employees made his day special all day. The food in DCA is well above average for a theme park, the rides are plenty, the shows terrific, and the Disney magic is in the air.

Let us give Disney a chance. Let us give life a chance for goodness sake. All this indulgent introspection may just be too much. We found the parks to be "a happy place where parents and children can have fun together." Our 17-year-old exclaimed, "This is the happiest place on earth," and he meant it.

Alan wrote:

I just read a letter from a guest to Animal Kingdom in your recent post, and he found AK boring (my opinion of what he wrote). I have been to AK twice and am ready to go again, (it's a long trip from So. Calif. so I don't go often enough). I disagree with his views.

ANIMAL KINGDOM IS A ZOO, it is not an amusement park, the animals will not come to you and entertain you, you have to do the work, you have to read the information sheets and signs that are posted, you have to stand still for more that 30 seconds and study the area and watch the animals (if they choose to appear for you).

Animal Kingdom pre-opening brochure © Disney
Animal Kingdom pre-opening brochure © Disney

This is not Disneyland, it is not Sea World, it is unlike most zoos. It is animals living in a habitat similar to their home (except for the weather, even Disney can't control that… yet). You need to look around you, take in the beauty and displays and be patient and wait for the animals to act natural.

Animal Kingdom is a fun place to visit if go with the right frame of mind and don't expect the animals to come to you and put on a show, the show is the animals living in a habitat that is similar to what they had at home. It's a zoo!!!

Scott wrote:

I just wanted to take some time out to respond to some of the things that have been said about the recent Summer Employee party that we had here at Universal Studios Hollywood.

First of all, about the comment from Kar2oonMan about the show at the Waterworld Stage. Yes, it is true that "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," however, it should be noted that with Waterworld, (and with Backdraft) Universal has been able to "create a silk purse out of a sow's ear"—to use another well-worn clichˇ. In other words, we have been able to create compelling attractions out of less than compelling movies.

From what I've read, it seems that Disney tends to run screaming in the other direction the minute a movie does less than perfect box office. Which is really a shame since an attraction based, even in part, on the movie Atlantis would be a perfect fix for the submarine attractions at Disneyland and WDW.

About the "competitive swipes" that Disney has taken, the "biggest" being DCA, you forgot to mention the fact that there have been bigger swipes taken in Florida with the opening of Disney/MGM Studios (to compete with Universal) and the opening of Animal Kingdom (to compete with Busch Gardens, Tampa). I wouldn't be a bit surprised to see their fifth park turning out to be a thrill-based park to compete with IOA. (It's also interesting to note that in the final montage film at the end of the Great Movie Ride at Disney/MGM, there is not one Universal picture in the batch—although, I'll be honest, I'm not sure whether Disney balked at showing Universal films or if Universal refused to relinquish any footage.)

We at Universal see what everyone else sees, a company that tried to be "hip and edgy," a company that cut corners wherever it could, yet charged the same admission price, a park that, at least initially, has nearly fallen flat on its face, and, most importantly, a company that is an empty shell of what it once was a few years ago. It's as if Nordstrom has been bought out by Wal-Mart.

Lily Tomlin once said, "It's not called 'Show Art.'" It is a business, and being a business, it is competitive. And being competitive, sometimes we take playful, tongue-in-cheek swipes at one another. It's not as if they were running this show for public viewing, this was for the employees. In a sense, they were "preaching to the converted." I wouldn't be a bit surprised if the same thing goes on at employee parties at Disney (do they even do such a thing?).

Anyway, thanks for your insight regarding all things Disney. Being an annual passholder and having been to Disneyland every year since 1967, I have a deep-rooted fondness for the parks and the company and it's great (even if it's a bit disheartening) to hear what's going on.

Marci wrote:

In your recent mailbag I read this quote from a reader: "In all the time I've been at Disney there has never been a show or cast event that makes fun of any of the neighboring parks."

Well, actually I don't' know who else has noticed, but me and my fiancˇe noticed a long time ago that in the queue for Thunder Mountain, the signposts poke fun at neighboring parks. I don't remember what they say exactly there are a couple arrows pointing towards both Knott's and Magic Mountain that have a derogatory title and then has the miles to those parks.

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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