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David Koenig

Following Roger Rabbit without a paper trail

Tuesday, October 3, 2000

Ride entry sign
Ride entry sign.

Ten days after the tragic accident, the most basic question remains unanswered: how did a little boy fall from his seat on Roger Rabbit's CarToon Spin and under the next car?

Only the four witnesses—all family members who keep a bedside vigil at the boy's hospital—may have the answers. Did the boy stand up and lose his balance? Was he frightened and wiggled free? Was he trying to retrieve a lost toy?

Amid the confusion, just one thing is certain: Disney won't take the blame.

Think back nearly two years ago to the Sailing Ship Columbia tragedy, that left one guest dead and his wife and an employee maimed. Disney still maintains that the fault lies with the employee, who docked the boat improperly. Never mind that Operational paperwork proves that she had never been trained to work the attraction.

It's that sort of paper trail OSHA investigators won't be able to reconstruct this time. At Disneyland, hard facts are harder to come by.

In the wake of the Columbia accident, then-head of Attractions Mike Berry publicly vowed that training would be completely overhauled—much to the consternation of his bosses. The higher-ups were enraged that Berry would publicly intimate guilt. Still, they allowed that all training procedures for attractions be reworked to better protect guests—and the company.

In mid-February 1999, about 15 attractions trainers were summoned to a conference room in the old Administration Building to learn they had been selected to become part of a new “Training Initiative.” The group continued to meet for a few weeks, brainstorming ideas on how to improve and modernize training.

The Initiative was led by a newly-appointed Training Manager who previously held a similar position at Walt Disney World. Over the course of about four weeks, the new Training Manager led the 15 trainers to the conclusion that each attraction training was based on a “Standard Operating Policy” (SOP) that had become outdated and needed to be rethought. “Looking back,” recalls one of the 15, “it is obviously clear that the decision to scrap the SOP's had already been made by Legal, and he was just taking us down a rosy path that would appear as if we made most of the decisions ourselves.”

Since the old SOP's would not mesh with all of the new training methods and requirements, entirely new documents would have to be created. SOP's would be replaced with LOG's, “Location Operating Guidelines.” The terms sounded interchangeable, but with one very real difference. “The word 'Guideline' is key,” says a trainer, “because it is much more interpretive than the word 'Procedure' or 'Policy.'”

Columbia in rehab, October 2000
The Sailing Ship Columbia in rehab, October 2000.

Since the Columbia and the Mark Twain Riverboat had been down for the entire winter, they became the first attractions to undergo the change in semantics and procedures. The first Disneyland LOG was born in April 1999. They soon devised a process for changing an SOP into an LOG, and other attractions quickly began to go through the same changeover in the spring and summer. On each attraction, a “Subject Matter Expert” was appointed, who would spend a few weeks at the Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) Building (the park's corporate offices) helping to draft the new LOG and LOG-based training tools.

“The LOG's are generally as comprehensive as the old SOP's, but they tend to be a bit less specific at times,” admits a Subject Matter Expert. “And by simply using the word 'Guideline' in the title, you have muddied the concept of what should and should not be done. The LOG's, for the most part, provide the same information that the old SOP's did, but they are just a tad more vague.”

Another cast member sees the switch from “standard operating procedures to suggested operating guidelines” as “based on a desire to shift the legal liability from Disney to the employees.”

He says, “Under these 'guidelines,' how to operate the ride becomes a judgment call based on the operator at the time, regardless of the training and experience, and not in advance by trained and experienced personnel. Shop stewards of the Operator's local have expressed serious frustrations with the quality of the training offered new hires before they are staffed on the more dangerous rides, and this change in the training has a direct correlation to the adoption of these 'guidelines.' The union members have pushed through some improvements in the existing situation, but there is still a serious gap between the way things used to be and the way they now are.”

The employee claims that in the past, ride operators were responsible for ensuring that all guests were seated in a safe, pre-approved manner, “specifically with the adults seated closest to anything specifically dangerous. Under the current training, the guest is allowed to sit, stand, lie down, etcetera, any time or place they want—within certain reasonable exceptions, like all safety equipment is in place—and any attempt by the operator can and has resulted in disciplinary action. The official excuse from management is that to do otherwise 'diminishes the guest experience.'”

Indeed, the injured 4-year-old was seated in the most vulnerable spot in a Roger Rabbit car: on the right-hand, open door side, next to his 6-year-old brother with his mother on the far left. Disney admitted the seating arrangement contradicted its “informal practice.”

A former Roger Rabbit operator agreed that “I don't think that (seating small children on the inside) was a written rule on the (training) checklist, but we were told to do it in our training.”

That's because it's not a rule but a guideline that apparently can be bent and twisted to management's convenience. Witness how the term has seeped into almost everything at Disneyland now. There are now “Costuming Guidelines” and “Grooming Guidelines.” Using the word guideline provides an excuse for changing the rules on the spot. If the Costume Department runs out of straw hats for Tom Sawyer Island cast members, the manager can tell the distraught worker at the costuming window that wearing a hat “is only a guideline.”

” The term 'guideline,'” says one worker, “replaced something that was very black and white with something that is far more subjective, both during an incident or when an incident or action is being reviewed afterwards.”

Enough with semantics. Let's just hope the truth comes out. That meaningful rules are made and then obeyed. And, most of all, that a little boy gets better.

You can write to David here.

10/3 -The L.A. Times has another follow up story on the child who was injured

The O.C. Register also has a similar story about the condition of the child

The links above will open in new windows so you won't lose your place here on the site


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.


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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