The Virtual Lead

by David Koenig, contributing writer
The Virtual Lead
In just over a week, Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure will implement a new system for assigning and monitoring ride operators' break times and work stations. Cast members are trembling at the prospects.

For decades, Disneyland ride operators have used a system of "rotations" to move from attraction to attraction or from position to position within an attraction. For example, a hostess might start her day at the load position, then after 15 minutes move to unload. The host at unload is then "bumped" to grouper, the grouper is bumped to dispatch, and the dispatcher goes on a 15-minute break. The cycle repeats itself through the day.

The problem, for management anyway, always has been control, since the rotations run themselves. It usually operates smoothly, but basically on an honor system, with tenuous accountability.

So, over the last 30 years, Disneyland has tried several times to get rid of rotational breaks on attractions. Every time it failed, and rotations were quickly reinstated. Most recently, Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain and the Fantasyland dark rides experimented with "scheduled breaks and lunches" in December 1998.

Leads were given a spreadsheet listing each ride operator and the times when they could take a break or a lunch. "Logistically," recalls one crewman, "it was a nightmare. It was nearly impossible to keep track of everyone, and if someone was late or called in sick, the whole plan fell apart and you had to start from scratch. If the ride broke down, everything went out the window until the guests were evacuated or taken care of. Add in the inevitable inconsistencies from day to day, and the system was simply unworkable."

Employee morale plummeted under the new system, and the leads, all newly christened after a few years with no leads, became frazzled beyond belief. The plan lasted exactly two weeks at Pirates. Splash Mountain returned to its trusty, old rotation about a week later. Managers once again discovered that the rotation runs itself, and once it returned, leads could devote their time to taking care of the guests, their crews, and the operation and show quality of their attractions.

Matterhorn loading area
Matterhorn loading area

Two years later, Disneyland is again trying to do away with rotations. And this time their resolve seems stronger and their investment greater. The latest idea, called Cast Deployment, seems simple enough. At the beginning and end of every break or position change, ride operators scan their Disney ID card to find out where to go next. The computer allows management to schedule cast members more tightly, track how long it takes them to change positions, and detect if anyone is taking too long or too many breaks.

Unlike previous experiments, Disney knows the system can work. It is currently used at Disney's four theme parks in Florida and, by the time it was running full speed, had reduced labor costs at the Magic Kingdom by 4%. Executives expect a comparable reduction at Disneyland—although there may be a steep price to pay.

At Disney World, cast members go to their attraction and scan their ID through a computer. The computer screen responds with a message like, "Welcome to Space Mountain, please go to Rear Unload." Cast members go to their computer-assigned position and stay there until they are bumped by another cast member. Next, instead of bumping the next cast member in the old rotation, just-bumped cast members walk back to the computer and scan their ID again. The computer assigns them a new position, saying something like, "Please go to Front Load" or, at specific intervals, "Please go take a 15-minute break." Cast members continue the process throughout their assigned shift.

With rotations, Disneyland cast members now average about three breaks and a lunch per eight-hour shift. In rare instances, a few attractions provide up to four breaks and a lunch during an eight-and-a-half hour shift. With Cast Deployment, ride operators now will receive two breaks and one lunch for an eight-and-a-half hour shift.

More important, with Cast Deployment, cast members will remain in one position for 45 minutes at a time (or 30 minutes for positions that require heavy spieling, intense sun or abnormally stressful conditions).

"The really nice thing about rotations is that you only stay in one spot an average of seven to 15 minutes before you are bumped to the next place in the rotation," says one employee. "That process keeps cast members from becoming bored or fatigued in any one spot. It was always explained to other lines of business that attractions cast members get an extra break during the day and used rotations because it was the safest way to operate the attractions. It also kept the hosts and hostesses fresh and willing to present the best show possible."

Certainly some attractions enjoy luxurious breaking schedules, while others wouldn't become less safe by reducing operators breaks. For instance, Country Bear Jamboree hostesses spend 15 minutes at the turnstile, 15 minutes in one or two theaters, and then go to a break or lunch, then repeat the rotation again.

"But," argues one cast member, "the cast members out paddling a canoe in the sun all day need a break once an hour for safety's sake. To expect someone, even an athletic 19-year-old, to paddle and steer a canoe for six hours while telling jokes and giving a themed spiel with only one or two breaks a day is unrealistic and unsafe. The same can be said for the stressful and important safety positions at Space Mountain, Big Thunder, Matterhorn and Indy. The drivers on the rafts and Columbia, the skippers on the Jungle Cruise, and the hostesses at Storybook Land are also operating large moving machinery that requires concentration and mental sharpness. To reduce their current breaks and keep them in the same position for extended periods of time seems utterly irresponsible and unsafe."

He doesn't think the cost savings will be worth "the crushing damage to cast morale, or the damage to the show or guest courtesy. The guest safety issue is the scariest aspect, but that will be harder to gauge. If an accident occurs, it will be hard to assess whether it was caused by Cast Deployment and a bored or fatigued cast member. This has to be the dumbest thing I've seen us come up with."

small world loading area
small world loading area

But wait, it gets worse. To save money, Disneyland and DCA aren't installing Cast Deployment computers on every ride. Most attractions will share them. All the Fantasyland dark rides will share one computer located in the Fantasyland basement. Splash Mountain, Country Bear Jamboree and the Explorer Canoes will use a centrally-located computer in Critter Country. Small World, Fantasyland Theater and Storybook Land will share one computer located in the Storybook Land break room.

Imagine a Small World hostess working on the north load dock who gets bumped. She no longer simply crosses over to the other side of the dock and bumps the next position in the rotation. Instead, she crosses over the boat, exits the attraction, walks through the Small World Toy Shop and past the Fantasy Faire souvenir kiosk, enters backstage near the gates to Storybook Land boat storage, arrives in the break room and scans her ID through the computer. The computer responds, "Please go to South Load," and she turns around, retraces her steps back to Small World, and bump the cast member at South Load—who begins his own trek to the Storybook Land break room to discover where he works next.

During slow days, the process (which previously took seconds) should take about five minutes. During parades or busy days, it could take closer to 10 minutes—all because there won't be computers at every ride.

Hold on, there's more. Since Disney World has no hourly leads, salaried managers control and program the Cast Deployment computers. At Disneyland, hourly leads will control the Cast Deployment computers with guidance from their assistant manager.

The catch is that, although Disneyland hopes to begin Cast Deployment January 6, the company doesn't want buy the hardware until later in the fiscal year. The computers won't be installed until June or July. For the first six months, leads will try to maintain and control the system using a blank grid sheet and a pencil.

Administering Cast Deployment manually may prove overwhelming, if not impossible, especially on unique attractions such as the canoes, Jungle Cruise and the Mark Twain. Leads will serve as schedulers, delegators and human time clocks.

Big Thunder Mountain loading area
Big Thunder Mountain loading area

They'll also have to worry about assigning "Optimized Tasks," designed to ensure cast members are held to the minimum number of breaks.  At Disney World, once or twice a day, the Cast Deployment computers will give employees a special task. It might say, "Please take 10 minutes and make a Magical Memory for a guest," such as taking a picture for a visitor, telling someone where the bathroom is, or giving a child a free balloon. Or, an Optimized Task might be more operations-oriented, such as "Check the FastPass machines and ensure that they have enough tickets" or "Check area lighting for burned out lightbulbs."

At Disneyland and DCA, the leads will have to dream up and dole out the Optimized Tasks. In the meantime, the leads' normal duties—assisting guest concerns, addressing show and safety issues, monitoring attraction efficiency and capacity—likely will suffer.

Now, add in the infinite variables that can't be planned for, such as attraction downtimes, late or missing cast members, or upset guests.

DCA leads may be the worst off, since their workloads are already overflowing just with opening brand new attractions with all-new shows and ride systems, at a brand new theme park.

Management considered staging a pilot program for Cast Deployment on a few rides, but didn't have time to set one up before the busy holiday weeks arrived. As a result, a manual version of Cast Deployment will begin January 6 on ALL Disneyland and DCA attractions. "There is no alternative," says a manager. "Never mind the fact that basically no information has been given to the Attractions management teams on how exactly it will work."

Executives chose January 6 because that is DCA's first soft opening day and they want to use the system at the new park from Day One. To prevent a migration of disgruntled DCA cast members back to Disneyland, both parks will start Cast Deployment on the same day.

Unfortunately, managers and leads have yet to see any concrete information on how to operate the system. Hopefully, instructions will be handed out after January 1, giving leads a few days to figure out how to work Cast Deployment. Staffing at many attractions was rescheduled during the second week of January to ensure leads were completely out of the rotation, so they can devote all their time and energy to administering the new system. Ironically, the net effect has been an increase in labor hours, so the leads can make sure cast members get fewer breaks and stay in one position for too long.

In the short term, predicts one manager, "I think the DCA attractions have more of a head start, because they have not had the issues involved with operating a theme park for 60,000 guests per day like Disneyland has. If we do stick with the January 6 date—and I have yet to hear otherwise—Cast Deployment will have a very rocky start."

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The Virtual Lead


Whatever you do, don't refer to Cast Deployment as "the virtual lead." Disneyland hates the term. Managers are strictly forbidden from using the phrase, since it suggests that the new system will replace leads. On the contrary, Disneyland needs all the leads it can get to implement the manual Cast Deployment system until the computers show up this summer. When the computers arrive, then leads can return to their former duties.

One cast member speculates: "I think (virtual lead) is the slang term that they call the system at Walt Disney World, since they got rid of attractions leads in the mid-'90s, and never brought them back. At Disney World, they just have salaried managers that wander from ride to ride. Disneyland cast members are still calling Cast Deployment 'virtual lead,' but less and less as the days go on. The term 'Cast Deployment' seems to be catching on."