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- 11-26-2002, 02:35 PM #1
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- Aug 2002
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Problems and Challenges facing Disney Imagineering
For 50 years, Disney's Imagineers have put the tech magic in the Magic Kingdom. Now economic pressures are bringing the grand ambitions back down to earth, where it's a smaller world after all.
By Scott Kirsner
For a minute, it seems like Bob Zalk has been locked out of his own construction site. We're standing on the wrong side of a painted plywood wall at the Epcot theme park in Orlando, Florida, out of place in our plastic hard hats amid the mouse-eared tourists. Zalk, a 21-year veteran of Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative unit that oversees all new theme park and resort projects for Disney, is standing in front of a doorway in the plywood wall. He jiggles the knob a few more times, but it won't budge. Then, just before we give up, he puts a little shoulder into it. The door bursts open, and suddenly we're facing a building that looks like an airport terminal designed by Salvador Dalν. Luminescent orbs hover in front of the entrance, and the roofline swerves and curls sleekly. This is Planetary Plaza, the entryway to Mission: Space, a $150 million attraction scheduled to open next summer. Inside, the pieces are still coming together. Blueprints, work lights, and hydraulic lifts are scattered around; a crew is setting up the railing that winds through the queue area. A massive "gravity wheel" it looks like a prop from 2001: A Space Odyssey is affixed to one wall. It's the year 2036, Zalk explains, and we're standing in the International Space Training Center. "Mission: Space assumes that, by this point, space isn't just for scientists and astronauts," he says. "It's for kids, families everybody."
For the $50 park admission price, Mission: Space intends to deliver the same sensation of space travel for which Dennis Tito shelled out $20 million. Visitors will board a four-person simulator. They'll be flat on their backs for liftoff and will feel the intense g-forces of a spacecraft straining to escape Earth's atmosphere. They'll enjoy a brief moment of what will seem like weightlessness, all while trying to push buttons and perform tasks to keep their craft on course for Mars. It's a classic Imagineering project a big-budget ride, built around a new generation of simulator technology, coupled with an engaging, anything-is-possible story: You and your family have the right stuff for interplanetary travel.
"Space is as ambitious as anything we've ever done," says Don Goodman, president of Imagineering. "There are inherent risks, because you can't say with absolute certainty what it'll take, or how long it'll take, to solve the technical problems. It may look unnecessarily risky, but it's actually the safest thing you could do, because if you do it well, it becomes a topic of conversation: 'You have to go to Epcot and do this.'"
Fifty years ago this month, Walt Disney tapped a few of his animators to develop an idea he had for a new kind of amusement park. The group, which came to be known as the Imagineering unit, began sketching out plans for Disneyland in 1952. Imagineering served as Walt's personal skunk works, and it grew into his company's main engine of innovation. Today, Imagineering is one of the world's largest design studios a creative corps charged with conjuring the future of fun. The group has developed an uncanny ability to tap into our deep-seated desires, to fuse age-old stories with brand-new technologies, all while keeping the wires and hydraulics artfully concealed.
But as the Imagineers race to get Mission: Space ready for vacation season, the group is wrestling with challenges serious enough to send Happy reaching for the Zoloft. A drop in new theme park construction, coupled with the post-9/11 tourism slump and Disney's deflated stock price, has forced Imagineering to slash its ranks by half, from 3,000 employees in the late '90s to roughly 1,500 today. A high-priced brain trust of technologists including special-effects whiz Bran Ferren and Thinking Machines founder Danny Hillis has dispersed.
Disney also finds itself competing with hundreds of entertainment options that didn't exist in the Eisenhower era, from Imax movies to massively multiplayer games. A placid boat ride past sets of harmonizing, doe-eyed dolls just doesn't cut it for kids raised on Quake and MTV.
The Imagineers have been in tough spots before. When Walt died in 1966, it was uncertain whether the company would ever build a second theme park (it now has 10 around the world), and in the early '80s, Disney was nearly taken over by corporate raiders and sold off in pieces.
If those were tough times, the climate is arguably worse now. Under pressure from Wall Street, Disney, the global entertainment megalith, is trying to determine just how much of the Imagineering budget can be slashed without silencing the cash registers at the theme parks: Last year, Disney's Parks & Resorts division generated $7 billion in revenue and 40 percent of the company's overall operating income.
Some Imagineers see the cutbacks as self-destructive. Disney's California Adventure park, which opened last year in Anaheim, is often cited as the consequence of being too parsimonious with the pixie dust; attendance there has been below the company's expectations. Meanwhile, Tokyo DisneySea, a new park lavishly funded entirely by a Japanese partner, has blown past all projections.
"Disney executives ask, 'How tiny can Imagineering be and still maintain a strategic advantage,'" says Ken Wong, a former president of the group who left in 2000. "Years ago, I was in discussions about whether Imagineering should be zero." Competitors like Universal Studios do much of their theme park development using contractors, keeping fewer than 100 creative employees on the payroll. These days, executives wonder whether Disney should follow that model, outsourcing as much as possible and working its magic with off-the-shelf technologies instead of those developed in-house.
"Disney is in a bear trap right now," says former Imagineering executive Larry Gertz, who left earlier this year. "They're incredibly investment-averse. But the problem is, if you don't fund the Imagineers to constantly come up with something new, you lose a big piece of what the brand means which is that you go to the Disney parks to see stuff you can't see anywhere else."
In other words: Please remain seated, and keep your hands and arms inside the vehicle. This ride is experiencing technical difficulties.
Driving along Flower Street in Glendale, California, a small patch of greater Los Angeles adjacent to Burbank, it's easy to breeze by the headquarters of Walt Disney Imagineering, known internally as WDI. The home base is a complex of beige, warehouse-like buildings, with only a few fluttering blue banners FIFTY YEARS OF DREAMING AND DOING - to mark it as Disney territory.
In the lobby sits a genuine Imagineering artifact: the first car built for Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, in continuous use at Disneyland from opening day in 1955 through 1996. The Glendale offices are a mix of mundane cubicles and playfully messy workshops. About three-quarters of all the Imagineers work in Southern California; they span 130 disciplines, from computer programmers to model-makers to ride-system engineers.
Walt assembled the group after he'd already built a successful movie studio and begun to establish himself in television. The simple motivation: He was unhappy with the entertainment options available to his young daughters. The amusement parks of the era were often dirty and unsafe, and there were few rides that parents could enjoy with their children. From the start, Walt asked the Imagineers to do the impossible, whether it was creating believably spooky apparitions for the Haunted Mansion or getting a mechanical Abe Lincoln to rise from his chair and deliver the Gettysburg Address. The group holds more than 100 patents, for things like precision-timed fireworks, 3-D movie cameras, motion simulators, talking water fountains, fog machines, and a means for creating artificial rain.
Despite the plain vanilla exterior, a rambunctious creativity permeates the place. The walls of a central corridor are covered with Imagineer graffiti. Some of it leans toward the acerbic: "There are no small ideas only small budgets." A cardboard cutout of a cartoon cowboy guards an office door, arm extended: YOU MUST BE THIS HIGH TO ENTER ART KISHIYAMA'S OFFICE. Everywhere, there's top-secret concept art, master plans, and models for not-yet-announced projects.
I peek into a storage room lined with shelves holding busts of Ben Franklin, the Tin Man, James Cagney, and a bald George W. Bush all used to create the skin for the animatronic figures. Nearby, Imagineers operate sophisticated rapid-prototyping machines to turn out tiny plaster casts of flounder-shaped ride vehicles. I step briefly into a studio where a sound engineer is surrounded by a 360-degree movie screen; he's tweaking the audio mix of a CircleVision 360 film for Disneyland Paris.
Employees savor the culture and the work. "Where else can you say that your biggest problem of the day is how to build an 18-foot clover, or a giant drinking straw that's also a light pole?" says Kathy Mangum, a vice president who recently worked on A Bug's Land, a toddler-oriented addition to California Adventure based on the animated movie A Bug's Life. Joe DiNunzio, a former Imagineering exec, says: "WDI has this incredible ability to dream up fantastic ideas, and the technical expertise to make them happen. In the history of the theme park business, there's never been another entity that can go from dream to reality in one shop."
From the start, Walt treated Imagineering as his private playground, doling out ideas for different attractions, prowling the hallways late at night to review work that had been done that day, even acting out the roles of the animatronic figures. "He liked to go through the parts and explain to people what he wanted," recalls Sam McKim, a retired Imagineer who worked with Walt. "When we were doing the Jungle Cruise, he wanted a big ape to come out of the grass. So there Walt would be, pounding his chest and roaring."
It never bothered Walt that the Imagineers' day-to-day environment was loose and unregimented; in fact, he seemed to prefer it that way. The practical jokes were legendary. When janitors complained about having to clean dim rooms filled with ghoulish props for the Haunted Mansion, the Imagineers agreed to leave the lights on. Then they quietly installed an infrared beam that would switch off the lights once the janitors entered and send ghosts floating around the room.
While Walt was alive, Imagineering was insulated from much financial scrutiny. Roy Disney, the company's CFO and Walt's older brother, is said to have set foot in Imagineering exactly once. Two of Walt's favorite mantras were "You can't put a price tag on creativity" and "If we lose our customers, it'll cost us twice as much to get them back."
It wasn't that the Imagineers operated without budgetary constraints; Walt often suggested ways to work more frugally. But after his death, WDI became just another part of the company, one with a reputation for missing deadlines and exceeding cost estimates. The Epcot park in Florida, based on an idea of Walt's and opened in 1982, cost an estimated $1.2 billion an overrun of several hundred million dollars.
In 1984, Michael Eisner was hired as CEO, and while his top priority was fixing Disney's film and TV businesses, he eventually turned his attention to Imagineering. Jeff Rochlis, one executive Eisner installed, tried to introduce "the triangle of success" to Imagineering. The three corners of the model represented budget, schedule, and quality. Rochlis had triangle pins made for all the Imagineers but ironically lost his job soon after, when the Splash Mountain ride at Disneyland and the Pleasure Island nightclub complex in Orlando both were hindered by delays and bloated budgets.
Through the years, Imagineers resisted most attempts to impose any kind of rigid, standardized processes on their turf. Once, a management consultant installed a camera in their model shop to determine whether the crew was working at optimum efficiency. "We realized what the cameras were for and set about figuring out the timers," says ex-Imagineer Trevor Bryant. "Every time the camera clicked, someone would walk by it with a block and put it on the table. At the end of three or four weeks, they had a video of people building, taking apart, and rebuilding a block wall." The consultant soon removed the cameras.
But some attempts at making WDI behave like a regular division of a regular company were successful. In 1994, Disney installed two real estate developers, Peter Rummell and Ken Wong, as chair and president of the unit. Their mission: impose discipline while fostering growth. Eisner had decreed that the 1990s would be the Disney Decade. Rummell and Wong pushed forward on major projects in Orlando, Anaheim, Paris, and Tokyo. Meantime, Disney bought Bran Ferren's special effects firm to lend WDI an extra dose of engineering muscle. In turn, Ferren brought in a group of tech luminaries including Hillis, MIT professor Marvin Minsky, and former Apple researcher Alan Kay and dubbed them Disney Fellows.
By the end of the Disney Decade, WDI's staff had grown from a low of 300 after Epcot opened to 3,000. "When I arrived," Wong says, "every single project was dead, because the cost structure was out of whack. Not enough was outsourced. We wanted to start getting more creative output for less money, and that went very much against the grain of the old-timers."
"When I started," says former WDI exec Gertz, "the mandate was 'Don't think about cost you can't put a price tag on innovation and the brilliant execution of ideas.' If you do, you may miss the best idea. These days, the approach seems to be to start with a spreadsheet and work magic from there, which is very hard to do."
A computer-animated Mickey has singled me out "You with the notebook" and instructed me to yank the starter cord that will fire up something called the Toon Elevator. The attraction is a prototype hidden away in one of Imagineering's well-guarded R&D buildings. Mickey, the lift's operator, is a projected image on a screen in the compartment's front left corner. What's unique is that this Mickey is interactive. He has preset routines but can also be puppeteered by a human operator at a terminal who can see and hear what's going on inside the elevator.
The Imagineers use demos like this to pitch their ideas to Disney executives. They loaded Eisner into a mock space capsule to get the green light for Mission: Space. Only about 1 in 50 projects actually gets built. Marty Sklar, the vice chair and top creative executive at WDI, says, "You can't be too attached to your idea. We don't really worry about what we throw away, but we worry a lot about what we put into the parks."
A dearth of good ideas isn't one of the group's problems. After riding the Toon Elevator, I come face-to-face with a life-size bipedal dinosaur, which is harnessed to a two-wheeled cart and being manipulated by a human operator sitting nearby at a panel of controls. The dino emits some Chewbacca-like noises, his nostrils flare, and his long neck and head move smoothly. (What he doesn't do yet is walk reliably.)
The Imagineers seem to know that the tricks in their bag are getting stale, that they've got to keep groping for the next new thing. "My kids play SimCity all the time," says WDI president Goodman. "It takes a whole lot more to wow them. The sophistication of our audience, and their expectations, increases every year."
The Imagineers are also working on other attractions that feel more personalized. "We've traditionally been in the business of delivering mass experiences," adds Goodman. "Everything in the world is going the other way." So the Imagineers are going with it. New rides like Mission: Space will give parkgoers a more active role. And they've developed ways for guests to wander through individualized 3-D environments, wearing head-mounted displays or goggles to enhance the fun with movielike special effects or images of ghostly characters in essence, melding Myst with the Magic Kingdom. But there isn't the budget or the pull from Imagineering's partners in the Parks & Resorts division to get new ideas like these into production anytime soon.
The Imagineers aren't limited to ideas for new attractions. Sometimes they come up with entirely new kinds of businesses that could fuel Disney's growth. One such idea was a nationwide chain of entertainment centers called DisneyQuest, an ambitious attempt to make Disney relevant to the teen and tween gamers outgrowing its theme parks. Quest included attractions like a customizable roller coaster simulator, a VR flying carpet ride based on Aladdin, and participatory versions of Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise that required guests to man cannons and maneuver a raft down a wild river. At 100,000 square feet, these "theme parks in a box" could be built in 50 to 100 places around the world, planners figured, while there aren't nearly as many attractive places to plunk down the traditional 100-acre theme park.
By 1999, there were Quest centers in Orlando and Chicago, with more on the drawing board. But even though Quest's guest satisfaction ratings rivaled those of the established parks, it was difficult to figure out how to draw crowds in the middle of the week. So executives killed the project driven, says former R&D vice president Dave Fink, by a financial model that demanded profits too soon. (One DisneyQuest center remains, in Orlando.)
Turmoil within the group hasn't helped matters. Ferren, the effects whiz who wound up running R&D, left in 2000 to start a consulting firm with Hillis, who'd championed the walking dinosaur project. The other Disney Fellows left at the same time, frustrated that the company wasn't taking their advice seriously.
The tenure of Ferren and the Fellows was a mixed bag. They bestowed their tech cred on Disney, but frictions flared between them and the rest of WDI. "Those guys had nothing to do with the culture and history of Imagineering," says Trevor Bryant. "They were theorists. They'd sit around and pontificate and come up with ideas about the future of the world that were meaningless to the business of Walt Disney." (Ferren and Hillis declined to be interviewed, though Ferren did state via email that he "had a great time at Disney, left on great terms, and [has] nothing but the very best of feelings for [Eisner, Sklar, and] all of the talented people at WDI.")
This summer, Ferren's successor, Eric Haseltine, was hired away by the National Security Agency, and a week after I visited WDI, a major reorganization took place involving layoffs and the departure of Andy Ogden, vice president of R&D and one of my fellow passengers in the Toon Elevator.
On a gorgeous Saturday morning, people are jammed into every available corner of Disneyland, with hour-long waits for each major attraction. But across the street at Disney's California Adventure, which opened only last year, the crowd trickling beneath the scaled-down Golden Gate Bridge at the park's entrance is more reminiscent of a small town than San Francisco.
The spreadsheet strategy may be one way to rein in the Imagineers and limit the cost of opening new parks, but it hasn't yet proven a hit with guests. "The last two parks they opened in the US, California Adventure and Animal Kingdom, were disappointing," says Jessica Reif Cohen, an analyst at Merrill Lynch who tracks Disney. "The reviews weren't great, and the attendance wasn't up to Disney's expectations."
Meanwhile, the multibillion-dollar Tokyo DisneySea exceeded first-year attendance goals. The centerpiece is a flame-spewing volcano that contains a first-of-its-kind ride based on Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. With DisneySea, the Imagineers were told to spare no expense, since the park's construction was being paid for by a partner, the Oriental Land Company.
The avid Disney fans who congregate on the Net gripe that there wasn't enough to do at Animal Kingdom when it opened in 1998, and that California Adventure opened with half the attractions of Disneyland but the same ticket price. (Disney has continued to add to both parks since their openings.)
Al Lutz runs a fan site called MousePlanet.com. "I'm the consumer," he says. "I don't have to care about the business reasons why they didn't build this or didn't build that. I paid $50 to walk into the gate, and all I know is that I'm getting a lesser product.
"If you leave the Imagineers be, they develop great things," Lutz continues. "They may have their excesses, but the only thing that seems to work is a policy of benign neglect."
That policy isn't likely to be reinstated anytime soon. According to Gertz, Disney executives are still "asking the question of how small Imagineering can be, and they are setting out to accomplish that experiment."
Over lunch in an Imagineering conference room, I pose the question to Marty Sklar. At 68, he has worked for Disney his entire career, and he has outlasted executives installed above and below him. Sklar is genial and wry, like a favorite uncle, and he feels personally responsible for maintaining high standards at WDI.
Is it part of your job, I ask, to be the protector of this group, when people say, Couldn't you do what you do with 1,000 people, or 500, or 100?
Sklar smiles and answers with another question: "How many times over the years do you think that question has been asked?" When I don't offer a guess, he supplies his own answer: "Fairly often."
- 11-26-2002, 02:35 PM #2
- Join Date
- Aug 2002
- Elk River, Minnesota
- Favorite Park
- Disneyland Resort
- Favorite Attraction
- Pirates of the Carribean
Rebuilding Tomorrowland (continued)
Sometime next year, the Imagineers will begin testing Mission: Space, first with Disney employees, later with park guests in Orlando. The goal with big attractions like Space is to move through as many as 2,500 guests an hour. If Space turns out to be a landmark attraction the kind of ride people get in line for again as soon as they come it'll help Epcot's attendance, which dropped 15 percent last year, more than any other Disney park. (The 20-year-old Epcot is still the third-most visited park in the US, after the Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, according to Amusement Business, an industry publication.) And it would give Disney bragging rights if tourists consider Space to be even cooler than Universal's $100 million Spider-Man ride across town, which is widely regarded as the industry's most advanced attraction.
For the Imagineers, building a ride like Mission: Space is a reminder of the good old days, a visible indicator that everything is actually OK. "If there's a perception that the business guys have taken over, I would point out that the projects we're doing now have the same or higher budgets as we've had before," says Goodman.
But Gertz, who supervised Space until he left WDI, points out that the go-ahead was given in early 2000, when WDI was living larger than it is now. "I think you have to see another project cycle to understand where Imagineering is at today," he says.
Space could be the last blockbuster attraction for a while, at least until tourism picks up or new management takes over at Disney. The only other big project on the horizon is Hong Kong Disneyland, slated to open in 2006. It will consist mostly of what Imagineers call "direct lifts" copies of attractions built for other Disney parks.
"This is one of the worst operating environments that a theme park company like Disney could possibly be in, with the combination of a difficult economy and the fear of travel because of terrorism," says Merrill Lynch's Cohen. "Disney can't ramp up spending dramatically, so the Imagineers have to try to do more with less."
That's a familiar prescription at most companies these days. It's only logical that the Imagineers should quit whining about the spreadsheets, get used to duplicating their hit attractions for less money the second time around, outsource more, and use off-the-shelf technologies whenever possible.
"This reminds us that businesses have to respond to economic pressures," says Ken Wong, the former Imagineering president. "We wish it weren't so. People want Imagineering to be that fountain of pure and special things."
Indeed, the legacy of Imagineering isn't rooted in logic and economic realities. It's about unbridled inventiveness, and coming up with surprising new ways to have fun. The company could use a little of that right now. For Disney, the frightening thing may be that it's not just Imagineering veterans who long for the good old days, but customers, too.