You've probably heard of "the Disney Look" before - it's the grooming, dress, and appearance standards for on-stage Cast Members (who are playing a "role" in front of the audience/guests). Generally speaking, it means clean-cut, clean-shaven, and just vaguely dapper. In many ways, it's a look that harkens back to the 50s. In theory, they make changes in incremental ways every few years, such as altering which kind of earrings women can wear. But in practice there have really only been three BIG versions of the Disney Look. The first ruled from 1955 until the year 2000. During that original Disney Look, not much changed substantially. From 2000 until now, though, the Second Version allowed men to wear mustaches. Why then? DCA was about to open, but more importantly this took place when the Disneyland Hotel union was folded into the family, since many of them already wore mustaches.
Now comes the Look, Take Three. Starting February 3, men will be allowed to wear short beards and goatees. "Short" in this case means 1/4 inch or less. The Working Lead in me shudders at the thought of how this will be implemented. Cast Members are not allowed to "grow" their beards while working - it has to happen over a weekend or vacation. So they can't just have 5 o'clock shadow and call it a beard. But I suspect there will be tons and tons of gray zone here, such that the rule will be practically impossible to enforce. Prepare for your Disney workforce to no longer look clean-shaven and vaguely transported from the 1950s.
Why now? Some will say Disney wants to keep up with the times. I confess I'm a bit more of a purist on this question, and think it's a mistake. Maybe Disney is having trouble hiring enough people willing to tolerate their salaries AND be clean-shaven?
Question: at what point does a maintenance issue deserve to be mentioned by a frequent visitor like myself? Clearly, it would not be fair to report on every last broken light bulb. That would be especially true if the lightbulb were fixed the next day, or even the following week. Anyone reporting on such non-issues would look foolish.
But what if the lightbulb in question were not fixed for months? You don’t comment on it initially, confident in the belief that the hourly workers are doing THEIR jobs and reporting it. The way it works at Disney is that front-line attractions (or shops, or restaurant) CMs can call in such notifications. In theory, minor things such as a broken lightbulb can be fixed overnight. It’s possible they get relegated to a lower-status repair priority, but even then, after a few nights (let alone weeks or months), they really should get repaired.
The Disney parks used to pride themselves on fast repairs and pristine maintenance. They would in fact gloat publicly that lightbulbs were replaced when they reached 80% of their expected lifespan. That way, the public would NEVER experience a broken lightbulb (absent a manufacturing defect). If a bulb did happen to burn out early, you’d better believe it was fixed that next night.
Fast forward to today, when a light bulb is not replaced at 80% of its expected life span. The very thought must make today’s executives shudder at the inefficiency! Rather, the bulbs are allowed to run to their end, and burn out. Even if we assume that it’s OK to let burned-out bulbs be visible for a single day, surely Disney maintenance will leap to the rescue that same night, right? After all, Disney patrons are paying a premium—Disney costs way more than the competition—so they have reason to expect a premium product, right?
“No one will notice a burned-out light, right?”
Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the attitude these days. Having spoken with more than a few front line cast members, I’m convinced that many still take their jobs seriously. They are reporting these broken light fixtures. The same is true of third-shift maintenance. Some of them are extremely committed, hardworking folks. Of course, a subset of them are just punching the clock and reporting for work—are they the problem? More likely, it’s the funding. Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the numbers of third shift workers are at a low point these days (and have been for a few years now). That would go a long way toward explaining why it takes so long to get anything fixed, if there just aren’t enough workers to go around.
All this might not be much of a problem if we were talking about a single lightbulb that took a week to get fixed. But how much is too much? Eight weeks ago, I took a brief walk around Cinderella’s Royal Carrousel and counted eight broken bulbs. This weekend, I looked again, and still found the same eight broken bulbs. Eight is enough, right? Eight bulbs, eight weeks… I think it’s a fair conclusion to say that Walt Disney World does not prioritize burned-out bulbs they way they used to. Is someone in Team Disney Orlando living by the credo that “if it’s good enough for Six Flags it’s good enough for us” that had been rampant in the company during the Paul Pressler days?
Burned-out lights: the hallmark of the industry leader?
The nearby Mad Tea Party also had six burned-out bulbs by my rough count this weekend, so this is not an isolated event. In fact, just a few months ago the Mad Tea Party’s roof was completely redone—those are not incandescent light bulbs in the ceiling, they are LEDs, which are supposed to last a lot longer. Yet there they sit, stubbornly refusing to illuminate like their brethren. A blight on the theme park experience? Surely a minor one, but a blight nonetheless. This is not the behavior of the industry leader (or at least a park that hopes to stay the industry leader for long). I’ve long pointed out that the parks have taken a profit-maximizing approach that takes away “Disney details” one unnoticeable step at a time, a process I’ve dubbed Declining by Degrees. This is just one more example.
The view from the Rivers of America: rotting pier columns for the walkway.
The punishing weather of Florida means that materials rot faster than they would in other climates, and executives need to be more vigilant of problems as they crop up.
Declining by Leaps and Bounds?
In many visible ways, Walt Disney World is doing a better job of regular upkeep. This is the season for refurbs, and there are themed scrims galore in the Magic Kingdom. I continue to appreciate the mega-bucks they spend on printing directly on the scrims, so they aren’t just plain colored canvas. But that doesn’t mean they are doing the best job possible. There is always something more that can be done.
So I struggled with how to present this next segment. Should I go the sarcastic route? I could load you up with quotes from Walt about the quality of Disney parks. Or parrot back the same quotes today's Disney park executives use to tout their preventative maintenance.
Or, I could do the more serious thing, and build up the argument for how "declining by degrees" eventually leads to "declining by leaps and bounds." After all, if no one notices the problems or stops spending money with Disney, surely that's a sign for the clueless executives to keep cutting costs, right? Or, I could rail about the buildup of a million tiny problems. The auctioneer's broken neck on Pirates this Sunday (he was talking only to the nearby goat), for instance. One wonders if the geyers on the river will be working when Big Thunder comes back from rehab.
In the end, I decided that all of the above introductions apply (and thus, ironically, none of them was truly "right"). So let me just jump to the video:
This is how Splash Mountain looked at 5pm and again at 8pm on 1/22/12. Talking with others online, I understand now that this has been a common and recurring problem at Splash Mountain for several weeks. The standard answer given is that maintenance knows about the problem, but is waiting for parts.
"Waiting for parts"? That kind of excuse would barely fly iat a $25/day carnival park - but $90/day for the Magic Kingdom? The world's most-visited theme park? Disney earned its market-leading reputation through decades of hard dedication to things like cleanliness and upkeep. They have been eroding that reputation slowly, but every so often, the erosion gives way to a big chunk. Maybe like the calving of a great glacier... slowly at first, then CRASH!
Back to those old-school standards. The "Four Keys" to Disney's success are, in order: Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency. New Cast Members are supposed to drilled in this belief. Nothing from the 'lower' realm should interfere with the upper one. Thus, you should never sacrifice Show in favor of efficiency.
Maybe it's just me, but it looks like they aren't using those same rules. Keeping the ride running with that much broken looks like prioritizing efficiency over show. One hesitates to ask "What would Walt do?" since the question seems impossible to answer most of the time, but I really do wonder if this is what Walt Disney had in mind.
Disney World is spending a billion dollars to bring us NextGen initiatives. Many of them look promising (I have good things to say about Sorcerers in the Magic Kingdom in a future update). But if these improvements come while the rest of the park crumbles around it, isn't that like painting the Titanic's hull a different color after striking the iceberg?
Who’s in Charge?
There’s visionary leadership in Walt Disney World, and then there’s daily leadership. Real leadership ostensibly comes from the Vice-President of each park (there is no “president” of each park). At the Magic Kingdom, that would be Phil Holmes. Is he someone who “gets it”? You might be assuaged by the fact that he’s been there since opening day in 1971, but then again, you might be turned off by the fact that he doesn’t report to work every day. He sits at his house (in a different city) on most days, and commutes in by private airplane only a few days per week. So who’s running the show?
At all the parks, not just the Magic Kingdom, there are more hours in a day than a single leader can manage, so there have always been “duty managers,” people temporarily promoted to be in charge of the park for the moment. They make all the decisions that have to be made, with an eye toward parkwide operations. A duty manager might decide it’s OK for Pecos Bill to close at 9pm, for instance, rather than the scheduled 10pm, based on the in-park attendance and how many other restaurants are functioning that day. But the restaurant dare not decide this on its own without checking with the park’s duty manager.
So I have to wonder why visitors sometimes see curious disparities, like a massively overcrowded Casey’s Corner at 6:30pm (on a Saturday of a three day weekend) with a completely shuttered Tomorrowland Terrace just steps away. As a former park restaurant guy, I’m totally stymied. It should be a simple formula. If there’s a giant line of hungry people over here and an unused facility over there, shouldn’t it be completely brainless to just open the second facility? If the public doesn’t like the second menu, why not duplicate the first menu? I’m just flabbergasted that a park as popular as the Magic Kingdom, literally the world’s most visited amusement park, could be so clueless sometimes.
The answer lies in the “in charge” question. A duty manager can do things like close a location early, but can’t decide on the spot to open one up. You have to schedule people well in advance, and that requires planning. The folks who PLAN the park operating schedules are the ones to blame, and the buck clearly stops at Phil Holmes. Perhaps if he actually physically worked at the Magic Kingdom (you know, the thing he’s in charge of?) rather than working from a distance, he might potentially understand what’s needed. One dares not ask if the man works any busy weekend evenings. Since he doesn’t even work midweek daytimes, I think the answer is a foregone conclusion.
The original Dumbo is now closed, and will be moved over the coming weeks to its new location near the former Toontown coaster. Meanwhile, a second Dumbo is under construction at the destination. Below is a closeup of the new Dumbo structure.
The new Dumbo
You can see they’ve added some decorative features, even while keeping the color scheme and overall feel of the old Dumbo. The extensive gold decorations scream “Rococo” to me, but I’m most impressed by the re-emergence of Dumbo’s mother, Mrs. Jumbo. She is not present on the old Dumbo structure. Usually in modern Disney marketing, Dumbo (acutally his real name is Jumbo Jr.) is presented by himself, but the emotional punch of the original movie comes from the that interaction, and a Jumbo-free reference to Dumbo, now that we think of it, is often neutered of the extremely powerful mother-son dynamic present in the movie. It comes across as bland Disney magic. A Mrs. Jumbo reference, though, re-introduces the reasons we fell in love with this movie, and is much appreciated.
The old Dumbo, with some features already removed.
On MLK Day (Monday Jan 16), the Exotic Driving Experience opened at the Transportation and Ticket Center (more accurately, at the Richard Petty Speedway at the TTC). You’ve probably heard of this. It’s a new racecourse in the MIDDLE of the speedway that includes hairpin turns and S-turns, and it features cars in the popular consciousness, like Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Porsches. You can either drive one yourself, or pay a bit less and do a ride-along with a professional driver. It’s pricey. You’ll pay over $300 to drive one of the expensive cars yourself, and if you choose the ride-along, you’ll get an Audi rather than a Ferrari. (They reserve the right to decide which cars you get in the ride-along).
There are plentiful signs at the TTC advertising the new offering.
The Exotic Experience opens Jan 16, but if you stop by the Petty Speedway, you won’t see much more than signs advertising the event. The cars themselves are locked away, kept hidden from the punishing Florida weather. They only come out if someone has booked an actual experience. While that’s understandable from an operational point of view, it’s less comprehensible from a marketing point of view.
S-turns at the new Experience.
If you want people to covet a Ferrari experience, why not let them see a Ferrari? This kind of thinking is only going to attract the “already-decided” crowd, and do nothing for the “maybe-would-have” crowd of spectators. I guess it’s par for the course for Disney these days, even when the operation in question is run by an outside vendor. Chalk it up to the dangers of outsourcing the theme park experience?
Kevin Yee may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Kevin Yee pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.
Kevin is the author of many books on Disney theme parks, including:
Jason’s Disneyland Almanac (co-written with Jason Schultz) is an exhaustive listing of every day in Disneyland history, from 1955 to 2010. You’ll find park operating hours, weather and temperatures, and openings and closings of any park attraction, shop, or restaurant… for every day in the park’s history.
The Unofficial Walt Disney World ‘Earbook 2010 is a photo-rich volume of 70 pages that park fans will find especially useful if they want to know what’s changed at WDW since their last visit.
Walt Disney World Hidden History: Remnants of Former Attractions and Other Tributes As the title implies, this is all about those little things in the parks that have significance to insiders and long-timers, but are never explained or highlighted.
Your Day at the Magic Kingdomis a full-color, hardcover
interactive children’s book, where readers decide which attraction to ride
next (and thus which page to turn to) - but watch out for some unexpected surprises!
Mouse Trap: Memoir of a Disneyland Cast Memberprovides the
first authentic glimpse of what it’s like to work at Disneyland.
Tokyo Disney Made Easy is a travel guide to Tokyo
Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySeas, written to make the entire trip stress-free
for non-speakers of Japanese.
Magic Quizdom offers an exhaustive trivia quiz on Disneyland
park, with expansive paragraph-length answers that flesh out the fuller
story on this place rich with details.
101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland is a list-oriented
book that covers ground left intentionally unexposed in the trivia book,
namely the tributes and homages around Disneyland, especially to past rides
More information on the above titles, along with ordering options are at this link.