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Headline of the Day: “Animatronic staff facing layoffs”

14 Jun

Just spotted this headine on the DIS News:

Animatronic staff facing layoffs

Maybe I’m still too groggy from a long day yesterday, but my first response was “what, they’re cutting back on the number of AA figs? Are electricity rates really rising that quickly?”

But no, it’s not actually the animatronics they may be cutting back on, it’s the Imagineers that create the animatronics.

An internal memo to Disney’s Imagineering staff has surfaced and indicates that the company will be using outside vendors to build future animatronic figures.

The June 12 memo was authored by Bruce Vaughn (Chief Creative Executive), Craig Russell (Chief Development and Delivery Executive), and Kevin Eld (Vice President of Disney Creative Production.

Marilyn Waters, Imagineering spokesperson, confirmed that outsourcing is being sought as a means to alleviate the demands placed on the in-house staff. What has not been addressed are concerns that this will lead to cutbacks in the Imagineering staff.

I happen to believe that outsourcing isn’t good for the long-term creativity and teamwork of Imagineering. So, here’s hoping that the use of outside vendors will be extremely limited.

Imaginerding Poll on Imagineers

7 Mar

Yes indeed, they are bringing nerdy back! And right now, they’ve got a poll on their home page, “Which early Disney Imagineer would you most like to spend the day with?”

My vote is for Ub Iwerks . . . and I see that he’s currently running at a dismal 11%, so now I feel the need to sing his praises. It’s not just about his role in the parks, it’s all that early animation stuff too. For cryin’ out loud, the man made a 3D camera in his garage with old car parts! (Details on that story are in The Hand Behind the Mouse, included on disc 2 of the excellent Oswald Disney Treasures DVD tin.)

But this is a topic on which reasonable people differ . . . I’ll be interested to see what the final vote tally is, a couple days from now when the poll is closed.

it’s a small world: “Hooray for USA”??????

5 Mar

I was stunned to read this today in Re-Imagineering, regarding updates to Disneyland’s “it’s a small world:”

Unfortunately W.D.I. has taken ill advantage of the downtime by staking out areas throughout the attraction to place a selection of smiling Disney characters to spice up the proceedings. Imagine a grinning Stitch in Hawaii, a demure Belle in Paris, a Peter Pan in London.

And in one of the most egregious and downright disgusting decisions in Disney theme park history, the gorgeous New Guinea rainforest scene, replete with some of Mary Blair’s most whimsical character creations (a crocodile with an umbrella, colorful birds hatching from eggs) and her drummer children with Tiki Masks on the opposite shore will be replaced with a Hooray for U.S.A sequence.

Um, excuse me? I thought for sure this was an April Fools’ post . . . then I remembered today is March 5.

Now, I’ll confess to having mixed feelings about some of the rainforest section. There are some racial undertones that are disquieting to me, but what the heck, the whole ride’s full of stereotypes (good and bad). But replacing it with “Hooray for USA?”

And as much as I love Stitch, I don’t wanna see him in the Hawaii section of that attraction, thank you very much.

Mr Banks closes the Re-Imagineering post with a call to action:

This is not a change at Disneyland to take lightly. Letters should go out to all corners of the company pleading for a halt to the desecration of Small World once and for all. A campaign to “Save Our Rainforest” is appropriate, one with tee-shirts, wristbands and a countdown clock. It’s safe to say that with enough of a hue and cry from those of us who actually pay the bills at W.D.I the company might do an about face. Fortunately this was a concept that was pitched to executives before Bruce Vaughn and Craig Russell took the reigns at Imagineering so there’s still room for hope.

Shake-up at Walt Disney Imagineering

23 May

From the Orlando Sentinel:

A shake-up of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts creativity team puts more emphasis on technology and new vacation experiences both in and out of Disney’s theme parks.

Officials on Tuesday confirmed several changes in Walt Disney Imagineering — the Disney arm that dreams up and designs everything from Walt Disney World thrill rides and shows to themed restaurants. They include a new partnership at the top featuring research and development guru Bruce Vaughn and design master Craig Russell. Vaughn was promoted last week to chief creative executive, and Russell to chief design and delivery executive.

Jim Hill covered this story earlier in the week, and his analysis is worth a read (though, like any internet rumors, take his inside scoops with a grain of salt). Hill’s site attracts a good number of highly educated Disney geeks, so the discussion in his users’ comments at the bottom of the page is always interesting.

The Myth of Story: Lost and Found at Walt Disney World

1 May

Re-Imagineering had a funny piece yesterday about the number of Disney attractions based on similar “stories.”

From the late 80’s on Imagineers indeed affixed ‘story’ after ‘story’ after ‘story’ to their rides, shows and attractions. Unfortunately, however, the concept of originality eluded most of them.

While certainly WDI saw some unbridled successes under Eisner’s ‘What’s the story?’ ordinance, it seems Imagineers had little more than one ‘story’ up their sleeve. And they shamelessly told it again and again and again.

It goes something like this: a character or prop has gone missing and the guests and/or other characters are tasked with finding it/them.

At times I think they’ve overreached their point. Can you really boil down the Pirates of the Caribbean ride story to this?

Pirate Jack Sparrow, treasure in hand, has gone missing among the villagers on the Isla Tesoro and Captain Barbossa is out to find him.

But even when they over-reach, it’s an interesting read. And consider this too: How many Disney Parks attractions are based on the premise of transportation gone wrong or stretched to its limits? On my recent trips to Disney World I rode:

  • Two trains-gone-wild (Big Thunder Mountain and Expedition Everest)
  • One broken elevator (Tower of Terror)
  • One problematic mission to mars (Mission: Space)
  • One difficult trip into someone’s immune system (Body Wars)
  • One complete mishap of a space shuttle trip, with a hopeless pilot (Star Tours)

And that’s not even counting last summer at Disneyland, what with the crazy trouble with snakes and spiders when I was touring with Indiana Jones, or that wacky ride down Mullholland Drive. I don’t even want to talk about what happened when I got into the car with that Toad.

Is the message here that Imagineers are falling down on the job with creating stories for rides? Or is it that some stories are so flexible, you can make a zillion successful rides based on them?

New Ride Simulates Disney–ABC Merger?

30 Mar

Gotta love The Onion! Today, they’ve got the scoop on a new simulator ride at Walt Disney World:

Described in a Disney press release as “It’s A Small World and Space Mountain meets Barbarians At The Gate,” the Whirly Merge transports its riders, who are strapped in plush leather chairs to “boardroom tables,” through a series of fast-paced and intricate business meetings, all leading to the climactic acquisition stage.

Riders are led by Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney and a longtime Disney executive and major shareholder, whose disembodied voice guides them through the experience via a speakerphone in the middle of the table. The voice recounts how in the early 1990s, “a time of legend and magic,” the company was flush with profits from its animated film successes The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast. As holographic accountants dance in giant piles of cash, Michael Eisner conceives a plan to invest the money rather than pay exorbitant taxes on the new windfall.

Quoth 10-year-old Tyler James: “I felt a little sick during the arbitrage part, but I still want to go again!”

Mmm, this sure whets my appetite for April Fools Day . . .

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor Opens April 2

3 Mar

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor Coming Soon

Just saw this on The Disney Blog: tells us that the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor Comedy Club will open April 2 at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

I’m looking forward to hearing how the show’s been improved since my son and I caught a soft opening in December. Despite my geeky frustrations with the audio/visual problems, and plenty of shortcomings in the show content, I do think there’s potential here for a good, solid attraction, especially for the 7-10 crowd. They’re just a little too old for Turtle Talk with Crush, but will still be charmed by the comedians interacting with the crowd, and (if this survives) thrilled to see their own jokes told on-stage, after text-messaging them to the cast and crew. They might really miss Sully, though . . . my understanding is that his fur is too expensive and difficult to render on-the-fly, so he won’t be appearing in the attraction anytime soon.

For what it’s worth, my son and I still rattle off lines from the attraction from time to time, and we only saw it just that once. You know who my son wants to be for Halloween this year? That guy!

Lessons Learned from Tiki Room Overhaul

8 Feb

Re-Imagineering’s great article Be Yourself explores the lessons learned from the mid90’s update of The Enchanted Tiki Room. Their observations are spot-on. The crux of the problem?

When Disney tries to be hip, it looks like a good-natured dorky kid trying to act cool. The good kid always comes off looking like a jerk. We like the good-natured dorky kid; he reminds us of ourselves. (That’s why audiences fell in love with Mickey Mouse, isn’t it?) The kid needs to grow and change, but if he changes into another person, if he isn’t true to himself, we won’t like him anymore.

Sounds like over-reaching? Read the full article. If you pine for the original Tiki Room (still available at Disneyland, by the way), you’ll probably agree with their observations.

1963 “Magic Worlds of Walt Disney” Reprinted Online

15 Jan

Seen on boingboing: Modern Mechanix blog has scanned in a 1963 article from National Geographic, and they’ve done it right: hi-res scanned images, plus transcribed text.

It’s quite the hefty article, so they’ve broken it down into three parts:

Part I Link | Part II Link | Part III Link

Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor: Notes from a Soft Opening

8 Jan

On Tuesday, December 19, my son and I happened across a soft opening (ie, unscheduled preview) of the Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor attraction at Walt Disney World, in the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.

Monsters Inc Laugh Floor Coming Soon

As you may have already heard, the Laugh Floor had been scheduled to open in January 2007, and feedback from early soft openings led to the opening date being pushed back to some unspecified date in the spring of 07 (the Orlando Sentinel has more on this). In my opinion this was a wise move. The attraction has a lot of potential, but also some serious flaws which I believe Imagineering can address. In its current state, it could be a big hit with the 7-10 year old crowd, but leave adults bored and irritable. With some improvements, it could be even better for the kids, and better tolerated by their parents.

Out of respect for the Imagineers who requested no pictures be taken, I’m omitting photos. However, I can tell you that much of the aesthetic of both the queue and the pre-show are similar to that of the Monsters Inc ride in Disney’s California Adventure, including a replica of the soda machine from the queue in that ride:

Drooler cola


The theatre is a decent size, seating a few hundred people in rows of tables, as if you’re at a comedy club styled like a factory (but not, sadly, The Factory of Andy Warhol fame). There are three screens up front, with most of your attention focused on the left screen (where you’ll see Roz) and the main screen, which features a series of comedians vying for your laughs. You see, following up on what they learned in the movie Monsters Inc, the monsters are gathering laughter to power their city.

There’s also an interesting gimmick . . . they’re integrating the use of cell phone text messages into the attraction. While you were in the queue, you had the opportunity to send text messages from your cell phone to the monsters, offering your jokes for the monsters to tell. (And if you happened to be there for this soft opening, you also had the opportunity to give those jokes to Cast Members, running around a bit frantically to gather jokes. Perhaps they don’t yet trust that people can easily text message? Or are they having trouble with receiving the messages?)

As you wait for the show to start, a camera is pointed at random people in the audience, with amusing subtitles below each person (ie, “Is sitting between two aliens,” “Will buy you all churros,” “Doesn’t know you’re looking at him” — though I didn’t take notes so don’t take those as verbatim).

Once the show begins in earnest, there are essentially four acts:

  1. Mike Wazowski and Roz explain why we’re here: The gathering of laugh power, and a contest among three comedians. This part of the show works fairly smoothly, though a bit dry.
  2. The three comedians each perform in turn. Here, we need some real work. The jokes aren’t great, and the audience’s expectations are understandably high. This is the Laugh Floor, after all. Shouldn’t this be side-splitting stuff, since their world’s power supply depends on it? There’s some audience interaction here, much like in Turtle Talk with Crush, and this is the high point — the comedians seem to be at their best when they’re ad-libbing (or, perhaps the writing is best when it’s loose).
  3. The monsters tell another batch of jokes, sent in by text message (or, in our case, Cast Members carrying clipboards). This is hit or miss. Obviously the jokes will be of varying quality, especially if they have very few to choose from. But for the kid who hears his joke read by one of the monsters (or the parent who’s sitting by his side), it’s an instant pixie-dusted memory.
  4. The audience votes with applause for their favorite of the three comedians, and the winner is announced. The show wraps up, and we’re on our way.

Or, if you’re at a soft opening, maybe you’re not on your way quite yet. In our case, the Cast Members asked for our feedback. We were asked to vote by show of hands, responding to a series of fairly detailed questions, most on a scale of 1 to 5. The audience response at our soft opening was fairly positive, but not quite enthusiastic. Few people responded with 1’s or 5’s.

For me, some of the technical issues left me frustrated (and, of course, we were warned that this would be the case — this was of course a soft opening, which one expects to be technically rough). The left-hand screen looks great, but at our preview the main screen seemed less bright, less clear, and with slighly rougher edges on the characters. Looked like a rendering issue to me. Microphone coverage in the theatre was inadequate, which was an issue during the interactive sections of the program. Perhaps that’s just because they’re in previews, and will have more Cast Members running around with handheld mics once the attraction opens?

I also have to wonder where Sully is. Did they leave him out because he’s not a great comedian? Or is his fur just too hard to render on the fly, given the tremendous amount of software work behind that gorgeous mane?

Overall, though, I do believe that this is the next Turtle Talk with Crush, both for its charming interaction (I know they’ll improve the writing!), and for the popularity of some of the main characters. I’m rooting for the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering who are no doubt putting in long hours to make a great show for us.

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