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Monday Mouse Watch : Has WDI solved all of "Toy Story Mania" 's problems? Not Yeti

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Monday Mouse Watch : Has WDI solved all of "Toy Story Mania" 's problems? Not Yeti

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By now, you've probably heard about the Mr. Potato Head that's been installed in the queue area of "Toy Story Mania." How this 5 foot, 2 inch AA figure (Which reportedly cost a million dollars to build) will actually address individual quests as they stand there, waiting in the attraction's queue area. And given that Don Rickles himself spent hours in a recording booth laying down tracks for this state-of-the-art Audio Animatronic ... Well, when Mr. Potato Head tells jokes and/or serenades theme park patrons with the four songs that he knows, this Pixar character will at least sound authentic.

Sooo ... Given the amount of money that Walt Disney Imagineering has already lavished on this AA figure, you'd think that the folks at Pixar would be happy with Mr. Potato Head. Well, think again.

As it turns out, many of the folks who work at that Emeryville-based animation studio are actually Disney theme park geeks. Consequently, these Pixar employees are well aware of what happened with the last state-of-the-art Audio Animatronic that WDI sent to the field: The Yeti featured in the climax of Disney's Animal Kingdom's "Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain."

And ever since DAK officially opened this nearly-200-foot-tall thrill ride back in April of 2006, the Imagineers have struggled to keep this 22-foot-tall AA figure working properly. But because the Yeti is such a sophisticated piece of machinery, it rarely operates the way that it was supposed to.

And given that Expedition Everest's state-of-the-art Audio Animatronic only makes an appearance at the very end of this DAK attraction (More to the point, given that the Yeti appears in a very dark section of this thrill ride) ... Well, when this AA figure is broken, it's relatively easy to put the Yeti in a very scary pose, throw a strobe lit on him ... And Presto ! 90 % of the guests who zoom through Forbidden Mountain that day have no idea that a key element of this thrill ride was broken.

Photo by Jeff Lange

But since Mr. Potato Head is just as technologically sophisticated as the Yeti (if not more so), the folks at Pixar are wondering what WDI's contingency plan for "Toy Story Mania" is. I mean, given that this AA figure will be right out there in public where any guest that walks by the show building can see him, it's not like the Imagineers can do what they do over at "Expedition Everest" (i.e. Put Mr. Potato Head in a scary pose, throw a strobe light on him and hope that nobody notices).

But when Pixar staffers asked the Imagineers what their "Toy Story Mania" contingency plan was ... WDI officials said (in essence) that " ... We don't really have a plan right now. So if Mr. Potato Head breaks down, I guess we'll just throw a sheet over him until we can get this figure repaired."

Which -- to be honest -- is not really what the folks from Pixar wanted to hear. But after 16 months of dealing day-to-day with Walt Disney Imagineering, it's the sort of answer that they've now come to expect.

As one Pixar insider recently told me:

"We've just got two fundamentally different approaches to the way we do business. At Pixar, we pride ourselves on doing things right the first time. Taking all the time that we need, spending all the money necessary to make sure that our final product is good as it can possibly be. Delivering the best possible show that we can.

Whereas with the Imagineers ... It's not so much about doing a good job is it is about protecting their jobs. Making sure that they don't make some sort of costly error that could then wind up costing them their position at Imagineering.

 Copyright 2008 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Honestly, I have never dealt with a more paranoid group of people. At WDI, it seems like everyone is looking over their shoulder. Wondering who's trying to undercut their project now. No wonder so many half-assed rides, shows and attractions have come out of Glendale over the past decade. Who could ever do quality work under conditions like these?"

Mind you, at Pixar's suggestion, Disney Company management has made an effort recently to deal with Imagineering's culture of fear. Which is why Peter McGrath was recently brought in from the Disneyland Paris Resort to become WDI's new Vice President of Creative Development. The way I hear it, Peter's main goal is to transform Walt Disney Imagineering from being a workplace where people continually obsess about which job number they can charge their project to to ... Well, a place that's more like Pixar. Where it's all about delivering a quality product that the public can then enjoy.

Speaking of the theme park going public ... Late last week, "Toy Story Mania" hit yet another snag. It seems that -- due to the pull-string firing mechanism that's used on all of the cannons in this ride-thru shooting gallery ... Well, Operations is now concerned that -- should they allow parents to hold their kids in their laps as they ride through "Toy Story Mania" -- someone might wind up getting injured. Either the parents will accidentally hit their kids in the face as they pull back on that pull-string OR their children will wind up whacking Mom & Dad in some pretty tender areas as they too pull on those pull-strings.

Which is why -- just last week -- Operations had to institute a new rule for "Toy Story Mania." As in: No lap sitting. Which (as you might expect) is going to have a very interesting impact on the hourly capacity of this new Disney theme park attraction. Since every single child that boards this ride will now have to have a seat of their very own ... Which is going to make this attraction that much more difficult to load & unload.

Long story short: Be sure and be extra-patient when you queue up for that Annual Passholder Preview of WDW's version of "Toy Story Mania" next month. For it may take those DHS cast members quite a while to get a handle on how to properly operate this brand-new attraction.

Your thoughts?

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  • First off, if the statement from one insider is true, the cause for making WDIers 'paranoid' would be PIXAR itself. PIXAR is setting the tone and changing the face of Disney. There may be the feeling of if they don't treat PIXAR's product well it could cost a WDIer his/her job.

    I stated in an earlier post and repeat that no job should be rushed. If "Toy Story Mania" isn't ready to open than it shouldn't open. They are dealing with state-of-the-art technology here. Maybe they shouldn't be so eager to present the latest tech to the public if it isn't perfect. Simplify the attraction and get the troubled tech back to the lab for more work. Now what they have done is put out hype for a great and unique attraction that they can't deliver on. Back to the drawing board - and don't let PIXAR pressure you!  

  • No need to blame Emeryville-based animation studio informants - Disney fans have been saying this for the last decade or so. You can't get creative excellence from a group constantly being fired, downsized, and layed off. The Imagineers seem to do just fine when they get away from the Anaheim spreadsheet worshippers and create attractions in Japan. Shame on that Emeryville-based animation studio for wanting quality - how unreasonable.

  • Not sure I see the direct connection between a production studio that makes world class animated feature films...and the completely different world of Theme Park Ride Engineers. I'm guessing the guys who designed "Space Mountain" won't be sitting-in on any story sessions at Pixar any time soon. What's next, the guy at the guard gate at Pixar is gonna teach the guards at Disneyland how to tear tickets?

  • How does this reported million spent on the Potato Head figure break down? How much of it is parts, labor, etc?

  • JerryLundegaard said exactly what I was thinking the whole time I read this article... What the hell do Pixar animators have in common with theme park engineers?  Precious little, I'd say.  If anything, they should mind their own p's and q's because if Pixar ever churns out a bomb, they'll see what it's like to live in fear of their job, methinks.  

  • Huh ... I totally disagree with most of the posters here. I think WDI has been churning out near crap for years and I welcome an influx of opinions from a studio where people obviously get it.

    I mean how can you overlook the two GLARING examples of how POORLY WDI is doing things today, right here in this article!!

    #1, they plan on THROWING A SHEET over Mr. Potato Head if he breaks down??? Yeah ... that's good show.

    #2, this attraction has been in development for close to 4 years now and they're JUST figuring that out about the rope pulls??? The ride is like 2 weeks from opening!

    No, I'm sorry ... I completely disagree. If I ran Disney one of the first things I'd do is dismantle Imagineering as it is now and totally rebuild it. It's a disaster as it is. I think people have this romantic idea that it's still like all these Walt guys sitting in rooms somewhere thinking things up. WDI is largely made up today of nothing but typical engineers, project managers, and electricians. These guys don't make magic ... they need some creative leadership and if you're looking for creativity, I challenge anyone to point me in a better direction than Pixar.

    You all must not know your Disney theme park history, because almost all the key people in building Disneyland were artists and animators. Oh yeah, and not to point out the obvious ... but the guy who invented the theme park (a guy who's initials may or may not be W.E.D.) ... he was an animator too.

    Anyway, lastly I owe Jim an apology. Not a Pixar bashing article as I expected, so mea culpa. Good piece, Jim. One of your best lately.

  • Great article.  Thanks, Jim.

  • Well said, Pickstar.

  • It's not that an animator has to know anything about theme park engineering. It's about a corporate culture difference.

    If the atmosphere at Pixar is truly what they say it is - do it right, and do it creatively - then they can say all they want to the Imagineers, who should be doing it that way, but instead have been taken over by a room full of suits and spreadsheets.

    I don't care if you're making widgets or theme park attractions, the atmosphere in which you work under affects the outcome of the final product.

  • I have to say that I can understand Pixar's fears. I went to DAK last year and took my wife on Expedition Everest for the first time. I was so excited for her to see the Yeti, but then there was nothing at the end. They didn't even have the strobe on. It was pitch black dark. The second time we went on, they had the strobe on, but I was still disappointed.

    Next to the magma creature at DisneySea's Journey to the Center of the Earth (or so I'm told), the Yeti is one of Imagineering's most impressive figures. You'd think they would have programmed a "limited movement" mode or something for whenever the figure isn't working properly.

    As for Mr. Potato Head, why not a stage curtain for when he's not "performing"?

  • Well so far Pickstar has the best comment of the day and I couldn't agree more.

    THIS is what happens when you build up a culture of spreadsheets and suits and wrongheaded ideas about how to run theme parks.  How can creative people work with a pendulum over their heads and a budget that constantly tightens.  Iger needs to look at this and do some major-league reshuffling of some suits.

  • Lap sitting is not a problem.  My two year old sits by herself on Buzz firing the gun and will do the same with Toy Story.  No affect on capacity.

    The bigger problem may be keeping 3D glasses on kids and making sure glasses don't end up on the ride tracks.

    The curtain idea is an obvious choice,  and might even include some behind curtain humor as well when the curtain is down.

  • Tuckenie said:

    "Well so far Pickstar has the best comment of the day and I couldn't agree more."

    In that case, I better shut up and hide. It's rare I get that kind of compliment around here, especially from someone who knows so much about the company.

  • Good article, Jim. The failure of the Yeti is astounding, given all the cash and effort put into it, and why someone at Imagineering didn't bring up the very real possibility that such a sophisticated figure was bound to be more accident-prone might be a perfect example of the purported paranoia rampant at WDI these days. I wonder if a similar mindset was at work during the creation of the disaster that is the Stitch ride. Honestly, that thing is a blight at WDW. When I sat through it, kids all around me were freaking out, and not in a good way, there wasn't a moment of real fun and there were NO smiles from anybody I saw as we exited. And the thing practically drips cash, it looks so expensive, and yet the payoff is extremely slight. I wonder if those at WDI who realized the ride was a dud during its test runs were too frightened to broach an honest opinion?

  • I agree that it's crazy to think Mr Potato Head can just have a sheet thrown over him - but on the other hand, is it any wonder WDI are constantly paranoid? And frankly, if the new attractions were sonstantly in risk of having budgets cut then surely there would be more time and $ to ensure these problems didn't occur/there were contingency plans in place.

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