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Mist Direction or How DAK Operations just slipped Joe Rohde a Mickey

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Mist Direction or How DAK Operations just slipped Joe Rohde a Mickey

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Folks who visited Disney's Animal Kingdom late last month got something of a treat. In that -- for a while there, anyway -- most of "Expedition Everest" 's effects were actually working. The scenic mist that's supposed to drift off of Forbidden Mountain top actually did that. The fog bank that your train is supposed to roll through as you barrel backwards through that ice cavern was actually in place. Even the Yeti was in "A" mode, viciously swinging at tourists whenever they zoomed through his lair.

But then -- as April gave way to May -- one by one, EE's effects stopped working ... again. First the mist stopped drifting off of Forbidden Mountain. Then the fog bank faded away. And finally -- late last week -- the Yeti stopped moving. He's once again in "B" mode. As in: "Broken." No longer able to swipe & snarl at WDW guests, this 25-foot tall AA figure has since been placed in a frightening pose and lit with a strobe light. Which -- as you're rolling through the Yeti's darkened lair toward the end of this thrill ride -- gives the illusion that he's still moving.

Now one might wonder -- given that these "Expedition Everest" effects were working back in late April -- why have they all stopped working now? Is this shoddy maintenance on Disney World's part?

Actually, no. You see, in reality, that scenic mist & fog bank effect had proved to be a hinderance to safe day-to-day operation of this DAK attraction. In that all of that extra moisture was playing hell with this thrill ride's sensors. Which is why -- shortly after "Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain" officially opened to the public back in April in 2006 -- the mist & fog effect were turned off by Ops.

And as for the Yeti itself ... This enormous AA figure has been an operational nightmare almost from Day One. Which is why he's typically left in "B" mode these days.

Joe Rohde speaking at the 10th anniversary celebration of Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park.
Photo courtesy of Denise Preskitt of MouseSteps.com

"But if that's really the case, then why were all of these 'Expedition Everest' effects working last month?," you ask. It's simple, really. Joe Rohde, Senior Vice President and Executive Designer for Walt Disney Imagineering was visiting the Walt Disney World Resort in late April. To be specific, Joe was in town to take part in Animal Kingdom's 10th anniversary celebration.

And given that Rohde's extremely close association with this theme park and "Expedition Everest" in particular ... Well, DAK's Ops didn't want to disappoint Joe. Let him see any "bad show" while he was in that park. Which is why -- for the exact length of time that this WDI VP was supposed to be on property -- EE's mist & fog effects were turned back on. Animal Kingdom's Operations staff also jury-rigged the Yeti so that this AA figure would perform flawlessly. For a while, anyway.

The end result was ... Well, for as long as Joe was in town for that 10th anniversary celebration, Animal Kingdom -- more importantly, "Expedition Everest" -- operated just as he had originally intended them to be run. As soon as Rohde flew back home to Southern California, those mist & fog effects were turned off. And the Yeti was allowed to run until he broke down ... again.

Now this may seem like a fairly underhanded thing for Ops to do (i.e. trick a senior Walt Disney Company official into thinking that things are going great at a particular park and/or resort when actually they're not). But WDW has this long-standing tradition of deliberately duping Mouse House management. A tradition -- I might add -- that dates back to the days when Dick Nunis ran Disney World like it was his only personal duchy.

Nunis was infamous for mapping out well in advance the exact route that the Suits would be following when they toured Property. Then literally hours before these executives were scheduled to begin their walk-thru, Dick would dispatch Disney World's cadre of cleaners & painters. So that they could then clean up and/or touch up every item that these execs would pass as they inspected each ride, park or resort.

Mind you, there was one man that Nunis was never able to dupe. And that was Walt Disney himself. As Dick recalled in a May 1999 interview for "Eyes & Ears" ...

 Former Chairmain of Disney Parks & Resorts Dick Nunis.
Copyright 1982 Disney. All Rights Reserved

"I was promoted to supervisor of Disneyland's Frontierland and Adventureland. And during my first week in that role, Walt got on the "Jungle Cruise," went around and got off, and called me over. He chewed me up one side and down the other. He asked me 'What's the trip time?' and he knew in those days it was seven minutes. He said ' Well, Dick, I just got a four-and-a-half-minute trip! I went through the hippo pool so fast I couldn't tell if they were hippos or rhinos. How would you feel if you went to the movies and they cut the center reel out of the picture?'

Then he proceeded to tell me, 'We've gotta maintain the same consistent show regardless of how long the wait is.' So after he finished chewing me out, I said 'Walt, have you got a minute?' and he said 'Sure. What for?' I said 'Well, sir, I'm new here. I'd like to go around with you on a boat. You tell me how you want it, and that's the way it'll be.' He said, 'Okay. Let's go.'

So we went on it a couple of times, and he said, 'You know, Dick, we don't really have a lot of show here. We're going to be adding show, but right now we've got to play to the show. So don't just have the boat go around at one speed. Play to the show and slow the boat up when you've got some animation, and then when there isn't anything there, speed it up. It'll be more interesting.'

So that's what we did. I got off the boat and he left. Cliff Walker was my foreman. So I said, 'Okay. You and I are gonna get seasick.' We worked in teams and we had one operator drive and one spiel. And then we'd flip it and train them how to drive it and then how to spiel it, and then put them together.

So we were ready the first week, and Walt came down for a weekend. Never got on a boat. Second weekend. Never got on a boat. We were training all that time. By that time we'd gotten clocks on the boat so they had key points where they should be. So that made it a lot easier.

The boarding area for Disneyland's Jungle Cruise circa 1957.
Copyright Disney. All Rights Reserved

And Walt came down, and I was ready. I had my best spieler in the number-one load position. And he hopped on and went around. (But) Walt's a pretty smart guy. He knew I had stacked the deck. So he got off the first boat and got on the second boat. We only had seven boats in those days. He rode five boats, got off and went 'thumbs up.' And I always wondered what would've happened if that thumb had been down."

Yeah, Walt was a tough guy to trick. Given that he liked to experience Disneyland just as the guests did, Disney would actually stand in line, making his way through the queue the way that the paying customers did. So -- as far as Walt was concerned -- it was always tough to stack the deck.

Whereas the Michael Eisner-era executives ... Given that these Suits seemed to want as little to do with the public as possible, they'd typically come into the park from Backstage, then head straight for whatever ride, show and attraction that they were supposed to experience and/or inspect. Once their tour was over, they'd then be whisked back to their town cars. Where their driver would then take them straight to some high-end Disney World resort.

And -- over time -- even the WDW resorts got into the act. They'd deliberately make changes / improvements to the hotel rooms that senior Disney Company officials were supposed to be staying in while they were on property.

Take -- for example -- Disney's Yacht Club Resort. Michael Eisner's hotel-of-choice whenever he stayed on property. Disney's then-CEO always liked to stay in that hotel's Vice Presidential suite. So -- two days prior to Eisner's arrival at Walt Disney World -- Yacht Club management would block out that room. They'd then have WDW's painters come in and retouch the place. They then rip up the carpet and swap out the mattress. Clean the suite from top to bottom. So that -- when Michael arrived at that hotel -- he would then, in essence, be walking into a brand-new room.

Disney's Yacht Club Resort as seen from Crescent Lake.
Copyright 2003 Disney. All Rights Reserved

Speaking of walking ... The hotel would actually steam clean all of the carpets that led from the lobby to the Vice Presidential Suite. Or -- if the carpet was thought to look worn -- they'd actually have it ripped out and replaced. Just so that everything that Eisner saw as he walked to his room would look flawless.

As for the room itself ... Because Eisner was such a notoriously bad sleeper, Yacht Club staffers would actually black out the windows in the Vice Presidential Suite. Covering each pane of glass with an adhesive plastic sheet that would help make the room seem darker. Doing anything and everything that they could to head off possible complaints from Michael.

But now that we're in the Iger era ... WDW officials are finding it a lot harder to stack the deck. Particularly when it comes to John Lasseter.

You see, when it comes to Pixar's Grand Pooh-Bah ... Back in the 1970s, Lasseter actually worked at Disneyland. He started as a trash sweeper in Tomorrowland and eventually worked his way up to becoming a skipper on the "Jungle Cruise." So -- much to Disney World management's chagrin -- WDI's Principal Creative Advisor is a guy who actually knows his way around a Disney theme park. As a former hourly employee, he already knows most of the tricks that managers like to play.

More to the point, John is old school. Meaning that -- just like Walt -- he likes to experience the parks just as the guests do. Which is why -- when Lasseter was recently at the Resort to discuss a new super-secret restaurant project -- he didn't just hole up in some conference room at the Team Disney Building. No, John spent three hours at the Magic Kingdom's Liberty Tree Tavern. He sat with three of Disney World's top Food Service guys and personally observed how that place operated, watching firsthand how the servers interacted with the characters and visa versa.

Photo by
Jeff Lange

"What sort of super-secret restaurant-related project was Lasseter in Orlando gathering information for?," you query. Well, only a rat would reveal advance information about that new Pixar-themed eatery that's currently under consideration for the WDW resort. But if you liked that animation studio's 2007 release ... Chances are that you're going to love this restaurant. If it actually makes off of WDI's drawing board, that is.

Anyway ... Getting back to the starting point of today's article ... What are your thoughts on WDW Ops' practice of occasionally duping senior Disney officials? Making the suits think that things are going better than they actually are? Would you prefer that they were more honest with Mouse House management?

Or -- looking at this situation from the Operations side of the fence -- wouldn't it be better if WDI actually designed attractions that were easy to operate on a day-to-day basis? That didn't include effects that impeded safe-and-continuous operations of that ride and/or AA figures that were extremely difficult to keep up and running?

Your thoughts?

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  • It isn't just the "design factor impeding safety" going on here.  After all, these attractions are tested repeatedly throughout the design process and throughout the installation process...so, if there would have been a problem in the operational factors, chances are it would have been caught early on and attended to.

    What is more likely is that the resort maintenance teams are attributing these factors of operating expensive special effects to design flaws and pushing the problem back off onto Imagineering.  Even more factorable than that, the operating budget people are probably messing more with the needs of the maintenance team which is trying to meet the needs of what Imagineering implemented in the original design and there is a total bureaucratic snafu going on  that ties up the hands of everyone involved...and, in the corporate fear environment that the "powers that be" which have dictated Disney up until now instituted, no one wants to take, or knows how to take, responsibility for the proper funding of maintenance and daily upkeep to have the show running appropriately for everyone involved...from Veeps to guests to everyone inbetween.

    This is a problem inherent on all attractions - from a simplistic flat ride (Teacups/Dumbo) to a more involved show based attraction (Jungle Cruise) all the way up to an Everest or Nemo Submarine Voyage (depending upon which coast you are located).  There is so much confusion and scattered corporate entities handling the aspects of operating and maintaining these shows and attractions that the right hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing, let alone even acknowledging the left digit bearing unit!

    Then, add in the factors of the non-existant budget and horrid non-unification of all maintenance departments and organizations within the park system, the lack of any standarization of operational functions between east and west in the Magic Kingdoms, let alone a multiple park resort complex, the lack of any real authority or communicayion given between Show Quality Services, the field Imagineering offices, the maintenance teams for any given area or attraction...and, the fact that budgets are siphoned and streamlned and cycled into self perpetuating systems that allow the corporate entities who sit at the top floor offices to keep themselves paid and the prime stockholders appeased...it is a game that is equally self perpetuating and creates the lack of trust, the showboating of matters when the high muckity mucks are in house and on the scene, and, in the long run, self destructs the entire operation before the eyes of the people it was truly intended for...the guests who are visiting.

    The complexities and departments and divisions have gotten too diversified and seperated from each other to really attend to these matters properly.  It isn't "over-designed technical attractions"...it is "over designed business units and divisions of operations."

    Until there can be an actually synergy tie between the park upkeep and daily operational maintenance with on-sight field Imagineering offices, until there is a direct link between parts and supply ordering and maintenance needs and stock issues due to monetary limitations, until there is a removal of the fear of having to cover the independent hienie and the rememberance of how everything should be working as a team...these issues will prevail.  Until there is a set line of operational order and standards that exist equally for all parks and divisions of upkeep maintenance and operation, this will continue to happen.  Until Imagineering becomes interwoven on a daily basis with the maintenance and upkeep of the park shows and attractions, well, the fall off and problems will continue to exist.

    This is something that the new regime may be able to address.  It took a long time for the pendulum to swing so far out of balance and create the issues that exist today.  I imagine it will take a good amount of time for that balance to swing back and be restored.

  • Hotels are one thing.  I understand why WDW officials would go the extra mile to make sure Eisner got everything he wanted out his stays at the Yacht Club.  That is nothing new for any hotel when it comes to a high profile guest.  Making sure everything is up to snuff on rides and attractions seems a little underhanded and counterproductive.  

    Joe Rohde has got to know what is going on with Expedition Everest.  People complain about it all the time.  The problems are referenced on this site (and others like it) weekly.  Not letting Rohde see the problems with his own eyes is disrespectful to both him and the guests.  The guy was smart enough to design a great ride.  He should be smart enough to work on solutions for any problems it may be experiencing.

  • I'm actually notn surprised to hear about the Yeti AA figure problems. It was a concept figure to begin with. Eventually a Yeti AA 2 will replace it. Remember all the stories about the development of the original Lincoln AA figure? As for the various fog effects, turn them off if it detracts on safety issues.

  • What a depressing post, Jim. At least Lasseter is still my hero. Disney needs more people like him.

  • Okay, so let me sort of expand on what dravanos said and ask the painfully obvious question here ...

    Can't Joe Rhode read?? Or more importantly, doesn't he know anyone who can??

    I mean seriously ... would he actually fall for that when all he has to do is go read the latest story from Jim Hill that blows the lid off Ops' scam? As much as you want to claim that Ops pulled the wool over his eyes, he must be complicit to a degree, because I refuse to believe there's any way he could NOT KNOW that this was going on.

    FWIW, overall I completely agree with Skipperwest. I think he's got it spot on. Disney's theme parks have grown so completely unwieldy and are just so poorly organized operationally that it's just one total snafu.

    Quite honestly, I think Iger needs to gut the entire organizational structure and rebuild it from the ground up in a cohesive and synergystic model where everyone is pulling their cart in the same direction. Right now you've got folks headed out in every direction on the compass rose. It's a mess!

  • I am not at all sure where you are getting all your information Jim, but I was on Everest this weekend, and the yeti was working flawlessly, and the mist off the top of the mountain was functioning as well.  I will say though that mist effects in the parkks are especially problematic in Florida's weather.  On high humidity days, which as I am sure you are aware are quite common,  the mist does not stay suspended in the air as mist for long because the air simply can't hold anymore water.  So the mist is virtually non-existent as mist.  It then fall to the surrounding are and pools or keeps the area just slightly damp.  When you add to that the nice warm air, mold, mildew and fungus find their own "happiest place on earth".   This leads to slick, slippery surfaces, health issues, not to mention bad show.  And for those that believe WDI test for these issues, you'd be wrong.  If you consider that most attractions open in the spring, the testing goes on in the cooler drier months of fall and winter.  Very rarely are these things tested in the heat of Florida's summer, and if they are test in the summer in Southern California, it can hardly compare to the weather factors in Florida.

    Now am I saying park Ops never shuts down an effect when the big wigs aren't around? No.  It does happen, but I would say that the blame for this should be about fifty-fifty in terms of Operations cost savings, and WDI designing a product that is not sustainable.

  • i think the ratatouille restaurant sounds great!!! that is my favorite pixar film and it'd be cool to see the theming in there.

    i wonder if it'd be an upscale restaurant like gusteau's or if it'd be character dining.

    i also wonder what park it would go into??? france would make the most sense, but i figure the existing restaurants there are doing well (i don't know).

    they'll probably put it in tomorrowland because lately they like to put things in tomorrowland that doesn't fit!

  • Expedition Everest can live without the risk (though it'd be nice if they found a way to make it work), but the yeti can't be shut off permanently. That's just not acceptable. That's the climax of the attraction. It's got to work.

  • "...and WDI designing a product that is not sustainable."

    I figured that is why the reliance of digital screens and projections more often since they seem to have a better track record of not breaking down as much.

  • Disney isn't the only business guilty of this practise by any means, and the suits know full well it's going on.  But sometimes feined 'ignorance is bliss', their egos LIKE the fact that people run around making everything look just perfect for them, many of them could care less if it's not so perfect for anyone else, as long as THEY see perfection, then they can use the facade that the perfection is real and therefore reflects well on them.

  • No further comment about this story is really necessary.  If Stevennye was at DAK over the weekend of May 24/25, and the Yeti and mist effects at Expedition Everest were in fine working order at that time (as he says they were), then the whole premise of Jim's article is now invalid.


  • WDW Ops have been known to fudge facts the other way as well.  Case in point, the WDW subs - they hated them, and wanted them gone.

    When Ovitz was prexy and paid a visit, they made sure to show him the most decrepit, leaking, clunky submarine in the fleet - the other subs were in need of some rehab, but nowhere near as bad.  But after seeing this and being told by ops that that was the condition of all the subs, the suits were only too happy to sign off on the closing of the much-beloved classic Disney attraction.

    As the only female Knight of the Black Spur, I can tell you that it galls me to this day that not only was a wonderful, fun attraction removed, but that it has yet to have a valid replacement.

  • Is there an Ops rep at Imagineering?

  • I posted my own theory here: http://hedreamsoffreeways.blogspot.com/2008/05/resuscitating-yeti.html. But if Stevennye saw everything working recently, then I agree with bonk! It's a non-issue.

    I just hope the Yeti is working next time I'm in Florida.

  • As one who has been on EE many times since it first opened, I have to say the ride is that much more appealing when everything is working correctly. When the yeti is stuck in break-down mode, it is an obvious let-down, but I have ridden many times with somebody who has never been before and they just don’t know what they are missing. I think that when you consider there is really only one other worthwhile “repeat” ride in the whole park, it saddens me to think that they can’t give each and every visitor the intended show on EE. If the mist is a safety issue, fine. But I have seen the AA Yeti broken more times than it has worked, especially in the past year or so I have never caught it operating, and my family and I have annual passes and go there every other month or so.

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