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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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  • As Jim said, this is nothing new.  I remember in the early 90's, during an Eisner visit, one project manager was particularly antsy and being constanly updated as to the whereabouts of Eisner's entourage. When they got to the Disney-MGM Studios, he sprung into action and had a team of maintenance personnel gather at the Great Movie Ride.  When Michael rode the ride, they actually had guys underneath the attraction manually pushing the (never working) Busby Berkely girls stage around and around until his ride vehicle passed that show scene.

    I later asked him why they didn't just ask Eisner for money to properly fix the show piece, and he shook his head and said "You have so much to learn about this business."

  • I think SOMEONE had "a lot to learn about this business", but it wasn't the guy who asked the question ... it was the project manager.

  • My sister was a former Movie Ride CM, and she has many a tale of the CM break room being fixed up and recaprted, with new appliances and furniture brought in just so that Eisner and his guests would not see how bad it was. Once they were gone, everything was returned to it's crappy state.

    It doesn't make it right, but it's common in many industries. Broadway, film, hell, even the circus...

  • In the corporate world, no one wants to be identified with a problem or a "negative."

    "Don't nobody bring me no bad news." - The Wicked Witch in "The Wiz"

    "Isn't it grand! Isn't it fine! Look at the cut, the style, the line!" - Danny Kaye

    "You're right, you're are so right! I think so, too! Why didn't you think of that, Stephens? You're fired, you son of a gun." -- Larry Tate

  • Umm... I was there and rode twice at 2 different times on the day of the 10th, just after Joe's speech and later that afternoon, and there was no mist, no waterfall, no bird, and no steam.  Yeti was working fine, but he was also working fine just this week.  And for that matter, has never been in B mode any of the many times I've been there.  I realize this may be luck, but, at the very least, this article is bogus in that there was definitely a LOT of nonfunctioning things on the 10th.  More than I've ever seen on a "regular" day, in fact.  This article is hogwash, and just plays into the Disney Geekboy mindset that is becoming more and more self-destructive.  

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