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"Hatch! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer" takes you inside the development of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

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"Hatch! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer" takes you inside the development of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror

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Chris sent me an e-mail earlier this week in regards to the "Unofficial Guide Disney Dish" podcast that I do with Len Testa, where he asked:

"Where do you get all of the stories that you tell on these podcasts? I'm a big Disney history buff. But you always seem to have these behind-the-scenes stories that I've never heard before. Where do you get your material?"

Thanks for the kind words, Chris. As to where I get the information that I used in those "Unofficial Guide Disney Dish" podcasts as well as the stories that I post here on JHM ... Look, I've been doing this for a long time now. 30 years this year, to be exact. And over the past three decades, I've interviewed a lot of Imagineers and befriended a number of Disney Legends. And these people have been very, very generous with me when it comes to their time as well as the information that they've been willing to share.

But -- to be blunt -- a lot of this supposedly insiders-only info is already readily available to the public. You just have to know where to look.

Take -- for example -- C. McNair Wilson's terrific new book, "Hatch! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer" (Books Village, September 2012). Now to be perfectly honest, the title of this self-help book is somewhat misleading. Given that "Hatch!" is -- when you get right down to it -- really more about brainstorming than it is about theme parks.

But that said, there are stories here in this 208 page paperback that every serious Disney theme park fan just HAS TO read. Take -- for example -- Wilson's take on how the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror actually came into being. To hear C. NcNair tell this highly entertaining behind-the-scenes tale, the origin of this E-Ticket can be traced back to the time ...

Copyright Book Villages. All rights reserved

When Michael Eisner was wooing Mel Brooks to move his production company, Brooksfilm, to the Disney Studios lot in Burbank, he brought Mel over to Imagineering. Mel and his son, Max, love Disneyland. I was charged with assembling a small team of my fellow concept designers to met with Mel, Michael and Marty (Sklar), chief of Imagineering.

"Let's do a Mel Brooks attraction for Disney-MGM Studios, Florida," Michael said.
"How would we do that?" Mel asked immediately.
"McNair?" my boss, Marty, prodded.
"Well, Mr. Brooks ..."
"Call me, Mel," he said. "And you are ... ?" (Looking at my name tag.)
"I'm Mr. Wilson." He laughed big and we were off to a grand start. (I recall he also slapped me, playfully.)
"Think of it as telling a great Mel Brooks story," I said. "But instead of telling it in moving images projected on a wall, we tell it with concrete walls and the technology of modern theme parks. Audio Animatronics, high-tech ride vehicles, Pepper's Ghost ..."
"Who's Pepper?" Mel asked.
"Doesn't matter. He's dead."

We spent several hilarious sessions with His Silliness, Mr. Brooks, over the next few weeks. It was a master class in "What makes funny." The team reviewed every Mel movie. No single film lent itself to direct translation into a theme park attraction, but Young Frankenstein became our muse: silly and scary. We hit on the notion of a big, old, condemned, and humorously haunted hotel in old Hollywood -- the Mel Brooks Hollywood Horror Hotel (original working title). As Mel often said, 'Say 'Horror' slowly or it's no longer a family ride." To avoid that problem we nicknamed the project "Hotel Mel."

Copyright 20th Century Fox. All rights reserved

Now where this section of "Hatch!" really gets interesting is when Wilson talks about how he and some veteran Imagineers came up with the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror's heart-stopping finale in WDI's cafeteria.

I doodled the rough layout of the hotel (on a series of napkins, of course) and told the engineers our idea of going past several haunted floors and then ... "out of the shaft and down the hall."

"Can we do that?" I asked one of them. "Can we take an elevator out of its shaft?"

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Sure," Jack said. He said it easy, as if I'd asked, "Can I have the pepper?" After several "yes" answers to many more wild, impossible questions, the engineers had a question or two for me.

Mainly they asked: "How will you get everyone back down to the lobby?"

I actually had an idea. The team hadn't thought that far. I was just hoping they wouldn't think I was nuts for taking an elevator out of its shaft. I had been using a salt shaker as the elevator and my floor plans on two or three dozen napkins as the hotel. "Well," I said," what I'd like to do is crash through the outside wall of the hotel and ..." moving the salt shaker (elevator) to the edge of the table I released it and let it drop to the carpet. "I'd like to drop the elevator, full of guests, over the edge of the building."

Copyright Disney  Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... Silence.

"How many floors? How far do you want to drop them?"

"I dunno, six or eight stories."

"Nah," Jack -- Disney Imagineering legend -- said with a snarl, "Too short."

"Ten stories?" I said.

"Come on Theme Park Boy, think!" (Apparently the engineer thought that I was the boring one.)

(Okay ... thinking ... it's the "Mel Brooks Hollywood Horror Hotel") "How about thirteen stories!"

"Good answer." Jack took another bite of his pastrami on rye.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And this is just the beginning of the great behind-the-stories you'll find in "Hatch! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer." By that I mean, C. McNair (who had a hand in the development of 7 different Disney theme parks) can take you places that every Disneyana enthusiasts has just dreamed about.

Want proof? Check out this especially juicy excerpt:

I know exactly how Disney's California Adventure sprang to life -- I was there when it began.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

There were just eight of us in the room when Disney CEO Michael Eisner drew two big circles, badly. Pointing at the bottom circle, he said, "If I gave you these one hundred acres of asphalt in front of Disneyland (a.k.a. the Disneyland parking lot) what would you do with it?"

"Another theme park?" Somebody asked.

"I don't know."

"But where will everyone park?" Someone had inadvertently invited a Type A to a creative meeting.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Don't think about that," Michael said. "Give me a reason to move all those cars."

"So it can be anything?"

"You tell me."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

And let me tell you folks something. If you're looking for a genuinely entertaining & inspirational book about the subject of brainstorming that also includes some of the best behind-the-scenes stories about Walt Disney Imagineering that I've read in years, then you need to get your hands on a copy of  "Hatch! Brainstorming Secrets of a Theme Park Designer" right now.

You can thank me -- and C. McNair Wilson -- later.

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  • I got one of the first copies of this book as soon as it came out. I followed the creative process of it coming together, on his blog. He is an extremely multi-talented guy and also did all of the drawings/sketches in the book.

    Check out his blog, too, at www.TeaWithMcNair.typepad.com for more of his creative works as they happen.

    (He even helped out with our plays in high school a few decades ago - turning very little into a whole lot. McNair has had a big influence on my career and life.)

    I can't recommend highly enough how great this book is.

  • About 3 years ago, I did an early morning Architecture tour of DHS. The immagineer Alex talked about all the Art Deco styles and the importance of the parking sign on the side of the building right as you turn on Sunset. He also said that the Tower of Terror was going to be based on a Mel Brooks idea, but he said it was going to be about the movie “High Anxiety” at first. Do you know anything about this concept?

  • Wonderful story about the Tower of Terror ride. While the original at the Studios park was exceptional, the DCA version seemed to fallen apart in the worst way. DCA's concept was equally bad. The tag line should be "wanna design a bad theme park and ruin a great attraction."

  • Thanks, "Mr.Hill", for the great review and for posting the ToT excerpt, from HATCH!

    As of today (4.31.13) "HATCH!" is in Amazon.com's Top 10 books in both "brainstorming" (1,300 titles) and "theme parks" (15,000 titles). Thanks to all who are buying and USING the book. The soul of HATCH! is to teach working teams how to do real-deal, game-changing, make-you-competition-weep-like-a-little-girl brainstorming that works. (Instead of the typical, corporate, playful arguing with snacks on the table.)

    The first half of HATCH! will teach you my “7 Agreements of Brainstorming” with real examples form Disney projects and my clients post-Disney. I taught the “7 Agreements” at Disney University for years, including as a consultant for six years after leaving my years at Imagineering.

    CHRIS : Great memories. Curiously, I have been facilitating brainstorming for all sorts of groups (huge corporations to small non-profits) for years ...long before I landed at Imagineering. It was there, at "WDI" (Walt Disney Imagineering) that my process was really put to the test in developing Disney-MGM Studios, EuroDisney, Pleasure Island, Disney (Tokyo) Seas (originally slated for Long Beach (CA) waterfront, California Adventure ...and more.

    Tower of Terror was originally going to be "attached" to a real, 5-star, high-end hotel to be built at the front gate of "Disney-MGM Studios." We thought one end of the that hotel could be condemned, haunted ...as such it would not be based on any one particular Mel Brooks movie, but we would draw bits, beats, and moments from many of Mel’s comedies. Certainly “High Anxiety" leant itself to that early concept. (We gleaned ZERO ideas from ”Spaceballs.”)

    When Disney corporate decided NOT to build the real hotel, they put "Hotel Mel" on ice. But then it seemed strong enough of a concept that the haunted hotel attraction could stand (and fall) on its own. Meanwhile, someone at WDI who was a huge Twilight Zone buff remembered an episode that began with a haunted elevator. That's the VERY SHORT clip used in the cue area. The bulk of that pre-show is a voice artist impersonating Rod Serling with new visuals assembled at WDI. It is, I believe a perfect conceptual marriage. (Never mind that the final episode of Twilight Zone aired June 1964! But is still in re-runs ...on Mars.)

    GEORG: As to your concern for the quality of "California Adventure"(the park) and ToT (at DCA), there are FOUR Towers of Terror: Florida, California, Tokyo, and Paris. I was in Paris during their ToT construction so I have not been on the finished ride. Ditto w/ the Tokyo Disney Seas ToT (largest of the four ToT’s.) I have not talk to anyone who has experienced ALL FOUR ToT's. But ANY time Disney builds a second, third, or other addition versions of an existing attraction, things change—Pirates, Splash Mountain ... NOT ALWAYS FOR THE BETTER. Remember, though, most guests will only every ride one, maybe two of the same attraction in different parks. Lots of people (TOO MANY, USUALLY) get involved in the initial decision making and then too many MORE in the next version. They do NOT always make the next ones better.

    At least on the redux of California Adventure,  Disney Co. had the wisdom to bring back my old pal Bob Weis (who was creative lead on Disney-MGM Studios.) Bob is a conceptual architect with great taste and a keen sense of thematic, environmental design. The New (and greatly improved) DCA is in no small part due to Bob's inventive mind and tasteful judgment. Bob was the grand overseer when I was asked to assembly a team (a.k.a."The Knuckleheads") for a Mel Brooks ride.

    My disappointment with ToT (ALL of them) is that I left WDI before the first one was completed at WDW. In the original design I had called for a cast of LIVE actors populating the lobby. As the guy (me) who created "Streetmosphere" (the "Citizens of Hollywood Blvd.") program for the opening of Disney-MGM Studios. The plan was for there two be a half dozen stagnant and low-motion AA figures in the lobby—front desk mgr., mahjong players, bellman, man reading newspaper, cocktail waitress, etc. The twist was that two of these characters would be a LIVE actor. BUT, you would not know which were LIVE and which were AA until they broke from their slow, robotic routine, came to life (!) and confront guests with ..."Any luggage, sir?"

    Immediately, a crew of Disney custodial hosts would show up with mops, sponges, and towels to clean the wet spot on the floor where the terrified guest was shaking in their new New Balance sneakers.

    I could go on ...but I need to get some writing done on "Book No.2" in the HATCH! creativity trilogy. As HATCH! is self-published, my publishing partner (Book Villages) and I are shooting for an autumnal release. Additionally, we hope to have "eHATCH!" ready at that time for the Kindle, Nook, iPad "readers.” [HATCH! is designed to encourage marginal notes, doodle, and ...that’s why I added (just before HATCH! went to press) Chapt.14: “The Doodle Factor” to teach and encourage visual thinking. That will be tough in “eHATCH!”] Because HATCH! is so heavily illustrated we are working to get the e-book version to work with the art and text aligned in the various e-book formats.

    By-the-by, “Book N o.2” is NOT the title of the next tome in the HATHC! try-logy. The title will be announced this summer.

    Read my updates & progress reports in two places:

    • My blog: www.TeaWithMcNair.com

    • www.Facebook.com/Hatch-by-McNair-Wilson

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