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Cast Member Corner: Is it a sin to have too much synergy?

Cast Member Corner: Is it a sin to have too much synergy?

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Last week, 3 guests were sent to the hospital after a collision on the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. This is the third such accident in a year. The first of this trifecta cost a man his life.

These days, if you go to Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, or the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, you get an eyeful of branding...an ABC Week here, a Soap Opea fest there, ESPN being touted at restaurants, live-action movies being shilled on construction walls.

Disney's Animal Kingdom is like an socioenvironmental radical's propaganda dream come true...the river ride shows a rainforest aflame, putting lives in danger. Conservation Station speaks of diminishing habitats and species on the brink of extinction. The Kilimanjaro Safari would be nothing more than a clone of Wild Adventures' or Busch Gardens' own safari excursions, were it not for the semi-thrilling race against a team of eeeevil poachers.

Two of Disney's recent theatrical flops, "The Alamo" and "King Arthur," serve to demystify a duo of Disney's most beloved mythological characters: Davy Crockett and Arthur, King of England, who was first introduced to many a child through the animated classic "The Sword in the Stone."

As a former cast member, I often think back to the times I had during my time working at Magic Kingdom park in Florida. Especially my first few days of training, which were really more of an excuse to explore the park and learn the stories of what went on behind the scenes when the park complex was still on the drawing board. I didn't have more fun at any time during my "tour of duty, as it were.

But one thing stood out for me, it was something our guide during our park orientation tour said to us: "The aim of this park is FANTASY. People come here to get away from reality. It's our job to make sure that once people walk through those gates, that they enter another world, where what goes on outside does not intrude."

Given the above examples, is Disney corporate following its own mandate?

There was a time when the parks and the animation studio were the core of the Disney empire. Everything else the company did was considered advertising for those two aspects, starting with Walt's own TV show, "Disneyland", invented as a way to introduce audiences to the four main sectors of the original park. "The Wonderful World of Disney" featured openings and anniversary celebrations at the parks, concerts, and fun travels with celebrities touring the parks (never thought I'd see Kurt "Snake Plissken" Russell and Donny "This Smile is Surgically Fixed" Osmond in the same TV special). Walt even used his show as a way to get the word out about new attractions and events coming to the parks, long before the advent of the World Wide Web and Disney Magazine.

Something happened after Eisner took over. It seems the parks and the films became a platform for advertising both other aspects of the company and its own agenda (some would say a political one).

The Pirates of the Caribbean stopped chasing the wenches. The Jungle Cruise lost its guns. Buena Vista started releasing R-rated films. "Synergy" became a key word as new Disney acquisitions such as ABC and ESPN started getting their names and images slapped up around the parks. And suddenly, people started thinking, "This isn't the way things were when I was a kid."

Even the thing that started it all...finely-crafted, unique, epic animated filmmaking...became a thing of the past. This started out with the introduction of the so-called "cheapquel," low-cost direct-to-video sequels to the studio's animated classics produced by the company's television animation division. Then, fans' worst fears came to pass last year with the closure of the animation studio in Florida, who had produced "Mulan" and "Lilo & Stitch," two of the company's better animated films of the modern era.

The company has decided to shift its focus to 3D rendered computer animation, after viewing the shocking success it has brought to Steve Jobs' Pixar Studios. Now, Walt was certainly no Luddite, and embraced new technologies with the fervor of a schoolboy, one of the eccentric charms that led to the infatuation the public has with him, even today. In fact, the 1982 film "Tron," though not the cult success it would prove to be today, was greenlit on the basis of "What would Walt do?" But Walt also was a scholar of history and heritage, one of the reasons why today every park contains a section dedicated to the history and culture of the United States. Walt would likely have embraced CG Animation as well, but not on the condition of abandoning hand-drawn art.

In the post-"Lion King" Disney, the sale is the thing. That film showed the Board of Directors what synergy done RIGHT could properly produce. The problem was, the company didn't know when to stop. Suddenly, every time there was a new release, we had to endure toys at McDonalds, signage in the parks, ads in the literature, ridiculously-themed parades and shows, and ride re-themings. Not to mention the myriad of stuffed animals, T-shirts, toys, and souvenirs that were crammed onto gift shops in the parks.

Then, suddenly, there was a movie starring Goofy released, prominently featuring the ESPN and X-Games logos. Things had gone too far.

The parks had stopped selling the movie, they had started selling the merchandise INSPIRED by the movie. Rather than creating interest from the fans, it instead crammed it down everyone's throats.

The movies had stopped entertaining, and started shilling the product.

Synergy...it was all about the money. Greed is how fantasies start getting ruined.

Then the Board got another bright idea. A lot of the money they were taking in was being reinvested in the parks. So, said they, "Cut ye your budgets." And Paul Pressler and croniette Cynthia Harriss gladly obliged by cutting back spending on training, maintenance and staffing (Al Weiss, on the other hand, simply held off on any expansion projects at the WDW resorts).

At Disneyland, Tomorrowland was nearly completely shuttered. Maintenance was stretched thin. Training sessions, in many cases, were reduced to a third of the time that they normally took. Materials were replaced with cheaper alternatives. Costumes were changed across the board. Older, higher-paid employees were laid off.

At the Florida Property, new rides were canceled or severely cut back. Animal Kingdom's BEASTLY KINGDOM expansion, which would have made it possibly THE thrill park of Central Florida, was unceremoniously vaulted.

Then people on the West Coast started dying.

It started when a cleat was torn from the hull of the Sailing Ship Columbia and thrown into the crowd...a Microsoft software engineer was killed and two others injured. Others were injured when Space Mountain derailed. A worker died after falling from the catwalk of the Hyperion Theater. And in the past year, one man has died and thirteen have been injured in three separate accidents (one riderless) on Big Thunder Mountain. The first two accidents were traced to inadequate maintenance on the ride and inadequate operations training, respectively. The most recent is still under investigation.

Death and injury are the most inexcusable of intrusions into the fantasy of the sacred "Guest Experience".

Why did people stop going to see Disney's animated films? Because they stopped being unique and epic.
Why did people stop going to the parks? Because there wasn't anything new to discover there anymore.
Why did people stop watching ABC? Because it stopped being a source for quality programming and started becoming an advertisement for itself and its sister subsidiaries.

To butcher a phrase from Dr. Broom in the movie "Hellboy" :

"In the absence of magic, reality prevails."

Disney has lost its magic, both through its own actions and lack thereof. This company will always hold a special place in my heart because it was where I spent one of the best summers of my life. But I like to believe that what I saw was WALT's spirit shining thorough a veil of stagnation that it is going to take a huge effort to clear.

THAT is the company I went to work for. What it is now is nothing but a shadow of its former self.

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