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Monday Mouse Watch: The Operations side of the Disney theme park equation

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Monday Mouse Watch: The Operations side of the Disney theme park equation

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For the past few weeks, the Web has been awash with stories about how Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island is reportedly going to be rethemed. How this part of that Anaheim theme park (Which Walt Disney personally helped design, by the way. Numerous Disney biographies talk about how Walt supposedly took the plans for Tom Sawyer Island home with him one weekend. So that Disney himself could then chart out the attraction's coastline) is going to be reworked so that it can then be marketed to fans of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film series.

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Mind you, there are those who will tell you that this "Pirates" -themed redo of Tom Sawyer Island isn't necessarily a done deal. That it's just one of many concepts that the Imagineers are currently considering for the Disneyland Resort.

And they'd be right, actually. According to several Disney insiders that I've spoken with over the past week, plans for the entire Anaheim resort are very much in flux at the moment.

Take -- for example -- the DCA overhaul plan. That 10-year, $650 million scheme to reconfigure California Adventure into a more people-pleasing theme park. Week before last, the latest version of that plan was scrapped. As the Imagineers once again try to strike just the right balance between new attractions & shows that will actually get paying customers to come through the turnstiles and changes that can realistically be made to that theme park that are fiscally & operationally sound.

Truth be told, that's one of the main stumbling blocks to changing Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island into a "Pirates of the Caribbean" -themed play area. That -- strictly from an operational point of view -- this proposed $28 million redo doesn't make much sense.

As one veteran from Disneyland Operations explained it to me last week:

"You have to understand that Tom Sawyer Island is only reachable by raft. And these rafts can only carry 55 people at a time over to the island. So then -- when you factor in the time that it takes to safely load and unload each raft -- even when Disneyland has both rafts running and they're then being operated by veteran cast members who can work at peak efficiency, you can still only get 1,000 - 1,100 guests over to the island per hour.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Now keep in mind that Tom Sawyer Island has to close every day at dusk. Realistically that means that only 9,000 - 10,000 guests will ever get the chance to experience the island each day that this attraction is actually open.

Which seems like a fairly large number. But you have to remember that -- on a busy summer day -- you can have 60,000 - 70,000 people crammed into the park. Taking into consideration Tom Sawyer Island's operational hours plus the limited capacity of those rafts, that means that only 15% of Disneyland's paying customers ever get have the chance to experience the island on a day like that.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Which isn't really a problem now. Given that you're talking about a 50-year-old attraction that has limited appeal to today's guests. But if we were to actually retheme Tom Sawyer Island around the popular "Pirates of the Caribbean" film franchise ... Unless we can significantly expand the island's operating hours and/or radically increase the capacity of TSI's main transportation system, we're talking about a PR nightmare.

I mean, how would you like to be working at Guest Relations when a new "Pirates" -themed version of Tom Sawyer Island opens and be the one who has to explain to all those angry parents that -- due to the limited capacity of this new attraction -- only one out of every six guests will actually be able to get out to Pirate Island on a busy day at the park?"

Dealing with guests complaints about attractions that have extremely limited capacity is very much on TDA executives' minds right about now. Given all of the PR problems that they're anticipating having next summer with the opening of Disneyland's new "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" ride.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Now keep in mind that -- while Tomorrowland's old subs may have been switched over from diesel to electric power -- the actual interior of these eight 52-foot-long vehicles will only be changing slightly. Which means that the Imagineers have supposedly managed to shoehorn in two additional seats into each sub. Which will then change each submarine's capacity from 38 to 40 guests per voyage.

Soooo ... With all eight subs operating on a day when Disneyland is open from 9 a.m. to 12 midnight, that still means that only 17,000 - 18,000 guests will then get to experience the "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" ride ... Meaning that only one out of every three guests that are in the park on a busy day will actually be able to board the subs during in that 15 hour period.

Now it's important to understand here that Disneyland's new "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" will be the primary focus of the Anaheim resort's promotional push for the Summer of 2007. That there will be commercials on television, full page ads in newspapers & magazine, billboards along the 5 ... All in an effort to get people to come out to the park next year.

But what won't be mentioned in any of this "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" advertising is that only one third of the guests who buys admission to Disneyland will still actually be able to experience this ride on busy days.

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

At least from a PR point of view, this extremely-limited-capacity-of-the-park's-new-"Finding-Nemo-Submarine-Voyage"-ride-during-its-first-summer-in-operation situation is really causing TDA executives concern. Which is why a number of options to potentially diffuse this situation are reportedly already being considered. These include:

  • Holding several weeks' worth of special after-hours parties, where limited numbers of Disneyland annual passholders would then be allowed to ride this new Tomorrowland attraction -- as well as the new nighttime version of Space Mountain, Rock it Mountain -- as often as they like.

Which -- on paper -- all sound like wonderful ideas. Unless, of course, you happen to work in Operations at Disneyland. Then the very idea that management is toying with the idea of significantly extending the operational hours of this brand-new attraction is enough to give you fits.

How come? Our Ops insider explains:

"They haven't even finished building the ride yet. But we've already got managers talking about reinstating 'Magical Mornings' at the park and holding after-hours parties in order to accommodate the crowds. Do you realize how stupid it is to make plans like that when we don't even know yet what it's going to take to keep this attraction up & running on a daily basis?

Copyright 2006 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

This new version of 'Subs' features technology that's never been used in a Disney theme park before. Which means it's probably going to take a lot of extra effort after-hours in order to keep this stuff operational next summer. When we'll basically have every ride in the park in continuous operation from 9 a.m. to 12 midnight each day for three months solid.

And yet we've now got these managers talking about extending "Nemo' 's operational hours so that this new ride can then meet guest demand. Which is going to seriously cut into our maintenance time.

This is a bad idea. Which I'm hoping they'll abandon as we get closer to 'Finding Nemo' 's official opening date. Which -- in case you haven't noticed -- has already slid from May to June to now mid-July."

I know, I know. This Ops vet sounds very grumpy. But you'd be grumpy too if DLR management & the Imagineers kept talking about adding rides, shows and attractions to the theme park that you were expected to maintain without WDI or these Disneyland execs seeming to give much thought as to how these new additions will then be maintained.

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Which bring us to that 1920s-era transportation hub idea that the Imagineers have been kicking around as a possible redo of DCA's "Sunshine Plaza" area. Though the guys in Ops agree that California Adventure's entrance area really needs some help in order to make this theme park more appealing to the public, they still absolutely hate this idea.

Why For? Our Disneyland Operations old-timer continues:

"They want guests to experience what it was like to be an old-fashioned movie star by traveling in this open-top limousine that's driven by a uniformed driver. He'd then take guests to and fro from the Hollywood Pictures Backlot area. There'd also be this trolley that would take guests from DCA's new transportation hub out to Paradise Pier and back. Plus a rumbly old bus that would service both Condor Flats and Grizzly Peak.

It sounds like this would make the 'Sunshine Plaza' area a livelier place to visit. But the reality is -- given what it would actually cost to turn the front part of the park into a 1920s transportation hub -- Disney won't get a very good return on that investment. You see, very few DCA guests will ever get the chance to enjoy & experience these new attractions.

Photo by Jeff Lange

I mean, take a look at the extremely limited capacity of all of the vehicles that you find on Main Street U.S.A. Disneyland's horseless carriages carries less than 100 guests per hour. The fire engine? Just over 100 guests an hour.

The horse-drawn streetcar and the omnibus can each handle 400 - 600 guests per hour. But that's only when they're running. Let's remember that you have to suspend operation of all vehicles on Main Street when you've got a parade moving through the park.

So Disney's looking to spend upwards of $30 million to retheme the front part of DCA. Adding all of these low capacity attractions that would then have to suspend operation whenever you were running 'Block Party Bash' or the 'Electrical Parade.'

It seems like an awful lot of money to spend to something that very few California Adventure visitors will actually get the chance to experience and enjoy. Which is why it would make a lot more sense -- at least from an Ops point of view -- to take all of that money and spend it on a single brand-new high capacity ride for that theme park. Something a whole lot of people could enjoy during their day at the park."

Mind you, DCA's newest addition -- Midway Mania -- will have a fairly high capacity. With a vehicle loaded with 16 guests entering that attraction every 30 - 45 seconds, that new Paradise Pier interactive dark ride will have a THC (I.E. Theoretical Hourly Capacity) of 1,400 - 1,600 visitors per hour.

Which isn't exactly up there with what "Pirates of the Caribbean" (Which can handle 3,000 guests per hour) and "The Haunted Mansion" (Which can handle 2,500 guests per hour) can carry. But it's certainly better than Disneyand's new "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage" ride will be able to do.

Anyway ... That's the Ops side of the Disney theme park equation. At least when it comes to the seldom-seen, behind-the-scenes effort that's involved with operating & then maintaining new attractions once they've been placed in the parks.

But what do you folks think? Do you think it's wise of WDI & Disneyland management not to consult with the Operations staff when they design new rides, shows and attractions for the Anaheim resort?

Your thoughts?

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  • That makes a great deal of sense in regards to Tom Sayer's Island being able to hande monster crowds. Here's a crazy idea. Would it be logistical possible to build a tunnel system under the Rivers Of America? Guests could enter by the canoe docking area and walk over to the island. Kind of like a Pirate grotto to get to the island. You could have ramps for easy access of all guests. The tunnel could be nice and wide as well to accomodate everyone. Just a crazy thought! I'm sure the cost would be staggering to build though.
  • During the summer rush, tourists can't ride all the rides in one day at Disneyland. This is nothing new - it is mentioned in every guidebook the tourist picks up, and tourists are told they need 2-3 days to see everything. No matter how much publicity money is spent, there will be many people who have no interest in riding the Nemo subs. The web was all abuzz with the Pirates rehab, but once the seasonal annual passes were blacked out, the huge lines shrunk to a 20 minute wait. Figuring out a way for the annual passholders to ride the subs and get it out of their systems, especially before the public grand opening is a win-win situation.
    The rest of the arguments were simply made by someone who has never been to, or is unfamiliar with Tokyo Disneyland.
  • "Mind you, there are those who will tell you that this "Pirates" -themed redo of Tom Sawyer Island isn't necessarily a done deal. That it's just one of many concepts that the Imagineers are currently considering for the Disneyland Resort."
    And you'll notice (as with Tarzan's Treehouse, or Sounds Lincoln), they always choose DLR for sneaking out the more radical loopy "Cure it with a tie-in" concepts that they think might not fly with purists--Apparently the idea being that if it doesn't work, "fewer people will notice" than at big, splashy WDW, with more exposure at stake.
    Fortunately, sounds as if logistics may win out in this case, and sanity prevail--In Pressler's day, they'd have gone ahead anyway.
    "It sounds like this would make the 'Sunshine Plaza' area a livelier place to visit. But the reality is -- given what it would actually cost to turn the front part of the park into a 1920s transportation hub -- Disney won't get a very good return on that investment. You see, very few DCA guests will ever get the chance to enjoy & experience these new attractions."
    Seeing as few ever get to ride the Main St. trolley either, it's mainly for thematic scenery purposes--DCA geography's so convoluted, getting around needs all the help it can get.  
    DCA's two biggest Iger-irritating problems are 1) Not enough rides, and 2) Day guests not figuring out what the heck the theme is supposed to be...They can try helping to solve 2 by the time 1 can have a little money thrown at it.
    Also, rumors have it that by the time "Midway Madness" goes in, Paradise Pier may be rethemed to a more turn-of-the-century Luna Park feel (darn, no more Beach Boys Disney music?), so the old-California trolley would help set the tone.
  • Increasing capacity for the island is not much of a deal, just take a look at Disneyland Paris with their Adventure Island: Just add a couple of suspension bridges from the main land over to the island - it's great fun walking on them and increases capacity a lot. Of course, all those strollers and wheelchairs would still have to take the raft, but strollers are so American anyway. ;)
    Also, even the darkest caves and bridges are open way into the night in Paris, so there must be a way to keep it open after dusk, they just have to figure it out and stop complaining.

    And regarding the low-capacity rides at DCA: It's not the capacity with these things that make them worth having (I've never seen a long line for them), it's about the style and atmosphere they bring into the park for each guest who just sees them.
  • curmedgeon said:
    "The rest of the arguments were simply made by someone who has never been to, or is unfamiliar with Tokyo Disneyland."
    I don't know what you mean by that, but now I'm curious...would you mind expanding, please?

    I agree with AlexK; I've never been on the horse-drawn carriages or trolley cars at WDW, but I love seeing them- it brings me back in time, just like Main Street should.  

    As for Tom Sawyer's Island, I'm torn between keeping the old and bringing in the new.  TSI has never been my favorite attraction, but it's fun to go to sometimes.  I wonder how much the pirates theme would change it.  Would there be pirates in the caves to scare you?  For some older people, that's a heart attack waiting to happen.  I just can't picture how they'd change the island.  Would there be characters from POTC on the island?  That'd be fun.  It's hard when an attraction Walt had a hand in may be going away...part of me wants it to always stay the same, in tribute sort of to Walt.  But, I'm curious at the same time as to how they'd change the attraction.
  • PingBack from http://brokehoedown.wordpress.com/2006/10/23/jim-hill-gives-voice-to-disneyland-operations-concerns/
  • So, our crusty old ops guys idea to save DCA is another E-ticket?  That's it?  leave everything else the same?  Someone's been breathing too many Autopia fumes.

    While I agree that the capactiy issue doesn't make sense, does everthing have to be about capacity?  Themeing is #1.  Remember, this is a theme park.  It needs something to set it apart from carnivals and amusment parks.

  • I have never been to Tom Sawyer's Island, so I have no idea what kind of attraction it is. Sadly, fewer kids today know who Tom Sawyer is, compared to the numbers of kids in Walt's day. FWIW, since Walt said "Disneyland will never be finished" and had no qualms about changing things in the park, I don't think it's sacrilege to change TSI. As for DCA - that place needs all the help it can get. I read somewhere that the lame Muppets 3D thing is going to be closed, which IMO is a step in the right direction. It's never been my favorite. Thank goodness Eisner wasn't allowed to do what he originally intended with that thing - throw out the Lincoln attraction and replace it with Kermit the frog!!! Now that's one change the public would NOT stand for. As for the Nemo ride...hopefully it will be GOOD and not like that Stitch disaster. We'll have to wait and see...
  • "But what do you folks think?"

    What do I think? I think this ... UGH!!!

    Maybe it's because I'm in management, but what I hear from this "crusty old Ops guy" reminds me so much of what a lot of people with no vision do at my job on a daily basis ... throw pointless roadblocks up in the way of progress.

    All I heard from Ops is why they can't do what they want to do ... how about turning on your brain and figuring out a way to make it work??? Don't come to management with problems ... bring SOLUTIONS to the table. I loathe this kind of "can't do" thinking.

    "Unless we can significantly expand the island's operating hours and/or radically increase the capacity of TSI's main transportation system, we're talking about a PR nightmare."

    First off ... A PR nightmare?? Please ... as someone previously mentioned, it's not like people show up at a theme for one day and expect to do and see everything (if they do they're idiots). Yeah, 20% of the people might get to see the thing on a given day, but over the course of their stay at DLR they'd get to see ALL the attractions ... they just have to prioritize them out and plan their time accordingly (which is pretty basic and, as was also previously stated, a fundamental part of every guidebook ever written). This may be just a TAD bit of an overstatement on this Ops person's part.

    Secondly ... ever heard of a friggin' BRIDGE???? Replace the boats ... add a foot bridge or two ... problem solved. Sheesh ... these people sound like they exist solely to find fault!!! These TSI issues aren't even real ISSUES for heaven's sake. It sounds more to me like they just want to stand in the way of change for any reason they can trump up.

    Frankly, I thought this whole article was pointless drivel. And let me tell you ... if these "crusty old Ops people" reported to me, they'd be fired on the spot. I manage creative people for a living and I expect a heckuva lot more out of them than what Disney is apparently getting from these twits.
  • "Secondly ... ever heard of a friggin' BRIDGE???? Replace the boats ... add a foot bridge or two ... problem solved. Sheesh ... these people sound like they exist solely to find fault!!!"

    I'm sorry, WDWacky, but a bridge would not work at all! All the canoes and other water traffic that passes through the Rivers of America, not to mention Fantasmic, would be blocked by any bridge. Besides, the rafts tie into the Tom Sawyer storyline, so maybe they could just speed up the rafts? I also like Wedway's tunnel idea, as that could just be a natural extension of *** Joe's caves. They could even advertise the expansion as "Newly Discovered! *** Joe's Secret Caves!"
  • Er, I'm confused. Why did "***" get star-ed out in my previous post? Maybe I'm just new, but is there auto-moderation/censorship on this site?
  • la_resistance28 said:
    "Besides, the rafts tie into the Tom Sawyer storyline, so maybe they could just speed up the rafts?"

    I hate to point this out, but if they re-theme it to a Pirates theme, why would it matter if there are rafts to tie in to a non-existent Tom Sawyer theme?

    Also, this was more of an illustrative point than necessarily a concrete solution to their problem. All I was trying to say was that these issues are hardly insurmountable and applying some basic problem solving skills could most definitely overcome them.

    Whether it's by a tunnel or a bridge is basically irrelevant.
  • Bridges sound good but what about the Mark Twain and the Sailing Ship Columbia? These are two icons that would be lost....
  • If the redo does actually happen, I doubt the raft system was slated to return.  A deep south method of transportation hardly would fit seemlessly with a mediterrannean pirates theme.  Having said that, I hope we wouldn't see something similar to what happenned at Paramount's Carowinds, where an island attraction similar to Tom Sawyer was converted into a rollercoaster (Borg Assimilator).  The new ride displaced a steam boat attraction as the brass created a land bridge for access.
  • Are the OPs part of the Imagineering team?  Is at least one there, at these meetings, saying we need x amount of hours down time this attraction to maintain it with x amount of staff? I could see where that would be highly useful imput.  I agree with elimiting the "can't do thinking" but at the same time, there are legitimate logistical issues that need to be resolved.  And solutions are much more workable if the folks that actually have to implement them are on-board and contributing.
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