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Monday Mouse Watch : Walt Disney Imagineering imagines itself a brand-new management team

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Monday Mouse Watch : Walt Disney Imagineering imagines itself a brand-new management team

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There is an old Zen Koan that goes something like this:

If a Tree Falls in the Forest, and No One is Around to Hear It, Does It Make a Sound ?

Last week, Walt Disney Imagineering experienced the corporate equivalent of that tree falling in the forest. In that last Tuesday, there was this extreme makeover of WDI's management team. Which will (in theory) significantly change the way that this division of the Disney Company does business from here on in. But because so many Imagineers were initially reluctant and/or downright fearful to talk about these changes ... It initially seemed as if they hadn't happened at all.

Of course, that may have been because the Imagineering head honcho who just got sidelined -- Executive Vice President and Senior Creative Executive Tom Fitzgerald -- had previously put the fear of God into everyone who worked in Glendale. Repeatedly warning all within earshot that any Imagineers who were caught leaking info to the Internet and/or having unauthorized contact with the press would automatically be fired. No questions asked.

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And given that Tom is still with WDI (Though now in a much less powerful, new ill-defined role), people who work at Imagineering were still somewhat reluctant to talk as last week wore on. It was only after the weekend arrived and people got back to the safety (More importantly, the privacy) of their own homes that this particularly juicy story started to get out.

"So who's in charge of Walt Disney Imagineering now ?," you ask. Two folks, actually :

  • Bruce Vaughn (formerly Vice President of R & D) has been promoted to Chief Creative Executive at Walt Disney Imagineering.
  • Craig Russell (formerly VP of Environmental Design & Ride / Show Engineering) has been promoted to Chief Design and Delivery Executive of WDI.

In essence, Walt Disney Imagineering is now going back to the structure that it used to have back in the late 1980s / early 1990s. Back when Marty Sklar was WDI's President & Vice Chairman and Stanley "Mickey" Steinberg served as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. And together, these two successfully rode herd on the development & construction of over $4.5 billion worth of theme parks & resorts.

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Anyway ... On Wednesday morning, Vaughn & Russell began making the rounds at Imagineering to rally the troops. And as he spoke with members of WDI's creative team, Bruce first paid tribute to Tom. Saying that Fitzgerald is " ... the best writer that we've got here at Imagineering. So we're going to continue to use his talents." But then Vaughn went on to share his vision for a revived & revised Imagineering. Where " ... We're no longer going to design projects that we don't intend to build."

And while it's great that Bruce is now mapping out a new, smarter business plan for WDI ... One of Vaughn's main priorities right now is finding a way to fix Imagineering's infamous corporate culture. In essence giving this entire division of the Walt Disney Company an enema. Putting an end to all of the back-stabbing and political in-fighting that (sadly) became ingrained at 1401 Flower Street while Tom was on top.

Putting an end to all that corporate back-biting won't be easy, though. After all, there are still dozens of Eisner era hold-overs left in that building. Snide, cynical, sarcastic types who can't wait to kiss John Lasseter's butt whenever WDI's new Principal Creative Adviser drops by for a meeting. But as soon as he walks out of the door, those same WDI staffers immediately begin making fun of the pudgy Academy Award-winner.

Of course, what these nasty "We know better than John does" types don't realize is that Lasseter already has plenty of eyes & ears inside of Imagineering. People who are perfectly happy to report back to John about everything that's being said behind his back.

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This may explain why Lasseter has been keeping WDI at arm's length for quite a while now. With the exception of Disneyland's "Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage," John hasn't shown all that much enthusiasm for any of the other projects that Imagineering has shown him.

Mind you, that may also be because Fitzgerald had been acting as Lasseter's gatekeeper. Meaning that no one at WDI ever got to speak with John unless they first went through Tom.

It's been suggested that one of the main reasons that Fitzgerald was pushed aside and that Vaughn has now been placed in charge of WDI's Creative side is because Disney Company management hopes that Bruce can forge a better working relationship with John. But given that one of Lasseter's main complaints about WDI is its poisonous corporate culture (He's reportedly referred to Imagineering as "the anti-Pixar") ... Vaughn clearly has his work cut out for him.

The upside is the whole situation is -- given that Bruce comes from the R & D side of Imagineering -- he's perfectly in sync with Bob Iger's vision for the future of the Disney theme parks. Where emerging technologies will soon be used to enhance the stories that the Imagineers are trying to tell as well as improve the guests' experience. And given that Vaughn was a key member of the team that developed Lucky the Dinosaur, Turtle Talk with Crush as well as the Muppet Mobile Lab ... We should be seeing more truly innovative stuff popping up in the parks and less of those "Who Want to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" type shows that Fitzgerald was continually pushing for.

And Bruce & Craig aren't the only ones with new responsibilities. Don Goodman -- formerly the President of Walt Disney Imagineering -- has now become Executive Vice President of Resort Development. Working together with Wing Chao (I.E. WDI's architectural & master planning exec), these two will -- in essence -- be reviving the Disney Development Company. Which will then concentrate on the construction of new hotels, cruise ships as well as all those Location-Based-Entertainment complexes that Imagineering currently has in the works.

So -- all in all -- this could be the start of a bold new era for Walt Disney Imagineering. So you'll have to forgive the Imagineers if they're sounding cautiously optimistic these days.

And when I say "cautiously," I say that because Tom Fitzgerald is still working at 1401 Flower Street. And a lot of guys at WDI are still wondering if Tom will get them fired if he catches them talking to anyone who writes for the Internet.

Your thoughts ?

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  • Interesting developments, Jim! I'm a little worried about that comment about "We're no longer going to design projects we don't intend to build" - that could either be interpreted as "we're not going to let good projects die on the vine due to penny pinching and back-biting" or "we're not going to do any big projects unless we're avbsolutely sure John, Jay and Bob will say OK."  And I have to wonder if this move will mean the end of the idea of turning WDI into a contractor for outsourced projects a la Universal Creative or if it means those plans will be brought to fruition. Still, it sounds like they're making a step in the right direction -- it should be interesting to see what happens.    

  • If the 'anti-pixar' can be turned into the opposite, well then just maybe we'll start seeing better attractions put into the park.  I can only imagine that all the back-biting runs up design costs simply do to decisions and various other things constantly being changed.

    With that said, I don't think using contractors for Disney projects is that big of a deal, so long as WDI is the heart for the project.

  • "John hasn't shown all that much enthusiasm for any of the other projects that Imagineering has shown him."  

    Probably cause they're taking new technology and trying to build a ride/attraction around it. Once upon a time, the ride/attraction was focused on first, and THEN they tried to figure out how to do it. Pirates went from a walk-through to riding in boats - the focus was on the pirates. Boats fit the theme great, but Omnimovers would have worked too. If they opened the Country Bears today - you'd see the different bears while lurching by in your "out of control" jeep.

    Focusing on technology instead of the attraction experience leads to problems. Turtle Talk = home run, plus it's the first attraction in a while that the whole family can enjoy together. At the other end, Lucky the Dinosaur could be just as entertaining with a puppeteer inside. Eight year old Billy from Denver doesn't care that Lucky is the first independant AA figure. The expense of all the technology inside doesn't increase the entertainment value.

  • Hey Jim: I hope that WDI people don't start leaking stuff online. That stuff must remail quiet. I will suggest one way of getting back on track: Build Marc Davis's Western River Expedition!

  • A good development, but I won't be all too optimistic, because I want to see first how the "new" WDI performs. I want to see first what kind of attractions they're going to put out, etc., before I pass further judgement.

    But I wonder. When Iger became CEO, didn't he throw out a lot of those "Eisner people" in other divisions? So why didn't he at WDI, and why didn't he use this opportunity to REALLY clean up WDI?

    And.. Uh.. If Fitzgerald is still with WDI, but not in charge.. What is he doing there then? What is his function now?

  • Eh ... I'm not sure I'm in the camp that considers "Lucky the Dinosaur" a good thing. Like curmudgeon said, it always seemed like a poor use for that technology to me.

    I don't know if it's just me, but does anyone at WDI look at the lines for Winnie the Pooh? I mean that's just a classic, good old fashioned dark ride and it packs them in day after day. Ditto for Peter Pan ... and Dumbo, for that matter!

    What I'm saying is, Mission: Space was one of these attractions that put new technology to use and it sure looks to me like a bomb. I mean I was enthusiastic abotu it in the beginning, but even I've lost interest by now. It's not a great attraction.

    Much like a movie, a good ride is a good ride. It doesn't have to be a billion dollar special effects extravaganza. I just hope WDI remembers that and doesn't get too focused on all this "new technology" stuff.

  • Interesting....

    But what I want to know is if the rumors of Disney trying to "woo" back Matt Ouimet are true.....

  • Change is good, and this is a good change.  Craig Russell is one of the hardest working Imagineers I've ever had the pleasure to know in my 17 years there.  His energy is umatched.  On the occasional business trip, a group of us would meet for breakfast at the hotel and Craig would saunter up to the table having already toured the city on foot!   I've never heard the man utter a negative comment.

    I didn't know Bruce as well as Craig, but he was always a results oriented guy and also a hard worker.  Bruce is correct about Tom, there has never been a better writer at WDI...I hope Tom sees this turn of events as an opportunity to really start writing again...perhaps in an endeavor larger than a theme park context.

    I think the prognosis is good, and once again Imagineering has proven to be self-healing.  The real trick is to stay busy, with several projects going at a time.  WDI always works best when challenged with a full workload...it's only when things slow down that the inmates start to bite each other.

    Good luck guys!

  • "If they opened the Country Bears today - you'd see the different bears while lurching by in your "out of control" jeep."

    Ahhh curmudgeon... thank you for that gem. I laughed out loud. I think in 25 words or less you summed up the WDI of today vs the WDI of yesteryear.

    I hope these changes are positive ones. My fingers will remain crossed. Best of luck to all involved.

  • "We're no longer going to design projects we don't intend to build..."

    Hopefully he means something along the lines of WRE or Disney's America.

    I also concur with all of you who think current rides have placed technology before story telling (can anyone actually tell me the "story" of Mission: Space?) with Everest being a recent exception.

  • I concur with Captainhook91 - that comment from Curmudgeon was priceless. Last summer I made my first trip back to WDW in about 10 years. I saw Disney's Animal Kingdom for the first time. I thought the park as a whole was nice to look at but didn't offer a full day's worth of entertainment by any stretch. In particular, I was very disappointed with the dinosaur ride (whose name I can't recall) where, as Curmudgeon describes so aptly, you see the dinos "while lurching by in your "out of control" jeep." All that advanced technology pretty much gone to waste, I thought, when you're flying by at too fast a speed to let your senses take it all in. That's why I will always prefer the classic rides at both WDW and Disneyland, where one can savour the sights and sounds while moving by at a leisurely pace. Hopefully this new Imagineering management team will encourage more rides along the lines of the classics.

    I'll also heartily second wec's vote that they finally build the Marc Davis designed "Western River Expedition". I recall with great fondness the small-scale model that was once on show in "The Walt Disney Story" on Main Street back in the late 70's. That wonderful set-up with its 9" maquettes of cowboys, desperados and delightful dancehall girls was enough to excite me about riding the real thing. I hope the Imagineers revisit the idea and bring it to fruition.

  • I was always far more impressed by the Vine Lady at Animal Kingdom than the AA characters, but then maybe that's because whoever was playing the Vine Lady was always, um...(what's a Disney-appropriate term for "hot sexy mama"?)

    Mission:Space just gives me the creeps.  If someone dies on the WED-Way People-Mover because they were acting like an idiot that's one thing, but when tiny kids and middle-aged ladies die only because they had undiagnosed health problems, then that's scary.

  • How does Tony Baxter fit into these recent changes?

  • Question is, does this finally mean we'll actually get to see an update at WDW's Space Mountain?

  • As far as Disneyland is concerned ...

    1. Bring back Country Bears - NOW.

    2. Quit messing with Mr. Lincoln. In fact ... restore it to the Civil War tribute version.

    3. Revamp STAR TOURS with HD video at least. The death star trench battle is timeless. I'm not for the pod race idea. If there has to be pod races... it needs to be a different atraction.

    4. Start wooing Spielberg and Paramount NOW for the rights to Transformers. If Disney can do Indiana Jones... then they can do Transformers.

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