Before we jump back into it, I just wanted to say thank you for all of the wonderful comments on my article last week. I love reading your feedback and they inspire me to write these articles! Without further ado, here is part two…but first, let’s start with some follow-ups from last week.
By far, the majority of the feedback was around the concept of WDI’s costs. I realize now that I was not NEARLY as clear as I could have been, and I apologize for that. There were some very passionate responses supporting WDI and, for the most part, I agree with them. I erred in my article by focusing too much on the concept of open bidding and not enough on overhead and lack of detail (which was in there, but buried).
I completely understand the value of WDI, and as a fan, I believe their contributions provide endless value and set Disney apart from the competition (although Universal Creative has been really impressive recently). What I should have emphasized in the article was the frustration of being accountable for financials, yet not being able to ever get a truly clear view of what you’re paying for. Being a stand-alone business unit, WDI has a cost structure they have to support. Those ongoing costs go into the “overhead” allocation that comes with every attraction. In addition, WDI acts as a middleman between Disneyland and the various sub-contractors. Unfortunately there is not great transparency into any of these costs.
One commenter wrote regarding the Ariel’s Undersea Adventure: “…how that thing cost $100 million is one of the fundamental mysteries of the universe.” That is the exact feeling we had the entire time as we were populating the A&E menu. How could this cost that much? How could that be this much?
Going back to my house example, let’s get more specific. You call a general contractor to re-do your kitchen. That general contractor then works with an in-house architect, a plumber, the heating/cooling company, the electrician, a finish carpenter, and so on. You hear back from the general contractor that it will cost X amount of dollars. What do you do next? Most of us would call a second (and third) contractor to see if $X is reasonable. In the WDI situation, we had no other general contractor to call. WDI was the only option. So this brings it back around to statement that no one is doubting the value of the general contractor (WDI), but we always found ourselves wanting to understand the bids; unfortunately, to no avail.
Another commenter wrote:
“I have heard from contractors doing work for WDI that there are too many Project Managers telling a contractor what to do; sometimes requiring multiple and costly changes from the original design specs without allowing for change orders. Because WDI is difficult to work for, some contractors are charging WDI more upfront to cover those change costs.” Overhead. WDI negotiating with subs despite Disneyland writing the check. Black box quotes. Makes you think…
While the sign example was a small one, it plays into the frustration above. You just got a $115M quote for Tower on one hand, yet on the other you know you just paid a 100x premium for a stroller parking sign. It all compounds to really make you question the value you’re getting. I’m not advocating installing a bunch of Superstar Limos. I’m simply bringing up a financial bent on attraction pricing situation.
If your salary was dependent on you making appropriate financial decisions for the resort, is that $115M appropriate? Consider that this was the value-engineered Tower. The lobby/pre-show are virtually identical to the original. The drop shafts and VVCs (Vertical Vehicle Conveyance systems) are identical in function/design to the original built in 1994. In fact, the total number of VVCs went from six (four load VVCs, two drop VVCs) in Orlando to just three drop VVCs in Anaheim. One of the most expensive portions of the original at Hollywood Studios was the fact that each ride vehicle was it’s own AGV (Autonomous Guided Vehicle); basically a self powered tank that could roll in any direction and travel across the “Fifth Dimension.” This was engineered out in Anaheim.
Sure, the “mirror” show scenes were added, but overall, I’d say the show content actually decreased. Orlando has four “hallway” scenes and two Fifth Dimensions (including those pricey starfield doors), while Anaheim has three “hallway” scenes and three “mirror” scenes. Reportedly, the original Tower cost $140M in 1994. Using simple inflation makes that $212M in 2004. Going from $212M down to $115M seems reasonable, right? But is it? Was the $140M reasonable? Splash Mountain was $75M in 1989. Should the original Tower have cost almost two times as much five years later? We never knew, we just had to go with the numbers WDI gave us. What if we could get the Tower down to $90M, without a significant change in show quality? Bam! That’s $25M to put back into the Resort somewhere. All hypothetical…but real questions we asked everyday.
I also had to laugh at how many of you commented about wanting to see the Mansion signs. First of all, let me tell you that the “temporary” signs I mentioned were from the Disneyland Sign Shop (someone commented that they were printed on “paper”) and were very professional looking. The example, however, was not used to argue sign A or B, but to just provide that data point of paying 100x, when the Operations Team (a team that has a significant amount of pride in show quality themselves) felt the alternative solution worked great. If you boot up Roller Coaster Tycoon and start paying 100x for everything you do, you’ll quickly find the dollars don’t add up. Speaking of which, I had to smile a bit this week as the annual price increases went through, and some of the same people who advocate for giving WDI blank checks and talk about always choosing the hand-carved wooden sign are the same ones screaming about ticket prices rising faster than inflation.
Two more final comments to touch on:
“You’re on for about 80% of that, but you omitted 20% of the puzzle and, as a result, the article makes it appear that TDA is a decision maker with it’s hands tied when really they’re mostly out of the puzzle.” As I mentioned in one of my original articles, I’m writing based on my experience when I was at Disneyland. Back then, (pre-OneDisney) the parks DID have a say. Disneyland was a self-contained operating entity. I know things have changed with OneDisney (see my second article, where I used the Foods Finance example), but this is how it was during my time.
“I don’t blame the author for feeling under-appreciated…” I actually laughed a bit at this one. I’m writing these articles for one reason only: for fun. I feel that, as a fan, I’m sharing information that other fans would find interesting. My career is so far removed from my Disneyland days that it is simply a pleasant memory of a time in my life that I was fortunate enough to get paid to do something I loved. The extent of my recent Disney fandom is regularly reading MiceChat articles (I rarely hit the forums), and taking my family to visit a Disney Resort once a year (if I’m lucky). After reading enough articles, I thought I’d write a few! No ulterior motive and no feeling of under-appreciation! Just a nice creative outlet for this numbers geek!
Whew…sorry! That took longer than expected. Now back to my visit to WDI!
As I started to explain, the year was 2004. Funding had opened up on the A&E Menu and WDI invited a small group of us to 1401 Flower Street to get walked through some ideas. A few of those ideas were regarding the minor items. We were, for example, sat down in a room that had renderings of the re-painted Tomorrowland. At this time, Tomorrowland was still the bronze/gold/brown of the 1998 version. There was a display board with images of what was considered “futuristic” in 2004. This included iPods, IKEA Furniture, and lots of blue LEDs. “Clean lines” and white/blue aesthetic was what drove the re-paint. What goes around, comes around.
Beyond the smaller items, the interesting part of the conversation comes with the two pitches for DCA’s next E-Ticket. At the time, we had a placeholder in the out-years of the A&E Menu for a major E-Ticket. WDI pitched us on two ideas that day.
The first pitch took place in a conference room, and that was where I saw the first concept drawings for Cars Land. Much of the same concept art you saw throughout construction was the same as what I saw in 2004. Specifically I remember items such as these:
You’ll notice this art has a slightly different style to it, and often differed from the final ride (e.g. passing Mater on the road). I don’t remember many specific differences between what we saw versus what we ultimately got, but one that sticks out in my mind is an Autopia-type ride. In the original pitch, the theory was to build an Autopia-type ride whose track weaved in and out of Radiator Springs Racers (sometimes entering the show building if I remember correctly). This was the secondary attraction for the younger set. I honestly don’t recall if Luigi’s Flying Tires or Mater’s Junkyard Jamboree were presented at that time. The majority of the conversation focused on Racers and the maintenance nightmare that Epcot had on its hands with Test Track. WDI assured us over and over that this would be a much-improved “second generation,” and that it would not suffer the same challenges (and costs) that WDW’s did. Interestingly enough, despite this flushed out concept, this was not the one that WDI was pushing hard.
What WDI was really excited about required a short car ride over to one of WDI’s auxiliary warehouses where they did full-scale R&D. We walked through the main door and stood in a hallway where our guide explained that what we were about to see/experience was a demonstration of a technology. How it could be used was still to be detemined. With The Incredibles being 2004’s big release from Pixar, there was a lot of conversation about that being the main theme. We saw some very generic Incredibles concept art in the hallway.
Heading into the main room, a two-person KUKA arm dominated the space. At this point, the KUKA technology was relatively new with it winning the best new product at the 2003 IAAPA Convention. The two-person model in this warehouse was that exact model from IAAPA; WDI had arranged for it to come directly from the show to their warehouse.
First up, we simply rode it to get a feel for the movements the arm could accomplish. No props or effects, just a simple ride. Each two person group got tossed around for a few minutes as one would at Legoland’s Knights’ Tournament attraction (except we obviously didn’t design our own ride).
After we cycled through two at a time, we moved onto the true “tech demo.” Picture a clock with the KUKA arm in the middle acting as the minute hand. The load platform was up a small staircase at the 9 o’clock hour. We sat down, strapped in, and were handed 3D glasses. I honestly don’t remember the exact order, but let’s start with a swing across to the 3 o’clock hour.
Here we were, facing a screen with a 3D projection of an underwater trench. The arm gave a “floating” effect, and then some rudimentary animation kicked in (remember, this was just a demo) of sharks coming down the trench and “attacking” us. As the sharks lunged at us, the KUKA arm darted from side to side. Despite the rudimentary animation, the 3D effect worked quite well.
After the shark attack, the arm twisted up to the 12 o’clock hour, which was a mock-up of a spaceship control panel hanging from the ceiling. The “windshields” were small screens showing a few scenes from The Incredibles on a loop. They were not 3D; the focus of this station was not the special effects. It was the fact that the KUKA arm could “insert” its riders into a fully-immersive environment with minimal effort. The control panel had a ceiling, walls, and controls at your lap. Everywhere you looked, you saw control panel…you had no clue you were in an empty warehouse up near the ceiling. It was an immediate and seamless transition from the underwater scene previously seen.
After some time in the control panel, the arm whipped us out and did a large twisting loop down to the floor at the 6 o’clock hour, where there was a basic rubber dinosaur head with a few plants around it. We stopped with the dino head (with full teeth exposed) literally inches from our faces (there may have been a speaker with a loud roar). It was quite cool how I could go from an immersive control panel to roaring dinosaur inches from my face in a split second! And with that, it was back to the load/unload.
While the other groups of two rode, I had a chance to chat with Tony Baxter. There are two specific things I remember from that conversation. First of all, he was talking about the technological breakthrough of the underwater trench scene. Specifically, he was saying how most 3D was in theaters because of needing to get the viewing angle right and how hard that was in a moving vehicle. I brought up the Amazing Adventures of Spiderman at Islands of Adventure, and Tony said that the animations for that ride only estimated where the ride vehicles SHOULD be. This was why the 3D sometimes felt out of sync.
This new technology that WDI developed dynamically adjusted the animation on screen to the exact movements of the KUKA arm. I looked over to the next group of riders and was shocked! As I mentioned, while I was on the ride, I was looking down a static trench the entire time. When I was standing on the floor watching the next riders, the trench was moving all around! When the KUKA arm went down, the far point of the trench went up! It was amazing to watch. The trench never stopped moving (in perfect sync with the arm), yet while on the ride the trench did not appear to move at all…pretty cool!
Secondly, Tony mentioned that WDI had an exclusivity agreement with KUKA on an eight-passenger ride vehicle. I’m not sure how that specific agreement evolved (presumably it expired due to non-use), but according to industry sources, Universal Creative now have limited exclusive use of the KUKA technology. KUKA did come to life, though, in the Disney parks in much more minor ways. First, as a show element controlling the Anglerfish in Finding Nemo refurbishment of The Living Seas at Epcot, and secondly in Innovention’s Sum of All Thrills exhibit. Fun, no doubt, but a shell of what could have been.
A few other tidbits…as I mentioned, this was really just a demo. WDI wasn’t quite sure what it was going to do with the arm. They mentioned the concept of a KUKA arm on a track (see Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), but talked more about a constantly moving turntable with numerous KUKA arms attached. It simplifies the ride system a bit, with the wheels never stop moving (speeds loading), yet around the massive round show building the arm would “insert” the riders into various experiences.
Over the ensuing months, I can tell you that the A&E Menu placeholder alternated between “Cars” and “Incredibles” on a regular basis. WDI seemed genuinely more excited about the KUKA concept, but frankly they didn’t have a flushed out attraction idea. Cars Land was pretty much fully flushed out and ready to roll…and eight years later, roll it did!
“Hey Accountaneer…without that WDI Overhead you hate, the blue sky group wouldn’t exist, and you wouldn’t have gotten to ride the KUKA arm!!!” Yes, yes…I know…but fun to discuss though, no?
Whew, that was a long one. Hope you enjoyed it. Keep the comments coming and perhaps I’ll come up with a few more article topics! Until next time…keep your pencils sharp and your beans counted!!!