Epcot in the 80's with Rob
by, 09-13-2011 at 02:00 PM
Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of 'From the Mouth of the Mouse!'
Each week, we spotlight a different Cast Member story to give you more insight into some of your favorite attractions, resorts, and movies from all over the Walt Disney Company.
This week, we talk to Rob, a former Epcot employee who has worked the gauntlet of classic Future World attractions. You name an attraction, and Rob has probably worked on it. Between that and his time in Guest Relations, Rob shares a lot of fantastic stories.
JEFF: Tell me a little about your time working for Disney.
ROB: I started in Future World Attractions. My first day on the job (9/06/1989) was in The Living Seas. Yes, I was a Hydrolator operator! Eventually, I also learned Spaceship Earth, Land Theaters, Land Boats, and I became a trainer for Spaceship Earth and Seas.
When EuroDisney opened, a lot of operations staff went there to help. I believe that was in 1991. So I got a probationary promotion as a Lead at the Wonders Dome. Once I got promoted for real, in 1992, I moved over to Universe of Energy as a Lead, and then I also worked as a Lead at Seas, Spaceship Earth, Wonders, World of Motion, Horizons, and finally, Communicore. (No, not Innoventions!) I was in Future World for about half my time at Disney.
JEFF: You had some diverse responsibilities. And that was only half of your time at Disney?
ROB: In August 1990, I auditioned and was accepted with as a Facilitator with Disney University Seminar Productions: Convention Workshops for the Innovations In Action program. This was the original behind-the-scenes property tour that took convention groups down into the Utilidors back before anyone else could pay to do it. Being such a small, unknown department, we used to get into trouble because not everyone realized we had permission to bring guests downstairs.
I was only scheduled there once or twice a month as needed, but it was one of the best things I ever did at Disney. Afterward, I continued to teach these classes for five or six years part-time.
Eventually, the program became part of the Disney Institute. We really were talking and showing people the WDW 'community of tomorrow' as it was originally envisioned.
JEFF: I would have loved to have seen one of those tours. It seems like it would have been much different than today's 'Keys To The Kingdom' Tour. To see how they were still trying to make Walt's original vision possible, even in the early '90s, would have been interesting!
ROB: It's sad that the later Eisner years totally lost track of it. But times change.
I think it was 1993 when I transferred to Epcot Guest Relations. There, I did information phones, World Key dining reservations (remember the video screens once used to make ADRs?), and pass processing, back when Annual Passes had guest photos on them. I did train as a tour guide, but only took one tour before I was assigned to a special project that eventually became Epcot Education.
JEFF: What was your one tour?
ROB: I was in charge of the Chinese Minister of Education. I forget why he was in the U.S., but I remember the translator telling me that the rural community where he came from had roughly the same standard of living as 1950s America. One of the things they found fascinating was the public drinking fountains in the middle of Tomorrowland. Here we were, surrounded by these multi-million dollar entertainment attractions, and they liked the drinking fountains!
Anyway, Epcot Education developed the Youth Education Series (YES) at Epcot (there was also a team at Disney's MGM Studios that had started prior to us). This had to have been 1994, because part of what we did was work with the Teacher's Free promotion which enabled any credentialed elementary, middle, or high school teacher to get into Epcot for free for one day. We also worked with the Epcot Education Celebrations which gave local schools deep discounts on Epcot admission.
As we sold tickets to the student groups, the teachers got in for free, along with a few chaperones.
Next to the Innovations tours, these were my favorite years. I met Bill Nye and toured hundreds of middle and high schoolers through the Seas and Land pavilions talking about ecology, hydroponics, and marine sciences. My boss was one of the marine biologists who helped capture the dolphins that were exhibited in the Seas.
I also did a cool tour through World Showcase called Global Marketplace where we looked at merchandising techniques. Then we took the students backstage and had them design their own gift shop. Using real sales data, we could evaluate how well they placed certain products and rate how well their shops would do.
About this time, the Disney Institute came into being and all guest tour programs were pulled under its umbrella. Everyone reported to a single VP. Unfortunately, their initial business model required that all instructors work part-time, so my job was eliminated. I was forced either to lose my benefits as a full-time Cast Member or else seek another position.
A couple of us in this situation were offered jobs with the sales department responsible for marketing the youth programs (Magic Music days, among others), so I became a Sales Coordinator and left the theme parks. Our sales offices were in the SunTrust building in the Village area next to Casting. While it was nice to still be connected with the youth programs, I didn't enjoy working in sales. I preferred direct contact with guests in the parks and on the tours.
But it did open some opportunities that otherwise I might not have explored.
I was offered another temporary spot in, of all places, the Weddings Sales team. Specifically, Japanese weddings. It was much more economical for Japanese couples to book the Intimate Wedding package (for two people only - basically, a honeymoon vacation package with the ceremony added into it) than it was to have a traditional wedding in Japan.
Since WDW was such a popular choice, there was enough business to warrant a full-time coordinator just to work with these couples (and an English-speaking translator) to arrange as many as eight or nine weddings per day in the chapel at the Grand Floridian. It was a lot of fun, even though I actually didn't service many of the weddings. My part was to make arrangements for the flowers, cake, and whatever extras the couples wanted, and then a service coordinator would be on-site at the chapel for the event.
Once we got a 'complaint' letter from a couple who experienced a power outage during their wedding ceremony in the chapel. The wedding was during the daytime, so it wasn't like they had been plunged into darkness - the chapel is full of gorgeous windows - but the bride complained (remember, this is through a translator) that it had been very bad luck for her to be 'interrupted while going down the VIRGIN ROAD'.
Apparently, that was the Japanese expression for walking down the aisle, and that was the way she had written it: in ALL CAPS. I'm sure it was disappointing not to have a perfect wedding, but we chuckled over that one in the office for quite some time. I don't remember all the details about what compensation we provided, but I think the service coordinator was able to start the wedding over after setting up several complimentary candelabras. The complaint was more of an etiquette thing because of the cultural differences.
Finally, my last position with Disney was in a department called Sales Lead Management. The powers-that-be had the idea to create a call center where a team of reservationists could answer initial inquiries for several different sales teams rather than each department keeping staff to handle their own calls. Plus, this provided some extra guest service, as some groups needed to 'cross over' from one sales team to another depending on what they wanted to book.
There were six or eight of us, I think, that came together to learn each other's departments so that any of us could answer any initial questions from guests. We developed a profile on the guest and passed it off to the appropriate sales manager for Weddings, Youth Markets, Leisure groups, Sports groups, or whatever.
When I left Disney, I was about 3 months shy of my 10 year pin - something like 9 years, 9 months and some odd days. If there's anything I could do over, it would be to stay long enough to have completed the 10 years!
JEFF: Let me touch on some of the earlier things you just mentioned. For starters, the hydrolators! I remember them quite fondly. It was such a simple effect, with the rocks moving upward with the bubbles, to make it look like you were descending. Didn't the floor also move to enhance that effect? Did any Guests ever get freaked out by the whole thing?
ROB: Yes, the floor moved. It was pressurized to go up and down at the right moment to give the illusion of the drop of an elevator, but then it also shook. So unless you were leaning against the wall - 'please stand clear of the doors' - you felt like the vehicle was actually moving. Supposedly the lights in the dome of the ceiling got brighter or dimmer depending on whether you were going up or down. Because of the water effects in the dome, I never noticed a difference.
Guests did get freaked out, but they were mostly claustrophobes who wouldn't board any elevator, much less a water-powered one. We were trained to preserve the illusion and never open both hydrolator doors (entrance and exit) at the same time. But often a new trainee would do so by accident and everyone inside and those waiting outside would freak out because the illusion was broken!
Even with those people whom we escorted through the bypass, we had to try to preserve the illusion by telling them to tell the rest of their party that they had come 'down the stairs'. Some people bought into it and when it was time to leave (remember, there were also exit hydrolators to preserve the storyline: what goes down must go up again) asked for the stairs to get out - forgetting that they really hadn't come downstairs in the first place.
JEFF: For their time, those effects were pretty good, so I can see how people might freak out. The fact that you guys had to keep in character about it would be a little unnerving, too!
ROB: Maybe 'freak out' is too strong a word for how people reacted to having the doors open at the wrong time - how about shock? confusion? surprise? They knew something wasn't quite right, but it took a few seconds for them to put it all together and realize they were being fooled.
The same went for the people we 'bypassed'. Basically, we escorted them into a hallway and then through another door into the boarding area on the other side of the hydrolators. Again, it usually took a few seconds for people to 'get it' when we took them through. We weren't supposed to do a bypass until after we'd processed everyone through the hydrolators, so the claustrophobic guests usually ended up behind the rest of their party.
Of course, if they were severely claustrophobic, they probably didn't want to go through the Seacabs either (a small space with LOTS of water over your head). Those guests we'd escort directly into the Seabase through the wheelchair access door. Others just went down the hallway and left the building right by the exit hydrolators. I'm not sure exactly how they've re-done it, but this hallway would be where Turtle Talk with Crush Theater is now - or at least behind Crush's screen.
Supposedly, a guest once took Disney to court because she claimed that the hydrolators dropped too fast and ruptured her eardrum. The Disney lawyer, of course, simply produced the blueprints of the building and proved it was all on ground level. Case dismissed.
JEFF: That's a fantastic story about the ruptured eardrum. See, she really bought into the illusion, so you guys must have been doing something right. I miss Communicore! Were you there at the time of The Astuter Computer Revue?
ROB: No, by the time I was there, it was Epcot Computer Central, starring Julie and I/O. I thought it was a cool show because I really liked learning the behind-the-scenes, 'how'd they do that' kind of stuff. Granted, not a show I'd want to see over and over, but cool once in a while.
Plus, as Communicore lead, you carried a radio and talked directly to central base. The lead was responsible for the whole area inside the monorail beam. I shudder to think what things are like now with the increase in technology over the last 10 years. We used to show people the show control units (imagine a 6' tall beige file cabinet, but with computers) and tell them that with the change from analog to digital what fit into three show control units now fit into something the size of a VCR.
In the ten years since, I'm sure it's changed even more. That's part of the reason that they can't keep the second half of Spaceship Earth updated - 1994, oooh, video conferencing! Now, Facetime does it on something the size of your wallet.
JEFF: How much more responsibility did you take on as a trainer?
ROB: Once you became a trainer, you trained new people at attractions you already knew. Trainers showed new people the ropes and went through all the safety rules. There was a Standard Operating Procedure Manual that told you how to operate the ride, where to put the queue ropes, what the spiel was, etc. Each trainee had to pass a written test and an 'on the job' run-through with a lead.
So, yeah, there was more responsibility, but I really enjoyed teaching. Plus, you weren't stuck in a rotation all day and could be independent if the lead didn't need you. The best part was showing the trainee how to do the opening and closing procedures, where we got to walk through the show scenes. I have pictures of me in the train scene of Motion, hugging dinosaurs in Universe of Energy, and more!
JEFF: Any good behind-the-scenes Future World stories? Or anything that we may not already know about all the Pavilions we love and miss?
ROB: Hmm... it's hard to pick a favorite! I mean, Seas was my 'home', but I had the best work-team at Universe of Energy.
Wonders of Life had the best costumes - they were supposed to be similar to athletic sweats, but it was more like wearing your pajamas, nothing at all like the beige 'potato sack' that was the World of Motion/Horizons neutral costume.
Each pavilion and ride had their own costume, but you could wear the potato sack in any of them. We called the silver jackets 'baked potatoes' because we were 'wrapped in foil'. If you don't remember what the potato sack looks like, think about the end of the original Star Tours, when the speeder is breaking and there's this guy on the phone right in front of you who ducks under the desk. He's wearing a potato sack costume! (Or sure looked like it!)
I wish I had some cool insights into Horizons, since people love it so much, but I didn't work there that often. And, as a lead, the office was actually over in World of Motion. Besides that, the Cast Member positions were all at the beginning and end of the rides, so you didn't get to see that much of the attraction unless you did a ride-through or were training. Two huge buildings, millions of dollars in audio animatronics, and there are basically four people running each building: greeter, two load people, and an unload person.
Do you know about rotations and how attractions are (or were) typically staffed?
JEFF: I never really thought of it that way before - two huge buildings and four people for each? That really puts it into perspective. I know a little about rotations, but your insight is probably much better than mine!
ROB: Well, each attraction had at least one rotation or list of positions. When your shift started, you 'bumped' into the first position and the person you bumped moved to second position, and so on down the line. The last person in rotation went on break for 15 minutes and then returned to first position afterward.
Some attractions had two rotations and you either worked one or the other depending on when your shift started. Usually, there was a 'load rotation' and an 'unload' rotation. For Seas, the load consisted of Greeter, Hydrolators, Load 1 (watch your step!), and Load 2 (console control). Unload was the unload position, SeaBase, Theater, and then Preshow (photocells).
If it was busy, sometimes we had extra positions like End of Line (queue) or an extra SeaBase. Just for fun, sometimes we'd run criss-cross where you'd bump out of Load and then bump back into Unload for a change of pace.
It was really fun if you got to do a 'double bump', where someone else who was on break would bump in with you and you'd bump two people out. Made things go a lot faster, especially during lunchtime when you could get stuck somewhere for 45 minutes instead of the usual 15 minutes. Some people also wanted you to 'bump around', which meant skip them so they could stay in a position they liked.
So to learn an attraction, you had to know all the positions and what to do in each place as well as general guest service stuff and emergency procedures.
JEFF: Since you worked on a number of attractions, did you get to bounce around between them?
ROB: Back in the day, the business model was different. Each discipline had its own management team. You had attraction managers and cast, food & beverage managers and cast, and then merchandise managers and cast.JEFF: Do you think that the old business model or the new business model is better? I can see how the older model could be much more efficient. Running a restaurant is NOT the same as running a gift shop!
It wasn't as easy to move between the disciplines because the leaders wanted managers with experience. Just because you can manage a restaurant doesn't mean you can manage a gift shop.
So, unlike today, where you are hired to work at a pavilion and might do a number of different roles there, back in the 1980s all the attractions in Future World were managed by one team. They had them broken down into three groups: Spaceship Earth, Living Seas, and the Land as Group I, World of Motion, Horizions, Body Wars and Imagination as Group II, and then Universe of Energey, Wonders Dome and Communicore as Group III.
When I started at Seas, I could train in other attractions within my training group and then I would be scheduled to work wherever I was trained. It was harder, but possible, to cross train groups, but they tended to avoid that to simplify the schedules. I remember some weeks where I worked something different every day.
In the mid-1990s, they changed it so there was ONE manager for each pavilion, and that manager oversaw all the disciplines. This allowed them to lay-off a lot of middle management.
ROB: Each model has its own plusses and minuses.
I agree with the old model in that being a retail manager or even a shop clerk is a different job and requires different skills than waiting tables or working a queue.
But at the same time, it does make more sense to have one Land pavilion manager rather than one for Attractions, one for Food, one for Custodial, and one for Merchandise. And then have them all arguing over the same space and design of the location. Lee Cockerell relates a story about the fountain in the Land not working and it was exactly because of this situation. No one department wanted to take responsibility. Talk about finger-pointing...
JEFF: Let me back track. Can you tell me more about this original, pre-Keys backstage tour?
ROB: It was called Innovations in Action. Guest Relations muscled in on our territory when they started 'Keys', which I have never done, so I can't speak to it from experience. But when it started out, I viewed it as sort of a watered-down version of what we were doing. I looked around on the Disney website last night and the Institute isn't structured exactly like it was when I was there, but you can see how it has evolved. Innovations in Action was part of the convention workshop team, probably what the 'teamwork' team does today.
I also taught Pluto's Pursuit (on Pleasure Island) and Disney by Design. Our tours were sold exclusively to the business groups that were doing conventions on-property, so no regular park guests went on these tours originally.
We started the tours at the groups' hotel in a conference room. We showed them three video clips to 'set the stage' for the tour. We told the story about the history of the company starting with Steamboat Willie (first cartoon with sound), then Flowers and Trees (first with color), and then Snow White (first feature).
We continued with the technological innovations for FantaSound with the release of Fantasia and then how Walt progressed into thinking about Disneyland. The involvement with the 1964 World's Fair further demonstrated the innovative thinking that led to Walt Disney World.
The first video was of David Brinkley extolling the virtues of the resort: the transportation system we provided, how we removed waste efficiently, the modular construction of the hotels, and so on. The second one contained excerpts from Walt's video for the Florida Legislature. Remember, this was before DVDs, so very few people, even in the Company, had seen this video. Finally, there was a 13 minute overview of all the innovative things we might see on the tour.
For the rest of the tour (about two-and-a-half hours), we went on a bus through the south service area to see the tree farm and waste treatment plant. Then we went to the north service area to see the boat dock, laundry, and central shops, sometimes even going inside for special groups. After that, we went off to the energy plant, the phone company, and the production center. This is where the parade floats were stored, and it also housed the end of the AVAC (automated vacuum assisted collection - the trash system for the Magic Kingdom). Then we went to backstage Main Street, then to onstage, then down to the hub, then down into the Utilidors through costuming and DACS (the computer center), and finally out the tunnel and back to the bus.
We spent a lot of time on the bus talking about Reedy Creek and land use planning. Depending on how many buses were needed for the group, we all went in different directions across property and often had time to travel through the Village or Epcot resorts since most of those areas were relatively new in the early or mid-1990s.
JEFF: Funny how you guys got in trouble. Would that happen often? Ever get 'kicked out' by management before they realized it was a legit tour?
ROB: I never got stopped in person, but our manager would often get calls from security when we tried to go in or out of the Utilidor with our groups. They just had to verify that we were legit and had administrative approval to be there. In those days, there were so few groups in the Utilidors that often the Cast Members were 'offended' that we were encroaching on their territory. Now, I suppose, they're used to it.
JEFF: Can you tell me about the original "community of tomorrow" concept? I'd love to hear how it really was back then and how it was keeping Walt's original mission alive.
ROB: This was the coolest thing that I did at Disney. I mean, we were explaining to people what Walt's dream was all about and then showing them. It didn't look like a domed city of the future, but much of the infrastructure needed for a real community was there. People didn't live there full-time, but over the course of this tour, you could see how the resort had been designed to meet the needs of the people who were part of the community, both the tourists and the cast. That's what was innovative and futuristic.JEFF: How was it different in Epcot Guest Relations as opposed to being in attractions and giving the tours? Which did you prefer?
Cities tend to grow organically with little or no forethought to where things should go or what roads or support systems need to be in place to manage what's going to happen in that location. Everything (and I mean everything) was planned out in Disney World - even the space between trash cans. Seriously, custodial would put them closer together (more of them) when the park was going to be busy.
Unfortunately, things change - the community, the needs of the community, and the leaders of the community. So, life goes on.
Remember, back in the 1970s, Orlando didn't have many of the resources necessary to support the resort. That's why Disney had to have its own phone company and laundry center. Now there are so many hotels in Orlando, I'm sure that linen services are quite competitive.
But also, the resort was designed so that the taxpayers of Orange and Osceola County didn't have to provide for the services that were needed on property. That's why Reedy Creek was formed - to take care of the basic 'city' infrastructure: waste removal, emergency services, and so on.
ROB: I liked Attractions better. In Guest Relations, you were almost always 'on stage'. Even if you were backstage or just amongst other Cast Members, there was this expectation that a Guest Relations CM should be more professional - a model Cast Member. I liked being able to 'chill out' more often. But Guest Relations provided many more opportunities because you often had to work independently and you could work on projects rather than always being stuck in the same old, same old.
JEFF: Do you visit the parks often nowadays? Is it weird to go back and see how things have changed since you worked there?
ROB: I've been back just twice since I left in 1999. We took our first son when he was six in 2004 and then we went just a year ago in February 2010. It was really weird to see how things have changed. Not even just the parks, but Orlando in general. Have you ever gone back to visit your old elementary school? You have such strong memories about being there, but it's not quite right - you've changed, the place is slightly different. That house has been painted; the gas station is a different brand. Not huge changes but subtle things you take for granted.A big thank you to Rob for sharing his experiences with us! What an amazing experience it must have been to work at Epcot in the 80's and 90's.
If you'd asked me about going back in the early 2000s, I would have said I wasn't interested because then I was bitter about the experience. I mean, I had given up my dream job, but that's because it wasn't what I expected. But I think I was more disappointed than bitter - disappointed that reality intruded on my ideal world, disappointed that I had to leave. I think I expected the cast experience to be just as magical and perfect as the guest experience was supposed to be. Unfortunately, neither are always perfect.
But now, I realize just how much I learned being there. Plus, it was my first 'real' job and with the hindsight of having worked four other jobs since then, I would love the opportunity to go back and try it again with a deeper understanding of how a company does business. Probably won't happen, but now I can enjoy the guest experience, which really is a completely different point of view.
It's like working as a waiter and then going out to eat. You're infinitely more critical because you know what goes on inside, but it's a more satisfying experience when the food is really good.
If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [email protected]. I'd love to hear from you!
LIKE US ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/ftmotm
FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER: www.twitter.com/jeffheimbuch
FRIEND ME ON FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/jeffheimbuch