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Even though I'm in the middle of a move to a new residence today, I have a quick, single subject update for you. Yes, it's that important, and the park's customers (that's you out there) need to know about it. We'll dispense with the breakfast nosh descriptions and get right to it today. My special thanks by the way to the man who with his trusty camera almost always seems to be in the right place at the right time, David "Darkbeer" Michael. - Al


Last Monday afternoon, as we were putting the finishing touches on the latest update, word swept through Team Disney Anaheim (TDA) to expect a big personnel change. Then on Tuesday morning the formal announcement went out that Greg Emmer, Senior Vice President, Disneyland Resort Operations was resigning. Regular readers may find Emmer's name familiar, as he has been mentioned here in the past, but many others might not understand the full implications of Emmer's departure, and why it prompted a concerned front page editor's note from me, along with this special update.

In short, Emmer was the driving force behind many of the positive changes seen by visitors around Disneyland in the last four years. He was brought to Anaheim very quickly after Matt Ouimet's own arrival in October, 2003. Prior to Ouimet and Emmer's arrival, the TDA executive offices had been occupied for years by Paul Pressler, Cynthia Harriss, and their gaggle of hand picked senior executives who were actually proud of the fact that they had absolutely no theme park experience prior to their Disneyland assignments.

When Emmer was brought to Anaheim in late 2003 to clean up the daily operation, while Ouimet tried to salvage the battered ship and plot a new course for the 50th Anniversary, it began a massive sea change for the Anaheim property and one that was practically heralded as the second coming of Walt himself to long time Disneyland managers.

Unlike his predecessors, Emmer was the ultimate Disneylander, having started as a ride operator on the east side of the park in 1968 while he was in college, and there was little about Disney theme park operations that he didn't eventually tackle. He jumped at the chance to head out to Walt Disney World to help open that property as a front line supervisor in 1971, and the native Californian made his home there and raised his family for the next 32 years in Orlando.

He rose through the management ranks at Walt Disney World through the 1970's and '80s, and by the 1990's he had become a Vice President of the sprawling property. But all the while he clung to the basic tenets of 1960's classic Disneyland operation that he had learned as a young man, and had passed on to a new generation of Cast Members in Florida in the 1970's and 80's. Many of those 1960's ideals had been tossed away by previous executives when Emmer came back to Anaheim in late 2003, but he set out on a crash course to right the wrongs and re-focus Disneyland's operation on the basics that Walt's own team had laid out for him in the 60's.

Emmer was the guy that organized a key Anaheim visit in early 2004 by Bog Iger, who was then the second in command in Burbank but the leading contender for Eisner's job. On a busy Friday, he led Bob Iger around Disneyland pointing out all of the neglect that was then visible, and all of the work that would need to be tackled to get Disneyland back in pristine condition for the 50th. He even took Iger up the crowded Peter Pan ride exit that afternoon, to show him how 21st century guests in big electric scooters were clogging up narrow corridors and loading areas all over the park that were never designed for such, making life difficult for the Cast Members and the paying customers alike.

The plan to widen the Peter Pan exit never got off the drawing board, after news that a major load-bearing wall in the facility would need to be rebuilt at the cost of millions of additional dollars, but that was the type of operating minutiae that Emmer was willing to show Iger in his pitch for a bigger budget to fix Disneyland.

After that tour, and a lot of other executive wrangling, Emmer and Ouimet got the bigger budgets they had hoped for and the plans to spruce up Disneyland before the 50th Anniversary took on a dramatically more important role than they had been budgeted for under their predecessors. Emmer took that money and ran with it, eventually refurbishing nearly every façade at Disneyland, as well as tackling a long list of much needed refurbishments and TLC that had been on the wish list of every Operations department for years.

Not only did he get the park looking almost new for the 50th kickoff in May, 2005, but Emmer purposely set up a "50th Refreshment Team" that kept up the park-wide painting and maintenance all through calendar year 2005 and 2006. A version of that Refreshment Team still exists to this day at his insistence, which is why Disneyland has for the most part continued to look its sparkling best long after the 50th Anniversary celebration ended.

The physical condition of the park had always been important to Emmer, but he was also known as a stickler for the service standards the Cast Members offered the park visitors. Everything from Custodial to Costuming was under his control, and details like the placement of trashcans around the park or the length of queue left up on a slow day were on his internal radar screen. He constantly roamed the Anaheim property, and when something didn't seem just right, an email or a phone call caused managers to jump from Toontown to California Screamin'.

With such passion and success behind him, and years still left until retirement age, why would Emmer suddenly resign? And why would no successor yet be named? The answer appears to lie not just in Anaheim, but in the other executive suites in Orlando and Burbank. The word from TDA this past week is that he has been very frustrated with the corporate structure for Disney Parks as set up by Rasulo. The waste and bureaucracy along with the misplaced priorities that are a hallmark of Rasulo's new corporate structure are rumored to be what has finally pushed Emmer out the door early.

Emmer is well known on his daily park walks for calling a restaurant manager and complaining if he sees two busboys standing and talking instead of working independently, as the effective use of labor is one of his guiding principles as a shrewd businessman. There are still many projects and opportunities inside the parks needing money that would directly improve the visitor and Cast Member experience, and yet those issues get short changed by the wasteful practices inside TDA.

If Emmer will immediately call a manager over two chatty busboys at the Plaza Inn, you can imagine how maddening it must be to see the swelling ranks of bureaucrats and managers working on bizarrely out-of-touch projects that will never positively impact the park experience. And with Rasulo's new "global" restructure, not only is there a growing headcount of white collar workers wasting money and energy on superficial projects, but they are now routinely flying back and forth between Orlando and Anaheim to get all that wasteful work done. In the average week there can now be up to 200 different people flying back and forth, staying in hotels, and eating on expense accounts, only to attend meetings on the opposite coast about topics that were once handled locally.

And with this swelling bureaucracy, and all of this expensive business travel to fill seats at the endless series of meetings, has come not a sharpening of the parks experience but instead a dulling down of the individuality between Anaheim and Orlando. Certainly there is something to be said for sharing good ideas between the two properties, as there are similarities between some of the park facilities themselves. But the overall properties couldn't be more different when it comes to customer demographics or purpose, and the sprawling and massive Walt Disney World property has very little in common operationally with the compact and tidy Disneyland complex.

So much is being spent maintaining this new corporate structure that has bound Anaheim and Orlando together, that plenty of things needed inside the parks for paying visitors are no longer affordable. For instance, for decades Disneyland had operated its monorail system with four trains; a maximum of three trains operating at one time on the beam, while the fourth remained back in the roundhouse either being refurbished or waiting in reserve on a busy day in case of a maintenance problem with one of the other three trains. So when it finally came time to upgrade Disneyland's aging fleet, WDI had just assumed that four new trains would be approved and purchased.

Then of course, a bi-coastal team of executives and managers decided that they could manage things down to only three new trains, with the fourth train only being approved at some unknown later date if funding somehow became available. But with so many Business Class airline tickets to buy, and so many Club Level hotel rooms to book at the Anaheim Hilton to get to that final decision, that fourth train looks pretty unlikely about now. (By the way, it appears that new Mark VII train has been having problems with some of the clearances around the very tight Disneyland track layout. It may end up pushing back the planned Presidents Day Weekend debut of the new train. More on this in a future update.)

Unfortunately, often times these types of decisions end up directly impacting the visitor experience, usually (thanks to Murphy's Law) on busy weekend afternoons. Let's take, oh... the Rafts to Tom Sawyer Island as an example.

Up until the '90s, Disneyland had operated with four separate rafts; the Huck Finn, the Tom Sawyer, the Becky Thatcher, and the Injun Joe. Having four meant that one could always be pulled out for maintenance or refurbishment, while three sat ready to use for paying customers at any time. And during busy times of the year, Disneyland would actually operate all four rafts from two separate docks to increase the ride capacity and cut down on wait times. Having those extra rafts also meant a nice insurance policy against a nightmare scenario where multiple rafts break down at once, potentially stranding people on the island.

When it came time recently for Disneyland to replace the fleet of rafts that had long passed their retirement age, a series of meetings led to the decision to only purchase two replacement rafts for Disneyland. The thought was that if one raft broke down, you would immediately stop letting people over to the island, and would use the one remaining raft to take people back to the mainland. Disneyland kept one of the old rafts, the Injun Joe, which was in the best shape to use as a utility raft, mainly for nightly Fantasmic preparation and maintenance work around the island. So, in a span of just a few years, Disneyland went from having four working rafts to having just two, while park attendance grew and Imagineering (WDI) poured millions into the island's new Pirate's Lair makeover.

With the big overlay this past summer turning Tom Sawyer Island into Pirate's Lair, the two new rafts were rechristened the Anne Bonney and the Blackbeard, while the creaky old Injun Joe work raft was renamed the Captain Kidd and decreed off limits to park visitors. And with no additional raft to spare for visitor use, the Anne Bonney and the Blackbeard have really gotten a strenuous workout lately with the popularity of the Pirate's Lair additions.

Finally this past Sunday, the Anne Bonney raft gave up after having continually struggled with engine issues for the past month. The unfortunate thing was that the Anne Bonney stalled and wouldn't restart right as it headed out across the river with a full load of Disneyland afternoon visitors. The raft began to drift just as the Columbia was leaving the Frontierland dock, and a string of canoes came up from behind. The Columbia was brought to a stop in front of the raft, the canoes backed up, the Mark Twain then arrived in Frontierland which boxed the canoes in, and the Anne Bonney continued to drift helplessly out in the middle of the river making for the Rivers of America version of a four-lane SigAlert.

Maybe it was a load of spilled churros?

The 405, or the Rivers of America?

No FastPass here

After several minutes of radio calls, and with a group of fifty park visitors on the drifting raft who were growing increasingly worried about how this drama would play out, two managers brought the Captain Kidd work raft from up the river to skillfully tow the Anne Bonney towards the island dock.

Put, put put put put...


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© 2008 Al Lutz

A Different look at Disney...
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