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2/25 Update: Disneyland has confirmed a May 27th Memorial Day weekend start for the new Soundsational parade and a grand opening date of June 3rd for both the new Little Mermaid ride at California Adventure and the revamped Star Tours simulator at Disneyland. - Al Lutz

Things may have seemed rather quiet and sleepy around Disneyland during some parts of this winter, what with spotty weather and relatively light crowds wandering past endless rehab walls, but the executives back in the TDA building have been busy planning for this May when Disneyland wakes from its long winters nap.

In this update we’ll fill you in on the very latest on when you can expect to ride Star Tours and Little Mermaid or see the new Soundsational parade, as well as how some suits don't get it (as far as the Cast Members figure into things) and others on the east coast continue to ignore the Wizarding ways of the competition just down the freeway.

Longtime readers of this column, (as they lay out their K-cups for the day and get the muffins all picked out) will take to heart the title of this piece today; Subject to Change. Those that don't, well… let's just leave it at that. Ready to start? Lower the handle on that K-cup Brewer and let's get going shall we?

By the way, before I forget, extra special thanks goes out this week to Andy Castro, Fishbulb and CaptPhoebus for the kind use of their photos. - Al

 

Subject to Change

It’s no secret that the planners at Disneyland are pros when it comes to preparing and staging giant media spectacles. The list of successful events grows longer by the year, from the celebrity Pirates movie premieres to their help with the sprawling D23 convention, and even the smaller stuff like Baseball All-Star Game parades through the park or an Olympic-size swimming pool set up on Main Street so Michael Phelps can swim a few laps for the cameras.

The event planners at Walt Disney World have tried recently to convince the Burbank corporate office to let them have a whack at a few of those high-profile events, but the savvy Disneyland team has such a strong reputation behind it that the Burbank bosses simply won’t risk sending one of their big events out to Florida, for fear it might sink into the swamp to never be heard from again. And yet, with all of that experience and talent behind them, the west coast team of event planners hasn’t faced a month-long series of events like this upcoming May since California Adventure (DCA) opened in early 2001.

The stress levels in TDA (Team Disney Anaheim) are now rising quickly over the fact that they still can’t quite pin down the exact timing for the grand debuts of some of the major attractions and additions coming to the park this summer. Any one of the major park debuts that need to be squeezed into this May would be enough to build an entire summer campaign around in a normal year, but instead they all need to be successfully launched alongside each other while trying to grab enough of their own media attention to let the public know they exist and are worth a summertime visit.

Kicking off the month of May that very first weekend is AIDS Walk Orange County, which will be celebrating its 25th anniversary with upwards of 30,000 participants from around SoCal walking through Disneyland and DCA before the parks open on May 1st. The very next weekend the splashy celebrity premiere for the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie will invade Disneyland. This time there is a thought to go with a giant screen in front of the Castle, instead of setting up shop on the Rivers of America for a fourth time.

Nobody actually watched the movie.
Pirates 2003 Premiere at Disneyland.

Regardless of the exact location, those huge Pirates movie premieres always bring with them lots of logistical headaches and a massive deployment of manpower from both Anaheim and Burbank. Just as they are cleaning up the mess from the Pirates premiere, Disneyland will begin its 50th year of Grad Nites, a six week series of overnight graduation parties that leave the park with a massive hangover even if most of the attempts to smuggle in liquor were thwarted at the pat down stations at the main entrance.

And with the start of Grad Nites, that puts Disneyland in the middle of May, and yet they still haven’t held the grand opening ceremonies for Star Tours 2.0, the Little Mermaid ride, Goofy’s Sky School and the new Paradise Garden restaurants, let alone debut the lavish new Mickey’s Soundsational parade.

The dates for all of those events the last half of May are still not set in stone, but here’s what looks likely to happen, keeping in mind that these plans can change more than a few times before then:

Star roars

Star Tours 2.0 was originally slated to be ready for soft openings by the time the Pirates movie premiere was held at Disneyland. And Mr. Depp and guests will probably get their own private preview the night of the premiere. However, around that same time a slightly less ambitious version of the remade ride is set to debut out at Walt Disney World (Orlando execs passed on paying for big updates to their exterior and exit gift shop, as well as some improvements to the ride system and vehicles that Disneyland is getting to increase hourly capacity. They're still muggled out there I guess).

The broader national campaign kicking off Star Tours 2.0 on both coasts will likely default to being based at the Disney World version in the middle of May, so that the attraction can be formally opened for the start of their Star Wars Weekends fan events that begin May 20th. Disneyland may be sneaking in some soft openings prior to that week, but that is still not set in stone. What is certain is that TDA is expecting peak demand not seen since the 1980’s for Star Tours this summer, with Tomorrowland management already crafting plans to corral a three hour Standby line. Disney’s marketing machine wants to make sure that all of SoCal knows that the Reagan-era ride has received a radical 3-D update inside and out.

Sound tracks

That third week in May, just as every TV news weatherperson in America wraps up their fluff piece on the new Star Tours ride, the Disneyland Entertainment Department will be conducting their final overnight dress rehearsals of the lavish new Mickey’s Soundsational parade. As the schedule stands now, the big parade will make its public debut on the Disneyland parade route on the afternoon of Friday, May 26th, kicking off the Memorial Day Weekend and the traditional start of summer.

Fly-Fishing

And Memorial Day Weekend is also slated to debut the new Paradise Garden restaurants, Goofy’s Sky School coaster, and the 100 million Little Mermaid ride next door at DCA. With work progressing quickly inside the building at Little Mermaid; they are now programming the most advanced animatronics and the operations folks are slowly cycling the first clamshell vehicles around the track, soft openings for Mermaid should have been underway for weeks by the time Memorial Day rolls around.

No fishing allowed

It’s pretty much a given now that Memorial Day Weekend will be the timeframe for the media events to debut Mermaid and the rest of the Paradise Pier additions. But what has yet to be decided is whether or not to bundle Disneyland’s Star Tours 2.0 and Soundsational into that big weekend as originally planned, or perhaps bump the SoCal debut of Star Tours forward to match the earlier Disney World debut, or bump it back a week into early June and separate the local marketing message into two separate events for each separate park.

That decision is made more difficult by the fact that each of the two major new attractions goes after wildly different demographics, which makes it difficult to either bundle their marketing messages together in May, or separate their Anaheim debuts by a week or more and let them fight for media attention. You can be sure that it’s not just TDA involved in that decision; Disney World, the Burbank corporate office, as well as some very protective folks from Lucasfilm, all have a say in that ongoing debate.

Since DCA has seen increasingly strong attendance and spending numbers even after the initial World of Color AP rush was over, there’s a faction in TDA that feels it might be okay to not bundle the DCA debuts in with the Disneyland debut of Star Tours and Soundsational. But originally the concept of marketing DCA alone and on its own merits was something that TDA wasn’t going to attempt until 2012 with the debut of Cars Land and the new Buena Vista Street entry complex, and there are some folks that are worried DCA still can’t stand entirely on its own from a major marketing standpoint, especially with locals who have heard all the DCA jokes of the past decade.

However, the logistical nightmare facing Anaheim this May, and the strong financial numbers DCA has been pulling in for the last 9 months, has some in TDA thinking it might be time to push DCA out of the nest a bit earlier than planned and see if they can market the Mermaid ride on its own strong merits. The timing on all of this is confusing even to those involved in the process, and we’ll be sure to keep you updated if a specific strategy or exact date is landed on for the Star Tours debut. Otherwise, most of the action this Memorial Day will be in DCA.


Barely

Meanwhile, there are plenty of smaller rehabs and projects ongoing this winter around Anaheim. More rehab walls recently popped up near Avalon Cove, where a makeshift boardwalk meet n’ greet had been established in recent years for Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse. Although Duffy Bear set up camp with great fanfare in his own nautical themed pavilion 50 yards away, the long lines of Duffy fans have yet to materialize at that location. Instead, most people rush past an increasingly lonely Duffy as they catch a glimpse of far more recognizable celebrities like Mickey or Santa just beyond.

Maybe a (bear-)trap door would be a good idea...

The Merchandise team has been tasked with getting Duffy off the ground in America by any means possible, so a considerable sum was quickly pushed forward to build a bigger meet n’ greet area where Duffy can stand alongside Mickey to try and cement in people’s minds that Duffy is associated with Mickey and you better darn well fall in love with him as much as your credit limit will allow. Someone in Disney’s merchandise department didn’t get the memo that America is not Japan, but they’ll learn that the hard way it seems.


Club CC

At the front of the park, while they dig deep into the rocky Anaheim soil for the basement levels of the Carthay Circle Theater facility, TDA is debating whether or not to finally move forward on that rumored DCA version of Club 33 for the upper level of the theater. Surveys had gone out last year to existing and potential Club 33 members asking if they’d be interested in paying for a second membership to a DCA club that would offer fine dining, a cocktail lounge, and the usual perks and pampering all set in a 1920’s golden age of Hollywood setting. The response to the DCA club surveys was tepid at best, since much of the allure of Club 33 comes from its urban-legend history and famous exclusivity, not to mention the ability to order a proper cocktail in an otherwise dry Disneyland.

Lift that barge, tote that bale...

The Carthay Circle Theater complex will now be built with full kitchen facilities, but TDA still can’t quite get the numbers to pencil out on how they’ll pull off the membership club angle for the upstairs space. The corporate market that Club 33 was originally designed to cater to is pretty much tapped out, so the DCA version would be fueled primarily by private members pulled from the long Club 33 waiting list. The 200+ Million dollar Buena Vista Street project will create one of the more elegant entrances to a Disney theme park, but it’s not quite a sure bet that people will pay big membership dues to have access to a private dining room there.

One scenario if the membership club doesn’t make the cut is to turn the dining room into the park’s signature fancy restaurant, and finally give up on ever bringing the Vineyard Room back as a separate dining option for DCA. TDA has until the middle of this year to make that decision on the new club if they want to get the ball rolling on creating a membership roster for 2012. Come September when the Buena Vista Street project goes into construction overdrive, the only way to get through that section of the park will be a narrow walled walkway from Condor Flats to Hollywood, so there will be nothing pretty to look at as they kick off a potential membership drive.


Road-thrill

The sprawling Cars Land project has been getting closer to the existing theme park lately by way of the first of three so-called portals in to the new land. The first of these portals is already under construction just behind the Pacific Wharf food court area, where a pathway out of the land is being built to link up to the Pacific Wharf area.

Once a parking lot...

An entry point to Cars Land, from above and at ground level.

...ironic isn't it?

When that portal is complete, the second portal will begin construction at the back of Flik’s Fun Fair just beyond the bumper cars to plug in to a Cars Land pathway leading behind the Cozy Cone Motel snack bar. The final path into Cars Land is the most obvious; the long entrance roadway that creates the new main street for the land. The goal here is to ensure Cars Land is easy to get to from several angles, and not relegated to a dead-end area like Mickey’s Toontown that can get cut off by passing parades.

Towering

Nature's Bulldozerland

Beyond the parks at the Disneyland Hotel, that big makeover project is just nearing the halfway mark. We’d told you earlier about the new plans to beef up the entrance to the Frontierland Tower with a Nature’s Wonderland geyser garden to replace some of the feel of the thundering waterfalls there. The Adventureland Tower next door will soon be receiving its tiki inspired marquee and set dressings that will tie in to the new Tahitian Terrace themed restaurant and bar just beyond. And the main lobby of what will become the Fantasyland Tower will get the most radically themed redesign as the arrival complex for the entire hotel.

There’s still one original land from the park not represented by a tower, although the Mark I monorail waterslide in the pool area is a fun nod to Tomorrowland. (I wonder if anyone has placed a call to Tricia and Julie Nixon to see if they could dedicate the waterslide in a reprise of their famous 1959 ribbon-cutting of the monorail with Walt?)

Bacon alert!
Tomorrow, Tomorrow is only a day away...

Meanwhile, plans are now being shuffled through the approval process for a fourth tower, dubbed the Tomorrowland Tower, to be built in an expansion of the Disneyland Hotel in the middle of this decade. Once the entire hotel makeover is complete and all 1,000 rooms are back on line by the summer of 2012, TDA will be watching closely through early 2013 to see how the occupancy and spending patterns pan out at this refreshed property. If the upgraded hotel can meet projections in an uncertain economy, the Tomorrowland Tower will be green lit and begin construction on what is now a surface parking lot and an unused access road behind ESPN Zone that has been blocked off since just after 9/11 (seen above). Since it’s a building that would mirror the basic cement and glass architecture of the other three towers, the construction costs are rather low for an additional set of rooms that would still command premium prices.


Suggested Servings

With all that is going on inside the parks and at the hotels, longtime readers wonder what is happening backstage and with Cast Member morale. Things are improving there as well, although not as fast as improvements seen in the parks, and that silly One Disney mantra gets in the way too often when Anaheim execs try to improve backstage working conditions. This winter has seen some noticeable improvements to the backstage food service offered to Cast Members, a sore point for many Anaheim hourly CM’s who got the dirtiest, greasiest offerings while the TDA cafeteria offered a clearly superior level of service and quality to the cubicle drones backstage.

Mary Niven, as Vice President of DCA, continued in her quest to rid the world of that taboo acronym by closing the DCA cafeteria called The DCA Café since its opening in late 2000. During a 10 day rehab, they took down all of the late 1990’s WDI artwork of such DCA classics as Superstar Limo and ABC Soap Opera Bistro, and replaced the sickly yellow hospital paint with chocolate brown walls and dark stained wood trim. The walls were decorated with over a hundred classy framed photos of period 1930’s Hollywood artwork, as well as dozens of black and white photos of long-time DCA Cast Members.  The dining room looks more like an upscale bistro now, instead of a tired hospital ward showcasing failed theme park concepts.

Not to be outdone, John Storbeck as the Vice President of Disneyland just unveiled a similar upgrade to the 56 year old Disneyland Cast Member cafeteria, the InnBetween. After years of promises from TDA and their Sodexho food contractors, they finally installed a Subway sandwich franchise in the InnBetween, alongside the existing cafeteria offerings. New paint and modern furnishings freshened up the over-burdened space and gave it a new lease on life similar to its DCA counterpart. The food and service still isn’t at the same quality that TDA, Glendale or Burbank gets from its similar Sodexho contracts, but at least the surroundings look nicer.

With all the lip service Disney now gives about helping its Cast Members lose weight, you’d think they would look to their own cafeteria offerings that still lean heavily on giant plates of mushy macaroni and cheese, greasy cheeseburgers or gummy burritos, and lots of sugary cake and donuts to go with the unlimited Coke on tap. But at least the upgraded decor is a pleasant diversion from all the unhealthy food at lunchtime. The important thing is that TDA is actually paying attention and spending some money on improving the backstage conditions for the front-line Cast Members, an area of the resort often totally ignored by previous executive regimes.

One ...is the loneliest number

Unfortunately, due to the One Disney corporate groupthink, it’s two steps forward and one step back for Anaheim. The latest casualty in the One Disney campaign is the Spirit of Disneyland Award, represented by the shiny gold, silver or bronze squares worn on the nametags of proud Cast Members honored with the award. A similar and no less meaningful program called the Partners in Excellence award was also eliminated at Disney World. In their place is an all-new award standardized on both coasts, and at the Cruise Line and WDI, called the Walt Disney Legacy Award. The problem here is that where the Sprit of Disneyland award allowed hourly Cast Members to be nominated for varying levels of the award in three separate categories, the new Legacy award is a one-shot deal as cooked up by corporate suits from the infamously out of touch Human Resources department.

The criteria used to help Cast Members nominate a co-worker they feel is deserving of the Legacy award is full of soaring corporate psycho-babble that feels disingenuous at best, and horribly unattainable at worst, to most normal people working in Anaheim. Instead of excelling in one particular area for the old Spirit of Disneyland award; customer service skills, cast member excellence, or financial results, the Legacy award demands that any nominee excel in all three grandly ambitious human traits. A Legacy award recipient must simultaneously “Dream, Create and Inspire” and quite literally match the achievements of Walt Disney himself. Here are the three official criteria that must be met in order for a Cast Member to be nominated for a Walt Disney Legacy Award, or in the official explanation “for their remarkable achievements in all of the following three categories”;

DREAM – An innovative visionary, who understands the elements of building a world-class experience.
CREATE – Actively develops an entrepreneurial, efficient and continuously improving experience for Cast and Guests.
INSPIRE – Models inclusive, collaborative, supportive and positive behaviors and actions.

Phew! That’s a pretty tall order to meet for a Cast Member selling churros or loading Mr. Toad cars, don’t you think? In short, to receive a Walt Disney Legacy Award you need to be Walt Disney reincarnated and continuously embody all of the amazing qualities he brought to his lifelong career of excellence and innovation. The nomination forms and explanatory material repeatedly state that “Recipients Must Excel In All 3 Categories”.

What’s not explained on the application form is that there is a segment of Disney’s corporate population that uses grand words and trendy phrases like that in routine conference room discussions to define simple above-average performance. But most of the people working at Disneyland, even up into the middle-management ranks, don’t talk that bizarrely and only save that kind of soaring language for discussions of rare individuals like Walt himself. Or maybe Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Edison?

It’s no wonder then that halfway through the application process this winter only a few dozen people have dared try to nominate an Anaheim coworker for the award. And many of those applications are so simply written, or are simply pranks filled out by goofy Cast Members on break, that they won’t make the first round of cuts let alone an actual award. Whereas the Spirit of Disneyland Award in its three different categories and three separate levels was given out to several hundred well-deserving Cast Members per year in Anaheim pulled from over a thousand applications, the intimidating language of the Legacy Award would only seem to qualify two or three people per year for such an honor.

And yet the corporate shepherds of this new program can’t figure out why the nominations are barely trickling in. Since TDA was planning for a lavish Legacy awards ceremony for up to 375 people later this year in the Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom (with similarly large ceremonies planned for WDI, the Cruise Line, and out at WDW), it’s becoming apparent they’ll either need to dramatically scale down the plans for the ceremony, or rethink the Legacy Award’s grandly pompous psycho-babble that scares off most people from filling out a nomination form. Maybe it could be re-launched with a second round of simpler nominations that use regular English instead of corporate-speak?

It’s also a shame this award was managed so poorly by One Disney drones who are clearly out of touch with the real world of working at Disneyland, since the media campaign that went along with it uses gorgeously crafted sepia-toned photographs of Walt Disney in his heyday, and included a very expensive package of card stock information packets and fancy gold-embossed imagery spread all over the backstage areas of the parks and hotels. Not to mention the healthy Anaheim budget for that big dinner party and awards ceremony for 375 people. But if you don’t happen to work with Walt Disney reincarnated, why bother nominating that hard working girl or guy you know?

Next time you are at the park and a front-line Cast Member does a noticeably good job for you, it would be wise to take a moment and thank them, since they probably won’t be receiving much formal recognition from the company they work for any time soon.

Oh-kay - that should do it for today. Remember your support is vital, your donations to PayPal help keep the bills paid. We're only here due to all of your kind efforts.

Keep in mind updates only get posted when there is something to report on, and not before. It takes time to confirm things, and even then we can only offer a snapshot of a continually evolving story. (People do change their minds you know.) Just like the happiest place on earth, patience is a virtue; the queue may take a while before you can enjoy the attraction. ;)

See you at Disneyland!

Al Lutz may be e-mailed at [email protected] - Please keep in mind he may not be able to respond to each note personally. FTC-Mandated Disclosure: As of December 2009, bloggers are required by the Federal Trade Commission to disclose payments and freebies. Al Lutz did not receive any payments, free items, or free services from any of the parties discussed in this article. He pays for his own admission to theme parks and their associated events, unless otherwise explicitly noted.


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