Walt Disney Imagineering 1988
1988 The Norway Pavilion, Walt Disney World, EPCOT
The Norway Pavilion, EPCOT
So Imagineering was going through a Design/Build phase which meant that we would save money by just hiring an outside company to design and then build a ride for us. To most of us, we felt this had never been done before on an attraction is complicated and would be a bad idea. On top of that, the company we were hiring was formed recently by a bunch of not so good ex-Imagineering engineers.
In reality, Disneyland was built mostly with outside companies doing a lot of the engineering and building. These were mostly simple rides that already existed. I learned years later when we replace the Dumbo ride at Disneyland that it was actually a used "round ride" we purchased and re-themed as Dumbo. By now, we had moved past what the outside world could design for us.
Frank Wells, the president of The Walt Disney Company, would later write the famous "Black Book" outlining three of Imagineering's failed projects which included Norway. These projects were failures because they either opened late and/or significantly overran the budget. His internal report was actually very positive for us as we could go back to building rides ourselves. Of course years later this would once again change.
Project not going very well
I was finishing up the rehab of Space Mountain Disneyland's Ride Control System until spring of 1988 but then learned of the problem at the Norway attraction. We had just taken over control of the mechanical part of this project from the vendor. Don from Imagineering mechanical engineering had been in Florida for months dealing with the concrete flume that was design incorrectly and the boats literally would not go around some of the curves. The boats themselves were being totally redesigned and fabricated quickly at our Central Shops in Florida. By the way this group is a fantastic group of can do people. They can design and build anything that is on the Florida property from boats, to rollercoaster vehicles, to control cabinets, to Audio Animatronic figures.
Hey come help for a day or two
In April I received an innocent call one day asking help with a sensor problem they were having reliability detecting a boat in the station. I said stop using that retro-reflective sensor and use a thru-beam sensor and your problems will go away. I thought that was the end of that but my boss came in the next day and said, take a 2 day trip to Florida and straighten out this sensor problem, OK. Well I packed for a 2 day trip and off to Florida I went.
So I showed up at the Norway Pavilion and solved the sensor problem by the next day and was ready to return home that night. I called my boss to say, hey the sensor problem is fixed but after talking to the vendor's software team, they are running boats around like the software is complete but in reality over half the software hasn't been written yet. Just thought you should know, I'm leaving in a few hours. Well the long and short of it was, no, you are staying there and taking over the Ride Control system from the vendor like Don has done for the mechanical. I'm thinking, me and my big mouth, I shouldn't have mentioned the last part.
Note: This was the second time in Imagineering's history that an attraction missed the publicly announced opening day. The year before I arrived on Memorial Day 1978 the Matterhorn was supposed to reopen with the tag line "see what has gotten into the Matterhorn". It was a revamped ride with the Abominable Snowman and a new Ride Control System. About a week before the team said they would not be ready for the opening, it must be delayed. As the story was told to me, thousands of people showed up to Disneyland to ride the new Matterhorn. To keep guests happy, Disneyland gave out free readmission tickets to the park (re-ads) to anyone who asked.
You are staying until this attraction opens!
For Norway, we were told that travel agents had booked many people taking Walt Disney World vacations for the purposes of riding the new Norway ride. So we were asked how quickly can you get this ride open? I should also note that never in my history with the company were any of us ever asked to take a short-cut regarding safety. Anything else was fair game. Also basically we could spend any amount of money at this point.
So I immediately hand selected the best ride control people, that I knew. Craig who worked in Florida and I had met during Big Thunder there -- Bill McArdle and Nick from Imagineering Glendale, who were not real happy with being summoned to Florida - and Keith from the vendor who seemed really good - and a few more people to help as well.
This was a weird project for me and a learning experience. To date I had been one of two people writing all the software and not getting any attention for the great work I had done. For this project I did the least amount of actual engineering work to date, mostly working on organizing and reporting to management and doing some testing and high level design, but I got the most credit for this success of any project to date. I have a signed memo from Frank Wells addressed to a few of us thanking us for our help turning this project around. You can't get any more recognition than that! What a wonderful gesture for the president of The Walt Disney Company to take the time to write such a memo.
We worked 12-16 hour days and at the end of each night around 10 pm I would sit down for an hour and write a daily memo of our status and a literal list of every task needed to reach opening day. So each day management could see the projected opening day. The end date moved forward and backward depending on what we accomplished and discovered each day. Usually a scheduler would collect information and do this weekly but that wasn't good enough for this very fast track project.
We redesigned part of the hardware and wrote and rewrote more than half the software in 12 weeks. The result was a surprisingly great design and implementation that we would use again.
The end. Oh wait.
OK I may have sort of flooded the Norway Pavilion
So every 5 years you get a service awards dinner honoring your service to the company. At 35 years or more you have a taped interview which they edit into a theme for the night. They use more sound bites than the whole interview and twice at the 35th and 40th video interview I told this story and twice it was edited out. Not very "Disney" I guess. So for the first time outside of a handful of Imagineers, here goes.
Norway is the only flume ride I know that has this rather peculiar design. Most flume rides are on one level and the water stays in the flume 24/7. Think Small World. Others like Splash Mountain, the water drains into a huge reservoir each night and the flume is empty and the boats sit on the bottom of the flume. Norway is different. It is two stories but keeps the water in the flume like Small World. I assume to save lots of money on the usual large reservoir. To do this there are dams on the second floor that raise when the flume pumps shut off to keep the water upstairs.
So I was testing the water sequencing software that Bill wrote. I'm throwing him under the bus right at the beginning here. The sequence is you start two of the three 12,000 gallon a minute pumps pumping water to the second floor and then immediately lower the two dams so water can flow to the downstairs flume. The water on the top floor is only 4 inches below the floor so if you wait to lower the dams you would start spilling water onto the walkway and the show props and flood the upstairs. So I am testing this software in the ride room with no windows and can I only see the little LED indicators for each device. Bill is in the construction trailer writing more software. So I ran the start sequence and all is good and then ran the stopping sequence that reverses this sequence and all is still good. So next you try what we call the "edge cases" the not normal cases. So I try to confuse the software by starting the sequence and then stopping it while it is in the middle of it. The software has to remember where it is and immediately figure the best sequence to reverse the process.
Let's try to fool this software
So the pumps are running and the dams are dropping and what should happen is the dams should reverse in mid-stroke and the pumps should turn off. Well, OK. Well what happened was the dams did go up but instead of the 2 pumps shutting off the third backup pump started. So Keith and I are looking at these little red (not labeled) LEDs to see what is happening. Great the dams are raising. Wait, what, it looks like the third pump has started. Is that possible? Am I looking at the correct LEDs? So it took about 10* seconds for it to sink in that we were pumping 36,000 gallons a minute to the upstairs with the dams up. Water immediately rose to the top of the flume on the second floor and started pouring over the walkways and into the show sets. I screamed something I will not repeat here and immediately pressed the whole attraction power off button (Manual Power Disconnect) which did shut off the pumps. OK are we good, or was that too long? We knew the answer but I was in denial.
Is this really happening?
Keith turned to me and said that they had done a (small) version of this months ago and water will come out of the electrical conduits from the second floor and pointed toward a 4 inch conduit in the ceiling. So let's move this computer on this table out of the way. As we did water came pouring out of the conduit onto the floor where the computer was seconds ago. I opened the door to the maintenance bay where I saw an indescribable sight. It looked like a heavy Florida rain where it is hard to see more than a few feet. It was "raining" inside. Water just pour through the concrete.
A few minutes later over the maintenance radio we heard, this is the Norway Gift Shop and there is water coming out of the ceiling. I never got the details but the gift shop was opened to guests in the corner of the building and I'm hoping only got a small amount of water. So by our calculations we dumped about 6,000 gallons of extra water upstairs that mostly wound up downstairs.
Being a true Imagineer
You either have to laugh or cry at your failures. Learn from them and even hesitate the next time you run a big test but don't fundamentally change who you are and what you do. I'm not proud of flooding the pavilion and I worked hard before and after this to not make mistakes. But once in a while these things happen, especially when you are working long days at a fast pace. Bill fixed his software bug and we retested the next day. My hand was on the stop button for the whole test, but we ran the same test and it passed. The interesting part was I don't remember any repercussions to this. At Imagineering, you don't get in trouble for doing the best you can and having things not work out.
The mechanical team had redone some of the concrete flume, redesigned the braking system, and made all new design boats. As I said above, we the Ride Control Team worked 7 days a week 12-16 hours a day for the last 12 weeks on this project and on July 5th 1988, we did open the Norway Pavilion ride.
Now the end.
* I always told the story that it took like 20 seconds to realize what was happening, hence 12,000 gallons of water. I have changed it here to 10 seconds. When you are panicked a second feels like forever. Who knows, maybe it was only 5 seconds. Notice how I am rationalizing this after all these years. Anyway it was raining in the first floor Maintenance Bay so it was a ton of water.
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