Walt Disney Imagineering 1992
1992 Splash Mountain, Walt Disney World
Splash Mountain, WDW
WDI went through a phase a few times when management would say, let's save money and just buy what we want. The Splash Mountain Ride for Disneyland was an example of this failed approach. We received rides that didn't work and we spent millions of dollars making them work and they never were as good as ones we designed ourselves. Also the creative implementation for Disneyland was hampered by cost reductions. Many of the figures were reused from the America Sings attraction and didn't fit in with the story. Well Splash Mountain for Walt Disney World (WDW) was going to be different and it was a much better attraction both technically and creatively.
About 5 months before the scheduled opening Alan, the VP of all project managers in Florida realized his construction was way ahead of schedule and if it wasn't for those ride people he could open early. Every week he could open early, the project could save the company tens of thousands of dollars per week. Some thing about taxes and construction loans versus depreciating an asset that is in use. So the SVP of Engineering, Jack, asked if I would go to Florida and get the Ride Control System completed 3 months early. Don was sent to do the same thing for the Ride Mechanical. We both had done something similar for the Norway Pavilion Ride back in 1988.
Well even though the people on the project are your friends and coworkers, no one likes someone showing up for the last few months of a 3 year project and changing things. They don't like the attention that this stunt brings. Over the years I learned how to filter this out and at the same time to have some empathy for their position.
Alan Bigger than Life
Over the years there were a handful of characters that seemed bigger than life. There were stories about them, many about them firing people. Many feared them. As I mentioned previously about Dick Nuis, for example, I didn't see them that way. Was I too oblivious to fear them? So my first day in Florida I have what feels like a command performance lunch with Alan and his project manager Walter. This is where Alan tells me what he wants, paraphrasing you hear, "open the attraction early for the same amount of money now get to work". Then I am supposed to say OK (boss). Well the lunch meeting didn't go that usual way. He explained what he wanted and then in my mind it was my turn to say what I wanted. After being sent to fix or speed up things a few times you learn, if you change nothing, how can you expect different results. So on day one you make a list of changes and implement them immediately. Also I have found, others disagree, that money makes things go faster. So I said, well you are saving like $30K a week so you can spend $10K a week on what I need and still be ahead, right? Well he looks at Walter like who is this guy but he couldn't disagree.
Next I say, we have the mechanical people working days finishing installation but you have the safety related Software/Controls people working at night. This is backwards, I need to have you switch this around. Though true, I hated working nights was my real motivation. So two big changes in the first hour, I got money and a better working environment for "my guys". Obviously I did get some dirty looks the end of the next day when the mechanical guys showed up for their night shift.
What do you Guys need?
So after the why are you (Frank) here, go away (Frank), I persist and ask so where are we and what do we need? I asked are we doing this the best way? Well the answer always is, no it isn't but we didn't have the money or someone would not let us do something. To an outsider this looks like the absolute wrong approach. You are rushing to get done and you want to change things? Well yes!
So the first change was we wanted to redesign how we stop on each conveyor belt throughout the ride. We had 2 sensors there and it was causing problems. If we could have one more sensor per belt, it would fix our problem, the software would get a lot easier and actually create a more redundant and fault tolerant solution. So of course we did this. We spent some that money of mine and a few days later we were leaping ahead with a better design and done faster. We applied this approach a few other places.
This is a good time to plug my first patent ever, the Electronic Tachometer. I was developing this idea with my intern Don (different Don) and a few months before this rush came in it turned out we needed to put tachometers on each motor shaft and do some calculations that a PLC computer really could not do. Also there was no physical place to install a physical tachometer even if the PLC could do the math. So we quickly implemented a design of the Electric Tachometer patent and installed them at Splash Mountain.
The Three Wishes
Next I tried something I have only tried this one time. I recently had re-watched the movie Starman, with Jeff Bridges, I explain one night at dinner. Jeff has 3 magic "orbs" that give him power to do things. I'm going to give each of you on the team 3 of these and you can ask for (almost) anything and I will get it done. In return you will stop complaining about working faster and we will get this attraction completed on the new schedule, OK? They agreed. I believe it sounded as weird and stupid then as it does now, but it was such a surprise, I think I caught them off-guard.
Some wanted small changes to the system, many were person requests. My favorite request was from the lead programmer saying "I haven't been home in months and there is no good sticky rice here in Florida. I want a bag of sticky rice from California." Without hesitation or judgment I said fine, have your wife take a bag (I think it was a 10 pound bag) of this special rice to work and I will have it over-nighted here. But that is 1 of your 3 wishes, OK? So within two days he had his 10 pound bag of rice. Also, I bought dinner for everyone each night and sometimes went and got it and brought it back. One week I called "hundred week". The first night I went to Taco Bell and ordered 100 tacos and a small coke to go with a straight face. The Coke was for me to drink while I waited. It took a minute for the people behind the counter to realize I was serious. Another night it was 100 Krystal burgers (just like White Castle). The result was everyone seemed better. Most people wanted to "save" their wishes and didn't use them. All the requests for me were simple to execute and cost little in comparison to the reward.
How to put on a show
Not something most engineers are good at and it took some time for me to realize this and be good at this is how to put on a show for the executives when they show up. Do you smile and say everything is OK, do you complain you don't have what you need, do you hide and let someone else do it, if possible, because you are a introvert and hate attention and the spotlight? Well luckily for me I am an extrovert engineer that loves attention. Mickey Steinberg, COO of Imagineering, was showing up with a group of his direct reports including Alan. This was a big deal. I explained to the Controls Project Engineer that he should stand next to me at the unload station and when Mickey gets off the ride I will introduce him and we can all talk. He declined and said he wanted to stand on the other side with the rest of the engineers. Well, Mickey gets off the ride, shakes my hand and says great job Frank and walks away. By the way Don was right next to me and got the same congratulations. I look up at my team and shrugged.
So much better than Disneyland
So ask many Imagineers and they will tell you that Disneyland is the best park with the best attractions. Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom seems to get the most distain. I completely disagree with this notion. The Big Thunder at WDW is better and Splash Mountain is much better at WDW. When testing we wind up riding the ride many many times. We sometimes even have small meeting while riding. No one can interrupt you there. I will say the absolute best ride was before all the Logs (ride vehicles) were added to the ride. With up to half of the total Logs, you don't hear the water splashing of the Logs near you and there are no Logs to bump you from behind. You can really become totally immersed in the story. It was a little sad after we put on all the Logs into the attraction to get the high capacity required to make the queue lines as short as possible.
We did It!
Well all the hard work from everyone from all disciplines came together to finish the ride on the early schedule. Not only that but I think it was a better attraction than if we had not changed course.
By the way, months later I asked if he ever cooked the rice we sent, and the answer was no, he was too busy. But he was very happy to have it.
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