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Entries in Imagineering (1)

Wednesday
Nov042009

Fired From Imagineering

Why do Disney executives do the things they do?  Is it a lack of knowledge and experience?  Enjoy accounts of first-hand encounters with the most clueless of clueless Disney management.
 

 


More than one Imagineer has recently been given the boot from Walt Disney Imagineering.  Two of the more shocking to bet let go are Tim Delaney, a Vice President and Executive Designer and Valerie Edwards, WDI's head sculptor.

I figure there's not time like the present to share a few of my thoughts related to this topic: Uneducated and foolish decisions made by Disney upper management.  Let me begin by saying that I do not personally know either of these two artists.  I enjoy most of their work and have heard great things about both people.

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Tim Delaney- Imagineer since 1976.  He is know for his extensive work with the creation of Disneyland Paris.  Further back, he helped design Epcot's Living Seas (pre-Nemo, of course).  His critics blame him for giving us the often-hated Paradise Pier at Disney's California Adventure.  He is also criticized for portions of Tomorrowland 98.  Regardless, I always found his concept art quite stunning- especially the Epcot stuff.

Valerie Edwards- 21 years with Imagineering.  She is the daughter of Sleeping Beauty animator, George Edwards.  She states she was mentored by Imagineer John Hench for 17 years.  Her work includes character sculpts for the parks and cruise ships.  Recently she sculpted the bust of Barack Obama for The Hall of Presidents- quite the intimidating task of following in the footsteps of retired genius, Blaine Gibson.
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Why were they fired?

We know not.  The details are fuzzy at best.  Did they demand perfection more than was tolerable to the bean counting executives?  Did their less-popular projects eventually catch up to them?  Did Lasseter have anything to do with it?  Fear not, if speculation is what you seek, there is PLENTY of that across the web.  As for real answers, I have found none.  Since we don't know the specifics of these recent events, I'd like to share some observations of my own concerning sketchy decision-making amongst Disney leadership.  I worked as a Disney artist among other roles for a number of years.  WARNING:  The following accounts are real and may be terribly uncomfortable to read.

Oh how I wish I had a recording device

I wish I had a recording device handy during some of my many many conversations with good old Disney theme park execs.  Although some of these people are top-notch in my book, the bulk should never have reached such heights in my opinion- not by a long shot.  The top-notchers are those who have been visiting and experiencing the parks as guests for years.  They know the history.  They appreciate the history.  They don't consider the legacies of Walt and the other Greats to be inconvenient road blocks that occasionally slow them down on their journey through self-serving, career-building, pension-earning destruction of the very brand that employs them.

There are top execs who cannot name ten attractions.

No joke.  There are many who have never been on a Disney attraction if not with an entourage and camera men.  Not even kidding. I don't even want to know how many of their spouses have never been to the parks.  There are many who don't know that Pixar was not Disney until the acquisition.  In James Stewart's “Disney War” Michael Eisner himself is quoted that if they had asked him questions about Snow White and Disneyland and other Disney films in his hiring interview, he would not have been offered the job because he knew nothing of the answers.  


Speaking up- not a pretty site

Try saying in a board room full of management something like, “I don't think this fits the original vision of this company,” or, “that really goes against what we've always stood for.”  Talk about crickets and a lot of funny looks.  Talk about a conversation-killer inevitably followed by comments like, “well did you even look at your printout with all the numbers on it?”  I wish I were kidding.  These are the people making the decisions.  More than once I was pulled aside after a meeting to be told “you see, things cost a lot of money to maintain” (as if I thought it were free to maintain Disney rides).  One time, “you need to learn to act like the ideas of the higher-ups are good ideas even if they are not, and eventually you need to learn to believe that these ideas really are good- that's how you'll get ahead.”  I'll never forget the executive who couldn't seem to remember the names of those darn Magic Kingdom lands. “Jungleland, the Future Place, Western Area”.  Oh how I wish this was fictional- it is not.  “I have not made it to Animal Kingdom yet other than for that one backstage meeting.  I keep meaning to go but haven't had time during these first four years with the company”  These are THEME PARK executives.  Not Disney Store people or ESPN employees in Connecticut.  They have offices behind the parks and in Team Disney buildings and can see rides from their office windows yet some cannot name what they see.  Sorry, not naming names, too many to list.

My favorite conversation about the future of the parks goes something like this:  “There are boys ages 9 to 13 who are first-time Disney guests who say they are disappointed that Disneyland was not more like Six Flags.  These kids love Gameboys and the Wii and such.  How can we make the parks more relatable to them?  If they don't get what we are about, we need to change what it is that we are 'about'.”  One of many heated debates over Epcot's El Rio de Tiempo goes like this:  “Kids don't get it but they get the characters.”  I'd of course say, “WHAT'S NOT TO GET?  You are in Mexico on a little boat seeing things that don't happen in your home town.  It's great.”  “Yeah but the characters make them feel more comfortable in 'foreign' environments.”  Ummmmm.

Is there hope?

Will the 'New Golden Age of Imagineering' be what we all hope it will be?  Will John Lasseter and company be able to revive the long-lost culture of “quality first”?  I once asked John about how in the world he can juggle Pixar, Walt Disney Animation Studios, AND Imagineering... his reply (with a half-smile on his face), “There's not enough hours in the day.  There's just not enough hours in the day.”