Boy, thank God for Pixar. We shudder to think where Disney might be today if Pixar hadn’t jumped into Bob Iger’s pleading, outstretched arms. It’s sometimes scary to contemplate. Remember, before Lucasfilm, before Marvel and all the other Disney purchases, there was Pixar. There was Lasseter and Catmull and Jobs, right when Disney needed them most. Before the January 2006 consummation, Disney was in a hell of a place. Michael Eisner had just recently left the company (cue the overwhelming chorus of boo’s and hisses upon his departure) months earlier, and Iger had inherited a company that was, to put it mildly, not at all impressive. The theme parks had just been injected with some semblance of a pulse for Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary celebration (which fans counted as an apology for the downright criminal way the parks had been treated the previous 6 years by Darth Paul and Der Fuhrer Eisner), however there was very little on the long-range drawing board on how to follow it up. Hong Kong Disneyland had opened to a…shall we say…tepid response. The animation division was in crisis: after traditional animation had been shut down completely, Disney vowed to only make computer-generated films, none of which promised to be the next Lion King. The television and film divisions had been running hot and cold ever since dominating their respective markets in the 1999-2000 time frame. And for some reason, ever since the year 2000, Michael Eisner had become completely allergic to spending money on new technology or anything that even sniffed like an R&D expense. You know what the world needed then?
That’s right…a guy in a Hawaiian shirt! Pixar, by 2006, had legitimately become the most successful film content company in Hollywood. By that time, Pixar was an astounding 6 for 6 in producing hit movies. It seemed like each movie they made grossed more money and was more successful than the one that came before. Spielberg, Lucas, or Christopher Nolan can’t claim that. Hell, technically, not even Walt Disney himself was able to string together 6 straight animated movie hits at any point in his career (and this is coming from a Walt diehard in yours truly, so I am truly stunned by that fact). Pixar could literally do no wrong. It was beating Disney at its own game, and frankly making them look like scrubs in the process. And even worse, Disney was only getting half of Pixar’s revenues under their distribution deal, which was set to expire less than a year after Michael Eisner
got kicked out of left the company for good. And Pixar’s chief,
Steve Jobs, made it very clear that Pixar would not be renewing its deal with
Disney. Which means all of Pixar’s artistic and technological geniuses, from
Steve Jobs to Ed Catmull to John Lasseter and on and on, would have nothing to
do with Disney after the release of Cars
in Summer 2006. And for everyone who appreciated what Pixar did, and still
could do, to Disney’s artistic heritage and bottom line, this was very, very
bad. It was “let’s not buy any Apple stock pre-iPod release” bad.
No thanks, we're doing just fine
Creative executives, lawyers, politicians, anyone who works in a marketing department, and random celebrities featured on TMZ have this idea that every major event or consequence has one cause. Just one. “Top Gun was popular because Tom Cruise was in it.” “Apple became popular when they decided to sell music.” “Amazon.com became popular because of One-Click.” “Kids aren’t paying attention in school because of ADD (or vaccines, if you live on the west coast).” “Obama lost the Oklahoma vote in 2012 because he made jokes about cowboy hats.” There’s this sort of obsession among powerful people that everything must must must have one AND ONLY ONE solution, probably lest their heads explode or something.
Uh oh, HERE COME OKLAHOMA
This also leads said people to tell others of their breed that their successes have one cause, and that this one cause came in a single miraculous “moment of clarity” episode. “I got the idea for water-powered cars when I was playing mini-golf with my nephew.” And so on. Now, to be fair, some of this behavior is probably the result of these people having to constantly speak to ADD-whacked audiences who are begging to turn the channel unless you GET TO THE POINT RIGHT NOW OMG. So we can give some leeway here if they just want to give us a marketing department’s corporate-approved view of the story.
I say this because, in fact, Walt Disney was just as guilty of this “one cause to rule them all” phenomenon as anyone else. The most famous example, easily, is Walt’s legendary Griffith Park story. As Walt would tell it, it seemed as if the idea for Disneyland came to him like a lightning bolt from on high as he was sitting on a Griffith Park bench one day watching his daughters on the merry-go-round. We should be thankful there wasn’t a burning bush or stone tablets involved (THOU SHALT HAVE A BERM). Even if we are to assume he had these musings over several Griffith Park visits, we obsessive Disney park historians (all twelve of us) know this was not his only impetus for Disneyland, nor the only times he thought about it. Reading extensively and exhaustively through Disney history books, you would conclude that the idea of building a park where parents and kids could have fun together was not the only driving impulse behind Walt’s “Kiddie Park” idea that would eventually lead to the building of Disneyland. Among those ideas (some of which Walt was contemplating before his frequent visits to Griffith Park) were the following: 1) Building a place where kids could meet Mickey Mouse; 2) Creating a fun area for Walt’s increasingly-tired employees to unwind (the earliest ideas for the Riverside park suggest it might have been intended as an employee-only area); 3) Having a place where Walt and his visitors could ride full-scale railroads 4) Providing a place where kids could have fun when they visited the Disney Studio and/or Hollywood in general. All of these impulses were in the back of Walt’s mind as he was planning the Riverside park across the street from the studio, which was frankly a little small to hold Walt’s grand vision of “a place where the parents and the children could have fun together.” Point is: there’s always more than one ball in the air, no matter how much someone says something came to them like a lightning bolt to the head.
Hey, you know what's popular...?
Which brings us to Bob Iger’s amusing little “revelation” story that has been lapped up by the internet like Augustus Gloop taking to a river of chocolate. Since reporters have the institutional memory of “things that have happened since my last article,” and are either paid by Disney to toss softballs to Iger during their interviews or legitimately do not know how to use a search engine, one of the first and most prevalent questions DJ Bobby Bob receives is “good golly gee, how did you ever come up with the idea to buy Pixar?” Bob then goes into Griffith Park mode and fires up his #disneycommunicationsapproved story about how Pixar was suddenly on his mind. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the story by now. Bob was “watching a parade” at one of the castle parks (some stories suggest MK in Florida, but most suggest it was Hong Kong) when he noticed that most of the floats were populated by Pixar characters, and he realized practically every popular animated character made (read: merchandised by) Disney over the previous decade had been a Pixar character. This “convinced” him that it would be a good idea for Disney to buy Pixar outright and not risk losing them (for the record, let’s really hope it didn’t actually take him that long to figure this out). Bob was convinced that Pixar was worth whatever price Steve Jobs would ask for due to the ancillary effects that Pixar’s character affiliation would have on its animation and consumer products businesses. Okay, yeah it’s a pretty innocent story, sure. But let’s remember our lesson for today kids: there’s always more than one ball in the air. Two of these balls were called “Good Lord we need John Lasseter” and “somebody please take DCA’s keys away from her…she keeps boozing on free locals admission deals and it’s getting to the point where we can’t let her drive.” Ah, DCA, that old chestnut. No kiddies, Bob had a lot to think about at the time…
Oh Lord, she's off the wagon again
DCA For the Block
Disney’s California Adventure, in its 2001 incarnation, was one of the biggest flops in Disney’s history. It was made on a greatly reduced budget, supervised by managers whose mission from Fuhrer Eisner was to build a major expansion as cheaply as possible while still, somehow, trying to convince the public to pay to see it. Not an enviable task, to be sure, but management also did not put forth an A+ effort to make the park appealing in any way to any of Disney’s target demographs. The expansion was built at a cost of $1.4 billion (slashed from an original DCA budget of $2.1 billion, which in itself was slashed from a Westcot budget of $3.2 billion). Many people, and I mean many people in the financial offices and not just John Hench, would wonder whether it would have been better just to keep the area as a parking lot.
When DCA finally opened, it actually lost money for the Disneyland Resort. Legitimately. It took the combined profits of Downtown Disney, the hotels (including the very popular new Grand Californian Hotel), and Disneyland Park just to keep the resort in the black. But Disney’s California Adventure, in its first few years (yes, YEARS) did not make any profit by itself. Had it been a standalone, privately owned park like Holiday World, it would have lost money, and closed. This is what Disneyland management was dealing with. And just as Parks and Resorts management was figuring this out and trying to get all their ducks re-rowed, the horrible tragedy of September 11th happened for all the world to see. The American economy took a huge hit, most especially the tourism industry, since it took quite awhile for folks to decide to fly on an airplane again. Thankfully for Disneyland’s management, Disneyland’s profits (which mostly came from repeat local visitors) were not as affected as Disney’s other resorts around the world (which mostly came from out of town visitors). However, Disneyland did lose a significant portion of its lucrative day visitor demograph, who, as we Disneyphiles know, tend to spend much more money on food, merchandise, hotels, etc. on a per capita/per visit basis than the locals. In addition, since Disney World’s numbers were hit so hard, they would not provide the necessary relief money to potentially rescue Disneyland from its sinking profit margin. So, in short, Disney Parks and Resorts, and Disneyland especially, were in a bad way from the September 11th attacks until the economy (and the tourism economy specifically) started to recover in 2003.
We’ve already covered some of the immediate fallout of DCA’s initial tank job, and the park operations management’s reaction to it from a creative perspective within our Superstar Limo entry on this list (you can view it Here). In an upcoming entry, we’ll also talk about some of the “creative” business decisions Darth Paul and his minions made that put DCA in the shape it was upon its opening in 2001. With that foundation, we’re going to skip to early 2003, after Pressler had
been kicked out left to spend more time with his
family (apparently for about five minutes before becoming the CEO of The GAP),
and Jay Rasulo had taken over as Parks and Resorts Chairman. Cynthia Harriss,
Pressler’s right hand girl, was still President of Disneyland, and Eisner was
still in charge of Disney. This is starting to sound like a grade-school
reading class re-enactment. Coming up next: “Frog and Toad are Friends.”
DCA was hemorrhaging money at this time, and there was no relief to be found from the Parks and Resorts executive offices, since WDW was getting hit hard by the post-9/11 recession and had to re-trench. So the Disneyland park operations executives had to hope that DCA’s rushed “Phase II” development (planned in the summer of 2001 after execs realized attendance would be far below projections) would somehow be a windfall for the new park. As we covered in the Superstar Limo article, Disney responded to the biggest, ahem, “concerns” that guests had via an uncountable number of focus groups and surveys (that DCA had very few Disney characters, had very few things for kids to do, and did not have enough “Disney-esque” E-Tickets) by approving a plethora of new offerings: the Aladdin musical at the Hyperion Theater, Disney Junior Live, the Electrical Parade, A Bug’s Land, Ariel’s Grotto, and Tower of Terror (ironically, many of these new offerings would ignore the park’s California theme).
It was obvious to Disneyland execs that the new offerings, while they would spark a couple months’ worth of increased attendance, were not moving the needle for DCA in the long-term. So it was time for Plan B. Cynthia and her crew started rolling out the cheap ticket offers. DCA was added onto the Disneyland Annual Pass at no additional charge (making it an automatic two-park pass). They experimented with “kids get in free” deals (if you buy an adult admission). But the biggest, and most infamous, of the cheap ticket deals was the “Two Parks, One Ticket” campaign. Southern California locals would come to know it as the “2Fer” ticket. Disney completely carpet-bombed the Southern California area with 2Fer commercials and billboards. The infamous commercials depicted a family torn over which park they should visit (Warning: completely unrealistic), and then discovering that, of course, they could visit both parks for the same price. That’s right. For SoCal residents, if you bought a ticket to Disneyland, you could get a free upgrade to visit DCA. Free. This was back before the One-Day Park Hopper existed, so the locals went absolutely nuts. The 2Fer, combined with the still super-cheap Annual Passes, meant that DCA attendance gained a solid 13% bump from 2002 to 2003. Unfortunately, since management was practically giving the park away, the per-capita spending at DCA plummeted. Not only that, but it actually cut into Disneyland’s per-caps across the Esplanade, since guests who would buy a Disneyland ticket anyway were now leaving Disneyland and walking into DCA for free, and spending much fewer dollars there than they would at Disneyland. In fact, on the final Spring week of the 2Fer promotion, it was estimated that only 25% of DCA’s attendance was from guests with day tickets. That’s right, only 25% of visitors that week actually paid to get in. That’s not going to bring home the bacon. The warning bells were starting to sound for Disneyland management, and the elephant in the room was that DCA’s problems ran far, far deeper than adding some kids rides and a Terror of Terror would fix. The reality was, DCA was underwhelming for guests from the start, mostly due to the combination of a lack of “Disney” themed experiences and an overall thematic concept that was at best lacking in interest and at worst completely unappealing to 70% of Disneyland’s target audience. Unfortunately, in the 2003 Eisnerian economic climate, the money would not be available to overhaul the park, so the executives had to pin their hopes on two remaining upcoming experiences: Tower of Terror and the XGames XPerience.
At this time, the Disneyland Entertainment department was lead by a woman named Anne Hamburger, who had extensive theater credentials (including Tony-nominated shows). Since Pressler and his minions were not, shall we say, “besties” with Walt Disney Imagineering (for various reasons, which will be detailed in a later article), Anne Hamburger’s Entertainment department (as well as Steve Davison’s Creative Entertainment group) became the darlings of the Pressler regime due to their experience at creating popular shows and events (Small World Holiday, Mansion Holiday, Believe, etc.) on budgets that were microscopic compared to WDI’s. Unfortunately for the Disney fan community, Ms. Hamburger was also an avant-garde “urban diva” type, who favored Broadway-esque, Brechtian-style theater to Disney’s tried and true storytelling. Her team was notorious for completely missing the mark with Disney’s built-in traditional family audience (look up Club Buzz or Mickey’s Detective School if you’re looking for a reason to punish your soul). During their reign, the Hamburger/Pressler/Harriss group was entertaining (no pun intended) the possibility of continuing DCA’s attempt to seize the young adult demograph that Disneyland did not get enough of. Pressler and Company’s spreadsheets and extensive MBA schooling had told them that the 18-32 young adult demograph was very lucrative, due to the high amounts of disposable income that teenagers and twenty-somethings have when they don’t have a family to worry about (this is why Hollywood just can’t stop pandering to this group as well). While Disneyland certainly does not completely miss this age group, it owns less of a market share of the young adults than it does with family groups, since teens and young adults would rather go to places like Six Flags, Universal, or the mall to have fun. In a way, DCA was built to be a “contrarian” park to Disneyland. Like Universal Studios parks in the mid-1990s (and again in the mid-2000s), DCA was meant to be everything that Disneyland was not. It was aimed squarely for the young adult/family-less market. This was a blatant market share grab. This is (part of the reason) why DCA had large thrill rides with minimal theming (California Screamin’, Grizzly River Run, Maliboomer), basic carnival-esque iron rides (Sun Wheel, Mulholland Madness, the entirety of Paradise Pier), tons and tons of fast food stops (most of which serve beer and alcohol), chic-designed mall stores (many commented the Rushin’ River Outfitters store reminded them of an Eddie Bauer), as well as very little in the way of traditional “lame” Disney characters or “kid’s stuff.” Now do you see where the criticism that DCA felt like “one big mall” came from? Because that’s how it was designed!
Paul Pressler's Pacific Wharf 2.0
Anyway, Hamburger and Harriss felt that they had completed their required “lip service” to the kids and family market to re-adjust their survey numbers (notice how none of the new 2002-2003 attractions replaced any thrill rides or mall-type stores), and so they felt it would be time for them to re-grab the young adult market. Besides the 2Fer promotion that was perfect for this market (teens and twenty-somethings are always looking for a good…ahem…”bargain”), Hamburger and Harriss were going to create two major summer promotions aimed at teens: Rockin’ the Bay in 2002 and the XGames Xperience in 2003. These would be followed up with the addition of Tower of Terror in 2004 (though it is certainly a highly themed ride to shut up those pesky traditionalists who want a “Disney-style” experience, at its heart it is still a thrill ride, and without the 5th Dimension room it is much more nakedly a thrill ride than its Florida counterpart), and then, possibly, a few years later, Rock n’ Rollercoaster. With these experiences in place, Harriss and her TDA minions could cover Orange County with commercials of teens having a great time at DCA: Tower of Terror, Rock n’ Rollercoaster, California Screamin’, Grizzly River, Soarin Over California, Maliboomer, Mulholland Madness, a bunch of flat rides, XGames shows, beer and wine, fast food, and chic mall stores. What more could you want?
No. Bad Annual Passholder. Go see the XGames.
To an MBA or marketing executive with little Disney or theme park experience, this is actually a solid plan. I mean, it kind of is, on paper. Disney would steal market share from Knott’s Berry Farm, and Six Flags, and Universal, and South Coast Plaza and all the other teen hangouts around SoCal by positioning DCA as “Xtreme Disneyland.” After I’m done with my “Wish Upon a Blue Sky” series, I’ll probably start a series where I discuss the different kinds of theme parks around the world and their business plans, and why they succeeded or failed. But for now, take my word for it, there are several reasons why this plan didn’t quite work. But Harriss and her MBA brigade thought that this business plan would save them from drowning in negative earnings.
To start, the Rockin’ the Bay series (boy DCA loves taking the “g” off the ends of words doesn’t it?), an “Eat to the Beat”-type music series on a makeshift stage (located where the World of Color viewing terrace is now) debuted in summer 2002. It had, shall we say, a tepid reaction. Of course, DCA was smack in the middle of the economic recession, but Rockin’ the Bay didn’t put the butts in the seats.
Next, Anne Hamburger made a licensing deal with ESPN to bring the XGames to DCA for 2 years, for summer 2003 and 2004. The XGames XPerience was an ESPN The Weekend type of event that would last from July 1st through mid-August at DCA. There were skateboarding tracks, BMX demonstrations, basically tons of shows, entertainment, and interview/autograph sessions throughout the summer. Anne expected XGames to be a huge hit with teenagers, which would propel a huge summer of 2004 season with the debut of Tower of Terror in May AND the second year of XGames. Ms. Hamburger spent A LOT of money on this big event (seriously, think of ESPN The Weekend or Star Wars Weekends being featured EVERY DAY from July 1st through the middle of August) hoping to bring in the teen market. They even had giveaway cards that you could scratch off and win prizes (seriously folks, they really want you to come to their park).
Wait! Come back! Tomorrow's Chicken Patty Day!
But the XGames did not bring in an audience. In fact, one could make an argument that it actually kept people away. DCA’s attendance for the summer was a whopping 35% below projections (Disneyland management expected approximately 20,000 visitors per day for DCA during the summer, but they ended up with about 13,000 per day). Meanwhile, across the Esplanade Disneyland was only about 2-3% below its estimates, despite Space Mountain being down for the entire summer. There were several reasons why XGames didn’t work, but the top two were: 1. Its PG-13 material had families with kids avoiding the park at all costs (blaring Van Halen and AC/DC over the PA system didn’t help either), and 2. It stunk. No really, it might as well have been put together by Barney Fife and Gomer Pyle. None of the shows had any shaded seating or standing areas. Theming was non-existent. The exhibit areas were surrounded by chain link fences straight from A Prairie Home Companion. Everything was covered in gaudy sponsorship banners. Extra bathrooms were provided in the form of trailers and outhouses. Some of the arenas were in backstage areas, giving guests great views of the backs of buildings and power lines as half-dressed Cast Members walked by on the way to the cafeteria. The merchandise stands literally look like they were borrowed from a parking lot carnival. XGames flopped hard.
And...how much did we pay to get in here?
At this point, Jay Rasulo (Chairman of Parks and Resorts after Pressler) was getting annoyed with Ms. Harriss. The Disneyland managers kept saying to anyone who would listen that Tower of Terror would save the park (let’s not mention that all the rest of the attractions/experiences generated during DCA Phase II had only about 2-3 months of popularity apiece before all the APs had their fill and then didn’t come back), but it was obvious that the excuses were just about done for DCA. Unless they literally gave the park away for free, no matter how many promotions or events they had, no one would visit DCA. Disneyland management saw on their summer 2003 surveys that the needle would not move on any of the scores compared to summer 2001 and 2002. A great majority of DCA were park-hopping APs or guests with multi-day hoppers who would walk into DCA to ride 3 or 4 of their favorite DCA attractions, and then walk right back to Disneyland. Nothing they had done would move the needle. And hardly anyone was visiting DCA for the XGames, except for some teenage boys with APs who would spend some money on XGames merchandise and nothing else (not exactly big spenders). For these and other reasons, Rasulo was done with Ms. Harriss, and she
was unceremoniously fired resigned in late 2003.
To replace Cynthia as the next President of Disneyland, Jay Rasulo picked a man who, at first glance, has the makings of a perfect corporate stooge, someone we Disney fans would roll our eyes at and dismiss. The man Jay hired has an Accounting degree, spent a decade in the Finance department at the Disney Development Company (at the time, the arm of Parks and Resorts that built the hotels and developed real estate for non-park uses), and was in executive positions at DDC and at the Disney Vacation Club before becoming President of the Cruiseline, and then finally President of Disneyland. Lucky for us, he wasn’t a stooge. He was a very surprising individual in that, shockingly, he knew how to do his job. That was very, very rare at that time at the Walt Disney Company. He was a man who, somehow in Disney’s risk-averse corporate culture, knew how to get things done and motivate his team to do better. He was one of the best presidents Disneyland ever had. His name was Matt Ouimet, and from the moment he took over as Disneyland’s Big Cheese, the resort would never be the same.
Matt Saves the Decade
When Matt took over, he was shocked at the state of the resort, both financially and physically. With Disneyland’s 50th Anniversary looming less than two years subsequent Matt’s first days, time was of the essence to turn the resort around before all the national news coverage started in summer 2005. From an image standpoint, it would be good if Good Morning America could actually have good things to say about Disneyland attractions that had opened in the prior ten years. In addition, around the same time that Matt was reorganizing Cynthia’s bureaucracy, Roy Disney and Stanley Gold resigned from the Disney Board of Directors and led a shareholder revolt against Michael Eisner and his regime. Their campaign (which we all know as SaveDisney), was especially critical of Eisner’s recent poor creative decisions. Most especially, they heavily criticized Eisner’s mandate to cut costs and spending down to the bone at the theme parks, as well as his tendency to ignore or antagonize Disney’s creative partners. The most recent addition to this long, long list of former allies turned enemies was Steve Jobs who, due to Michael Eisner’s unfriendly negotiating, vowed that Pixar would not be signing a new contract with Disney to distribute Pixar films when their current contract would run out in 2006. This was very bad for Disney. Due to Eisner’s neglect of Disney animation, Pixar was actually the only engine running Disney’s animation profits since The Lion King debuted in 1994. In fact, from 1994-2003 the top five most popular Disney-distributed animation movies were all Pixar movies (going by number of tickets sold). This was bad for Disney since, according to the Disney/Pixar contract at the time, Disney only received 50% of Pixar’s revenues. So, Disney would naturally want to increase their percentage in Pixar, which means they would probably have to give Pixar something valuable in return. Nope. NOOOOOOOOOPE. Michael Eisner did what Michael Eisner does, and instead of offering Pixar something valuable (like say, the sequel rights to their own films) to coax a higher revenue share for Disney, Eisner instead threatened Steve Jobs and John Lasseter that, since Disney owned the merchandise and sequel rights for all Pixar characters and movies, Disney would make an endless stream of crappy direct-to-video sequels and deliberately ruin the Pixar franchises if Pixar decided to sign with another studio. And then demanded higher revenue percentages (according to Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs, these exchanges literally brought John Lasseter to tears on multiple occasions). Steve, doing what Steve Jobs does, informed Mr. Eisner exactly where he could shove his revenues, said he would sign with whichever studio he would damn well like, and left, presumably as thunder and lightning crashed in the sky above. Eisner was reportedly to have muttered, “I’ll get you next time, Gadget,” or something to that effect.
Michael Eisner as seen in the 2003 Disney Annual Report
Anyway, the newly christened President of Disneyland (and his bosses) now had a duel problem to solve: 1.) Roy Disney and his Merry Men were up in arms about the lack of good new attractions at Disney theme parks, and 2.) Should there be any new attractions, it would be a very very very good idea if they featured certain animated characters belonging to a company who might leave the scene with tires squealing unless they were very, very happy with what Disney was doing with their product. Turn the calendar to 2004. Enter stage left: Bob Iger. On January 2nd, 2004, Matt and Jay Rasulo had a very blunt and candid “Come to Jesus” meeting with Bob Iger at the Disneyland Resort. Reportedly, Matt and Jay showed Bob the deteriorating state of the resort, and recommended that the funds be released both for a major tune-up in preparation for the 50th and for new attractions that would add some much-needed capacity and raise the coveted Ride Per-Cap statistic that was literally in the toilet for much of 2003. Bob and the Imagineers had Pixar in the back of their minds, and the ideas began to flow. In particular, Matt wanted to focus on what Disneyland executives would begin calling “The DCA Problem.”
The Real DCA Problem
Now, you have to understand, during the Pressler Era it was practically illegal to mention or suggest that DCA had not lived up to expectations (low as they were). Everyone was ordered to not say to anyone that DCA was having any problems whatsoever. So when Matt and Jay and Bob began using the phrase “The DCA Problem,” this was a BIG DEAL. It just demonstrates the kind of 180-degree turn that Matt’s regime represented. However, at that exact time, Bob told Matt that a long-term vision for the resort, and DCA in particular, was not in the works, per Eisner’s mandate. However, Eisner was willing to give Matt some additional funds for the short-term, centered around the 50th campaign (again, he wanted to look good for the national media and prove to Roy Disney that he was willing to spend money on the theme parks). So, plans were immediately set in motion for some Pixar attractions: besides the Buzz Lightyear attraction that was already greenlit for Tomorrowland, Disneyland would bring the beloved Submarine Voyage back to operation with a Finding Nemo theme. DCA would replace Superstar Limo with a very neat Monsters, Inc. attraction where guests would ride on doors (hanging from an overhead track) and be whisked through a roller coaster-esque tour through the Monsters, Inc. Factory, and DCA would be adding a new daytime parade that would feature almost exclusively Pixar characters (this parade at the time was going to be called “Lights, Camera, Animation,” and would feature Pixar characters making movies about…themselves. I guess. This idea would eventually evolve into Block Party Bash). Later that year, Disneyland management would also look to bring the popular Turtle Talk with Crush Epcot exhibit to the animation building at DCA.
So Matt didn’t get his grand 10-year vision for DCA and the resort, but he did get approval for a small handful of new attractions for Disneyland based on Pixar characters, which was, to put it mildly, a step in the right direction. Matt took and reorganized all the money he could to focus on the next few years. Block Party Bash, Buzz Lightyear, and Turtle Talk would open with the 50th Anniversary event in summer 2005, and Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo would open 1-2 years after. Matt was hoping for a resort vision that stretched further into the future, but it was not in the cards. What he DID emphasize to his Disneyland team was that any preliminary plans for the Third Gate (such as they were) would be immediately halted. Pressler’s regime would continually quote to the media that there were future plans for a third DLR park in order to convince investors that DCA was doing fine and there was a solid resort vision.
But Matt stopped the pretending, and let everyone know that adding new attractions to Disneyland and DCA would be the priority going forward, and all resources would be allocated as such.
This now brings us to May 2004, the grand opening of Tower of Terror. The old Pressler regime had hoped that Tower was going to be the saving grace of the park, and much like the Florida Tower would provide a major boost in attendance/revenue/etc. for the park. Matt and his team was hoping for the best but were skeptical that Tower would be a magical silver bullet in the long-term for DCA. What made them even more nervous was that Universal Studios Hollywood would be debuting their Revenge of the Mummy attraction (an indoor roller coaster/dark ride combination that is not exactly a PG experience) at exactly the same time, and since it had a similar scope and scale as Tower (as a scary dark ride/thrill ride thing) Mummy and Universal would be targeted directly at the audience base that Tower was looking to attract in the first place. Much to Matt and his team’s chagrin, they had to get involved in an ad war with Universal that summer to prove that their new $100+ million scary building was worth the E-Ticket expense. This was money that Matt would have preferred to use for other things, but it had to be done.
Ultimately, Tower provided a 5% bump in attendance for DCA that year, which was good, but not the miracle that some were expecting (some reports say the Florida Tower bumped Disney-MGM Studios attendance by as much as 30% in 1994-1995, and DCA’s 5.6 million visitors in 2004 were still far below that original 7 million visitor estimates that the park was expected to bring in upon its 2001 opening). So, Matt and his team took the opportunity to strategize what exactly they were going to do with DCA going forward. Attendance and revenues were far below levels of acceptability, and Cynthia’s team had not planned for any new attraction openings after Tower of Terror, since Tower was supposed to add the “critical mass” for DCA to reach its capacity targets. Since Tower only moved the needle slightly, Matt’s team knew that they had to come up with something for DCA’s future or risk years and years of little to no profits. Disney’s research suggested that only guests with park hoppers would actually visit DCA, and would only do so for a few hours to ride their favorite attractions and then run back to Disneyland. No one wanted to pay full price to go to DCA. This research blatantly suggested that DCA was not going to meet its attendance or financial goals without a major facelift. So they studied what made Disneyland so successful in the first place (lo and behold, many of these approaches were exactly the opposite of what DCA was doing). You could fill a book with all the mistakes made while designing and implementing DCA, but in terms of thematic material, guests wanted to be transported to exotic or fantasy locations, populated by their favorite characters. From an attractions perspective, the best Disney attractions from both a Guest and operator’s standpoint were high-capacity attractions that the whole family could ride together, preferably highly themed with Disney characters and/or Audio-Animatronics. And so, Matt’s team started to construct a modest Five-Year plan based on these tenants. In addition to the Monsters, Inc. attraction, they wanted to add a high-profile E-Ticket and a major D-Ticket to the park between 2005-2009. They had to meet the following criteria: 1.) No height requirement, 2.) Must be very unique, highly themed, and preferably include Disney characters, and 3.) Entertaining for the entire family. What was most telling was that ancient attractions like Pirates, Mansion, and Small World were still bringing home the bacon (visitors would go home and tell their families about them) while newer attractions like Winnie the Pooh were not even close (no one remembered the attraction when they were surveyed, and didn’t even budge the “intent to return” statistics). Lesson learned.
The Long-Term Plans
Plans for DCA’s long-range strategy were convened behind closed doors throughout 2004 and the first half of 2005, and there were many planning and Blue Sky sessions with the Imagineers, however much of this time was given to planning/finishing/implementing the 50th celebration, as well as the opening of several new (Buzz) and renovated (Space Mountain) attractions in the same period.
In early 2005, after the 2004 Christmas holiday season ended, the decision was made to scale back the Monsters, Inc. door coaster attraction. As it turns out, whatever ride system the Imagineers would design was just not enough to handle the expected capacity demands. In addition, since this was going to be an overhanging, roller coaster-type ride, they would require some major restraints, which would mean the attraction would need a height requirement. Due to Matt’s new “rules of new attractions,” these were two strikes too many. So, Monsters, Inc. was scaled back to be re-designed into the Superstar Limo replacement “Mike and Sully to the Rescue” that we see today. So the bad news is, DCA lost a potential E- or D-Ticket. The good news is, since the attraction was scaled down to C-Ticket status, it would mean there was money in the budget (hopefully) for another E- or D-Ticket for DCA.
Matt’s team would waste no time with the DCA plans once the 50th celebration officially launched. Before the summer of 2005 was even over, plans were being finalized for DCA’s new Five-Year Plan. After almost two years of constant communication with executives that DCA needed more than just one or two attractions to start making its profit goals, Eisner/Iger/Rasulo decided to open up the Parks and Resorts budget to provide a modest facelift for DCA. As of post-summer 2005, Matt’s Five-Year DCA budget would consist of:
1. The beautification of most of DCA’s major themed areas. In WDI’s parlance, this would be called “Placemaking.”
2. The already-approved Monsters, Inc. C-Ticket
3. The Major D-Ticket
4. The High Profile E-Ticket
Let’s take each item one by one. The Monsters, Inc. attraction we’ve already covered. The Placemaking initiative was actually championed by some Imagineers and Matt’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Greg Emmer. Being a Disney old-schooler, Greg was absolutely furious at the sorry state of Disneyland and DCA’s operations, not to mention the drab and boring thematic choices found throughout DCA. Matt readily agreed. Unfortunately, there was not enough money in the budget to do a complete renovation of each of DCA’s themed areas. However, there would at least be enough to make the areas more pleasant to soak in, by adding trees, new paint, new architecture, new fountains, etc. The first targeted Placemaking area would be Hollywood Pictures Backlot, in preparation for the Monsters, Inc. attraction. New Disney-centric background music would be played on the Backlot’s speakers. New Disney-MGM Studios-style soundstage signs would be added throughout the area as directional posts. A new Mickey fountain was added between MuppetVision and Monsters, Inc. MuppetVision and the Animation building received new facades, and the Animation building received two new entertainment offerings: the “Learn to Draw” Animation Academy and a major Disney character meet-and-greet.
The next area to be…uh…”Placemade”…would be the entrance area through to the Sunshine Plaza. The entire entrance plaza would be re-themed to the California Craftsman style similar to the Grand Californian Hotel. In addition, the Golden Dreams show would have been moved from the back of the park to the central hub, and the hub would be re-themed to a major train depot circa the California Craftsman period. Condor Flats would then be re-themed to better reflect the Craftsman theme of the surrounding entrance plaza and Redwood Creek areas (this re-theme was actually recently executed almost exactly like the original plans circa-2005, with Taste Pilot’s Grill being turned into Smokejumpers and everything). Finally, Paradise Pier would have replaced its cheap stucco architecture with more pleasing and permanent materials, and thematic touches would have been added throughout the area, such as a collection of surfboards, fins, and paddleboards in the queue for California Screamin’.
The tricky part here is the D-Ticket. Most people I’ve talked to (sources close to the President) agree there was a D-Ticket earmarked for the Placemaking expansion, but no one can agree on what exactly it was. Some suggest it was Toy Story Mania, others say it was an early version of Ariel’s Adventure, others say it was a major attraction to replace Mulholland Madness with a San Francisco and/or Route 66 theme, and still others say it was a slightly watered-down version of Rock n’ Rollercoaster. In fact, still others suggest that the D-Ticket was pulled by Matt at this point in the process to give a bigger budget to Disneyland attraction plans that may have not been in motion at the time (an attraction or two in Tomorrowland, including the rumored return of the PeopleMover, or the addition of a Toy Story Land, similar to Hong Kong’s, in the former Festival Arena area between Big Thunder and Fantasyland).
Which brings us to the E-Ticket. Matt wanted to make sure the E-Ticket would hit all the right notes: family-friendly, unique (aka high profile), preferably with Disney characters, preferably with Disney characters belonging to a certain other animation studio. Many ideas were discussed, debated, conversed. Eventually, the choice was whittled down to two finalists. The first was an attraction based on Cars. Housed in a mammoth show building, the attraction itself would have two tracks of vehicles, with a ride system similar to Epcot’s Test Track. In addition, there would be a smaller, Autopia-style attraction within the same building for kids and families who might not like the bigger thrills of the Racers ride. As you can probably imagine, the Autopia-style Cars ride was abandoned pretty quickly due to budgets. It’s actually a law at Disney that when there is a proposed x > 1 number of distinct rides in a single show building, that all additional rides should be eliminated until x = 1. You will see this happen quite a few times during this series. The second of the two E-Ticket finalists was…
That’s right! You forgot this article is supposed to be about an unbuilt Disney Blue Sky attraction! Admit it, you did!
Hey, Welcome Back!
Disney Imagineering had long had a history of testing and developing breakthrough theme park technologies for years before actually having a story concept to attach to them. For example, in the mid-1980s, Disney had for years been developing a way to bring military flight simulator technology to a theme park setting. They had designed working models and a simulator cabin, the problem was they had no story concept to apply it to, and it languished in WDI’s R&D department. It took several years before George Lucas saw what WDI was doing with the technology and thought it would make a great foundation for a Star Wars attraction.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, along with new exciting technologies like the trackless dark ride and the CAVE environment, Disney had been working on a way to have guests be held by a large robotic arm extension, where they would be subject to a full range of motion and be whisked through either a series of show scenes or film screens, or both. The earliest idea for this concept was for Epcot’s original Space Pavilion. In the post-show, Seabase Alpha in space environment, there was to be an experience wherein individual guests were held aloft as an extension of a robotic arm and go through a simulated “space walk.” The arm itself would help simulate a zero-gravity environment for guests, who would feel like they were floating in space (this idea will be covered in more detail in a subsequent article). However, the idea for the technology was still too primitive to be applied to a major E-Ticket experience like Indiana Jones or Tower of Terror. In the 1990s, Disney instead developed a simulator/robot arm blended technology, where guests would be placed in a simulator pod at the end of a (very primitive) arm extension, which would provide an extended range of motion from what a normal simulator would have. The concept would actually come to fruition in the form of the Cyberspace Mountain attraction at DisneyQuest, where guests were able to design their own roller coaster and then ride them in the arm/simulator pod. Cyberspace Mountain was a big hit with guests, and arguably the most popular attraction at DisneyQuest, so Disney continued to develop the technology.
Technology around the time of the N64
Eventually, Disney partnered with the German company KUKA AG, one of the world’s leading robotics companies. KUKA had developed highly sophisticated intelligent robot arms for work in manufacturing plants and assembly lines, where the intelligent arms would construct automobiles and other heavy machinery. With this new generation of robotic arm, Disney could now research and develop all the big things they wanted to do with the technology. While Disney was planning their big E-Ticket experience, the KUKA technology began to manifest itself in the parks in small ways as a sort of prelude or beta test to the massive scale attraction the Imagineers were developing. WDI was especially interested in seeing how the technology would hold up to constant day-to-day use and wear and tear. As WDI was working with KUKA, KUKA’s robotic arm technology won the “Best New Product” IAAPA award in 2003. Suddenly, everyone wanted in on this technology, and Disney started to roll out KUKA in the parks.
The first major showcase of the technology was for the Rockin’ Robots exhibit at Innoventions at Epcot (with the lack of the “g” you’d think this was a DCA attraction). The exhibit was literally just a showcase for the technology, as the giant KUKA arms played various types of instruments like a REALLY sophisticated Chuck E. Cheese show (there’s a joke in their somewhere about Rockin’ Robots being the first “metal band,” but you people have suffered enough so far I think).
It's SO EXCITING
Next, WDI watched with interest as Legoland California opened a KUKA-inspired attraction called “Knights Tournament.” This attraction was a Cyberspace Mountain-type of attraction but without the simulator pod. Before boarding, riders would choose how intense they wanted their ride to be, on a scale of 1-5. They would then be strapped in to a KUKA arm and get tossed around like a rag doll (it really conjures up the image of some sort of disaster simulator from The Simpsons or South Park). The Legoland attraction proved that the KUKA technology could survive the daily wear and tear demanded of a major theme park attraction. Even better was the fact that Knights Tournament was an outdoor attraction, and survived the hot sun and occasional rain.
Disney followed up Rockin’ Robots by designing a KUKA cameo in the then-upcoming Living Seas and Submarine Voyage Finding Nemo re-themes. To duplicate the fast, predatory movements of the movie’s resident “DEAR GOD WHAT IS THAT THING” monster moment of the angler fish, the Imagineers attached a KUKA arm to the animatronic angler fish. The effect itself was quite stunning (some say it’s the best part of the attraction).
Starting at 1:25
Later, and unrelated to the KUKA E-Ticket extravaganza, Disney would finally reach the pinnacle of the Cyberspace Mountain concept by attaching a now fully-motioned KUKA arm with a simulator to produce the Sum of all Thrills exhibit at Innoventions at Epcot.
But as you can imagine, the KUKA arm could be used for practically any type of attraction environment. And the Imagineers were designing attractions for a wide variety of in-your-face out-of-your-mind experiences. Picture these very realistic scenarios:
1. Should Parks management want to go cheap, they could develop a simulator pod technology similar to Sum of All Thrills, where guests could design their own experience and then live the adventure through a full range of 360-degree motion.
2. If Parks management wanted an Indiana Jones-style big budget E-Ticket experience, the KUKA arm could easily be a substitute for the EMV, and would act like Peter Pan’s Flight in comparison to Indiana Jones’s Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The KUKA arm would hang riders from an overhead track, and traverse a full thematic three dimensional space and show scenes, dark ride like. But unlike an EMV-style Jeep, the KUKA technology could also fling the guests right into the middle of a simulator screen, Soarin’-like, as they went from physical sets to simulator screens similar to Universal’s Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man attraction.
3. If Disney did not want to build a full mega-attraction, there was the option of actually having an array of KUKA arms attached to a giant central turntable. Picture a Mission: Space-type set up where the KUKA arms rotate around a central platform. Guests would load into one specific pod, and then be whisked around the giant turntable in front of a vast array of simulator screens.
4. Or, if Disney wanted to go even cheaper, there was the option of not having the KUKA arm in motion, ie not on a track or turntable, similar to Knights Tournament where it stays in place. However, since the KUKA arms are HUGE and can stretch out 20-30 feet in any direction, Disney could surround each arm with multiple simulator screens and/or themed scenery, so it actually feels like guests are being whisked through an environment without actually going anywhere. A primitive version of this idea could be seen with the old Tombraider ride at the former Paramount’s Kings Island. Kings Island combined a Giant Top Spin off-the-shelf ride with a fully-immersed themed environment. Since the Top Spin could provide up to 70 feet of motion in any direction, multiple show scenes were placed around the Top Spin platform, even on the ceiling. The Top Spin would then extend out and be enveloped in the different show scenes.
An old Travel Channel Special (those were the days)
5. And then, there was the big idea that KUKA was most excited about. It was called the Robo-coaster. The Robo-coaster. You don’t have to use much imagination to figure out what that would have been like...
Oh...JUST SOMETHING LIKE THIS
And as a bigger bonus, at this time Disney was updating the 3-D technology that Universal developed for the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man that allowed guests to view 3-D screens as they were physically moving through a physical space (if you know anything about optics technology, this is really, really hard to do). The new technology was being developed by Tony Baxter, who otherwise would be sitting on his hands during the Pressler regime, so this was something for Tony to do. Tony and the Imagineers were going to take the Spider-Man technology one step further. Instead of providing a static screen that the ride vehicle would pass by (if you’ve ever ridden Spider-Man, this causes the slight distortion of the 3-D effects you get when you enter the scene), Tony and his crew were working on a series of mobile screens that would actually be synced up to your ride vehicle and move in tandem with you. The screens, for example, would be programmed with the exact movements of the KUKA arm so the screen would actually move with the KUKA arm as you entered and exited a scene. Dang.
TWO Many Options (Yuk, Yuk)
Armed with an army of KUKA options, the Imagineers eventually molded the KUKA base into two attraction ideas. The first was for an E-Ticket mega-ride based on the Harry Potter franchise. Back in the early 2000s as the Harry Potter movies were released to huge box office receipt, Disney was in talks with J.K. Rowling to bring Harry Potter to the Disney theme parks. Disney came up with several ride and themed area concepts for J.K.’s characters to woo her into Disney’s outstretched arms. However, obviously, talks stalled and eventually broke down. Disney cited that the reason was that J.K. was asking for far too many creative concessions, and insisted that every facet of the design be done her way and with her explicit approval. While Disney was willing to give her creative control to an extent, they demanded that Rowling still had to stay within Disney’s strict budget restrictions. This, of course, was not possible given Rowling’s obsession with detail. Disney also felt Rowling would not defer to Disney’s more experienced park operators when it came to questions of capacity requirement and crowd flow (as it turns out, Universal had the same problem when they built Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. To maintain the feel of the Harry Potter world, Rowling insisted that guests walk through cramped shops and exhibits that were way to small to house the growing crowds, forcing Universal operators to close Hogsmeade down on busy days and start a line outside the area just to walk down the street). Of course, since Disney was no picnic to deal with either during this time, I’m sure Rowling had her own list of complaints as to why she would not work with Disney. Anyway, one of the rides proposed for the Harry Potter expansion was an Indiana Jones-style E-Ticket where the KUKA arm would physically ride through the show scenes on a dark ride track, weaving and dipping in and out of both physical sets and movie screens.
The other KUKA attraction WDI was working on was for Pixar’s then-upcoming superhero movie. We all know it as The Incredibles. The Incredibles would have been an awesome subject for this new technology. By using the KUKA arm and various screens and physical sets, guest could experience tons of fanboy sensations straight from the movie. They could run with Dash. They could fly with Frozone. They could fight the Omnidroid and Syndrome with Bob and Helen. They could ride on top of that PeopleMover pod thing while battling...I dunno…ninja monkeys. As you can imagine, the sky’s the limit.
You Are Here
Funny enough, the Imagineers had tons of ideas for an Incredibles-based KUKA attraction, but no clear idea as to which one would be best. The Imagineers were leaning toward the giant turntable idea as the best bet, to provide the best experience and to keep costs reasonable. The KUKA people said screw that, and lobbied hard for the Robo-coaster. I’m going to put that in italics again, for effect. The Robo-coaster.
Could you imagine a KUKA arm on a coaster track as you whizzed past screens of the Incredibles battling giant robot monsters? GIGGITY GIGGITY GOO. Theme park fans would drool over ideas like this. And I’m sure they did.
And actually, this idea was the one favored by Matt Ouimet and company (welcome back to this article, Matt!). Since Eisner, Iger, and Rasulo still insisted that DCA’s beautification project be kept at a reasonable budget, Matt had to make a choice between either the Cars or the Incredibles concepts. Since Cars would be based in a massive show building with uncountable animatronics and advanced effects with a notoriously expensive and glitchy ride system (actually, two of them, since the ride would have two tracks), the Incredibles E-Ticket had the lead in late 2005. As big as it was, since the Incredibles did not need so many physical sets (film screens cost way less than physical sets and animatronics) and was based on an already-proven technology, the budget for the Incredibles would have been much less, while still delivering an E-Ticket experience. And so, Matt and the Imagineers put plans in motion to remove DCA’s Pacific Wharf area and/or redesign it to serve as an entrance area for DCA’s new Incredibles ride, which would debut as the main entrée of the DCA Placemaking expansion, right around the 2008-2009 time period.
But then, of course, lots of things changed. Bob Iger had his It’s a Wonderful Life vision from God during the three o’clock parade, and in January 2006 it was announced that Disney would buy Pixar from Steve Jobs outright. As part of the deal, Steve Jobs would be named to the Disney Board of Directors and become Disney’s largest shareholder. Pixar’s Executive team would effectively be put in charge of the entire Disney Animation unit. And John Lasseter would be named as Disney’s new Chief Creative Officer, responsible for everything creative at the company, including the theme parks.
When John and the Pixar crew arrived, they thought that the scale of the DCA expansion were simply too small. Even Matt’s carefully thought out Placemaking plans would probably only serve to get DCA back up to its original attendance and profits estimates, which were not where Pixar wanted them to be. John envisioned a total reset of DCA, a complete re-imagining that would make DCA a worthy companion to Disneyland, like Epcot or Tokyo DisneySea, both of which had literally double DCA’s attendance year-to-year. John wanted to boost DCA’s attendance through the 10 million-per-year ceiling that DisneySea and Epcot regularly achieved. The park operators, led by Matt, were thrilled with this new excitement, and wanted to prove that with the new expansion DCA would be able to stand on its own and not just be a 3 hour tour in between Disneyland visits for visitors. All the requisite metrics would go up with a slew of new attractions: attendance, Ride Per Cap, satisfaction ratings, intent to return, spending per caps, and the added excitement (and big rides) would be something that Marketing would use to lure in those big-spending out of town visitors from Seattle and Phoenix and Denver who spent oodles and oodles of money over a Disneyland vacation weekend. In all, the new plans were designed to bump the Disneyland Resort’s overall attendance from 19 million to 25 million by the year after the expansion was completed. With all the new big-spending day guests, Disney would be rolling in money.
The rest, as they say, is history. John and his team took Matt’s Placemaking plans and cranked it up to 11. Since Hollywood Pictures Backlot’s Placemaking was already completed by the time plans were completed, any HPB facelift would be pushed back to Phase II. The main entrance area would be turned to a fully-blown Main Street-style experience called Buena Vista Street, complete with a plethora of new shops and restaurants, a new hub and park icon with a top-notch dining experience inside, and even a fully-working Red Car Trolley transportation to and from Tower of Terror, similar to the plans of the original Disney-MGM Studios Sunset Boulevard expansion. The Paradise Pier re-imagining would include Disney character-inspired facelifts for almost every flat ride, as well as a new restaurant/garden area, two major D (or E) Ticket experiences themed to Toy Story and The Little Mermaid, and a knock-your-socks-off next generation nighttime spectacular in Paradise Bay. And the piece de résistance of the whole thing would be a brand new land. Instead of the single Incredibles E-Ticket, John decided to expand the Cars concept to an entire themed area, with multiple attractions and experiences, the big magilla of course being the Cars-themed Test Track E-Ticket zooming around the former Timon parking lot. DCA would be shaping up to become a marvelous Lasseterland.
And so, the Incredibles attraction would pass into history. But, that’s not entirely the end of the story. Even when the Imagineers lost the Incredibles DCA attraction, there was still hope to put the attraction either as part of a Disneyland Tomorrowland expansion, or an addition to the Pixar Place/Backlot area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Imagineers continued to work on the concept. However, in a mind-boggling turn of events, Universal ended up snatching the KUKA technology away from Disney. Around the same time that Universal bought the theme park rights to the Harry Potter franchise, Universal signed an exclusive agreement with KUKA that they would be granted a 10-year exclusive on the KUKA technology, stripping Disney away from any potential major theme park uses. The loss of the KUKA technology was actually a bigger blow to Disney than you’d think. It didn’t just signal the end of their Incredibles attraction. The signing of KUKA by Universal actually represented a fundamental, seismic shift in the theme park industry, which Universal is just beginning to exploit. Up until that time, all of Universal’s major advancements were evolutions of pre-existing Disney technologies. Universal may have come up with the IMAX-based simulator (Back to the Future), the 3-D/stunt show combo (T2), the programmed platform vehicle with a full 360-degrees of motion (Spider-Man), etc., but Disney had introduced these revolutionary concepts (the simulator, the 3-D movie, the programmed platform vehicle) to the theme park world in the first place, with no precedent. By grabbing the KUKA technology, Universal was able to do what it had not been able to do before: introduce to the theme park world a truly revolutionary technology, not just an evolutionary technology. This was one of the very few times up to that point that Disney had literally dropped the ball and let another team pick it up and score. This didn’t used to happen at Disney. In an industry that is sustain by advancing technology just as much (if not more so) than other major considerations (story/marketing, characters, etc.), this was a major leak on Disney’s part, and a major windfall for Universal.
We all know what happened, and what’s still happening. Universal was finally able to fully capture lightning in a bottle by combining a compelling themed environment and story with a revolutionary technology. This is a big reason why theme park fans are so enamored with Universal’s Harry Potter offerings. It’s certifiably the first time that Universal beat Disney at its own game, and won clean. Not only that, it gave Universal the extra profits needed to carry that momentum onto even bigger and better offerings, should it so choose (so far, the answer is yes). The Disney/Universal Coke/Pepsi rivalry has never been bigger, or more intense, or had higher stakes. And Disney has never, from a competition standpoint, been in so much trouble since Freedomland and Magic Mountain opened to challenge Disneyland’s market share at a more affordable price curve in the late 1950s. And the major fatality on the way was the would-have-been-so-awesome Incredibles ride that we never got to see. But with Universal continually expanding with Potter and Nintendo and Disney countering with Star Wars and Avatar, World War III between Disney and Universal has only just begun. I’ll bet Disney really wishes it could have had the Incredibles in its corner.
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**Send Jeff a line at HamGamgee@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @Parkscopejeff.