Delayed Ride at Disneyland Is Already Making Quite a Splash

Times Staff Writer

It's a frustrating sight.

As workers--and sometimes executives in business suits--plunge down a five-story waterfall behind a fence in Disneyland's Critter Country, all park visitors can do is watch. And wait.

"It's like the lolly that's just out of reach," sighed Bruce Kilpatrick, a tourist from Perth, Australia. "So near and yet so far."

Disneyland officials must feel the same way. Splash Mountain, billed as the fastest, tallest, thrillingest attraction this side of Star Tours, is months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The opening will be delayed until mid-summer as Disney scrambles to overcome design flaws in the world's most elaborate flume ride.

Although they are not pointing figures, park officials are clearly disappointed. "We planned to opened in January or February, and we weren't able to do it," said Robert W. McTyre, vice president of marketing and entertainment at Disneyland. "We're not in a position to say who was responsible. But obviously someone didn't think things out correctly."

According to amusement industry insiders and former company executives, the problems are the legacy of a brief period of uncharacteristic cost- cutting at the Walt Disney Co.

After laying off hundreds of its own engineers and support staff in the early 1980s, the company decided that Splash Mountain would use "off-the-shelf" technology customized to Disney's specifications. The company hired outside firms to handle the project management and and most of the engineering and construction.

Disney got more than it bargained for. When executives took their first test rides, climaxed by a five-story, 45-mile-per-hour drop through a brier patch, they received a rude surprise. Splash Mountain, it seems, had taken its name a little too literally.

"I got soaking wet one day and had to go out and change my clothes," said Tony W. Baxter, the ride's executive producer.

Months of Redesign

Getting wet is one thing. Getting drenched is another. Disney was concerned some people would avoid the ride if it left them dripping wet. "The tradition of Disney is that nobody is ruled out," said Baxter. "It's a negative if somebody says, 'You guys go. I don't want to get all wet.' "

To make sure that doesn't happen, Disney engineers have spent months redesigning the log boats that ferry passengers through a fantasy world based on Disney's 1946 film "Song of the South."

The original eight-passenger logs were redesigned to hold only seven people in an effort to take some of the splash out of the mountain's grand finale. A lighter, fiberglass body was used in the new models, which were fitted with an underwater scoop to help divert water.

Other adjustments were made to help stop the boats at the bottom of the final 45-degree plunge with the least amount of slosh.

"Water squirts out to the side instead of straight up into the boat," said Don Newfarmer, a rides engineer with the Santa Clara office of O. D. Hopkins Associates, the outside firm hired to handle development of the flume ride. Hopkins is no longer involved with the project, although neither side will discuss the circumstances of the break.

Br'er Rabbit's Adventures

When the changes are complete, screaming riders will be able take the 52.5-foot plunge and stay relatively dry in the process.

Splash Mountain's final thrilling drop comes after a relatively slow glide during which riders follow the adventures of Br'er Rabbit as he tries to outwit Br'er Fox and Br'er Bear.

"It's the closest you'll ever come to riding through a cartoon come to life," said Bruce Gordon, Splash Mountain's producer.

The problems with the log boats reflect the grand scale of Disneyland's designs.

Because Disneyland has at least twice as many patrons every day as most amusement parks, the park wanted boats that would hold eight passengers, rather than the usual four, five or six on most flume rides.

If Disneyland had built a flume ride with the standard capacity of 1,200 people per hour, it could not have handled the number of patrons waiting to ride it, Baxter said. "Once we put out an ad saying, 'Come out and ride the exciting Splash Mountain,' we've got to produce an attraction where everyone can get on it."

Won't Open Till Ready

When the redesigned ride opens, passengers will board the boats every 12 seconds. With all 48 logs are up and floating, about 2,000 people will ride Splash Mountain every hour. That will make the attraction one of the highest capacity rides in the park--although not quite as high as the 2,400 per hour originally envisioned.

Like past Disney extravaganzas, however, the show won't start until it's absolutely ready. The Haunted Mansion, for example, was built in 1963 but did not open for six years while its technology was perfected.

The Splash Mountain delays, however, have been a bit more costly, partly because Disney had scheduled joint promotions with McDonald's and Coca Cola that couldn't be delayed. Both companies ended up plunking down millions in advertising dollars early this year to tout a ride that wasn't yet running.

"Obviously, we would have liked it if it could have opened as planned," said Greg Hogan, a regional marketing manager with McDonald's. With barely a month's notice of the delays, the ad campaign "would have been very, very difficult to postpone," he said.

The advance promotions, in turn, drew Disneyphiles from New Jersey to New Zealand.

"We heard it was going to be open from the pilot on the plane coming down," said Aaron Kreitzer, 17, a high school student from Portland. "I was really looking forward to it."

"We saw workmen riding it . . . and we've come halfway round the world," said Ian Kilpatrick of Perth, Australia. "It would have been nice to ride it." Ian and brother Bruce, who brought five children to Disneyland, had read about Splash Mountain in their local papers.

Cost Overruns

When Splash Mountain finally opens in mid-July, it will be about six months late. And, according to amusement industry insiders, it will wind up costing an estimated $70 million--instead of $20 million to $25 million--making it by far the most expensive ride ever built.

That estimate includes cost overruns, overtime wages and other expenses. Disneyland executives declined to discuss cost figures.

"Another park would have opened it at this point," said Gordon, the producer. "But we're Disneyland. That's not the business we're in."

According to industry sources, the delays are attributable, in part, to an odd blip in the company's history.

After Florida's Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland were completed in 1982 and 1983, respectively, Walt Disney Productions (a forerunner of the Walt Disney Co.) began laying off about half of the 2,000 employees involved with those projects. By April, 1984, the Burbank-based firm had pared its design staff to about 500 workers, down from 2,000 when work on Epcot peaked two years earlier.

Many of those laid off were highly skilled technical designers, engineers and production workers who manufactured the attractions. Disney kept many of its conceptual and aesthetic designers but largely eliminated most of the hands-on designers and engineers who figured out how to make their ideas fly.

The company gradually changed into what is known as a project-management organization, in which in-house designers still dreamed up the basic concepts but contracted with outside firms for services, manufacturing and engineering design.

In 1983, Raymond L. Watson, a vice chairman of the Irvine Co. in Orange County, was named chairman of Walt Disney Productions. Watson's mandate, according to several staffers, was "don't invent." The feeling was that the company could be more competitive by buying standard, off-the-shelf ride systems, then adding the Disney touch to produce a true extravaganza.

But even with the off-the-shelf mandate, Disneyland still needed new and original attractions to maintain its competitive edge.

Extra Zip

With half of its admission tickets bought by repeat local customers, Disneyland must frequently upgrade and add new attractions to keep its turnstiles clicking. A flashy new ride can add as much as 10% to box office receipts during its first year.

When Imagineering--Disney's design and engineering division--first dreamed up Splash Mountain in the early 1980s, the idea was to develop a water thrill ride with a little extra zip. For the basic flume technology, Disney turned to O. D. Hopkins, the nation's leading producer of flume rides.

Flume rides had become almost de rigueur at major amusement parks since the 1960s. Knott's Berry Farm added its Timber Mountain Log Ride in 1969 and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia has had two flumes--the Jet Stream and the Log Jammer--since 1972.

Hopkins had developed flume rides for parks around the country, ranging in price from $600,000 to $2.5 million for super-deluxe models.

Disney, however, wanted more than standard amusement park fare.

So Baxter, along with other Imagineering officials, envisioned a flume ride that would be the tallest, fastest and longest ever designed.

Their plans received a new push when a new management team headed by Michael D. Eisner and Frank Wells took over the Walt Disney Co. in 1984 and ended the emphasis on economy.

"It was Eisner who got excited about the attraction, the first day he came over with Wells," recalled Gordon.

As plans for the ride developed, it became increasingly ambitious and complex. While Splash Mountain had started with standard technology, Gordon acknowledged, "by the time we got through Disney-fying it, it had stretched technically beyond anything that exists."

It also had stretched beyond the scope of anything that O. D. Hopkins had ever designed.

"The concept was to develop the ride off-the-shelf. The trouble is, you'll never find an off-the-shelf ride that will satisfy Disney," said one former company executive. "Disney wanted a 50-foot drop that had never been done. . . . It's like asking a Chevy dealer for a car that isn't made."

People Got Soaked

Others are more diplomatic. "The blending of the standard flume design" to Disney's design mandates "probably exceeded the expectations of both Disney and Hopkins," said an industry expert familiar with the ride. "It's like the horse designed by the proverbial committee that ends up looking like a camel. . . . Neither side ended up with what they wanted."

Executives at Hopkins' home office in New Hampshire declined to discuss the project. But Newfarmer, the engineer in the company's Santa Clara office, observed, "There were some problems to be overcome. People were getting wetter than (Disney) wanted."

Disneyland executives acknowledge that the project was less than perfect. "We have to go by what people tell us," said McTyre, the Disneyland vice president. "If we use a contractor and they tell us certain things are going to happen, you rely on their expertise to do that."

"The concept was good," said an insider familiar with the project. "The problem was in the marriage of all the elements--putting the concepts, the architecture and the engineering all together. It didn't blend."

Attendance Should Rise

That blending should come once the ride is finally open. In fact, Disney officials are confident the new attraction will live up to its industry nickname: Cash Mountain.

Splash Mountain is expected to draw hundreds of customers every day to the northwest end of Disneyland, where it is nestled next to the Haunted Mansion. Patrons who want to zip down the flume will have to trek to the farthest corner of the park, which now attracts only about 2% of customers at any time on a busy day. That contrasts with Tomorrowland, which often has roughly 30% of Disneyland's visitors.

The expected boost in total attendance should help, too.

After reaching an park record in 1987, attendance at Disneyland was down slightly to about 12.2 million last year, according to amusement industry analysts.

So far this year, "attendance has been strong," said McTyre. Splash Mountain will likely make it even stronger--once it opens, that is.

Meanwhile, patrons will have to be content watching Disney employees--including Eisner and other executives--make those all-important test runs by trying out the the flume.

Nobody said quality control had to be dull.

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