Author Takes Another Peek at Backstage Disneyland
David Koenig, an Aliso Viejo author who is creating something of a cottage industry writing unauthorized books about Disneyland, thought he’d said it all about the world’s most famous amusement park when he published “Mouse Tales: A Behind the Ears Look at Disneyland.”
The 1994 book fairly blew the lid off the sanitized image of “The Happiest Place on Earth”: its labor disputes, charges of discrimination, attraction malfunctions, fatal accidents, and lawsuits.
Not to mention insider stories, like the time a male guest pulled a switchblade on Alice in Wonderland and demanded a date. (The Mad Hatter came to her rescue.)
Now Koenig is back with a second installment that blows even more pixie dust off the Magic Kingdom. The bottom line: the bottom line.
In “More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland” (Bonaventure Press; $24.95), Koenig asserts that a change in management philosophy over the last five years--a dramatic increase in the pursuit of profits--has come at the expense of Disneyland’s traditional quest for providing the perfect theme park environment. That, he charges, has resulted not only in severe cost-cutting in everything from staff to maintenance, but has also transformed Disneyland into a “less magical, more dangerous environment.”
The most tragic case in point, Koenig says, occurred on Christmas Eve 1998 when an inadequately trained dockhand--an assistant manager filling in for a regular crew member--on the sailing ship Columbia, lashed a mooring rope onto the ship’s bow as it approached the dock too quickly.
The line ripped loose a 9-pound metal mooring cleat, which injured the dockhand before flying into a crowd of tourists and fatally injuring a Washington state man. His wife was also seriously injured.
State safety officials later fined Disney $12,500 for inadequately training the worker and misusing equipment. The accident has also prompted legislative efforts to regulate California’s amusement parks.
Koenig said in an interview that the accident caused Disneyland to rethink the way it was doing things and to change some of its newer policies.
“The Columbia [tragedy] was like the rock-bottom,” he said. “They could see where the cost-cutting, the shortcuts and nearsighted changes could lead. As I try to show in the book, a pretty strong case could be made for the accident being a direct result of changes in training, new policies and failing maintenance.”
Disneyland spokesman Ray Gomez said he hasn’t seen a copy of Koenig’s book but added that a claim of “any downward movement” in the quality of operations at Disneyland in recent years “is ridiculous.”
“There always has been--and always will be--a desire among Disney cast members to present the highest level of quality to our guests,” Gomez said. “That hasn’t changed.”
Still, it’s a different Disneyland than the one he chronicled five years ago, said Koenig, 36, an annual pass holder who first visited the Anaheim theme park in 1970 at age 8.
For all the dark secrets exposed in “Mouse Tales,” Koenig said, his first book had a pro-Disney message: Most of the problems during the park’s first 40 years were caused by unruly guests or individual employees, not Disneyland management.
“Disneyland [officials] in the first book came off as heroes,” Koenig said. “Here was this company that purposely wanted to be as perfect as possible. Obviously, they couldn’t be and that was the point of the book. But it was due to the fact that they get 50,000 people a day and have 12,000 employees that they can’t keep on chains: Unusual things happened.”
But in his new book, Koenig says the traditional Disneyland operating philosophy has changed.
“Disneyland is no longer trying to be as perfect as possible,” he said. “It’s trying to be as profitable as possible, which sometimes has nothing to do with being as perfect as possible. That [perfection] was what sold Disneyland to people in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s--that theirs is the best theme park in the whole world. It was. And sometimes it still is, but they’re sort of jeopardizing that reputation.”
Koenig’s book appears at a sensitive point in Walt Disney Co. history. Five quarters of disappointing profits have sent Disney stock tumbling, prompting Chairman Michael D. Eisner to order managers to cut costs in every nook and cranny of the $20-billion company. Eisner also is considering selling its Fairchild magazine group and Anaheim baseball and hockey teams.
Disney’s theme parks and resorts division, which includes Disneyland and the sports teams, has experienced tough times before, notably in the early 1990s, when recession, headlines about crime and disasters in California and Florida, and a $1-billion loss on Disneyland Paris battered results.
More recently, the division consistently boasted double-digit profit increases at a time when operations such as movies, home video, the ABC television network and the Disney Stores have faltered.
Koenig, senior editor of The Merchant Magazine, a Newport Beach-based business journal, hadn’t planned to write a sequel to “Mouse Tales.”
But at nearly every book signing and appearance he made at Disneyana collector shows, he’d encounter current and former Disneyland employees who would tell him new stories about what it’s like to work at the theme park.
Koenig said he collected their stories casually at first, but after about two years, he began a new round of interviews with more than 100 current and former employees.
Koenig initially thought if there was any possibility of doing a sequel, “it would turn out to be just a collection of anecdotes--harmless and silly things that weren’t in the first book--and I wouldn’t be telling any secrets or discussing any of the dirty laundry that made it into the first book. . . .
“As I looked at what was going on in the park currently, some things were changing that were not really good, and I realized there was this greater story line.”
Koenig cites a 1984 labor strike at Disneyland held in response to park management’s threats to cut employee benefits and pay. After 22 days, the approximately 2,000 strikers returned to work, having “sold out future employees by agreeing to slower pay rate increases and loss of benefits for future hires.” It’s a deal that, according to Koenig, “provided management with a huge financial incentive to replace experienced old-timers with disposable part-timers.”
The strike, according to one 40-year veteran worker quoted in the new book, “is when Disneyland stopped being Disneyland.” Employee attitudes changed, he said, and “the park lost its charm.”
Koenig said in the interview that pressure to increase profits, which had increased gradually after the death of Walt Disney in 1966, gained momentum in the 1980s, but “went through the roof” in the last five years.
“I think they’re overcompensating,” he said. “Certainly, trimming fat is a way to make money, but you don’t trim bone, and that seems to be what has happened park-wide.”
Cost-cutting and downsizing, according to Koenig, led to fewer specialized crafts people at the park. There was lower productivity, Koenig says, and overworked and under-motivated crews fell behind on preventive maintenance. Without sufficient maintenance, attractions began breaking down more frequently. And with only a bare-bones repair staff working during park operating hours, Koenig says, increasingly longer attraction downtimes resulted.
A 1995 restructuring splintered the operations department into dozens of competing teams and virtually eliminated the park’s tradition of cooperation, according to Koenig.
Direct supervision was transferred from unionized veterans known as “leads” to salaried assistant managers who usually had no experience running the attraction, Koenig says.
Problems occur on a daily basis, Koenig says, because either “somebody with experience is missing or they are understaffed. About a year ago, a water pipe broke and there was no plumber at the park. It ran for five or six hours before they got somebody there.”
Within the last month, he said, a Disneyland employee told him that one of the inexperienced supervisors on the Jungle Cruise ride refilled the fuel tanks with compressed air, which put the boats out of commission for several hours.
After the Columbia accident, Koenig says in his book, the newly promoted vice president of operations vowed to increase training and reinstitute leads. Expectations also were that maintenance would improve after 200 workers returned to days and evenings after a year on graveyard, he writes.
Koenig said he’s already noticed a change at Disneyland since completing his book.
“In the last couple of months, things have started to look respectable again,” he said. “That makes me happy. It means some of the accusations or things chronicled in my book are hopefully no longer true. They may be surface changes, but it seems like they turned the corner.”
Times staff writer E. Scott Reckard contributed to this story.
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Inquiring Minds Wanted to Know
Some of the funniest parts of “More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland” are the dumb questions guests have asked employees over the years. “Tales of tourists gone on mental vacations,” as author David Koenig calls them, appear in boxes throughout the book.
How dumb are the questions?
* Motorist to a Disneyland tollgate attendant, during a severe storm: “Is it raining inside?”
* Guest to ticket seller: “Are you open until you close?”
* Guest: “I see the Monorail goes back to the Disneyland Hotel. What about the submarine?”
* Guest (from the early years): “Is the restroom a C coupon?”
* Guest (to a Swiss Family Treehouse attendant): “You know, we Swiss people do not really live in trees.”
* Guest (exiting Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln): “Who played the part of Mr. Lincoln?”
Cast Member: “Uh, no one.”
Guest: “Oh my goodness, do you mean that was really Mr. Lincoln himself?”
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