Disney Ride Upkeep Assailed
As state investigators probe why a wheel assembly came off a ride at Disneyland in a fatal September crash, many park workers worry that a six-year cost-cutting effort to make ride maintenance more efficient is ultimately to blame.
In 1997, Disneyland moved to what is known in aerospace and other safety-conscious industries as “reliability-centered maintenance.” The system uses repair histories and failure rates -- rather than the intuition of experienced workers -- to determine how often a procedure needs to be performed.
Consultants hired to map the change said the move would save the Anaheim theme park millions of dollars a year in maintenance costs and allow hundreds of jobs to be eliminated.
It’s unclear how many of the consultant’s recommendations were adopted and how much money the park saved. But a review of internal company documents, court cases, government records and interviews with 18 current and former park workers shows that Disneyland’s push for efficiency over the last six years led to an upheaval backstage, where the park’s “magic” becomes a matter of nuts and bolts.
Outside experts say the maintenance changes confirmed Disneyland’s reputation as a safety leader among amusement parks, using the latest techniques to protect visitors. Along with adopting reliability-centered maintenance, Disneyland hired better-educated workers with more sophisticated skills to maintain the rides and transferred many to the night shift, where they would could work without interruptions.
But many workers say the changes also gutted workforce morale and employees’ sense of ownership of the rides. Employees once wedded to a single ride for years now floated among several attractions. Parts became difficult to obtain quickly, workers said, and when rides broke down, they stayed down longer -- especially when the problem occurred during the day. Staffing and maintenance procedures were pared back -- along with, some workers say, redundancies that provided an extra margin of safety.
Safety Called Priority
Leslie Goodman, senior vice president of strategic communications for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, wrote in an e-mail that “a safe environment has been and remains our top priority.”
But she declined to discuss details of the park’s maintenance procedures. “Given the status of the state’s ongoing investigation [into the Big Thunder Mountain accident], it would be irresponsible for us to respond,” she wrote, because comments could undermine the probe.
Disneyland officials also have described many of the former and current workers who complain about maintenance as disgruntled, and point out that some lost their jobs as a result of the change in procedures.
Nine visitors have died in ride-related accidents at Disneyland since the park opened in 1955, in most cases because of their own mistakes. The two fatalities that occurred after 1997, however, were in accidents in which maintenance arose as an issue for investigators -- including the recent crash on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. A nonfatal accident in 2000 that injured nine on Space Mountain occurred after a bolt broke on a wheel assembly.
“I have a lot of loyalty to Disneyland, but I feel that somebody’s got to say something about how they’re operating out there,” said Bob Penfield, who worked on the park’s rides from opening day until his retirement as a supervisor in 1997. “When Disneyland opened, safety was the No. 1 thing. Now they say that today too. But I think over time, profit became more important.”
Another worker, in an interview with state investigators after a parkgoer was killed in 1998 by an iron cleat that broke off the Columbia sailing ship, said the change in maintenance procedures made it difficult to get rides fixed quickly. He and a second worker told investigators that wood around the cleat was weak, though this was never formally identified as a cause of the accident.
“The climate that we’re operating in here has changed dramatically in the last few years,” said veteran ride operator Tom Bugler, according to a recording of his interview with investigators. “I am one that calls routinely every week for things to get repaired, and normally they aren’t repaired.” Bugler still works at the park. He would not comment for this story.
In one instance, Bugler told investigators, a railing collapsed on a bridge leading to the Columbia. He said he was forced to close the attraction because maintenance had no carpenters to fix the railing. And when a worker finally arrived, it was a machinist who left the rotting wood intact and made a makeshift fix with metal.
Before 1997, Bugler told inspectors, each ride had its own maintenance crew and supervisor. “People were just sitting in the back just waiting for something to happen,” he said. “Everything was maintained in such pristine condition, we never had to think about anything deteriorating.”
Comparing Disneyland’s accident rate with other amusement parks is difficult because no one collects comprehensive data. But three industry experts who have worked as consultants for the park all described Disneyland’s safety procedures as exemplary.
“I think they have one of the best safety cultures in the country; certainly better than NASA’s,” said Nancy Leveson, a professor of aerospace engineering and engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “While a lot of companies give lip service to safety, Disney really does care.”
Worker complaints are natural after any major change, whether the change is good or bad, Leveson said. “I think that’s common everywhere. Nothing’s ever the way it used to be. The world is changing ... I think it’s very hard for some of the old-timers.”
Disneyland is the “gold standard for everyone else in the business,” said another expert, T. Harold Hudson, a former vice president of engineering for Six Flags Inc., which operates dozens of amusement parks across North America. Hudson said reliability-centered maintenance is used at other amusement parks and doesn’t undercut safety. He cited wheel adjustments as an example.
“As you do that day in and day out, you find out that the wheels never need adjusting,” Hudson said. “So why do you want to do that every day?”
Pressler Made Changes
The change at Disneyland was overseen by Paul Pressler, a former toy industry executive and former chief of Walt Disney Co.'s retail stores who became the park’s president in late 1994. By the time he was promoted to head the company’s theme-park division seven years later, Pressler earned a reputation as a cost-cutter who cared deeply about Disney’s stock price.
Not long after Pressler arrived, the management consulting firm McKinsey and Co. was hired to reorganize the park’s facilities, engineering and construction division, which is responsible for inspecting and repairing Disneyland’s rides.
In 1997, McKinsey recommended that the facilities division’s budget for 2000 be cut by nearly 25% to produce a savings of $16.9 million, according to a copy of the report summary prepared for Pressler. Eventually, 317 of the division’s 738 jobs could be eliminated, the report said.
McKinsey said the majority of the maintenance staff should be moved to the graveyard shift to improve efficiency.
The consultants concluded that entrenched managers were “often the source of change resistance.” These up-from-the-ranks craftsmen lacked the skills and formal education needed to create “world-class maintenance” management. They didn’t understand concepts such as cost-benefit analysis and break-even analysis. Half of these 68 supervisors should be transferred or let go, McKinsey said, and the number of managers should be cut by nearly a quarter.
“There was a major cultural shift that focused on economics -- being as lean an operation as possible to maximize profit at Disneyland,” said one former park executive who spoke on condition of anonymity because he signed an agreement not to talk about the company. “The message was: Do more with less.”
Pressler, who left Disney last year to become chief executive of retailer Gap Inc., declined to be interviewed. And Disneyland wouldn’t comment on how many of the jobs eliminated were directly related to ride maintenance, or what today’s staffing or maintenance budgets are.
David Miller, a Los Angeles stock analyst who tracks Disney, said the company spends about 3% of its theme park and resort revenue on maintenance -- an amount standard in the industry.
What’s clear, though, is that the systemic changes at Disneyland after the McKinsey study troubled old-timers who suddenly found themselves marching to a different beat.
Because so few mechanics were left on day shifts, for example, “We could have three rides down at any one time,” while the park was open, said a former mechanic who worked on a skeleton daytime crew.
“One time, Indiana Jones went down for a dead vehicle. We responded to that. It was a computer problem. Then Peter Pan goes down. The supervisor said ‘Go to Peter Pan -- leave Indiana Jones alone.’ When we got there, people were hanging in the air on Peter Pan.”
David Koenig, a business journalist who has written two books about Disneyland’s backstage culture, said these and other changes demoralized workers.
“It’s not the number of workers or the size of the department, but the change in feeling among the workers who are there,” Koenig said.
Park veterans recall how redundancies in the old system meant that rides were reinspected by workers who came in behind regular maintenance crews -- an illustration, they say, of how costs took a back seat to preventing potential problems.
“There’s nothing wrong with saving money,” said Mike Goodwin, a maintenance supervisor whose went to work at Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park after his job at Disneyland was eliminated in 1997. “But not at the expense of your prime objective, which is to keep the place running safely.”
Old Versus New
Goodwin recalled a confrontation that typifies the old thinking and the new: Bob Klostriech, a supervisor who was fired in 1999, was quizzed by a McKinsey consultant who was reviewing records for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Why, the consultant asked, do you inspect the lap bars daily? The records show they never fail.
“Klostriech called him an idiot,” said Goodwin, who witnessed the exchange. Klostriech, he said, told the consultant: “The reason they don’t fail is because we check them every night.”
Goodwin and others say maintenance workers once padded the margin of safety at Disneyland by replacing parts before they showed signs of wear.
In 2000, a bolt broke on a Space Mountain wheel assembly, causing the accident that injured nine. In a deposition given in a lawsuit against Disneyland, Klostriech’s supervisor, Scott Smith, described the role cost plays today in the preventive maintenance of parts.
“If the consequences of failure involve risk to health or safety, you are compelled to develop a mitigation strategy,” he said. How far Disneyland goes to prevent any other “functional failure,” he added, is “completely a financial question.”
Smith’s description echoed a comment that three workers say Pressler made in January 1998 during an impromptu visit to the Disneyland Railroad’s workshop.
“He said, ‘We have to ride these rides to failure to save money,’ ” said David O’Neill, a train operator who has worked at the park since 1957 and was among those present.
“I was surprised anyone would say that.”