Each episode of the classic Twilight Zone television series explored unreal supernatural possibilities and invited the viewer into a realm where the impossible seemed natural. Disney's California Adventure (DCA) is just such a realm. It is the one Disney theme park where nothing ever goes right. It has even taken one of the most successful attractions at Walt Disney World (WDW), the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, and turned it into a miserable failure.
At the Disney-MGM Studios, the Tower of Terror is cited as one of the major reasons guests have been flocking to the Walt Disney World Resort for the past ten years. That's right, still a major draw after ten years! Well, that could be our first clue. The attraction has been operating for ten years at Disney's flagship resort. And make no mistake about it; people travel from all over the country and from the other side of the planet to get to Walt Disney World, and right at the top of the to-do list for many of them is the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It stands to reason that any Disney theme park consumer willing to travel any significant distance has already crossed over into The Twilight Zone several times, and probably would not make a special trip to Anaheim for an experience they've already had. This makes DCA's Tower an attraction which should draw almost entirely locals.
Disneyland management (both old and new) has been saying, since the day DCA was announced to the press, that it is becoming a destination resort. No big mystery on the reasoning there. Destination resorts are marketed to out-of-town tourists who spend significantly more than locals on everything from theme park admission to supersized turkey legs, to polyvinyl chloride clown fish.
So why were Disneyland management (both old and new), Parks & Resorts management, Walt Disney Imagineering, and Mr. Eisner himself completely convinced this attraction could save DCA? Well, for starters, it did just that for Disney-MGM Studios in 1994. Disney-MGM was very much a half-day park for its first five years of operation, and received mixed reviews from guests and critics. Its biggest problem (known to one and all) was a lack of thrill rides. The Magic Kingdom had a trilogy of thrilling mountains, but all Disney-MGM had to offer were the fun, but relatively mild, thrills of Star Tours. The Tower of Terror changed all that. It complimented fun-for-all-ages attractions like The Great Movie Ride, Super Star Television, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Magic of Disney Animation. Disney's California Adventure did not and does not have a strong foundation of broad-based family attractions. With the addition of the Tower of Terror, DCA has ten attractions with height restrictions-the most of any Disney Theme Park. In fact, 31% of the attractions at DCA have some kind of height requirement (based on the number of attractions listed on the Disneyland.com website). Compare this to the eight attractions with height requirements at nearby Disneyland, or 13% of the attractions in that park. DCA was not a family friendly park in need of a thrill. It was, and is, quite the opposite. It should be noted that when Tower of Terror was added to the Disney-MGM Studios, it had only one attraction with a height requirement, Star Tours.
How did the combined gray matter of The Walt Disney Company miss all this? Well, it's a result of the blind love the folks at Strategic Planning have for...numbers. The only abstract concept understood by Strategic Planning and Project Management, who run corporate and WDI respectively (but not respectfully), is numbers. They have some sheet of paper that says something like, the Tower of Terror in Florida increased attendance by X people and guest spending by Y dollars, therefore it can be assumed that its addition to DCA will yield the same result. This is how every creative decision in the Walt Disney Company is made today. Decisions are not based on the very subjective merits of a creative idea; instead they are made based on very subjective numbers. To the mind of the Strategic Planner, this is just good sense. The human factor (most of the consumers have had access to this product for ten years, drop rides have proliferated since) is not considered. The overall park experience (DCA is already overloaded with attractions that are not accessible to everyone) is not considered. There's no column for such things on a spreadsheet, so how is a Strategic Planner to understand them?
But how could they miss this, you ask? Anyone who visits the theme parks with their kids would notice these problems immediately. But, there's the rub. They don't. The decision-makers at the Walt Disney Company are shuttled in via town car backstage. They are then escorted on stage, visit the one attraction on their itinerary and then leave. They actually live in another dimension. They're in the park, and yet they're not. They never see the crying child, the overpriced hot dog, the unkempt cast member. There is no understanding of the guest experience. It's a dimension of sight and sound, but not of mind. It's a dimension were Walt and his wisdom never existed. That crazy old man used to tell his designers and executives things like: "You guys get down there at least twice a month. For God's sake, don't eat off the lot. Stay there...lunch with the guests...talk to them."
But don't the current executives read guest comments? That's something they could do in the comfort of their ergonomic chairs, right? Well, yes, some of them read guest comments, but they may not understand them. When DCA opened the biggest complaint was, "There's nothing for my kids to do!" Poof...a bug's land. So, now we have a place for the under seven set, and bunch of thrill rides for the 'tweens and teens, a few films for the adults (who are probably wondering why they paid $49.75 to watch a movie), and Grandma and Grandpa can sit on the bench and eat peanuts. But there's still nothing for the whole family to do together; which, we're told, was the whole point of Disneyland in the first place. On the off chance that a strategic planner or executive level project manager is reading this, let me explain something. When an adult guest says she wants something her kids will enjoy, she still wants to enjoy the experience herself. You know, everyone having fun together...as a family. See Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and "it's a small world" for a practical demonstration.
So, there you have it. Another square peg in a round hole for Eisner & Co. Before we wrap this up, there is one more item that should be addressed. Despite the fact that this attraction was approved and built based on the success of its counterpart in Florida, it's not the same attraction. In the hallways of WDI, this attraction was referred to as "Tower of Terror Lite" because entire scenes we left out and special effects were scaled back significantly. So, if you've been on the Tower in Florida and you're planning on making the trip out to Anaheim, please keep in mind that DCA's Tower is a product of the sensible folks at Strategic Planning, and if you're sensible, you'll lower your expectations accordingly.
Disney's Reverse Imagineering:
Watch Your Step and Lower Your Expectations!
By Rod Surly
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DCA ToT: Disney's Reverse Imagineering: Watch Your Step...
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