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Will Disney Keep Us Amused?

New York Times

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February 09, 2008

Visit Disney's California Adventure - a 55-acre theme park next door to the fabled progenitor of the modern amusement Mecca, Disneyland - and you will find a noisy reminder of what happens when a company loses its focus and cuts corners.

The Walt Disney Company built the park on the cheap in 2001, and many rides are copies of familiar carnival workhorses like the Ferris wheel. A lack of landscaping can leave guests sweltering. Outdoor shows were borrowed from other Disney properties. And the theme, built around tributes to California, is modest except for an occasionally unintentional ghost-town atmosphere: The park draws about 6 million visitors a year, a trickle compared with the 15 million who swarm Disneyland.

Now, Disney is embarking on a $1.1 billion, five-year effort to get California Adventure on track. The blueprints call for ripping out ho-hum rides and adding elaborate new ones, rebuilding the park's entrance — a hodgepodge of turnstiles, a miniature Golden Gate Bridge and pastel tile murals — to shift the focus to Disney iconography.

In June, Disney will unveil a glimpse of the shoot-for-the-moon bet it is making on California Adventure's makeover, with the introduction of a ride called Toy Story Mania. More than three years in the making, and estimated to cost about $80 million, the attraction essentially puts guests inside a video game.

Riders, wearing 3-D glasses, board vehicles that career through an old-fashioned carnival midway, operated by characters from the popular "Toy Story" film franchise. Vehicles stop at game booths — 56 giant screens programmed with 3-D animation from Pixar — and riders play virtual-reality versions of classic carnival games.

But much more is riding on the attraction than a complex turnaround of just one theme park. Toy Story Mania, which Disney is also installing in Florida, reflects the larger pressures and challenges facing the company's $10.6 billion parks and resorts business. To stay relevant to younger, digitally savvy visitors while also delivering growth to investors, Disney, the company that invented the modern theme park, knows that it has to devise a new era of spectacular attractions rooted in technology.

One-upmanship increasingly drives this intensely competitive business, and Disney's rivals are also trying harder to gain market share. Universal Studios, part of NBC Universal, has more than quadrupled its spending on new rides, introducing attractions in California and Florida that are based on "The Simpsons." Universal is teaming up with Warner Brothers to bring a small Harry Potter-theme park to Florida in late 2009. Niche players like SeaWorld and Legoland are also muscling in on Disney's territory.

At its core, however, Toy Story Mania represents an effort to solve a puzzle that poses a much larger threat to Disney and the broader amusement park business. The quickening pace of daily living, advances in personal technology and the rapidly changing media landscape are combining to reshape what consumers expect out of a theme park, Disney executives say.

Toy Story Mania, which carries a modest price tag compared with some other Disney efforts, demonstrates one way that the company is fighting back, said Jay Rasulo, the chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

"Bigger and more expensive is not necessarily the answer," Mr. Rasulo said. "You want people leaving thinking, 'Wow, only Disney could do that.' "

Consumers' fixation on instant gratification and personalization has been reshaping the entertainment industry for some time, but it has finally caught up to the theme park business in visible ways. For instance, Disney has spent much more effort — and money — developing ways to entertain people as they stand in line for Toy Story Mania.

An animatronic figure with an estimated $1 million price tag will sing songs and interact with guests as they wait. Employees dressed as "Toy Story" characters will stroll among the crowds.

"There's an erosion of patience," said Bruce Vaughn, the chief creative executive for Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's development group. "People's tolerance for lines is decreasing at a rapid rate."

Mr. Rasulo said that younger visitors, in particular, expect customized entertainment. So Toy Story Mania's computers will accommodate riders of various skill levels.

"Guests are pretty much no longer interested in being passive viewers," Mr. Rasulo said.

To address shifting tastes, the broader amusement park industry will have to rewrite its operating rules, said Jerry Aldrich, the founder of Amusement Industry Consulting. "Disney is already there, but a lot of parks are just waking up to this," he said.

The health of the parks and resorts unit is crucial to Disney's overall performance. Its lucrative sports unit, ESPN, makes more money, and its movie studio basks in Hollywood glamour. But the parks, where people interact with Mickey and his pals, are the reason that the Disney brand is so powerful, analysts say. As the theme parks go, so goes Disney.

Lately, Wall Street has been sounding alarm bells about the unit — and not just about California Adventure. While Disneyland and the cluster of Florida parks that make up Disney World have been churning out record profits on strong increases in attendance, some investors worry that the troubled domestic economy will tear a hole in the business. In late January, a Citigroup analyst downgraded Disney's stock to a sell, citing concern about lower demand for hotel rooms at the resorts.

DISNEY strongly rejects the skepticism, and some other analysts agree. Disney's chief financial officer, Thomas O. Staggs, said the company saw no indication that consumers were cutting back. "We are pleased with the current pace of business at our parks, particularly given the record attendance we achieved last year," he told analysts on Tuesday during a conference call, held as the company released fiscal first-quarter earnings.

Vacationers from Europe and Asia, benefiting from a weak dollar, could pick up some of the slack in the event of an economic downturn, but that could lead to cannibalization — Disney needs those same visitors to patronize theme parks in Paris, Hong Kong and Tokyo.

Although its performance has drastically improved from its early days, Disneyland Resort Paris is still struggling after 10 years of changes and heavy capital investment. The park in Japan is cruising right along, but attendance at nearby Hong Kong Disneyland, the company's newest park, has fallen more than 25 percent since its 2005 opening. Disney told analysts on Tuesday that attendance in Hong Kong has recently "improved significantly" because of new promotions.

To make certain that Toy Story Mania is a hit — part of a strategic effort to keep mining revenue from the 13-year-old "Toy Story" franchise — Disney is pulling every lever in its vast arsenal.

Pixar, the Disney-owned studio working on "Toy Story 3" for a 2010 release, contributed animation and general creative advice. Disney VR Studios, the company's video game unit, customized software, while the parks and resorts unit handled the heavy lifting of design and construction. The media networks division, which includes ABC, will help publicize the ride once it opens — along with hundreds of other promotional partners.

"We have an incredible number of engines at this company, and every one is firing around this franchise," Mr. Rasulo said.

WORK on Toy Story Mania got under way on a stiflingly hot September day in 2005, when a team of Disney creative developers went to the Los Angeles County Fair. The goal was to research how carnival games operate.

Two developers, Kevin Rafferty and Robert Coltrin, had devised an idea for a new California Adventure ride that would juxtapose the old-fashioned romance of a carnival midway with high-tech video game elements. They had a hunch that "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2," the Pixar films about toys coming to life, would provide a good theme. But they didn't know much about carnival games.

"We looked at each other and said, 'Are the games we remember from our childhoods even relevant anymore?' " Mr. Coltrin said.

At the fair, the two were thrilled as they walked through rows of game booths — wooden structures that carnival operators call "stick joints" — to find crowds enjoying classic games like the ring toss and water guns. "We were like, 'Score!' and gave each other a high-five," Mr. Coltrin recalled.

Using digital cameras, members of the development team documented details, from the colors of the canvas covering each booth — red and yellow — to how far apart the games were spaced. They quickly ruled out some games as options for the ride. "Toss a coin in a cup didn't really do it for us," said Chrissie Allen, a senior show producer.

But other games, like one in which customers threw darts at balloons, piqued their interest. "We thought, 'This just might work,' " Ms. Allen said.

Reassembling at Disney's offices in Glendale, Calif., the team worked on the concept that would become Toy Story Mania. Because carnivals sell commotion, there would be lots of flashing lights, barkers trying to capture riders' attention, buzzers and bells.

Mr. Rafferty and Mr. Coltrin dreamed up a fanciful story: The classic toys in "Toy Story" had come to life and staged a carnival under their owner's bed while he was away at dinner. Little Bo Peep would operate the balloon darts; Ham, the talking piggy bank, would cheer riders as they tossed virtual eggs at barn animals. The culmination would be "Woody's Rootin' Tootin' Gallery," a twist on old-fashioned shooting galleries.

They would use full-scale 3-D animation, a first for a Disney ride. That, Mr. Vaughn said, would make riders feel as if they were inside a video game or a virtual world. "We look at it as gaming meets immersive storytelling," he said.

While Mr. Vaughn and his colleagues were cogitating in the fall of 2005, Disney had its hands full. Robert A. Iger had just taken over the company after the exit of Michael D. Eisner and was working to extend Disney's partnership with Pixar, an effort that would result in a $7.4 billion acquisition.

When Mr. Rasulo and his team presented Mr. Iger with plans for Toy Story Mania, Mr. Iger was interested but cautious. Would that dovetail with much larger efforts to overhaul the entire park? The ride could handle up to 1,500 riders an hour. Was that enough? An improved relationship with Pixar looked promising, but what if a deal couldn't be reached? Would that hinder plans to build a lavish ride around Pixar's core creative property?

But Mr. Iger liked a couple of the important parts of the proposal. Imagineers (Disney's term for creative developers) suggested building versions of the ride at the same time in California and Florida — a Disney first — to leverage the development costs. Another component involved the ease with which the ride could be rethemed every season.

"The chance to take simple games that people have loved playing for generations and pairing them with cutting-edge technology just sounded exhilarating to everybody," Ms. Allen said.

BUILDING elaborate models is among the first formal steps in creating a Disney attraction. Engineers, paying attention to scale and sight lines, want to find out how a planned addition would affect the existing park.

Models are built on large tables equipped with wheels. The company keeps room-size models of entire parks, and engineers will eventually wheel the new model into that area to see how it looks.

To give birth to Toy Story Mania, Mr. Rafferty and Mr. Coltrin went to work turning drawings of the ride into foam models, toiling in the same 1950s-era building in suburban Los Angeles where Walt Disney himself once tinkered.

Tweaks started to happen. The team added turrets to the top of the ride for a more dramatic flair. They shifted the direction of the facade by a few degrees to make it more visible from the park entrance. "And we knew at this stage that we wanted a little piece of magic out in front as a tease to people as they waited in line," Mr. Coltrin said.

Upstairs, designers entered blueprints for the ride into a computer program. This would allow them to start building and refining the entire project, which is made up of 150 computers, with 90 of them moving around on the ride vehicles and communicating with one another via a secured wireless network. With a click of a mouse, developers could jump to any spot inside in the vehicles for a virtual dip into how the experience might look to someone on the ride.

"We don't want anybody to be able to see multiple versions of Woody at the same time, and seconds make a difference," said Mark Mine, the technical concept designer. "Every part of the ride has to be magical.

"It is much easier and less expensive to do this before the concrete has been poured," he added. "As rides become more complicated, your ability to tweak in the field gets harder and much more expensive."

Across the street, in a cold, unmarked garage, Ms. Allen helped to conduct "play tests" on rudimentary versions of the ride. More than 400 people of all ages — all had signed strict nondisclosure agreements — sat on a plywood vehicle set up in front of a projection screen and played various versions of the games. Disney workers studied their reactions and interviewed them afterward.

"We were looking to see if some effects were too scary," Ms. Allen said, "or if there wasn't enough laughing happening during certain sequences."

Among the discoveries: People wanted to be able to compare scores after they were finished playing, while some children had a hard time reaching the cannonlike firing controller, christened by Disney as a "spring action shooter." Engineers added a computer screen to vehicles to display scores and installed the controls on movable lap bars.

"We were trying to find out things we didn't even know to ask about," said Sue Bryan, a senior show producer.

The ride's psychological components started to take shape during this phase. Disney decided that riders were happier when they got a bigger visual payoff. (One of Little Bo Peep's balloons now pops with greater force when hit with a virtual dart and a blast of air shoots into a rider's face.) A game involving shooting at a paper target was dropped. ("It was hard to make paper interesting," Ms. Bryan said.) And developers decided that the last game before the exit needed to be the easiest, so riders would feel that they were coming out as winners, even if they weren't very good.

After Disney closed the Pixar deal, in January 2006, Toy Story Mania became more elaborate. Mr. Iger wanted Pixar — and particularly one of its co-founders, John Lasseter, who had worked as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland after college — to contribute to creative advances in the parks. Disney had incorporated Pixar movies into its theme parks before, but Pixar's involvement in those efforts was modest, Mr. Vaughn said.

"The minute Pixar became 100 percent part of the family, it could go whole hog and dive in," he said.

One of Mr. Lasseter's major concerns about Toy Story Mania centered on the animation, various developers said. Disney had hired an outside contractor to handle it, but Mr. Lasseter insisted that Pixar staff members who were involved in creating the films should also work on the ride.

The Disney team had also decided to leave out Buzz Lightyear, the modern spaceman toy in the films, because he was already showcased in an older ride called Astro Blasters. But Pixar felt that the character was essential to the "Toy Story" franchise. Buzz will now be a host of a game, and he shares top billing on the ride's marquee.

Creating what Mr. Coltrin had called "a little piece of magic" was another area of special attention for Mr. Lasseter and his lieutenants. To entertain people as they waited in line, the developers decided to place one of Disney's signature animatronic figures outside. It would draw attention like a carnival barker, but also be sophisticated enough to interact one on one with guests, adding another element of customization.

Only one "Toy Story" figure was considered for the role: Mr. Potato Head.

WORK on Mr. Potato Head started last year in a heavily guarded Disney research plant a few miles from the company's headquarters in Burbank, Calif. Developers had to make a five-foot-tall plastic potato sing, dance and seemingly hold conversations with people at random. The robot also had to be able to remove his ear and put it back on.

"It's all in the math," said Jimmy A. Thomas, the lead mechanical designer.

When Walt Disney introduced animatronics in the 1960s, coining the word in the process, his creations moved in simple ways through the use of pneumatic valves and hydraulic pumps. The children in the It's a Small World attraction wowed patrons simply by blinking their eyes and bowing.

Modern visitors expect much more. Mr. Potato Head — with help from a dozen video cameras, several computers, an unseen ride operator and a $1 million budget — will be able to make his mouth form words, a first for Disney animatronics.

The comedian Don Rickles, whose gravelly voice brought the character to life in the films, was hired to record 750 words and four songs. The hidden ride operator, armed with a computer and cameras that scan the crowd, will then choose phrases based on the actions and appearance of people standing in front of it. ("Hey, you in the red baseball hat.")

The goal was to make the character so perfect that it looked as if it had just stepped out of the movies. Pixar executives tightly monitored every detail and helped direct Mr. Rickles. At a recent taping, the Pixar team put him through his paces.

"Let's put a little more chuckle in that line," said Roger Gould, Pixar's creative director, sitting in a recording studio as 10 other executives and engineers took notes and adjusted instruments.

Mr. Rickles complied, repeating a line that would play if the ride stopped unexpectedly. "Folks, we're having a little delay here," he said. "For your safety, please stay seated inside the game tram."

Among Disneyphiles, at least, the wait for Toy Story Mania to open is unbearable. Blogs like Blue Sky Disney and Mice Age, which are not affiliated with the company, have been chronicling minute details of the construction. ("The first ride vehicles have just arrived in California from their production facility in Osaka, Japan!")

Al Lutz, the publisher of Mice Age and a critic of what he calls California Adventure's "cheap strip-mall stucco" aesthetic, says fans are keen to see the ride's over-the-top details. Disney is, after all, a company that studied how the sun struck the earth differently in various locations to determine the color of paint to use on the fairy-tale castle at the center of each resort.

"Young people are going to be fighting to be first in line," he said.

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