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Off The Rail…

A recent story on MiceAge detailed the problems that continue to plague the rollout of Disneyland’s new Mark VII Monorails. Since the delivery of Monorail Red last December, a series of mechanical and operational issues have repeatedly pushed back the attraction’s opening date far past its original February timeframe.

In fact, it had been projected that by summer of this year all three refurbished trains would be fully checked out and in service. While the second new train has indeed been delivered to Disneyland from its Canadian factory, neither of the Mark VII vehicles have been cleared for guest use and it has been left to the lone remaining Mark V train – itself nearly falling apart at the seams – to continue monorail service to the Disneyland Hotel.

The problems plaguing the Mark VIIs come down to a few issues, many of which stem from poor cooperation between WDI, corporate management at Team Disney Anaheim, and the Canadian fabricators. The most glaring initial problem facing the cars was that their new design led to a number of issues with track clearance. Due to discrepancies in Disney records, the new chassis design did not allow enough room to clear a number of turns on the monorail track; this resulted in the monorail’s body scraping against the beam and a great deal of damage to the monorail’s chassis, body, and the beam itself.

While some of these problems with the suspension and chassis have been solved through various modifications, other issues linger and delivery of the remaining two trains was delayed by the need to retrofit them with the design fixes. A number of operational issues then began to show themselves, key among them the inability to open the monorail car windows more than a few inches. Disney lawyers and California safety officials, keen to absolve guests of any responsibility or common sense whatsoever, felt that the Mark V cars allowed guests too much access to open windows and mandated the change in design. Overlooked was the fact that the reason the windows on the Mark V trains were allowed to fully open was that the train bodies did not have enough space for adequate air conditioning equipment in the car and ventilation was necessary to keep guests comfortable. Now that the lawyers have sealed the windows, temperatures in the cars soar to intolerable levels even on seasonable days. It remains to be seen how WDI will solve this issue.

Sadly, the problems facing the Mark VII rollout could have easily been avoided by a little something which seems sorely missing at WDI these days – institutional knowledge. This is something that has concerned me for a while, and the monorail fiasco has only brought the issue to the fore.

When Walt founded WED Enterprises in 1952, he pulled his best designers and technicians from the studio to begin work on his concepts for Disneyland. These artists and engineers began a process that lasted decades, with each successive creative step building upon the lessons learned in their last project. From studio work like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea they proceeded to Disneyland, which led to the 1964 World’s Fair, Walt Disney World, and eventually EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland. Along the way they accrued a great deal of experience which allowed them to avoid mistakes – of which they made many early on – and push Imagineering to greater heights.

The 1980s proved the last hurrah for many of that first wave of Imagineers, as retirement and age began to claim many of their ranks. The huge staff that been needed for the construction of EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland were faced with layoffs, and following Eisner’s loss of vision in the post-EuroDisney panic even more Imagineers were let go. The 1990s saw wave after wave of creative staff leave for other companies as Eisner and his lackey Paul Pressler decimated the WDI ranks.

While some of the old guard remain, and some have returned following Eisner’s departure, there still was a great deal of common sense and lessons learned that were lost during those purges. This is not to slag on the new generation of Imagineers – anyone familiar with Disneyland’s disasterous debut knows that even the the most legendary of Walt’s creative team learned their lessons the hard way. It’s just that after thirty or forty years of experience, those mistakes had been cut to a minimum and WDI had enough organizational shorthand within its ranks to avoid issues as pedestrian as forgetting to have enough air cooling in a southern California ride vehicle.

The new generation will learn in time; it’s just that we’ll have to experience the growing pains with them. Hopefully the one thing we can take from all of this, and never let management forget (and eventually, no matter what, they will), is to never let this happen again. Never let Disney sell out its legacy and purge its Imagineering ranks for the benefit of middle management and the detriment of creative personnel. Keep the knowledge in-house, avoid outsourcing (a futile hope, I fear), and hopefully some day all we’ll have to worry about is when the next amazing E-ticket will be opening and not whether the darn thing will even move or not.

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