Ominous news emerged last week that two long-time Imagineers had been dismissed from Walt Disney Imagineering. The departures of Executive Designer & Vice President Tim Delaney and head sculptor Valerie Edwards were the most shocking terminations in several years, and follow a period of seeming stability (however illusory it has been) at WDI.
The news of Delaney’s departure was perhaps most shocking to fans, to whom his name is well-known after years of high-profile projects. Edwards, though, has risen in public prominence since she was selected to succeed legendary Imagineer Blaine Gibson as head of the sculpture shop. Her work includes the recent sculpts of Captain Jack Sparrow and Barack Obama, and her reputation is that of a stickler for the highest quality. She had been with Disney for twenty-one years.
Delaney, who had been at WDI since 1976, served on a number of important projects from EPCOT Center’s The Living Seas to Disneyland Paris’s Discoveryland. On that project he served as show producer, helping craft one of the most fully visualized new lands of Disney’s modern era. He went on to help design California Adventure’s Paradise Pier and entrance plaza areas, which have been heavily criticized, but on those projects he was hamstrung by nonexistent budgets and poor choices from corporate managers. Placed in a similar situation with Hong Kong Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, he managed to create a visually pleasing area on a shoestring. Most recently, he had worked on the planned expansions for California Adventure, and tried to sell Parks & Resorts head Jay Rasulo on a roughly $750 million pirate-themed expansion for the Hong Kong park.
I should be perfectly clear here. I know no one inside WDI, beyond the shake-hands-and-introduce-myself stage. I don’t know anything about the political situation inside WDI, aside from what I read from a dozen different anonymous nabobs online. The best I can do is try to determine the most legitimate sources, attempt to discern their biases and filter them as well as possible, and to look for trends and common threads that indicate what’s actually going on. Unless I state otherwise, anything I “know” is basically informed speculation.
There are other people, however, that do have contacts inside WDI. Among these folks is Lee MacDonald, publisher of Tales from the Laughing Place. So I thought it appropriate I reprint a comment of his that was posted originally in a thread on LaughingPlace and later on WDWMagic. I can neither confirm or deny anything he says, but I think it’s an interesting viewpoint from someone who knows Delaney personally:
It all happened very quickly but it is correct. I didn’t know Valerie at all but she was certainly worthy of being Blaine’s true successor. Her new Admiral Donald for the two new DCL ships is beautiful – probably the best Donald sculpt that I’ve ever seen.
Tim on the other hand has been a good friend for many years. I regard him as one of the two greatest conceptualists and show producers at WDI (the other is Tom Morris). A thirty-two year imagineer whose body of work is second-to-none.
People will associate Tim with his role as executive producer for Paradise Pier and the entrance at DCA but neither were his choice. Bob Weis’ team are spending nearly twice the amount of money on one attraction that Tim had for the entire Pier area ($350m versus $200m). No-one wanted the poisoned chalice of the entrance – Barry Braverman could not get a single creative lead to take it on. Tim did the best he could with the brief of the park being a postcard view of CA. His entrance cost less than the facade for the new Cathay Circle Theater – I kid you not.
Tim’s real legacy will be his incredible work on EPCOT CENTER and especially The Living Seas. He was told by numerous engineers that the tank couldn’t work but he endeavored to make it work. A lot of his touches were incorporated into Future World.
EuroDisneyland’s Discoveryland is the only Tomorrowland that works. It is a wonderful architectural edifice to a Tomorrow that Never Was. It is the only timeless incarnation of a Tomorrowland. Again he was told that an angled LIM was impossible – he made it work for the incredible Space Mountain (in my view the greatest roller coaster ever made). He was told that synchronized music would never work – he made it work.
Paradise Pier is awash with similar touches – a steel coaster to look and feel like a woodie. Some whimsical designs like the former main store there. Even the Sun Wheel with its swinging cars and the other off-the-shelf attractions have small touches that make the difference. There isn’t another Golden Zephyr out there – it is entirely unique. People might not like PP but he delivered on a ridiculously small budget. It isn’t the biggest failure of DCA. His land was given less than a quarter of the park’s budget and expected to deliver half the attraction count. Poor menu planning and a lack of executive leadership were not Tim’s fault.
His work on HKDL’s Tomorrowland again delivered the best possible version on a budget. He even stripped items like the giant Buzz and probe in the Space Mountain load area from DisneyQuest Chicago – he had nothing to work with. The park’s Autopia is a wonderfully quirky version with its fun noises to replace the diesel putt-putt.
Recently his work has been largely conceptual. Jay rejected his and Tom’s $750m HKDL PirateLand which was probably the greatest collection of concept art I’ve ever seen – it was breath-taking in its boldness. He pursued a project to improve queue line interaction which led to Epcot’s Soarin’ receiving the screen quiz. His work was instrumental in the evolution of the new MK Dumbo queue – it is the direct successor of his work. He also worked on a number of lodge concepts for the Disney Regional Resorts team – when Wing opted to retire and Don Goodman’s Real Estate Development team was moved to Nick Franklin’s NBD division the projects were largely snuffed out.
He was a wonderful mentor to a host of junior imagineers and he was a wonderfully creative partner. Seeing Tom Morris and Tim discuss projects was like watching kids in a sandbox. There are few people that truly understand what works in a Disney theme park.
He was largely responsible for the execution of the D23 Expo area for WDP&R – Tom Fitzgerald conceived the entrance but the rest was all executed by Dave Fisher and Tim Delaney. It worked because of them.
I’m still numb with shock. I just cannot fathom the logic behind this knuckle-headedness. It further reinforces my view that Bruce Vaughn is singularly the worst leader that WDI has ever had. He does nothing to protect the talent or nurture creative development. He is simply a hatchet man. At least his predecessors made projects happen. This is the problem with having a non-creative lead at WDI. Even Don Goodman’s reign didn’t breed the level of disharmony and sheer depression that currently grips WDI.
I know that Tim will enjoy his retirement – but it has come too early. Tim could have continued to contribute to WDI for many more years. His presence at 1401F will be missed by many of us that have had the privilege to know and work with him for so long. I regard him as one of the few executives to speak his mind and we shared very similar views of the current direction of WDP&R.
I hope that we are both proved wrong.
Recent months have been fairly exciting for Disney park fans. Maintenance has improved at the parks, although this is not saying much considering the poor condition that Walt Disney World has found itself in over the last decade. Mega-projects are on the way for parks in Hong Kong, Anaheim and Orlando. Disney is talking the talk, engaging with fans at successful events like the D23 Expo, and things have generally been looking up.
I fear, though, that there’s a degree of hype at work that is blinding us with an avalanche of pixie dust. Instead of stabilizing and building the creative ranks at WDI, as we all hoped would happen with Iger arrived and allowed John Lasseter to take a creative role in the company, the attrition continues as long-time talent is dismissed. This serves two roles; first, it eliminates the higher salaries that veteran Imagineers command. Second, it removes the inconvenience of highly-placed and popular designers that are constantly pushing for higher budgets and better-quality projects. I doubt it’s a coincidence that these events follow a period when Delaney had been pushing Rasulo for the high-budget Pirates land, or that it has been widely repeated that Valerie Edwards had been pushing for a higher quality of output from her department.
I reiterate that I don’t know anyone on the inside, or have any particular insight into the dynamics of WDI. But more and more it appears that Iger has truly given Rasulo free reign to run things as tight-fistedly as he wants, and that current Imagineering head Bruce Vaughn is playing along. I’ve heard good many things about Vaughn and his work at R&D, but the slow decimation of the creative side of WDI does not reflect well upon his tenure.
Of course, the ultimate issue is something that long-time Disney watchers have feared for many years now. There are many within and without Disney, acolytes of the soulless corporatism that has overrun the company, that would love to eliminate WDI as an active developer of new content. Instead, creative personnel would be dismissed and only a small core of administrators would remain to outsource new attractions and enhancements to third-party vendors. Disney would no longer have to pay its high-dollar talent, or provide benefits and other expenses. They would instead farm projects out to outside firms, most likely composed of the very same personnel they fired, and save a few bucks by forcing these design houses to underbid each other for work.
I fear that this is the active goal of Bob Iger and Jay Rasulo. I also hope that I’m wrong, but the blinkered mindset that springs from America’s business schools today would say otherwise. When Imagineers as talented and prominent as Tim Delaney and Valerie Edwards can be dismissed, who will be next? Think of all the talent that’s already gone – Eddie Sotto, the Kirk brothers – and think of who is left. There is widespread mumbling out there, which I can only hope is baseless bluster, that no less than Tony Baxter will depart when his contract ends next year. While that would be such a high-profile departure and would raise the ire of even casual fans, at this point even something once-unthinkable like that seems possible.
We’re seeing the elimination of the last generation of Imagineers who worked directly in Walt’s wake under the tutelage of the original giants of Imagineering. These are the people that took up the mantle, and who created the attractions that made us all fans. It seems that they’re being picked off one by one, in favor of people who will better “play the game” and raise less objections to the constantly lowered standards enforced by upper management.
I hope I’m wrong, but we all need to pay attention and be aware of the situation.