Re-imagining Walt Disney Imagineering: Will the coming staff cuts actually save this division of the Walt Disney Company from itself?

The good news is … Bob Iger has reportedly signed off on a rescue plan for Disney’s California Adventure.

According to those who are familiar with this theme park revival project, Disney’s new CEO has agreed (in principle) to spend hundreds of million of dollars over the next decade in order to turn DCA into a worthy companion for Disneyland. As one Disney insider who was privvy to these plans recently told me:

“The scope & scale of the DCA revival plan is unprecedented. We’re talking about complete redos of certain sections of this theme park. In 10 years time, you won’t even be able to recognize the place.”

The bad news is … I can’t tell you who will actually be handling the redesign & retheming of this troubled theme park.

“But that’s an easy question to answer, Jim,” you say. “Disney’s Imagineers will — of course — be handling the redesign & retheming of Disney’s California Adventure … right? After all, these are the guys who have handled every other theme park that the Walt Disney Company has built around the world over the past 50+ years. So it just makes sense that WDI would be right in the middle of this DCA revival project … right?”

Well, that’s assuming that Walt Disney Imagineering — as we know it today — still exists when work officially begins on the California Adventure overhaul project.

The way I hear it, WDI may soon be undergoing a pretty significant overhaul of its own. One that could see the theme park design arm of the Walt Disney Company laying off virtually all of the artists and technicians that still work for this Glendale-based operation. With WDI then emerging as more a project-management-based organization. With only a handful of artists & executives remaining on the payroll who can then initiate new projects for the parks.

What’s that you say? “Bob Iger wouldn’t dare downsize Walt Disney Imagineering.” Well, the fact of the matter is … After a year of carefully examining all of the Walt Disney Company’s business units, Iger realized that something had to be done with WDI.

You see, right now, there’s this rather poisonous culture that pervades 1401 Flower Street. One that actually encourages key employees there to engage in corporate in-fighting. Continually furthering their own political agendas while — at the same time — throwing all sorts of obstacles in their rivals’ paths. Given this sort of working environment, is it any wonder that Walt Disney Imagineering rarely (if ever) these days actually delivers a new ride, show or attraction for the theme parks on time and/or under budget?

To be honest, while Disneyana fans may think of the Imagineers as the ultimate practioneers of the theme park art, among those who actually work within the themed entertainment industry … Well, they have a very different opinion of the guys who work at WDI. As one industry vet recently told me:

“Nobody wastes money like Walt Disney Imagineering does. On virtually every project that those guys work on, they wind up blowing through wads of cash. But they rarely give Disney its money’s worth.”

That sounds pretty harsh, don’t you think? Well, maybe you’d better understand the themed entertainment industry’s attitude toward WDI if I cited a specific example. Take — for instance — last year’s THEA award-winning redo of Movie Park’s old “Looney Tune Adventure” attraction.

In just six months time, with a budget of only $3 million, Thinkwell Design & Production was able to repurpose this tired old indoor water dark ride and turn it into the most popular attraction at that German theme park. “Ice Age Adventure” features over 50 new audio animatronic figures, new special effects as well as a brand-new musical score inspired by 20th Century Fox’s 2002 CG blockbluster, “Ice Age.”

Now let’s contrast this Movie Park, Germany attraction redo with WDI’s recent revamp of DCA’s old “Superstar Limo” attraction. As they transformed this Hollywood Pictures Backlot dark ride into “Monsters, inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!,” the Imagineers pretty much did what the folks at Thinkwell did. They kept the attraction’s original ride system in place. They installed new AA figures, sets and effects along the existing ride track. WDI even commissioned a brand-new soundtrack for this revamped DCA attraction. Which celebrated Pixar Animation Studios’ 2001 release, “Monsters, Inc.”

The end result was that — just like “Ice Age Adventure” at Movie Park, Germany — “Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue!” quickly became the most popular attraction at Disney’s California Adventure. But the real difference between these two revamped dark rides was that “Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue” wound up costing the Walt Disney Company over 10 times what Movie Park, Germany spent on its “Ice Age Adventure” redo.

According to company insiders that I’ve spoken with, Walt Disney Imagineering spent almost $35 million on its “Superstar Limo” revamp. With most of the money which had originally been budgeted for the design & construction of this new DCA attraction not going toward the actual ride. But — rather — being applied to WDI’s high overhead costs. In particular the enormous salaries that many key Imagineers earned while working on this particular project.

Given WDI’s poisonous corporate culture (Not to mention how free some Imagineers seem to be with money), Bob Iger has reportedly decided that it’s time to make some pretty significant changes at 1401 Flower Street. Similar to those 650 jobs that will soon be cut at Walt Disney Studios as Iger radically revamps operations on that side of the Mouse House, rumors are now flying that Bob is looking to let 200-300 people go from Walt Disney Imagineering. Which would effectively gut this division of the company.

“And what would happen after that?,” you query. Well, according to what I’ve been hearing, Iger would leave only a few key executives & creatives in place at WDI. And these folks … Well, they’d then have to rebuild Walt Disney Imagineering as more of a project-management-based operation. Where artists & designers would only be hired to work on a particular project and then let go as soon as their assignment was complete.

Which I know sounds kind of cruel. Like it’s the end of an era at the Mouse House. But the harsh reality is … This is pretty much the way that the rest of the themed entertainment industry actually does business these days. With artists & designers only being hired on a per-project basis.

And given how fiscally irresponsible WDI historically has been (EX: WDW’s Pleasure Island. By the time construction of this night-time entertainment complex was complete in 1989, that project was 300% over-budget) … Well, by going this route, Mickey might actually start getting his money’s worth out of the folks that design his theme parks.

“And when might the Mouse get around to officially announcing this radical reorg of WDI?,” you continue. Well, the way I hear it … This announcement is coming sooner rather than later. Folks that I’ve been talking with say that Disney’s PR flaks are looking at the end of August / beginning of September as a possible time to drop this particular bombshell. Maybe even attempting to take advantage of the long Labor Day weekend so that this sure-to-be-controversial announcement winds up getting lost in the news cycle.

One thing’s for sure. Disney wants to time its Imagineering redo announcement for that six-to-eight-week period when John Lasseter is officially away on vacation with his family. That way, WDI’s new Principal Creative Advisor avoids being associated with the coming bloodbath. Which means that John can still be seen as one of the good guys. The man who’s going to help turn Walt Disney Imagineering back into the sort of organization that Walt himself used to work with.

Which (in case you haven’t already realized it yet) was a much smaller organization way back when. Walt had fewer than a hundred men & women on WED’s payroll back in the early 1960s.

Of course, this restructuring of Walt Disney Imagineering is supposed to be a key component of Bob Iger’s new “Return to Quality” program. By cutting staff levels at WDI as well as reducing wasteful spending on the design & construction of new rides, shows & attractions for Disney’s theme parks … Iger’s hoping that things will eventually turn out to be a whole lot better for the Walt Disney Company. In the long run, anyway.

You know? Sort of like that 10-year-long, hundreds-of-millions-of-dollar approach that Bob is reportedly taking toward the repair & revitalization of Disney’s California Adventure theme park?

Mind you, I’m imagine that the Imagineers who will soon be losing their jobs will have a rather different take on what Bob Iger’s planning on doing with WDI. But what do you folks think? Given Imagineering’s current corporate culture as well as its continuing problems with project and/or money management, is this sort of radical surgery really necessary in order to save the patient?

Your thoughts?

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