You’ve seen the pictures and video all over social media. Every time a Disney animatronic breaks, we know about it. TPU reader Alison writes “Hey Josh, what happened to Disney’s maintenance for their animatronics? They used to be the leaders in the industry. Now they seem to be a joke. Is this because of careless management?”
Great question, Alison! As with any question, the answer is kind of complicated. Should management be held accountable? Of course. To say that they don’t care isn’t entirely accurate either. Should every animatronic, special effect and ride be working at tip top performance at all times considering how much it costs to get into a Disney park? Of course. Then again, even the most expensive cars in the world can have issues despite being given regular periodic maintenance.
Which brings us to issue #1. When it comes to closing an attraction for rehab, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t close it, you’re neglecting issues that just can’t be handled overnight. If you do, dozens of families will storm Guest Relations a day asking for a refund (despite the notice of closures on their website).
Disney is also in a unique position where attractions are open not only 365 days a year, but operating over 10 hours a day (and that’s a short day for pre-pandemic). Sure, you build to last for decades, but just like anything, it will start to wear down. In some ways, you can predict and in some ways, you can’t. You’re just never going to “win” with closing any attraction for even a week a year.
Issue #2 is turnover. Despite popular belief, “Disney” is not one giant brain. From the outside, it may seem like the name “Disney” is like a big living building. And inside that building are all these people who help keep Disney running efficiently. They all somehow magically suck their power from that main brain with knowledge on how to operate and run the company. However, it is far more complicated than that.
Let’s say John from the second scene of Carousel of Progress needs to have his pneumatics replaced. Sure, “Disney” (that giant brain) has documentation of how the John animatronic works and how his pneumatic hoses need to be assembled to replace them.
However, maybe what the maintenance team doesn’t know is that even though they have replaced the pneumatics perfectly, when they reassembled him, his wrist socket needed to be screwed in with just the right finesse. Or perhaps they used the wrong bolt in the wrong spot. Over time that bolt becomes loose and poof! Off goes his hand.
That big “Disney” brain of having the right documentation on how to fix everything can only get you so far. What I call “tribal knowledge” also needs to be passed down from Imagineering to maintenance and those jobs are revolving doors. Maybe the first Imagineer to work on John told the first maintenance person, who then told the next three and then… just forgot to tell the next one and that’s where things can literally start falling apart.
Which brings me to issue #3: hero figures. Disney hasn’t been in the animatronic production business for quite some time. Most animatronics made for Disney parks over the last 15+ years are built by companies like Garner Holt Productions.
As an example, for The Little Mermaid attractions at the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s California Adventure, Garner Holt Productions built every animatronic in the attraction. That is, aside from one: Ursula.
Disney likes to take on the big and complicated animatronics themselves over the last fifteen or so years while giving the majority of the work to outside vendors. Figures like Ursula, Mr. Potato Head and the Shaman in Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom were all built in-house at Walt Disney Imagineering.
These figures are extremely complex. Walt Disney Imagineering for the vast majority of people who work there, this is not a lifelong job for most of them. The reality is they are only there for a particular project and then they are let go. Some are able to continue employment from project to project. This brings us back to that “Disney” building of knowledge.
Those Imagineers who created and built Ursula or Potato Head are most assuredly, even before the pandemic, no longer working for the company. Meaning if Ursula gets a strange twitch and you’ve done everything in the documentation to fix her, you’re on your own to diagnose the issue.
Thus, the show goes on and that twitch becomes larger. Now Disney could have shut down the ride once that twitch was found indefinitely. Then we get back to issue #1. You close the ride, people get mad. If you let it stay open an something goes wrong, you also lose.
Finally, there is something to be said about what you are probably reading this article on right now. Everyone has a smartphone in their pocket that can take pictures and video. Add to that, everyone can then post those videos to social media. The reason it seems that Disney animatronics are breaking more than they used to goes back to perception. It may seem that way simply because literally everyone has a way to document every flaw in a theme park experience and share it with the world. Even ten years ago, the cameras on a smartphone weren’t that good and they weren’t nearly as prevalent as they are today.
I know that may not be the answer you were hoping for Alison. It’s not a simple “here is your villain” and I can reveal the bad guy like an episode of Scooby-Doo. Complicated answers like this and digging around for info is why I love the themed entertainment industry and frankly, it’s why Theme Park University exists.
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