Pandora Panic, Fantasyland Fear, & Anxiety American Adventure Style

Pandora Panic, Fantasyland Fear, & Anxiety American Adventure Style

No, this is not sensationalized podcasting! Rather, sharing three little-known tales from Disney’s legacy. In this Disney at Work podcast, we share Imagineering experiences that can be applied to your own organization. Here we talk about the challenges of building three very unique projects during completely different decades. You’ll find lessons of courage and determination. It’s about working and supporting others in creating projects and meeting deadlines.

You can find our podcast here on PodbeaniTunesSpotifyMyTuner, and ListenNotes. The highlights are listed below. For color commentary, be sure to listen (and subscribe) to our podcast.

Pandora Panic

When Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde (Adventurer’s Club, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Aulani) was tasked to actually build that world physically in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, he had a tall order ahead of him. So tall, that as floating islands they would have to appear as they were hanging in mid-air, without any appearance of having structural support. And if that were not enough, the mountains would need to have water flowing down from them 24  hours a day. And at night it would all have to glow as though it were one giant bioluminescent forest. On Pandora’s opening day, Bob Iger noted: “At Disney we have a ‘how did they do that’ standard…I can’t think of a better example of that than what we’re standing in front of right now.” Cameron responded: “I never thought I’d see the day when the Pandora I imagined could be made physically real.”

The floating islands of Pandora. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

After years of designing and building, that dream is finally a reality. But it didn’t come without gaining the confidence to build on the dream over time. Confidence that came from long hard work on previous projects. On an episode of the Season Pass podcast, Joe Rohde spoke about the daunting challenge of imagineering Disney’s Animal Kingdom originally: “There was a moment after we had received capital authorization to build the park, and I had finally relocated to Florida, and I’m walking around on this giant site–which is already cleared—they were starting to build…I was terrified—just terrified. Terrified. Terrified. Because I’m thinking, ‘What the heck! What do I know? What do I know? I don’t know. I thought it was a good idea. I don’t know. I don’t know!

Aerial view of Disney Animal Kingdom Construction. Note the temporary land bridge to Discovery Island during construction. Photo by Steve Smith.

“And you don’t know for a long time and then finally, like a year and a half later, when you finally seeing it coming up, then I could go, ‘Okay, this is pretty cool. I think it’s going to be cool. I think it’s going to be real cool.’ But for the longest time, it’s just like…because… you get whipped up in the enthusiasm for your project. You got to sell it. You got to do it. You got to love your project. But then once you’re building it, and it’s such a huge site…No one has ever done it before and it’s totally different, and you think, ‘What the heck!’ So it was really scary for yeah…six months for sure…For sure. I mean really stomach-achy. And like not sleeping. Did I make a horrible mistake? But I don’t think so. I really think it’s a lovely place and people seem to really love it…

Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

“…I think if you are going to do something that has never been done before, then you don’t get to know whether it’s going to work or not. That’s part of what you have to live with. If it hadn’t been done before, then don’t lie about it. You don’t know if it’s going to work. You’re going to try it. You’re going to do your best. Use your best thinking. And your best behavior. And your best design. But you don’t know. It’s the future, right? You don’t know. But you have to have the courage to at least try it, or else we’d all be sitting on a tree branch in Africa!”

Entrance into Africa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

This same panic came when Joe undertook building the world Pandora. He noted:

“The terrifying aspect for this thing early on was the fantastic nature of this property.

I was writing these memos, ‘you guys are crazy! This is crazy! How are you going to do this? How are you going to make gigantic mountains like they’re floating? How are you going to have principle characters that are 12 feet tall? How are you going to have all these organic, gigantic plants that glow? How are you even going to do any of this stuff. It’s a fantastic property, but you are going to have to build it.

James Cameron, former Walt Disney Parks & Resorts Chairman Tom Staggs and Imagineer Joe Rohde View a Model of the AVATAR-themed land coming to Disney’s Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort.

John and Lightstorm and James Cameron are also engineers. They understand how physical things get built. So when we would approach these challenges, we both were coming at it from the sense there’s a story thing we need to accomplish. There’s an illusion we need to accomplish. And there’s a physical set of things that have to get done to accomplish that.”

anticipating pandora the world of avatar
Pandora represents a time and generation of peace after the account of the film Avatar. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

That kind of synergy of working together is what creates great experiences for guests at Disney. But it’s not always easy.

American Adventure Anxiety

Have you ever experienced the pressure that builds as a project is coming under completion? That’s called Pixie Dust Panic by Imagineers at Disney. If you get a chance, buy a copy of Building a Better Mouse by Steve Alcorn & David Green. It’s the story of electronic Imagineers who designed Epcot. This is a riveting tale about how these folks worked to get the attractions up and running for the opening of Epcot. I promise you, after you read this book, you will never look at The American Adventure in quite the same way. In my role at the Disney Institute, I brought many executives from other businesses behind the scenes to see how this mammoth show continues to cycle hour after hour, day in, day out. It is an amazing site. But this is the story of how they managed to get that to even happen in the first place. It’s a great read and I highly recommend it.

In the book they refer to Pixie Dust Panic. This is when people are being stretched to work 20 hour days with no time off. This is when you start to see the worst in people. This is when personalities change and tempers flare while the clock counts down. People walk out, and others get fired on the spot. But despite it, the work gets completed. Here’s just one way Pixie Dust Panic manifests itself:

“In the course of troubleshooting several things in the pit today I get the feeling that everybody’s hanging over our shoulders like the vultures. They want to know what’s going on, but every time we pass along a little bit of information they latch onto it and run around telling everybody, even if they don’t understand it. If they would just leave us alone so we could do some serious troubleshooting, we could come up with some solutions. They’re well intentioned, but counter productive. We probably did a grand total of thirty minutes of troubleshooting spread out over an entire day of trying to explain to people what we were doing.”

Again, that’s just a taste of what this team endured. But you get the picture. In fact, you’ve probably experienced it. What do you do when people get into Pixie Dust Panic? Better yet, how do you keep people from getting there in the first place? And next time you’re at Epcot, look a little differently at what it took to create a show like the American Adventure. You’ll start to see that behind every Golden Dream is one nightmare of a deadline.

Fantasyland Fears

Getting attractions ready for the opening of Walt Disney World was also a challenge many. Like the queen peering down at Snow White from her castle tower, it’s hard to whistle while you work when managers are staring down at you, looking at your every move. And there was one particular group who very much felt that.

The queen looking down at guests in Fantasyland at Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Such was the case for Arrow Development, a third party contractor Disney hired to help create some of the first attraction vehicles built for the Magic Kingdom. Ships flying over Neverland, Skyway buckets, flying Dumbos, Doom Buggies, spinning Teacups, and cars veering through “nowhere in particular” were just a small part of what Arrow created for the Magic Kingdom. Included in all this were the original mine carts slated for Snow White’s Adventures.

Arrow was responsible for the original version of these vehicles, which have since been enlarged in capacity. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

But as work progressed on building all of these rides and attractions, corporate started sending people out of California to look over everything and make sure it was going smoothly. For Arrow, these people didn’t facilitate their success. They simply stood in the way of getting the job done by asking questions around schedules and budgets. It came to a point that it was difficult for anyone to do his or her work with a big “Heigh Ho.”

And it wasn’t like Arrow was some new kid on the block. Arrow had worked personally with Walt Disney to create many of the rides and attractions that opened at Disneyland. Take the monorail. Arrow had even pioneered the first bobsleds ever to roll down the first steel roller coaster that had ever been built.

Latter-day versions of the bobsled vehicles for the Matterhorn at Disneyland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Fortunately, there was one person who would be able to get Arrow the help they needed. That man was Joe Fowler, who after 35 years as an admiral for the U.S. Navy, turned his efforts to building Disneyland. He was a favorite of Walt’s, largely because of his “can do” attitude. Joe and Arrow had worked together for many years. And now Joe was on site and over much of the massive construction project.

Joe trusted Arrow to get the job done. So when people from Burbank and Anaheim came over and started giving Arrow trouble, they would just call Joe and say, “Can you get these guys off our back?” and five minutes later they were gone. Fowler would send those middle men to some other end of the park or property, because he knew that his best chance for getting all of the attractions opened by October 1, 1971 was to let Arrow have the freedom and space they needed to get the job accomplished.

This kind of problem occurs all of the time, not just on construction sites, but throughout every variety of business setting. I imagine it happens in a business like yours.

Souvenirs for You & Your Organization

Consider the following opportunities as they relate to you?

  • What is the ideal synergy or support you need in order to get the job done?
  • How are we avoiding the impression of looking over someone’s shoulder?
  • How can we better at building trusting, collaborative relationships with others?
  • How can we make it easier for others to do business with us?
  • How will giving people greater space and freedom to do their job provide assurance that the job will get done?
  • How do we balance freedom and accountability?

More Magic–Disney Leadership Style

There’s more insights like this, not just from one leader, but from nearly 100 leaders that have defined the Walt Disney Company over the years. It’s my book, Disney, Leadership and You. From Walt Disney, to imagineers, to animators and performers, the company’s success has been made real by the labor and leadership of not just a CEO, but of so many. Learn those lessons of leadership when you read.

Disney, Leadership and You
Disney, Leadership and You, written by J. Jeff Kober.

J. Jeff Kober