Habit Heroes: The Negative Press of a Sneak Peek

Yesterday I lauded the early sneak peek of Storybook Circus at the Magic Kingdom. The attention to detail not only makes this new attraction very exciting, but also suggests what visitors are in for as the rest of the new Fantasyland debuts at the Magic Kingdom. Many of the fan sites and even those just visiting the parks have written, blogged and twittered about how impressive this attraction is. The end result is that readers are excited and are getting booking their vacations in anticipation of the the other upcoming attractions that will be opening over the next year or so.

Today we look at Habit Heroes which also held a Sneak Peek in Innoventions at Epcot. That exhibit is now closed, and truth is it likely won’t be re-opening soon. My sources say that a proposal for how to change the exhibit has yet to be presented and won’t be until some time next week. In short, no confirmed solution has even been approved.

The outside queue for Habit Heroes: This comic isn't so comical

What has been approved is who will approve the changes. When the attraction initially opened, people all the way from the VP of Epcot to the head of Imagineering at Walt Disney World were involved and went through the approval process. It is staggering that no one said “stop” during that approval process. My guess is that everyone nodded in approval to the initial concept thinking that someone as “official” as Blue Cross/Blue Shield would know what kind of message to send. But then probably by the time everyone saw the final attraction, it was simply too late to do anything.

All that has changed, however. Now that approval chain requires going through the Chief Creative Executive of Imagineering, Bruce Vaughn as well as Tom Staggs, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. In short, the buck stops at the top of Walt Disney Attractions for final approval. That’s not to say they didn’t know that the attraction was going in. But with all of the projects going on in the company, they were probably given only a 5,000 foot view of what was going on, and never really immersed themselves into what it was all about.

So now it will take longer to get approval. Not just because those individuals take longer to approve something. It’s because everyone up the ladder will want a dog and pony show before it gets to that level. In short, don’t expect this thing to re-open too soon. Furthermore, I would be surprised if the kinds of changes were simply an edit to video here, or even a quick re-recording there. The changes they will need to make are bigger than that–and yes, pun or no pun–I am speaking of Lead Bottom.

Providing a sneak peek or piloting a ride or attraction at a Disney theme park is nothing new. This has been a time-honored event that allowed operations to perfect many of the details not so visibly seen until you start having large numbers go through a particular attraction. Some of that happens first with Disney Cast Members and with their families. I remember taking my young children at the time and trying out Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, followed by sodas and ice cream. It was all wonderful. I did that with DisneyQuest, Kali River Rapids and even Fantasmic at what was then Disney-MGM Studios.

Once those trials are in place, usually guests are invited to visit. This may stop and start, depending on how reliable the new ride/attraction systems are. And all of this usually precedes the invited press, special pass holder previews, or the actual grand opening itself. At this stage you are tweaking an attraction, not changing it. It is more about operational flow through and/or reliability.

That’s not to say changes aren’t made. Kilimanjaro Safaris was bringing a lot of guests into the park before they removed the dead mother elephant, big red, from the trail because it was too offensive. But even moving an elephant out of the way is easy compared to the fundamental challenges that exist here in Innoventions.

With Habit Heroes. It had gone 80/20, which means that the attraction was mostly completed, with the exception in this case of not having the post show monitors displaying the online material. I’m not sure whether Cast Members were invited beforehand, but either way, these events are about the operational running of the exhibit, not about changing it.

So when Disney spokeswoman Kathleen Prihoda gave out the official: “That’s why we have a soft opening. So we can open it up to others and listen. We’ve heard the feedback,” don’t necessarily believe it.

Yes…Disney has heard the feedback. And that’s why they are changing it. But it has nothing to do with a soft opening. You don’t get this far into an exhibit and spend the money you do, to then “open it up to others and listen.”

That said, the feedback is huge (again, excuse the pun). Over 300 articles now appear on line regarding the controversy. Here’s one heated response from the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance:

“It appears that Disney now believes that using the tool of shame, favored so much by today’s healthcare corporations, is the best way to communicate with children…Disney is partnering with Blue Cross/Blue Shield, has taken the side of the bullies.”

Here’s what a professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa had to say: “It’s so dumbfounding it’s unreal…I just can’t believe somebody out there thought it was a good idea to pick up where the school bullies left off and shame kids on their vacation.”

What’s absurd is that these “experts” are being quoted and yet none of them have seen the attraction themselves. Many of them may have never even visited Epcot. But that doesn’t really matter too much in today’s world. After all, that’s what YouTube is for. Armchair Imagineering is now just that–from an armchair. You can watch this show pretty much on the web and cast your own solution without leaving Ottawa.

And that’s what makes this particular event so interesting. The power of social media in all its forms can make or break an attraction before its opening day. It can also do a lot to undo a movie. Evidence of that is Disney’s own John Carter. At the core of the controversy around its steep losses, people are wondering how it got so much bad press before the film’s release. Again, the ability to market the movie successfully–especially through social media–seems to be a major factor in this.

My sources say that another major problem occurred with Habit Heroes. Disney Imagineers thought Blue Cross Blue Shield should know what to say. Blue Cross Blue Shield thought Disney Imagineering should know how to say it. In truth it, neither seemed to demonstrate the capacity to really question as a team the appropriateness of the material. It’s as if Disney was thinking, “This is a reputable health care organization–and they’re  writing the check–they should know what to say.” Meanwhile you wonder if Blue Cross/Blue Shield wasn’t thinking “If it’s done by Disney, everyone will love it no matter what we want to communicate.” It’s almost a form of GroupThink where a group of individuals who think they are infallible overrides a realistic appraisal of what they are really doing.

In truth, with any venture like this, teams should nominate someone to play the role of critic–an individual who is looking at this thing from all the negative angles. This should never be someone who is always critical–those individual’s opinions are seldom heard after a while and are shunned. Leaders should select individuals and ask them to play a the role of being a critic. Leaders should also select others to play the role of  “cheerleader,” “idea” person or “resource” person as well. That way they benefit from all points of view and contribution.

One more problem–while it’s good that Disney is trying to focus on good health–it really needs to model the message before teaching it to others. Take for instance this new T-shirt being sold in Frontierland:

Warm, Crispy, Crunchy Churros

The first problem is that Disney is so mired in selling foods that are in truth unhealthy, that it’s now peddling Churro T-Shirts. The second problem is that it has been doing this kind of thing for so long. The graphic to some may be familiar because the image is from an old Casa de Fritos poster at Disneyland. Only back then the poster was advocating Taco in a “Tacup” and Frito Chili Pie. Can you see the problem? Disney has a long way to go to improving its own “habits” before correcting others.

Now of course, in returning to Innoventions what really has happened to lead to this point is somewhat in conjecture. And that conjecturing is no different than wondering if Disney is trying to bully kids. But I think we can give Disney and even Blue Cross/Blue Shield a little bit more credit than simply being labeled as bullies. I am supposing that what really happened is similar to what happens in so many organizations. We get busy. We assume. We suppose the other knows what they are doing. We don’t follow time-proven processes that allow ourselves to carefully think through out work. And then we end up with something far different than what we should have done in the first place. To that extent, here are the lessons for all of us:

1. In today’s era of rapid communication, be certain you are ready to show something before you show it. Because once you show it in this day and age anyone can communicate via social media in a heartbeat (Storybook Circus is an example of doing that right)

2. Honor your development processes. Piloting programs are for tweaking–not deciding on what your program is going to be.

3. Follow your gut instinct (sorry for the pun again) when you see that something doesn’t seem right. Never assume someone else is the “expert”.

4. No team is complete without someone playing the role of critic–asking questions about whether what is going on is correct.

5. Learn to model something before you teach it to others.

As to how to fix Habit Heroes? I already addressed it here, and highly recommend reading it, because it really centers on what are the super heroes that create good habits. Meanwhile, you’ll have to wait for the next version of Habit Heroes to appear at Epcot. The good news as you will see in my article about fixing it is that it is fixable. But it will cost a lot of money. And a lot of time. But even that is cheap compared to losing good will.