As Disneyland Paris turns 25, and as a part of the park's opening design team, I thought it appropriate to relate a brief "war story" straight from the front lines. This is a tale of the schedule being so daunting, and the project "locomotive" moving so fast, that "laying down on the tracks" at times seemed like the only way to make things right.
I was on that bullet train and the park was moving like the French TGV toward April 1st, 1992 and nothing was going to stop it. My role was leading the design for the "Main Street USA" section, a "turn of the century" small town experience that recalled Walt Disney's own boyhood. Early on, we felt this concept would not translate well with our European audience, so we turned the clock forward a bit and styled the area more toward the 1920's "jazz age" period, something more familiar and exciting. After a year of design, I go on vacation and return to management having thrown the whole thing out, wanting to "stick to the formula," reverting to what exists in the Magic Kingdom in Florida. So... we were sent back to square one, transported literally back to the 1890's (devastating to say the least.)
Siri reminder: NEVER go on vacation.
In doing so, we were now 12 months behind the other themed "lands" in the park, having to still meet the locked deadlines, working incredible hours for literally years. The only bright spot was to hear Michael Eisner tell me just after we redesigned everything that we were right and that we should have done the 1920's after all.
Desperate times deserve desperate measures.
The time we had allocated to work out the fine details of the intricate moldings, casework, victorian filigree and sculpture was spent reworking the plans a second time, so project management promised the detail would be there, but pushed those time consuming efforts to later phases. As the designer/producer, you begin to sound the alarm upward. The growing mountain of detail that was being deferred, then re-deferred, fell upon sympathetically deaf ears as the schedule roared. You can't slip deadlines either as the other areas were on time, so we made tradeoffs where we could by choosing intricate victorian wall coverings in place of custom millwork, or buying antique lighting and furniture to limit custom design hours. The interiors were making great strides, but the exterior facades were another story. I began to see final drawings that had the “bread" but minus the “ginger,” and on a grand scale. Details were being butchered as they got interpreted in the process! The early use of CAD, computer aided design could not yet mimic classical shapes, so your hand drawn Italianate loggia came out looking like Lego. We brought in set designers from Fox and Warner Bros. to help in redrawing those classical details full-size. We were catching up, but not fast enough. As hard as we tried, we could not catch it all. I felt like Lucille Ball working at the relentless candy conveyor belt, but with less humor. Finally, the cabinet makers were producing shop drawings without developed details at all! In a “triage" effort, we shuttled to each cabinet shop across the English countryside armed with a box of red Sharpie pens, drawing the intended moldings from memory over the crude profiles on the prints at the last possible moment, and made progress, but it was too little too late. Many flawed exterior facades had already been shipped!
The final word.
As we neared opening, the late Frank Wells, the President of Disney paid the construction site a visit. In a one-on-one meeting, he asked me how I thought it was going. This was my last chance to raise the issue, but you can imagine the fallout of going directly to the top. At this point, it was about the product, well worth any political risk. I explained how we had caught up to the rest of the project after being set back a year, but that haste took a toll on the quality in a few key areas. Frank's brow furrowed. Polaroids were delicately drawn from my pocket, placing each still of what we had elaborately done in Florida beside a vanilla example of the same area destined for Paris. The comparison was intentionally stark. "We could fix this if we fund it and literally act today." Awkward silence. Wells was shocked, yet his expression changed and thoughtfully agreed, then passionately approved the project management to fly in several architects from Disney Imagineering armed with an enhancement budget to work directly with me. This time my red Sharpie could “bleed” life back into the facades and we had a crew to pull it off! When you can’t stop a speeding train, you drive alongside and throw in the coal.
The how of now.
Time being so short, we had to be strategic with what could be done and to the greatest effect. We quickly added more ground level detail (where the guest experiences it) and moldings to each facade right on the primed surfaces! Mickey Steinberg, the project director was funded by Wells to create an onsite effort and pulled out all the stops. A carpenters shop was set up in a merchandise warehouse within walking distance to make the rich cornices and window casings as the “icing” was at last being added atop the “cake" at breakneck speed. By night, we were sculpting art nouveau ornaments in clay to cast, while hand painted detail was applied to the casework via a crew of art students flown in from Ireland. The results were spectacular!
Disney and Co. celebrated the hand-painted Art of the Fairground and Carousel.
The exterior paint crews returned to follow the enhancements to tie-in each new area as it was installed, as we were that close to opening. This cost several million dollars to pull off, and was truly a case where corporate actually saved the day and funded the additional detail that made what we call the "Disney difference." Guests sense the passion and seamlessness, although they can't describe why or point to a particular detail. You just feel it. The same could be said about about a great meal that overwhelms the senses. I never felt the passion it took to get things right was wasted, and I'd like to believe that the richness of the park overall from others that felt the same way has sustained it despite the fact that it has never had a single "E Ticket" scale attraction added in those 25 years. We were one obsessed little family and when I see pictures of those details today, I see the faces of the who delivered on them. To that end, we still owe the beauty of the parks to the vision of those that understand why the guests keep coming back and will do whatever it takes to keep them returning.
I still use a red Sharpie, but thankfully less often.
Thanks to all of you that worked so hard on Main Street and gave 200% to save the day.