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 The Mountain Geek

The happiest place on earth…all my life I wondered what it might be like to work there. As a child, it was a place not of this earth; so different, so unique, so magical. I was green with envy of those who worked there. Then I worked there.

For as much as Disneyland changed when I bought an annual pass my senior year of high school, it changed ten times that much after I started working there. The magic was gone; the butterflies that once whirled in my stomach when my parents pulled up in the parking lot were now dead; the sound of the music from "It's a Small World" no longer told me I was in Disneyland, it was screaming, "Get the hell out!"

This isn't to say the theme park still isn't one of my favorite places to go for fun; now that I no longer work there, it is. But unfortunately, I've been tainted because of working there for several years. That having been said, I look back fondly on every (almost every) day I worked. The last performance (well, we'll just see about that) of the electrical parade, the nightmare of Light Tragic, the rise and fall of the Rocket Rods, grad nites, holidays, hot days, rainy days; my list of memories is endless.

But after a few months, it was no longer "The happiest place on earth;" it was a job. As a custodial cast member, I was no longer in turn of the century America on Main Street-I was too concerned about the popcorn spill that dozens of guests were stomping over, creating an even bigger mess with each passing second. Disneyland was once an ivory tower in my mind, now it was wrought with flaws: cutbacks, dead light bulbs on Main Street, trash cans with pealing paint, cotton candy, slashed ride operating times, old attractions replaced by cheap temporary fixes; the list is endless. The park was becoming less and less a magical destination, and more and more a cash-making machine. As one cast member told me: "Disney doesn't make sense (cents), it makes dollars."

But maybe I'm being naïve. Maybe for The Walt Disney Company to survive in this cutthroat business world, where mega-mergers in the entertainment industry are more and more commonplace, it had to change. And perhaps Michael Eisner was the second coming of Christ back in 1984. But in my opinion, from what I saw at the park during my time there, the four keys-Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency-had became five: Money, Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency. But some (myself included) would actually argue money interferes with courtesy when you have hundreds of vendors practically crushing poor non-English speaking guests as they push their heavy carts up and down hills throughout the park. Money interferes with show when imagineering is shoved aside when crews construct static inexpensive light posts for the parade route instead of retractable ones like those used for Fantasmic. Money interferes with efficiency when you have eight cast members operating Splash Mountain instead of twelve, meaning slower loading and longer lines. And not to make light of a deadly tragedy, but money interferes with safety: December 24th, 1998.

When I first hired in, ODV-or Outdoor Vending-sold practically nothing. The department was a tiny room stashed behind America Sings (ah, those were the days). Its cast members sold popcorn, drinks in carts, glow rings, ice cream and churros. But within a few years, it was incredible some of the things I saw vending cast members selling: lightswords (overpriced flashlights with extending plastic pieces), cotton candy (Walt's rolling over in his grave I bet), even packs of confetti from the Light Magic parade. Their small nest behind Tomorrowland was replaced with a warehouse big enough to house a mid-size aircraft behind Splash Mountain. More disturbing was the abundance of ODV carts all over the park. Once beautiful planters were replaced with cubby-holes designed to house vending carts. Then from stationary carts, to the parade routes, to outside the main gate, to Tom Sawyer's Island-everywhere you went there were venders, and everywhere those ODV carts went, messes followed. And most of the time they stayed.

Now I bet there's some ODV cast member out there saying, "Oh gee, some former custodial cast member really has an inferiority complex; either that, or he really didn't know how to do a damn thing with a pan and broom." Maybe. Or maybe not. I just remember when I first hired in, one of my trainers told me one of the reasons guests kept coming back to the park was because of its cleanliness. And to be quite honest, by the time I left, the park looked no where as clean as it did when I hired in.

And it's not because us lowly janitors didn't try. We were simply outnumbered. When I first hired in, our workforce was huge. In certain areas of the park, we would have four people sweeping different zones, two people sweeping out attraction queues, one person covering cast member breaks, three people emptying trash cans, and other extras to help cover special assignments, such as a parade cleanup. When I left, we had less than half that, leaving many cast members doubling up on assignments. And as I said before, the number of vendors exploded-leaving the park looking pretty shabby. Why was our department (among others) cut back? I'll take a wild guess: money.

The rumor was theme park operations (security, attractions, custodial, first aid, etc.) didn't make money for the company. Which, to some extent is true. But take away theme park security, have all the rides automated so as not to require friendly operators, hire no custodial or maintenance staff, and let's see how many years it takes for the park to become an absolute joke. Well, it's no joke: ladies and gentlemen, it's happening.

As I mentioned, attractions aren't staffed the way they used to be. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad rarely runs four trains anymore, and the Matterhorn rarely runs 10 sleds per track. This means longer lines, but who cares: longer lines discourage guests from getting in line, leading them to the shops, restaurants, etc. Some attractions (the Enchanted Tiki Room, for example) are rarely open from park open to close, like they used to. Security cast members are also becoming hopelessly outnumbered by teenage annual passholding twits, who's parents charge Disneyland with the duty of babysitting their children (who, with knives and marijuana joints, do their best to leave a lasting impression with guests of what they think the Disneyland "show" is all about).

But I digress. Back to ODV. Many of its cast members will argue "TGS," or Total Guest Satisfaction. They'll say, "The guests want ice cream carts on every corner. The guests want McDonald's French Fries for $5. The guests want cotton candy, so let's give it to them."

Well, news flash folks…the public wanted a train station at ground level back in 1955. But Walt gave them an elevated train station to maintain the "show." Walt wanted the outside world to stay out. And Walt never, never wanted cotton candy in his theme park. So maybe guests shouldn't always get what they want…and maybe-without them even knowing it-they'll enjoy their visit to the Magic Kingdom more because of it.

But times have changed. Disneyland is still a terrific theme park, but it's just starting to remind me more and more of the Los Angeles County Fair. The recent opening of Disney's California Adventure solidifies my theory. I hope I'm proven wrong when I think it was a bad move for Paul Pressler to have turned Disneyland Park into an outdoor mall, made up of a myriad of Disney Stores, a few deteriorating rides and a fireworks show (sometimes). But I fear more and more Disney is not breaking new ground with its theme parks, its simply exploiting the Disney name to make a few bucks.

And I fear Disney won't be able to get away with it forever.


Send comments or questions to moutain_geek@disneygeek.com

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