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Imagine there's no heaven



What do the initials WDI stand for?

Walt Disney Imagineering, of course. The talented folks who create all those rides and shows for the Disney theme parks. The proud Imagineers themselves might have joked at one time that it stands for "We Design the Impossible."

But after 18 months of staff cuts, the atmosphere at Imagineering headquarters in Glendale, Calif., isn't as playful as it was. Ask Imagineers what WDI stands for today, and they'd probably answer "Watch Disney Implode."

If you'd been through what the surviving Imagineers had been through -- wave after wave of co-workers walked out of the office by security, their personal belongings hurriedly packed in cardboard boxes -- you'd be grim, too.

And the problem's not limited to California. WDI's Florida team never quite recovered from the company's January 2000 job cut, when nearly 40 senior architects, engineers and designers lost their jobs.

Of course, a significant factor in WDI's prolonged depression is the type of attractions they're currently being asked to ride herd on. When you're capable of turning out masterful, amazing things like "Dragon's Tower" -- the onetime centerpiece attraction for a long-postponed addition to the floundering Animal Kingdom -- but instead are being made to re-theme off-the-shelf amusement park rides such as "Aladdin's Magic Carpets" ... well, you can see why they're demoralized.

Particularly given the new "E"-ticket rides that will debut when Tokyo Disney Seas finally opens this September.

The conflict resulting from the stateside restrictions and the overseas expansion was apparent last month during a Imagineering "Town Hall" staff meeting. This informal session -- chaired by Dan Goodman and Marty Sklar, president and chairman, respectively, of WDI -- was meant to buck-up morale. But the questions only proceeded to poke more holes in a leaky ship.

When a veteran asked how Disney intended to explain to consumers how the corporation could produce wondrous new entertainments in Tokyo and yet opted to foist bargain-basement projects like Disney's California Adventure on its stateside audience, the answer was mind-blowing. In a nutshell, Goodman and Sklar said that only the Japanese were insane enough to spend $2 billion these days on a theme park.

They said the $1.2 billion the Mouse spent at the Disneyland resort had netted a new hotel; a popular retail, dining and entertainment district; and Disney's California Adventure park. This -- at least to Goodman and Sklar -- made for a more prudent investment than the $2 billion the Oriental Land Co., which owns and operates two Japanese Disney parks, was blowing on Disney Seas.

The Imagineer pressed her point, saying that since the response to California Adventure has been tepid and the park won't come close to its attendance goals, the company actually wasted money in Anaheim. But Goodman and Sklar wouldn't hear of it. They continued to argue that -- given the current bond market and worldwide financial situation -- what Disney is doing stateside is the smarter way to go.

Still, word is that the Mouse is doing all it can to avoid seeing California Adventure unfavorably compared to the Tokyo park. It's been alleged that senior Disney officials have asked Oriental Land Co. not to treat any members of the Western press to the usual expenses-paid grand opening event. That way, the Mouse hopes to limit the number of stateside stories expected to rave about the Tokyo experience.

Mind you, Tokyo Disney Seas isn't the only Mouse-built theme park in the Far East that could churn up controversy. The Hong Kong Disneyland supposedly opening on Lantua Island in 2005? Given that Disney is putting $350 million of its own cash into the park, they've decided it's important that the company be fiscally prudent with this project as well. As a result, the usual assortment of five lands you find in a Disney Magic Kingdom has reportedly been reduced by at least one. According to WDI sources, Hong Kong's Frontierland section is no more.

Meantime, the downsizing continues. Numerous Imagineering staffers who spent months in Japan working on the new park were greeted with pink slips as soon as they got home. Their positions were then filled with contract workers.

Is it any wonder that senior Imagineers have begun joking that WDI needs a new corporate symbol? That happy Sorcerer Mickey -- you know, the Mouse garbed in the magician's robe and tall pointy hat from Fantasia -- just doesn't cut it anymore.

Their candidate for a new symbol? Out-sourcerer Mickey, with his pointy hat now made out of the "Want Ads" section of the newspaper.

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