"I'll admit it, I'm a Disney freak," says Robert Rexach, as he munches on his breakfast at Crystal Palace restaurant in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. The room is buzzing with the day's first round of groggy, early-morning tourists. Half a dozen cast members squeeze between tightly packed tables, greeting the guests and posing for pictures.
"When I was 4 years old, my father snuck me to Disney World for the first time when I was living in Puerto Rico," Rexach says. "My parents were divorced at the time, and my dad ended up losing custody of me when my family found out we came to Orlando for the weekend. He wasn't supposed to take me out of the city." He pauses. "I loved my dad. He died of cancer a while back."
Before Rexach can finish chewing, a Disney cast member dressed like Winnie the Pooh approaches the table. Without saying a word, Pooh hugs him.
"Hey Pooh!" says Rexach, excitedly holding up his palm. "Can you give me a high five?"
Pooh obliges, gently tapping Rexach's hand. The fabric of the bear's yellow palm is brown and dirty at the center. As Pooh moves to greet the next table, Rexach leans forward and whispers:
"Did you see his costume, how worn it is?" His eyes dart around the room as he observes the other cast members in costume. "These costumes look like shit."
After breakfast, Rexach makes his way toward Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom. Along the way, he picks up a dropped brochure and a straw wrapper from the ground. "This is another thing that bothers me about the Disney parks these days," he says with a voice full of frustration. "There's trash everywhere by the end of the day. They've hired enough people to do the job, why can't they see it?"
Aside from a few pieces of paper and a plastic bottle or two, the rest of the walk is relatively spotless, at least spotless enough for most people. But Rexach thinks if Walt Disney were still alive, he'd be furious.
"Heads would roll."
He isn't alone in his discontent. In late December of 2004, Rexach and six other Disney employees launched a website dedicated to "preserving the magic of Walt Disney World." Calling themselves the D-troops, the men created www.d-troops.com, a site that has received more than 150,000 hits in three months from people in 38 countries.
The website encourages visitors to read about the state of affairs at Disney, then contact Disney management. General business phone numbers and e-mail addresses of Disney executives and departments are listed on the site.
Rexach, who wouldn't say what he does for a living, has visited the parks weekly for years. The site is a reaction to what he says is a steady decline in attention to detail. It's the little things that get to him, like paint chipping off rides and structures, shows being shut down and replaced with meet-and-greet stations and construction materials left visible in the parks. He's also peeved by what he defines as a decline in the quality of the Disney experience, as evidenced by animators being fired and replaced with tracers, untrained cast members, and perhaps most annoying, trash. To bolster their case, Rexach and the other troops take pictures of what irks them and post them on their website.
D-Troops have one thing in common: They're shrouded in secrecy. Of seven members, only Rexach (who goes by the name "MKT" on the site) agreed to be identified for this story. The other members "General Grizz," "Captain Buzzy," "Sir Nim," "Gregory," "Scott" and "Mitch" either work for Disney or have strong ties to the company, and fear losing their jobs.
These self-proclaimed Disney freaks have been visiting the parks for decades, and consider themselves experts. In the last decade, they claim, management has sacrificed showmanship and attention to detail in order to save money. It's a view shared by several known groups, including www.savedisney.com (a site run by Walt's nephew, Roy Disney), and www.wdwmagic.com.
The difference is that members of the Troops have all worked for Disney at one time or another, and say they offer an insider's testimony.
"Walt Disney World no longer seems to take much pride in its master visionary, Walt Disney," writes Captain Buzzy on the website. "Cast members have been discouraged to quote Walt or to mention his philosophies to guests, in logical fear that guests will realize how far off-track the Resort has come."
Buzzy adds, "Walt's attention to every minor detail and concern for round-the-clock spotlessness have not become priorities of the current WDW management, causing (so to speak) a decline in that classic Disney Magic."
(Jacquee Polak, a spokesperson for Walt Disney World, would not comment on any of the D-Troops' claims. "There's a lot written about us," Polak writes in response to an e-mailed request for comment, "and while we don't always agree with what is said, we appreciate the passion that so many fans have about our company.")
The Internet is the only safe place for the Troops to meet; most have never met face-to-face, or even talked on the phone. They communicate through an instant messenger service, which is also the only way they answer questions from a reporter.
"It's sad when the employees of a company like Disney are intimidated to the point where they can't freely communicate," writes the General. "It just goes to show the complete reversal of the relationship between management and employees since Walt Disney formed the company."
"I don't think I have impossibly high standards," says Rexach as he weaves toward Tomorrowland, stopping to note chipped paint on top of a trash can. "In the mid-'90s, the park never had these problems. There were tons of shows, and huge buildings weren't being used for storage. Everything had its place. The guests are paying good money to come here."
A former cast member, Rexach began working at Disney because he was enamored of Walt's vision of good clean fun. He worked as Tigger, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. But after nearly five years, Rexach was fired when some teenagers attacked him in costume.
"They pushed me really hard and I fell down, so to defend myself, I pushed them off of me," he says. "Next thing I know, I'm being fired because the guy filed a formal complaint. Disney always sides with the guests."
But getting fired didn't stop him from visiting the parks on a weekly basis.
"Our website isn't just a group of disgruntled employees. They fired me, yet I spend $500 on an annual pass. Do disgruntled ex-employees visit the parks on a weekly basis? No."
TELL US A STORY
The D-Troops have four major areas of concern: weakened storytelling, cloned attractions, sloppiness (or "bad show") and thrill rides that don't fit in with the Disney theme.
According to the Troops, original storytelling is the backbone of a good Disney experience. "Fewer and fewer new attractions embrace the concept of story, the aspect that draws the guest into a timeless tale with which he or she can connect," writes Captain Buzzy on the web.
Stitch's Great Escape is an example, they say, of weak storytelling and lack of originality. The ride replaced the old Extraterrorestrial Alien Encounter attraction. Instead of creating an entirely new ride for children, Disney management slapped a kid-friendly movie character on an adult ride and topped it with a simplistic plot.
"They turned a scary ride into a kids' attraction, but kept the dark, scary themes of the old ride," says Rexach. "It has completely backfired on them because it's getting tons of complaints now."
The General, who says he works as a consultant for Disney, adds, "Stitch's Great Escape has had more complaints in its first few months than Alien Encounter ever had in its nine-year tenure."
Another example of a "low-budget fix," says the General: the Diamond Horseshoe. A decade ago, the saloon-styled show featured well-paid actors and singers. Today it's a meet-and-greet for Toy Story cast members.
"That is how management saves money," says Rexach. "They close down shows or attractions that would require them to pay talent, and replace them with regular cast members who just pose and smile for a picture."
The group is disappointed that Main Street, U.S.A. is nothing but gift shops. Art galleries that used to feature original Disney artwork have been shut down and used for package pickup. The Main Street Cinema, which once featured original cartoons, was shut down and turned into a curio shop.
Troopers also kvetch about changing out old characters for new ones. Original characters such as the Timekeeper and 9-Eye, from the old Timekeeper attraction, and Skippy, from Alien Encounter, have been replaced with animated characters like Buzz Lightyear, they complain.
"The parks are still cashing in on the movie characters from the Disney Decade `the '90s` and the investment in new, enchanting theme park personalities is declining," writes Captain Buzzy on the website.
"Cloned" attractions are another problem, say the Troops. Soarin', a new ride that opened for previews March 17 at Epcot, was copied from a popular attraction in California's Disneyland. The Troops think it's a bad knockoff that doesn't fit in the Orlando theme parks.
"The ride is about California. How does that fit in here?" asks Rexach.
The group labels the ride a "quick fix up" that "loosens the inspiring, educational, and aesthetic threads that hold together a park like Epcot."
With Disney CEO Michael Eisner stepping down, and Robert Iger taking over, Troopers have hope that larger changes are in the wind.
"With the new CEO being selected, we can only hope that he leads the company in a new direction," says the General, who sees new management as a half-victory. "We have outlined the problems that we see within the company and seek to see change in policy, not necessarily personnel." They have not yet forwarded their laundry list to Disney management.
Despite the gripes, D-Troopers do not want to be lumped in with Disney-haters. "We're definitely pro-Disney," says the General.
"It's kind of like a parent who's angry with his child for not doing the right thing," adds Rexach. "A parent loves his child, but also wants them to succeed. In this case, we're the parents, Disney is the child."