From the Mouth of the Mouse

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The folks who know the most about Disney aren't always the Imagineers but rather the 'regular' people who manage the lines, serve the food, clean up the trash. Jeff Heimbuch has interviewed dozens of them. Their fascinating stories present Disney from new perspectives: you'll learn what it's like to work for the Mouse on the front-lines. And, of course, you'll hear from the Imagineers, too. So buckle up! What comes From the Mouth of the Mouse may surprise you...

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FROM: From the Mouth of the Mouse Published Wednesdays

Interview: Steve Alcorn, Disney Imagineer

Steve Alcorn was one of the legion of Epcot Imagineers laboring ceaselessly to make sure the park would purr when the ropes dropped for the first time. They nearly didn't make it! Steve talks with Jeff Heimbuch about those heady but harrowing days.

While strolling through the World Showcase at Epcot, one has to marvel at each country's pavilion. Not only is each significant from a cultural standpoint, but each pavilion is its own technological wonder.

It's easy to take the World Showcase for granted - it has no thrill rides, no must-do shows - but that doesn't mean its construction was any less epic than the rest of Epcot.

Just ask Steve Alcorn, one of the many, many Imagineers who worked day and (literally!) night to make sure Epcot opened on time. Steve's project was the American Adventure, the centerpiece of the World Showcase, which upon its debut featured cutting-edge techniques that remain impressive today.

Along with fellow Imagineer David Green, Steve wrote Building a Better Mouse, a book that details the many years of work that went into the American Adventure. It's probably the most in-depth book about the origins of any attraction at any theme park in the world. Steve and David present in simple terms the complex issues they faced and recount numerous stories that any Disney fan is sure to appreciate.

After reading the book, you will never look at the American Adventure the same way again, and you'll have a brand new understanding of just what goes into making an attraction work.

Steve took a break from building other theme parks to chat with me...

Why did you and David write your book? Was it a story that you felt needed telling?

STEVE: While working on Epcot, David Green and I were inspired by Tracy Kidder's Pulitzer Prize winning The Soul of a New Machine, a book about the design of a new computer. We wanted to capture the story of the design of Epcot in a similar way, and so in 1984 we began writing Building a Better Mouse.
But other projects - and starting a company - distracted us, so it wasn't until the 25th anniversary of Epcot that we actually got around to publishing! It's fortunate, though, that we wrote the book while the memories and the feelings of working on Epcot were fresh in our minds.

Tell me how you originally came to work at Epcot Center, and how you came to be assigned to the American Adventure.

STEVE: I got into the theme park business because of my wife, Linda. From the time that she was in the second grade, she had always wanted to be one thing: an Imagineer. And so, when she graduated from college she applied to only one job. Two years later, she was the electronic project engineer for ten of the Epcot opening-day pavilions.
I had always been an entrepreneurial sort of person, involved in product design at a number of companies including one I'd started myself. But when I saw how much time she would be spending in Florida working on Epcot, I hired onto WDI (then known as WED Enterprises) as a consultant so that I could be in Florida as well.
I ended up working for her office-mate, Glenn Birket, who was in charge of the American Adventure pavilion. He put together a team of people to do the electronic systems for what was then - and still is - the most complicated attraction Disney has ever done. After Epcot's opening day, I stayed on to work on the park-wide monitoring system, the Horizons pavilion, and the Imagination ride.

You relate in your book how much blood, sweat, and tears went into the American Adventure. Was there a point when the magic of working for Disney wore off and you wanted to quit?

STEVE: I'm sure there were a lot of times after putting in a 100 hour week that we wondered whether it was all worthwhile. It's hard to imagine what a state of chaos and disarray Epcot was in, just months before opening, but I'm sure it seemed pretty hopeless. In fact, having now been involved in hundreds of additional projects, if I saw one in the same state as Epcot, I would be certain that it couldn't open on time.
Still, those were great times to work for Disney, because we were young kids who were given a huge amount of power, almost unlimited resources, and a mostly fun working environment, with the only constraint being that we had to get the park open on time.
In our book, Building a Better Mouse, David Greene and I try to portray the frenetic pace and sleep-deprived insanity of the project. We do this partly by using transcripts of tapes that Glenn Birket made at the time we were working on American Adventure. Those thoughts, recorded in the middle of the night after what had often been spectacularly unsuccessful testing, really capture what it was like to work on Epcot.

I've always appreciated the show, even as a child, and more so now, after knowing how much work went into it. Does it happen often that people who may not have appreciated American Adventure learn to do so after speaking with you or reading your book?

STEVE: I've had a lot of people tell me that reading Building a Better Mouse gave them a new appreciation of American Adventure. I think that's also true of my other book, Theme Park Design. By surveying the entire process of what it takes to create a theme park attraction - from the blue sky phase through early art direction, engineering studies, the budgeting and financial process, fabrication, installation, test and adjust, and opening day - it really shows how much is involved in building any themed attraction. Not only does that give readers an idea of what sort of career they might like to pursue in the industry, it also reveals that there are about 100 times as many people involved in each of these projects as we might first guess.

Is there anything in particular about the show that you like best?

STEVE: I have a lot of favorite things about American Adventure. Some of the things that were hardest to do, such as Ben Franklin walking up stairs, probably weren't worth the trouble.
But there are other things I love: the fabulous animation of the Chief Joseph character, the incredible details of the Depression era set (which is modeled after real depression era painting and photographs), and the moment the World War II submarine is magically revealed, already in place, behind that set.
I also love the music, particularly the song sung during the last few minutes of the show when the curtains open to reveal the sunrise behind all the statues lining the sides of the theater.

From your book, it seemed like it was a miracle that everything fell into place in time for opening. Was there ever any doubt that you guys could pull it off?

STEVE: It's easy to take Epcot for granted now that it's been around for almost 30 years. But at the time it opened, almost everything about it was new and different. It pressed the very edge of the technologies available. Aside from the incredible complexity of the American Adventure, there were also the huge autonomous moving vehicles in the Energy pavilion, the 160 animated figures in World of Motion (a Disney record to this day), and the first use of fiber optics to send data around a theme park, to mention just a few.
At the time, it was not at all clear it would come together for opening day. In fact, for the Labor Day construction workers' family preview, just a few weeks before Epcot's opening, there were only a few operational attractions.
Fortunately, we were all young and this was our first theme park, and we didn't know any better. If I were in the same position today, I would probably view the situation as hopeless and just give up!

Do you return often to Epcot or to the other Disney World parks?

STEVE: Because my company works on nearly all of the world's theme parks, I'm not a frequent guest; I get there often enough as part of my job! But Epcot is the exception. I live almost adjacent to the Disney property, and Epcot has the lure of nice restaurants, plus the annual Food and Wine Festival. These are potent lures!
And usually if I'm out in World Showcase, I'll stop by American Adventure and see how the old girl is holding up. I have to admit, though, that it took years before I could watch that show without feeling tense every time a lift was supposed to rise!

Do you still keep in touch with all of the other Imagineers you worked with?

STEVE: Many of the Imagineers who worked on Epcot are still in the industry. In fact, to this day people from that era form the core of the industry. Some of them started their own companies, some of them went to the competition, some of them stayed with Disney, some of them returned to Disney, and some of them work for me. So a large percentage of the people mentioned in Building a Better Mouse are either friends, employees, or customers.

Can you tell any aspiring Imagineers some advice for working at Disney?

STEVE: I teach a class in Imagineering, and one of my lessons is devoted to "How do I get that job?" The advice I give to my students is to develop your resume before you approach Disney. There are very few openings at Disney, and they're usually looking for something in particular. One of the best ways to get in is as an intern. But they're probably going to want to see that you've done some things outside of schoolwork that demonstrate your interest in the business.
Some examples are: working on volunteer haunted houses, a summer maintenance internship at an amusement park, or designing gizmos for the theatrical department of your college. These are all good ways to build your resume.
For prospective Imagineers who aren't just coming out of college, the best approach is to work for some other companies in the industry. A good way to identify these companies is through trade organizations such as IAAPA and TeaConnect. It also wouldn't hurt to show that you've completed a project for my class!

Can you tell us a bit about your business and how you teach people theme park design?

STEVE: My business, Alcorn McBride Inc., designs audio, video, show control, and lighting equipment specifically for the themed entertainment industry. Our equipment is used in nearly every theme park in the world. One thing that makes it different from typical A/V equipment is that there are no moving parts. That's because theme parks have so much equipment that they can't afford to spend time maintaining it, or risk its malfunction.
So our equipment is designed to spend a decade or more locked away in a room where no one has to think about it. On the Alcorn-McBride website, you'll find case studies of interest to your readers that describe how theme parks around the world use our equipment.
Because I have a lot of terrific employees with many years of experience in themed entertainment, I can take the luxury of pursuing various interests, which include writing and teaching. I have a number of novels and two nonfiction books about the theme park industry (Building a Better Mouse and Theme Park Design) which are all available on Amazon.com, and my course on theme park design.

Thanks, Steve, for chatting with me! If you're interested in more of Steve's amazing stories about building Epcot, I suggest you check out his books:

In addition, check out Steve's online course in theme park design. I plan on taking it in the near future, so if anyone else is interested, maybe we can hook up in an online study group!

If you haven't done so already, please don't forget to subscribe to our podcast! We have lots more interviews coming your way, and you don't want to miss them.

Ever wonder what a day in the life of a mermaid was like? Former Disneyland mermaid Edie will share with us some great 'tails' straight from the Submarine Voyage Lagoon!

If you are (or know) a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and be featured here on Disney Dispatch, email me at jeff@bamferproductions.com. I'd love to hear from you!


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