Visit our current website

You've found our old blog! Please also visit InPark where we currently publish,

17 December 2012

Leadership, theme parks, museums and hospitality: Ocean Park's Tom Mehrmann, AAM's Ford Bell and others speak at IAAPA

Tom Mehrmann
Drawing wisdom from the hospitality industry
InPark co-editor Judith Rubin reports from IAAPA 2013 -- The subject of leadership was canvassed by Tom Mehrmann, Chief Executive of Ocean Park Corporation, on Nov 13 during a day of educational sessions at the 2013 IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando. Regarding Ocean Park Hong Kong's significant recent expansion and 8 years of growth, he noted how decisions were made and strategies put in place to keep the park open during expansion, to differentiate from the competition (Disney), to empower employees and “break through the wrong kind of thinking.”

One intriguing guest services policy: There is $250 available to any employee on the property to tap in order to solve any guest issue on the spot, rather than send the issue, along with the weary guest, up through the chain of command. He remarked on how judicious the employees are with these funds.

Mehrmann conjured the hospitality industry as a model. His example of gracious, empathetic service: the Ritz Carlton. He put emphasis on the value of personal, handwritten thank-you notes.

His talk was peppered with maxims such as “managers do things right; leaders do the right thing,” “not for profit is a tax status, not a business plan,” catch employees doing things right,” and “listening lavishly; responding with focus.”

Mehrmann also shared some of his favorite keys to success, with examples of how they'd been implemented at Ocean Park Hong Kong. 1) Be hungry for change. Example: When the park achieved its goal of 7 million attendance early, it was necessary to get rid of the coffeemugs on company desks carrying the “7 million” slogan. 2) Be innovative. Example: Ocean Park's very successful commercial campaign that juxtaposed human behavior with interesting counterparts in the animal world, and “changed the way our market saw and interacted with us.” 3) Be disruptive by nature. Examples: Ocean Park's “Aqua City” commercial, for which a custom song was composed that became a popular ringtone, how an Ocean Park K-pop spoof video had gone viral, and how the park's Halloween Bash and promotions had brought record attendance numbers and helped establish the holiday in Hong Kong. 4) Be genuine, not just generous. Example: Ocean Park's corporate social responsibility programs, and special discounts for locals, the disabled, seniors and low income residents.

Mehrmann's final list: the 10 qualities he looks for when grooming new leadership in the company: Curiosity, Sense of responsibility, Sense of humor, Passion, Courage of convictions, Initiative, Creativity/innovation, Sense of urgency, Persistence and Confidence.

Mehrmann began his tenure with Ocean Park in 2004. He started his career in the theme park industry in 1977 as a park attendant at Knott's Berry Farm, working his way up to the position of Vice President of Park Operations and Entertainment in 1996. He was with Six Flags Marine World as Vice President and General Manager in 1998, and was appointed VP and GM of Warner Bros. Movie World (Madrid) in 2000.

Ford Bell, president of AAM. Photo: Judith Rubin
AAM's big tent
This year's Museum & Science Center Day at IAAPA boasted a completely full house. Among the attendees were designers, architects, media producers, economic analysts, event producers, exhibit fabricators, museum operators and theme park operators.

The opening address was from Ford Bell, president of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM). The organization recently changed its name, swapping out Association for Alliance. Why? Bell explained that the terminology change signaled a change in the structure of the organization, retooling itself to spread a “bigger tent,” be more inclusive. The intention is not just to add more members, but to deepen relationships with other groups having similar interests and magnify the visibility and lobbying power in the face of shrunken Federal assistance. AAM has likewise changed its institutional membership tiers for inclusiveness, offering at the lowest level a “pay what you wish” membership and setting the highest at $5,000 (down from $15,000) which can be upgraded to an all-staff package. Alliances with other groups include crossover accreditation and best practices programs with AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) and AASLH (American Association of State and Local History). Other efforts include outreach to engage other categories of stakeholders such as museum trustees. “We are fighting for a very pathetic sum of money,” he said, pointing out that Federal funds for museums total $60 million annually. AAM will make the most of its “big tent” to boost its annual Advocacy Day in Washington DC.

Ike Kwon, Guy Labine, Cynthia Sharpe (Thinkwell) and John Robinett
In a subsequent session, John Robinett of AECOM, which has done numerous attendance studies for museums and cultural institutions, showed ways to obtain meaningful stats that can be used to make peer comparisons and examine such things as the differing behavior patterns of residential markets to tourist markets, the ratio of visitation to exhibit square footage, the operations cost per square foot (most museums come in about $80-$100 per square foot) and evaluate admission prices. Robinett's fundamental graph showed the declining attendance curve of the museum that fails to reinvest on a regular basis – he maintains that museums should follow the practice of successful theme parks - reinvest yearly and take a close look at how to maximize earned income (“retail performance is a missed opportunity for a lot of museums”, enhance the perceived value to the visitor and increase per-capita spending.

Satisfying the many
Ike Kwon, director of guest operations at San Francisco's California Academy of Sciences (home of the Morrison Planetarium) talked about strategies that the museum had employed in order to maintain visitor satisfaction in the enviable position of huge attendance numbers. Before the museum was rebuilt (the previous structure was damaged by earthquake), its average yearly attendance was 80,000, reported Kwon. “Now we do 8,000 in 3 weeks and are creeping up on 7 million attendance since opening [in 2008],” he said. He illustrated the problem with an example from the planetarium: the bundled ticket option covers a visit to the Morrison, but throughput in the dome wasn't sufficient to meet demand, meaning that some visitors would not get the full value of their ticket. They analyzed theload/unload p ace and created a shorter planetarium show to facilitate a 30-minute cycle. This adjustment was one of many implemented in a full-scale overhaul of operations with the goal of improving the guest experience, based on a model Kwon had learned in his days in the hospitality industry. The process relies heavily on input and suggestions from staff who deal with day-to-day issues.

Know your value
Guy Labine, CEO of Science North in Sudbury, Canada, talked about how the museum used the results of an economic impact assessment conducted 5 years ago to attract more government funding and more than double the proportion of earned income relative to total budget (from 30% to 70%). The study revealed the true extent of the museum's role in the community and of its contributions. “We found that Science North is a main driver of the city's economic tourism engine,” he said.

13 December 2012

Bob Gurr on "Building Disneyland" at The Walt Disney Family Museum

Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum

Bob Gurr is one of only a handful of designers to have been both awarded the TEA’ s Thea Award for Lifetime Achievement (1999) and named a Disney Legend (2004). “And I was fired from Disney,” he told a packed house at The Walt Disney Family Museum on Saturday, October 8, 2012. Gurr never discussed why he was fired, but that was all part of his off-the-cuff approach, speaking on those matters which interested him at the moment, and most importantly, interested his audience.

Bob Gurr with Jack Gladish, Plastics Manufacturing Manger for MAPO, at Tampa shipyards.
Throughout the presentation, a large selection of photos and schematics of his various projects flashed on a screen behind. He told the audience he didn’t really want to go over them, because that would take a long time. But one point during his talk, his eyes did stray towards the screen, where he noticed a photo of himself holding a bottle next to one of the Nautilus craft from the Magic Kingdom’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction. “That’s a Corona in my hand,” he said, interrupting his existing comment on another topic. “The subs had come off the shipyards in Tampa and I think you’re supposed to use champagne. I didn’t have champagne, but I was drinking Corona, so there you go.”

Regardless of what direction Gurr’s thoughts went off to, they always centered on a central theme: curiosity. He started the talk discussing why Walt Disney was so successful in designing and building Disneyland in the 1950’s. “Walt walked around a lot, looked at everything, and talked to everyone. There was no red tape like you find today.” According to Gurr, meetings “are the biggest waste of time. They take people out of the work they should be doing and bring a stop to the project. Instead of pulling people away to meetings, Walt would talk to the people doing the work where they were doing it.”

He believes that Walt was a 100% curious person with an insatiable appetite for knowledge, “and the more you know, the less fearless you are.” In his post-Disney work, Gurr encountered two “Steve’s” who resembled Walt in this business approach – Steven Spielberg, for whom he worked on animatronic figures for Jurassic Park, and Steve Wynn, the Las Vegas tycoon who asked him to figure out a track system for a proposed hanging float parade on Fremont Street. Both of these business leaders had eliminated middle management in their organization and were able and willing to talk directly to those doing the work.

Test track for 1964-65 World's Fair's Ford Magic Skyway.
Bob, the self-proclaimed “Director of Special Vehicle Development” at Disney and master of animatronic technology, learned about vehicles by hanging around junkyards, which in turn taught him how to build cars. When Walt asked for a Lincoln figure that could perform twice the moves, but be half the weight of other audio-animatronic characters at the time, Bob looked at the inner workings of a WWII glider he was restoring, with its light-weight frame. “If you look inside the Lincoln figure,” he said, “you’ll notice that its skeleton is really an aircraft frame.” Later Lincoln figures are made of “pirate parts.” And as far as animatronic design goes, he gave very high marks to Garner Holt, who had manufactured a great many figures for the Disney Parks.

Arrow Dynamics, formerly of Mountain View, was also a company Bob keeps in high regard. They had manufactured many of the Disney rides and he learned from them ways to expedite projects. Efficiency was a key topic brought up many times during the talk. For instance, Joe Fowler, known as Admiral “Can Do,”was brought out of retirement to work on Disneyland because he had a reputation as a master of turning around damaged ships brought into the West Coast naval yards during WWII and sending them back into service.

Gurr was especially taken by the US Navy’s Nautilus, a nuclear vessel that became the first submarine to travel under the ice cap to the North Pole. He chose this model of submarine over the fictional Nautilus from the Disney film for Disneyland's Submarine Voyage attraction. “We were testing it, trying to figure out how to simulate a drop into deeper water. We were going to drop it about three feet, when some genius just comes up and says ‘why don’t you just use bubbles?’” While discussing the attraction, Gurr related an incident where the submarine smashed against the scenery, busting a porthole, and letting water in. “The sub was designed so you could stand on the seats if water leaked in. Unfortunately, the sub was full of Japanese tourists and this happened on December 7.”

Frame capture from July 17, 1955 live television program "Dateline Disneyland." Copyright Disney.
He had a special memory about Disneyland’s opening day. “Walt stuck me with these two kids of some Hollywood starlet and I was supposed to babysit them. So I took them on the Autopia and they kept encouraging me to bump the car in front of me, so I did. It went off the track and into the weeds and when I looked back, I saw an angry black man with an eye patch yelling at me. When I had a chance to look at all the photos of all the celebrities from opening day, I realized I had knocked Sammy Davis Jr. off the track. All because of these two kids.”

Bob Gurr with Mary Beth Culler, Public Programs Coordinator, The Walt Disney Family Museum (L) and  Diane Disney-Miller, Walt's daughter and museum co-founder (R).  Courtesy The Walt Disney Family Museum.
Gurr was asked if there was any memorable conversation he had had with Walt. “I have to be careful. This is a family show in more ways than one,” he said, nodding to Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney-Miller, who was in attendance, “We had an attraction called the Astro Jets. This was an off –the-shelf ride made by a German company. Well, there was an accident at an identical ride at the Santa Monica Pier and some woman had been crushed. So I was instructed to build a safety cage. It was ugly. Nobody wanted to tell Walt about it. So we hid it. But Walt was curious and found it.

“So one day, as I was getting out of my car at the Disneyland parking lot, Walt made a beeline for me and stuck his finger right in my chest.” Beeping out the expletives, Gurr related to the audience a one-way conversation that ended with, “I’m the one that makes the decisions around here. Now get rid of it!” Gurr has a special place in his heart for Walt. He loves the museum, which tells the story of Disney’s life from his 1901 birth to his death in 1966. But “I have to run through the last room and not look,” he said, “It’s too sad for me.”

He feels that the Disney way of designing attractions ended in 1972, with Walt Disney World up and running and layoffs in the aerospace industry resulting in an influx of engineers who were used to such corporate philosophies as middle management and meetings. There were important traits that he saw in Walt and his managers – they wouldn’t threaten if something wasn’t working right, they would invite the new and improvements, they talked the exact truth, and they were curious about the world around them.

Bob Gurr with Marty Sklar, former Vice Chairman, Walt Disney Imagineering (L) and Michael O'Grattan, Sr Vice President Entertainment and Imaging, Walt Disney Parks and Recreation (R) at dedication of Gurr's Main Street Window at Disneyland, March 7, 2008.  Copyright Disney.
Such traits still exist. A few days before his talk at the museum, Gurr was invited to attend a design charrette at former Imagineering Vice Chairman Marty Sklar’s home for a new concept being pitched in a foreign country. “Within an hour, an entire park had been fleshed out with artwork,” he said. “You encourage people and promise them martinis at Marty’s house afterward, and see what you can accomplish!”


Joe Kleiman ( is a journalist, PR and marketing professional with a background in museums and special venue cinema. He has opened a number of award winning venues, including the Ridefilm simulators at Galveston, TX’s Moody Gardens, the Esquire IMAX Theatre in downtown Sacramento, CA, and the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, GA and has been a consultant to a number of special venue film producers and distributors, including K2 Communications and Big&Digital. 

Related articles from InPark Magazine and IPM partner blogs:

    11 December 2012

    New Fantasyland comes to life in Florida

    Fantasyland opens. Photo by Paul Williams.
    For a while, it seemed like this day would never arrive. At times, it felt like everyone was waiting for the Fantasyland expansion to be completed for longer than the original 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea attraction was operational! But, it’s here! New Fantasyland is open. Well, most of it is, anyway. The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster still has over a year’s worth of work ahead of it, as it was a somewhat late addition to the area’s lineup, replacing Pixie Hollow and a variety of Princess dwellings that were moved to “old” Fantasyland in the space formerly occupied by Snow White’s Scary Adventures (opening 2013).

    But despite the roller coaster crane sitting in the middle of New Fantasyland, the new area is breathtaking in theming and immersive details. Although officially there are only two areas to the expansion (Enchanted Forest and Storybrook Circus), it feels like three right now, possibly due to the Mine Train construction walls dividing things up.

    A natural fit for the Enchanted Forest, the elements from Beauty and the Beast are represented through Enchanted Tales with Belle, Be Our Guest Restaurant and Gaston’s Tavern.

    Editor Martin Palicki and freelance photographer Paul Williams sample The Grey Stuff.
    Be Our Guest ballroom. Photo by Paul Williams
    • Enchanted Tales with Belle – Perhaps the most original element of the entire expansion, the adventure starts in Maurice’s workshop, where an enchanted mirror magically transforms into a doorway into the Beast’s library where guests meet Belle and Lumiere and participate in an interactive re-telling of the “tale as old as time.” Expect long lines here for quite some time.
    • Be Our Guest – Designed as a quick service restaurant during the day and a full service table dining restaurant in the evening, the restaurant is heavy in detailing. Walking into the ballroom doesn’t quite elicit the same awe as the one in the movie, but the snow falling outside the windows looks real, and the mysterious West Wing with the magical rose is dark and intimate. With the restaurant already booked far in advance, Be Our Guest looks to be the most profitable addition to Fantasyland. Oh, and incidentally, the Grey Stuff mentioned in the restaurant’s namesake song is a sweet mousse dessert worth a sampling.
    • Gaston’s Tavern – A small French lodge designed to appeal to traditional masculine sensibilities, Gaston’s Tavern is a part of Belle’s Village, which includes a gift shop and popcorn stand. Gaston’s trademark is LeFou’s Brew, a non-alcoholic frozen apple juice drink with a hint of toasted marshmallow, topped with a passion fruit-mango foam. It doesn’t have the cache of a certain branded beverage being sold down the road at a major competitor, but it’s tasty and likely to be a hit, even if it would be better with a shot of dark rum.
    Ariel's home. Photo by Paul Williams.
    Also a part of the Enchanted Forest, although somewhat confusingly, Ariel makes her home in Ariel’s Grotto and in the attraction Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid. The dark ride mirrors the one opened at Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim last year, although with a significantly more elaborate queue that includes a hidden Nautilus fossil in a nod to the original attraction that called this part of the park home: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

    Ariel’s Grotto is home to a meet and greet with Ariel, and also houses the most elusive hidden Mickey ever created. Shafts in the rockwork at Ariel’s Grotto allow sunlight to filter down and create a perfect hidden Mickey shape…but only on Mickey’s birthday (November 18th) at high noon. Imagine what crowds will be like on November 18th!!

    Storybrook Circus provides a completely different atmosphere from Enchanted Forest, and is packed with attractions for the little ones.

    Storybook Circus. Photo by Paul Williams.
    • Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, a Fantasyland original, makes its new home here. The attraction has been doubled (literally) with two different rides (one turning clockwise, the other counterclockwise). The biggest change however, is in the queue, which has perpetually been plagued by long lines. A new air-conditioned big top tent serves as an indoor playground waiting area. Guests are given pagers and called to the ride when it is their turn to hop on Dumbo.   
    • The Barnstormer Featuring the Great Goofini is a renaming of an existing coaster. The family-style coaster follows a twisting, turning course.
    • Pete’s Silly Sideshow invites guests to meet and greet Disney characters: Minnie Magnifique (Minnie Mouse as a circus star), Madame Daisy Fortuna (Daisy Duck as a fortune teller), The Great Goofini (Goofy as a stunt pilot) and The Astounding Donaldo (Donald Duck as a snake charmer).
    • The Casey Jr. Splash ‘N’ Soak Station water play area brings a much needed splash zone to the Magic Kingdom. With temps in the 50’s and 60’s during our visit, for a detailed review, you’ll have to try it on your own!

    Storybook Circus. Photo by Paul Williams.
    The new Fantasyland offerings certainly live up to the Disney promise of quality and detail with careful attention to the timeless Disney narratives that millions flock to central Florida to experience. The addition of Princess Fairytale Hall (2013) and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster (2014) will round out Fantasyland and easily make that section of the park the most popular land in the Kingdom.