All the pieces could be brought together to build sets of any height necessary or combine to build pieces and props that would otherwise be larger than those dimensions set. However, most ballroom ceiling heights back then were no more than 18′ in height with service doors at a minimum of 7′ in height. Also, as part of the design, we could build in the electrics to illuminate the sets. We also built in custom rolling carts to move the sets in and out of the room easily. The design required the complete theme to be set in completely within a 4 hour period, using a crew of no more than 6 stagehands. The staging to elevate the entertainment was a standard collapsible 8′ by 4′ with fabric skirting.
It’s probably hard for you today to imagine having to build so much onsite just to get all of the props and staging in place, but it all goes back to doing more than what’s expected. It would have been easier to scrap Bob’s idea, maybe scale it down to fit in the physical limitations of the room itself, and with Bob at the helm, I’m sure it would have still been a great show. But it wouldn’t be the same show, and it certainly wouldn’t be more than what was expected of us. So yes, it did require us to be flexible and change our plans on the fly and even perform more work than what we had anticipated, but that’s what was needed at the time. We wanted to bring Bob’s idea to life and were willing to change what we needed to do in order to get it done.
Now I imagine it’s easy to take space for granted with corporate event ideas. If a space is too small, you simply find another one. If you need set pieces of a certain size, it’s easy enough to find a workshop that already produces it. Same for props, lights, rigs, and sound systems. Those things are certainly more plentiful and much more accessible now, but try to imagine what you would do if you didn’t have that easy access. Would you change your plans entirely and settle for less? Or would you create a solution? For all the good modern convenience has brought to our industry, I do think that creativity, to a certain degree, is lost when tools and technology are taken for granted.
Though it wasn’t intended as such, I think all of our construction (and deconstruction!) ended up being one of our most creative event planning ideas. In the wake of all these modifications we needed to make, we had to collaborate beyond our designated jobs to come up with creative and practical solutions. It got everyone talking and pitching ideas back and forth.
Anyway, the first theme we built out was a New Orleans Bourbon Street theme. With a clear fabric we would hang up, we would use lights to project images onto it. We built out 6 initial art deco buildings as well as a full-sized setting for the stage. This particular theme was ultimately designed by my friend Reid Carlson in Technical Services. We would use up to 4 different entertainment groups. Also, each structure had complete F&B capabilities. We had to theme all the table settings as well. In the beginning, we had no ability to provide theatrical lighting from the ceiling or suspend any speakers. That was our first challenge to be tackled, and fortunately, I had a lighting designer named Bob Goble on my team.
Bob designed an electrical grid with hang points as well as a new structural support system to allow us to support almost anything we wanted to suspend in the room. The design gave us over 60 different rig points throughout the room. Once we got it approved and installed, we were capable of making Bob’s concept of moving the proscenium wall to the front entrance to the room a reality. We also got Disney to install a large freight elevator with access to the stage. Before that, we had to carry everything up to the massive stairs on the backside of the Contemporary Hotel that brought you onto the 4th floor and entrance to the Ballroom of the Americas.
This ingenuity was just the beginning. What Bob Yani wanted most of all was to create events that were affordable in keeping with Walt Disney’s overall philosophy of giving incredible value to their guests. His idea was to create one-of-a-kind themed experiences at a substantial value. His thinking was that we would build out these themed experiences at a fraction of the cost to design, fabricate, and develop the entertainment aspects of the theme.
The price of purchasing a Disney themes for corporate events was around 10 to 15% of the cost to produce it. So if it cost Disney, let us say, $35,000.00 to build the show and provide the entertainment, we would only charge $3,500.00 to the client, which is what it cost to produce.
The reason we could do this and still make a substantial profit is the fact that we would sell 150 performances of the show per year with the entertainment, design, and maintenance, lasting us at minimum of 5 years that would gross us at least of $ 262,500.00, which would give Disney a percentage provided we didn’t raise the price (which we would) over the life expectancy of the show. This would give Disney a substantial profit over the years, and with the ongoing work relationship, we’d make a large profit ourselves. Charging more upfront may seem like it would make us more money, but the reality is we would have likely priced ourselves out of a job instead.
All of these things I’ve described here are how the modern themed event business was initially started so you might want to thank Bob Yani when you get out of bed in the morning. Remember, there was only about 5 prop rental house in America back then. So if you wanted to create something you had to build it yourself. The biggest problem we had back in the ’70s was intellectual property theft (and it still is), and we applaud the theft as flattering.
The point I want to drive home with this is that you should never get too comfortable with your modern comforts when you’re working on event ideas for large groups (or even small groups). Adaptability isn’t just an insurance policy against something going wrong: it’s a source of creativity. Don’t let the tools you use take precedence over the ideas you want to build. If you do become overly reliant and take those things for granted, you might find yourself struggling if you’re suddenly without them.
The next chapter will address the Entertainment & Technical Services Departments participation that led to a lot of innovations in the special event industry. This will include more profiles of creative and unique individuals I’ve had the good fortune to work alongside. It will also provide more peeks behind the curtain of Disney’s staging process.