Disney historian, author and former Cast Member Jim Korkis has held many roles in the amusement business and provides a wealth of insights into a wide range of issues facing the industry. Recently, he released “Vault of Walt”, a new book that focuses on the philosophies and stories behind the life of Walt Disney. With a Foreword by Disney’s sole surviving child—Diane Disney Miller—the book provides readers with a unique look at one of the industry’s leading men.
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Blooloop’s Chad Emerson visited Korkis to discuss the state of the industry.
Chad Emerson: Share with us how you got started in the amusement industry and some of the more interesting roles you’ve held.
Jim Korkis: In the mid-Eighties, my brother had just graduated from Ringling Brothers Clown College and was working at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California. We performed a comedy magic and juggling act together for a number of venues like the Variety Arts Theater in Los Angeles, the Dr. Silkini traveling show and various conventions. I auditioned at Magic Mountain and was soon working as a wandering close-up magician and balloon artist in their Spillikin Corners area (a country village themed section) and for their special events. That opportunity led to me writing and directing stage shows for them including their longest running stage show, “Lucky Louie’s Roaring Twenties Revue” starring my brother and myself.
I moved to Orlando In the nineties, to take care of my ailing parents and got a job at Walt Disney World. At first, I did magic and balloon animals at Pleasure Island. Then, I was “Merlin” in Fantasyland. Eventually, I became an animation instructor, a designer of backstage tours for guests and convention groups, assisted with college and international programs and more. I taught classes for corporate clients on how Walt Disney World provides customer satisfaction and manages people as well as on the history and evolution of the business.
Emerson: Over the years, what have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in the amusement industry?
Korkis: I see the same challenges in every entertainment venue not only in Florida but in the industry as a whole. Because of the financial situation, there are cutbacks in training, in staffing, in venues leveraging their traditions and heritage, and in providing the same level of customer satisfaction that was so high just a few short years ago. These places don’t realize it isn’t a question of numbers and money but how those assets are used. Everybody is doing what everybody else is doing. Once upon a time, there was a greater diversity and more of an individual identity.
Emerson: Going forward, what the biggest challenges that you see facing the industry?
Korkis: Today, there are so many more things scrambling for the discretionary income of customers. Can a physical amusement venue effectively compete in terms of variety, convenience, amount of detail and financial value as the latest WII game? One of the reasons that Disneyland was such a huge success was that Walt Disney was able to identify clearly what people needed and wanted that wasn’t being supplied from other sources such as amusement parks, movies, or whatever. More importantly, he made sure that guests of any size or age could enjoy the experience. I do not see any amusement venue today seeing things from the perspective of their guests. Not everyone wants another new killer roller coaster. People will spend money if they feel they are getting value for that money no matter how bad the economy. That sense of value has dropped drastically in the last decade.
Emerson: As you reflect on your career, what do you consider to be your most rewarding experience?
Korkis: One of the things an amusement venue can supply better than a video game or a 3-D movie or anything else is the personal interaction and bonding with the customers. Helping people, making them smile and forget their problems, helping them have a memorable experience to cherish for years, allowing them to feel important and acknowledged has all been a tremendously rewarding experience for me. Even questionable business politics and poor management can never steal that joy.
Emerson: What about your most challenging one?
Korkis: It is always challenging trying to deal with managers who lack common sense. More managers should spend time with the rank and file to understand how things really work and what is really important. If executives had to use the same transportation as employees, eat the same food in the employee cafeteria, follow the same procedures including having to deal with a computer system that is confusing or calling a frustrating phone tree rather than a real human being, there would be sweeping changes made almost immediately. Walt Disney aggressively encouraged his management to do exactly those things when he was alive. As a result, Disneyland introduced so many innovations from name tags, to terminology to policies that we take for granted in other areas from hotels to restaurants trying to copy those superficial elements.
Emerson: With your new book filled with incredible stories about the history of Disney, what role do you think that archives and history should play for the industry as a whole?
Korkis: I think understanding the history and tradition results in measurable improvement in employee morale and productivity. When employees think of themselves as just replaceable cogs in an unfeeling machine, they treat the customers and their peers that same way. When employees feel they are part of something bigger, they better understand why decisions are being made and feel that the torch has been passed on to them to carry on and add to that history.
Emerson: Last question. It’s a beautiful day in Central Florida. Share with us your perfect theme park experience on that day.
Korkis: I don’t rush for all the big rides immediately and try to gobble down a meal as quickly as possible so I can rush to another ride to get the full value of every dollar I have spent on my admission. I like to spend time sitting on a bench and watching people, discovering all those little details that I miss when I am dragging visitors to the next event because they only have one day in the park, and enjoying any shows or street entertainers. Parks are eliminating those unique entertainment options that made them so different. Just at Disney, I would love to be able to still see the Diamond Horseshoe Revue or Merlin or the Adventurers Club or the Hunchback of Notre Dame stage show and share them with friends and family. Those types of shows made people feel a part of the experience, not just voyeurs. If you know how to do a theme park experience right, it is a healing and inspiring feeling that I see too few visitors having these days.
Top: Friends scurry through the Magic Kingdom gathering treats galore during the annual Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party held for 24 nights now through Nov. 1, 2010, at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort. (Photographer Gene Duncan) kind courtesy Disney. Middle: Jim Korkis Bottom left: "Vault of Walt"