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Theme park development and operations veteran Bob Lamb, principal of ORCA Consulting, uses his special skillset to enrich a wide range of visitor attractions. Interview with Blooloop’s Chad Emerson.
Chad Emerson: Tell us about a memorable project that you’ve worked on since joining ORCA in 2004.
Bob Lamb: For me, one of the most memorable was when we assisted the National Park Service to reopen the Statue of Liberty following the tragic events of September 2001. For a number of reasons, it was no longer acceptable for visitors to trek all around the monument. We developed and implemented the plan that allowed the most visitors to have multiple experiences within and around the monument. I will never forget the patriotism and goose bumps I felt when the statue was rededicated.
Emerson: During your time with Disney, you played a major role in the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. What were some of the unique issues faced in planning a park with a diverse roster of live animals?
Lamb: On all of my previous projects at Disney, I had been able to recruit strong leaders and dedicated team members from within the company to fill all of the key roles in each of the disciplines. Although we had a small number of zoo and aquarium professionals at Discovery Island and The Living Seas, this time we had to recruit top people from around the zoo industry.
Obviously, it is critical to have great people at every level of animal care, but it is also critical to have highly respected zoo professionals in your organization to be able to acquire the animals for the collection. We were very fortunate to attract some of the big names in the zoo industry, and once they were on board, they were able to fill their rosters with highly respected team members.
It was incredible to see the culture of the zoo industry and the culture of Disney slowly blend together to become the culture of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Now, nearly 12 years later, it is particularly rewarding to see that there are Animal Kingdom alumni running zoos around the country. Many have shared with me how they use the things they learned at Animal Kingdom in their new assignments.
Emerson: You also served in leadership roles for the opening of Disney’s Epcot and Hollywood Studios parks. What are some of the unique challenges you experienced in opening those two parks?
Lamb: When EPCOT opened  I was the manager of Future World attractions. During design, the goal was to use state-of-the-art techniques when developing the rides and shows. I actually came to believe that “state-of-the-art” meant “not quite ready for prime time.” Although we got a little better every day, the initial downtimes during the first few months after opening created guest dissatisfaction, and the frontline cast members had to face the brunt of it. Because I had been a frontline cast member, I felt their pain and was able to help them survive a period that was really only a few months long but seemed much longer. I still have a framed copy of the first Duty Managers report (November 21st following an October 1st opening) that showed no downtimes in Future World.
The Studios opening  was challenging in a different way. The park was originally planned as a half-day experience, but as we neared opening, focus groups and other sources made it clear that the guests were very excited about visiting. During the opening months, we were filled to capacity nearly every day. Guests who hadn’t been allowed in the day before arrived earlier and earlier the next morning. We were opening at least two hours before our advertised opening time because we had a parking lot full of guests. I remember a number of times when we filled to capacity before our advertised opening time. New attractions were being developed and built as quickly as possible, but our saving grace was the fact that many of the opening day attractions were theater shows and by adding cast, we could increase park capacity. That is an expensive option, but it saved our bacon until more attractions came on line.
Emerson: How did you get your start in the amusement industry?
Lamb: I went to Florida with a couple of friends from the University of Iowa to work for the first summer Walt Disney World was open. I was hired to work in the parking lot and drive trams. I had a great time and didn’t leave when summer was over. Especially in those times, Disney promoted from within and I was surrounded by people who were developing great leadership styles and many who later became executives in the company. I emulated the young leaders that I admired the most.
My big break came in 1974 when I was moved into the park and became an opening lead on Space Mountain. I started at the attraction about 9 months prior to opening and worked through the test and adjust period with the ride engineers from Disney Imagineering. We had a reasonably successful opening, and I was promoted to an entry level supervisor role shortly afterwards. In the late 70s, I moved to California to work at Imagineering on the project development for EPCOT. This was the way my 30-year career at Disney unfolded: work on the development of a new project and return to operations to help run it.
Emerson: How does your theme park background inform your work today?
Lamb: Much of Orca’s focus is on zoos, museums, visitor centers, and regional destinations, as well as theme park projects from time to time. It is totally clear to me that regardless of whether an organization is for profit or not for profit, has large annual attendances or small ones, has a serious topic or is just for fun, the principles we all learned while designing and operating theme parks have valid applications anywhere guests come to learn and enjoy their experience.
Emerson: What does your crystal ball tell you concerning future industry trends and operations?
Lamb: I certainly don’t consider myself as an industry trend expert, but it seems to me that the focus for a while will be on new projects in Asia and the Middle East. In the United States, troubles at some of the existing operations and even a couple recent start-ups probably have companies that are considering expanding their product and investors feeling a little gun shy. Given the current economic conditions and the impact it has had on airline add-on charges, etc. may create opportunities for more regional, drive to destinations. This could also be a great opportunity for existing regional operations. I think the economic conditions will challenge operating teams to constantly review their offerings and service levels to optimize operational efficiencies, create more revenue opportunities that produce value to their guests, and to avoid taking away elements that lessen their guest experience.