Epcot, Disney World in his heart: Interview with Brad Rex

20 October 2009

chad emerson theme park and disney interviewsWithin the amusement, theme park and leisure sectors, Brad Rex has held a wide variety of leadership and executive positions, facing organizational and management challenges in planning and budgeting, labor, business expansion, operations, customer service and security. Blooloop's Chad Emerson caught up with Rex for his first extended interview since leaving Hilton and Disney. His reflections provide wise counsel for others throughout the industry.

By Chad Emerson (20th October 09)

Share with us some of the key leadership roles that you’ve held in the amusement and leisure industry.

I was with Disney Parks and Resorts from 1994-2007. My first six years there were in finance and strategic planning, leading the team that did all the forecasting, budgeting and long-range planning for Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland. We also did new businesses domestically and internationally, including the deal for Hong Kong Disneyland. 

In 2000, I switched over to operations, leading the labor management team that deployed all the hourly labor at Walt Disney World. In August 2001, I was named to lead Epcot theme park, and my first full week started September 10, 2001. So, I had quite a “trial by fire” when September 11th happened. I led Epcot through the aftermath of 9/11, as we re-launched the park with four major new attractions (Mission:SPACE, Soarin’, Turtle Talk with Crush, and The Seas with Nemo and Friends), and greatly expanded our festival events.

I left Epcot in May 2007 to become Executive Vice President, Chief Customer Officer for Hilton Grand Vacations in Orlando. There, I led all operations and homeowners' associations for 12 owned and 23 branded resorts throughout the mainland U.S. and Hawaii, with 5,045 rooms and 1.4-million room nights. I also directed the HGV Club with 140,000 domestic and international members.

I loved the people at both Disney and Hilton.

What are some of the most satisfying and instructive experiences you encountered while you were with Epcot?
 
It was very rewarding to be a part of the incredible turnaround there. After 9/11, there was so much fear and uncertainty in the Cast Members’ faces. Even before 9/11, Epcot had declining attendance and very limited investment after the Millennium celebration ended, and the park and Cast were tired. When we got new investment approved, especially during challenging financial times, and opened incredible “E” attractions, there was a whole new energy and enthusiasm from the Cast. Epcot became “the place to be” and we did phenomenal openings, events and festivals. 

A second highlight was when Epcot received the Walt Disney World RAVE Diversity Award. This is WDW’s highest award for the property that demonstrates the greatest commitment to fostering an environment where every Guest and Cast Member is respected, appreciated and valued. We set out on a multi-year journey to become the Home for Diversity, with a rallying cry of being “radically inclusive!” I remember attending pre-shift meetings with deaf Custodial Cast Members who shared that our bringing in a sign-language interpreter for manager meetings had changed their lives; country celebrations where international Cast Members shared their pride in their country; and our VoluntEars teams that gave back to the community. I believe our efforts ennobled the human spirit, and built a diverse family of proud, talented and inspired Cast Members.

Finally, although I am not supposed to have favorites, I really appreciated all my time with Epcot’s Custodial team. The Cast Members had tremendous passion for the park and our Guests. I always enjoyed putting on a Custodial costume and walking the park panning and brooming. It was as if I became invisible, and I got great intelligence about what was going on with our Guests and Cast.

You mentioned having started as Vice President of Epcot just before the 9/11 attacks. What was your leadership experience like and what special challenges did you face in that unique situation?

When the 9/11 attacks took place, I was at a media training class at Team Disney.  The instructor was from Washington, D.C., so wheBrad rex epcot and disneyn the Pentagon was attacked, she was called, and we knew class was over. I rushed back to the park, to our Command Center.  My Navy training kicked in, and I was very thankful for the countless drills I had participated in as a nuclear submarine officer. My Duty Manager that day was Brian Britton. He was a fellow Naval Academy grad and aviator, so we knew how to communicate and work together effectively. As soon as I could, I got out in the park, as I knew I had to get a personal sense of how the Guests and Cast were reacting. Most Guests had no idea what was happening, as there are no televisions or other media in the parks. Our Cast were extremely professional. Many had family members and friends who lived in New York and D.C. Although their first instinct was to go backstage and call to check on their status, they stayed at their locations.

As leaders, we had no idea about whether the parks were also a target. I remember looking up in the sky and seeing a small plane flying toward Epcot. I thought to myself “Aren’t all the planes supposed to be grounded?” I then prayed that Spaceship Earth would not be hit, and watched as the plane slowly changed course away from the park.
When we closed the park, our Cast Members, without being told, went out and lined the promenade. They knew what had happened, and the tough reality many Guests would soon face. As the Guests left, the Cast smiled and waved goodbye, to give our Guests one last positive memory of the day. When I saw this, I knew we had very special people working at Epcot, and I had much to learn from them.

Between 9/11, hurricanes and the power failure, during your tenure at Epcot you faced multiple challenges – the kinds of things that operators and insurers hope will never happen but must try to be prepared for. How did you make the most of your team and the resources at hand?

We had one very unique situation that happened at Epcot that never happened at any of the other Disney Parks, and will likely never happen again.

I received a call on July 18, 2002 at 4:20 a.m. from my boss. He said, “You need to get to Epcot. The park has lost power and it looks like you won’t get it back for a while.” From my Navy days, I knew the need for redundant systems, especially for necessities like power and chilled water. I had asked about Epcot’s power supply and been told there were multiple feeds and there was “no scenario” that could result in a total loss of power to the park. Well, it turned out that, through a combination of events and errors, Epcot had suffered a total loss of power, with no anticipated restoration time.

When I got to the Command Center, it was hot and dark, as we did not have any power backup. By flashlight, we discussed critical needs and my first thought was the Living Seas aquarium. Without filtration, I was concerned we would start to lose our animals.  However, the designers had been smart enough to ensure the aquarium could operate for an extended period without power (some of the smaller aquariums needed an oil-free air supply, which we are able to provide). 

The most sensitive area turned out to be our Land greenhouses. Without air conditioning, the heat levels rose quickly, especially in the July heat and sun. Temperatures got so hot, sprinkler heads started to pop. Heroic efforts by the Land team, lead by our Science Director, Fred Petitt, saved all the plants. Had the plants been killed, it would have taken months to restore this attraction.

John Kemp, our Engineering Director, was another hero of that day. John had been at Epcot since it was built, and knew where all the fittings and connections were located, so we could restore power and air to critical systems. His “deep smarts” were worth much more than design drawings that day.

Our Food & Beverage team was also amazing, arranging for freezer trucks to ensure our restaurant food stayed at safe temperatures. We had tremendous support across property, including booking our dining guests into other restaurants for the evening. Since that time, the power supplies to Epcot have been redesigned, so a total power loss really could not happen again. But, the leadership lesson is to brainstorm all the potential things that could go wrong, and prepare for them, even those that could “never” occur.

The hurricanes were another challenge (especially when the roof lifted off the top of the Seas building and our Command Center there was inundated), but those are stories for another day.

Looking forward, what type of leadership challenges do you anticipate could become more pressing in the industry over the next several years?

There are many potential challenges to the industry in the years ahead, including an aging population, capital intensity, a “jaded” public that demands more cutting-edge experiences, and a demanding financial environment. However, I believe there is a fundamental human need to escape from the stress of daily routines, and go into a fantasy world where you can safely explore new worlds. I remember one of our first guests on Soarin’ was a wonderful 98-year old woman, and she said she had never had an experience as great at that in her life. To paraphrase Walt Disney, the theme park business will continue to exist “as long as there is imagination left in the world.” With great leadership, committed employees, and a focus on providing an incredible Guest experience, the industry will recover and excel in the years ahead.

Last question. It’s a perfect sunny weekend in Orlando. Share with us how you would spend a great theme park day at Orlando’s famous resorts.

At Epcot, of course! I would start with the Around The World tour at Epcot, where you get to cruise around World Showcase before the park opens to other Guests. It is an amazing experience. Alternatively, I would do the Seas Aqua Tour with my family. You get to spend thirty minutes in the Seas aquarium and do not need any scuba qualification. Children ages 8 and up can do it. My kids said it was the best Disney experience they ever had.

Afterwards, I would enjoy Soarin’ and breakfast at Sunshine Seasons. I’d get my FastPass for Test Track and explore all the great new exhibits at Innoventions. Nemo and Friends and Turtle Talk with Crush, along with Figment would be fun, especially to watch the children’s reactions. Then, on to all the countries, for shopping and food, in particular the new restaurants at the country pavilions.

Hopefully one of the festivals is going on, like Food & Wine, Holidays around the World or the Flower & Garden festival. All are just extraordinary. I love Party for the Senses and the Candlelight Processional. And, of course, an incredible finish to the day with Illuminations: Reflections of Earth. I try not to get choked up, but still recall the tears trickling down my face in the weeks after September 11th, as I heard the refrain, “We go on...”

Throughout the day, I would interact with the Cast Members as much as possible, hugging many of my old friends and sharing our favorite stories.

See also:
Theme Park & Tourism PR: Media formats change, but public relations is still all about relationships 
Amusement Parks: Attractions Marketing and the Power of Mommybloggers
Amusement Law: Chad Emerson gets Legal with the IALDA
Amusement Parks: Viral Marketing and the WOW Factor at Disney

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