Expanding a Disney Theme Park

“California Adventure was 30-40 projects for us, and probably the most challenging project we’ve had at Morrow-Meadows due to the complexity, schedule and the logistics,” said Rob Meadows, executive vice-president, Morrow-Meadows Corporation, a Southern California-based company.

That’s saying a lot since Morrow-Meadows’ previous projects included Legoland, and Universal Studios’ Citywalk and Jurassic Park Ride. Yet, “California Adventure,” the Disney resort expansion in Orange County, Calif., posed special challenges because of its unique construction, scope of work, cramped conditions, need for coordination, and Disney’s detail-oriented approach and concern for appearance. Plus Morrow-Meadows was under tight time constraints. “We had to react very quickly in short periods of time,” said Meadows, “and try to make an end date that couldn’t be extended because it was being advertised.”

The $1.4 billion Disney resort expansion, which opened in February 2001, encompasses Downtown Disney, a nongated pedestrian mall, the craftsman-style Grand California Hotel, and “California Adventure,” a theme park created alongside of the original Disneyland that recreates historic and contemporary scenes in the Golden State. These include a seaside carnival, a studio backlot, highlights of the San Francisco bay area and Monterey, and outdoor areas representing the Central Valley farms, the redwood forests and a mountain of the Sierra Nevada range.

“We’ve been dealing with Disney, out there at Disneyland, for 10 or 11 years,” said Meadows. “When work came up for the new park, we were invited to bid on all of the projects. We know Disney influences and participates somewhat in the selection process.”

Even so, a bid’s a bid. And Morrow-Meadows was paying close attention to the mitigating factors. “We knew how much Disney likes to get involved, how they like to get input and how that affects a time frame,” said Ed Slingluff, chief estimator and vice president at Morrow-Meadows.

So, after initially snagging a $5 million contract for the first project, a parking structure, Morrow-Meadows lost the next three bids, each for a $10 million project. “I think we knew a little too much and didn’t want to bid too low,” said Morrow-Meadows Project Executive Dennis Dugan. Then they successfully bid on Grizzly River Run, a $5 million project, and on a succession of others. These included the core and shell of Downtown Disney, the build-out of the ESPN Zone and the AMC Theatre, area development of Condor Flats within the park, Fast Passes (automated ticket machines), the main entrance esplanade, It’s a Bug’s Life Theatre and the Mondavi winery. By opening day, Feb. 8, 2001, Disney had done $34 million in contracts and an additional $10 million in change orders on this project.

Construction of the “Mickey and Friends” parking structure, now being hailed as the largest one in the United States, was their first project and began in June 1999. The 3.75-million-square foot project that includes 10,000 parking spaces was to be a six-level building, designed as eight separate structures with a light well down the center. There were 120 individual elevated decks to be placed. “The challenge was the time frame,” said Lynn Halliburton, Morrow-Meadows projects superintendent. It was all poured-in-place concrete so we couldn’t do the electrical work until the rebar was down. When that was done, we had a four-hour window to get the electrical wiring in and get it inspected because the next morning they were pouring concrete.”

Morrow-Meadows cost-efficient solution was a custom-made prefabricated wiring system. Wiring harnesses—flexible plastic conduit enclosing the wiring—were created and cut to length, with end connectors that snapped together, leaving tails that could be connected to fixtures. “It was a little more costly but we made up the difference in labor costs [savings],” said Halliburton, “especially considering that there were 6,000 light fixtures for five levels of deck.”

Yet while the former parking lot was chosen as the theme park location because of the scarcity of available open space near Disneyland, its use presented considerable challenges to contractors. There was little room for storage or for offices for personnel. Construction crews had to be bussed in from off site. Deliveries of all materials had to be arranged by written notice 48 hours in advance.

Morrow-Meadows took the offensive again. The company brought in a purchasing agent from its main office and set him up in an office on site. Foremen had to plan ahead and place orders with him. He coordinated about four deliveries a day, which was a crucial job since Disney asked companies to dispose of any materials not used within a two-day period. “He could see what guys were going through by being on site and he knew the importance of materials,” said Halliburton. “Hundreds of different materials were used out there to tie it all together. It wasn’t just pipe and wire. If we had 20 to 30 guys standing around, we were wasting money. Deciding to do that was probably the best thing we did.”

The work of the 12 general contractors and all the subcontractors was coordinated in daily meetings where contractors presented coordination drawings that showed how their work overlaid that of others. For example, on Grizzly River Run, there is a bear-shaped mountain with a river raft ride winding through it. As concrete was being poured to build the mountain, landscapers were planting trees and Morrow-Meadows electricians were putting in the main underground wiring, which was installed prior to the flume, the chute for the water and river raft ride. “It was a mess,” said Halliburton. “Everyone was in everyone else’s way.”

As work progressed, to ensure there was a way to insert pipe and wire to avoid having to drill holes in the concrete later, Morrow-Meadows put in sleeves at different elevations so that during the build-out conduits could be run through them.

Even when the job was done according to the drawings, Disney’s design team was on site invoking the 6-foot rule—a contract provision that allowed for them to demand that installations be moved 6 feet for various reasons. “Someone would be there saying, ‘We want a tree here, here and here,’” said Halliburton. “If we had a box there—even though it was according to the drawings—we had to move it. And we had to move over 50 of them on the mountain.”

Appearance dictated most changes. “Everything Disney does is special,” said Halliburton, a propensity that complicated even the creation and installation of lights in small shops on the lane dissecting the Hollywood Back Lot area. Each has its own theme, reflected as well in the lighting design. Murals of large yellow poppies—California’s state flower—cover the walls of a candy shop. Morrow-Meadows had a lighting manufacturer fabricate the overhead cloud-shaped light. Hanging it was the challenge. It was laid out on the ground, then laser levels were used to designate hanging points. Installation took two workers an entire week to complete.

To carry out the adjacent room’s theme, “Under the Sea,” the ceiling was shaped like a series of waves, with low-voltage specialty lighting following this shape. Low-voltage transformers in the ceiling feed the lights. Once they were installed, it wasn’t a matter of simply turning them on. A consultant with Walt Disney Imagineering dictated where to aim each light to best show off the merchandise.

As visitors enter California Adventure today, they pass the main esplanade that includes giant letters spelling “CALIFORNIA.” Morrow-Meadows worked on that area, the turnstiles and the tile-covered mountains that house shops. They also did the wiring/what underground of a concrete lane that winds through the park and serves as the route for daily parades. Poles holding light fixtures line the route. Morrow-Meadows wired them; Disney installed its own fixtures. “We piped those lights back to panels and then everything went through a computerized control system,” said Halliburton. That system allows lighting designers to turn any given circuit on or off at any time, creating different moods and effects for a variety of parades.

Before that lane was created, though, the route was a dirt delivery road used for bringing materials onto the different projects. When construction of the lane itself was about to begin, Disney asked Morrow-Meadows to issue a drawing of the location of the lights and pull boxes. “It was just piles of dirt,” said Halliburton. “We were supposed to lay everything out according to a joint line in the concrete that wasn’t even there. I said, ‘Guys, that’s not going to work because everything is supposed to be surveyed.’” When Disney insisted, Morrow-Meadows bought a computer-assisted drawing (CAD) operator on site, who did the plotting that gave dimensions off a set point, a curb line, a hard dimension to the pull box, and footage and inch marks to show where everything was located. “We said, ‘Here’s where we want to put everything,’” said Halliburton. “Tell us ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If it’s ‘no,’ tell us why and we’ll redo it.” While it was costly, it saved Morrow-Meadows time.

And time was at a premium. So many inspections were going on simultaneously that city inspectors couldn’t handle all of them. (Eventually an additional one was hired.) Morrow-Meadows would complete work but it couldn’t be covered up. Disney’s team of engineers, art directors and others were also on site. “If you did anything wrong, the city didn’t have to tell you,” said Halliburton. “Disney had already been all over it. They would issue a deficiency notice based on a job walk and give you a sheet listing the room number and the panel number that was not according to specs and tell you that you had a certain time frame to respond. If you didn’t respond you waived your rights. Disney had the right to bring someone else in and you had to pay for it.”

That worked both for and against Morrow-Meadows. While they redid some of their own work, they also garnered repair and finish contracts in the areas of Paradise Pier and Hollywood Back Lot for other contractors that could not complete the work or meet the construction schedule—ones who originally outbid them. Repair on Muppetvision alone was $1.5 million. “Picking up the work at the end was a problem in itself,” said chief estimator and vice president Slingluff. “It was nice to have that but it did affect our contract work because it was difficult getting the manpower. Our team was working 24 hours a day at some points.”

What was the end result for Morrow-Meadows? “We’re proud we came through with our customer satisfied and work done correctly,” said Meadows. EC

CASEY is the author of Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries That Have Shaped Our World (Chicago Review Press). She may be contacted at Scbooks@aol.com.

About the Author

Susan Casey

Freelance Writer
Susan Casey, author of "Women Heroes of the American Revolution," "Kids Inventing! A Handbook for Young Inventors," and "Women Invent! Two Centuries of Discoveries that have Changed Our World," can be reached at scbooks@aol.com or www.susancaseybooks...

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