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Keeping A Watchful Eye Over the Fun - November 2016

How 2017 IAAPA Chairman Greg Hale is bringing Disney’s reputation for creativity, technology, and innovation to his new role

by Jeremy Schoolfield

Just like a Super Bowl MVP, Greg Hale wanted to go to Disney World.

Back in 1988, Hale was an electrical engineer for a big manufacturing plant in Florida. He was happy where he was, but when he saw a newspaper ad for an open position at the Orlando resort, his inquisitive mind started churning. He was more intrigued about seeing behind the scenes, figuring an engineering interview at Walt Disney World had to at least include a backstage tour, right?

“I had no idea whether or not I’d actually be working here, but I really wanted to see it,” says Hale, grinning with the recollection.

It was a busy time at the vacation destination, as the resort’s third theme park—then called Disney-MGM Studios—was preparing to open and Disney was staffing up accordingly; the company offered Hale a manager position, overseeing the electrical and controls engineering department.

“It was such an amazing opportunity to come work for a unique company like Disney, I knew I’d kick myself forever if I didn’t take it,” he says, thinking it would be a three-year gig at most.

Try nearly 30.

Hale is now the chief safety officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, a position he’s held since 2002. In November, he becomes 2017 IAAPA Chairman of the Board during IAAPA Attractions Expo 2016 in Orlando.

The chairmanship is a culmination of Hale’s long history of volunteer service with IAAPA, as he first became involved with the association in 1990. In 2003, he was elected to the IAAPA Board of Directors and became chairman of the IAAPA Safety Committee. He’s also served on the association’s strategic planning committee and presented at countless IAAPA seminars. In 2010, Hale was recognized with the IAAPA Outstanding Service Award for his dedication to the industry.

“I jumped in with both feet,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve seen the evolution of IAAPA. In the beginning, it was more of a place for people to sell rides and attractions. But now the industry is really counting on IAAPA to deliver knowledge.”

Hale has been an active participant as the association continues to spread its educational offerings, engaging attraction operators with all levels of experience, in all regions. He cites recent IAAPA Safety Institutes in Vietnam and Japan as two exciting examples of how hundreds of professionals come together in far-flung locations to better themselves and the industry as a whole: “That is a critical element of what the industry needs and wants, and IAAPA is the only one able to deliver that around the world.”

From Mississippi to Shanghai

Hale is as affable a guy as you’ll ever meet—quick to laugh, and friendly with everyone he encounters. But don’t let that cheerful exterior fool you; when he walks the parks or experiences an attraction, Hale and his team are always on alert to ensure the quality and standards he’s spent a career helping to create, refine, and enforce are being upheld.

Hale has been deeply involved with new Disney attractions and experiences, at many stages of the development process. For instance, he makes trips to the Walt Disney Imagineering campus in California to discuss forthcoming concepts; his team also provided critical input on safety matters prior to the debut of Shanghai Disney Resort in June.

“When I ride, I’m watching for more than the quality of the show elements. I’m also looking at things like the ride system or the reach envelope,” he says.

Hale has had a love affair with technology that goes back as far as he can remember, all the way to his childhood home in the small town of Oxford, Mississippi. As a kid he was “a tinkerer,” always taking things apart and trying to figure out how to put them back together again—or just creating something entirely new, instead. (“I made a doorbell turn on lights once.”)

“Everybody kept telling me I had to go into engineering,” he remembers. “I had an interest in inventing and building things.”

After graduating in 1976 at the top of his electrical engineering class from the University of Mississippi, he took a couple of engineering jobs at large manufacturing companies; there he learned how to apply what he’d learned in school to the real world, such as automating a supply chain involving combustible materials. By the mid-’80s, he was helping design manufacturing plants all over the world.

Other than a 1969 family cross-country trip to Disneyland in California, Hale had no particular affinity for the attractions industry growing up. What drew him to the Disney job in 1988 “was the technology I knew existed behind the scenes.”

While he started with Disney in electrical engineering, he advanced quickly as the resort grew. Within a year he was already overseeing ride and show engineering; in mid-1999 he was promoted to vice president, responsible for Orlando’s attraction design, engineering, and regulatory compliance. Around the same time, Disney was building new theme parks in California, Paris, and Hong Kong. Company executives saw all this new construction as an opportunity to further develop the company’s standards and technology; Hale led this effort, and was eventually named chief safety officer for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, expanding his responsibilities from Orlando to all Disney properties around the world.

Where Quality and Performance Meet

The maintenance garage for “Test Track” at Walt Disney World’s Epcot looks like something more akin to a NASA control center than what you’d expect to find at a theme park. Each night when the attraction closes, all of the independently operating ride vehicles undergo a series of detailed maintenance checks, tracked in real time on large flatscreen monitors. 

“Maintenance will do thorough checks on a ride every night on the quality of our product and the expectations of our guests who demand it,” Hale says. “When we shut an attraction down at midnight, the work that goes on from there until the time we open the next day is amazing.”

All of these tasks are monitored by Disney’s Automated Maintenance Verification System (AMVS), which digitizes the classic paper logbook. The checks are performed with a handheld device, which receives updates to any maintenance procedures automatically. What’s more, the Cast Member (Disney’s term for an employee) using the device must log in individually; if his/her training is not up to date, that person is locked out of performing those tasks until properly trained and certified.

In addition, each “Test Track” car has its own set of mandatory long-term maintenance requirements, such as tire wear or seatbelt durability. The vehicles are tagged with RFID; every time one returns to the station to pick up its next round of guests, the AMVS checks that the car has not exceeded any of its maintenance limits. If anything on that one car pings the system, the station gates will not open for guests to be able to ride the vehicle.

Using “Test Track” as a guide, imagine the measures that must be performed on every attraction at every Disney theme park every night—only then do you start to scratch the surface of the processes that Hale and his team oversee. The company’s safety and quality-assurance programs encompass much more than just rides and shows, as well.

Hale and his team have invented and developed new technologies for other protocols, such as food preparation. Using an electronic handheld device and software program called Disney CHEFS (Computerized HACCP for Enhanced Food Safety), food-and-beverage managers are required to test their sites on a regular basis according to HACCP (hazard analysis and critical control points), a management system for food safety. All the critical food data collected throughout the day is recorded digitally and can be accessed and sorted online in real time.

“They press a button on this device, and it captures the temperature (of a food item) and prompts you in case there is need for corrective action,” Hale says. “I believe it’s one of the most advanced food monitoring software systems in the world.”

Enhance the Guest Experience, One FastPass at a Time

Hale has also made significant contributions to Walt Disney Parks and Resorts’ broader technological advancements over the past three decades. He is a named inventor on more than 80 United States and foreign patents for innovations in the industry, including for the original FastPass system, which debuted at Walt Disney World in summer 1999. The system allows a guest to “hold” a place in line for an attraction during a specific window of time, while not having to actually stand in the physical queue. Guests visit the attraction of their choice, scan their park tickets in a machine near the queue entrance, and receive a paper ticket with a one-hour window for their return later in the day, where they enter the attraction with minimal to no wait.

“We actually went into the ride-control systems, looked at the capacity of every ride in real time, and have a computer system that knows that capacity and allocates a portion of the capacity to each FastPass issued,” says Hale. “It took a very talented team.”

Hale says the project was conceived as a guest service to minimize the amount of time spent before experiencing an attraction: “The whole point was to get guests to use it and have a better overall park experience during their stay.” Originally, rides outfitted with FastPass didn’t offer standby queues; those were quickly added when it became clear that some guests preferred to wait in line rather than come back later.

Hanging on Hale’s office wall are six original FastPass tickets in a frame, including the very first from “Space Mountain” on July 1, 1999—a day that changed the course of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

“If guests had FastPasses at 7 o’clock that night, instead of leaving early, they’d stay for that FastPass,” Hale says. “So the demand to roll this out skyrocketed. We couldn’t implement this fast enough.”

More than 15 years later, the FastPass system is in use at every Disney park around the world. In 2014, Walt Disney World unveiled FastPass+, a paperless update that allows guests to obtain FastPasses up to 60 days in advance of their visit.

Hale says his time developing FastPass is a prime example of what makes the job so exciting and fulfilling: “It’s the same experience I’ve had over and over. You work on something for years, and then, eventually, you’re riding a ride like ‘Pirates’ at the Shanghai Disney Resort opening. You’re with all the guests, and they don’t know you worked on it—or work for Disney, even—and they’re just oohing and ahhing about how fantastic it is … that’s what keeps me going. It’s just being part of creating things nobody’s ever done—that’s what Disney does.”

Improve the Overall Experience

Hale has substantial expertise in accessibility for guests with disabilities. As such, his team has led efforts in areas such as wheelchair access and transfers to ride vehicles, as well as other methods of access to Disney attractions. 

For instance, over the course of his Disney career, Hale helped with the creation of personal electronic handheld devices that help guests with disabilities relating to vision or hearing, using a combination of Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and Disney’s proprietary infrared technology developed by Hale’s team. These devices are available for free at Guest Services at Disney parks; they are triggered automatically as guests move throughout the properties.

Epcot’s “Journey Into Imagination With Figment” is a good example of how the device works. If a guest with a hearing disability boards “Journey,” the attraction’s dialogue will appear on the handheld screen as the ride vehicle progresses through each scene; guests with visual disabilities use headphones connected to the device to hear descriptions of each sequence. (The same technology is also used for a separate headphone device providing instantaneous language translations.) The audio descriptions don’t just stop with the rides, either; as a guest with a visual disability walks through the park, the device provides audio descriptions of the landscape in that particular area and offers insight into different design motifs and attraction types, along with practical information like locations for restaurants and restrooms. A new iteration of this technology is coming out soon with new hardware and software, built upon a brand-new custom mobile platform. Disney has also allowed this technology to be shared to help make the world more accessible; it is now in use in more than 30 national parks in the U.S., along with other locations.

Working to promote access for guests with disabilities has led Hale to some of the most rewarding moments of his career: “Our approach is to provide access for as many guests as possible. I have a passion for accessibility because of the possibility to develop and deploy technologies that allow more guests to ­experience Disney attractions.”

Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way

Hale enjoys the collaborative nature of the attractions industry, and he appreciates how Disney encourages him to share his passions and expertise. He lives his life by a simple credo: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. “If you’re going to spend your time doing something, you might as well do it right and lead the effort, not just follow,” he says. Thus, he’s worked arduously in the effort to standardize safety protocols around the world, as facilitated by IAAPA. The goal: to harmonize standards set by the ASTM F24 Committee that were developed in North America with the EN standards developed in Europe and the ISO standards currently in development, so that there is one harmonized set of safety standards for our industry to follow everywhere in the world.

Hale is also passionate about getting today’s youth interested in science and technology so they can continue to “help change the world.” He has volunteered countless hours with FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) for more than 20 years and is currently part of the committee that designs the robotics competition where each year hundreds of thousands of students from around the world come together to compete in head-to-head ­challenges.

Taking Passion for Service to A New Level

Hale is excited to become chairman of the board at such a critical moment for IAAPA. The association just announced its global headquarters will move to Orlando in 2017; in 2018, IAAPA marks its centennial. A primary theme for his chairmanship will be the continued use and evolution of technology to improve standards and operations at attractions the world over. 

“This is the ultimate compliment and recognition of IAAPA’s strong role in the industry,” he says. “It helps me give back, too, because it puts me in a position where I’m able to share more and more.”

Hale’s Pal, Mickey

Hale’s work in accessibility led to some unforeseen product developments. The infrared sensors placed throughout the parks for accessibility devices were used to create products, as well. Pal Mickey, for example, debuted in 2003; it was a plush toy featuring 1,000-plus lines of dialogue that activated as children carried the stuffed animal around the property. Meanwhile, the current “Made with Magic” product line debuted in 2012, including the “Glow with the Show” Mickey ear hats that change colors in time with Disney nighttime shows.

Contact Editorin-Chief Jeremy Schoolfield at jschoolfield@IAAPA.org.