|By Michele Himmelberg, The Orange County Register, Calif.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Oct. 15, 2003 - Cynthia Harriss, who once described herself as "the luckiest person who gets to work at the happiest place on earth," resigned as president of the Disneyland Resort on Tuesday, saying the time was right for someone else to lead Disneyland through its milestone 50th anniversary celebration.
That next leader is Matt Ouimet, a 14-year Disney veteran and president of the Disney Cruise Line. Ouimet will take over responsibilities for the overall management and long-term growth of the Anaheim Resort, which includes Disneyland, Disney's California Adventure, three hotels and Downtown Disney.
"Matt's deep understanding of the brand, focus on the quality of the guest experience and demonstrated ability to manage complex operations will be a tremendous asset," said Jay Rasulo, president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.
Harriss led the complex through its final phase of construction in a $1.4 billion expansion, opened Disney's California Adventure and a new hotel in 2001, and presided over Disneyland's 45th anniversary party. But she cited personal reasons for not extending her stay to the 50th, an event that will become a focal point of the Parks & Resorts divison in 2005.
Harriss, known for her exuberance and for spontaneously hugging employees, wrote an emotional letter to employees -- known at Disney as "cast members."
"Dear to me are the memories of our Cast Member family and the smiling faces of our Guests," she wrote. "Your love, care and compassion for this magical place, each other and our Guests is the legacy I'll hold in my heart."
She came to her final decision about a week ago. Rasulo thanked Harriss for 11 years of dedication and said the decision was purely hers.
Harriss was the first woman to serve as Disneyland president and was considered one of the most prominent executives in the county. She replaced Paul Pressler when he was promoted in late 1998 to president of Walt Disney Attractions, then the company's theme-park division. Pressler left that position to become CEO of The Gap Inc. last year.
In six years, Harriss led the transformation of the resort area from a one-park tourist site to a travel destination. Her task was to maintain the loyal following of local visitors -- the core group of customers -- and develop the resort in a way that would persuade out-of-town visitors to stay for more than a day. That included the evolution of California Adventure and the development of entertainment productions in both parks.
"The enormous work she put into the casting, training, changing the leadership team and focusing on making this a two-park resort, a multi-day destination, really cannot be minimized," Rasulo said. "The spirit and guest-centric mentality that Cynthia did that with is really a fantastic achievement, and what she'll be remembered for."
Harriss faced many challenges as well, including a severe decline in tourism nationally after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the economic downturn.
She also handled the fatal accident on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad on Sept. 5 that left her visibly shaken that morning. That followed an accident on the Roger Rabbit Car Toon Spin ride that left a young boy with brain damage in 2000. She was vice president of operations during the previous fatal accident at Disneyland involving the sailing ship Columbia.
Ouimet, 45, joined The Walt Disney Company in 1989 and has held executive positions in finance and business development.
One of his jobs with the Parks and Resorts division was to develop new business opportunities that target the kinds of people who would want to take a Disney vacation. That experience will be critical as he continues to build the Disneyland area into a destination that will attract visitors from San Clemente to Japan.
He drew particular praise from Rasulo for his work at the Disney Cruise Line.
"I expect he will bring the same principles he used in entering that industry, where he had to execute a strategy and differentiate our product from others entering the family cruise space," Rasulo said. "I can't say enough about what he's done there."
Ouimet said he is honored to join a place that symbolizes magic and imagination.
"I enjoy getting into new businesses, learning about them and then developing them to see where the marketplace wants to take it," Ouimet said. "We're in the early stages of doing that with the expanded Resort, and that makes it fun, too.
"The position this company has in the community, as a corporate citizen, will be equally as important to me."
Anaheim Mayor Curt Pringle said he was sad to see Harriss go, but eager to work with Ouimet.
"It's critical that the (president) of Disneyland has a commitment to the community," Pringle said. "Cynthia has been a huge asset to Disney and to Anaheim. It's a strong relationship, and one that is mutually beneficial.
She never lost sight of that."
Jack Lindquist, president of Disneyland from 1989-1993, said Ouimet's role is critical to the Walt Disney Co. and to Orange County.
"You have to be a strong leader, one that will make (employees) feel you're on their side and you're going to move forward," Lindquist said of the job's demands. "You need to take a leadership role with (Imagineers) to show them how important this park is for the growth of the company.
"You also need to take leaderership roles in the community, and again, demonstrate that Disneyland is concerned about the well being and growth of the whole area."
--Education: Graduate of St. Louis University
--Job: President Disneyland Resort 1999-2003
--Residence: Laguna Beach
--Interests: Trustee Laguna Playhouse, board member Children's Hospital of Orange County, board member South Coast Repertory.
--Education: Graduate of State University of New York at Binghamton.
--Job: President Disney Cruise Line. Named President of Disneyland Resort on Tuesday.
--Residence: Orlando, Fla., area
--Interests: Serves as the chairman of the Florida Chamber of Commerce and on the Board of Directors for the International Council of Cruise Lines and the Floridian Caribbean Cruise Association.
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(c) 2003, The Orange County Register, Calif. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. DIS, GPS,