Saturday, June 10, 2017

Be Our Guest
By DJ Hazard
(It might have been happening in 1998. It might be happening now.)

“Will everybody please  Quiet Down!”
I had to lose my cool, but it worked. Each year there were more people in the Operations Room. The new ones were always the noisiest, chattering away like nervous chickens. The momentary pause was my cue to jump in before their attention broke down again.
“For those new people coming on board, let me introduce myself. I’m Travis, Head of Operations here at Intermediate Imagineering, and I’d like to welcome you all to the Big Room.”
Some mumbles greeted me in return. They were more interested in what else I had to say and I couldn’t blame them. Within the next hour, their lives will change forever and they will be carrying around a secret that would drive most John Q. Publics to hysteria. A secret that they’ll have to keep to themselves when they return to their families and the rest of the Greater Orlando Suburban homes.
“You know you’ve been selected for a very special project, a project that stems from this room and has been in operation for,” I paused for effect, “just about thirty years, now.”
I checked the clock on the board behind me. Five minutes left. The wall-sized video screen beyond the podium console was still snowy with static, the volume turned down to avoid the hiss.
As I started telling the story for the umpteenth annual time, the senior techs began busying themselves with their clipboards and workstations.
The ‘Big Room’ was a rounded off square with each of the four sides bulging outward in a slight concave surface.  The big screen behind me was duplicated on each of the other walls. My console was replaced on the three other sides with slightly larger units, all with dense arrays of touchpads and readouts. I kept an eye on the other men and women working on them as I continued, looking for signs of any unexpected glitches.
As instructed when they first entered, no new team members stood on the ten foot wide circular dais in the center of the room. A reverse image structure hung from the ceiling above it.
“Since you new folks don’t all work in the same departments, you might be unaware of a few things you all have in common. First of all, you’ve all been members of our family for at least ten years. During that time, you’ve been scrutinized and tested in ways above and beyond your periodic evaluations.”
As always, THAT prompted an intense but motionless and nonverbal response, as if total silence could possibly increase several increments. Eyes never strayed from my direction, but every new recruit tried to give their colleagues the once-over with their peripheral vision.
I didn’t let them stew for long.
“That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, over the last decade each one of you fed was at least five false industrial secrets, tailored to your specific areas of expertise. In addition, you may or may not know that you’ve been approached several times and, to different degrees, tempted by others secretly in our employ to ‘let the mouse out of the bag’.
A few chuckles. The catch phrase was shop talk for divulging  sensitive information. Design and Development, the Motion Picture and Video Divisions, even General Theme Park Operations were all fodder for what could be lucrative espionage.
“Of course,” I continued, “We’ve all been drilled by genuine JQPs. They always want to know what it’s like behind the scenes here. But, in controlled incidents, you’ve each made the grade in the preservation of classified material. Your psych profiles are above average. Your personal activities and your overall conduct ratings are exemplary.”
I glanced over my shoulder again. Ninety seconds to go. The door at the far end, the only entrance, opened and the smiling faces of leadership entered.
“Folks, I turn you over to Michael.”
Michael. We were all on a first name basis in the Big Room.
He crossed the room, shaking hands with those closest to his path, until he reached the control station that I had vacated for him. He turned and nodded cordially to all seventy five of us, flanked by the other top officers that always attended.
“Folks, it’s great to see you,” another pause for effect, “and a great big welcome to you Big Room virgins!”
More chuckles. Michael can play a room with the best of them.
“I’m sure Travis has brought you up to speed,” he shot me a quick wink.
“The rest of the story, the reason why you’re here, the big picture, so to speak, will be made clear,” he glanced at the console, “in just a matter of seconds.”
A low pitched beeping followed. Ten seconds to go. "Please situate yourselves in one of the four blue areas marked on the floor. You will be briefed in detail immediately after the transmission.”
The floor of the Big Room was divided into four blue pie slices, quartered by four slim gray pathways that connected each wall screen to the central dais.
Michael stepped from the control station to the point of the pie slice on his immediate left, facing the dais. The ambient lighting lowered to near darkness and the low beeping was replaced with an upwardly modulating cricket sound. Tell-tales on the controls panels danced furiously and the four large screens began to glow a startling shade of cobalt.
As the cricket chirps crescendoed to an almost unbearable peak, the cobalt blue light burst from the screens, converging at the center of the room. A ghost like cylinder of blue light formed, reaching from the dais to its corresponding overhead structure.
The cricket sounds subsided, the low beeping returned and a figure formed in the cylinder of light. As the figure completely congealed, the expected gasps of the newcomers could be heard.
The grandfatherly face, then swept back salt and pepper hair, the twinkling eyes behind the heavy lids and crow’s feet… the Old Man still looked pretty good.
Michael stepped closer to the perimeter of the light cylinder, “Hi, Walt. How’s it going?”
“Well, just fine, Michael!”
The figure, hands tucked in the pockets of his stretched-out cardigan, turned to include his audience.
“Good evening, everybody, Christmas shopping done yet?”
Those with a couple of visitations under their belts answered back with polite one word attempts at small talk.
Walt listened listened to these attempts with what appeared to be genuine appreciation of his staff and suddenly interjected, “Lots of new faces this year! Don’t worry, gang, I’m not a ghost! I’m alive and well and, thanks to my gracious hosts, living and speaking to you from another part of the galaxy.”
A dozen faces in the soft blue wash searched my eyes for confirmation that this wasn’t some sort of surprise party prank.
Walt went on.
“Yep, I’m the first fella since Mark Twain to be able to brag about the exaggerations of my demise, thanks to the timely intervention by ‘The Friends” back in ‘66. ‘The Friends’, that’s what they call themselves. Just like the Lakota. Well, they had their reasons, sure, and that’s why we get to meet like this.”
It all started in mid-December, 1966, when Walt inexplicably vanished from Intensive Care. We didn’t have spin doctors back then. We just did the best we could, and the rumors went rampant.
Several months later, the Lincoln Audioanimatron (which had been in mothballs since the ‘64-’65 World’s Fair) started talking on its own, with or without a power source.
The Hall of Presidents storage facility became a high security area and our  best people were called in to observe. In a non-stop sixty three hour monologue, the simulacrum of the sixteenth president provided very detailed instructions for the construction and circuitry of what is now the Big Room.
In the last weeks of 1967, exactly one year to the day of Walt’s disappearance, the Big Room suddenly activated itself and our number one missing person appeared to us for the first time.
Walt turned back to Michael.
“Well, let’s get down to business! We got the upload of the latest piece, The Hunchback. Loved it! The Friends said it was right up there with Beauty and the Beast as far as desensitizing the JQPs to outwardly harsh appearances. The same with the genie in Aladdin. It’s going to be very important that seemingly omnipotent beings are looked at as adorable. After all, the kind of stuff you folks pull off now would have scared the willies out of the cowboys, heh? Don’t let that Williams kid slip through your fingers again.”
He started slowly directing his attention in another three sixty degree sweep.
“Now, listen up everybody! We’ve got new business to attend to. You all did a fine job on Pocahontas. It was exactly what we were looking for, a way to smooth over all that ugliness that was popping up about the Pilgrims and Columbus and such. Sure, all those protestors have a very valid point, but we have very little time left. There’s no room right now for any reminders of badly handled culture clashes in the past. Paranoia and Xenophobia are the last things we want. That’s why The Friends put an end to the Cold War. So, here’s your next assignment. This has got to be off the drawing boards and in the theaters by the year 2000.”
He took his hands out of his pockets and spread them across an imaginary easel.
“A full blown, cuddly, lovable song and dance version of War of the Worlds!”
He turned back to Michael.
“I’ll be back, same time next year, for a progress report. Gotta go! Keep up the great work, everybody!”
He flickered out of sight, like a white dot on a television. The blue cylinder, along with the beams from the screens, faded as the room lights returned. The newest members were asked to stay behind for an orientation session.
The rest of us broke for a quick lunch before we returned to our departments.
And then off to work we went.