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Harriss Quits After Four Years as Disneyland's President

She had faced an array of tough challenges during her tenure at the helm of the theme park.

October 15, 2003|Kimi Yoshino and James Bates | Times Staff Writers

Disneyland President Cynthia Harriss resigned Tuesday, capping a four-year tenure marked by the successful expansion of some operations but the disappointing debut of California Adventure.

Her departure set off the first major management shake-up since Jay Rasulo was named president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts one year ago. Rasulo was asked to move aggressively to turn around Disney's struggling theme park operation, which has been hammered by the soft economy, high gasoline prices and security concerns in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Harriss, who said she was leaving for personal reasons, will be replaced by Matt Ouimet, a 14-year company veteran and president of the Disney Cruise Line. As president, Ouimet will oversee the two Anaheim theme parks, Downtown Disney and three resort hotels.

Harriss was well-liked by her staff and well-regarded for her personable management style, sources inside Disney said. She would often hug employees and greet them by first name as she roamed through the parks.

She presided over an era of expansion at Disneyland Resort and Downtown Disney that Anaheim officials said helped draw tourists and conventioneers and boosted the city's image. Recently, she earned praise for her sensitive handling of an accident that claimed the life of a visitor on the big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride. The accident remains under investigation.

But critics said she didn't do enough to stop cost-cutting moves that occurred under Rasulo's predecessor, Paul Pressler, which the critics complained hurt the park. Pressler presided over the 2001 opening of Disney's California Adventure, which has failed to meet attendance projections. He left Walt Disney Co. about a year ago to become chief executive of Gap Inc.

When Rasulo took, sources said, he believed that Disneyland wasn't living up to its full potential and needed to be reinvigorated. Rasulo said Tuesday that he wished Harriss well but wouldn't comment on her decision to leave. "I really want to let Cynthia's words speak for themselves," he said.

The 51-year-old Harriss had been with the company for 11 years and at Disneyland for six years.

In a letter to the resort's 16,000 employees, she wrote: "The times we live in today remind us that every day counts, and I recognize that there is a small window of time to put my family and loved ones first. For me, that time is now."

Few were surprised by her resignation: Over the last six months, there had been rumors that she would be leaving, possibly to join Pressler at Gap. Sources said Tuesday that that was not the case.

"The rumbling has been around for some months, based on the fact that financially things don't seem to be getting any better. You knew eventually a shakeup was coming," said David Koenig, author of three Disney-related books.

Koenig had praise for Harriss: "She was dealt some difficult cards to play, and I thought she did a really good job under the circumstances. There's a difference between having your head in your job and your heart in your job. She seemed to do both."

UC Irvine professor Judy Rosener, who studies women in corporate life and counts Harriss as a friend, said Harriss was simply ready for a change.

"I know she's been thinking about this for a long time," Rosener said. "She just decided she wants to take a breather from corporate life and look at the options for her future."

Some saw the resignation as a sign of Rasulo's efforts to install a new management team amid an industrywide slump that has eroded profit in the cornerstone theme park business. The slump has depressed Disney's stock and increased pressure on Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who ushered in the company's vast expansion of theme parks and resorts.

Although Disneyland has fared better than Walt Disney World, which is more dependent on international travel, the California Adventure theme park continues to struggle.

At one point, Harriss was considered by several Disney executives as a candidate to replace Pressler.

Ouimet, 45, who has known Rasulo for several years and served with him on the company's executive operating committee, hails from one of the bright spots in the resort group: the cruise line business, which continues to grow despite the economic downturn.

Mark Jaronski, spokesman for the Cruise Line, which has nearly 3,000 employees, said of Ouimet, "He's a tremendous leader with a great vision and a real hands-on type of manager."

In an interview, Rasulo said Ouimet "was a very obvious choice for me. He really has a broad and deep knowledge and perspective of how our businesses work, how our businesses are promoted, and most importantly, how we differentiate ourselves from other people in the vacation space."

Ouimet joined the company in 1989 and has held several leadership positions, including with the Disney Vacation Club and Disney's Wide World of Sports.

"I feel very fortunate," Ouimet said. "If you work at the Walt Disney Co., this is the job you want .... To be able to come out to this market at this time, particularly in Orange County, is something we're really looking forward to as a family."

Disney also announced Tuesday that Karl Holz, senior vice president for Walt Disney World operations, had been named president of the Cruise Line.

Times staff writers Richard Verrier and Leslie Earnest and Orlando Sentinel writer Todd Pack contributed to this report.

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