Disney Editions has just released "Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms," an engaging and informative book by Marty Sklar, Disney Legend and longtime leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. With introductions by Ray Bradbury and Richard M. Sherman, and a number of interesting photographs, the book is sure to delight all kinds of Disney fans.
“Somewhere in the world, there’s a Disney park open every hour of every day; literally, the sun never sets on their operation on three continents around the globe.” In an article about his book in a recent edition of Disney Files Magazine (a Disney publication for Disney Vacation Club Members), Sklar explained that he had four major reasons for writing this book about his career (and I am paraphrasing): 1) he had a unique experience among all Disney Cast Members in that he is the only one to have participated in the openings of all of the 11 Disney Parks around the world; 2) he wrote a large amount of personal material for Walt Disney during the early years of his career (many of which are widely quoted, and well known); 3) he was the creative director for the Imagineers during two very distinct periods in Disney history “after Walt” (basically the pre- and post-Michael Eisner years); and 4) he wanted to provide readers with a special view into Walt Disney Imagineering.
There have been many books published about the history of Disney and its companies in their various iterations, many of which were written as memoirs by the men and women who took part in that history. I have not read any of them (until now!), but they have been written. I am a big Disney fan, and love planning vacations, going to the Parks and watching Disney movies. I once discovered pretty quickly, during a Disney cruise trivia contest, that while I may have experienced the results of the Disney creative processes, I know very little about the processes themselves, or about the rich history surrounding the Disney approach to “Imagineering.” (“At WED, we call it “Imagineering”—the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.”) So, when I read the article in Disney Files, I thought it was time that I dug in, and Sklar’s book looked like just the place to do it.
Firstly, I’m not sure whether to call this book a history, a memoir or an autobiography, but it really doesn’t matter. Sklar presents his material in a generally chronological, but also thematic format. As noted in the subtitle, “My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms,” much of the book focuses on Sklar’s contributions to the openings of all of the Disney parks throughout the world, from Disneyland in 1955 to Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005, and the beginnings of Shanghai Disneyland, which is expected to open in 2015. Sklar has been involved in the openings of all of the eleven Disney parks (Trivia question: can you name them all? Caveat: in this case do not include the water parks or DisneyQuest.), and was instrumental in helping to shape the attractions and experiences that millions of guests enjoy every year.
Sklar started his Disney career in 1955, as the result of a telephone message that was waiting for him at his fraternity house at UCLA while he was still a student. The call was from Card Walker, then the head of marketing and publicity for the Walt Disney Company. He initially thought that the message was a prank, as one of his fraternity brothers’ fathers was an executive at a Vegas casino, and that “Card Walker” must have been a “card dealer.” He did end up returning that call, and having been recommended for a writing job by a UCLA alum on the basis of his work as the editor for the UCLA Daily Bruin, started down a long, creative and storied path toward becoming a Disney Legend.
During his early years, Sklar was a writer and “ghostwriter” who was responsible for creating copy for many official Disney publications (including annual reports and public relations pieces) and for scripts for Disney leadership (including Walt) for personal and television appearances. Many quotes that are familiar “Waltisms” were actually written by Sklar! (“The way I see it, Disneyland will never be finished. It’s something we can keep developing and adding to.”) In reading these examples, and in a quote that appears to have come directly from Walt—which Sklar includes near the end of the book—it is clear that he was very successful in capturing (and perhaps heavily influencing) Walt’s signature, folksy speaking style.
Sklar spent a good deal of time in the book discussing the development of attractions for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, particularly on how Disney used the development of those attractions to set the groundwork for upcoming attractions in the Disney Parks. “In fact, Walt’s vision for using a temporary event as a testing ground for permanent attractions proved to be a stroke of genius.” These attractions involved: the first use of audio-animatronics (Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois, Carousel of Progress for GE, Magic Skyway for Ford), a greater focus on ride capacity (“it’s a small world,” Carousel of Progress), and on innovations in transportation (WEDway PeopleMover technology). He noted that technology often had to catch up with Walt’s vision (and still does): “A good idea may come back to life in the world of Disney . . . but a great idea will find its way into our parks somewhere in the world.” For example, Walt wanted to build a rollercoaster-style ride in the dark in Disneyland, but it took years for that idea to take off with the development of Space Mountain (pun intended).
Sklar also goes into great depth about the development of Epcot, particularly on efforts to line up critical corporate sponsors for many of the attractions, which was by no means easy and meant numerous trips from California to other parts of the country to nail down the sponsorships. Sklar was instrumental in developing the sponsorship nomenclature for sponsored attractions: “XX Attraction presented by XX Company” as in SPACESHIP EARTH presented by Siemens. “A key to maintaining the Disney standard is consistency around the world.” As a result, all sponsored attractions in any Disney Park, wherever they are located, are named this way.
He also recounted the painstaking development of Epcot’s vision of technology and the future, and answering the question of how Disney could tell “entertaining and meaningful stories about energy, transportation, communications, food.” In one entertaining anecdote, Card Walker asked Sklar how the Imagineers planned to entertain guests on the planned boat ride in the Land pavilion. Sklar replied: “Don’t worry Card, we’ll be watching lettuce grow!” Sklar recounts that Walker was not amused, but guests have been enjoying watching lettuce (and bananas and nine-pound lemons) grow from the boats in the Living with the Land attraction for decades.
Since this book is an official Disney publication you might be thinking that all will be shiny and bright, with no recollections that would tarnish the Disney image. However, while the book is certainly not a tell-all, and Sklar had great praise for many of his fellow cast members, he does not pull any punches when it comes to those with which he bumped heads. I did find it gratifying, however, that it did not seem in these few critical passages that Sklar was trying to “trash” any of his fellow employees (particularly Paul Pressler) or others with which he had less than positive encounters along the way. Rather he used these occasions to point out how there are always tensions in the creative process, and that while normally this tension is central to success, in some circumstances it is not at all helpful.
Sklar also devotes quite a bit of the book, particularly the last chapters, to his philosophies of leadership and “followership.” “The luckiest and smartest leaders I watched as role models as I grew up at Disney always surrounded themselves with people who were smarter, and more talented and productive than they were.” Any reader who either is a boss or has a boss (in other words, pretty much all of us) would do well to pay close attention to Sklar’s expanded “Mickey’s Ten Commandments.” Sklar feels strongly that leaders need to be mentors, and should work hard to train and develop young talent, a view that I’m sure was closely informed by the mentoring that he was given as a young (not even out of college!) Disney employee. “ . . . Walt never hesitated to interweave age and experience with you and exuberance . . . ” and neither did Marty Sklar.
Not having a solid background in Disney history, I did find myself wanting to draw organizational diagrams and family trees to try to keep track of the myriad names and changes in organizational structure over the years. The amount of detail presented in the book was gargantuan. Finally, when I just relaxed, read along, and didn’t worry about keeping track of who was who, and who worked where when, I enjoyed the book much more. For those who already have a strong historical knowledge, I am sure that you will have no problem following along, and will be delighted to hear some new stories (or new takes on old stories) about your favorite personalities. I highly recommend this book for fans of Disney history, particularly related to Imagineering, who would enjoy Sklar’s first-hand recollections and insightful musings on leadership.
As Marty Sklar exhorts us: “Life is like a blank sheet of paper. You never know what it can be until you put something on it. So Dream It! Do It! And work hard to do the best possible job. What are you waiting for?”
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Alice McNutt Miller is a lifelong Disney fan whose fondest childhood memories include “The Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday nights and her first trip to Disneyland when she was ten years old. Alice and her family are Disney Vacation Club members, and have now visited every one of the Disney parks throughout the world. They live in Vienna, Virginia.
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