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July 10, 2017

Disney's participation at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair was a pivotal moment for the company

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The endearing dolls in the it's a small world attraction at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair. [Chuck Schmidt collection]

Before there was Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland or Shanghai Disneyland, there was just little, ol' Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.

Although Walt Disney detested doing sequels to his movies, he wasn't averse to creating a second Disneyland. In the years following the opening The Happiest Place on Earth in 1955, there was some talk, both from within the company and from outside sources, that building a sequel might not be a bad idea.

It's still hard to imagine, given the success of Disney's theme parks worldwide today, but Walt and many of his top lieutenants had some doubts about building a second Disneyland east of the Mississippi River. Specifically, it was thought by many that Disneyland was a West Coast phenomenon and Disney's brand just wouldn't be very successful on the East Coast.

In 1960, a group of businessmen from St. Louis approached Disney about building a second Disneyland in the city known, ironically, as The Gateway to the West. Disney looked at the possibility long and hard, but after months of haggling, "Some key person backed out," according to Disney Legend John Hench, and the idea of a St. Louis Disneyland faded.

Still, Walt couldn't get the idea of heading East out of his mind. He needed something to convince himself that making a bold move East would be viable. So when the opportunity arose to participate in the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, Walt jumped at the idea.

Walt Disney's ties to international expositions go all the way back to the 1893, when his father, Elias Disney, worked as a carpenter at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

And at the 1939-1940 New York World's Fair, Disney characters Mickey, Minnie and Pluto starred in a five-minute Technicolor cartoon named Mickey's Surprise Party.

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A poster promoting the 1958 Brussels World's Fair, which featured the Disney attraction "America the Beautiful."

In 1958, Disney decided to test the waters on an international scale, setting up a show at the World's Fair in Brussels, Belgium. According to Disney Legend Bob Gurr, "Walt was always thinking ahead of things. He sent a lot of guys over there [to Brussels] to sort of case the joint, to see what was involved."

At the Brussels World's Fair, Disney's then-innovative 360-degree Circarama film America the Beautiful played to packed houses. It was the first Disneyland-style attraction to be shown outside the United States.

Then, in 1962, "Walt sent a bunch of us to the Seattle World's Fair for the same reason," Gurr said. By "casing the joint," Walt was able to get a good idea of what would work and what wouldn't work at a World's Fair ... setting the stage for one of the biggest gambles of his life: The Walt Disney Company's participation at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair.

When Robert Moses and the folks at the New York World's Fair came calling, the wheels began turning in Walt's head. By participating in the Fair, Walt figured, he could resolve, once and for all, the question of whether his style of entertainment would be popular with East Coast audiences. And if Mickey and Friends were a hit in New York City, maybe ... just maybe ... Disney could make the move East on a permanent basis.

"The New York World's Fair was critical, because Walt used it as a proving ground for Walt Disney Imagineering to develop bigger and better shows and to advance animatronics beyond the [Enchanted] Tiki Room," said Tony Baxter, Imagineering's former senior vice president of Creative Development.

"I consider the Fair to be the first golden era of Imagineering attractions. New ride systems and sophisticated Audio-Animatronics were developed for the Fair. It was a giant leap forward in what could be done [in Disney's theme parks]."

But over and above that, Walt wanted to see first-hand the reactions of Easterners to those attractions. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, if Disney could make it in New York, it could make it anywhere. As it turned out, that anywhere became a huge tract of land south of the then-sleepy town of Orlando, Fla. When the Fair opened on April 22, 1964, Walt was already secretly scooping up property in central Florida.

In a stroke of pure business genius, Walt enlisted corporate sponsors pay for each of Disney's four Fair attractions. Moreover, according to former Imagineering leader Marty Sklar, when the Fair closed, those same companies paid for the attractions to be shipped back to Disneyland, where they took up residence in whole or in part [it's a small world and some of the dinosaurs from Ford's Magic Skyway can still be seen in the Happiest Place on Earth].

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The exterior of the Illinois state pavilion at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair.

Sklar traces Disney's participation in the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair back to 1957. "It started, I guess, with Abraham Lincoln," he said. "That show had been written - not the single Lincoln, but the entire Hall of Presidents show - in 1957." The problem was, technology hadn't yet caught up with Walt's wildly creative imagination.

But when Moses, the president of the Fair, saw mock ups of the Hall of Presidents show during a tour of the Disney Studios, he was insistent that Disney bring it to the Fair. "But Walt said, 'We haven't done one figure yet," Sklar said. "Ultimately, Moses put Disney and the state of Illinois together," which resulted in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln presentation at the Illinois state pavilion.

The Lincoln show was ground-breaking on so many different levels. To begin with, Disney's creative team had to make their recreation of Honest Abe look like an honest to goodness Abraham Lincoln. Anyone with a penny or a five-dollar bill in their pocket could easily compare the facial features on the currency with the Audio-Animatronics figure on stage. Abe had to be spot-on ... and he was, thanks to the work of sculptor Blaine Gibson.

And then there were the movements of the robotic figure positioned in the center of the stage. No one had ever tried, much less succeeded, in having a life-size animated figure move with the fluidity of a human being. The system used hydraulic and pneumatic valves to achieve that realism.

"It was a marvel the machine worked as well as it did from the get-go," said Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who was the main man behind the development of Audio-Animatronics. "It combined the sculpting, the skin, the detailed facial animation, animated hands, plus the body, plus getting him up out of the chair and all the electronics to do with that ... it was a big effort by so many people working on that machine."

The show began with the Lincoln figure seated at center stage. Then, to the amazement of those in the audience, Lincoln would rise up from the chair, stand and begin to recite lines from some of his most famous speeches. Gurr called Lincoln's rise from the chair "that trick thing."

The success of the development of the Lincoln figure in the years prior to the Fair's opening allowed Gurr to devise a system where Audio-Animatronics figures could be mass-produced.

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A closeup of the Abraham Lincoln figure at the New York World's Fair, created by famed Disney artist Blaine Gibson. [The Walt Disney Company]

"Within a year, we found with the basic concept of Lincoln we could actually engineer what we would call production parts," Gurr said. "In other words, instead of making a part one at a time, we could make a whole group of parts. By investing in the tooling to make parts, we could manufacture humans and animals out of all these standardized parts. All of this started with the basic configuration of Abraham Lincoln."

Gurr and the rest of the creative team used this philosophy to build Audio-Animatronics figures for Disney's three other World's Fair shows: Ford's Magic Skyway, General Electric's Carousel of Progress and Pepsi-Cola's it's a small world.

The Magic Skyway show took guests, seated in authentic Ford Motor Company cars [sans engines and transmissions and all convertibles, so guests wouldn't hit their heads] on a journey through time, from the dawn of the ages to prehistoric times and then into the future [a subtle hint at Walt's desire to build a city of the future]. In addition to contributing to the development of the massive dinosaur figures seen during the ride, Gurr was the chief designer for the actual ride system which carried the cars on their voyage through time.

Borrowing from the booster brake system he and Arrow Development employed on Disneyland's Matterhorn Mountain attraction, Gurr positioned small one-horsepower gear motors with rotating 16-inch wheels several feet apart along the ride's two tracks. The wheels [there were a total of 714 of these motors embedded in the two tracks] would come in contact with metal plates attached to the underbellies of the cars, allowing them to move at a slow, but steady pace. [A similar technology is used in the WEDway PeopleMover attraction in Walt Disney World. It is often mistaken for the Omnimover system, where ride vehicles can pivot and traverse up and down inclines.]

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Guests come face to face with a family of dinosaurs during the Ford's Magic Skyway attraction. [Associated Press]

Between the 1964 and 1965 seasons, Ford CEO Henry Ford II asked Walt Disney to record the narration for the attraction. Although "Walt had a terrible cough and kept blowing the lines," said Marty Sklar, "and it took a long time, we finally got a great take." It seems Walt also had problems pronouncing the names of many of the dinosaurs on display during the ride.

GE's Carousel of Progress showcased the advancement in electricity from the early 1900s through "modern times" ... or at the least, the mid-1960s. There even was a demonstration of nuclear fusion inside the pavilion.

In addition to the 32 Audio-Animatronics figures used in the four-part presentation, Disney employed a carousel-type system to present the show. There were four fixed stages representing different eras in the advancement of electricity and the audience revolved around each different set, with the song "There's a Great, Big Beautiful Tomorrow" playing every time the audience rotated to a different scene.

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The exterior of General Electric's Progressland, which featured the Disney-created Carousel of Progress, between the Fair's 1964 and 1965 seasons. [Associated Press]

The Carousel of Progress remains a popular attraction; it's located in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

The it's a small world attraction is a mainstay at every Disney park worldwide, primarily because of its message of international peace and harmony, particularly among young people.

Although not as complex, Audio-Animatronics technology was used on the dozens and dozens of dolls on display during The Happiest Cruise That Ever Sailed. Gurr, although tied up with the Audio-Animatronics and ride systems on the other three Disney Fair attractions, made contributions to it's a small world, specifically working with Arrow Development to come up with the system that gently pushed the boats through the narrow canals.

Of course, the most memorable aspect of it's a small world is its theme song, written by Dick and Bob Sherman. According to Marty Sklar, it's a small world is his all-time favorite Disney attraction. "The line in that song ... There's just one moon and one golden sun and a smile means friendship to everyone ... what a wonderful world this would be if we could follow those feelings."

In the end, Disney's participation in the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair proved to be a huge success, proving once and for all that the Disney brand of entertainment would be a big hit just about anywhere in the world.

March 6, 2017

Disney Legend Marty Sklar learns that inspiration can be a two-way street

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Marty Sklar, center, poses for a photo after his presentation at the Festival of the Arts in Epcot in February. From the left are Julian Robinson, Chuck Schmidt, Marty, Janet Schmidt and Gail Robinson. [Courtesy of Gail and Julian Robinson]


"One little spark, of inspiration, is at the heart, of all creation." - Richard and Robert Sherman

Inspiration comes in many forms. Sometimes, all you need to be inspired is just one little spark.

Take, for example, the young woman who told an inspirational story during a question-and-answer session at a recent Festival of the Arts workshop conducted by Disney Legend Marty Sklar in the Odyssey Festival Center in Epcot.

"This is more of a comment than a question," she began. "I was trying to decide what type of career path I wanted to take when my college professor suggested that I read your book, One Little Spark! I did, and it inspired me to pursue a career as an Imagineer. I'm currently working as an intern with Walt Disney Imagineering."

Add that woman to the very long list of people Marty Sklar has inspired over the years. And, in a roundabout way, add Marty Sklar to the list of people the woman has inspired during her still-young career. More on that later.

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The artwork of both Herb Ryman, above, and Mary Blair were on display at the Odyssey Festival Center at Epcot during the inaugural Festival of the Arts. [AllEars.Net]

Marty's workshop at the Festival of the Arts was part of a troika of appearances by the former creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering at his beloved Epcot: There was the sold-out presentation at the Odyssey on Feb. 11, then a book signing on Feb. 12 in the Art of Disney at Epcot, and finally a return to the Odyssey on Feb. 13 for a talk about the artwork of Disney Legends Herb Ryman and Mary Blair.

During his Feb. 11 workshop, Marty talked about his two books, Dream It! Do It! and the aforementioned One Little Spark!

"My first book was sort of takeoff on one of my favorite songs, '50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,' by Paul Simon, although that in no way reflects my real life. My wife Leah and I will be celebrating our 60th anniversary on May 12th.

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Bob Gurr and Marty Sklar have done a number of Disney events over the years, the most recent being a presentation at the Texas Transportation Forum. [AllEars.Net]

"It was more about 50 ways to get started. Nothing I had done prepared me to write Dream It! Do It! I first had to come to grips with the question: 'Do I really have something worthwhile to say?' In the end, I found out that writing a book takes a lot of patience, research and flexibility.

"And every writer needs a good editor and I was fortunate to have been able to work with Wendy Lefkon from Disney Editions. Her support and help, particularly with accessing material from the Disney Archives, was very important."

His follow-up book, One Little Spark!, took a deep dive into the world of Imagineering. It also provided a guide map for people aspiring to join the Walt Disney Company's much-heralded and respected creative wing.

Both of Marty's books have been unqualified successes and have resulted in book-signing tours over the last few years that have literally spanned the globe ... from Shanghai, China, to Toms River, N.J. "I just signed a contract with a Brazilian publisher for Portuguese editions of both books," Marty said. "Dream It! Do It! already has Japanese and Mandarin Chinese versions."

I asked Marty if there is another book in the works. That's when I learned that inspiration can be a two-way street.

"Yes, I've started working on another book, but it's hard to get motivated," he admitted. "But the Festival of the Arts audiences – including my separate book signing on Sunday – have inspired me to get moving."

During his workshop on Saturday, Marty said he was "really excited about the first-ever Festival of the Arts. It's wonderful to see the works of the Disney artists on display her at Epcot. Forgive me if I get a bit emotional. I worked on Epcot from 1973 until it opened in October of 1982 ... almost 35 years ago. Today, Epcot is the sixth-most visited park in the world. It's great to see the arts have joined in the fun here."

Inside the Odyssey, some of the works of Legendary Disney artists Herb Ryman and Mary Blair were on display, serving as a fitting backdrop to Marty's presentation, as well as the Festival in general.

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A poster advertising the Texas Transportation Forum had a very Disney feel to it.

Marty's appearance at Epcot capped off another whirlwind stretch for the now 83-year-old. Prior to his Epcot stint, he and fellow Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who is 85, gave presentations at the Texas Transportation Forum, which ran from Feb 5-7 in Austin.

The title of their keynote talk was "Imagineering a Legacy: How Disney's Designs Influence Today's Transportation." Who better to talk about transportation issues than two of Imagineering's guiding lights, two Disney giants who were always pushing the envelope and developing creative and forward-thinking solutions to a myriad of problems?

Both Marty and Bob gave perspective and context on how Imagineering's "great sense of innovation can be applied to the transportation problems of today," according to the event program. "The Imagineers had to think outside the box to overcome many issues, including developing new and innovative transportation systems."

"I guess we were a big hit." Marty said. After their presentation in front of 1,500 people, "another 500-600 were at our Breakout Session. They said some of the government people [doing other Breakout sessions] were not thrilled – we had by far the biggest audience!"

"Yes, we both had a blast," Gurr added. "1,500 Texas government folks, all friendly Republicans. Well organized and ready for tall tales from Disney's past more than issues of transportation. The panel presenters did all of that, while we made up stories."

Stories that no doubt inspired those in attendance to dream up new and creative ways to tackle many of today's pressing transportation issues.

December 12, 2016

A November to remember for Disney Legend Marty Sklar

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Mickey Mouse joins Neil Patrick Harris in presenting Marty Sklar with the prestigious Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award on Nov. 1. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

If there's such a thing as a rock star in the world of amusement parks, it's Marty Sklar.

Who else in the vast Disney cast, current or retired, can draw hundreds of adoring fans to book signings or presentations around the country? Who else would spend five hours signing autographs for nearly 500 people after an event in Chicago this past summer? Who else would be sought out by today's generation of Imagineers to offer his unique insight into projects they're currently working on?

That's right. It's Marty Sklar, rock star.

Marty is someone who understands his place in the history of the Walt Disney Company ... and someone who understands how he's viewed by his former colleagues and his legions of fans. Through it all, he's remained humble about his life's work, yet more than willing to give the people what they want when it comes to his knowledge and perspective on all things Disney.

I've always known how important the former leader of Walt Disney Imagineering is to the history of the Walt Disney Company, how influential he's been. Apparently, Walt Disney's family knew it, too.

It was Walt's surviving family members, starting with son-in-law and former Disney CEO Ron Miller, right down to Walt's many grandchildren, who saw fit to honor Marty Sklar as the second recipient of the prestigious Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award at the Walt Disney Family Museum's annual fund-raising gala on Nov. 1.

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Marty joins the Dapper Dans and belts out a tune with the help of Neil Patrick Harris. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

Marty, surrounded by many members of his own family, as well as numerous members of his extended family, accepted the award in the Grand Californian Resort at Disneyland.

"When Ron Miller called me about the award, of course I said yes," Marty told me during a recent interview. "I felt that in accepting the award, I could be useful in helping to raise money for the museum."

For those who don't know him, that's typical Marty. If you're going to give me an award, he's saying, I might as well turn it into a positive thing for you, too.

"I've tried to help out the museum as much as I can over the years," Marty said. "I've visited the museum at least six times in the 10 years since it opened. It means a lot to me to preserve Walt's legacy. Diane Disney Miller [Walt's daughter and the founder of the museum] was always intent on doing just that. I've always appreciated what she tried to do ... to focus on Walt the man, and what he accomplished. That was always her goal."

In Marty's eyes, the museum is a must-see. "It's hard to get past the first section of the museum, it's so enticing. There's a lot of early Disney memorabilia, things that Walt had recorded. All of us who knew and worked with Walt can really appreciate those things. They didn't whitewash anything. It's the whole story of Walt in a direct and interesting way."

And, Marty noted, the Walt Disney Family Museum is branching out, getting involved in educational programs for children in the San Francisco area.

Marty was pleased that many of his family members were able to attend [son Howard, who lives with his family in Finland, couldn't make it]. But during the evening, "There was one thing I screwed up," he said. "I had written a thank you script that I was going to read, but under the circumstances, it was impossible to do that. I wanted to introduce all my family members in the attendance and I wanted to mention that my wife Leah and I will be celebrating our 60th anniversary next May. I didn't get a chance to mention it; fortunately, Leah wasn't mad at me."

Was this the most important award he's ever received?

"The Disney Legend Award will probably always be No. 1. It's the top award given out by the company. But this award is very special, in part because it's only the second time it's ever been given out [the first recipient was composer Richard Sherman, who was on hand during Marty's big night to sing a special song dedicated to his long-time friend]. They started giving out the award after Diane passed away, and it was the members of her family who said that I should be this year's recipient, so that's quite an honor."

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Marty Sklar accepts the Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

The night itself was "a lot of fun, in addition to raising a lot of money for the museum," Marty said. Master of ceremonies Neil Patrick Harris surprised Marty by inviting him on stage for an impromptu session with The Dapper Dans, a Disneyland mainstay for decades. "I fumbled a little during the song, but Neil guided me through it."

The Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award was the beginning of a typically busy month for Marty, who turns 83 in February.

Later in the month, Marty flew to central Florida for a whirlwind week that would have exhausted most folks half his age. First, he attended the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions [IAAPA] convention in Orlando, where he took part in a panel discussion, adding what he called "context about the industry."

"There were something like 30,000 people from all over the world in attendance" during the convention, Marty said. "They even set up new rides in the parking lot outside the convention center. And they had these little kewpie dolls on sale, which I found very reassuring that this amusement business we've been involved with for decades is going to go on."

On Friday, Nov. 18, Marty gave a talk to a group of about 100 Disney Vacation Club cast members at the DVC headquarters in Celebration. Ryan March, the editor of the Disney Files Magazine, served as the moderator. "I like to do things like that," Marty said of the hour-long session in front of a clearly rapt audience. March added that it was Marty who approached him about doing the presentation.

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Marty is surrounded by his family prior to the Walt Disney Family Museum gala on Nov. 1. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

"It gives me the opportunity to find out what people are thinking. They, of course, look to me to tell them stories of Disney's past in hopes that they can then relate them to what they're doing now. They asked some really good questions, which I really enjoyed."

During the hour-long session, March asked Marty a series of questions about his long career and the many people he's worked with. He started by introducing the Disney Legend to the audience, saying "Marty is one of those rare people who's not interested in who gets the credit," as long as the job is well-done. He then related how Marty started his Disney career in 1955 by creating The Disneyland News, which was sold to guests for 10 cents. To which March added: "I can't believe our company ever sold anything for 10 cents."

Among the questions March asked:

"What's the best advice you ever heard?" Marty: "Don't avoid cliches. They're cliches because they work." That advice came from Star Wars creator George Lucas.

"What did [Disney artist and Legend] Herb Ryman mean when he said 'Poor taste costs no more'?" Marty: "Herb always believed in striving to do your best. He was very clear about that. He believed that if you didn't do your best, lesser ideas would be accepted and become reality."

To reiterate that point, Marty talked about legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who was an inspiration to Marty when he covered the team for the Daily Bruin campus newspaper in the early 1950s. Among Coach Wooden's many famous sayings was this gem: "Make every day your masterpiece."

"People really notice when you don't give it your best shot," Marty added.

In between these events, Marty was invited by several of his Imagineering protégés ["They're all like my kids," he said of the hundreds of people he's inspired over the years] to visit several projects they're currently working on, most notably the much-anticipated Pandora: The World of Avatar land under construction at Disney's Animal Kingdom. Marty came away from that visit amazed. "Guests will be blown away" when the new land opens during the summer of 2017, he said.

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Marty chats with Neil Patrick Harris in Disney's California Adventure after the awards gala. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

The World of Avatar will feature two cutting-edge attractions, one a boat ride through the Navi River, the other a Soarin'-type flight simulator on the wings of a banshee. "And with Animal Kingdom's new emphasis on night-time shows, Pandora will be over-the-top in the dark," Marty said.

He also was shown the new Frozen attraction at Norway in Epcot and he came away impressed. "The Audio-Animatronics figures are really well-done ... excellent. There was one problem; the boat ride was a little rough in spots."

Marty missed the new holiday show over Lake Buena Vista between the new Disney Springs and Saratoga Resort. "I was sorry I didn't get to see the drones," he said. "From what I've heard, it's really a unique way to present a show outdoors."

To top off his whirlwind week, Marty gave an engrossing presentation at the D23's Destination D: Amazing Adventures, a two-day gathering at The Contemporary Resort. Marty's talk focused on the development of the Adventurelands that are featured in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He took guests on an audio and visual tour through the early concept days through completion, sprinkling his talk with fascinating stories about many of the people who helped bring those original ideas to life.

During his presentation, Marty showed a photo of Walt Disney talking to guests Disneyland near the entrance of Adventureland. Walt was leaning up against a trash can. "Walt loved to walk through the park and talk to the guests. He wanted to find out what they thought and wanted to see what was working and what wasn't. Here, as you see, Walt's 'office' was a garbage can."

Prior to Marty's presentation at the D23 event, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek updated guests on future attractions coming to Disney, other than Pandora.

Specifically, he mentioned how changes would be coming to Epcot in conjunction with that park's 35th anniversary. Chapek talked about making Epcot "more Disney, more relevant, timeless and more family friendly."

Marty, one of the key architects of Epcot in the 1970s and early 1980s, was happy to hear about the changes. "Over time, a lot of Epcot has become dated. I'm happy to hear they're looking into bringing some new ideas into play. It's time."

After the Destination D event, Marty headed back to southern California, where he ended his month the way he started it: Surrounded by family members for a big celebration, this time Thanksgiving.

Although a bit hectic at times, it was truly, a November to remember for the revered Disney Legend.

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Members of Walt Disney's family were on hand for the gala. From the left are Jennifer Goff, Tammy Miller, Joanne Miller, Walter Miller and Chris Miller. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]
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Neil Patrick Harris joins Disney Legend Richard Sherman for a musical tribute to Marty Sklar. [Photo courtesy of Joe Scarnic/Getty Images]

September 19, 2016

Marty Sklar to be honored by Walt Disney Family Museum

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Marty Sklar accepts a donation, bound for Ryman Arts, from Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet founder Don Morin, left, and Beci Mahnken, president of Mouse Fan Travel. [Courtesy of Don Morin]


If Marty Sklar knew how hectic retirement was going to be, there's a chance - albeit a slim chance - he might have eschewed jetting around the world and willingly signed up with the checkers and rocking chair crowd.

Marty retired in 2009 after more than 50 years with the Walt Disney Company, serving as the Vice Chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering over the last years of his storied career. In addition to being the only person to have been in attendance at the opening of all 12 Disney theme parks worldwide, Marty played significant roles in Disney's participation at the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, the development of Walt Disney World in the 1970s and the conceptualization of Epcot in the 1980s.

Since retiring, life seems to have become more hectic over the past few years for Marty. Prior to hanging up his nametag and earning a well-deserved window on Main Street at Disneyland, Marty was approached by then-Disney Parks and Resort chairman Jay Rasulo about becoming "a Disney Imagineering ambassador." The job description: Keep spreading the pixie dust ... and in doing so, help to enlist more gifted and talented people to join Disney's creative wing.

Marty gladly accepted, in large part because he knows all too well that he is THE main conduit to Walt Disney, having worked side-by-wide with him for more than a decade as his go-to wordsmith. Marty wrote many of Walt's messages, publicity and marketing materials, as well as Walt's annual report. He also got an intimate look at Walt Disney, the man ... what drove him, what inspired him and what his hopes and dreams were for the entertainment giant he founded way back in the 1920s.

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Marty Sklar talks to guests at a D23 event. To his right is Disney legend Bob Gurr, while to his left is fellow Legend X. Atencio. [Deb Wills]

Walt Disney is arguably the single most important person in Marty's life, outside of the family he cherishes. So when Marty talks about Walt during his jam-packed presentations around the country, it's from a place that few people have ever been privy to. It's obvious as people listen to Marty speak, they are hanging on every word, eager to soak in all that he has to ell them.

After settling in as Disney Imagineering Ambassador, Marty took his prolific writing skills to a new level: He wrote his well-received memoir, Dream It! Do It! The success of the book and the subsequent - and often strenuous - book signing tour that resulted spawned a follow-up tome, One Little Spark!, which took a deep dive into what it takes to become a member of Walt Disney Imagineering.

On Nov. 1 at Disney's Grand Californian Resort & Spa, Marty Sklar will be the recipient of the Diane Disney Miller Achievement Award at the Walt Disney Family Museum's second-annual fund-raising gala, putting an exclamation point on a stellar career of making magic. Anyone who is anyone in Disney's vast world will be on hand to show their appreciation to a man who so embodies the spirit, the drive and the inspiration of Walt Disney.

"I'm very honored, and, of course, could not say 'no' when Ron Miller called me," Marty said. Songwriting legend Richard Sherman was the first recipient of the prestigious award last year, named for the Walt's oldest daughter, who passed away in 2013.

Like a passenger on a classic Disney roller coaster, Marty Sklar's retirement years have been much like a high-speed thrill ride. Even though he turns 83 in February, he's taken Jay Rasulo's comment about his appointment - "You are the hardest working ambassador in the world!" - to heart and has flown with it. Literally.

His appearances following the release of One Little Spark! last year are a case in point. "The book tour for One Little Spark! has been going crazy," he said earlier this summer. "I'm just back from the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago – there was an audience of 700 for our presentation. I signed 500 books in five hours!

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During his visit to Shanghai Disneyland in July, Marty was interviewed by the Chinese media following the re-release of his book "Dream It! Do It!" in Mandarin. [Cheers Publishing Company]

"Before that, there were 400 people at Fort Worth Museum of Science & History in Texas; 200 at Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and 300 for a UCLA event at the Chuck Jones Cultural Center in Orange County, California."

If you get the idea that Marty Sklar is a bit of a rock star in the Disney firmament, you wouldn't be far from the truth. His presentations and book signings draw enthusiastic audiences of the young and the young at heart, all seeking words of Disney wisdom from a master story teller. His talks are fact-based without getting bogged down in too much detail, and they often are sprinkled with Marty's dry sense of humor.

Although the book signing tour earlier this year might seem hectic to most, it was actually a prelude to a series of mid-summer jaunts that probably would have exhausted an Olympic athlete.

It started in mid-July when Marty flew from Los Angeles to Shanghai, China, for the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. Marty had some misgivings about going since, as he put it, "On the other 11 parks, I was actively involved. On 10 of them [except for Disneyland Day One], I had an active part in creating them. Shanghai is different; I've had nothing to do with it."

Bob Weis, Walt Disney Imagineering's current creative leader, thought otherwise. "On my watch, he won't miss any openings. He's far too modest. His imprint is on Shanghai, as it is on all the other [parks]." So Marty was on hand for the grand opening, and even spent some time promoting his two books for the Chinese media. Dream It! Do It!, in fact, was re-released in Mandarin to coincide with the park's opening.

He returned to Los Angeles, only to turn around and fly up to Seattle a few days later for the annual Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet, "It's the best-run Disney fan event around," he said. "Don Morin [PNWMM's founder] does a great job and the fans come from all over the country. Saturday's program and sale of Disney stuff was a huge hit. There were 500 in attendance, which included 450 fans [the max] and another 50 sponsors.

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The late Diane Disney Miller with songwriter Richard Sherman, the first recipient of the Diane Disney Miller Achievement Award. [The Walt Disney Family Museum]

"On Sunday, Bob Gurr and I did a session together - our usual attempt to be clever and funny and also to convey information about working with Walt."

Marty then flew from Seattle across the world to England to join his family for a special occasion: Grandson Gabriel's graduation from the University of Kent in Canterbury. In doing so, Marty had to pass up on an appearance at a Ryman Arts fund-raiser. Ryman Arts is a cause near and dear to Marty and his wife Leah, both of whom were co-founders of the free arts education program named in honor of legendary Disney artist Herb Ryman.

"The graduation took place in Canterbury Cathedral, which was built in 1100, and was the site of much early conflict between church and state, including the murder of Thomas Becket," Marty said.

During an email exchange after his arrival, Marty noted that the time stamp on the missive "really is 5:45 a.m. I'm getting on a fast train at 8 for Canturbury and Gabriel's graduation."

Following the graduation and spending time with his son Howard and his family, there was another long flight back to Los Angeles and home.

When it was suggested that all of his globe-trotting had earned enough frequent flier miles to qualify for a real-life Mission to Mars, Marty was quick with a quip.

"Actually, I think of my Los Angeles-to-Shanghai, then Los Angeles-to-Seattle-to-London-to Los Angeles madness as Mission to Sklars. That's more than enough for one summer!"

Marty won't have to travel too far from home to receive his award on Nov. 1. And it's only fitting that the ceremonies will be held within the confines of Disneyland, a place that's been a second home to him since 1955.

June 27, 2016

Disney Legend Marty Sklar on Shanghai Disneyland: 'It's the best Disney park'

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Disney Legend Marty Sklar greets a fan on Mickey Avenue during opening day at Shanghai Disneyland Resort. [The Walt Disney Company]


CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy About Disney
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

The first time Marty Sklar walked down the main thoroughfare of a Disney theme park -- Disneyland's Main Street U.S.A., on July 17, 1955 -- he was a 21-year-old intern working in the park's public relations department and was, for all intents and purposes, just another face in the overheated crowd on that momentous opening day.

The most recent time Marty walked down the main thoroughfare of a Disney theme park -- Shanghai Disneyland's Mickey Avenue, on opening day, June 17, 2016 -- he was an 82-year-old retiree who was far from just another face in the crowd.

This time around, he was recognized.

A man named Christian Ahuis of Cologne, Germany, was scurrying along Mickey Avenue [Shanghai Disneyland's equivalent of Main Street U.S.A.] on opening day when he spotted the former head of Walt Disney Imagineering on the crowded street. Marty was sporting a blue ball cap, a lanyard with his Disney name tag affixed to it and a white wind breaker on the damp and drizzly day.

"Marty!" Ahuis screamed. He walked up to the Disney Legend and proceeded to ask him if he'd pose for a photo.

"That's the best part of the day," Ahuis said afterward. "I got my picture taken with Marty Sklar! I'm such a Disney geek."

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Excited guests get emotional as they enter the park during opening day at Shanghai Disneyland Resort. [Orange County Register]

For years, Marty Sklar has held the distinction of being the only Disney cast member to have played a role in the opening of all 11 Disney theme parks worldwide. Although Marty, who retired from the Walt Disney Company in 2009 after 55 years of helping to create magic, wasn't directly involved in the creation of Shanghai Disneyland, Disney's 12th park, his influence, guidance and inspiration on the scores and men and women who worked on Shanghai was invaluable. So, in a very real sense, Marty Sklar played a important role in Shanghai's development: That of a mentor.

Still, a year ago Marty, had his doubts as to whether he'd make the long trip to China, thus breaking his streak of at least being at every Disney park on opening day.

"On the other 11 parks, I was actively involved," he told me last summer. "On 10 of them [except for Disneyland Day One], I had an active part in creating them. Shanghai is different; I've had nothing to do with it.

"I love what they are doing and the creative leader, Bob Weis, has done a marvelous job. When the park opens, he will have spent six or seven years developing and building it. Bob and his fellow Imagineers [many of them I trained] deserve the credit. I don't want to be seen as horning in on their party."

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Marty Sklar answers a question during an interview inside the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel. [Cheers Publishing Company]

As Shanghai's opening day approached, however, Marty had a change of heart and made the long flight from Los Angeles to mainland China for all the pomp and ceremonies. "Our former fearless leader," wrote Wayne Hunt after posting a photo of Marty on Mickey Avenue. "He's the only person to have been present at the opening of all 12 Disney parks." [Hunt, the principal of Hunt Design, has worked with Marty on a number of Disney-related projects since 1974. His firm also made contributions to Shanghai Disneyland's signage, particularly in Tomorrowland.]

"I left my plush home," Marty joked, "but it was a great trip" ... adding, quite emphatically, that Shanghai Disneyland is "the best Disney park!"

Shanghai Disneyland has been open less than two weeks, but its reputation has been spreading quickly. In designing the park, Disney's planners interviewed residents of China and took the unprecedented step of asking them what they wanted and didn't want in the new park.

"They started by spending a good year learning what the mainland Chinese thought of the Disney parks and each attraction," Marty said. "Among the results: No train circles the park, as well as huge changes to the Pirates of the Caribbean." There's also a boat ride -- Voyage of the Crystal Grotto -- that sails under the castle, a first for a Disney park. Indeed, Enchanted Storybook Castle holds another distinction: It's the largest and tallest castle in all of the Disney parks worldwide.

Shanghai Disneyland is divided into six themed lands: Mickey Avenue, Gardens of Imagination, Fantasyland, Treasure Cove, Adventure Isle and Tomorrowland. The Gardens of Imagination serves as the hub of the park; within the area are seven Chinese-themed gardens.

Among the familiar attractions and shows in Shanghai Disneyland are The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh; a Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique; a Star Wars Launch Bay; Peter Pan's Flight, and For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Singalong.

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Marty shows the redesigned cover of his recently re-released book "Dream It! Do It!". [Cheers Publishing Company]

There also are a number of familiar attractions that have been re-imagined by Disney's creative team. Pirates of the Caribbean: Battle for Sunken Treasure has been reworked into a bigger, more elaborate adventure. Guests ride in magnetically propelled boats past Audio-Animatronics figures and projected scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise, with sword fights and a sea battle among the many thrilling highlights.

"Pirates of the Caribbean [at Shanghai Disneyland] is the best park attraction ever," Marty says bluntly. "Great big sets, plenty of action, seamless blend of sets and film, a boat that can spin 360 degrees." Clearly, he was impressed.

Marty also enjoyed Soarin' Over the Horizon, which is an updated version of the original Soarin' in Disney's California Adventure and Soarin' Over California in Epcot. The Shanghai Disneyland attraction features panoramic views of The Great Wall of China and many of the world's most iconic natural and man-made structures.

Marty also was impressed with the TRON Lightcycle Power Run, which takes the place of Space Mountain, a staple in all of the other Disney parks. In the TRON attraction, guests ride in realistic-looking lightcycles inside a darkened structure for a thrilling adventure through the futuristic world of TRON, the 1982 science fiction thriller.

That film saw the lead character transported inside the software world of a mainframe computer, where he interacts with programs in his attempt to escape. Curiously, the original concept for Space Mountain, proposed by Disney Legend John Hench in the 1970s, was a journey through the inner workings of a computer. The technology [or lack of it] of the time prevented that version of the attraction from being built.

"The TRON racers, Tomorrowland, the castle, Soarin', Pirates ... are all fabulous attractions. For me, it was a great trip ... but it's good to be home."

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Marty autographs a few items while promoting the re-release of his first book, "Dream It! Do It!". [Cheers Publishing Company]

Marty also took time out from his park explorations to do some promotional work for his latest book, One Little Spark!, as well as his first book, Dream It! Do It!

In conjunction with the opening of Shanghai Disneyland, both books were re-released in China in Mandarin, the country's official language. "I'm told they printed 10,000 copies of Dream It! Do It!," Marty said. The book has been re-released by Cheers Publishing Company, with a new cover design.

During his visit to China, Marty squeezed in interviews for the Chinese media at the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel before heading off to the park to become just another excited guest ... the only excited guest who had been through the experience 11 times before.

June 20, 2016

Disney fan clubs have captured people's imaginations, and fueled their passion, for years

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The Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet planning committee. That's founder Don Morin, second from the right. [Courtesy of the Northwest Pacific Mouse Meet]

CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

During the weekend of May 14-15, 2011, I attended my first Disney fan convention. I walked through the doors of the Contemporary Resort's Convention Center at Walt Disney World at 8 on that Saturday morning and stepped into a different version of Disney's world ... a world populated by people wearing Mickey Mouse ears and Figment T-shirts, Disney-themed leather jackets and multi-colored vests adorned with the faces of Disney characters ... a world where nostalgia and memories were about to be rekindled and celebrated, with the help of many of the people who played such an integral role in generating all those warm memories in the first place.

I was walking into D23's Destination D: Walt Disney World's 40th. Even though I was a first-time fan event attendee, I felt a kinship with all those in attendance and anxiously looked forward to drinking in everything the two-day experience had to offer.

It turned out I was late on this very important date. Even though the first of the speakers and presenters wouldn't take the stage for another hour and a half, the queue stretched farther than the eye could see, from one side of the massive entrance lobby to the other, then around a corner and beyond. I walked to the end of the line, official event lanyard dangling from my neck, and joined the others, who didn't seem to mind the long line at all.

After the doors opened and everyone filed into the massive auditorium, I began to understand what all the excitement was about: What followed was a weekend worthy of an E Ticket park attraction: Exciting, thrilling, fun and entertaining, with memories that will truly last a lifetime.

D23, of course, is the official fan club of The Walt Disney Company. It was formed in 2009 as a way to keep Disney fans "in the middle of the magic." The group has its own website, throws a huge biennial Expo in California and even publishes its own magazine four times a year.

At each D23 Expo, the past, the present and the future all share the spotlight during the always jammed-to-the-rafters event in Anaheim, Calif. Disney Legends reminisce about their glory days, product displays give attendees an idea of what's hot on the market now, while Disney's top executives take the opportunity to introduce new theme park attractions or upcoming blockbuster movies to appreciative audiences.

In addition to its Expo, D23 offers a variety of events around the country for its members, including behind-the-scenes tours and exclusive movie screenings. On Nov. 19-20, they'll be hosting a major event at Walt Disney World. It's called Destination D: Amazing Adventures, to be held in the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World. Presenters and panelists will include Disney Legends Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter; Walt Disney Imagineers Joe Rohde, Chris Merritt, Jason Grandt and Wyatt Winter; producer Don Hahn (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast); and Walt Disney Archives Director Becky Cline. A selection of exclusive Imagineering merchandise as well as limited-edition pins, T-shirts and collectibles themed to the event will be available for purchase by eager fans.

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Disney Legend Marty Sklar signs a copy of his first book, "Dream It! Do It!", during an appearance at a Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet. [Courtesy of the Northwest Pacific Mouse Meet]

But D23 is far from the only Disney fan club out there. Regular gatherings, whether they are once a year, every other year or every few months, are the hallmarks of these groups ... as is their affection for all things Disney. They get together to share that mutual love, reveling in the past while keeping a watchful eye on what's planned for the future.

One of the most popular fan gatherings, the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet, is held in Lynnwood, Wash., outside of Seattle, each year [it'll run from July 9-10]. Guest speakers this year include Disney Legends Bob Gurr and Marty Sklar, as well as Disney artist and historian Stacia Martin. In addition to its main event, the group also hosts smaller 'mini-Meet Ups' throughout the year both locally, in the parks and at other select locations, including at the D23 Expo.

Founded in 2009 by Don Morin, the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet strives to capture the essence of what it means to be a Disney devotee. Morin is proud to say his Mouse Meet is "by Disney fans, for Disney fans."

Morin's love of Disney began in 1974 when his grammar school class was asked to write a report on a famous person from the 1900s. He chose Walt Disney. The experience "had a profound affect on me, for sure," he said. From that point on, with his Disney switch flipped, "I had a desire to learn who was creating all this magic."

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Stacia Martin, an artist and Disney historian, will be featured during this year's Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet. [Courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet]

The Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet grew out of that quest to take a deep dive into Disney history and culture. Morin says he devotes hundreds of hours into giving guests as rewarding an experience as possible; he has many hard-working volunteers helping him to achieve that goal. The work includes "prep on so many levels. Contacting vendors and guest celebrity speakers; working with the convention center and the volunteer team; updating the website; planning, building displays and securing photo ops; writing, producing and recording videos, scripts, travel, set-up and so much more. It's definitely a love and a passion for what I do for Disney fans."

This year's event is already sold out, with a crowd of about 500 fellow Disney fanatics expected to be on hand for presentations, product displays, memorabilia sales and, as an added treat, Dole Whips.

Marty Sklar, the former creative leader of Walt Disney Imagineering, has high praise for the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet and Don Morin.

"It's the second time for me, and I know it is for Bob [Gurr]. Don Morin runs such a great show and is a grand host. He's had Tony Baxter, Don Hahn, Kevin Rafferty and many other Disney and Pixar people participate in the past."

Getting Disney's blessing is a major coup for Morin. In 2015, D23 participated in the Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet by supplying guest speakers. This year, D23 will be a sponsor. [The Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet has a number of sponsors, including AllEars.Net].

"Earning the respect and partnership of so many people over the years has been key to longevity, growth and building of the PNW Mouse Meet brand," Morin said. "From early on, guest celebrities have been so impressed with the event, how it is run, what it represents and what it offers the guests, that these guest celebrities go back home and talk to others about the event and even recommend them being a part of the event in the future.

"One Disney Legend has been noted as stating several times, 'The Pacific Northwest Mouse Meet is by far the best fan run Disney fan event in the country.'"

During the 2013 event, Morin presented a donation to Marty Sklar earmarked for Ryman Arts, a cause near and dear to Marty's heart [he and his wife Leah, as well as Lucille Ryman Carroll, Sharon Disney Lund and Harrison and Anne Shaw Price founded the arts education group in 1990 in honor of Disney Legend Herb Ryman].

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A poster advertises the upcoming Disneyana Fan Club event where proceeds will benefit Ryman Arts. [Courtesy of Disneyana Fan Club]

Another well-known Disney fan group, the Disneyana Fan Club, will be holding a dinner and fundraising event of its own on July 13 in Garden Grove, Calif., with proceeds also going to Ryman Arts. "This event is our 'big' fundraiser for Ryman Arts," said Dennis Ritchey, Ryman Arts Fund Raising Event Coordinator for the Disneyana Fan Club. "This will be our 10th year doing this and currently we are about $4,000 away from having donated $100,000 to Ryman Arts over the past 10 years." The club also holds fundraisers throughout the year for other worthy causes.

The Disneyana Fan Club is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization dedicated to preserving and sharing the rich legacy of Walt Disney. Its common goal is to provide Disneyana enthusiasts of all ages from around the world with news, information and events that enhance their experience with, and love of, all things Disney. The group also publishes a member newsletter, called the Disneyana Dispatch.

The Disneyana Fan Club holds an annual gathering, called DisneyanaMania Convention, July 13-16, while staging other events at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

"In addition to our annual convention in July, we usually have several special events," Ritchey noted. "Last year, we had an event at the Smoke Tree Ranch, and a great afternoon at the Jim Henson Studios in Hollywood, where Lisa Henson accepted our Legends Award posthumously for her father."

Cathy Perrone, a Disneyana Fan Club board member in charge of special events, adds that the group "hosts events that showcase some of the finest talent the Disney brand has to offer. ... A recent outing was a weekend at Walt's 'happy place,' Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs. Our group was able to see Walt and Lillian's two homes, learning why they were so special to them."

Ms. Perrone added that Disneyana Fan Club prides itself "in bringing 'intimate' experiences so our members and their guests are able to speak to, shake hands with and, yes, get autographs and pose for pictures" with some of Disney's most prominent Legends.

"One of our personal favorites was a magnificent luncheon in the Magic Kingdom Ballroom at the Disneyland Hotel. There, we were treated to a rare opportunity with eight of the original Mouseketeers. They surprised us with interviews, live music and dance. To top off that special day, Tommy Cole sang 'Annette,' which was written by Disney Legend Jimmy Dodd."

At its DisneyanaMania Convention, "we have an annual Luncheon with a Disney Legend. This is an opportunity for our organization to honor and salute those individuals who have helped make so many of our dreams come true through their talents, skills and artistry.

"We began this tradition in 1993 and to date have bestowed this honor to 137 individuals," Ms.Perrone added. "While a few have been presented posthumously, I'd say 98 percent of all those honored were able to attend in person and were very moved by this honor. It is a highlight of our club and one that makes it very special."

According to Ritchey, "there are Disneyana Fan Club chapters throughout the country and we have members worldwide."

There are other clubs out there, as well ... smaller, less well-known, perhaps, but drawing devoted Disney fans to the fold. Many are popular online sites, some are tied to the Disney Vacation Club, like Mouseowners. But all have one thing in common: A desire by its participants to spread the word about Disney and share their thoughts, ideas and opinions about their passion.

June 6, 2016

Waxing nostalgic about Disney memorabilia

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The cover of a long-playing Mickey Mouse Club record. The album features 21 hit Mouseketunes. [Chuck Schmidt Collection]

CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy About Disney
AllEars.Net Guest Blogger

What do you think of when you think of Disney?

World-class theme parks, with so many iconic rides and attractions, to be sure. And all those classic animated feature films, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Frozen, and live-action epics like Star Wars and the Marvel franchises ... beloved characters ... a respected cruise line ... a popular time share enterprise ... numerous retail outlets in the theme parks, in malls and online ... a leading television network ...

And let's not forget nostalgia.

"Makin' memories," as they used to say at the Imagination pavilion at Epcot, is a key component to Disney's unparalleled long-term success. A few years back, Disney Parks initiated a year-long campaign called "Let the Memories Begin," because they have long recognized how important memorable experiences are to the fabric of most families.

As a natural extension, memorabilia and collectibles are an integral part of the world of Disney. Just ask anyone who has ever attended a Disneyana or D23 event and you'll get an idea of how great the appeal is for Disney's storied past [more on that in a future blog].

Like most hard-core Disney fans, I love Disney of old. Which goes a long way in explaining why, every time I visit a Disney theme park, I grab several guide maps ... one for use that day in the park, the others to be filed away for future reference. Thankfully, I've done this ever since our first visit to Walt Disney World in 1972. To me, these seemingly innocent maps serve as a window back in time, a glimpse at the way things used to be, a barometer of how things have changed.

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Marty Sklar wrote this in the author's copy of "Walt Disney's Disneyland." [Chuck Schmidt Collection]

Over the years, I've managed to put together a collection of Disney memorabilia that I'm quite proud of. Some of these items I've secured on my own [usually with the help of my wife Janet], others were given to me by family and friends who know of my love of all things Disney.

One of my first "finds" was securing a copy of Walt Disney's Disneyland, a wonderfully detailed book written by none other than my friend Marty Sklar. The books were sold at Disneyland in the late 1960s into the early 1970s as a souvenir of your visit. In truth, the book is a remarkably well-done work, rich in detail about the Happiest Place on Earth.

I found my first copy [Janet and I now have three] of the book at a yard sale in Colts Neck, N.J., in the 1990s.

Years later, in 2011, I had Marty sign the book for me during "a dinner and a conversation" fund-raising event that he headlined in Orlando the night before the D23 event celebrating Walt Disney World's 40th anniversary. It's a cherished keepsake, on many levels.

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The cover of Life Magazine in October, 1971, featuring a "mob-scene" photo of the cast in front of Cinderella Castle. [Chuck Schmidt Collection]

A colleague at the Staten Island Advance, Steve Zaffarano, was cleaning house one day in 2010 when he came across a copy of the iconic Life Magazine edition, dated October 15, 1971, featuring the Walt Disney World cast posed in front of Cinderella Castle.

He brought it to work the next day and asked me if I'd like to have it. A no-brainer, on many levels. A few years after Steve's generous gift, I was fortunate to speak to the man who was chiefly responsible for setting up that classic photo, as well as several other pre-opening magazine features ... Disney Legend Charlie Ridgway.

After making significant contributions to the success of Disneyland, Charlie and his family moved to Florida in 1969 following him being named Walt Disney World's first director of press and publicity.

"The first trip I made when I took the job at the end of 1969 was to go to New York," he told me in 2014. "I went to Time, Life and Look magazines and all the major papers and I also went to Washington to National Geographic.

"The managing editor of Look Magazine (Pat Carbine) said: 'We want to be the first ones with a cover story' [on Walt Disney World]. They wanted to have their reporter come down in April [of 1971; the Magic Kingdom wouldn't open until October], which was way too early. There wasn't that much really finished. But we were able to gerrymander things and produce pictures that looked like it was really done.

"We laid some artificial grass on Town Square so we could shoot City Hall. I think there was a ladder still up on the balcony when we shot it. Look had a very good layout."

As for the Life Magazine cover photo and story: "The idea of going to Life was Sandy Quinn's, who came down in 1967 and was the first Disney guy on the ground ... he became very friendly with a lot of the local news media," Charlie said.

"At the time we were getting ready to plan for the opening, I suggested we do a mob-scene picture and we carried forward from that point. We went to Life with the idea and they liked it and they sent down one of their very best photographers, a guy named Yale Joel. He got up on a stand with an 8x10 view camera to shoot the picture. Of course, that one we shot in front of the castle.

"We assembled as many cast members as we could get there. We actually had 5,000 employees, of which we were able to gather 3,000 at one time for the photo." The magazine is a wonderful keepsake, made even more special after getting input from the man involved in bringing it to Life [pun intended].

Disney memorabilia comes in all shapes and sizes, from Mickey Mouse watches to character figurines to Davy Crockett coonskin caps to vintage stuffed animals ... a.k.a., plush. Vinyl records — you remember them, don't you? — also fall into this nostalgic category.

Our son's mother-in-law, Cindy, came across several Disney recording gems at a flea market a few years ago and gave them to me. All three records — one is a 12-inch long-playing record, the other two are smaller 6- and 7-inch discs — feature the Mickey Mouse Club and The Merry Mouseketeers, as they were sometimes referred to during the show's prime in the 1950s.

One of the smaller records is a Disneyland Record and Book titled "Mickey Mouse, Brave Little Tailor," while the other is titled "Songs from the Mickey Mouse Club" and was part of a series of official Mickey Mouse Club Records.

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"The Mickey Mouse Club March" was featured on this vintage record. [Chuck Schmidt Collection]

The liner notes on the cover of that record are priceless: "Exclusively on these low-priced official Mickey Mouse Club Records are the voices, songs and games from Walt Disney's wonderful daily one-hour TV show. Here are Mickey, Donald and Jiminy Cricket — Jimmie Dodd and The Merry Mouseketeers for your child's enjoyment, participation and education."

The LP — "Walt Disney's Mickey Mouse Club, Mousekedances and Other Mouseketeer Favorites," on Disneyland Records — features a colorful cover, with drawings of Mickey, Donald Duck and Goofy sharing the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse stage with likenesses of club leader Jimmie and Mouseketeers Karen, Cubby, Bobby and, of course, Annette Funicello. The songs on the album run the gamut of what was played during a typical "Mickey Mouse Club" television show, which was broadcast on ABC in glorious black-and-white Monday through Friday in the mid- to late-1950s.

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This letter, from Walt Disney to then-Gov. Goodwin J. Knight, was up for auction several years ago. [Chuck Schmidt Collection]

Several years ago, an auction house sent me photos of several Disney-related items that they were about to put up for bidding. One of the items was a letter from Walt Disney to California Gov. Goodwin J. Knight, sent in December of 1958. It's fascinating, on many levels.

The point of the letter, on official Disneyland stationary no less, was to alert Gov. Knight that he was receiving his Disneyland Gold Pass for the 1959 season. In reading the letter, it's obvious that Walt is quite proud of the fact that many new attractions would be opening at Disneyland during the year, including the Matterhorn bobsleds, a monorail system and a submarine voyage.

If need be, according to the letter, Gov. Knight could contact Walt's secretary, Tommy Walker, by calling her at VIctoria 9-3411. If you manage to get your hands on a time-traveling device, make sure to give Walt a call when you go back to the 1950s. Gov. Knight was among the many honored guests on hand during Disneyland's opening day on July 17, 1955.

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A newspaper article, circa 1939-1940, and in French, dealing with Walt Disney's new film, "Fantasia." [Chuck Schmidt Collection]


Mike Virgintino, my Friendly Freedomland pal, occasionally stumbles on Disney-related gems and he generously sends them to me to add to my collection. "I know they'll get a good home with you," he says.

One such item is quite interesting. It's a newspaper clipping, circa 1939-1940, of a story on Disney's upcoming new film, Fantasia. The article features a photo of one of the film's segments, Beethoven's "The Pastoral Symphony."

The only problem is: The article is in French [any French students out there?].

The clipping adds to my Fantasia collection: I have [on loan from my mother] an original program movie-goers received when they saw the movie during its long-running engagement at the Broadway Theatre in Manhattan. The booklet features a wealth of information about the ground-breaking cinematic achievement, including portraits of Walt Disney, Leopold Stokowski, Deems Taylor and the making of the classic.

There's also one critic's succinct take on the movie: "Fantasia will Amasia." ... as will most items from the Disney vault.

March 14, 2016

Card Walker gets the ball rolling on Epcot

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Spaceship Earth, Epcot Center's icon, during the early stages of construction. [The Walt Disney Company]


CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.net Guest Blogger

"What are we going to do about Epcot?"

With those words, first spoken in 1974, then-Disney president Card Walker got the ball rolling on what is arguably the most ambitious project ever taken on by the Walt Disney Company after Walt's death in 1966.

According to former Walt Disney Imagineering leader Marty Sklar: "That was the start of eight years of figuring out what to do, and it was a pretty fantastic eight years, I must say. But that was really the start. I give Card a lot of credit, because he didn't let that dream die."

"That dream" was Walt Disney's vision for a city of the future, a Utopian complex that would tackle the problem of urban blight and would introduce new, forward-thinking ideas on how to improve the human condition.

"Some aspects, some version [of Walt's Epcot concept] would have happened and it would have changed a lot, because the evolution of these projects is so dynamic," Marty said. "I have this ad I kept in my office all the time. It was from IBM. It said 'The Future is a Moving Target.' And nobody saw that as clearly as Walt Disney did, believe me."

Once Card Walker decided to give the go-ahead for Epcot, it was up to a team of individuals -- Marty Sklar, John Hench, Carl Borgirno, Don Edgren, Jack Lindquist and Randy Bright among them -- to figure out exactly what Epcot's mission should be ... and, perhaps more importantly, how that vision would be paid for.

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An aerial view of Epcot during construction, with Spaceship Earth taking shape and many of the monorail beams in place. [The Walt Disney Company]

From the outset, the team was emphatic what Epcot shouldn't be ... namely, another theme park. "If you think about it, at that time, and even today, it had to have that contrast," Marty said. "Why should we go into competition with ourselves? So the contrast was good."

So the team embarked on a crusade of sorts, reaching out to a variety of leaders from a diverse field to get their thoughts and ideas on the ambitious, first-of-its-kind project.

"We decided we had to test the water, so we held what we called The Epcot Future Technology Forums, starting in 1976," Marty said. "Ray Bradbury [the noted science fiction writer who contributed to Epcot's communication theme] was the first speaker. And we invited people from academia, from government, from corporations and just smart people that we found through our research and it was really fascinating because we had these long discussions.

"We'd show Walt's film and we had translated that into potential directions. It was very early on. And after every one of these conferences, these people would say to us, 'The public doesn't trust government to do this, the public doesn't trust what industry tells them, but they trust Mickey Mouse. So you guys have a role in this.' Well, that was very nice to hear people say that, but what the heck do you do about that?

"I went back to Card Walker, who was a marketing man from his experiences with the studio, and we decided to go back to the whole idea that Walt had said, that no one company can do this by itself. And that's when we started going out to all the big corporations and said, 'OK, here's what we're planning to do and we want you to be part it.'"

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Walt Disney Imagineering leader Marty Sklar on-site during Epcot's construction. [The Walt Disney Company]

Getting American industry to fall in line "was a huge selling job," Marty remembers. General Motors was the first company to hear the pitch about Epcot. The automotive giant had put together a committee of its own, called The Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee, which was formed to help chart GM's course for the future.

So Marty and company "packed up two truckloads of models and artwork and we hired John McClure Sr. John had been the art director for the Hall of Presidents, but more importantly, he was one of the great art directors in Hollywood. He did Hello, Dolly and Cleopatra, among other things, so John set up our presentation.

"They gave us their whole design center in Warren, Michigan. They had an area where they introduced their cars. It was big ... huge. They gave us the whole thing. We set up these models and Card Walker put together all the people that were key to the project — Donn Tatum, Dick Nunis, Jack Lindquist and the new Disney Channel people, who were just getting started. Everybody that was gonna be part of making this thing work" was there.

"We made a big presentation to Roger Smith and his Scenario 2000 Advisory Committee, and when we were finished, Roger said 'I want to do this. There's only one problem: I've got to convince my management.' He was the vice president of finance at the time, later chairman. Jack Lindquist and I were left behind and the next day, at 7 o'clock in the morning, we made a presentation to Pete Estes, the president of GM, and they became the first ones to sign a contract at the end of 1978."

Suddenly, corporate America became intrigued with this exciting Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

General Motors' participation "broke the dam, if you will, and Exxon was right behind them," Marty said. "We made so many presentations that we figured out that we couldn't get the top people to go to Florida or California, so we went to RCA and said, 'Do you have a place that we could set up as a presentation center,' and they did.

"They had a recording studio at the Avenue of the Americas and 46th Street where Andre Costellanez used to do his recordings and they said we could have it for a year. And so we rented it and we brought all our models and artwork and we put a staff there and any time of the day or week, if we wanted to set up a meeting, with companies headquartered in the New York area, as most of them were in those days, they could call up and say, 'Yeah, I'd like to have my chairman come in and see your project.'"

At that point in time, Epcot had morphed from a city of the future into two separate sections of one park, one focused on American industry and new technologies, the other one showcasing as many countries as possible in a permanent, world's fair-type setting.

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Card Walker and other dignitaries break ground during ceremonies kicking off Epcot Center's construction. [The Walt Disney Company]

"That's how we communicated to the companies," Marty added. "We started out with trying to do two projects. One was international and the other was so-called Future World area, and we found that we couldn't get enough sponsorship for both, so we pushed the two of them together basically and that became Epcot Center."

Journalists who had seen detailed drawings of a domed city with futuristic modes of transportation had a hard time accepting this new Epcot. "Walt left a very sketchy outline," Jack Lindquist said. "It was developed at that time (1966) to influence the Florida legislature. We needed something bigger, bolder, more dramatic than another Disneyland."

Walt asked famed Disney artist Herb Ryman — who had made a name for himself in 1954 by drawing the first rendering of Disneyland which Walt used as part of his pitch to potential investors — to help conceptualize Epcot. "Draw me something to talk about, Herbie," he said. But what Ryman came up with was far more grandiose than almost anyone had imagined. It turned out to be more fantasy than fact-based.

Still, "The media wouldn't let that Epcot go away," Lindquist said. "They had that image [of a domed city] in mind, but nobody really knew what Epcot was."

"I'd say we are doing exactly what we talked about when Walt was alive," John Hench said when asked if the company was departing from Walt Disney's original vision. "Walt introduced ideas as, you might say, the title in Scene One. He knew better than to drop the big scene into people's minds at the beginning. We're engaged in Scene Two now."

Scene Two would take years to be completed and would run up over a billion dollars in construction costs. It was a huge gamble on the part of the Walt Disney Company and its president, Card Walker, especially when you consider that after ground was broken in central Florida for Epcot, plans were put in motion to build another first-of-its-kind Disney park ... thousands of miles and one vast ocean away, in Japan.

The man known as Card was rolling the dice ... and the stakes couldn't have been higher.

Next time: Card Walker comes to terms with a Disney presence in Japan.

February 29, 2016

Under Card Walker's guidance, Epcot begins to take shape

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One of the many concept drawings, done in the mid-1960s, depicting the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow -- Epcot. [The Walt Disney Company]

CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.net Guest Blogger

In early 1956, several months after E. Cardon Walker hired Marty Sklar to produce The Disneyland News, Card was named vice president of advertising and sales for Walt Disney Productions, getting the word out such films as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

The promotion was the start of a meteoric rise up the company ladder for Card who, like Marty, was a graduate of UCLA. In what seemed like rapid succession, Card was appointed to the company's Board of Directors in 1960. In 1965, he was named vice president of marketing, then executive vice president of operations in 1967, and executive vice president and chief operating officer in 1968. In 1971, he became company president. Five years later, he was named Disney's chief executive officer.

During his tenure as a top executive in the Disney corporate ranks, Card not only oversaw the creation of Epcot, but Tokyo Disneyland and The Disney Channel as well, providing a steady hand at a time when the company was still trying to find its way after the deaths of Walt Disney and his brother Roy.

With the success of The Disneyland News on his resume, Marty Sklar returned to UCLA in the fall of 1955 to complete his studies. After graduation in 1956, Marty accepted a position in Disneyland's publicity department, working with the likes of future Disney Legends Eddie Meck, Jack Lindquist and Milt Albright. Marty and his PR cohorts dreamed up a number of noteworthy initiatives, including Vacationland Magazine, all of which made great strides in promoting the park because, as Marty put it years later, "Disneyland wasn't a slam dunk during those first few years."

During the late 1950s and early 1960s, Marty's relationship with Card Walker remained strong.

"I had the good fortune to come out of a group that reported to Card at Disneyland," Marty said, "and I stayed very close to him over the years. Even after I had gone to WED [WED Enterprises was the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering] in 1961 to work on the New York World's Fair, I still did a lot of writing for publicity and marketing. I also was responsible for the annual report. Card kept me close to him all that time.

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Walt Disney poses for a photo after recording The Epcot Film in 1966. Two months after filming, Walt died. [The Walt Disney Company]

"To have somebody in that position trust you so much to continue to promote me, if you will, talk me up with Walt and other executives in the company, was quite an honor. And he knew I had written all that material for Walt for Epcot, of course."

Marty was responsible for writing the script for what became known as The Epcot Film. In it, Walt presented, in meticulous detail, his vision for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow ... a city of the future that was the heart and soul of Disney's planned move to central Florida. Included with the film were concept drawings, many by artist Herb Ryman, a Disney Legend. Many of Ryman's renderings depicted a futuristic metropolis featuring monorails, PeopleMovers and a dome encasing the entire complex.

Filming of The Epcot Film took place in October of 1966; Walt Disney died just two months later, leaving the company he had founded and nurtured for decades in a lurch. With plans already in motion for the move to Florida at the time of Walt's death, Epcot was put on hold and the company concentrated on opening the world's first destination resort: A Disneyland-style theme park, on-property hotels and expansive recreational facilities.

Questions persisted about Epcot

After Walt died, "we continued to get questions about Epcot," Marty said, particularly from those people who had seen the early concept drawings. "After Roy [Walt's brother, who took over as company leader after Walt's passing] died in December of 1971, Card and Donn Tatum took up the mantel. I really think Card felt he had a debt to pay to Walt and he had to fulfill that debt as chairman of the company."

In May of 1974, Card Walker took Marty Sklar aside and asked him one of the most important questions of his career: "What are we gonna do about Epcot?"

Walt's original concept for Epcot, to create a city of the future where residents would live and work and where news ideas and systems would be introduced, was problematic, if next to impossible to bring to reality, at least without Walt Disney's guidance. "We knew we couldn't experiment with people's lives," Card said. "You couldn't have spectators peeking in people's kitchen windows."

Still, the Disney company was committed to building something on the property that reflected and fulfilled Walt's dreams of a great, big beautiful tomorrow.

"In a real sense, the concept of Epcot has been unfolding from the very beginning," Card said. "From the outset of planning and through the design, construction and installation stages of Walt Disney World, Epcot has been the ultimate goal."

According to Marty, "Card made a number of different speeches about ideas for Epcot. These speeches evolved into his vision of the project.

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As his wife Rosalynn looks on, left, President Jimmy Carter chats with Disney executive Card Walker in the Contemporary Resort. Seen over Walker's left shoulder in the background is Marty Sklar.

"I have a photo in my office of president Jimmy Carter in 1976 at the International Chamber of Commerce conference at the Contemporary. President Carter spoke to the conference. We brought all the work we had done to that point and put it in a ballroom at the Contemporary. We invited President Carter to come see, as well as leaders from all over the world."

The photo shows Card Walker talking to President Carter, with First Lady Rosalynn Carter to their right and Marty Sklar standing in the background. Donn Tatum is behind Mrs. Carter.

"Card really felt indebted to Walt for his whole career. This [Epcot] was Walt's big dream. He made a number of different speeches around the country," trying to get as many corporate leaders on board. "He was a good salesman. For example, The Living Seas pavilion. It wasn't part of the pavilions on opening day. It came about when Card was playing golf with Harry Gray, the CEO of United Technologies. [The Living Seas, now known as The Seas with Nemo and Friends, opened in 1986, four years after Epcot's opening.]

"Walt always said that no one company can do this [Epcot] by itself," Marty added. "Participation by the country's major companies was the key" to bringing Epcot to life.

One of Marty's chief responsibilities at the outset was to help bring as many of those companies on board as possible. "It was the start of eight incredible years of trying to figure out just what to do."

Next time: The long and winding road leading to Epcot's opening day.

February 15, 2016

Marty Sklar and Card Walker: A winning combination

CHUCK SCHMIDT / Still Goofy about Disney
AllEars.net Guest Blogger

In very real sense, Marty Sklar is the keeper of the flame ... the Disney flame, that is.

Since retiring from the Walt Disney Company in 2009, Marty has gladly taken it upon himself to ensure the stories of Walt Disney, The Walt Disney Company and the many wonderful people he worked with during his 54 years of service are presented in a fair, accurate and truthful manner.

When you speak to Marty about the most influential people in his career, there's one man near the top of his "most respected" list. It's the man who hired him in 1955 and who, 15 years later, presented him with his most daunting challenge.

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Card Walker

The story of Esmond Cardon Walker -- or Card, for short -- is one of those classic American tales that should both inspire and educate us. It's the story of a man who started at the lowest rung of the Disney corporate ladder and rose to become company president, overseeing the construction of both Epcot Center and Tokyo Disneyland and, along the way, proving decisively that nice guys do finish first.

As then-CEO Michael Eisner said of Walker in 1990: "In a very real sense, Card is the link between the small, family-owned film company of the '30s and the major global corporation we are today. I'm grateful to have had the benefit of his experience, his judgment, and his convictions about the 'Disney way' of doing things."

Card Walker was born on Jan. 9, 1916, in Rexburg, Idaho. He moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1924. After graduating from UCLA, he began his business career in humble fashion in 1938 in the Disney Studio mail room, a place where Walt Disney felt new hires could experience every facet of the studio operation. And Card learned his lessons well. He was transferred to the camera department and would go on to serve as unit manager on short subjects in the production department.

In 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Card enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving as a flight deck officer aboard the USS Bunker Hill, which fought in eight battles between 1943 and 1945. After the war, he returned to Disney and rose to the position of vice president of marketing and sales.

It was during the mid-1950s, with construction of Disneyland nearing the final stages, when Marty Sklar and Card Walker crossed paths.

"I was fortunate the have known Johnny Jackson," Marty said. "He was the executive director of the UCLA Alumni Association. I had received a scholarship to go to UCLA. The tuition at the time [1952] was 50 dollars. My scholarship was full tuition ... 50 bucks!

"At some point in 1954, Johnny went to work for Disney. He, along with several other people, reported to Card Walker. When they decided to do a tabloid newspaper to be sold on Main Street, I was about to become the editor of the Daily Bruin at UCLA.

"In the spring of 1955, I got a call at my fraternity. When I got the message, I thought one of my frat brothers was playing a trick on me because his father worked at The Desert Inn in Las Vegas. I didn't return his call because he said someone named Card called. I thought it was a joke. It was my good fortune that Card was a graduate of UCLA and was a big booster.

"I eventually went in for an interview and they hired me."

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Card Walker looks over Walt Disney's shoulder during a visit to the Florida property in the mid-1960s. [Walt Disney Company photo]

Marty then told me a story about how a person at the Disney Archives recently sent him a memo he had discovered regarding his hiring.

"It was an inter-office communication for Disneyland, Inc. It was from Ed Ettinger, who was my first boss at Disneyland. The memo read:

Subject: Editor for newspaper-Disneyland.

We have an editor for the Disneyland newspaper. Martin Sklar will be editor of the newspaper. He was thoroughly checked out from every angle. He comes highly recommended.

"The memo," Marty added, "was copied to Card Walker." Marty was particularly amused by the "thoroughly checked out from every angle" line.

One month after being hired, Marty had to present the concept he came up with for The Disneyland News to none other than Walt Disney.

"The meeting with Walt took place at Disneyland in the conference room in the Administration Building, which was [Disney Legend] Ron Dominguez's former house. [The Dominguez house, part of a large orange grove that was owned by his family for decades, was located near where the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction now stands. The property was purchased by Disney and the house subsequently was moved to an area behind the Main Street Opera House, serving as an administration building for about 10 years.]

"The key thing to me was Walt had the time for this little thing I was doing. It really fell into place when I realized why Walt had time for it. Main Street, for him, was a real place. A story point and a detail."

The Disneyland News, like Disneyland itself, was a huge success. And for both Marty Sklar and Card Walker, the newspaper and the theme park would provide a springboard to future success for both men.

Next time: Card Walker pops the big question to Marty Sklar: "What are we going to do about Epcot?"

December 9, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms

Alice%20Miller%27s%20masthead.jpg

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.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Order Marty Sklar's book through AllEars.Net's Amazon.com store:
http://astore.amazon.com/debsunoffiwaltdi/detail/1423174062


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About Marty Sklar

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to All Ears® Guest Blog in the Marty Sklar category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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