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What Disney means to them – Part 1
Esteemed guests share their thoughts as The Mouse turns 100
With the Walt Disney Company recently kicking off the Disney100 Years of Wonder celebration to mark its centennial, I’ve invited a stellar group of folks to share their thoughts. What impact has Disney had on their lives and their careers? What are their thoughts about the company at this impressive juncture? I’ve reflected on Disney at 100 and collaborated with my colleague, Robert Niles, who provided his own take. Now let’s see what some other people in the industry have to say.
I grew up not far from Disneyland and after my first trip to the park, I still recall where I was standing when I told my 6-year-old pal that “when I grow up I want to be the guy that comes up with rides for Disneyland.” Who knew? A few years later as a teen, I called Disneyland with a ride idea and they said, “Anything you can think of we’ve thought of… so don’t call again.” At this point, being an Imagineer, as they called it, became a quest.
I made a 1/200 scale model of the park at 13, sending pictures as proof that I was a serious fan. I wrote them as a self-proclaimed “Disneytologist,” only to receive a “cease and desist” letter. A buzzkill for many, but I was determined. I was interviewed post-EPCOT to join WED (as Walt Disney Imagineering was known then) in my 20s and rejected. Undaunted, I’d hone my skills, spending four wonderful years designing rides at Knott’s Berry Farm.
In 1986, when I was finally hired away from another firm to become an Imagineer at 28, it was more than a dream come true; it was a victory over many rejections. My first day there I crashed a retirement party as a stranger, only to learn that the retiree, Don Edgren, was the very same man who graciously gave our family a tour in his Chevy of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom as it was under construction. I thanked him for inspiring a 13-year-old kid by showing him Main Street in a state of becoming. He recalled that day in January 1971, but asked why I was at his party. To his amazement, I replied, “I’m here to design the next Main Street” (at Disneyland Paris). It had been a long road.
Why the quest? What made Disney the “holy grail?” Looking back, maybe there was an underlying motive. It was because Walt intended Disneyland to appeal to the goodness or better nature that he believed existed in all people. Maybe I felt that too? Imagineer John Hench stated that Disneyland was “reassuring,” and that’s why it worked. I wanted to contribute to Walt’s optimistic “make believe” world. By learning from those first-generation Imagineers that he groomed, I have been able to employ those lessons to export “the magic” to the “real world,” even after my departure from WDI. What a gift that was!
What I cherish from Disney beyond those childhood memories is the collaborative “Imagineering” process of creating transformative experiences. It’s the “secret sauce” of why we return to the parks. Everything matters. Details speak as loud as the broad brushstrokes. Imagineering goes beyond the crossroads of dreams and know-how; it’s a positive “can-do” spirit of a talented team that views “doing the impossible” as a goal. Not just because it hasn’t been done, but because it is worth doing.
It’s far more empowering to not be the smartest person in the room, but to see the cumulative effect of many minds and skills around a problem. The company today is far different than it was in my tenure and, like most art in popular culture, reflects the times. We were right for “our time.” Disney was a great 13-year “chapter” of my life and one I reread to keep me focused on designing positive experiences that appeal to the good that’s in all people.
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The Walt Disney Company has been my whole life. My dad was an animator [and her mother, Leota Toombs, was an Imagineer who famously was the original Madame Leota in the Haunted Mansion]. I’ve had the opportunity to work very closely with [legendary Imagineers] such as John Hench, Marc Davis, and Mary Blair and hold those memories so dear. Now, my daughter is working at Imagineering, so we have a third generation.
The company is not only about fun and amusement. I think there is a lot of hope in Disney. People allow themselves to be more hopeful, happy, and joyful when they are at the parks. It’s an amazing thing to be able to instill that.
When I was in 5th grade, we had to come to school dressed as a famous person from history. Each of us was supposed to stand in front of the classroom and talk about the person’s life and accomplishments. I chose to come to school dressed as Walt Disney.
Somehow my parents found a child’s suit that looked like it came from the 1930s. I wore an old school hat, a cheap Halloween mustache, and carried a sketch book. I told the classroom about how I invented Mickey Mouse and then went on to create the “Happiest Place on Earth”…Disneyland.
At that point in my life, I had never been to a Disney park. But after spending so much time learning about Walt Disney, my parents decided it was time to take a trip to Anaheim, California so that I could see Disneyland for myself.
That trip changed my life.
When we got to Walt’s park, my parents were amazed because I knew where everything was without having to look at a map. I told them what rides were in Adventureland and what we could look forward to seeing in Tomorrowland.
Sure, I enjoyed the rides and seeing my favorite characters in person. But I was most impressed at how Walt’s Imagineers created such amazing and detailed experiences. I loved that each attraction was designed using storytelling that the Walt Disney Company was known for around the world.
Walt Disney became a creative hero for me. I went on to become a television producer and even have a picture of Walt in my office. Every day, I think about how Walt Disney pushed the boundaries of creativity and got the best out of people who worked for him.
I try to do the same.
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The Walt Disney Company’s characters, films, and stories have been synonymous with quintessential Americana for so long that it’s difficult to imagine it is only 100 years old. While everything seems to move so quickly these days, it’s remarkable that The Walt Disney Company has solidified itself as so deeply influential since its earliest iteration. Though I have professional and personal critiques of the company, particularly in the parks division (hey, it comes with the territory!), I remain deeply curious and wildly interested to see what happens in the next few years–as well as the next century!
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I’ll share more guest essays about what Disney means to folks in my next post.
My Disney100 coverage: