You know the name Walt Disney. Everybody does. But do you know these names:
“Price, Sklar, Blair?”
They may not be as well-known as Disney but they played starring roles in his success.
They were behind many of the best known creations of the Disney Imagineers…
(Marty Sklar headed up the group during some of its most ambitious times…Buzz Price found Disney sites for theme parks…artist Mary Blair was said to have been the person who changed Disney).
Disney, of course, is one of the most admired men of any time. He is always near the top of a list of most influential people in the history of the world.
But those other names may be somewhat familiar to you — but only if you are close followers of Disney history.
Many of the people behind Disney’s success were Imagineers.
Time to give them credit
Perhaps it’s time…actually, overdo and past time…to take a look at a few of these somewhat unsung people.
And also their dealings with Walt Disney himself…or their stories about their far more famous boss.
The lives and accomplishments of these characters instrumental to Disney are revealing not only for what they did, but in how and why the giant entertainment complex grew…and how it handled both success and failure…and insights into Disney himself.
We could mention a lot of other people (and even some you may have nominated yourself for special recognition).
A name that certainly stands out is Marvin Davis. He developed the first diagrammatic plan for Disneyland.
Another name that comes up: Ken Anderson.
Disney referred to him as his very own “Jack of All Trades.”
Over the years, Ken used his skills as architect, artist, animator, storyteller, and designer to what have been termed “masterful ends in several different areas of the Disney entertainment spectrum.”
It was said of him that is goal was never so much to achieve as to always “focus on challenge and growth.”
Another of Walt’s friends: Uncle Sam
Disney was also good pals also with “Uncle Sam”…or the US government.
He produced animated war propaganda films and training videos for the United States military. And created custom cartoons for US troops, which were said to boost morale. But that’s another story…
So for our purposes here, in this article we’re going to look at the three already mentioned.
Let’s start with one who is still a living legend. Marty Sklar.
He retired from Disney on July 17, 2009, after 53 years with the company.
He is said to be the only person to have attended the grand openings of all Disney parks.
That is only a minor claim to his fame.
He may be best known today as the former vice chairman and principal executive at WDI.
Sklar was at the University of California at Los Angeles, UCLA, where he was editor of the Daily Bruin student newspaper. His first job was to start the Disneyland News, which sold on Main Street during the
park’s first year.
How Sklar was hired might be of special interest to would-be Cast Members today.
His hiring was a good story
“Someone had recommended me to Card Walker, and Mr. Walker called me at my fraternity where I was living at UCLA, and I didn’t even return the call because I thought one of my fraternity brothers was playing a trick on me – nobody had the name ‘Card.’ Well, I later learned it was E. Cardon Walker, and he was the head of marketing for Disney at the time and much later the CEO of the company. Fortunately, Card Walker called back, and asked me to come in for an interview.”
Sklar first became an Imagineering officer in 1974. Here, he guided creative development of Epcot Center at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
For anyone who thinks this was a casual and quickly made (read simple) decision, consider that Sklar said he had eight pages of notes just to discuss the concept he and Walt developed of making Spaceship Earth the visual centerpiece of Epcot.
During that time, he was reminded again how Walt came to some of his conclusions. They evolved from his own experiences.
How Walt learned what people want
Walt and his wife were babysitting for Diane Disney Miller and Ron Miller’s children, who went off for the weekend. They lived on a street where there were alleys behind the house.
They heard trash trucks at about 6 in the morning.
The garbage men were throwing the trash cans in all directions.
Walt said:”Isn’t there a better way to collect trash?”
That led to the AVAC system installed at Disney World in the very beginning, Sklar recalled.
“From the beginning, we were always looking for something that would meet the needs of people.” A defining company principle.
Sklar has written extensively about his times at Disney, including books: “One Little Spark! Mickey’s Ten Commandments and The Road to Imagineering.”
The positive aspects include the ten rules for successful theme park operations.
“When we followed them closely, we created magic,” Sklar writes. “When we strayed from them … well.”
In the book, he highlights the rules with examples.
He is honest about not only successes’ but also failures.
He mentions the positive one, the “Mousecar,” an award that was a play on the name of the Academy Awards Oscar.
Success and Goofs
On the other hand, there were also the “Goofs,” named after you know who.
One of the Mousecar awards goes to “Cars Land at Disney California Adventure.”
He writes the project went ahead only after a lot of prior research.
“Once the target audience – fans of the “Cars” animated feature – had been determined, the Cars Land team dedicated themselves to knowing the source material so they could meet – and exceed – the audience’s expectations.”
Among the Goofs:
“The Astuter Computer Revue” that opened in Epcot in 1982.
It was recognized that when it opened it was already out of date, as the personal computer had been introduced to the marketplace. Development of a show to replace it started within a month, and the new show, called “Backstage Magic,” which explained how computers kept Epcot running, debuted in early 1984
In writing the book, Sklar asked 75 current and former Disney Imagineers to write him short stories about how projects worked or didn’t work.
Park rides based on Walt’s own experiences
Sklar said it was obvious from his conversations with Disney that Disneyland came about through his experiences of taking Diane and Sharon, his two daughters, to amusement parks.
The kids would do the rides while parents ate popcorn and peanuts.
Walt began to ask why there was not a park where children and parents could do things together?
That was an inspiration for its time.
Sklar’s take on working with Walt Disney:
“Working with Walt…was the greatest ‘training by fire’ anyone could ever experience. Our training was by Walt, who was always there pitching in with new ideas and improving everyone else’s input. The fire was that we were constantly breaking new ground to create deadline projects never attempted before in this business. “
Our second figure, and possibly an even more influential one: Harrison Buzz Price.
He was not an artist like so many of the founding people who guided Disney in the earliest days.
He was a research economist.
Among most famous ever for theme parks
Just one of his claims to fame: he recommended Anaheim to Walt Disney as the site for Disneyworld.
He later recommended Orlando to Roy O. Disney for Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
“Buzz Price was as much responsible for the success of the Walt Disney Company as anybody except Walt Disney himself, in that he worked with Walt not only on finding the sites of both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but on many other new initiatives, like the 1964 New York World’s Fair and the 1960 Winter Olympics in the Lake Tahoe area,” said former CEO Michael Eisner.
“But more than being a pioneer and visionary, he was one of the nicest and most professional and gentle friends of the company.”
In his book “Walt’s Revolution! By the Numbers” (published by Ripley Entertainment and now out of print), Price wrote that his life was changed at a party in July 1953.
It was a party he didn’t attend.
At that party, Disney told three architects about his idea to build a giant park (with a Main Street and four supporting areas: Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland) that would be unlike any other amusement park in the world.
Disney asked the architects if they knew anyone who could help him refine his idea.
They suggested Buzz, who was so named by a younger sister who as a toddler had trouble pronouncing Brother.
The morning after the party, Buzz got a call asking him to meet with Disney.
Buzz told Disney he needed three months and $25,000. In return, he would tell Disney where and how to build the park.
When Walt agreed, Buzz asked him if he had any place in mind.
Where to locate the park
Disney looked at Buzz and said:
“That’s what I hired you for.”
Price analyzed trends related to population, traffic patterns, climate, smog and other variables that people had never really associated with the amusement park business.
He analyzed the potential sites in the Southern California area, ultimately focusing on Orange County after considering population trends, accessibility and climate factors.
They selected 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, just off the Santa Ana Freeway at Harbor Boulevard.
“We hit it right on the nose,” Price later recalled, “dead center. That was the perfect place for it.”
Price later formed his own company that specialized in theme park site selection for a variety of places including competitors such as Universal Studios. But it was Walt Disney who set his success in motion.
Legend was involved in all of Walt’s projects
“Buzz was involved in nearly everything our family did,” recalled Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller.
Price’s concepts in economic analysis are clearly spelled out in his seminal book, “Walt’s Revolution – By the Numbers,” published in 2003 by Ripley Entertainment.
His advice to all:
“Guessing is dysfunctional. Ignoring prior experience is denial. Using valid numbers to project performance is rational.”
Price pioneered the use of numbers to predict the success of theme parks.
One of his greatest talents was that he could present quantitative studies to both creative and artistic people in an understandable way.
Walt knew he could use his Imagineers’ numbers to obtain capital for his projects
But since this was the first study of its kind, Price wanted to test it out. He went to the 1953 IAAPA convention in Chicago and invited the owners of Chicago’s Riverview Park, Pontchartrain Beach in New Orleans, Cincinnati’s Coney Island and San Francisco’s Playland at the Beach.
He presented Walt’s concept for Disneyland.
No way, they said
These amusement park leaders agreed. No way, they said. A bad idea,
Disney should keep his money and leave this to the people who knew the business. They all criticized every day given to them.
Walt’s reaction to the report:
“To hell with them.”
Disney bought the land for $879,000. The purchase was announced in May 1954.
Price, like everyone else, had his own share of mistakes.
He got one thing wrong in his calculations about Disneyland.
“He totally underestimated Main Street,” his son later recalled. “He knew it would be successful, but he had no idea how much memorabilia they would sell.”
Then, we come to Mary Blair.
She is possibly even better known than Price.
Books have been written about her.
In addition to fame with Disney, she illustrated many children books.
An illustrator whose books are still sold today
She joined the Walt Disney Studio in 1940. Worked on various projects, including “Baby Ballet,” a never produced segment for a proposed second version of Fantasia.
She toured South America during World War II with Disney, where she attracted the attention of others with her striking watercolors.
Both she and Walt shared a common bond: relating to children.
Her unique vision was illustrated in many of Disney’s most famous films such as “Song of the South” and “Cinderella.”
But she is perhaps most famous for her work in “It’s a Small World,” best unveiled at the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair.
It’s said the final result was “purely Mary Blair in its style and concept.”
It’s also believed she brought modern art concepts to Walt to a degree not done by anyone else.
Over the years, she brought her many artistic gifts to numerous exhibits, attractions, and murals at the theme parks in California and Florida.
These included the fanciful murals in the Grand Canyon Concourse at the Contemporary Hotel at the Walt Disney World Resort.
Blair died July 26, 1978, in Soquel, California.
As for the surviving Imagineer…
Sklar sums up his thinking about how the Imagineers, including himself, worked:
“There are two ways to look at a blank sheet of paper. You can see it as the most frightening thing in the world – because you have to make the first mark on it. Or you can see a blank page as the greatest opportunity – you get to make the first mark on it. You can let your imagination fly in any direction.”
That’s what he said in his book.
He follows that with a single page, encouraging readers to put their own mark there.
It is a blank page. ###