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Theme Park Insider interview with Marty Sklar (and the debut of the Theme Park Insider podcast)

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Published: July 29, 2013 at 6:02 PM

We're pleased to announce today a new feature on Theme Park Insider — a weekly podcast! As soon as Apple approves it, you can download the podcast on iTunes, or you can subscribe to its feed directly. Update: It's now available on iTunes!

And we're starting with a guest who's literally an industry legend. The former president and principal creative office of Walt Disney Imagineering, Marty Sklar has written about his 50-plus years working for the Walt Disney Company in a new book, Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, available August 13. Named a "Disney Legend" by the Walt Disney Company in 2001, and a member of the IAAPA Hall of Fame, Marty writes about his long working relationship with Walt Disney himself, for whom Marty wrote some of Walt's most famous speeches. Marty also writes about Disney's Four C's — Curiosity, Confidence, Courage and Constancy — and how they've influenced not just him, but also generations of Imagineers who've followed. (For those of you who would rather read the interview, a transcript follows.)

Marty Sklar
Photo courtesy Disney

Robert: Many theme park fans know that you got your start writing The Disneyland News in 1955 and worked closely with Walt Disney for many years after that, until his death 11 years later. But one thing that I got out of the book was that when you were at UCLA, you also covered Coach John Wooden. Disney and Wooden might have been the two most famous men in Los Angeles in the 1960s and certainly rank among the most influential people ever in their respective fields. What common themes, if any, do you see in what you learned from these two men?

Marty: Passion for what they did. Optimism about what they could do. And a respect for their players, their cast, their talent. Coach Wooden was more interested in making sure that the talent he had on his team, his players, succeeded as human beings than he was in winning national championships. [Lew] Alcindor [aka Kareem Abdul Jabbar], [Bill] Walton and all of them would keep coming back and back and back. That says something. I found the same kind of respect for Walt Disney from people who had worked with him for many years and were so loyal to him and would do anything to help him succeed. I think they both had passion for what they did, and even if they didn't always express it, a love for the talent that was around them and an optimism for the future and the potential of going beyond what you did last time. The thing about Coach Wooden, it wasn't until 1964, after he'd been at UCLA for 15 or 17 years that he won a national championship. There was a stick-to-it-ness, if you will, and a belief in what he was doing, as with Walt. Walt really believed in the direction he was going.

Robert: What were the four C's again? One of them was "Constancy," that stick-to-it-ness you just referenced there. And the ability to inspire people to stick with the program.

Marty: I had that on my wall, so that I could turn around and read [those words] from Walt Disney. I think the "Confidence" was probably number one. I think his confidence that he was going in the right direction gave us confidence that we could go beyond what we had individually done before because we were all going into new ground most of the time. That was Walt's whole career. He started with those six-to-eight-minutes shorts, then pretty quickly started developing Snow White, and then tried so many different things. Even after World War II, when he didn't have much money. Make Mine Music was an attempt to use music in a different way in motion pictures and on and on. Almost everything Walt did was "okay, I've done that, what can we do next?"

Robert: At one of the Disney Legends sessions at the annual IAAPA Expo, I remember you telling a story, warning a new Imagineer that when you come to work at Disney, there's only one name on the front door, and it ain't yours. What's the reason, or the benefit, for having just that one name on the door? Why isn't the theme park design industry more like movie making, where show people a list of credits along with the show?

Marty: In Disney's case, and I write about this in the book, he spent his whole life building an image of Walt Disney. He even said it [the Disney image] wasn't even him anymore. It was an ideal that people looked up to, and we were all part of that. He didn't want something in the park being John Hench's Space Mountain for Disney. He wanted it all to come out under the Walt Disney label, because it meant so much. If it were like the movie industry, that would be tearing down a lot of the things that he had built up over the years. We all bought into that because it was so powerful. This is one of the things I said over and over again to Imagineers, there's only one name on the door. If you want your name in lights, you'd better go somewhere else, because you're not going to get that here. It wasn't important that people know who I was, or who John Hench was, or Marc Davis was. These were all icons of our business and some of the greatest talents that ever worked on parks. I am participating in a program where the Art Directors Guild of Los Angeles is honoring Harper Goff and you don't really think about Harper Goff when you think about the parks, but there wouldn't be the kind of Adventureland that there is without him, and believe me, there wouldn't be a World Showcase the way it was done without Harper Goff. And yet, all these names came out as "Walt Disney," and it was so powerful around the world. Not just here in the United States. That name, that image, and what it stood for — stands for today.

Robert: That certainly speaks to the power of branding, but I also think it speaks to the theme of teamwork, which is something that emerges again and again in the book, and not just within Imagineering, but also outside the company, with the advisory boards that you put together to help with the development of projects such as Epcot. What do you see as some of the keys to effective collaboration in a creative project? And what do you see as some of the mistakes that young designers make when they try, and fail, to work with others on a project?

Marty: I think that they forget that what the team can accomplish is so much stronger than what you can do as an individual. In the book, I talk about almost the first day I was at Imagineering when John Hench said to me, "You know, this is not an 'I' business. It's a 'we' business." Some many hands touch everything, and so many hands contribute to make it a better product. I think that's how you have to look at a themed operation. I was watching when UCLA won the national championship in baseball and listening to all the players and the coach in interviews. Every one of them, even the kid who drove in five runs in that last game, said this is a team — we do this together, this is the way we operate and we wouldn't be successful if it weren't for operating as a team. That's such a great dynamic.

We talk in Imagineering about 140 different disciplines. Think about all the talent in a particular project. John Hench was right. You can't say "I did this" when so many different talents have contributed to making it the best that it could be.

Robert: On that note, one of the things that struck me in the book was the idea that the reward for doing this work isn't in getting your name in lights, or even getting an "attaboy" from Walt or whoever your boss is. The reward is when the project premieres and people are applauding or crying, reacting to this and knowing that you were part of the team that elicited that reaction. You've got to get people bought into the idea that that is the reward that you should be looking for.

Marty: The period I was really struck by this was when aerospace was letting a lot of people go and we were getting a lot of good engineers out of aerospace. And they loved it. They could take their kids to something that they created, and be so excited about sharing that with their families. Whereas in aerospace they'd been making things that killed people and destroyed things. And here they were building things that would last and be enjoyed by people. They could sit there in a theater, or on a ride, with their family, and feel the energy from their kids and feel the respect for Dad or Mom for what he or she did.

Robert: I have to confess that when I was a lowly worker bee at Disney, it was in Dick Nunis' division of park operations. In the book, there are several vignettes and anecdotes that point to a creative tension that might have existed between you and Dick. That got me thinking that when I was working at the Magic Kingdom, we fooled around with our spiels now and then, but when it came to something like starting up Big Thunder Mountain, or evacuating people from Pirates, we really didn't have room for creativity. We had to go by the book. That need for following procedure in park operations naturally leads to getting executives over there who are more command-and-control oriented, if you will, like Dick. But even in your position in Imagineering, it's creative, yes, but ultimately, you still need to get projects built, on time and on budget. How do you organize and manage a creative services company in a way that inspires and accommodates that creativity while still keeping people directed and focused on the big goal of getting projects done?

Marty: We had the expression that in a blue sky meeting, a creative meeting, that no idea is a bad idea. Well, you and I know that's not true. I've heard a lot of bad ideas. But if you put someone down and say "that's a stupid idea," you'll probably never get another one from that person. And I know that, so many times, after a meeting something that at the moment is considered dumb or stupid, someone would come into my office and say, "you know what 'Joe' said, what he suggested didn't quite work — it was kind of a silly idea — but think of it this way: maybe if we did 'X, Y, Z' instead of 'Z, Y, X,' this would really be something that we could build on." Even a comment that seemed way off base in terms of what we were discussing, someone would pick up on it and say, "Hey, you know what? There's a kernel of an idea here." I think that's an attitude you have to establish in a creative organization.

I participated in a program called the California Arts Project, for 125 teachers and administrators from around the state. I spent three days talking with them about how Disney does things. I did a program with Jon Storbeck, who's the VP of Operations for Disneyland, and the whole idea of the program was how creative and operations people work together. This is not something that happens easily. One of the things that came up, I told this story about the day Eddie Sotto came into my office and said "come out here in the hall." And so I walked out into the hallway and all of a sudden he was lying on his back and it looked like he was holding a wheel and he said "now, imagine, I've got the wheel, and next to me is the engineer, and also next to me is…." The idea being, this is a spacecraft. And I'm in that space capsule. Meanwhile, he's lying there on his back, with nothing around him, and he's just going through the motions. Well, we built that capsule and ultimately, it became Mission: Space at Epcot. Now, I said to Jon Storbeck, what would happen is someone did that to you? He said security would pick him up and take him away. That's the difference, you know? We recognize that kind of difference. However, the operating people are one the front lines. In the end, they are make or break for shows that we do. If the experience that the guest has in the show is ruined by the operating people, what kind of attitude are people going to have for the show? They're not going to enjoy it. Your family won't have a good time. So you have to find a way to work together.

Robert: It's different, your roles. But you're all in the same cast and on the same team.

Marty: Or the same business.

Robert: When you started at Disney, it obviously was a much smaller organization. Today, it's hundreds of thousands of employees around the world: television networks, publishing houses, real estate developments, all in addition to the movie studio and theme parks. Does that make it harder today for an Imagineer today to get the attention to get a creative idea approved and built than maybe it was back in the 1960s and 70s, and, if so, what can big corporations such as Disney do to make their size an asset for creators instead of allowing it to become a liability that stands in people's way?

Marty: Well I don't think there's an impediment at Disney. Just look around the world at what they're doing. Actually, it's a better opportunity for creative people and creative ideas today than it was in the 70s or early 80s, the period after Walt. That was a tough period, until we got Epcot going and then the new Fantasyland for Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland. But now, look at what they're doing: the Shanghai project, they just finished Cars Land at Disney California Adventure, and the new shows at Disneyland. They're doing the whole village in Florida over again. They're talking about a great expansion in the Studios in Florida. Tokyo Disneyland is doing some brand new things, and has for the last few years. Hong Kong just opened two enormous new attractions: Mystic Manor and Grizzly Gulch. All around the world, in the parks business, Disney is doing an enormous amount of work. There's probably more money being spent on Disney parks around the world than in any other 10-year period in the history of the parks. I don't have those statistics, but that's my guess.

Robert: Success obviously breeds success. If you can demonstrate that 'X' investment in this project paid off with 'Y' increase in income, it makes it a lot easier to get the bean counters to go along. In the book you talk about a period in the late 1990s and early 2000s when it was hard to get approval for things, and hard to get the company to spend money on the projects that are really doing so well for it today. What changed to help put the company back on the right track?

Marty: Well, there was a realization that you have to build things with the quality that's expected of Disney. When you try to do it on the cheap, which we did with California Adventure, and the second gate in Paris [Walt Disney Studios Park], and the beginning of Hong Kong, it was obvious that the public expects more. To be very frank about it, you can't get away with that if you're Disney. There's absolutely a realization of that, and that's why you see all of these great projects happening, where not only a lot of money, but a lot of great ideas are being put into practice.

By the way, now with Universal doing some really great things — I love that competition. A lot of the things that we did in the 80s and early 90s were because of competition. I think the competition is good for Disney; it's good for Universal. And it's good for the industry. Everyone has to stand up and do better things in order to meet the competition.

Robert: Getting back to the sports metaphor, when you have a good team and you're playing a good team, that's when you have the best games.

Marty: And that's when you have the most fun, too. Don't forget: we're in the fun business.

Robert: Absolutely. If people aren't enjoying what they're seeing, nobody's succeeding in this business. One of the things that I learned about that I would love to learn more about was 'Edie's Wall' - this wall in the Imagineering meeting room where you'd tack up little quotes that people had said in meetings — quotes that revealed something about the persons who said them. Apparently, you are the caretaker of all of these quotes. What were some of your favorites, and will we ever see a book of the best of the wall?

Marty: I just suggested that yesterday, because I've got about 300 of these sayings and maybe three or four dozen sketches that were made in the meetings by John Hench and Joe Rohde and Herb Ryman and others, doodling — everything from Mickey Mouse to animals for the Animal Kingdom and on and on. Or humor about Michael Eisner and others. (Laughs) I think it would make a great book. The name of that chapter in my book is "You're carrying my logic to too logical a conclusion." I recently ran into Gary Wilson, who was the Chief Financial Officer for Disney, and I said, "Gary, I quoted you in my book," and he said, "What did you quote me as saying?" I said, "I quoted your response to something Frank Wells said, where he criticized something you said in the meeting. And you said, 'You're carrying my logic to too logical a conclusion.'" And he said, "Absolutely! I had to stand up to Frank for what was right!"

There are all of these wonderful quotes. I always thought that the best one was from George Lucas: "Cliches are cliches because they work." That was so insightful, in many ways. A lot of them were about the tension that was in the room, in all of these meetings, like the one from John Cushman, where Card Walker was asking, "John, we're going to make October 1, 1982 [for the opening of Epcot], aren't we?" And John Cushman, who was the contractor working with us, said, "October 1 has never been the problem —l 1982 is the problem."

I really do want to write that book, and not just with the quotes, but about the personalities who said these things and why they came up. There's one that actually started it all, and I'll give it to you, Robert, and I didn't include this in the book. Ray Kayo, a lawyer at corporate Disney, came over and he made this big pontification speech and we're all rolling our eyes and saying, "we have to listen to this?" All of a sudden, he stops, and he says, "I guess what I'm saying is, nothing." And everybody cheered.

Robert: Your final formal role with Disney was as an ambassador for Imagineering. Reading the book, I got the sense that's really a role you've played for many years before that. In the book, you talk about your father being an educator, and much of what you did in leading Imagineering could be described as education. What are some of the lessons that you hope, as an educator, that aspiring theme park designers — or creators and artists in any medium — learn that can help them to become at least partially as successful in reaching and touching audiences as Walt Disney and the people who followed him at the company have been over the years?

Marty: I can't do much better than what I wrote in Mickey's Ten Commandments [included at the end of the book]. My philosophy, I'd guess you'd call it, is enclosed in that. It started out with talking about our business and the key things that, as Imagineers, we needed to do. For example, the one that I always say, if you don't start with this, forget it. You're dead before you begin. That's number one: Know your audience. Who are you talking to? I think a lot of people start on a project with an idea that they like, but there might not be any audience out there. Who are you trying to talk to? Who'd going to enjoy this product?

Marty Sklar's book, Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, is available now for pre-order on Amazon.com. It will release on August 13, 2013.

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Readers' Opinions

From James Rao on July 29, 2013 at 6:32 PM
A new podcast! Marty "A coaster is just a coaster but great stories last forever" Sklar!!! Wow! Wow! Wow! Robert... I mean, Mr. Niles, you were always a superstar in my eyes, but now the whole world knows it! Kudos! I can't wait to listen to the podcast while I jog tomorrow!
From 142.197.124.67 on July 29, 2013 at 7:29 PM
Just listened to your interview with Marty Sklar. What a way to start with your inaugural podcast. I've put the feed in iTunes and I'm looking forward to hearing more interviews.
From 107.219.189.242 on July 29, 2013 at 9:42 PM
I enjoyed reading the transcript. It's true-- you could visit the various Disney parks a hundred times, read their promotional materials, read their blog, etc., and you'd not come across the names of people like Marty Sklar, Tony Baxter, and John Hench.

Robert, I read someone's suggestion that Marty Sklar's book would be more interesting to read if it had not been published by Disney, but by a third party publisher, as Disney tends to sanitize what it written about the company whenever it can. Obviously you've already read the book, but do you have any reaction to that criticism?

From Robert Niles on July 30, 2013 at 3:59 AM
Marty is, and always be, a member of Walt's team. He supports his team, win or lose, though he'll own up to a loss after the fact (see his comments on California Adventure and Disney Studio Paris). I don't think a different publisher would have made much of a difference. If anything, he might have been less comfortable working with an "outsider."
From Kevin Maw on July 30, 2013 at 7:56 AM
Hi Robert, excellent piece, so good in fact, I just pre-ordered the book!
Can't wait to find out more!
From Anthony Murphy on July 30, 2013 at 7:40 PM
Excellent!
From 173.165.201.214 on July 31, 2013 at 6:47 AM
Fantastic interview Robert! Insighful questions and absolutely candid answers from one of the greats. Good job!

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