IAAPA Update: The 2010 Disney Legends panel, with Marty Sklar and Mickey Steinberg

November 17, 2010, 8:59 PM · ORLANDO, Florida - What happens when a creative director butts heads with a project manager, with billions of dollars and a company's reputation on the line? In the case of Marty Sklar and Mickey Steinberg, some of the greatest projects in theme park history happen.

Newly-inducted IAAPA Hall of Fame member Bob Rogers introduced the two at this year's "Disney Legends" panel, at the 2010 IAAPA Attractions Expo.

Of Sklar, the former creative principal of Walt Disney Imagineering, Rogers said: "He became the Sorcerer's Apprentice, channelling, articulating, and teaching Walt's philosophies to not one, but two or three generations of successive designers."

Of Steinberg, the former WDI executive, Rogers noted: "Mickey project managed Disneyland Paris. He had quite the reputation for frankness [eliciting nervous laughs from throughout the room], directness, and everyone who worked with Mickey has a story."

Sklar and Steinberg first began working together when the late Frank Wells hired Steinberg to "clean up" WDI. Back then, Disney was trying to use a process called "design-build" to develop its theme park projects. In design-build, a single contractor handles both the design and construction of a process. It's supposed to streamline the development process, as you don't need to contract one team to design the project and another to build it. But Steinberg would have none of that.

"When you get into high design stuff, how in the world can you design-build it?" Steinberg said. "You have to know what they [the theme park owners]want, and the only way to get that is to have them design it."

"The first thing I did was terminate Bechtel, and turn it over to Imagineers. That [project] was the Disney Hollywood Studios. I terminated Erie and turned it over to Imagineers. That was the Typhoon Lagoon. I did Jacobs, got rid of them, that was Splash Mountain at Disneyland. And the biggest one had to do with the park in Paris.

"It didn't take me long to understand that the most qualified people there were all of these people that they were throwing others on top of. It was the Imagineers. They knew how to build. They knew how to design. And they knew how to do it together. The only thing I had to do was get rid of the people at the top."

Steinberg warned about turning to outsiders to manage creative projects, in an effort to save money and speed development.

"You have to be integrated in the process completely" when you're building something as creatively complex as a theme park, he said. "You don't just turn it over to somebody else. Nobody knows what you've got in your mind."

Steinberg also insisted that project managers focus on the customer.

"Most developers turn out what they want. But when you're building something like a theme park, it's not what you want, it's what the customer wants. And if you don't build that, you're wasting your time and money," he said.

"It's a guest, Mickey, not a customer," Sklar cut in, with a smile, drawing laughs from the audience for the reference to one of Walt Disney's mantras, one that's repeated to every Disney new hire even today.

"That may be true," Steinberg responded, "but he pays at the gate when he comes in."

Rogers sustained the focus on management issues by asking the two about the importance of having access to the highest level of management within a company. Marty responded with a story about the development of Mickey's PhilharMagic, recalling an early pitch to then-CEO Michael Eisner.

"He said, 'It's okay, but it needs an antagonist in the story. Why don't you try using Donald Duck?'" Sklar recalled. "Well, Donald Duck is the key to that film. And just one suggestion and we redid the story. Now, as the company got bigger, and into so many more more things, we saw less and less of Michael and that was to the detriment of the product I think because we just couldn't get the time we once had."

Later in the session, Sklar referenced Eisner again.

"There's an interesting book that Michael Eisner just did about partnerships ["Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed"] - I think it's worth reading. There's a whole chapter in there about his relationship with Frank Wells, and even he admits at the end that Disney was never the same after Frank died and he didn't have a partner like that."

Steinberg emphasized the importance of partnerships in getting the most out of project development.

"This concept of partnership is something we pushed in every project," he said. "Every project had a partnership of the project manager and the designer. People would ask 'Who's in charge?' And I danced around that, then said 'You're partners. Learn to like it.'"

Both Sklar and Steinberg also spoke of the importance of owning up to mistakes.

"Everyone who's ever done anything has made a mistake," Steinberg said. But the key is to own it, and not cover it up, so that it can be fixed right away.

Better yet, Sklar said, would be to answer "I don't know" when you aren't certain of correct information on a project.

"Too many people are afraid to say 'I don't know,'" Steinberg responded. "To me, that's a great answer: 'I don't know, but I will find out.'

"The other thing I didn't want anyone to tell me [when I asked] 'Why don't you do it this way?' was 'No, it won't work.' That was baloney. They should say, 'Yes sir, but if you really want it it's going to cost you one billion, 200 million dollars.' Then I'd say, 'Hey, I don't want that.' I can't stand to work with people who the first thing out of their mouth is 'no.'"

Sklar echoed the late Buzz Price's statement on that topic at last year's IAAPA Disney Legends panel.

"'Yes, if' is the language of a dealmaker," Sklar said, quoting Price. "'No, because' is the language of someone who wants to kill the deal. Creative people thrive on 'Yes, if.'"

Rogers asked about the challenges of developing theme parks outside the United States.

"One thing we've found is that if you're writing something for a theme park in another language, don't just have it translated," Sklar said. "It's not the same. The only jokes that worked [when translated] on the Jungle Cruise were mother-in-law jokes. We found that you can tell a mother-in-law joke in any culture. But what we had to do was get a writer who can write in that language, in that idiom and that culture and say 'here is what we want to convey.'

"Some of the words we first translated in Jungle Cruise, some of the words we got back in Mandarin and Cantonese, they were not pleasant - swear words, actually. So you really have to be careful about that."

Cultural understanding works best when it goes both ways. Sklar noted one example.

"One of the best things Disney did was, when we started Tokyo Disneyland, we brought the people who were going to be the top operating people at Tokyo Disneyland and the worked at Disneyland [in California] for a year. Those people were the foundation for making Tokyo Disneyland a success in the beginning" because they knew Disney's corporate culture by seeing it in practice at the company's original theme park.

Passion is important, too, both said.

"If you have the passion for doing it right, that's going to translate in so many ways, without having to be in words," Sklar said. "Setting an example, through the passion you have for doing something right, is as important as anything else you do, anywhere."

Of course, not everything one hears about a foreign culture turns out to be accurate. Sklar cited an example from Tokyo Disneyland.

"We were told that we had to redesign the Splash Mountain seats in Tokyo because Japanese women 1) wouldn't step on a seat that they were going to have to sit in and 2) they will not get wet," Sklar recalled.

"That was bulls--t. It was one of the most popular attractions that we've done in Tokyo."

Speaking of misconceptions, Steinberg wrapped up the panel by shooting down the talk that Disneyland Paris was a failure when it opened.

"The facts are that the park was a huge success. It wasn't the park that got into trouble. It was the people who built the concept of the whole development," Steinberg said.

"I'm not the one who decided to build 5,500 hotel rooms in the beginning. When they built the first park here [Walt Disney World], they built 750 rooms. And this was not next to Paris. I've been the hotel business, I wouldn't have built all those rooms" at Disneyland Paris, Steinberg said.

"I'm not the one who build 50,000 residences to get the land at a 'cheap' price. That wasn't a cheap price."

Steinberg was getting visibly riled by now.

"We built the most success tourist attraction in Europe. It got in trouble not because of that park, and without that park, the rest of all that [stuff] they built would probably have gone into disrepair," Steinberg concluded, with a huff.

"Do you feel strongly about that?" Sklar asked, with another wry smile, as the audience broke into laughter and applause.

Replies (5)

November 17, 2010 at 9:50 PM · That Steinberg should be very proud of Disneyland Paris. It is truly the best designed MK style park I have ever seen. Very stylish!
November 18, 2010 at 9:40 AM · Weak Eurodisney defense. Both the parks and the hotels attract lots of visitors now despite very high prices. But Eurodisney still makes no money. Construction costs were just to high, thats on his shoes.
November 18, 2010 at 10:59 AM · Actually, theme park construction came in within a few percentage points of budget. It's the financing costs that are hurting EuroDisney now, due to the money the company had to borrow to see it through the lean early years. And that was due to the under-performing non-park stuff.
November 18, 2010 at 12:56 PM · Great article. I like the frankness of Steinberg. He's a true project manager. He cuts through some of the Disney silliness, like that whole "guest" vs. "customer" bit. The guest still pays when they enter, so don't try to dance around the proper term.
November 19, 2010 at 11:47 AM · I just wanted to say that these types of posts are some of my favorites... getting a small inside look at what goes on in the minds of Imagineers, Execs, Management, etc.

Wish I could have been at this panel, but maybe I'll find something at D23 Expo!

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