A brief history of Disney's and Universal's theme park design divisions

February 14, 2017, 4:58 PM · Universal last week promoted Universal Creative President Mark Woodbury to the newly created post of Vice Chairman of Universal Parks & Resorts. Woodbury will continue to head Universal Creative and continue to report directly to Universal Parks & Resorts Chairman Tom Williams, so maybe it's not so much a substantial change as a symbolic one.

But it's not hard to read a lot into the symbolism, specifically, that this promotion puts Woodbury in position to succeed Williams as head of Universal's theme park division whenever Williams retires. No one's announced anything about that, but Williams began his career more than 40 years ago, working at Yosemite National Park back when Universal's recreation group owned the contract for the park's hotels and restaurants. He moved over to the operational design team for Universal Studios Florida in 1987 and was named head of the recreation division (now Universal Parks & Resorts) in 1999. Williams, 68, was inducted into the IAAPA Hall of Fame in 2015.

That's a helluva career, and it's be perfectly normal for Universal to be thinking about a succession plan. But as I asked on Twitter shortly after the announcement, can you even imagine Disney appointing a head of Walt Disney Imagineering to run its theme parks? I can't. But why not?

This promotion for Woodbury got me thinking about the differences in Universal's and Disney's corporate cultures in regard to theme parks and the people who design and who run them. So thanks to Mark and Universal for the news peg here, but the rest of this post is going to be a history lesson on the evolution of the design teams at both companies.

But before I get to that, let's consider another point of perspective.

If it's hard to imagine Disney tapping an Imagineer to run Disney Parks, it's not hard to see a Disney Parks chief moving up to become CEO of Disney. In fact, most Wall Street analysts thought that former Disney Parks chairman Tom Staggs was set to replace Bob Iger... until Iger showed Staggs the door and decided to stay on as Disney CEO pretty much indefinitely. And former Disney CEO's Donn Tatum and Card Walker were involved in the parks on their way up the ladder at Disney.

Compare that with Universal, where Williams, Ron Bension, and Jay Stein never came anywhere near sniffing distance of running any of the various companies that have owned Universal since MCA sold out to Matsushita in 1990.

Theme parks are much more part of the corporate identity of the Walt Disney Company than they are a part of Comcast's, which now owns Universal as part of its NBCUniversal subsidiary. But design operations historically have been more tightly integrated in the corporate operation of Universal's theme parks than they were over at Disney, at least initially. Maybe that's why parks chiefs have a path to move up at Disney, but haven't at Universal. And why creative chiefs can think about move up at Universal's parks, but haven't at Disney.

So now it's time for that history lesson. WDI started not as Walt Disney Imagineering, but as Walt Disney Inc. — a separate company from Walt Disney Productions that Walt formed personally to license his name and work on side projects... such as the design of Disneyland. After the Disney Productions board of directors balked at the name of Walt Disney Inc., Walt changed it in 1953 to WED Enterprises (for his initials: Walt Elias Disney).

WED Enterprises employed the original Imagineers who designed Disneyland. And WED Enterprises — not Disneyland — owned the Disneyland Railroad, Monorail, Viewliner, and Mark Twain Riverboat attractions in the park. The Disney company didn't own those rides or the employment contracts of the park's designers until 1965, when Walt Disney Productions (later renamed The Walt Disney Company) bought the design division of WED Enterprises.

If you're curious, the remaining real estate and TV stations assets of WED Enterprises remained with Walt, and later his family, and were renamed Retlaw Enterprises. (Spell that backward.) Long after Walt's death, the family sold the TV stations and some of the real estate and eventually folded the remaining Retlaw assets into the Walt Disney Family Foundation.

Disney renamed WED Enterprises as Walt Disney Imagineering in 1986. But for those first 10 years of Disneyland's existence, Imagineering wasn't even legally part of what we now know as The Walt Disney Company. And WDI retained its independent spirit for decades later, including a disdain for the "Disney Look" grooming guidelines that ruled every other cast member who stepped foot in the parks. When I worked at Walt Disney World in the early 1990s, if we saw someone with a Mickey name tag and a mustache walking in the park, we knew it was an Imagineer on site. That's how we found out about new projects, in the days before online rumor boards.

With Imagineering doing its own thing, Disney's recreation division drew its leadership from the operations team in its parks, such as Dick Nunis. Eventually, parks division leaders started coming from other divisions within the Walt Disney Company, such as finance and merchandising. Imagineers who wanted to move up a corporate ladder pretty much had no other choice but to leave and form their own creative design companies, which many former Imagineers have done over the years.

Meanwhile, over at Universal, MCA Planning and Development worked as part of Universal's recreation division from the start. (If you're looking for an insightful history of the early days of Universal's theme park division, check out JayBangs! by Sam Gennawey.) After Matsushita sold Universal parent MCA to Seagram and Seagram dropped the MCA name, the division became Universal Creative in 1997.

In 2001, Universal Creative moved its operations from Universal City in California to the Universal Orlando Resort, where they remain. That puts Universal Creative managers in closer daily contact with park operations management personnel than at Walt Disney Imagineering, which is located in Glendale, not too far from Disney's corporate headquarters in Burbank, but an hour's drive from Disneyland in Anaheim and a continent away from Disney's flagship resort in Orlando.

Yes, WDI has Imagineers assigned on site, full time, at all of its theme parks. And Universal Creative leaders can spend a fair amount of time meeting in boardrooms, away from the parks. But the history of organizations affect their present... and their futures. So as leaders change at both Universal and Disney's theme park divisions over the many years to come, it's helpful for fans to know about the history of these companies and how that might affect their future directions.

Replies (4)

February 14, 2017 at 10:42 PM · The one thing that bothers me is how Disney chooses people from the consumer products division to head the parks. It started with Paul Pressler, who had success at the Disney Store, became the President of Disneyland, then basically turned the park into a retail mall.

Now Bob Chapek comes from Consumer Products, and his record so far is questionable. He sounds good, "We're going to overhaul Epcot", but so far what we've seen are cutbacks at the park, which admittedly, may be coming from above. But wouldn't it make sense to have the parks head someone who actually has experience with park operations?

February 14, 2017 at 11:30 PM · It would make too much sense...
February 15, 2017 at 10:11 AM · Disney's executive management process is broken. It seems like every few years or so, the board of directors want a succession plan to ensure contingency in case something happens to the CEO and President, but all that effort is for nothing for the potential successors are shown the door and the CEO and President remains for another few years. He becomes indispensable and another Tom Staggs is discredited. This is a horrible way to show loyalty to committed Disney executives. It sends a signal that no one is safe in their position and everyone who wants to remain shouldn't attempt to be promotable.

As for the whether parks should be headed by park operations, that's not how Disney runs its parks. Parks are an extension of the corporation as it promotes it's IP and merchandise. The knock on Paul Pressler and Bob Chapek is misdirected. They are there due to corporate mandates to meet their objectives. Parks by themselves do not make money. The ancillary sales can often exceed admission receipts. Thus, keeping up means a lot more than mere park upkeep, which seems to be ignored, but customer service includes a whole lot more.

February 15, 2017 at 2:38 PM · One person who came from Disney Products to the Disney Theme Parks who could have ultimately been CEO of Disney is Steve Burke! Disney's loss is definitely NBCUniversal's gain.

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