I’ve always thought that the two most important dates in Disney’s parks and resorts occurred in July and October. It was on July 17, 1955 that Walt realized his “dream come true” with the dedication of Disneyland. October 1, 1971 and October 1, 1982 marked the official opening days for the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom and for Epcot (then “Epcot Center”).
There’s an extra relevance for me: I was a working Disney cast member for all three of these openings…and for the eight that have followed. From Tokyo to Paris, Orlando to Anaheim, and finally (so far!) Hong Kong, I’ve sweated the final details of construction, installation and show “buy-offs” leading to the openings of all eleven Disney parks around the world. It is with considerable pride that I can say, “I’m the only Disney cast member who has participated in all eleven of those openings.”
I’m anxious to join my fellow Imagineers at the next grand opening, too. But for me, the thrill of watching those gates open and the first guests eagerly racing to the attractions that are already their favorites, will be different next time. Because I’ll be cheering you all on from the sidelines, as a retired Imagineer.
I have decided to turn in my name tag on one of those prime dates: July 17. In 2009, that date will mark Disneyland’s 54th birthday, and my 53rd year as a Disney cast member. (I returned to UCLA after Disneyland’s first summer to finish my senior year, then returned to Disneyland’s public relations department in September 1956.)
Naturally, I’ve been thinking back over those 53 years, and what memories they are, starting with that summer day in 1955. I can still see Walt reading the dedication plaque at Disneyland’s opening. Little did I dream that day, as a 21 year old, that I would spend parts of ten years writing personal material for that amazing man, one of the best known and loved in the entire world.
Of course, July 17, 1955 was just the first of those beautiful blank pages we would fill. It was my luck to be “the kid” among the pros…first in public relations at Disneyland, then at WED Enterprises, Walt’s own company – the home of the original Imagineers.
It was here at Imagineering, beginning in 1961, that my real education truly began. I owe much to UCLA (today I’m even a member of the Alumni Board of Directors), but my greatest “teachers” were right here in Glendale: John Hench, Dick Irvine, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, Marc Davis, Blaine Gibson, Fred Joerger, Harriet Burns, Bill Martin, Rollie Crump, Roger Broggie, Bill Evans, Harper Goff, Bill Cottrell, Bob Jolley, Wathel Rogers, Yale Gracey. They were – they are – the true Legends, and though I was truly “the kid” among them, they accepted me and made me part of their team.
I had the privilege (as my own career grew from Staff Writer to Vice President of Concepts and Planning, and then to President and Vice-Chairman and Principal Creative Executive of Imagineering) of working with so many amazing talents, past and present. The Legends defined Imagineer and Imagineering, and you have carried on in the tradition they established: the standard of excellence. Walt created Imagineering, but Imagineers made it sing and dance. What Imagineers design and build has few precedents, but many followers.
Today your ability to marry new stories and characters with the wonders of new technologies is exciting to watch. I have long marveled at the capacity Imagineers have for letting new genies out of their bottles, granting wishes large and small for millions of guests around the world every year.
When I became the creative leader of Imagineering in 1974, one of the first calls I received was from the CEO of Disney, E. Cardon Walker. Walt Disney World had just celebrated its third birthday. “Now,” Card said, “what are we going to do about Walt’s idea for Epcot?”
The next 30 years or so filled so many blank pages they are almost like one of those “flip books”, where everything’s a blur. We created nine more Disney parks, including the five in international locations. Imagineering lived up to its roots and truly became the premiere design, engineering and construction organization in the world. The traditions of passion for our product, great storytelling and inspirational risk-taking – the traditions begun by Walt and those original Imagineers – not only continued, they grew and spread across the oceans.
For the last three years, as your Imagineering Ambassador. I’ve had a great time speechmaking and writing about creativity and leadership. I think I exceeded Jay’s expectations when he asked me to take on this role. We have created “Imagineering Week at the Studio”, represented all of you at special events and talked to thousands on college campuses, at IAAPA and TEA, at conventions across the country and Disney programs and events around the world. And I’ve had fun (that’s our business!) writing for many Disney outlets, especially my philosophy and history communications through Sklargazing on the WDI website.
Now it’s time to turn the page. So many of you have asked that I have finally actually begun writing that book about the people, the places and the passions I have experienced as an Imagineer.
As I said three years ago when my “ambassadorship” began, I know you will keep on dreaming big dreams, and creating the newest and best in the world. I’ll still be looking over your shoulders, cheerleading, and filling new blank pages. It’s the most important Imagineering tradition.