Decades ago, Imagineering had the bold notion to start the 21st century 18 years early by unveiling the “future” at Epcot in 1982. This positive look at tomorrow had a numbing effect on the bleak vistas depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984. As a kid beginning my career at Disneyland in the mid 1960s, both of these “futures” were far off from a universe where Disneyland was the only Disney park, Mr. Lincoln was a state of the art attraction, and everything operated under Walt Disney’s guidance.
Today, while there is a new set of “futures” to explore, the time has come for me to evolve my role at Walt Disney Imagineering. Beginning this February, I will be transitioning to a position as a part time advisor. While I will not be here on a regular basis, I will continue to be available to any and all of you as needs arise. Though my time will be limited, my passion for the magic WDI creates will be just as strong.
Since early last year, I have been thinking about what I would say to all of you when this time arrived. It has been a wondrous 47 years spanning the opening of Walt Disney World to Big Thunder and Star Tours from Epcot’s original Journey into Imagination to Disneyland Paris and Indiana Jones. The Imagineers I have known and shared these times with have provided invaluable experiences not to be found anywhere else on earth.
As one of the lucky second-generation Imagineers, I had the unique opportunity to experience firsthand the core philosophies of our company. I was fortunate enough to work with Claude Coats, Marc Davis, John Hench and the many others who built this industry alongside Walt Disney. I was able to soak up their wisdom and partner with them on creative projects. I have passed forward many of their key philosophies, and as our culture and scope have evolved, I have tried to balance my support of these foundations, with the business of charting “what’s next.” Now the 21st century brings a new reality for the first time, the younger generation is master of the key technologies driving the future. While upcoming generations deal with tech tools that are evolving almost daily, many of Disney’s keystone philosophies remain stable and relevant. These philosophies help define our creative edge to a world that is eager for aspirational content. With no particular order, here are five that continue to inspire me, and I think you may find useful in shaping “creative futures” for the years to come.
Creating Lasting Experiences
Legendary Imagineer Marc Davis once said, “We don’t really have a story with a beginning, an end or a plot It’s more a series of experiences building up to a climax.” Guests still want to be astonished, and our best attractions deliver that wow factor with visions and emotions. I always start with the notion that it is the 20th repeat ride, not the first that is the most important. Park experiences are by nature less able to focus on linear stories and tangible feelings than motion pictures. Unlike a movie, what separates an OK attraction from a great one is that people find themselves “in” the great ones. They have been taken to a place they couldn’t have imagined without Disney. How intriguingly we craft the level of guest engagement has direct bearing on desire for an umpteenth ride down the same track.
In Fantasyland, a simple line of dialogue heralds the beginning of one of the most aspirational ride experiences ever created; “Come on everybody here we go!” After riding Peter Pan, futurist Ray Bradbury was moved to write; “Walt, I’ll be eternally grateful that you made it possible for me to sail from a child’s window, out over moonlit London in a galleon on its way to the stars!” Despite the fact that by today’s standards Peter Pan’s technology is dated, its mystique has remained unwavering. The WDI challenge is finding ways to ensure today’s more sophisticated experiences have similar intangible qualities that provide groundwork for lasting appeal.
One of Walt Disney’s ways of overcoming what sophisticates tended to see as corny or sentimental was his absolute belief in sincerity. Defending Disney’s signature animation style in the movie Cinderella, Walt expressed what is to me a true hallmark of the Disney difference: “You have to believe in the honesty of Cinderella’s world, or you will not believe in the magic as it unfolds around her either.” The power of sincerity to win over an audience is “front and center” in the new Cars Land. Here, a truly believable environment fuses with the fantastic to give rise to new reality.
Valuable Mental Real Estate
Awhile back there was talk about the elusive “Disney Difference.” What the “difference” is may be open to various interpretations, but I see it centered on cultivating “Valuable Mental Real Estate.” Since the early days at the studio, Disney has excelled in focusing diverse talents on plussing core ideas. Enhanced value stems from something as simple as the emotional appeal of Epcot’s Figment character in comparison to hundreds of other generic dragons. When the whole team undertakes a mission to make “our dragon” stand out in every way, mental real estate values go up.
At Imagineering, where we must deal with equal parts of controlled insanity and disciplined evaluation, this can be complicated. Years ago, who else could have come up with the crazy idea for Flying Saucers and then make the concept work! (Sort of). Piloting flying saucers is every kid’s dream, and in spite of the ride’s technical shortcomings, people will forever recall the Flying Saucers as an E ticket. This rides aspirational, “bucket list”, once-in-a-lifetime intrigue, more than made up for any less than stellar performance.
Disney Hallmark Values
Current culture and the structure of our company are vastly different from the time when I began my career. Yet within that dynamic, hallmark values continue to add major appeal to today’s more socially sensitive content. Disney’s feature Beauty and the Beast shared many hallmarks with its ancestor Snow White, but it spoke to a vastly different audience with a finer tuned voice. Likewise, the more recent Tangled fuses traditional Disney values with relevancy aimed at a new generation.
Beyond the WDI walls, Pixar and Marvel achieve a consistency of success in their fast paced arenas. Each Pixar team is confident enough in their individual productions to freely reach out and tap into links that insure Pixar’s hallmark differentiators are a part of every project. Marvel has taken a different route, tasking individual creative teams to bridge their storylines under an overarching and epic saga. Regardless of the diversity of deliverables, hallmark values are key to all Disney entities, and everyone needs to be alert to where they reside, and how and why to fuse them to the DNA of a project.
At both ends of a career one of the most important working relationships is achieved through mentoring. When you are in your 20s and 30s it critical to find a mentor you can admire and trust. What proved most valuable for me was a mentoring partnership that skipped a full generation. A wide age gap creates a cross-generational opportunity for two-way learning. A young mentee sees a mentor’s still bright light as support for his or her own growing visibility, and the gap vanquishes the sense of competition. In a complementary way, a mentor’s satisfaction is fueled by the growing knowledge and skills transferred to their younger partner. My mentor was Imagineering legend Claude Coats, nearly four decades my senior. For Pixar director Pete Docter, his mentors were animation giants Joe Grant and Ollie Johnson. Pete and I absorbed as much knowledge as we possibly could during a period of growth in our careers. I would like to think our esteemed mentors also drew inspiration from our curiosity and unexplored visions!
A mentorship is not a few hours of counseling every so often; it is pulling together on real projects, with business/creative goals and knowledge gains to be made by both sides. This is the partnership I had with Claude Coats, and we remained lifetime friends because of our shared working time together.
No company is perfect, and like any other corporation Disney has its own politics and challenges. We are artists, engineers, managers, filmmakers and musicians. But our company is unique; there is no place like it on earth. We are lucky. At the end of the day, it is my hope that this letter will add to the special culture that I have been privileged to grow in. I see the probability for that happening in my interactions with younger Imagineers like Michel, Josh, Zach, Dylan, Laura, Manuel, Vanessa and Brandon, which are beyond rewarding to me. At a time when “unlearning” is as critical as “learning,” it’s important to listen to the way these people think and enjoy the things they do. Creativity I have mined from their game-changing perspectives, now effectively influences my own design process. I hope that when their careers peak some decades from now, they will look back on our time together as I value the time I was able to spend with Claude Coats.
And now it comes down to the point at hand. I am not suggesting that I could be a mentor to you all, but that said, you should all have someone you can turn to in this manner. I do hope to be available to help support your ideas, give advice or even join a team whenever appropriate. My role will be one of supporting your visions in the best way I can, and encouraging you to maintain and build upon this already special place. I will have availability, and if you would like my assistance in any way, please e-mail Bruce Vaughn’s office to request my time.
This is not a goodbye, but hopefully a letter of introduction to the many of you that I have not yet had the chance to meet personally
Feb. 1, 2013
He started his career at Disneyland selling popcorn and scooping ice cream and worked his way up to ride operator when he signed on to the crew of Submarine Voyage. He worked there for 5 years.
After graduating from Cal Poly, he applied at WED where he became the first of the second generation Imagineers. The legendary Claude Coats took him under his wing and helped him develop Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the first attraction to open without any input from Walt. He said this about the attraction:
“Big Thunder Mountain [which opened at Disneyland in 1979] became a major hit because it looks impressive and frightening and it rings all the roller coaster bells. But most of its impact comes from the story, the emotion, and the effects, rather than the [relatively tame] physical experience. So a lot of people can enjoy it together. There is a sense of triumph when an older person or a little kid gets off the ride and had a great time. In the end, it’s all about the repeatability of an attraction.”
All the best to Tony and thank you for everything…..
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 3,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 5 years to get that many views.
May Pang recounts the events surrounding the end of the Beatles at The Polynesian Village Hotel at Walt Disney World on December 29, 1974:
THE FINAL CONTRACT
At the end of 1974, after three years of court battles and acrimony, the final dissolution of The Beatles was about to happen.
The meeting was scheduled for December 19 at New York’s Plaza Hotel – ironically, this was the first place the group stayed in America in 1964.
George Harrison was in New York on his Dark Horse tour. Paul and Linda McCartney came in, and of course John and I were already in the city. Only Ringo was missing, but he had signed the documents in England.
Julian was with us for the Christmas holiday and all was calm, all was bright. John was even planning to join George on stage during his concert at Madison Square Garden.
Gathered around a huge table were George, his lawyer and business manager; the McCartneys, with Paul’s in-laws and lawyers; Ringo’s lawyer and business manager; Neil Aspinall, of Apple, with two sets of company lawyers (one for America and one for Britain); and John’s lawyer Harold Seider and his team.
Harold told me that after a while, George said out loud what everyone was thinking: “Where’s John?”
“Good question,” replied Harold. Harold left the room to call John, who wouldn’t come to the phone.
I was with John and it was up to me to tell Harold he had decided not to attend the meeting. Although John was concerned with shouldering a major tax burden because he lived in the United States, I could sense there was a bit more on his mind. His official reason for not showing was ‘the stars aren’t right’.
George, already in a dour mood because his tour was getting poor reviews, went ballistic. He started yelling at Harold, as did all the other lawyers in the room.
Then George picked up the phone and called John. I answered and asked if he wanted John, but he barked, “No! Just tell him whatever his problem is, I started this tour on my own and I’ll end it on my own!” before slamming down the receiver. John was listening over my shoulder.
George’s rage didn’t last long. Julian went to George’s concert the next day and returned home with a message saying: “All’s forgiven, George loves you and he wants you to come to his party tonight.”
We did go to the party at the Hippopotamus Club, where George, John, and Paul all hugged.
John, Julian and I left New York the following day to spend Christmas in Florida. On December 29, 1974, the voluminous documents were brought down to John in Florida by one of Apple’s lawyers.
“Take out your camera,” he joked to me. Then he called Harold to go over some final points.
When John hung up the phone, he looked wistfully out the window. I could almost see him replaying the entire Beatles experience in his mind.
He finally picked up his pen and, in the unlikely backdrop of the Polynesian Village Hotel at Disney World, ended the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in history by simply scrawling John Lennon at the bottom of the page.Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-513300/My-lost-weekend-Lennon-May-Pang-breaks-silence-relationship.html#ixzz2GRv2nMcR
Roy O. Disney passed away today in 1971, just 2 months after he dedicated Walt Disney World as “…a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney…”
There is an excellent piece by Jim Korkis on Mouse Planet titled The Forgotten Brother Who Built a Magic Kingdom which covers Roy’s work to complete Walt Disney World. It is an excellent read