“Walt’s dream is a nightmare.” “Crowds gripe over long waiting lines.” “Opening day was a confused mess.”
These were the first newspaper reviews of Disneyland, the California theme park that debuted one scorching day in July 1955.
As a junior publicist hired a month earlier, Marty Sklar had an inside view of the event which included women’s heels stuck in the hot asphalt, not enough water fountains due to a plumber’s strike and attendance double what was planned because of ticket counterfeiting.
He remembers “Davy Crockett” star Fess Parker, mounted on his steed, pleading: “Marty, help me get out of here before this horse kills somebody.” Sklar escorted them both backstage.
Disney’s PR staff turned things around by inviting the press to come back at night, when the park wasn’t so crowded.
Sklar went on to become president of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS)’s Imagineering unit, which designs the company’s parks and hotels, and has now written a memoir called “Dream It! Do It!” (Disney Editions, $24.99). In an interview, he described the company’s early days and why the world’s largest licensor may never lend its name to a car.
Palmeri: What was it like to work with Walt?
Sklar: He was not the kind of person who would pat you on the back and say “Great idea.” He just expected it. Dick Irvine (a design executive) was a master at getting something in position, something Walt could build on. Walt loved plus-ing other people’s ideas. That was exciting to be around.
Palmeri: What were meetings like?
Sklar: I remember we had an idea for an electronic shooting gallery set in outer space. We spent an hour describing it and the characters. Walt didn’t say a word. Finally, he got up and said “Is that all they do?” We all understood the signal. It never was a game.
Palmeri: Another idea that didn’t work was a Disney car.
Sklar: We found that teenage boys had no interest in riding in a Disney car. No one wanted to hear that a kid was killed or injured in an accident. It was something you don’t want to have to deal with.
Palmeri: Disney has taken a lot of chances, though.
Sklar: We learned by doing. We tried a lot of things at Disneyland that didn’t work. The things that worked became traditions. The biggest thing about Walt Disney was that he did not do sequels. He did not want to follow himself.
Palmeri: In the early days Disney created original park attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Today a new ride is much more likely to be linked to movie content.
Sklar: When you can attach great stories to an attraction, why not? Having great Pixar stories to use, or other Disney films, it’s really quite an advantage. Cars Land -- what a fabulous addition. I love going there at night, all those neon signs. And the ride itself is one of the best we’ve done.
Palmeri: One of the things that comes out in your book is that some countries want their park to reflect the local culture and some don’t.
Sklar: The Japanese said don’t Japanize us. We came to you for Disney. We came to you for America. Tokyo Disneyland didn’t even have a Japanese restaurant when it opened.
The French said, “We have the greatest culture in the world.” You get different attitudes in different places. All of Walt’s stories were out of Europe. Snow White was German; Mary Poppins, English. In Shanghai they’re paying a lot more attention to the Chinese culture.
Palmeri: Your career has taken some turns. You started out as a publicist and ended up running a group that included engineers, designers and M.B.A.s.
Sklar: Too many M.B.A.s. I tell young people: Learn as much as you can, about as much as you can, when you’re young. That’s the time to find out what you really want to do. If you’re not having fun in the fun business, find something else to do.
(Christopher Palmeri is a reporter for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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