Walt Disney in the Workplace: Inspiring First Hand Accounts from Four ImagineersSteven M. Johnson
Of all the fantastic events at the jam-packed D23 Expo that I attended last weekend in Anaheim, one of the most special for me was the panel WDI 60: Working With Walt, and getting to hear from four legendary Imagineers and their first hand experiences with Walt Disney himself.
The panel was led by Marty Sklar and included X Atencio, Alice Davis, and Bob Gurr, who helped create some of the most beloved Disney Parks attractions. The stories they shared reflect Walt’s tremendous respect for others and his penchant for bringing together all kinds of talent to create the best guest experience possible.
All four Imagineers experienced this quality upon their first meetings with Walt:
Alice Davis had just married Marc Davis (already an established animator and Imagineer), and was putting up wallpaper in their new house. Walt came by to see Marc and then met Alice there. He asked her what she did for work, which at the time was garment design, particularly with elastics. Having worked with animatronics who needed elastic clothes for Disney attractions, Walt was fascinated by Alice’s skill set, and kept asking her for specifics about elastics and its capabilities. She later went on to put this to use with WED Enterprises (Walt Disney Imagineering,) designing the costumes for It’s a Small World dolls, first presented at the 1964 World’s Fair.
For Bob Gurr, his Walt meeting was less business-oriented and more casual. One Saturday morning at WED, a bunch of guys were out back discussing a car concept for the Autopia attraction. One of the men was slightly scruffy and it was hard to make out his face (due to shadow). As he walked away, another man yelled out, “Bye, Walt!” Bob had met Walt without even realizing it!
While X Atencio was still working at the Animation studios, he met Walt in an elevator. As was the norm, he greeted Walt with a nervous “Hello, Walt,” and Walt replied, “Hello, X” X was starstruck that Walt knew his name!
Marty Sklar is still amazed by his first meeting with Walt. At the time, Marty was a junior at UCLA and was an editor for the students’ newspaper, the Daily Bruin. He wanted to pitch to Walt a newspaper to be sold on Main Street, USA, just weeks before Disneyland first opened, and he made a presentation to sell Walt on it. Marty looks back on this meeting with astonishment, that some college kid could pitch so small of an idea to Walt Disney himself; but Marty also recognizes now how much it reflects Walt’s attention to detail and wanting to get the Disneyland experience as authentic as possible.
Walt’s consistent work ethic and drive to make Disneyland the best it could be even continued after opening day, through the development of attractions for the 1964 World’s Fair like Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and It’s a Small World. With Lincoln, Bob Gurr, recalls Walt’s dissatisfaction with the animation other Imagineers had worked on, so he asked Bob to take a look at it. Whenever Walt had an idea in his mind, he wouldn’t stop pursuing it until it was “right.”
Alice Davis had a similar experience, with It’s a Small World as her first project for Disney, so she was still learning the corporate culture at WED Enterprises. She remembers being concerned as far as budgeting and limitations went for developing the costumes for It’s a Small World, but Walt told her not to worry and to just make the best costumes possible. His advice was to give the audience more than they expect that’ll keep them coming back.
Even decades after Walt’s passing, these four Imagineers still cherish the core values they learned from working with him.
Bob Gurr recalls that Walt was less interested in what you are doing right now, and more interested in what you are doing next. His corporate culture was one of strong openness and continuity. He was so deliberate in his efforts to not intimidate others (going by “Walt” wasn’t enough, apparently!) that he would even loosen his tie and unbutton his collar to make himself look “ratty.” Walt would also give a little cough to “warn” you he was coming down the hallway to see what you’re up to!
Additionally, Walt never wanted to chop heads and get rid of people. Even with planning as stressful and, at times, problematic as Disneyland, people’s mistakes wouldn’t get them in too big of trouble. Walt’s only interest was in finding the better way to create an experience.
Alice Davis fondly remembers Walt’s motivational spirit and pushing his team to do their best. Walt would instruct them to do things they didn’t think they were capable of doing. They would ask Walt his opinion on something and he’d say “it’s hard to pick between just one;” he wanted multiple ideas, wouldn’t give just a “yes/no” on the status of what they were working on.
X Atencio responded to Alice’s memory pretty bluntly: “Walt didn’t ask you to do something, he told you!”
The experiences and values shared by these four Imagineers were truly inspiring for me to hear, as my career with The Walt Disney Company is just beginning. The sense of teamwork and camaraderie exhibited through their stories make me that much more excited to be a part of the magic!
Editor’s note: Marty Sklar’s recently-released book Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms, with introductions by Ray Bradbury and Richard M. Sherman, is available from Disney Editions, an imprint of Disney Book Group.