Interview with Walt Disney Imagineering Legend Marty Sklar on Creating Magic Kingdoms

Walt Disney Imagineering celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, and the man who served as Imagineering’s creative director for over half of those 60 years was Disney Legend Marty Sklar.  Retiring in 2009 as Executive Vice President and Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering after 50 years with the Disney Company, he now serves as president of Marty Sklar Creative, Inc.  His memoir (and first book) is titled Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms and scheduled for release this August, 2013 (just in time for the upcoming D23 Expo in Anaheim).  In the article below, you can listen to and read-along with my interview with the Imagineering Legend as he discusses working alongside Walt Disney, the theme parks he helped create, the legacy of his work, and the impossibility of following Walt Disney.

Dream It! Do It! by Marty Sklar

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As the only person involved in the opening of all 11 Disney Parks, Marty Sklar has a unique perspective on their creation and impact.  However, in addition to documenting the design, planning, construction, and opening of theme parks, Marty wanted to relay the story of Walt Disney, the man he knew.  After sitting in on meetings with Walt Disney and writing for him for a decade, Marty Sklar has the insider’s perspective to deconstruct any myths revolving around Walt Disney.

Cinderella Castle construction at Walt Disney World

Cinderella Castle construction at Walt Disney World ©Disney. All rights reserved.

 

In the book, Marty Sklar also wanted to describe the many projects and stories he presided over and accumulated as creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering for over 30 years.  Finally, during his tenure, Marty Sklar worked with a great deal of talent, and considers them all his mentors.  People such as John Hench, Harper Goff, Marc Davis, Claude Coates, etc. were the icons of Walt Disney Imagineering, had a profound impact on Sklar’s career, and he wanted to celebrate their contributions to his personal growth.  I asked Marty who had the biggest influence on him and his career, and he did not hesitate with his answer.

Well, there’s no question I learned more from Walt than anybody else – just by observation and by spending 10 years writing for him.  But John Hench was probably the biggest mentor for me.  He was a brilliant designer and brilliant person.

John Hench (left) Marty Sklar (right)

John Hench (left) and Marty Sklar (right) during the construction of Epcot. Photo courtesy Walt Disney Imagineering ©Disney. All rights reserved.

 

As quick as Marty was with his answer, he was also quick to rattle off the names of another 5-10 Imagineers he worked with and their contributions, from Herb Ryman to Harriett Burns (listen to the audio for the full list).  “They were just brilliant talent,” Sklar gushed, “and they were so giving of their talent and knowledge.”  Marty went on to explain how this creative culture at Imagineering was essential to allow not just him to grow, but allowed the next generation of Imagineers such as Tony Baxter and Tom Fitzgerald to flourish.

In addition to Marty Sklar’s colleagues inside Walt Disney Imagineering, he worked closely with many prominent leaders of industry and society as members of advisory boards for the Disney Parks.  Listen to the audio portion of the interview to hear Marty’s story of how noted oceanographer, and discoverer of the wreck of the Titanic, Bob Ballard told the assembled Imagineers their film for Epcot’s “The Living Seas” [now The Seas with Nemo and Friends] was all wrong.

Walt Disney in front of Disneyland concept map

DISNEYLAND UNVEILED (1954) – In front of an early rendering by Disney legend Peter Ellenshaw, Walt Disney unveils his plans for Disneyland to a national television audience during the premiere of “Disneyland” the television show, October 27, 1954. ©Disney. All rights reserved.

 

Walt Disney revolutionized family entertainment with the opening of Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955.  However, because the scope of the Florida Project was so large, and there were so many new Imagineers required to build Walt Disney World, Marty Sklar needed to write a booklet outlining the rationale behind the Disneyland-style park they were building in Florida.  “Actually, I have one sitting right here on my desk dated September 21, 1967,” Marty explained, “this is kind of the Bible for the Disney philosophy that went into Walt Disney World.”

The background piece Marty Sklar wrote for the development of Epcot after the Magic Kingdom opened read, “Walt Disney did not go to Florida just to build another theme park or even a destination resort.”  I asked Marty what exactly was Walt Disney’s goal for the Florida Project.  He answered,

He wanted to set an example.  He was always setting an example.  Even Disneyland was setting an example and going off in a new direction for the amusement industry.  He really was focused on the problems and challenges of cities… He was so focused on big things, it was amazing really.

While the Disney Company ultimately decided not to build the city of Epcot in Florida, Marty Sklar pointed out that on a peak day at Walt Disney World there are over 300,000 people on property including guests and cast members requiring all the infrastructure of a city.  Sklar argued they did build a community of sorts,

In many ways, particularly as a demonstration site for so many new things that we did including energy plants and environmental things… so many things were based on the Epcot philosophy…

Walt Disney at an early concept drawing for Epcot

EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, was one of Walt Disney’s original ideas for his “Florida Project.” Seen here, Walt produced a 1966 film for Florida legislators where he showcased his dream of a unique city. Celebrating 30 years Oct. 1, 2012 EPCOT Center opened in 1982 with a re-imagined concept built from Walt’s original dream. ©Disney. All rights reserved.

 

It has been said that “Walt was looking far beyond his lifetime…”  I asked Marty to reflect on his legacy after a half century with the Disney Company.  One observations I thought was particularly interesting was the change in Central Florida from the “Deep South” in the early 60’s to what it is today.  Regarding that cultural shift, Marty Sklar said,

For me, I’m probably as proud as anything in that change of diversity of Central Florida.  You know Orlando was a little town, if you went to the outskirts including all of the suburbs you had about 250,000 people, when we started down there.  It was still Deep South.  1963/64 when our people first started going down there you’d find “white only” signs on drinking fountains and entrances to restrooms, etc.  Disney has a policy of diversity and hiring based on merit, and I think we changed Central Florida dramatically for the good.  I’m very proud of that.

The position of creative leader for Walt Disney Imagineering was daunting, and over the course of 30 years Marty recalled it never got easier.  “You always knew you were following Walt Disney, and that was impossible,” Marty opined, “of course you couldn’t replicate Walt Disney, but you did what you learned from your mentors.”  The second difficulty was that the Disney Company set the standard for the entire amusement industry.  Sklar explained,

Walt Disney said in my career – what all of you did last time, I’m not interested in that anymore.  I’m going on, and I want you to know that I expect you to do BETTER the next time.

Disney D23 Expo

The legacy left behind by Walt Disney required Marty Sklar as creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering to push his team to always improve upon their work, constantly striving to hit a home run.

There are two ways to look at a blank piece of paper.  One way is it’s the most frightening thing in the world because you have to make the first mark on it.  The way we taught the Imagineers to think about that blank page is it’s the greatest opportunity in the world.  Because you GET to make the first mark on that page and let your imagination fly.  It was a wonderful opportunity for all of us, and the greatest influence in my career.

slide shown at D23's Epcot 30th Anniversary Celebration

I want to thank Marty Sklar for taking the time to chat with me about his new book Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.  On Friday, August 9th, Marty will be appearing at the 2013 D23 Expo with both a presentation and book signing.  For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.