His Success at Disney Isn't More Than He Imagined


Disney's Favorite Scumbag™
Premium Member
Original Poster
His Success at Disney Isn't More Than He Imagined
September 21 2002

(Los Angeles Times) -- Just out of college, Marty Sklar was overwhelmed to find himself as Walt Disney's newest writer. Sklar, in awe of the charismatic entrepreneur, didn't know what else to do but follow behind with pen and index cards in hand, scribbling down Disney's orders, ideas and, occasionally, one-line gems: Know your audience. Tell one story at a time. Wear your guests' shoes.

It wasn't until many jobs later, and long after his mentor's death, that Sklar recognized the treasure-trove of wisdom he had started compiling at Walt Disney's elbow in the early 1960s. He distilled it all into "Mickey's Ten Commandments," now one of the company's most widely circulated creeds and a bible of the theme park industry.

The lessons became a cornerstone of Sklar's own iconic reputation at Walt Disney Co., where he is among the last of a generation of creative minds who worked with the founder--so closely in his case that he became known as the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Today, Sklar is a sorcerer in his own right as the creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's storied design and development arm. The group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, a poignant milestone for the 68-year-old grandfather.

"When people see Marty, they see Walt," says Imagineering President Don Goodman. "When Marty says something is good, it's almost like Walt says it's good."

Sklar took on the role of handing down Walt Disney's pioneering philosophy of family entertainment after the founder's death in 1966.

"It actually affected me more than when my father died," says the soft-spoken Sklar, who walks with stooped shoulders and sports a boyish, mischievous grin. "I finally realized I never had to think like my father, but in order to write for Walt Disney I had to try to think like Walt Disney and use words that he used. It got so deeply into that, it had a tremendous effect on me."

Their relationship has guided Sklar during the last three decades as he headed the creative development of Disney's theme parks and led the company's ventures in the cruise business, interactive TV, housing development and the redesign of Times Square in New York. Sklar's imprint is on hundreds of attractions, from Space Mountain to the new Flik's Fun Fair opening next month at the California Adventure theme park.

Sklar's role is more crucial--and challenging--than ever. Theme parks, though reeling from a sharp drop-off in international tourism, account for one-third of Disney's revenue. Sklar's job is a balancing act of developing new and often expensive attractions while holding the line on budgets that have grown tighter in recent years as Disney's profit and stock price have declined.

His most important role, though, is as anchor to a company sometimes accused of drifting from its roots.

"He was there from the beginning and walked in Walt's footsteps," says Disney parks and resorts chief Paul Pressler. "He has that Jiminy Cricket consciousness."

Jiminy presides over a decidedly quirky kingdom.

The Imagineering group, whose name symbolized a blending of imagination and engineering, was established by Walt Disney in 1952 to dream up Disneyland and create a physical home for Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters made famous on the silver screen. Writer Ray Bradbury later would refer to it as a "true Renaissance organization."

Unlike their button-down peers in the swank corporate headquarters in Burbank, the Imagineers work out of drab buildings in Glendale where secrecy and security protocols rival those of military installations.

Sklar and his colleagues pride themselves on their unconventional ways.

Consider Joe Rohde, a senior creative executive who sports a handlebar mustache and an elongated earlobe, stretched by a string of shells and bones collected from his visits to tribal villages in Africa, Thailand and Nepal. He once took a tiger on a leash into a meeting with Disney Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner to illustrate the allure of live animals. Stunned, and no doubt impressed, Eisner gave the go-ahead for Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Fla.

Top creative leaders meet weekly with Sklar for brainstorming sessions, where the agenda rarely is dull. At one recent meeting, the creative team took turns sniffing vials containing foul odors for a stink-bug character at California Adventure.

Pitches can be equally unconventional. Two years ago, ride designer Eddie Sotto flopped back in a chair, thrust his feet into the air and blurted out his best impression of a space shuttle takeoff. Impressed, Sklar championed what would become a $120-million ride called Mission Space. The ride, designed with the help of astronaut Story Musgrave and NASA, opens next year at Walt Disney World's Epcot. "Sometimes it's very difficult to communicate an idea, and you have to find a different method of doing it," Sklar says.

Ideas often come from unexpected sources. After gazing at a snow globe in his office, one designer dreamed up a ski-resort-themed water park that would become the successful Orlando attraction Blizzard Beach.

Concepts quickly can give way to a frenzy of sketches pinned to storyboards. Ideas are tested in the group's research and development department, which through the years has tapped some famous scientists, including personal computer pioneer Alan Kay. One of their tools is a virtual-reality environment dubbed the Cave, where holographic images are projected so that engineers can see their handiwork before it is built.

Many concepts never fly, such as Disney's America theme park in northern Virginia (which was opposed by local residents) or Westcot in Anaheim. Others, such as Mission Space, float around for years before they take shape.

"There are two ways to look at a blank piece of paper," says Sklar, wearing a blue denim shirt with "Walt Disney Imagineering" monogrammed in red letters. "One way is to see it as the most frightening thing in the world because there is nothing on it, and you have to make the first mark. The other way is to see the blank sheet as the greatest opportunity in the world.... You can let your imagination fly in any direction."

Sklar's world is steeped in Disney. He wears a brass Mickey Mouse ring and a Mickey Mouse watch with three faces so he can tell time in Los Angeles, Paris and Tokyo. Sklar writes with a red pen, just as Walt Disney did. On the wall, next to an original sketch of Space Mountain, is a framed copy of a Disney quote: "When you believe a thing, believe in it all the way. Have confidence in your ability to do it right. And work hard to do the best possible job."

Sklar reads it almost every day.

Unlike his famously intense mentor, however, Sklar is unimposing and low-key. Some of his apprentices liken him to the "Star Wars" character Yoda.

In meetings, he often sits quietly in the middle, not at the head of the table, preferring to let others do the talking before weighing in with a gentle "why-don't-you-try-this" suggestion.

He gives his creative team a wide berth. He once encouraged his artists to scribble their musings on what is known as the Graffiti Wall. They obliged, producing some irreverent sketches that even lampoon Disney executives.

The nurturing style appears well-suited to managing a fiercely independent culture where artistic egos often clash.

"He's one of those very rare people who is not interested in getting credit for anything and loves to see other people get credit for what they do," says Disney Vice Chairman Roy Disney, Walt's nephew. Yet "he has creatively influenced everything we've ever done."

Sklar looks for ways to invoke Walt Disney, such as during the planning of Flik's Fun Fair, the children's area at California Adventure that opens in October. Based on the Disney/Pixar movie "A Bug's Life," Flik's includes five attractions for children and parents, a key change in design Sklar insisted on in deference to Disney.

"I reminded everyone that the reason Disneyland existed at all was because Walt used to take his daughters, Diane and Sharon, to the Griffith Park merry-go-round ... and Daddy had to sit on the park bench eating peanuts and popcorn while the kids rode alone."

Another Walt principle he often recites: The smallest details count.

Like how to make a 25-foot steel-and-fiberglass canopy resemble a bed of clover. Sklar ordered the first batch, part of the Flik's area, repainted a lighter shade of green to appear more authentic.

"It's really the details that convince people of the story they're in," he says.

Handing down such lessons comes naturally to Sklar, whose father was a teacher and who served on Anaheim's school board.

For all his faithfulness to Walt Disney, however, Sklar also is a pragmatist and a survivor who can adapt to changing fiscal realities and bosses. In recent years Sklar has guided the division through a rocky period, when it came under fire for costly delays. Several hundred jobs were cut and the group restructured to be more fiscally accountable. In a new round of streamlining, the group's research and development department told employees this week that it would cut about two dozen positions.

Sklar's team doesn't always hit the mark. Disney's most recent U.S. theme park, California Adventure, continues to struggle from lackluster attendance.

"He defended it greatly, even though I think privately he must have realized its shortcomings," says Disney historian David Koenig.

It's a sensitive subject for Sklar. He complained to organizers of an industry awards ceremony last year after the host, actor Thomas Wilson, who played Biff in the "Back to the Future" movies, jokingly compared the park to a church carnival.

Sklar says it's still too early to judge the $1.4-billion project because it opened in a down economy.

"Once [the park] gets some of these new attractions, it's going to be different park, more in line with other Disney parks," he says, noting that along with Flik's, a thrill ride, Tower of Terror, will be added. "Theme parks are living things. They can be manipulated, changed and grow."

It's a lesson Sklar learned long ago, shortly after his first encounter with Walt Disney in an office tucked behind Main Street. It was just two weeks before the opening of Disneyland in July 1955. Construction crews worked frantically to finish buildings and rides and furnish shops and restaurants. Sklar, who grew up in Long Beach, had just started a summer job. He was about to give Disney a 10-minute presentation on how he would create a Disneyland newspaper for Main Street.

"I was frightened. Here I was 21 years old, had never worked professionally," recalls Sklar, then a junior at UCLA, where he worked for the Daily Bruin newspaper. "He had time for even the smallest detail, like my newspaper."

The Disneyland News, it turns out, was the least of Disney's problems on opening day. Fountains didn't work. Rides broke down. Women got their heels stuck in wet asphalt.

"Most people had a horrible time at the opening," Sklar says. "It was a mess."

But it also was an opportunity for Sklar. He returned a year later, after graduation, to write marketing and sales brochures for Disneyland. Impressed with Sklar's writing skills, Walt Disney soon promoted him to Imagineering's predecessor, WED Enterprises. There, Sklar and his colleagues developed shows for the 1964-65 New York World's Fair, which included versions of future Disney attractions such as It's a Small World.

The experience catapulted Sklar into Walt Disney's inner circle. He prepared scripts for the founder's news conferences and television appearances and wrote the annual message to shareholders. That's when Sklar began taking notes on Disney's business philosophy.

As Disney and his lieutenants secretly bought up thousands of acres of swampland in central Florida in the mid-1960s, Sklar prepared the speeches and presentations that his boss would give at key meetings with Florida politicians, who later would grant Disney and his brother Roy extraordinary powers to build an East Coast Disneyland.

"There was nothing there," Sklar says. "Nobody went to central Florida on vacation when we started that project. We had to create a resort destination."

Sklar quickly learned to apprise his boss of the smallest details. As part of the sales pitch to the Florida Legislature, Sklar created a 20-minute movie on the history of the company and its founder. Disney, however, was irritated that he hadn't seen the script earlier. "After a special screening ... Walt came up to me and said, 'I didn't realize anyone was writing my own obituary.' "

Still, Disney still liked the presentation enough to ask Sklar to develop a 25-minute film on Epcot, the quixotic future community he envisioned as a showcase for American industry and urban planning. It was their last project before Disney's death in 1966.

"Walt created a revolution. Marty was there and caught the spirit of it and has carried it on ever since," says Buzz Price, founder of the theme park consulting firm Economics Research Associates.

After becoming creative leader in 1974, Sklar guided the creation of eight theme parks on three continents that today draw more than 50 million visitors a year.

Boosted by Eisner and then- Disney President Frank Wells, the group's payroll grew from 400 in the 1980s to more than 2,500 by the late 1990s. Employment has since fallen to 1,600 as the pace of work has ebbed, but another rally is expected as Disney builds a theme park in Hong Kong and plans a second park in China.

Remembering the chances Walt Disney gave him, Sklar through the years has recruited young, often inexperienced talent to build his team.

"If you talk to every one of the creative leaders ... they will all tell you they got their break from him," says Imagineering Executive Vice President Tom Fitzgerald, Sklar's heir apparent, whom Sklar hired out of college in 1978.

Sklar speaks of his apprentices with the pride of a father, expressing confidence that Walt Disney's vision is in good hands.

"I think so much of the talent here, many of whom I personally hired, as kind of like my kids. And my kids have grown up and they really know how to do it."


Well-Known Member
I would love to meet Marty Sklar:)
Who knows, I may have walked right past him:)
I guess it could happen one day!:)


New Member
I was in Burbank Ca. last March and I went right by the Disney Studios, I would have like to have met the folks there. I used to work at the WDW Resort and I met many of the Imagineers at work in Tomorrowland.

Register on WDWMAGIC. This sidebar will go away, and you'll see fewer ads.

Top Bottom