When Walt Disney sat down with his Imagineers, he knew exactly how he wanted DISNEYLAND to look and feel. It would later be called “the architecture of reassurance” by people who studied such things, but Mr. Disney would simply say that he wanted his guests to instantly feel comfortable when they entered the park’s front gates.
The idea was to design comfortable, welcoming spaces that seemed familiar even to guests who had never visited the park before. This design strategy was extended to the world outside the parks too.
Downtown Disney was built with the same thought behind it. Build an exciting, vibrant area that would make people of all types feel like they belonged in it. The kinetic energy and surroundings make for an exciting location where everyone wants to be; where everyone feels like they belong.
Amazingly just steps away from the exciting Downtown Disney District is the calming, awe inspiring Grand Hall at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa. A respite from the hustle and bustle of the parks, the Grand Hall provides a similar welcoming, though much more calming environment than that of Downtown Disney. Of course, the first Disney environment ever created is still one of the best…
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Too many organizations give lip service to professional development. While staff are encouraged to take classes to improve their skills, little time is actually devoted to such things. Employees find themselves in a situation much like that of Cinderella- they can pursue professional development IF they complete their regular assignments and IF they can find the time. The organization might say that it values professional development, but its actions show the opposite to be true. Even if an employee can fit such luxuries into their schedules, they are often not permitted to apply their new skills to anything practical. Management further demoralizes its staff by importing new talent from outside the organization rather than promoting from within. In more extreme environments, management demeans its existing staff by not even considering them for open positions. As most people can attest, using the phrase “national recruitment” often means “existing staff need not apply.”
So what can Mr. Disney teach us about actually valuing professional development and searching for hidden talents throughout the organization? Just take a look around his Magic Kingdom of DISNEYLAND. Mr. Disney learned early on that the so-called experts were more inclined to summarily dismiss his ideas as impossible without really thinking about them. An outside architect had told Mr. Disney that the Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage were impossible to build. Not one to easily take no for an answer, Mr. Disney assigned some of the early model building and design to employees that hadn’t previously done such work. One such employee- Imagineer Harriet Burns- later recalled how much she had learned on the project. Not only did she learn the ins and outs of model building and scaling, she also learned that she could actually accomplish such tasks. By identifying her hidden talents and showing confidence in her skills, Walt Disney made an already top notch employee even more motivated to succeed. Not only did he give her time to learn something new, he gave her a chance to apply those new skills to a real world project that is still enjoyed today.
This was not an isolated incident. Another example can be found inside Pirates of the Caribbean. The attraction needed a song to tie things together, but instead of asking his staff song writers to put something together, he asked Imagineer Xavier Atencio to write something. Despite never having written a song before, Mr. Atencio successfully penned the attraction’s signature ditty Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me). Mr. Atencio put it best when he marveled that:
The song that he wrote is still heard around the world in the various Pirates of the Caribbean attractions at Disney parks.
By identifying hidden talents and finding practical uses for them, Mr. Disney built a loyal, talented and successful team that made the impossible possible. His staff accomplished great things because he believed they could do it and he encouraged them to step outside of their comfort zones. So many organizations could learn a thing or two from Walt Disney’s leadership. While it is very easy to talk about valuing professional development and nurturing hidden talents, it often seems to be a challenge for an organization to actually value these things in practice. Those that do can often accomplish great things and maintain a loyal, efficient workforce. Walt Disney truly valued these attributes and his team literally built mountains.
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Echoes of DISNEYLAND was the thirteenth release from DISNEYLAND Records. It was one of the rare releases that was actually recorded inside the Magic Kingdom.
When DISNEYLAND first opened, one of the first shops guests would encounter on their visit to the park was the Wurlitzer Music Shop. Located in the spot currently filled by the Disney Showcase, the shop sold sheet music and provided information about Wurlitzer Organs. The manager of the shop was Dee Fisher, who often demonstrated the merchandise by playing Disney music on them.
Mr. Fisher’s evening performances became a tradition in the park, catching the ear of Walt Disney. Walt commissioned an entire album of Dee’s music, figuring it would be a highly sought after souvenir. It certainly was.
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DISNEYLAND Park was built on old farmland. As a result, it had some interesting animal friends living there, though not as interesting as the alligators out in Florida. DISNEYLAND’s “native wildlife” was cats. At first, the park had a shaky relationship with its furry guests. Scared by the millions of guests who tromped through their stomping grounds, the cats retreated into the one empty building on the property- Sleeping Beauty Castle.
In 1958, Mr. Disney decided to finally put something inside his grand castle. As he inspected the insides of the castle, he saw that it was full of building materials and tarps. Walt pulled up a tarp to inspect what was underneath and was met with a swarm of fleas and feral cats. The castle eventually was cleared out and an everlasting treaty declared with the cats. An effective form of rodent control, the cats were spayed or neutered and allowed to roam the park. The pack of cats still roam the park, though they mostly stay hidden during the day. Except for Figaro; you can see him every day.
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Every day spent at DISNEYLAND is always better than a day spent anywhere else. A day in Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom that stands out from the others must be pretty amazing and I was lucky to have one of those days- it was the day I had breakfast at Disneyland’s private restaurant, Club 33! As if that wasn’t special enough, it was also the day I met a Disney Legend- Marty Sklar.
The morning would have been special even if it had ended after the exclusive breakfast at Club 33. That day, however, we were also treated to special discussions led by three Disney Legends, one of whom was Marty Sklar, who had been at DISNEYLAND from day one and worked closely with Walt Disney. We were literally surrounded by the fruits of Marty’s labor. While happy families entered the Magic Kingdom, excited about their special day, Marty regaled us with stories about the projects he had worked on and his working relationship with Walt Disney.
After our tour, we went to the Disneyana Store for a private reception. It was there that I nervously approached Mr. Sklar to tell him how much his work has meant to me over the years. (Being raised right, I called him Mr. Sklar, though he quickly asked me to call him Marty.) To cap off our discussion, he insisted that I pose for a picture with him and our brief discussion was recorded for posterity. Even if the picture hadn’t been taken, I still would have remembered that moment forever.
Marty lived a life that most of us dream of; helping his boss Walt Disney make his dreams come true. Long after Mr. Disney left us, Marty made sure that the new generations of Imagineers and Disneylanders continued to keep Walt’s dream alive and vibrant. That millions of people still visit Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom each year is a testament to Marty’s success.
Thank you, Mr. Sklar for making a wonderful day even more magical and for the countless wonderful memories your work has created for me over the years. I’m certain that you’re having a happy reunion with Walt Disney right now, filling him in on how his dream is still alive. Rest In Peace, Marty.
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Martin “Marty” Sklar, one of the first DISNEYLAND employees who worked alongside Walt Disney during the park’s first ten years has passed away at age 83.
Marty started at DISNEYLAND from the beginning, working on whatever project needed his assistance. He was there on opening day, working from an office behind City Hall. He eventually found himself at Walt Disney Imagineering, providing creative guidance and managing projects around the world. Mr. Sklar holds the unique distinction of having been in attendance at every Disney Theme Park on opening day, from DISNEYLAND to Shanghai Disney. He almost missed that last one, but he ended up keeping his streak going.
Marty’s importance to DISNEYLAND and the other Disney theme parks around the world is immeasurable. Outside of Walt Disney himself, nobody has been more important to DISNEYLAND than Mr. Sklar. He was proud of his work and the smiles that it put on the faces of children who might never know his name.
“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”
“Do what you dream of doing and never lose sight of that.”
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