He was there on the opening day of Disneyland in 1955, and for decades, Martin Sklar worked as Walt’s right-hand man. He was a key creative force behind Disney mainstays such as Space Mountain, It’s A Small World and (his baby) Epcot Centre. Here, the retired Imagineer – and author of the new book Dream It! Do It! My Half Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdom – shares his secrets for success, and why he is more of a Donald than a Jiminy.
Not everything needs to translate
When we started working with the Japanese on Disneyland Tokyo, they said, “don’t Japanize us.” Japan has a very homogeneous population and they didn’t come to us for more of Japan, they came to us for Disney. We had a chairman at the time who decided that we needed to give educators a reason to come to the park, so we did a story about Japanese history. It was called Meet the World, and when we got to the Second World War, we knew how much trouble we were in. That show was a terrible bomb. And then, when we went to France, the French government said, “We are the greatest culture in the world – tell stories about us.” And of course we did one and that didn’t work either. What we have found over the years is that Disney has great stories and that those stories aren’t just American, but universal.
Get behind the mouse
Sometimes, when people have a certain amount of talent, they start to think they’re bigger than the organization. That’s fine, but it’s not Disney. I remember being at a meeting. Walt was getting on in years and other people started worrying that the public didn’t know about the other talent at the company. I got instructions to create an annual report that included write-ups and photos of various key staff members. But when I brought it to Walt, he said, “Look, I don’t want people to start thinking this is a Bill Walsh production for Disney. Even I’m not Walt Disney any more.” Walt Disney is the image of this company – it’s one of the great brands, and to not take advantage of that would be ridiculous. Over the years I’ve had to tell people that if their goal is personal glory, that’s not going to happen at Disney.
Creativity needs limits
Every project we ever did had a deadline. The blue-sky period is great, but a deadline is an important part of the creative process. You can dilly-dally and play with different ideas forever. At some point in time there has do be a decision made and then you start talking about how you’re going to get the thing done. There are hundreds of Space Mountains. Eventually you have to decide to make one.
Don’t catch the ball if you don’t know where to throw it
John Wooden was the coach of the UCLA basketball team and one of my mentors. He used to say, “Be fast, but don’t hurry.” In other words, it’s important to get to where you need to be as quickly as possible, but it’s just as important that you’re ready to make the next pass when you get there. In basketball, you’ll see a ball going out of bounds. Somebody makes a great save, but then they toss it back right into the hands of somebody on the opposite team.
Why Harry Potter is no bother
Competition raises the level for everybody. It forces you to be better if you want to be successful. What Universal has done with Harry Potter in the Florida park has raised the bar for everybody. That’s the best thing they have ever done, and it tells everyone else in the business that they have to keep getting better to stay ahead of these people.
Business school courtesy of a cork board
In the conference room at the Disney offices, all of the walls were made of cork. At one point I started writing down and pinning up valuable or interesting things that people would say in a meeting along with who said it and the date – something funny or something that offered an interesting perspective. One of my favourites was when we were meeting with George Lucas about Star Wars Disney, and someone said to George that there were too many clichés. And George said, “Don’t avoid the clichés, they’re clichés because they worked.” Another great one was Michael Eisner, who once said about a proposed project, “This is so large and unpractical that it appeals to me.” I don’t actually remember what the project was, but the point is this was a person who was open to big ideas.
The wisdom of Donald Duck
Jim Cora, who ran Euro Disney, said I was like Jiminy Cricket because I was the conscience of the company, working to maintain the standards that Walt had established. I certainly appreciate that, but I see myself more as an irascible kind of person. My old friend Donald Duck was born in the same year as I was: 1934. Maybe I’m not quite as wild as Donald can be at times, but what I like about him is that he speaks up and you always know where he stands.