A Disney Legend Speaks to Parents
A PopFam exclusive interview
Walking through the cavernous halls of D23 Expo, it’s hard to miss Marty Sklar’s influence on Disney culture and innovation. You can—literally—see traces of his Imagineering genius everywhere.
For instance, if you’ve ever enjoyed at day at Epcot Center at the Walt Disney World Resort, then you owe a big “thanks!” to Marty Sklar. If you’ve ever luxuriated on a Disney Cruise, or been pampered at a Disney Resort hotel, you owe thanks to Marty. If you’ve chanced a visit to Disneyland Paris, or Tokyo Disney, or Hong Kong Disneyland…well, you know who to thank.
Imagineer Marty Sklar is a bona fide Disney Legend—and the only person to have attended the grand openings of all Disney parks, beginning at Disneyland in 1955. He joined Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) full time in 1961, fresh out of UCLA and, for five short years, he had the rare privilege of working with Walt Disney himself before Disney’s untimely death in 1966.
In 1974 Marty became an Imagineering Officer when he was appointed vice president, concepts and planning, a role in which he guided creative development of Epcot Center at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida! Then, from 1987 to 1996, he served as president and vice chairman of the Imagineering division of Disney.
As vice chairman of WDI, Marty provided leadership for the Imagineering creative staff, as they created breakthrough entertainment concepts for Disney parks and resorts including Disneyland Paris, the Tokyo Disney Resort, and Hong Kong Disneyland. His Imagineering team was also responsible for all Disney resort hotels and the Disney Cruise Line ships, and they created concepts for restaurants, children’s museums and hospitals, traveling shows, and exhibitions.
In 2001, the Disney company honored Marty with a special award for 45 years of service and leadership: Disney Legend. He finally retired July 17, 2009, after 53 years with the Company.
Although now in retirement, Marty isn’t slowing down. He’s in demand as a corporate speaker, and in 2015 published the popular business book, One Little Spark! (Disney Editions). Using Marty’s creation, “Mickey’s Ten Commandments,” this book shares leadership insights and advice from the world of Disney Imagineers.
With that kind of far-reaching influence, it’s no surprise that we’re big Marty Sklar admirers here at PopFam. When we found out he was going to be at D23 Expo, we were first in line to beg for an interview. Thankfully, he was happy to chat with us about his life, his dreams, and Mickey’s Ten Commandments for parents! Care to listen in?
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To start off, would you tell us “The Marty Sklar Story?”
New Jersey was a good beginning. Highland Park was a small town environment, so my brother Robert and I were in an excellent grammar school—I finished the sixth grade there, and Bob the fourth, before we moved to California in the summer of 1946. My Mother was close to her sister, whose family had moved to Los Angeles in 1941. I think that’s the main reason we took those long train rides across the country, arriving in Los Angeles in June, 1946.
My Dad was a popular teacher at New Brunswick high school, across the Raritan River from Highland Park. He had many friends in education; one of them would come to our home once a week to tutor Bob and me—not because we needed help, but as I think back on it, just to expand our thinking and knowledge into areas school did not touch on. We were always around adults who talked about books they had read, new teaching methods, new ideas. It must have rubbed off on brother Bob: He became an esteemed professor of Cinema Studies at NYU, and wrote a number of popular books in his field before he passed away five years ago.
After we moved to California, Dad continued his education leadership, retiring as Principal of Madison Junior High in North Hollywood. Mom and Dad also became “professional contesters.” It was the days where you had to write “25 words or less” about a product or experience or program; they became so good at it that everyone in the family seemed to win something—and they won trips, a car, cash and lots of little goodies, often in the names of cousins, aunts and uncles, friends and Bob and me.
What’s your favorite memory of working with Walt Disney? Tell us about a moment you’ll never forget.
Wow! A favorite moment with Walt Disney! It’s tempting to answer that every moment with Walt was one to be treasured—except of course if he was critiquing your work! But two events stand out.
The first was a day in the late ‘50’s when Walt joined my boss at Disneyland, the highly respected publicity manager Eddie Meck, and me while we were having coffee at the Hills Bros. café in Town Square. Pretty soon Walt turned to me and asked what I was working on. When I answered, he turned to my boss and said, “Eddie, we’ll have to give Marty something more important to do.” The next thing I knew, I had been assigned to WED Enterprises, to work with John Hench on the Ford Motor Company pavilion for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The second favorite memory is the two meetings we had—just the two of us in Walt’s Office—in 1966 when I was writing the script for the film where Walt revealed his plans for Walt Disney World and his Epcot community: Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. That concept was Walt’s true passion at the end of his life. He made it so easy for me to write the script; all I had to do was refer to my seven pages of notes!
For all your accomplishments, Epcot may be your longest-lasting legacy. What’s your favorite story from when you created that fantastic place?
When I look back on the eight years we spent to create the concepts, designing and building what opened as “EPCOT Center” on October 1, 1982, I know that no organization but the Imagineers—and the whole Disney team—could have accomplished that project. I’m so very proud of all of them for the ideas, their passions, and their dedication to realizing a piece of Walt’s dream: communicating in an optimistic way about the future.
Epcot was an enormous step out of the traditional—and wonderful—“Disney Box” of fantasy worlds. Yet we stayed true to our company’s storytelling tradition. John Tishman, whose Tishman Construction organized the complex on site building, later wrote that it was a more complex and complicated construction challenge than the original World Trade Center.
You’re known for creating “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” for leaders. What might be “Mickey’s Ten Commandments for Parents?”
I’ve written four different versions of “Mickey’s Ten Commandments”—none of them directed to a particular age, but rather to communicate ideas, principles and know-how. The first—“the original”—is a key to my new book, One Little Spark! which I’m introducing at the D23 Expo on August 15. They all have words of wisdom from all the experiences I had in my 54 year Disney career. I think you can tell from the titles the kind of advice you will find, and if you consider parenting “leadership” (I certainly do!) there’s something for everyone in these Commandments.
For example, in “Mickey’s Ten MORE Commandments (the Leaders’ Bible)” the first principle is “Create and maintain a climate of trust,” and the tenth is “Provide plenty of Blank Paper.” In Part 2 of the same “Leaders’ Bible,” principle number one is “Be Optimistic—if you are not positive who will be?” And principle number 6 is “Take time to teach—mentors are mensches!”
In “Part IV—Followership,” the principal number one is: “Speak Up! Great teammates raise issues before decisions are made. And principle 8 is “Play by the rules. If you disagree, work to change them after the game!”
All of these are key things for parents to use in raising their children—and for children to learn to become contributing members of their family, and their community.
What would you say is the most important thing in life—and how does that show up in your work?
For me the most important things in life are the relationships you build with your family, your fellow employees and your community.
I learned early on from my Imagineering mentors—the original Imagineers and Disney Legends like John Hench, Herb Ryman, Blaine Gibson and Fred Joerger—that I could learn about everything, from teamwork to travel adventures—by listening and observing this group: how they interacted and worked together, how they married their sometimes very different skills, how they built a simple idea into a magical experience, and how they accepted and honored the fact that there is only one name on the door in our business.
Fortunately, my parents had put me on that path long before I became an Imagineer. And certainly, to paraphrase a Walt principle: “You don’t create it for yourself—you do it for the people who are going to bring their families to enjoy what we produce and build.” To me, the values in this approach also call you to contribute your talents and efforts to your community, to help make our world a better place for today and tomorrow. I’m proud to have spent a lot of leadership and volunteer time doing just that.
What’s the best advice you ever heard?
My love for sports of all kinds kicks in now. From Coach John Wooden, whose UCLA basketball teams won 10 national championships in 12 years: “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail;” and “Make each day your masterpiece.”
And Walt Disney’s “Four C’s”: “Somehow I can’t believe there are many heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret can be summarized in four C’s: They are Curiosity, Confidence, Courage and Constancy, and the greatest of these is Confidence, 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.”
What’s left for Marty Sklar to do…any big dreams still on your “bucket list”?
Well I’ll certainly be too busy to think about it for a while as I introduce my pride and joy number two, One Little Spark! over the next few months! But really, my “bucket list” today is all about family and friends, and especially a wish that my four grandchildren live happy, healthy, productive lives.
And that the world can really “live” those words Dick and Bob Sherman wrote for Walt, for “It’s a Small World”: “There is just one moon and one golden sun, and a smile means friendship to everyone!” Wouldn’t that be a great Planet Earth to live in!
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