If there’s such a thing as a rock star in the world of amusement parks, it’s Marty Sklar.
Who else in the vast Disney cast, current or retired, can draw hundreds of adoring fans to book signings or presentations around the country? Who else would spend five hours signing autographs for nearly 500 people after an event in Chicago this past summer? Who else would be sought out by today’s generation of Imagineers to offer his unique insight into projects they’re currently working on?
That’s right. It’s Marty Sklar, rock star.
Marty is someone who understands his place in the history of the Walt Disney Company … and someone who understands how he’s viewed by his former colleagues and his legions of fans. Through it all, he’s remained humble about his life’s work, yet more than willing to give the people what they want when it comes to his knowledge and perspective on all things Disney.
I’ve always known how important the former leader of Walt Disney Imagineering is to the history of the Walt Disney Company, how influential he’s been. Apparently, Walt Disney’s family knew it, too.
It was Walt’s surviving family members, starting with son-in-law and former Disney CEO Ron Miller, right down to Walt’s many grandchildren, who saw fit to honor Marty Sklar as the second recipient of the prestigious Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award at the Walt Disney Family Museum’s annual fund-raising gala on Nov. 1.
Marty, surrounded by many members of his own family, as well as numerous members of his extended family, accepted the award in the Grand Californian Resort at Disneyland.
“When Ron Miller called me about the award, of course I said yes,” Marty told me during a recent interview. “I felt that in accepting the award, I could be useful in helping to raise money for the museum.”
For those who don’t know him, that’s typical Marty. If you’re going to give me an award, he’s saying, I might as well turn it into a positive thing for you, too.
“I’ve tried to help out the museum as much as I can over the years,” Marty said. “I’ve visited the museum at least six times in the 10 years since it opened. It means a lot to me to preserve Walt’s legacy. Diane Disney Miller [Walt’s daughter and the founder of the museum] was always intent on doing just that. I’ve always appreciated what she tried to do … to focus on Walt the man, and what he accomplished. That was always her goal.”
In Marty’s eyes, the museum is a must-see. “It’s hard to get past the first section of the museum, it’s so enticing. There’s a lot of early Disney memorabilia, things that Walt had recorded. All of us who knew and worked with Walt can really appreciate those things. They didn’t whitewash anything. It’s the whole story of Walt in a direct and interesting way.”
And, Marty noted, the Walt Disney Family Museum is branching out, getting involved in educational programs for children in the San Francisco area.
Marty was pleased that many of his family members were able to attend [son Howard, who lives with his family in Finland, couldn’t make it]. But during the evening, “There was one thing I screwed up,” he said. “I had written a thank you script that I was going to read, but under the circumstances, it was impossible to do that. I wanted to introduce all my family members in the attendance and I wanted to mention that my wife Leah and I will be celebrating our 60th anniversary next May. I didn’t get a chance to mention it; fortunately, Leah wasn’t mad at me.”
Was this the most important award he’s ever received?
“The Disney Legend Award will probably always be No. 1. It’s the top award given out by the company. But this award is very special, in part because it’s only the second time it’s ever been given out [the first recipient was composer Richard Sherman, who was on hand during Marty’s big night to sing a special song dedicated to his long-time friend]. They started giving out the award after Diane passed away, and it was the members of her family who said that I should be this year’s recipient, so that’s quite an honor.”
The night itself was “a lot of fun, in addition to raising a lot of money for the museum,” Marty said. Master of ceremonies Neil Patrick Harris surprised Marty by inviting him on stage for an impromptu session with The Dapper Dans, a Disneyland mainstay for decades. “I fumbled a little during the song, but Neil guided me through it.”
The Diane Disney Miller Lifetime Achievement Award was the beginning of a typically busy month for Marty, who turns 83 in February.
Later in the month, Marty flew to central Florida for a whirlwind week that would have exhausted most folks half his age. First, he attended the annual International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions [IAAPA] convention in Orlando, where he took part in a panel discussion, adding what he called “context about the industry.”
“There were something like 30,000 people from all over the world in attendance” during the convention, Marty said. “They even set up new rides in the parking lot outside the convention center. And they had these little kewpie dolls on sale, which I found very reassuring that this amusement business we’ve been involved with for decades is going to go on.”
On Friday, Nov. 18, Marty gave a talk to a group of about 100 Disney Vacation Club cast members at the DVC headquarters in Celebration. Ryan March, the editor of the Disney Files Magazine, served as the moderator. “I like to do things like that,” Marty said of the hour-long session in front of a clearly rapt audience. March added that it was Marty who approached him about doing the presentation.
“It gives me the opportunity to find out what people are thinking. They, of course, look to me to tell them stories of Disney’s past in hopes that they can then relate them to what they’re doing now. They asked some really good questions, which I really enjoyed.”
During the hour-long session, March asked Marty a series of questions about his long career and the many people he’s worked with. He started by introducing the Disney Legend to the audience, saying “Marty is one of those rare people who’s not interested in who gets the credit,” as long as the job is well-done. He then related how Marty started his Disney career in 1955 by creating The Disneyland News, which was sold to guests for 10 cents. To which March added: “I can’t believe our company ever sold anything for 10 cents.”
Among the questions March asked:
“What’s the best advice you ever heard?” Marty: “Don’t avoid cliches. They’re cliches because they work.” That advice came from Star Wars creator George Lucas.
“What did [Disney artist and Legend] Herb Ryman mean when he said ‘Poor taste costs no more’?” Marty: “Herb always believed in striving to do your best. He was very clear about that. He believed that if you didn’t do your best, lesser ideas would be accepted and become reality.”
To reiterate that point, Marty talked about legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who was an inspiration to Marty when he covered the team for the Daily Bruin campus newspaper in the early 1950s. Among Coach Wooden’s many famous sayings was this gem: “Make every day your masterpiece.”
“People really notice when you don’t give it your best shot,” Marty added.
In between these events, Marty was invited by several of his Imagineering protÃ©gÃ©s [“They’re all like my kids,” he said of the hundreds of people he’s inspired over the years] to visit several projects they’re currently working on, most notably the much-anticipated Pandora: The World of Avatar land under construction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Marty came away from that visit amazed. “Guests will be blown away” when the new land opens during the summer of 2017, he said.
The World of Avatar will feature two cutting-edge attractions, one a boat ride through the Navi River, the other a Soarin’-type flight simulator on the wings of a banshee. “And with Animal Kingdom’s new emphasis on night-time shows, Pandora will be over-the-top in the dark,” Marty said.
He also was shown the new Frozen attraction at Norway in Epcot and he came away impressed. “The Audio-Animatronics figures are really well-done … excellent. There was one problem; the boat ride was a little rough in spots.”
Marty missed the new holiday show over Lake Buena Vista between the new Disney Springs and Saratoga Resort. “I was sorry I didn’t get to see the drones,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, it’s really a unique way to present a show outdoors.”
To top off his whirlwind week, Marty gave an engrossing presentation at the D23’s Destination D: Amazing Adventures, a two-day gathering at The Contemporary Resort. Marty’s talk focused on the development of the Adventurelands that are featured in Disneyland and Walt Disney World. He took guests on an audio and visual tour through the early concept days through completion, sprinkling his talk with fascinating stories about many of the people who helped bring those original ideas to life.
During his presentation, Marty showed a photo of Walt Disney talking to guests Disneyland near the entrance of Adventureland. Walt was leaning up against a trash can. “Walt loved to walk through the park and talk to the guests. He wanted to find out what they thought and wanted to see what was working and what wasn’t. Here, as you see, Walt’s ‘office’ was a garbage can.”
Prior to Marty’s presentation at the D23 event, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Chairman Bob Chapek updated guests on future attractions coming to Disney, other than Pandora.
Specifically, he mentioned how changes would be coming to Epcot in conjunction with that park’s 35th anniversary. Chapek talked about making Epcot “more Disney, more relevant, timeless and more family friendly.”
Marty, one of the key architects of Epcot in the 1970s and early 1980s, was happy to hear about the changes. “Over time, a lot of Epcot has become dated. I’m happy to hear they’re looking into bringing some new ideas into play. It’s time.”
After the Destination D event, Marty headed back to southern California, where he ended his month the way he started it: Surrounded by family members for a big celebration, this time Thanksgiving.
Although a bit hectic at times, it was truly, a November to remember for the revered Disney Legend.