Marty Sklar has had a busy, busy career. From his first role as the creator of The Disneyland News when Walt’s first Theme Park was about to make its debut, he embarked on a career spanning more than 50 years at The Walt Disney Company, eventually becoming the Principal Creative Executive for Walt Disney Imagineering and then, in 2006, the Walt Disney Company‘s International Ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering. In that time he became the only Disney employee to participate in the opening of all 11 Disney Theme Parks around the world.
You might think that upon retiring in 2009, Marty might have been ready to take it easy (at least for a year or two). But instead, he’s been hard at work, and the results hit bookstores this month. Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms is Marty’s new book, published by Disney Editions. It’s an inside look at half a century of the people, Parks, and ideas that have made Walt Disney Imagineering into the world’s ultimate dream factory. From his first meeting with Walt Disney as a college student in 1955 through to Imagineering today, it’s full of personal stories, rarely seen photos, and sketches given to Marty by colleagues through the years. And because Marty’s work was central to so many big projects at The Walt Disney Company, it functions as an inside view of what working at Disney has been like through the decades. The book is also something more: an inspiration for readers, packed with principles of creativity and leadership that Marty gleaned throughout his career. It’s a book that truly could only have been written from the very heart of Imagineering.
We were lucky enough to chat with Marty recently. Here are some highlights:
The Disney Insider: When did you first decide to write a book?
Marty Sklar: People kept asking me before I retired if I was going to write a book. I started to think about it seriously a couple of years before I retired in 2009 and I started taking notes then. I think by the time I started writing I had about six pages of single-spaced notes, reminders of events or people that triggered my memory when I decided to write.
Do you have a favorite story from the book?
There are so many of them! But any of them about Walt, those are favorites. I had two meetings with him about a film I wrote for Epcot, just the two of us in his office. He made it so easy to write, because he told me each idea he wanted to get across. That’s probably the biggest moment I remember. That legacy, Walt’s idea for Epcot, really made the foundation for everything we did at Walt Disney World.
When did you first meet Walt Disney?
It was two weeks before Disneyland opened, July 1955. I had been hired to create a newspaper that would be sold on Main Street for 10 cents. I had to present the concept to THE Walt Disney. I was 21 and had never worked professionally, and I was still in school – and I was scared as hell! That was the deciding moment of my whole career, because if he didn’t like it I was out the door. But he did like it, and it was the beginning of a 50-year career. I kept thinking, “Why does he have time for this little thing I’m doing in the middle of the chaos of finishing his park?” It took me a long time to figure it out, but to Walt, Main Street was a real place, so it needed a real newspaper. That’s what Disneyland and Disney World are about: telling stories and the details are important to the stories..
How has Imagineering changed over the decades?
Into the ‘90s, you could say you were an Imagineer and people would say what is that? But now if you say you’re an Imagineer, people come out of the woodwork! Awareness of what Imagineering is has increased tremendously, especially with new forms of communication like social media.
What stays the same is the passion of the people. All the Imagineers I’ve learned from and still see now love what they do, and they love creating stories and experiences and adventures for the public. I’ve always said if you’re not having fun in the fun business, find something different to do with your life!
Can you tell us a little bit about managing creative people? How do you keep them inspired and on track?
First of all, I always think of the old expression about herding cats, because that’s really what it’s like! I always say that in meetings there are no bad ideas. Now, we all know that’s not true – I’ve heard some AWFUL ideas! But if you tell somebody their idea is bad, they’ll never give you another idea. It should all be wide open – sometimes a bad idea will inspire someone else to have a good one. You need to keep that wide-open atmosphere while still focusing on the end goal.
The key to Imagineering is creative inspiration plus technical know-how. A beautiful way to see that was at the Walt Disney Parks and Resorts pavilion at the D23 Expo. A lot of ideas past and future were on display there; and also the passion of the Imagineers. All you had to do was listen to anybody talking to Guests about their work. Each division was there to present their ideas, and that let the creative talent behind those ideas show their passion for what they’re doing.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a lot of book signings. I’m speaking at the Walt Disney Family Museum on September 7 and Walt Disney World Resort on September 11 and 12, plus a lot of other places – I have a lot of bases to cover!
So discover Marty’s “Mickey’s Ten Commandments” (which have grown to ten more commandments, and then another ten … he has 40 in total now). See caricatures of Marty drawn by Disney artists over the years (some more flattering than others!). And most of all, take a tour through Imagineering with a guide who was there from the beginning. Who knows what you might be inspired to do next?