ANAHEIM — The longer Paul Pressler stared at the rendering for a stuffed toy of Simba, lion cub hero of Disney film "The Lion King," the more he realized that something wasn't quite right.
It was the eyes--they lacked the empathetic spark Pressler wanted. So he had them changed.
And when the Disney executive began fiddling with the look of a new Disney Store, he went again for the heartstrings, designing showrooms to re-create great moments from "Snow White," "Fantasia" and the studio's other animated classics.
"Our characters are so emotional. They exude emotion to our guests," said Pressler, the Disney Stores chief who was promoted last week to become president of Disneyland. "Our really unique selling proposition," he said, is about "selling emotion."
That understanding has built Pressler's reputation within Walt Disney Co. as a walking idea machine with an intuitive sense of what is special about the company's characters and stories.
Now, the 38-year-old Pressler is being asked to take on one of the company's toughest challenges. As Disneyland enters its 40th year, the park has been searching for a high-profile manager to reinvigorate Walt Disney's creation and cope with lower attendance, friction over cost-cutting and deterioration of the surrounding urban neighborhood.
In addition, after tantalizing the local community with images of a $3-billion theme park and hotel expansion, Disney is now scrambling to downsize its dreams.
"It's a huge job," said former Anaheim Councilwoman Miriam Kaywood, but Pressler "has apparently proved himself."
Pressler starts as an unknown inside the close-knit world of Disneyland. His task is made all the more difficult by what are sure to be inevitable comparisons to the enormously popular Jack Lindquist, who started at Disneyland the year it opened and remains a fixture in Orange County political, sports and charity circles.
The former toy industry executive will not only lead Orange County's largest employer, which at its summer peak employs about 12,000 people, he must also wrestle with the political pressures of deciding the fate of Disney's resort proposal, which would add a new theme park and potentially thousands of new hotel rooms.
So who is the new king of the Magic Kingdom? The portrait that emerges from interviews with friends and colleagues is of a self-effacing, energetic Disney devotee known for a rare combination of business acumen and artistic inventiveness.
Pressler is a "talented, creative business executive . . . (who) nurtures great ideas and knows how to see them through," Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said in appointing him to his new position. Pressler is capable in the roles that Eisner holds dearest: diplomat, number-cruncher and carnival barker.
"I think I have a unique talent for drawing the best out of people and inspiring them to bigger and better things," Pressler said. "Somehow I just see things, and I get sparked by new ideas and take off on new tangents. I never accept anything for the way it works."
Pressler also has the endorsement of predecessor Lindquist, who praises him as "an entrepreneur, an outstanding marketing guy. He'll make everybody forget me."
Known for his easygoing manner, Pressler is happier at home with his wife and children and a stack of videotaped movies on a Friday night than working the social circuit, said friend and colleague Steve Burke, now chief operating officer of Euro Disney in France.
"If you had to rank his priorities, No. 1 would be his family, and No. 2 would be his business," Burke said. Nowhere on that list, he said, is reaching for the next job.
Pressler is "a guy who really keeps his ego in check," said veteran toy company executive Bruce Stein, now working on interactive entertainment possibilities with Hollywood mogul Peter Guber.
A Long Island native, Pressler attended the State University of New York at Oneonta, a small campus outside of Albany, as an economics major. "He was a fairly bright student," said one of his professors, Robert Carson, noting that Pressler graduated in the top 10% of his 1978 class. "An affable, friendly guy."
His first job out of college was working as an urban planner in New York City. After six months, Pressler said, he was ready to try something else. Choosing among the jobs offered by a search firm, he went to work for Remco Toys, a small toy maker in New York.
Pressler loved his new job. "It was a terribly creative business," he recalls.
His big break in the toy industry came in 1982 when he interviewed for a position at Kenner-Parker Toys, then a subsidiary of General Mills.
"He was just incredible," said his boss, Carole MacGillvray Rappeport, who now operates a toy consulting company in Santa Barbara. "He not only had some toy experience, he was just so personable. He is one of these people you meet for the first time and you say, 'This guy is a total winner.' "
He was hired on the spot.