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'Big Kahuna' Pressler's Job Has Just Gotten Bigger

July 18, 1996|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ANAHEIM — His eyes sparkling like a Disney character and his enthusiasm just as boundless, Paul Pressler doubled his job duties Wednesday.

When he took over 18 months ago as president of Disneyland, critics speculated the former toy industry executive wouldn't be able to handle one park. Now he will run two.

Affectionately called Disneyland's "Big Kahuna," the trim, 6-foot-2 Pressler stood on a park stage Wednesday, sometimes bouncing on his toes, to unveil the first new Disney park in Anaheim in four decades. The $1.4-billion California Adventure will celebrate Hollywood, Yosemite and the beach.

A year ago, some questioned whether the 40-year-old marketing whiz could reinvigorate Walt Disney's pioneer theme park in an era of lower attendance, friction over cost-cutting and the deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood.

But park revenue and attendance have rebounded during the native New Yorker's tenure, analysts note.

"I give him high marks so far," said Jeffrey Logsdon, managing director with the Seidler Cos. in Los Angeles. "The numbers are up and he's successfully managed a tough job redesigning the park's expansion to California Adventure."

Although some find fault with Pressler's marketing background, insiders call Pressler an "idea man" who has had significant input into the creation of California Adventure, including his commitment to a ride that would allow guests to pretend they are movie stars.

"There is no such thing as too much marketing," said Ray Watson, a member of the board of directors for Walt Disney Co.

"The people who run the parks don't design the parks--it's a marketing job. From everything I hear he's doing excellent," Watson said. "He brought a fresh personality and enthusiasm."

A self-proclaimed "eternal optimist" who never doubted California Adventure would become a reality, Pressler said he thinks of himself as a "coach and a cheerleader" for the California project.

"I just knew we'd find a way to make this come true," he said. "California was always that place you wanted to go to. The place you dreamed about and read about. It was the place all the TV shows were about. So it was a natural."

A graduate of the State University of New York at Oneonta, a small campus outside Albany, Pressler majored in economics. His first job out of college was working as an urban planner in New York City, something that has served him well as plans developed for the urban revitalization of Anaheim near Disneyland.

Pressler left to work at a small toy maker in New York before joining Kenner-Parker Toys, then a subsidiary of General Mills Inc. As vice president of marketing, Pressler was known for marketing the Care Bears, a hit teddy bear collection that had its own greeting card line. Eventually Pressler produced "The Care Bears Movie."

Called easygoing and friendly by former colleagues, Pressler joined Disney's licensing division in 1987 before moving up to run the Disney Store chain, which has more than 300 stores in eight countries.

Now this basketball enthusiast runs Orange County's largest employer. A resident of Pacific Palisades, Pressler lives with his wife, Mindy, and 10-year-old son, Sean, and 6-year-old daughter, Jordan.

While Pressler got high marks Wednesday for California Adventure, some Disneyland purists complain privately that Pressler is turning the park into a massive shopping mall with rides.

Not true, he says.

"Even if I had the desire to do that, I don't know how I could," he said. "I learned at the Disney Store that we have to tell stories in a compelling way. And that's what we're trying to do here: to create a magical place."

Some longtime employees are likewise suspicious of Pressler's "Empowerment Evolution," an overhaul of Disneyland's operating structure that is splitting the park into 77 distinct units.

Pressler says the new structure gives employees more autonomy, but some workers and union officials worry that park management is trying to eliminate good-paying union supervisory jobs.

Pressler's influence can also be seen in his relaxing of Disney's strict dress code, a move employees have welcomed, he said.

Still, Pressler's performance deserves an "A-plus" said former Disneyland President Jack Lindquist, who retired from the park in late 1993 and is well-known in Anaheim civic circles. In fact, Lindquist started at the park the day it opened.

"Paul came from a different discipline, the Disney store, and he had to learn what this business is. He did it," he said.

Now Lindquist has a little extra advice for Pressler as he begins the task of making California Adventure a reality:

"Just surround yourself with good people and give them responsibility. That's the only way one president can run two parks."

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