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ANAHEIM'S MAKEOVER BEGINS

Walt Probably Wouldn't Fit In at Disney Today

Founder: Money was his second priority, studio alumnus says. Historian says late businessman would have enjoyed a new venture, but not another theme park.

July 18, 1996|STEVE EMMONS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What would Walt have thought?

Since Disney's death in 1966, the question popped up whenever changes were afoot within the Disney realm. For a while, says Marty Sklar, vice chairman of the Walt Disney Co.'s think tank, that's all you heard in the studio corridors.

"After a while we stopped wondering what Walt would have thought," Sklar said.

Along the way, the Disney company changed from Walt's source of personal pleasure to the stockholders' source of personal wealth. Michael Eisner came aboard as chairman and chief executive officer and soon, the bottom line started sagging under the weight of immense profits.

"They weren't hired to be creative, they were hired to rejuvenate the company, which they've done in spades," said one Disney studio alumnus.

"Walt's concern was always doing something that interested him personally. He liked money, but it was the second priority. That's not the type of person that would even fit into the company now.

"Today, they'd probably fire Walt."

There was no "they" on Sept. 23, 1953, when Disney hurriedly summoned sketch artist Herb Ryman to the studio and told him he needed a sketch of something called Disneyland by Monday to show financial backers.

There were no drawings to work from. Everything was in Disney's mind, where it had been brewing for decades. Disney stood over Ryman all weekend, feeding him details.

The sketch, the first depiction of Disneyland, is recognizable to anyone who has visited the park. Although "Lilliputian Land," "Holiday Land," "The Mickey Mouse Club" and other attractions were never built, the backbone features of the park were there--a train around the perimeter, Main Street leading toward a castle and a hub at the center of various "lands."

Consultants would suggest location and construction details, but no one but Walt put his hands on creative decisions. "In those days," said Sklar, "no one--no other executive--dealt with creative design."

"Disney considered his company an extension of himself, and he did what he wanted," said Steven Hulett, a "Disney brat" whose father joined the studio in 1937 as an artist. Hulett worked there for a decade as a writer .

"He wanted to get into areas and create things. It was his sandbox."

Ward Kimball, formerly one of the Disney animation supervisors known as the "Nine Old Men," says Disney more than once remarked that "I can't take it with me; it's the fun of doing it that counts."

Because Disney depended on his instincts to make creative decisions, "nobody could really predict what he would say or do," Kimball said. "If you liked something a lot, he just might be against it. Nobody could really figure him out."

But viewed a different way, Disney was predictable throughout his career, says David Koenig, author of "Mouse Tales," an unauthorized history of Disneyland.

"He was always trying something new and always something bigger than what he'd done before. If he was in a field that was beginning to take steps back, he would pull out. When animation started getting too expensive and everything was getting scaled back, that's when he lost interest and went on to something else."

"He went from doing shorts to animated features, then live action, then an amusement park," Hulett said. "At each step he'd get bored and concentrate on something new."

Disney made the point himself in a rare speech to film exhibitors in the early 1960s, Sklar says. He remarked that after the huge success of the 1933 cartoon "Three Little Pigs," exhibitors demanded a sequel, which Disney produced. Now he was asking whether any of them remembered it. No one did. See, he said, "you don't follow pigs with pigs."

Hemmed in at Anaheim, where motels and hotels blocked park expansion and made money he believed should have been his, Disney looked to Florida. He insisted that a huge amount of land be bought to keep outsiders away. He wound up with 43 square miles outside Orlando, "twice the size of Manhattan," he liked to say.

But in a 1966 promotional film to enlist Floridians' support--his last film appearance--Disney hardly mentions the amusement park planned for the property. He'd moved on.

He was on fire for EPCOT, a "prototype community of tomorrow." It was to be a real city in which 20,000 people would live, work, shop and go to school using the latest in urban planning and technology. It was, he said, "the heart of everything" he planned for Florida. He wanted take technology to ordinary people and improve their lives.

EPCOT would have a 50-acre hub of high-rise office buildings and shops enclosed in a dome. High-density housing would ring the hub. Monorails and "people movers"--small, automated trains that moved continuously--would lead to and from the "park-like" neighborhoods at the outside. Industrial parks would be outside but nearby, reached by monorail. Automobiles would be unnecessary.

And EPCOT would never grow larger than its ideal size. Instead, other EPCOTs would be built nearby, but not too close.

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