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THE NATION

His Success at Disney Isn't More Than He Imagined

September 21, 2002|RICHARD VERRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just out of college, Marty Sklar was overwhelmed to find himself as Walt Disney's newest writer. Sklar, in awe of the charismatic entrepreneur, didn't know what else to do but follow behind with pen and index cards in hand, scribbling down Disney's orders, ideas and, occasionally, one-line gems: Know your audience. Tell one story at a time. Wear your guests' shoes.

It wasn't until many jobs later, and long after his mentor's death, that Sklar recognized the treasure-trove of wisdom he had started compiling at Walt Disney's elbow in the early 1960s. He distilled it all into "Mickey's Ten Commandments," now one of the company's most widely circulated creeds and a bible of the theme park industry.

The lessons became a cornerstone of Sklar's own iconic reputation at Walt Disney Co., where he is among the last of a generation of creative minds who worked with the founder--so closely in his case that he became known as the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

Today, Sklar is a sorcerer in his own right as the creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's storied design and development arm. The group celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, a poignant milestone for the 68-year-old grandfather.

"When people see Marty, they see Walt," says Imagineering President Don Goodman. "When Marty says something is good, it's almost like Walt says it's good."

Sklar took on the role of handing down Walt Disney's pioneering philosophy of family entertainment after the founder's death in 1966.

"It actually affected me more than when my father died," says the soft-spoken Sklar, who walks with stooped shoulders and sports a boyish, mischievous grin. "I finally realized I never had to think like my father, but in order to write for Walt Disney I had to try to think like Walt Disney and use words that he used. It got so deeply into that, it had a tremendous effect on me."

Their relationship has guided Sklar during the last three decades as he headed the creative development of Disney's theme parks and led the company's ventures in the cruise business, interactive TV, housing development and the redesign of Times Square in New York. Sklar's imprint is on hundreds of attractions, from Space Mountain to the new Flik's Fun Fair opening next month at the California Adventure theme park.

Sklar's role is more crucial--and challenging--than ever. Theme parks, though reeling from a sharp drop-off in international tourism, account for one-third of Disney's revenue. Sklar's job is a balancing act of developing new and often expensive attractions while holding the line on budgets that have grown tighter in recent years as Disney's profit and stock price have declined.

His most important role, though, is as anchor to a company sometimes accused of drifting from its roots.

"He was there from the beginning and walked in Walt's footsteps," says Disney parks and resorts chief Paul Pressler. "He has that Jiminy Cricket consciousness."

Jiminy presides over a decidedly quirky kingdom.

The Imagineering group, whose name symbolized a blending of imagination and engineering, was established by Walt Disney in 1952 to dream up Disneyland and create a physical home for Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters made famous on the silver screen. Writer Ray Bradbury later would refer to it as a "true Renaissance organization."

Unlike their button-down peers in the swank corporate headquarters in Burbank, the Imagineers work out of drab buildings in Glendale where secrecy and security protocols rival those of military installations.

Sklar and his colleagues pride themselves on their unconventional ways.

Consider Joe Rohde, a senior creative executive who sports a handlebar mustache and an elongated earlobe, stretched by a string of shells and bones collected from his visits to tribal villages in Africa, Thailand and Nepal. He once took a tiger on a leash into a meeting with Disney Chief Executive Michael D. Eisner to illustrate the allure of live animals. Stunned, and no doubt impressed, Eisner gave the go-ahead for Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando, Fla.

Top creative leaders meet weekly with Sklar for brainstorming sessions, where the agenda rarely is dull. At one recent meeting, the creative team took turns sniffing vials containing foul odors for a stink-bug character at California Adventure.

Pitches can be equally unconventional. Two years ago, ride designer Eddie Sotto flopped back in a chair, thrust his feet into the air and blurted out his best impression of a space shuttle takeoff. Impressed, Sklar championed what would become a $120-million ride called Mission Space. The ride, designed with the help of astronaut Story Musgrave and NASA, opens next year at Walt Disney World's Epcot. "Sometimes it's very difficult to communicate an idea, and you have to find a different method of doing it," Sklar says.

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