Card Walker, a mailroom employee who rose to become the first chief executive at the Walt Disney Co. who wasn't a member of the Disney family, leading the company from 1971 to 1983, has died. He was 89.
Walker, who oversaw the development of Walt Disney World, died of congestive heart failure Monday at his home in La Canada Flintridge, the company announced.
During his tenure, Walker brokered the deal for the company's first international theme park: Tokyo Disneyland, which opened in 1983. He also oversaw the development of Epcot Center at Walt Disney World in Florida and helped found the Disney Channel, the cable TV network launched in 1983.
"Card was instrumental in keeping Disney strong and growing in the critical years that followed the passing of founders Walt and Roy Disney," Robert Iger, president and CEO of the company, said in a statement. Walt and Roy Disney, who were brothers, founded the Disney company.
Michael Eisner, the former chief executive officer who ran Disney from 1984 until earlier this year, praised Walker for steering the company through "a challenging time of transition."
Walker ran the company after Roy Disney, father of Roy E. Disney, who left the company's board in 2003, died in 1971. Walt Disney had died five years before.
"Thanks to his deep understanding of the company and its founders, talking to Card was the next best thing to talking to Walt himself," Eisner said in a statement.
Some critics have argued that Walker's strong ties to Walt Disney interfered with the way he ran the company.
A 1984 Time magazine story said Walker "made decisions according to what Walt would have done," which made Disney steadily lose "touch with modern taste."
While filmmakers raised on Disney movies were making "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977), Disney was making "Herbie Goes Bananas" (1980), said Jim Hill, who has tracked Disney history for 25 years.
"Card wasn't the great creative, but he was a great steward," Hill said. "A lot of stuff he did very well -- and he had an awfully hard act to follow as the first non-Disney to run the company."
Known as a stern taskmaster, the straight-laced Walker was "beloved by his employees," Hill said.
Sandy Quinn, whom Walker hired in 1968 to head the marketing department at the yet-to-be-built Disney World, considered Walker his mentor.
"Everybody who worked with him knew him as a man of goodness, of spirit, of incredible patriotism," Quinn said. "He inherited all of the qualities Walt as his mentor instilled in him."
Esmond Cardon Walker was born Jan. 9, 1916, in Rexburg, Idaho, to Esmond and Violet. When he was 8, he moved to California and graduated from UCLA in 1938.
He went straight to Disney as a "traffic boy" who ran drawings back and forth among departments. He also worked in the camera and story departments before moving into advertising, sales and marketing.
His encyclopedic knowledge of the business made him invaluable to Walt, with whom Walker was said to be on cordial personal terms.
When Roy Disney decided to name Walker president, he said he chose him because he was a strong leader.
In 1976, Walker also became the chief executive officer and in 1980 he was elected chairman of the board.
Walker was an early riser who was often at his desk by 5:30 a.m. By the time the rest of the Disney executives showed up, he "knew the movie grosses in Brazil, the Winnie the Pooh book sales in France and the hotel occupancy at Walt Disney World -- and this was all before computers," Quinn said.
What may have been Walker's biggest accomplishment was realizing Walt Disney's great, last dream: Epcot.
"Everyone accused Walt of being an idiot when he built Disney World," Walker told Forbes in 1981. "I know pumping $800 million into Epcot is a big gamble with the current fuel crisis and poor economy, but we believe it's going to pay off really big."
Asked in 1982 why the company kept the inelegant acronym "Epcot" -- for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow -- Walker responded, "We used it because it was inspired by Walt. People will learn to master it."
Walker is survived by Winnie, his wife of 59 years; two daughters, Mignonne Walker Decker and Marnie Gaede; a son, Cardon Walker; and five grandchildren.
Funeral services will be private. Memorial donations may be made to the Motion Picture & Television Fund Foundation, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Suite 300, Woodland Hills, CA 91364.