Saturday, April 2, 2016

The 6 Fathers of Walt Disney World

By Keith Mahne

The creation of Walt Disney World took a variety of personalities and skills in order to make it into something worthy of the Disney name. Building the vacation kingdom of the world was all about overcoming amazing obstacles. Sure, there was leery bankers and alligator infested swamp land to deal with, but for the ones whose fate it was to transform 40 square miles selected in the middle of nowhere into something magical, the bankers and alligators were nothing compared to the task of making the park succeed without the guidance of the companies founder and "chief executive dreamer", the great Walt Disney. Walt, their leader and friend, had passed away almost five years before opening day and the six men charged to see his "latest and greatest dream" were creating not just a park, they were creating a legacy. In today's new article, we'll learn how the 6 fathers of Walt Disney World got the resort into working order...

Thanks to a Disney Magazine article for Walt Disney World's 25th Anniversary, we are about to hear from 6 of Walt Disney's proteges, some now deceased, back when they shared their memories on getting the "World" into working order. Here are their amazing stories...

1) Marty Sklar

The earliest incarnation of Imagineering was called WED Enterprises, an acronym for Walter Elias Disney. Then as now, the organization comprised a bevy of the company's creative thinkers, among them Marty Sklar, the former vice-chairman of WDI. In 1961, Sklar was being groomed by Disney to be a staff writer. "It was kind of a catchall role," says Sklar, who was often recruited, on a moment's notice, to write everything from film scripts to press releases. So it came as no surprise when he was asked to write a script for a film that would explain the Walt Disney World plan and Walt's plan for Epcot. "I had about a day and a half to write up something," Sklar says, admitting he knew little about the project. "When I was done, I went over to Walt's office. Walt read my treatment while I sat there, and said, 'This is really well written, but what's it about?'"

What seemed to be a setback turned out to be an advantage for Sklar. Walt took the time to explain his concept for the Florida Project, and Sklar became his resident communicator, privy to Disney's expansive dreams. After Disney's death in December 1966, there was some doubt on the corporate side whether the scrappy mavericks over at WED were up to the task of creating and constructing the Florida Project. "Roy Disney had only been to WED once in the five or so years before Walt's death," Sklar recalls. " Walt had made it clear that this was his place, so Roy didn't know much about the capabilities of our staff."

To tip the scales in the Imagineers' favor, Sklar assembled a binder of articles, letters, interviews, transcripts, and notes of WED meetings with Walt that has established the philosophy of the Florida Project. "That book was kind of seminal, it put us all on the same page, and the philosophies expressed there are still alive and accurate," he says. Indeed, that binder is still copied and circulated within the Disney Company.

Marty Sklar, Welton Becket, and Dick Irvine walk on an “X” marking the spot where Cinderella’s Castle will be built.

Sklar didn't see the Disney World site until 1967. "We had cleared a hundred acres where the Magic Kingdom would be and that was it. We had a big, yellow X in the center where the Castle was going to go. We created the impossible," say Sklar, crediting the team. "I have flashbacks of the really wonderful people who influenced this project and my life, who are gone now: Joe Fowler and Joe Potter, Dick Irvine, Donn Tatum, Herb Ryman, Claude Coats, John Zovich, Bob Allen. They had the passion to carry out Walt's dream. And right at the top was Roy, who gave his life to it. I guess, in the end, we proved to him that Walt left a lot of talent behind." - Jeff Kurtti 

2) Dick Nunis

Around Walt Disney World, mention of Dick Nunis uncorks a stream of Stories, and "Nunisisms" are part of the insider lingo. Nunis clinched his reputation for rallying troops and completing projects under harrowing deadlines when he oversaw the construction of Walt Disney World. He describes the 1971 opening of the Contemporary Resort as if it were yesterday. With fewer than 12 hours to go before hordes of press, visitors, and dignitaries were to arrive, the resort sat unceremoniously atop a pile of dirt and debris. Accepting no excuses, Nunis mobilized "anyone who could walk" to spend the entire night shoveling dirt, planting shrubs, and laying sod. "A young supervisor came up to me and said, 'But Mr. Nunis, I've never laid sod before.' To which I replied: 'It's easy, green side up!'"

"Green Side Up was our mantra during the Boardwalk's final weeks," says Ned Waters, former operations manager of Disney's Boardwalk. "We all knew that if Dick Nunis and those guys could pull off what they did to get Walt Disney World up and running, then we didn't have any room for excuses either."

Back when Walt and Roy Disney began planning the construction of Walt Disney World, however, it was Nunis who argued that the deadline could never be met. "I remember looking at the site with the surveyor in 1966 and it scared the hell out of me. I said, 'No way,'" he recalls. "After Walt died and Roy decided to forge ahead, we ended up with about a year and a half to plan and a year and a half to build to meet an October 1971 deadline."

Nunis spent the next few years working seven days a week and sleeping three hours a night. And he adopted Walt's tendency to expect everyone else to work as hard as he did. As the construction deadline neared, he kept pushing the morning meeting of site supervisors earlier and earlier. Finally, in protest, everyone came to a 6 a.m. meeting in their pajamas, "Sure, I noticed. I even laughed," he says. "But from then on, the morning meeting began promptly at six, pajamas optional."

On opening day, hovering over the park in a helicopter with Card Walker (former executive vice president and COO) and Ron Miller (Walt Disney's son-in-law), Nunis spotted a long line of cars snaking toward the park. "We knew they were our first guests, and we were ecstatic. Suddenly, we noticed the cars going into the back entrance. We thought people were going the wrong way and began to panic. Then it dawned on us: Those weren't guests, but cast members showing up for work."
- Pippin Ross

3) Bill Evans

When he was building Disneyland, Walt Disney was determined to find a way to keep visitors to his park from sullying the grounds. It was at Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen that he found his solution: landscaping so beautiful that no one would dare toss a candy wrapper or trample the grass. To find a gardener capable of this level of design, Disney needed to look no further than his own backyard.

"Out of the blue one day, Walt asked me if I'd like to landscape Disneyland," Bill Evans recalls. "I said sure, although all I knew about the park was that there was a lot of construction in Anaheim."

An expert in rare plants and those not native to California, Evans managed in a matter of months to transform the site into tropical jungle and arboreal wonderland "on a very modest budget," he's quick to point out. "We were so short of everything that we tagged weeds with Latin names and hoped they'd pass for plants."

When work began on Walt Disney World, Disney transplanted Evan to Florida, where the mercurial climate laughs at horticulturists. "The soil was mostly sand and swamp," Evans remembers. "The only thing I could think to do was get a lot of plants going and just see what took." To attract the involvement, and plant stock, of growers across the country, he established a horticultural research station to solicit a broad range of species and determine which plants were Florida-proof. At final count, Evans's pioneering had produced 150 tree species and a 120-acre nursery filled with plants that should not have thrived in Florida.

Bill Evans (center) with Joe Potter, Card Walker and John Hench as they survey the WDW property

In the 90s, Evans consulted on another project: Animal Kingdom, the 500-acre adventure park. "It's the biggest landscaping job Disney's ever attempted," he says. "It called for thirty thousand trees and a million shrubs."

Evans's skills introduced suburbanites to parterre, topiary, and floating gardens, and has influenced the landscaping industry. When asked about the secret of his success, he suggested it's all been a ruse to avoid a really tough job: "Since I started with Disney in 1954, my wife and I have lived in four houses. I hate to say it," he added conspiratorially, "but my home landscaping isn't very interesting."
- Leonard Shannon

Bill Evans passed away on August 16, 2002, at the age of 92. He was posthumously awarded the American Society of Landscape Architects Medal for his lifetime of achievements.

4) John Hench

Having spent hours in Walt Disney's office discussing plans for the Florida Project, John Hench, former vice president of WDI, had no problem envisioning Walt Disney World. To Hench, an artist and designer, the land was a huge canvas awaiting transformation. "Walt and I talked so much about what we could do with all that space. I couldn't wait to get my hands on it," he says.

His imagination ignited, Hench traveled to Florida to have what turned out to be a very stark meeting with reality. "The site was so vast. The soil was appalling. There were massive spreads of land the surveyors hadn't even researched because the vegetation was so impenetrable. All of a sudden, I couldn't imagine it as clearly."

When he confessed to Walt that he didn't think people would understand their idea and suggested that central Florida seemed a barren place for people to want to visit, Hench received a terse response. "Walt told me that if people didn't get it, it would be the result of our failure to communicate," he recalls. "'People aren't the problem,' Walt said. 'If we don't capture their attention we're the problem.'" Thus reprimanded, Hench undertook the task of conveying Walt's vision.

John Hench stands in front of Spaceship Earth, which he designed

The first step was to make sure the designs were followed. "It was the architects," Hench says, "and not the builders, who most often tested the look of the master plan. I remember the poor architect of the Castle actually breaking down in tears because I wanted him to make the entrance way even bigger and more dramatic than a real castle. Poor guy." It got worse. Architects from the firm Welton Becket & Associates, who with U.S. Steel had designed the innovative Contemporary Resort, stormed Hench's Los Angeles office to protest the decision to run a monorail through the center of the hotel. "They said it would make the hotel look like Grand Central Station," he remembers. "I listened carefully, then asked them to write a formal statement of protest, sign it, and I'd pass it along to Roy Disney. They withdrew their complaint."

For Hench, nothing since Disney World has allowed him to express his artistic skills in quite the same way. To describe his experience translating Walt's visions into three dimensions, Hench relies on the language of film: "First you establish the long shot by asking what the message is, and as you tighten the shot to absorb all the little details, you have to make darn sure those details support your original idea. That's where Walt was so good: The details never failed. Even the doorknobs on Main Street U.S.A. are historically correct." - P.R.

John Hench passed away on February 5, 2004, in Burbank, still working full-time for Disney at age 95.

5) Card Walker

The progenitors of Walt Disney World fell into two camps: the artists, such as John Hench, Bill Evans, and Dick Irvine, and the pragmatists, such as Roy Disney, Card Walker, and Donn Tatum. In a break from their traditional roles, the creative types were worried about whether they could transform the sprawling site into a workable resort and theme park, while the businessmen were supremely confident and never questioned the project's viability. After all, Disneyland was a proven moneymaker that had barely tapped the reservoir of potential visitors.

Recalls Card Walker, a former Disney board member who was the company's chief operating officer when Walt Disney World began, "I knew there were twenty million tourists a year going through Florida. If half of them were tempted to take a little detour, we'd have ten million people a year. How hard is that to figure? Sure, there would be a thousand details to sweat over, but there seemed little question that Walt Disney World could make the company a lot of money."

Perpetually matter-of-fact, Walker rejects as historical revisionism stories that a silent majority thought Disney World was a crazy idea: "I know there are stories that some of the group  thought Walt was a bit off base with the magnitude of Disney World, I never once had that impression. He and Roy knew exactly what they were doing." Walker does, however, acknowledge that Walt's death deeply shook upper management's belief that Disney World could be accomplished. He credits Roy for regaining the equilibrium. "Roy suddenly had this massive company and somewhat vague plan dumped in his lap," he says. "He truly rose to the occasion."

Card Walker and Walt look over a map of the Florida Project on a trip to the new property

As buildings and attractions took shape,  Walker and Roy concentrated on keeping the money flowing to the project. "When Disney severed its relationship with U.S. Steel, its partner in building the Contemporary and Polynesian resorts," recalls Walker, "we were left with virtually no cash and two hotels to complete." So they borrowed the money to build the hotels properly, on the premise that quality was essential and would lead to profitability. "That's what we all learned from Walt. If it wasn't done right the first time, you undid it and did it again, until you got it right. His perfectionism could be frustrating, but it always paid off." - P.R.

Card Walker passed away on November 28, 2005, in La Cañada Flintridge, California.

6) Charles Ridgway

Late one evening in October 1965, Charles Ridgwy, the publicity director of Disneyland, received an auspicious telephone call from a source who identified himself only as being from the Walt Disney Studio. Ridgway was busy planning a press event for the following day as part of Disneyland's tenth anniversary. The caller warned him not to mention anything to reporters about the Florida Project. "What Florida Project?" asked Ridgway. "I was a little annoyed to be ignorant of whatever this fellow was talking about," he recalls.

As host of a press conference in which Walt Disney would field reporters' questions, Ridgway still feels responsible for what transpired the following day. "I had invited a reporter named Emily Bavar from the Orlando Sentinel," he says. "Turns out her entire reason for coming was to find out if Disney was the mysterious buyer of huge tracts of land around Orlando."

Charlie Ridgway is interviewed during the Walt Disney World 25th anniversary celebration

Bavar never did get a direct answer from Walt Disney about the land purchases, but she was experienced enough to know that her questions were being evaded. Her subsequent story, "Is Our Mystery Buyer Disney?," forced Disney to show his hand at a press conference three weeks later. The formal announcement that the company was planning a $100 million project to include recreation, entertainment, lodging, and a residential community was one that changed Ridgway's life. With the world now watching, the need for a Florida-based publicist arose, and Ridgway was tapped. "I moved to Florida in 1969, and it's been a roller-coaster ride ever since." - P.R.


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.


  1. Love the article! What great men.

  2. I am overwhelmed by these brave and creative men's stories - and I know this is just the tip of the iceberg. That's all I need now - to know that WDW is even greater than I realize. Thank you.