Disney Imagineering President and Disney Legend Marty Sklar passed away recently at 83. He was my boss and we had adjoining offices at Imagineering. Marty was a true survivor, enduring many "adminstrations," each with studio efficiency experts ready to "fix" Imagineering and reorganize the renegade band of disparate talents. Through it all, Marty weathered every storm by explaining to the Studio what we do and we just kept going. I met Marty, not at Disney, but as an 11 year old through his souvenir book describing Disneyland. I must have read it a dozen times as it was the only real inside story of the park, the how and why. Even then he was an inspiration to not just me, but many kids reading it. Having him inscribe the last page at his retirement party meant a lot. Marty's book left this kid sensing the DNA of Walt, it was always about "what is not yet done." Going further.
At the Mouse.
Once at Disney Imagineering decades later, Sklar also shepherded many of us designers in our careers, allowing us to experience an "E ticket" thrill ride aboard the "Imagineering Bus", at times in the "front seat" with praise via his legendary "red pen" notes, or the occasional toss "below the wheels" to keep us humble. I especially needed that. Being a rabid UCLA alum, Marty admired Coach Wooden and felt there was no "I" in team, so his mentorship was widespread. He backed ideas you were passionate about without a spreadsheet, like what was to become "Mission:Space" at EPCOT. I laid on my back describing how guests will sense the G Forces of "blast off" and he agreed to fund development! He sensed our passion. His several post-Disney books were also a team effort as he asked many of us to contribute our thoughts. His final work lies unfinished, a design tome called "Mickey's 10 Commandments." He asked me to write something for it a week before he passed, and I was fortunate enough to hear that he wanted to include it. Sadly, that was the last communication we had. Here it is.
"The one thing that Marty’s guidelines have always meant to me is that success is fragile. The business we’re in is one of intangibles and there are balance sheets full of the red ink of those who have tried to merely copy the "Disney formula" and failed. Slavishly encrusting shallow “worlds" with detail and ornament, but lacking soul, clarity, or any understanding of how to connect emotionally with their audience. Building places in spite of their guest's dreams, instead of fulfilling them. There is a reason Disneyland has been called a “labor of love” and it is. The detail is not for art’s sake, it’s for your sake because someone wanted the “escape” to suspend your disbelief. The success of theme parks isn’t in getting people to come, it’s getting people to come back. For decades.
I love sitting on a Main Street bench and watching how the guests react, what works and gets a smile and what doesn’t, but they sense that we were all there. To me, "Mickey’s Ten Commandments" was best summarized by Walt himself in a story Marty likes to tell. Walt once explained that the parks were all about "satisfying people’s needs", and he meant emotional needs. Emotional needs are the reason we get up in the morning, they are our dreams for the future. Choosing the right themes to fulfill a hidden aspiration, playing just the right song, or directing the smell of candy into the street to trigger a memory. How do you do that without “knowing your audience” or "being in their shoes”? They sense the care, love, nostalgia, or childlike innocence of a reassuring experience when we do that job sincerely and earnestly, not because it promotes a movie or toy. No doubt Walt knew better than most what he missed about his own childhood and family, and knew how to build an upbuilding family experience that was a “ton of treat" for us to treasure in our own way."
Marty Sklar meant a great deal to so many people, not just because he worked for Disney, but because he took time to write an encouraging note, listen to your idea, or push you to do your best. I'm not into deification, as if you're looking for faults in Marty or anyone for that matter, you'll find them. Being none of us are perfect, we look for those outstanding qualities and habits worth admiring, celebrate their positive effects, and build on them. Now that's Disney!