Note from Estelle: So happy to welcome Dan Heaton of PTsnob.com as a new contributor at This Happy Place Blog! Yippee! He makes his debut with a review of a book I’ve been looking forward to checking out myself — Marty Sklar’s Dream It! Do It!
When you look back at the history of the Disney theme parks, there’s a short list of influential figures that helped to shape them towards greatness. Walt Disney’s name was on the door, but he needed plenty of help behind the scenes. Artists like John Hench, Marc Davis, Rolly Crump, and Mary Blair brought those visions to light, but they needed someone to sell those creations. The man for the job was Marty Sklar, who wrote the words that sold Walt to the public. Despite his friendly on-screen persona, it took a lot of help to smooth out the edges and present the face of the organization. Sklar finally retired in 2009 after working at the Walt Disney Company for more than 50 years. His diverse experiences during that time are recounted in the book Dream It! Do It!: My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdoms.
Released by Disney Editions, this book includes Sklar’s personal recollections of working for Walt and leading Imagineering for many years. Its 368 pages offer entertaining anecdotes and surprising details, yet it’s a real challenge to fit everything into them. He’s done too much to really delve into the material that Disney fans are craving. Thankfully, there’s still plenty to like within this book. Despite publishing through the official label, Sklar’s able to take shots at the difficult executives he’s encountered over the years. The biggest offender is Dick Nunis, who’s painted as a bureaucratic and power-hungry villain. We also get an insider’s look at the reign of Michael Eisner, which saw remarkable growth for the parks. Sklar gives him a fair shake and does a nice job identifying the positives and negatives of his reign.
A good portion of the early chapters focuses on Sklar’s relationship with Walt during the early days of Disneyland. While some of the material will be familiar to fans, there are some interesting tidbits that show a meaner side. Walt’s takedown of an ambitious (but not particularly artistic) executive might surprise readers who look at him like a saint. These examples aren’t designed to take down an icon; they just add flavor and make him seem like a real person. It’s surprise to note that Sklar wrote some of Walt’s most famous statements. The “Disneyland will never be finished” line that’s often cited when an attraction is changed appeared in an article created by Sklar. In a sense, he was taking the ideas that Walt said each day and presenting them in the most attractive way possible. That requires some serious skill.
The highlights are Sklar’s retelling of work on building EPCOT, Tokyo Disneyland, and especially Disneyland Paris. He was closely involved in each project, and we get an up-close look at the challenges faced in each instance. These are the parts that could easily be twice as long. The EPCOT chapter is 56 pages, and that only allows Sklar to scratch the surface of that experience. It seems unfair to ask for more beyond such interesting material, but it’s easy to get spoiled by Sklar’s far-ranging background. The Tokyo and Paris sections reveal the great challenges of transferring the Disney parks to another culture. He discusses a few mistakes that hindered their success, particularly in France.
Sklar concluded his Disney career as the Imagineering Ambassador, and he didn’t consider it a decorative position. He’s done plenty to sell the idea of the difference in the Disney parks, though I wonder if current management was really listening. Dream It! Do It! shifts to a self-help mode in the final chapters, where Sklar provides his views on leadership and creative thinking. The book’s title fits with that tone and his idea that “life is a blank sheet of paper”. He’s an intriguing guy with plenty to say, and I’d love to hear more from him in another book. This one summarizes his career and includes plenty for a Disney fan, but it only scratches the surface on what’s possible from a man with such a huge influence on Imagineering and their amazing parks.