Last weekend Busy Bumble and I got the tremendous honor of being able to attend D23’s Lunch With a Legend event honoring Marty Sklar.
For those of you who don’t know who Marty is, he is basically the reason Epcot exists and Disney Imagineering is what it is today. He was the vice president of concepts and planning and helped helm the creation of Walt Disney World after Walt Disney’s death. He was a trusted writer and personal friend of Mr. Disney who joined the company right out of UCLA (go Bruins!) to help open Disneyland. Needless to say he has stories to tell. If you haven’t had a chance to read one of his books, do so as soon as you can. He is an inspirational leader and creative force who genuinely loves his time with Disney and still mentors so many others still with the company.
The lunch was held in the Whitehall Room in the Grand Floridian. When I got the news we could attend I was ecstatic for all of a minute before I realized we would somehow need to get to Florida in time to attend a lunch on a Friday. Many thanks to my managers (who are Disney fans too) for letting me go, and thanks to Busy Bumble’s managers for letting her come with me.
I had assumed that since the luncheon would be in the adjoining Convention Center there would be a large group of us. It turned out we were just part of a group of maybe 30 people. We were also surprised that Marty had special guests who would be sitting amongst us during lunch: Imagineers Jason Grandt (Disney’s art director and the man responsible for resurrecting Orange Bird), Daniel Joseph (in Marty’s words “Disney’s Chief Illusioneer”), Mouse Silverstein (a true protegé of Marty’s who built a working replica of a Pirates of the Caribbean animatronic as a teenager in NJ), from Disney Vacation Club Ryan March (familiar to anyone who’s seen a DVC promo video and who writes with Marty a column for DVC’s periodic magazine), and the 2017-18 WDW Ambassadors Ken Facey and Brandon Peters.
I don’t have any pictures of Marty as he spoke because I was so riveted by his stories. He spoke of his work at the 1964 World’s Fair (famous for It’s A Small World and the Carousel of Progress), his friendship and camaraderie with Walt Disney, and his work on Epcot. Some of my favorite stories:
Disney had done a pavilion at the World’s Fair for Ford Motors and Mr. Disney was keen to bring it to Tomorrowland, in keeping with his original goal of showcasing emerging technologies and real world magic. Marty was part of a team that made what he deemed the best presentation Disney had ever done for a prospective partner. They presented to Henry Ford Jr. who was unmoved. The team was dejected as they headed back to California but then Walt spoke up: “That was the stupidest man I’ve ever met!” They laughed and are still laughing today because Disneyland is now a huge success and guess who’s partnered with Disney for Test Track (hint: it ain’t Ford).
When working on the Land Pavillion for Epcot they worked closely with the Carl Hodges and the academic team at University of Arizona to put futuristic farming techniques into action. They had even built for the Imagineers a model of what the greenhouses should look like. Everyone was excited and then Mr. Hodges said,” Where do we put the bees?” He meant for pollinating all the plants. Marty told him they couldn’t have guests and bees in the same place (I’m guessing Mylan would have been reaping big profits off Epi-Pens if that happened). So to this day all the plants in the Land Pavillion have to be hand pollinated.
Marty was part of a team that did a film for Canada, like the Circle-Vision films in World Showcase but for a large World’s Fair-type event. They used nine people from all over Canada to tell their stories. One of the people was an Inuit man who had never been to a modern city, had no access to technology, and lived a simple life in the Arctic Circle. Marty wore a hat with Disney pins attached all over it, each with a story and long before Pin Trading was a thing. He met with the people from the film when the fair opened and the Inuit man pointed to a pin on his hat and happily exclaimed, “Donald Duck!” It still mystifies Marty that this man who should have never known a Disney character knew who Donald Duck was and that it clearly brought him so much joy. He gave the man the pin (which was from the opening of Tokyo Disneyland, which Marty oversaw).
For lunch we sat with Jason Grandt and got a chance to ask him a few questions: are there any plans to expand the World Showcase pavilions (sadly, no), what was his most recent job (designing a mini-golf course based on the old Goofy How-To shorts for Disney Cruise Lines), what was one of the weirder art requests he’s had on the job (he was asked to curate the art collection for the remodelled Polynesian Village Resort and pick the art for the common areas as well as the rooms from the Disney Archives), how did he get his job at Disney (he’d sent in his resume as a paper doll kit and actually mailed it straight to Marty who then reported him to Disney’s legal team), and more.
All of the special guests had great stories to share and each had glowing words for their mentor. This was especially true when Mouse Silverstein shared that his entire career began with a sort-of pen pal relationship with Marty and the other Imagineering legends. Mouse’s animatronics project had been covered by a local paper and Marty found out about it. Rather than dismissing it as a gifted fan with too much time he asked his co-workers if they could write encouraging letters to Mouse. Mouse shared them with us and they weren’t “follow your dreams” platitudes: they were actual letters of advice, critiques, and praise. Tony Baxter wrote that Mouse should consider studying theater and volunteering at a local theater company to understand how performers work and how to turn limited resources into something special. Another Imagineer advised Mouse to consider the audience viewing the animatronic: does it really need to have fine motor function in the face if no one will see it up close? Should the body language be more grandiose to convey more emotion without sound? This is why I love Disney. They could have written standard “Reach for the stars” letters but instead they really communicated that this kid had talent and potential and from a professional standpoint he could be one of them. Clearly it meant to world to Mouse and he ended up working for Disney as, in Marty’s words, “the smartest guy in Imagineering.”
Lunch was an ode to Marty’s work and his interests. Our starter was special in that it was made entirely with ingredients grown in the Land Pavillion at Epcot. Take a look at this beauty:
Busy Bumble is a stickler about good tomatoes and these were the best she’s ever had, in her opinion: sweet, delicate skinned, just the right amount of tart. The best part for me was going on Living With the Land the next day and actually seeing where they’d harvested our lettuce!
I was too busy eating the entrée to take a picture (seriously, Disney chefs are tops) but I had to take a picture of our dessert. How cute is this?
Donald Duck is Marty’s favorite character so we had this lovely cheesecake mouse filled with blueberry mouse in the center. The blue part is fondant (not too bad and I usually hate fondant) and the bow is chocolate. Note the Hidden Mickey blueberries too (can’t Donald have something of his own for once?)
As a parting gift we received an autographed copy of Marty’s very first assignment for Walt Disney: a newspaper to given away on Main Street for Disneyland’s opening day. Marty had been an editor at the Daily Bruin, which was how he got the job.
If you are a D23 member do try to get tickets to a Lunch With a Legend event. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime treat that I’m so happy I got a chance to go to. Events are held in Florida and California so it’s a great way to get to meet Disney history and visit the parks.
Here’s a final shot of our group, with a perfectly timed monorail (photo courtesy of D23, Walt Disney Co.)