Foundersland: Four Secrets of the Imagineers

By Marty Sklar, Founder, Past President, Chairman Leadership Council

Ryman Arts Board Member Eddie Newquist is the Chief Creative Officer of Global Experience Specialists (GES). He asked me to pass on some of my experiences in my “former life” (before I retired in 2009) as the Creative Leader of Walt Disney Imagineering. Eddie wrote the following article that was published by CMO.com, a website “offering marketing news and insights.”


There’s no company with a stronger storytelling legacy than Disney. From Mickey Mouse to “Frozen,” it has created hundreds of stories that enchant kids and adults alike. Marty Sklar, former Walt Disney Imagineering creative executive, understands this magic better than anyone. In his 54 years with the company, he wrote Walt’s messages for publications and presentations, led the development of nine Disney parks around the world, and helped create attractions like “It’s a Small World.”

I sat down with Sklar to discuss his most recent book, One Little Spark!: Mickey’s Ten Commandments and the Road to Imagineering. As we spoke, I realized the tenets of Imagineers aren’t just applicable to marketing; they’re absolutely crucial to long-term brand survival.

1. Walk In Your Audience’s Shoes

Imagineers take “know your audience” to a whole new level. When creating attractions, they experience the park as their guests do so they can understand how they feel every step of the way.

When Imagineer Bob Weis traveled to China, he learned that the hit “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction wouldn’t work in Shanghai because the popular ride didn’t feel exciting to the locals. “Instead, they are doing a whole land with live action and a boat that turns around,” Sklar said. “They made major changes because they talked to the audience.”

Other brands have run into similar hurdles when expanding globally. Starbucks has struggled to establish itself in Australia for years because it cannot capture Australians’ tastes or compete with local shops. Whether you’re trying to sell roller coasters or coffee, you must walk in your audience’s shoes.

2. Find the Heart of Your Story, and Immerse Your Audience in it

Imagineers are always editing. To create a 10-minute ride, they must distill stories down to their core messages to capture Disney magic.

When pitching Epcot’s “Spaceship Earth,” Disney asked Ray Bradbury to write the story. Sklar knew Bradbury’s 15-page narrative was too long for the eight-minute attraction, so the Imagineers helped Bradbury extract the fundamental message.

“You have to make experiences long enough to be meaningful storylines and short enough to keep their attention,” Sklar said. “If you don’t get to the heart of the story, you’ve failed.”

To create these experiences, Disney Imagineers rely on four of Mickey’s Commandments: organize the flow of people and ideas; communicate with visual literacy (color, shape, texture); avoid overload; and only tell one story at a time.

Each of Disney’s attractions is hyper-focused on a single idea. “Soarin’” takes guests on a tour over California and relies on four senses to convey the message—right down to the scent of orange groves.

Visionaries in every industry have built empires by getting to the core of their brand stories and immersing their audience in that message. Apple products, for instance, were designed to convey the promise that they’re beautifully simple to use.

3. Uncover What People Love About Your Brand, and Deliver On That Promise

“A brand is not something you buy,” Sklar said. “It’s something you buy into.”

This is why Disney has survived for 90 years: The company has taken pains to continually deliver on its promise of wholesome family fun. (According to Sklar, it’s why Disney doesn’t allow gambling on its cruises.)

Even in today’s fast-paced world, you must identify what people love about your brand so you can continually replicate the experience.

For example, Google understands that every search is a chance to connect. To convey that brand promise, Google shot “Reunion” to tell the story of how search helped a Delhi man connect with his long-lost childhood friend in Pakistan.

“People today … are hungry for being immersed in brands and immersed in experiences that they truly love,” Sklar said.

4. Reward Your Audience for Making the Journey

When Disney built “Dumbo the Flying Elephant,” Imagineers knew asking guests to wait for hours in the Florida heat would ruin the experience. To reward guests for making the journey, Imagineers constructed a circus play area and gave guests beepers.

The Dumbo attraction is a great example of “creating a weenie”—a visual magnet. It’s hard to top a flying elephant as a visual target!

When my company designed “Harry Potter: The Exhibition,” we knew visitors would want to see Harry’s glasses and invitation to Hogwarts. We “created a weenie” by putting these props at the very beginning to deliver immediate satisfaction.

Mickey’s 10 Commandments have been at the heart of every story Disney Parks have told over the past 60 years. Marketers who implement those tenets of unforgettable storytelling won’t just build enduring brands—they’ll create Imagineer-worthy experiences their audiences will love.

 

Cover Photo Caption: Imagineering study model for Spaceship Earth show at Epcot, reviewed by (left to right) Marty Sklar, John DeCuir Jr. and John Hench. Imagineers use study models to achieve all four “secrets” in this article.