At Disney, magic never ages and Mickey remains...

Friday, July 15, 2005
Fireworks blast from the top of Cinderella Castle as thousands of VIPs, cast members and guests throw commemorative Mickey Mouse Ears hats into the air as Disney World celebrates the Disney Global 50th Anniversary

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As Marty Sklar nears the entrance to Disneyland, he pauses, looks up, and reads the plaque that has been there since the park opened on July 17, 1955:

"Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy."

"That says so much about what Walt intended here," says Sklar, who was hired two months before the park opened to write an 1890s-style tabloid newspaper, The Disneyland News, that would be sold on Main Street for 10 cents. "I think Disneyland is so much about reassuring people the world can be OK, that things can be orderly, that you can speak to a stranger -- all those things that we are losing or have lost in our daily lives."

Sklar, 71, has been shaping that vision for decades, helping to design such memorable Magic Kingdom attractions as Space Mountain.

He also has trained a generation of designers, called Imagineers, who have spread that vision to Disney parks in Paris, Tokyo and, in September, Hong Kong. The Disney Imagineering unit, of which Sklar is vice chairman, also designs hotels and other properties for the company.

Walt Disney's proposal for a "theme park" that would bring stories and characters from his movies to life was met with considerable skepticism because it was such a break from the amusement parks and traveling carnivals of the time.

But Disneyland proved to be successful beyond even Walt's wildest wish upon a star. Within a few years Disney was hired to create four major pavilions for the New York World's Fair, and soon was making plans for a Florida resort.

Today, there are 10 Disney parks around the world and many other theme parks influenced by the Disneyland concept.

Again, Sklar returns to that vision theme.

"To me it somehow communicates that there are values in our world that last," Sklar says on a recent walk through the Magic Kingdom. "People have said escapism. I don't think it's escapism at all. It's the optimism."

As he strolls down Main Street, Sklar pauses to pick up a discarded wrapper and stuffs it in his pocket to be disposed of later. It's a motion he will repeat instinctively as he walks the park.

"Walt was an incurable optimist," he says. "He believed things could be better and so much of Disneyland proves that all the time. And we continued in that vein from the beginning."

Over the years, Disneyland has played host to U.S. presidents and other dignitaries. In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev railed against authorities in a speech after being told he could not visit the park because his safety could not be guaranteed.

"We were all set, we were ready," Sklar remembers. "We had, I would guess, over 100 Highway Patrol motorcycle cops and Anaheim police. So we invited them all in and fed them all."

Sklar recalls President Truman's visit a few years earlier.

"We tried to get him to ride on Dumbo (the elephant) for a photo. And he said, 'I wouldn't ride on that! It's the symbol of the Republican Party!"'

Sklar pauses at Disneyland's Hub, in front of the entrance to the park's signature Sleeping Beauty's Castle.

To the right is Tomorrowland, home to Space Mountain, an indoor roller-coaster. The original sketch of the attraction was done by Imagineer John Hench in 1965. But it was a little ahead of its time -- even for Tomorrowland.

"Computer technology wasn't advanced enough to be able to run those vehicles around in a dark environment and keep them separated safely," Sklar says. "It wasn't until almost 10 years later, we were working with RCA and were looking for an idea for their sponsorship and we came back to Space Mountain."

To the left of the Hub is New Orleans Square, home of the beloved ride that launched a film franchise -- Pirates of the Caribbean.

At the center of the Hub is a bronze statue of Disney holding hands with Mickey Mouse. Sklar remembers that when he died in 1966, there was never any thought of turning the park into a memorial.

"I never think of it as a shrine because it's so alive," he says. "It's a living, breathing thing and that's the memorial to Walt Disney, that it still communicates the same values that it did when he started it."

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