Bob Bonniol

The Experiential: Meeting Marty Sklar

Recently I had the extraordinary good fortune to speak for a few minutes with Marty Sklar while I was working at D23, Disney’s super-fan-focused convention. Marty was lingering near the amazing model display of the new Star Wars Land, currently well under way in Anaheim.

I routinely meet and work with extraordinary people in the course of my work. I find I approach them as normal humans, and I am generally able to push by the fact that they are powerful, or rich, or astonishingly gifted artists. 

But as I seized my moment to introduce myself and pay my respects to Marty, I found myself a stammering mess.

Marty Sklar represented a human connection across every Disney park property ever built. In 1955, when he was 21 years old and attending the University of California, he found himself with an opportunity to create a new newspaper, The Disneyland News, a month before Walter Elias Disney began a remarkable and visionary experiment in creating immersive experience in the orchards of Anaheim.

Marty and Walt had an immediate connection, and Marty quickly earned his trust and a mandate to bring thought, joy, and story to the creation of park attractions. He became Imagineer number one.

Marty had his hand deep in the making of one of my favorite classics, The Tiki Room. As vice president of Creative Development and then president of Imagineering, he was integral to the creation of every Walt Disney-themed property in existence to date.

He just recently had returned from the opening of the new park in Shanghai, which has proved a blockbuster.

So I was tongue tied.

I introduced myself and made noises of appreciation about the mind-blowing model in front of us. I observed that I was amazed by the extent to which it was such a complete story environment. Marty smiled, paused, and then told me about Walt’s stubborn dedication to making Tom Sawyer’s Island at Disney land. He remarked that one of the first cast members at Disney, Tom Nabbe, played Tom Sawyer on the Island. Tom would come in early to make sure there was bait for the hooks on the 50 fishing poles available to visitors on the island. Then he served as a visible character guide through a part of the park that yielded an impression of being the ultimate kids' wilderness fort. It was part of a focus Disney had on creating an all-encompassing story space and then letting kids come (via raft!) and determine their own journey through that space. That freedom to engage acted as an experience amplifier.

Marty Sklar helped create these ideas. He had ten famous guidelines for reliably forging joy, which he wrote in his recent book, One Little Spark. Get it. It’s an embarrassment of riches in thinking about creating experiences. I have two favorites: create a weenie to give people targets that intuitively guide them, and for every ounce of treatment, provide a ton of treat. Educating people is fine, but make sure it’s fun.

I am so grateful to have had my moment talking with Marty. He passed away unexpectedly on July 27. He was working to the very end, sharing lore, practice, and experience.

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