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The Man Behind “The Most Imaginative Piece Of Urban Planning In America”

Marty Sklar, who died last week, was Walt Disney’s right-hand man–and the mastermind behind many of Disney’s most compelling theme-park attractions.

Marty Sklar’s first job at Disney was to create the The Disneyland News for his boss’s first theme park in 1955, which sold on Main Street for 10 cents during Disneyland’s first summer. When he died last week at the age of 83, he had been at the company for 54 years.

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Marty Sklar had to present his idea for The Disneyland News to Walt Disney himself, just two weeks after he started. [Photo: courtesy Disney]
 But Sklar wasn’t any old employee–for much of his career at Disney, he was the chief creative leader at Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of Disney dedicated to creating and building theme parks, where he led the development of Disney properties around the world. After becoming the creative leader at Imagineering in 1974, there were only two Disney parks on the map; under his leadership, nine more sprang to life, including Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland.

Sklar’s creative vision was the driving force behind attractions like It’s A Small World, which he originally developed for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City, and parks like Epcot–the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. When Florida’s Walt Disney World opened in 1971, NBC’s David Brinkley called it “the most imaginative and effective piece of urban planning in America.”

“We had energy systems, trash collection systems, electricity systems, so many different things that we tried to carry out the philosophy even if it wasn’t the city that Walt had envisioned,” Sklar said in a 2009 interview with the blog DIS Unplugged. “In fact, I wrote the preamble to the Epcot building code, and I’m not an engineer in any respect. But the whole idea was to express the philosophy, and the philosophy was how do we encourage American industry to develop and demonstrate new systems and new technologies where the public could see it.”

But despite his accomplishments, the man himself was notoriously humble. In an article in the Los Angeles Times, writer Todd Martens describes how over many conversations with Sklar, he couldn’t convince the man to take credit for what he’d created. Instead, Sklar would tell young designers that there was only one name that would ever be in the spotlight at Imagineering, and that was Walt Disney. And when asked about a project, he would list the names of dozens of people who he believed were more important than himself.

Sklar’s vision for the parks was to create immersive experiences with a mix of fantasy and engineering magic–not simply “rides,” a term Sklar reportedly would often use with a touch of disdain. Under his leadership, Disney’s parks became an emblem of the company’s unique brand of entertainment, from Pirates of the Caribbean to the internationally minded Epcot. Still, not every fanciful attraction made it to reality–Space Mountain now sits on the location where Sklar’s team proposed a rollercoaster through the interior of a computer. Sklar is one of a few Disney employees who was present at the opening of all 12 of the company’s theme parks.

Marty Sklar helped develop the concept of Epcot in Florida. [Photo: courtesy Disney]
He also had the ear of Disney himself. While he was working at Imagineering, Sklar would write Disney’s personal memos, including in the company’s annual report and in a short film about his boss’s conception of Walt Disney World and Epcot. After Disney died in 1966, Sklar carried his deep understanding of Walt Disney’s vision throughout his career, building parks out of the same brand of idealism, creativity, and spirit.

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As Martens wrote in the Los Angeles Times last week, Sklar “possessed an unwavering belief that theme park design is an art form worth investing in.” And that investment has clearly paid off–last year, Disney’s parks brought in $17 billion in revenue, up 32% since 2008.

About the author

Katharine Schwab is a contributing writer at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Follow her on Twitter @kschwabable.

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