CORPORATE EVENT ACTIVITIES IN THE DISNEY YEARS CHAPTER NINE Chapter 1


Now I would like to tell you about something that the Special Event Magazine, the ILEA organization, and many other special event periodicals think is of no value for you to learn about: the history of the industry, its pioneers, and how they created the modern day special events industry. I’ll be going over these wonderful people by name and in detail while outlining what their contributions to our field of corporate event activities were.

I actually tested Ilea members on who some of these people were and what their achievements were, only for them to look at me blankly as if I had been talking about aliens from another solar system. I can’t blame them for their responses, though. Like most planners, they simply didn’t have a clue about the history of our industry or why (and how) that history should be important to the work being done in the present. That’s because they get their information and creativity from outlets like advertisers or colleagues, people who work in the now but themselves had no direct experience with the past. There’s a desire to make the future and be trendsetters, which is understandable, but they fail to recognize that the future is always built on the past in some capacity, and as a result end up fumbling sooner or later without knowing why. Whatever came before, they believe, is obsolete. They are not interested, for example, in the four economic downturns that put almost 50 % of the smaller destination management firms out of business. You would think anyone jumping into a business would be especially interested in learning about that industry’s low points, if only out of morbid curiosity. But they simply want to learn how to make money rather than analyzing the people and events which made it all possible.

And make no mistake about it: the fundamentals of coming up with ideas ofr corporate event activities haven’t changed. Whether it’s seminar production or an elaborate event at Walt Disney World, the basics that started the business are still there. Factors that determine whether an event fails or succeeds are still the same at the core. You probably know the phrase “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it” or some variation thereof. Well, it’s absolutely true, especially in our industry. People are so eager to mimic the success that they don’t bother to think about how we can learn just as much from failures. There are some really important lessons that can be learned from the past 40 years of corporate event planning, but newcomers don’t always take the time to look back and reflect. It’s a shame, but that’s how it goes.

What I’m going to tell you now is about how the Disney Corporation and other organizations of similar size are responsible for how the business you make your living through today operates. I know that you probably don’t think this is of any value to your business in today’s market, but you would be dead wrong. As I’ve already said, the past informs the future. This isn’t true just for event planning companies, but for any work and any walk of life. About 25 years ago, the computer visionary Bill Gates wrote a book called the “Road Ahead.” In this book, he made the case that if you want to succeed in your business (regardless of what that business may be), you need to be willing to get up every morning and totally reinvent yourself. That means looking at your business plan and re-evaluating your visions of your future.

It means taking your vision of your creativity in creating community building event ideas to a whole new level and never traveling down the road of least resistance. In short, never give what is expected or just enough, but be willing to give what is not expected to bring an event to life. That is how you build a name for yourself and separate yourself from everyone else in the field. Exceeding expectations is ultimately what makes you and your work memorable. If you simply choose to settle and create just what is expected of you, then your client will say that your event was as expected, which may be good, but is not memorable. Average doesn’t stand out. If you want to be one of a kind, you have to go beyond what’s expected to make your own mark.

When I was at Disney, the themed event industry was just becoming popular, especially among the larger groups who could afford to host them. The industry as a whole was still in its infancy and needed this attention in order to grow and establish itself. Most themed events in the early ’70s consisted of an attempt at a ceiling treatment, a themed centerpiece, and a themed linen treatment. Also, a tricked out stage façade for the entertainment to perform in front of, as well as (in some cases) a themed atmosphere lighting package, most of which had to be ground-based. If that sounds incredibly limited to you, that’s because it was so. The reason for this was that most hotel venue ballrooms, where the majority of events would be held, had limited access to all areas of the room. Back then most hotel architects didn’t see a need to provide large freight elevators or, for that matter, rigging capabilities and electrical systems. They were multi-functional, but even so, there was no way to foresee the needs of large scale events. So most themed activities were severely handicapped in what they could present just by the dimensions of the room itself. This isn’t to say that every event suffered because of these constraints. Sometimes, limitations like these can lead to truly creative solutions. But within the early days, few firms wanted to risk going outside of what was established and settled into groves of their own.

Disney’s Vice President of the Entertainment Division was a man named Bob Yani. He recognized these issues early on, but not in time to have the Contemporary Hotel properly fitted out to accommodate his vision for a Disney themed event, nor would they accommodate what the corporate and association market were going to need to create their opening general sessions and receptions. Mr Yani’s vision of a themed event was to take the proscenium wall of the stage and move it all the way to the entrance of the ballroom, thus allowing the event to encompass the entire audience, rather than just the activities being performed on the stage itself. By doing this we would build out an entire street or festival. This also allowed us to create some of the popular attractions in the park as a theme in the ballroom. Initially, we had about six themed experiences on offer when the Contemporary Hotel first opened. Mr Yani tackled the lack of access issues by engaging a staging designer in New York named Peter Feller to design all the sets and props to be no taller 6′ in height and 4′ in width. With those measurements, they would easily fit in the service elevators.

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