As promised, I’m dedicating this chapter to the men and women who worked diligently with me and many others in the technical services and entertainment divisions to create what was probably one of the most exciting grand openings of all time, the grand opening of Walt Disney World. It was one of those fun team building events in Disney. Such a massive event required the dedication of many special people, so I want to spend the first part of this chapter discussing the team we all put together and who, without their talent, skills, and work ethic, we would have been unable to accomplish everything that we did in that time.
Though the grand opening itself was set for the end of October, we actually had to have everything in place well before then. You see, the actual plan was to have a soft opening of the park by the first of October to meet the deadline required for the tax incentive, but the main opening would start on 23rd and run through the 26th of October. Though the purpose of the soft opening was practical, we couldn’t do it half-heartedly—that would have potentially disappointed the visitors and damaged Disney’s brand. That may help explain the severity of the time crunch we were under.
As I had mentioned before, things had changed in such a way that allowed us to expand our efforts to hire more technical services staff. The benefits this brought to my team and our performance cannot be understated. I had the talents of a stagehand and staging fabricator named Tony Alley. The two of us had previously worked together at the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theater Arts. I was not gifted in this area at all; when I say I worked with him, I mean I would do some of the set painting. But mostly I would work with him to install set pieces. He was very gifted when it came to set fabrication, and each time we worked together I was fortunate enough to learn a little more about the craft from him. He had a great eye for the overall design.
My good luck continued as I was able to secure the talents of one of the most creatively gifted set designers I have ever had the privilege of working with, in my entire career, a man named Reid Carlson. It just so happens that I also worked with Reid at the Pasadena College of Theater Arts on set design. Again, this was an area where I didn’t have much muscle to flex, but Reid was patient and happy to share his knowledge with me. Reid was a jack of all trades and could work in almost all theatrical mediums. Today I believe he is the Director of Creative Services at Universal Studios in Orlando Florida. He’s a great talent, and I’ll save the story of how he came to my team and just how valuable his skill sets were for later.
Next, I had the talents of a person I always referred to as “Fast Eddie.” He was an absolute workaholic, almost to his determent. When he wanted to get a job finished, he wouldn’t let anything stand in his way. But when you work for a larger than life corporation like Disney, you have to follow the rules and policies of the company. In some corporate settings, it might be easy to get away with bending the rules every now and then, but with a strict image to maintain, Disney’s policy is absolute.
When we needed a truck to move gear or staging, for example, we were forced to order one from the transportation department and wait until one was available. That didn’t always work for us, however, as we would get an emergency call to pick something up and take it to a show site ASAP. Policy sometimes doesn’t account for time-sensitive situations like those. In times like these, Fast Eddie showed off his truly unique talent for large group event ideas: he could hotwire anything. We ended up using that skill more than once. Coincidentally, Fast Eddie also had skills as a locksmith. If we needed something from one of the warehouses right away, we could just call on Fast Eddie and it was done. Thanks to him we didn’t lose as much time as we could have for waiting around to follow proper procedure. Amazingly, none of us was fired. Fast Eddie did good work and could always come through in a pinch, even if it meant playing outside the rules. It truly does take all kinds!
Then there was Eddie Kalish, who could operate anything. Probably one of the best on the team was Lennie Lampasona (please excuse the spelling, Lennie, should you ever read this). Lennie was the fixer and a great stagehand. Lennie made it a point to get to know everyone. He knew all the key figures in the purchasing department as well as Disney Fabrication Shop. If you needed something built right away, Lennie could get in done, even if it was in the middle of the night. Putting himself on good terms with everyone wasn’t just a good move for his own job security, but it helped all of us on his team get work done quickly. Lennie is a shining example of why it pays to network. The time he spent getting to know everyone and building friendly relationships with them wasn’t a required part of his job, but it paid off for us in spades.
We also had Bob Noble, a great theatrical lighting designer. I will get into more detail about Bob’s talents as we move forward. Working with us was Lee Lora and a long list of others who each brought something unique to the team. I apologize if I didn’t remember to recognize someone in this chapter. There were so many standout members of our team whose skills made the jobs we performed so much easier, and whose personalities brought us all joy.
As we went about our work, I was once again promoted, this time to the Technical Services Supervisor. This put me in charge of staffing, scheduling, and equipment utilization. With this promotion, I was required to attend the morning meetings that happened every day at 8:00 AM sharp with all the superintendents of the Facility Division. I would attend the meeting with my direct boss Bill Blanton. The meeting would be held with Neil Gallenger, as well as the managers of the Audio-Animatronics Department, Technical Services Department, Park Maintenance Department, Landscaping Department, Ground Transportation Department, and the Sanitation Department, as well as the Disney Fabrication Shop projects.
There might have been other superintendents at the meeting, but I don’t remember who they might have been (it being Disney, you can understand there were a lot of people there). The purpose of the meeting was to report on how effective the team building strategies and the status of various projects and how they had developed from the previous day’s activities, as well as establishing what the goals for the day were. Another part of the meeting was to discuss any issues we might have with personnel needs and equipment status. It was important for all the different departments to collaborate like this because we were, to some extent, sharing from the same pool of resources.
The Vice President of the Facility Division was a man named Ted Crowell, whom Neil reported to. I believe these meetings started after the soft opening of the park, but I could be wrong (after all, it’s been over 40 years since then). It’s here in these meetings I excelled due to the fact that my boss, Bill Blanton, had allowed me to take on so many of his responsibilities. Things got to the point that when a question came up, Bill would always have to refer to me for the answers. Almost everyone in the Technical Services Department reported to me, so I usually had a solid grasp of what the department was doing at any given time. This ultimately created a problem later on, but initially, I was just trying to do as much for my boss as I could in keeping with my philosophy of doing everything possible to be indispensable to my leader. I felt I had achieved this, but that didn’t mean I was going to take it easy. Now I had to keep proving my value as an employee.
Now, when you think of a meeting at Walt Disney World, you probably imagine a lavish room with a giant table and luxurious chairs. That would have been nice! Instead, each of these morning meetings was held in a tunnel located just below the “It’s a Small World” attraction. The discussions we had were actually interrupted by the “It’s a small world” audio clip every 20 seconds or so. Sounds funny, but it’s absolutely true. At first, it would drive some of us crazy. I wondered more than once why we couldn’t meet somewhere quieter. But after a while, it just blended in and we just didn’t hear it anymore. You came to accept it: the sky is blue and it’s a small world. Strange setting aside, these meetings were great and very helpful. Neil was a strong leader and all of the other superintendents were incredibly capable. We learned a lot about each other’s management styles from those meetings, and I came to value what everyone shared with me. There was only one person that I considered to be unprofessional, and that was the Superintendent of Audio-Animatronics. He and I never really got along, truth be told. But I’ll save that story for later.
The one great thing about these meetings was that I was privy to what was going on in all departments of the Facility Division of Walt Disney World. In many ways, that knowledge would serve me, my department, and my team as we continued to do our work. When you’re part of one of those team building business, you are by default working for someone else. While you may have your own objective (like staging the event), there’s no reason you shouldn’t get to learn more about the people who have hired you. It is, at the very least, just polite business practice, and it can help you network. But the real reason why you should be open to learning what other departments are doing and the inner workings of the company you’re working with is simply because you can help them, even if it isn’t in your job description. Think about it: everyone is multi-talented. Someone who works as a set designer or an electrician could just as easily help set up chairs or tables. It’s really an opportunity to prove your value and help complete work faster. Both go a long way to building stronger business relationships and expanding on your own skills.
Many of us working on the grand opening event (not just those working on my team) were more than willing to go outside their comfort zone to help others out. For some, it may have been out of duty, a sense of professional courtesy, but I genuinely believe that we were just enthusiastic and kind people. If you’ve ever worked as part of a team where even one person keeps to themselves, you know how that can bring the whole mechanism to a stall. People like that don’t realize it, or perhaps they don’t care, but by working in isolation, they are keeping themselves from growing. You’re working for a paycheck, sure, but if that’s all you’re working for then you might as well do something else with your time.
When I started writing these chapters, I promised that the stories I am telling would ultimately relate to the Special Events Industry of today. Don’t worry: that’s still the goal, and I’m working towards it with every chapter. But to properly learn about any industry, including event production companies require a look back on its history. It’s not my goal to point out everything that’s changed between now and then (though obviously, things have changed considerably), but to show you how the underlying fundamentals have stayed the same. Creative event planning ideas may change over time, but the way teams work together to plan those events hasn’t. The need for open communication and collaboration remains the same. One of the things I’ve focused a lot on up to this point has been the technology and tools that we used. It’s a misconception (on that I believe spreads across all industries, not just ours) that better technology instantly makes work easier. The element of teamwork and all it entails needs to be in place. Technology can enhance those things, like making for easier communication, but it can’t compensate when those elements don’t exist.