My original goal in writing this blog was to create some name recognition for myself after 45 years of creating and producing themed events in the special event industry. While I was quite well known in the corporate world and event production industry for my themed event ideas, seminar production, and effective team building strategies, I was never much of a self-promoter of my own creativity, logistical skills, and accomplishments – with all the work I had on my plate, I never felt the need to advertise myself. With the exception of the occasional vacation, a day hasn’t gone by where I wasn’t creating or staging some large-scale event (and even then, my company was still quite busy producing shows in my absence). It truly was non-stop. On slower days we would be working hard producing up to four events at once, but during busier times we had days when we would be producing up to eight events throughout the United States. We were always offering production support services or drawing up event theme ideas.
My career in entertainment event planning began when I left sunny Hollywood, California. A few of my friends suggested I join them in Orlando, Florida, to work on the grand opening of Walt Disney World. Based on their encouragement my wife agreed, and soon the two of us packed up our lives and headed out east for Orlando to see if I could join the grand opening team. We didn’t know exactly what to expect from the job itself, but we weren’t walking into things totally blind: I had served in the Air Force in Orlando and my wife’s family was in the area, so the move itself was a pretty easy experience. I landed an interview with Disney shortly after arriving and was hired as an event consultant at a whopping $140.00 a week (which really was decent money back in 1971, believe it or not). The only drawback was that consultants were not paid by the hour, so it was expected that you would work as many hours as was needed to carry out your responsibilities and coordinate with the other teams to meet everyone’s goals. You could work on a project for three weeks or three months, but the pay would be the same either way. That’s simply how it was. If you didn’t like the work you were doing, you were going to burn out pretty quickly, so genuine interest was a must to make it in the field.
When I was hired I was immediately placed in the Technical Services Department, which was in the Facilities Division of the company. The Facilities Division was responsible for all the maintenance of park operations, including the Audio-Animatronics Department, Transportation Department, Park Sanitation and Attraction Maintenance, Water Treatment, and grounds keeping, including park foliage, trees, and plants for the park attractions, campgrounds, hotels, and golf courses. It was also responsible for all technical services such as all staging, lighting, and sound operations for the live stages within the park, hotels, campgrounds, and golf courses. They had a lot of work on their plate on any given day. Why the Technical Services Department was placed in the Facilities Division was always a mystery to me, though. While all the departments would collaborate to get things done, it seemed to me that separating the maintenance work from the events production tasks would have made things more efficient and perhaps even easier on the workers.
After my initial interview, I was sent on to meet the Superintendent of the Technical Services Department, a man named Bill Blandon. Bill was a great guy and very knowledgeable in the technical aspects of the live staging requirements for the grand opening of Walt Disney World. The interview lasted only about thirty minutes, and he approved my hiring based on the fact that I had worked on some staging production support services at the Pasadena Playhouse College of Theatre Arts and was a certified stage manager with Actors Equity. That was all the experience needed to convince him to put his faith in me.
I was then sent through Disney’s orientation program, better known as the Disney University. It was hosted by someone we all called Greta Groomer. Greta and others took us through grooming standards and moral behavior for when we were on duty and anywhere in the park. These were pretty intense standards that we always had to hold in the back of our minds, but given Disney’s image, it made sense how much importance was put on it. From what I understand they are still tightly held even today, and I doubt that will change any time soon.
Once I wrapped up at Disney University, I was sent over to meet my new boss. He took me on a tour of the park construction at the time to see all the locations for all of the live stages and the overall plans for the grand opening. I also got to meet the members of the team who were already on board with the project. It’s easy for someone now to look back and say it was obviously going to be a huge project, but at the time the scale was still staggering. Of course, Walt Disney World was going to be huge, but to have seen it in process was something else entirely. To see all of the construction taking place, all those people going here and there was a unique experience.
That’s how I became a member of the grand opening team, the group responsible for introducing Walt Disney World to the public and kicking things off in spectacular fashion. Going forward I’ll be pulling back the curtain as I share with you my experience and insight into what it took for our team to coordinate, prepare, and execute all of the different elements that went into the grand opening of Walt Disney World, one of the greatest shows on Earth. It will be fun and crazy; full of ups and downs, but most importantly it will offer you a look into what goes on with event production companies and just how much work they really do.