by Robert Liljenwall
Working for a mouse wasn’t a bad job after all…
Jack Lindquist couldn’t even comprehend the idea of Walt Disney, a cartoonist and the creator of Mickey Mouse, investing $4 million for an amusement park in some place called Anaheim. “What a joke. Good luck, Mr. Disney.” So much for first impressions.
Some 38 years and 500 million guests later Jack retired as Disneyland’s first president in 1993 after a storied career as Disney’s lead marketing executive and ‘brand steward’ for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Disneyland, it seems, didn’t quite turn out to be a joke! Jack reflected on this after his retirement and in his forthcoming book, “In Service To the Mouse”, which debuts in December.
In this remarkable 258-page recollection of his life and times as Disney’s key marketing executive, Jack recalls his myriad truly unique experiences from the opening day at Disneyland in 1955 to his final days as the first president of Disneyland, having been appointed by Michael Eisner in 1988. Jack not only thrived in the development of what became the ‘happiest place on Earth’, he was the chief creator and leader of a band of ‘Marketeers’ who invented the ‘theme park business’ – making both Disneyland and Walt Disney World the planet’s most popular and successful attractions ever.
Jack is a modest, almost too-humble 83-year old now – with a grin as broad as Main Street. You can still see the pixie dust on his shoulders. He is unabashedly Mickey Mouse’s biggest fan – and he is unbowed in his devotion and subservience to the character and preserver of the Disney Flame, a character Walt created on his train ride from Kansas City to Hollywood in 1928. To Jack, Mickey Mouse is Disney and vice versa. The two are inseparable, and there is, according to Jack, no better brand spokesperson for Disney even though Mickey can’t speak.
Jack’s career with Walt and Mickey didn’t exactly start out on the right foot. His initial skeptical impressions were not at odds with those in the entertainment and movie industry. For example, he read that Disney’s ‘theme park’ would actually have an admission charge just to get in the place and on top of that, “… there would be no beer, wine or any alcoholic beverages, and no chewing gum would be sold in the park. Nobody did that.” And what, in God’s name, qualified Disney – who produced the first animated feature, Snow White, and other classics such as Bambi and Fantasia – to create an amusement park? Of course he wasn’t qualified, Jack thought.
And as incomprehensible as it seemed to Jack that Disney picked some place that was the ‘backwater of the hodge-podge’ that made up Southern California in the 1950s, Anaheim was obviously a poor choice. This was a city noted mostly for orange groves, but as Disney’s research team predicted, Anaheim would be smack in the middle of California’s burgeoning growth southward, and it was only 26 miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Jack admits that the more he read about this Disney fantasy, the more he became intrigued with the whole concept. This would be no ordinary amusement park. A graduate of the University of Southern California and an account executive for an LA-based advertising agency, Jack was smart enough to recognize that there might be something to this “theme park”.
Disney was offering American companies the opportunity to participate in the venture by sponsoring exhibits, attractions and shows. TWA would sponsor the Ride to the Moon, Kodak would present the Photo Shop on Main Street … and, well, Jack got the idea real quick. His agency worked for Kelvinator, one of the country’s leading refrigerator manufacturers at the time, and perhaps his client could play a role along with these other prestigious companies. Jack proposed to Disneyland that Kelvinator offer a free ticket and additional ride tickets with a purchase of a Kelvinator product. Disneyland’s brass liked the concept as it would be it’s first-ever promotion. After some creative negotiating Disney agreed to do it with one condition – it would be held two months after Disneyland’s opening on July 17, 1955; Walt didn’t want anything to compete with his own opening-day festivities.
‘Black Sunday’ was an inauspicious opening … July 17, 1955
Jack remembers the chaos on opening day, July 17, 1955. It was hot and Disneyland played host to an orchestrated private opening led by Ronald Reagan and Art Linkletter, but the park was unprepared for the turnout of 28,154 guests, employees and families. They called it ‘Black Sunday’ but they got through it. Millions more watched it on ABC-TV that evening – “Dateline: Disneyland”. It was a smashing public relations coup. Disneyland officially opened to the public the next day, on July 18, for $1 general admission and 10 to 35 cents for each attraction ticket. The millionth guest arrived in September, and the Disneyland Hotel opened in October.
Anaheim, still sprouting orange groves, would never be the same.
After conducting a highly successful promotion for his client, Kelvinator, Jack was asked to be Disneyland’s first advertising manager in the fall of 1955, and he readily accepted. And from that moment on, Jack was ‘hooked’. He and his family moved to Orange County and from then on, he was thrust into a lifelong journey through uncharted waters. He didn’t know it then, but he began working for a mouse!
The Disneyland team slowly learned how to manage the bigger-than-expected crowds who discovered this new entertainment extravaganza. This was America’s new playground – a sparkling clean, well-mannered, fantasy-come-true experience for the whole family, or for a boy and a girl on their first date.
At first Disneyland featured Main Street USA, the Magic Castle, Jungle Ride and Fantasy Land. New attractions opened every year such as Tom Sawyer’s Island, the Skyway, and Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks and Monsanto’s Plastics Home of the Future were added in 1957. The first ‘E’ ticket rides were created in 1959 – The Matterhorn Bobsled, Disneyland-Alweg Monorail, and Submarine Voyage. And since then, the ‘E’ ride has become a part of America’s lexicon, meaning “it was one helluva ride!”
Because Disney was a pioneer in this new ‘theme park’ business, every day was a new day. “There wasn’t any ‘map’ to follow,” Jack said. “We were making it up as we went along. Nobody had ever built or operated a ‘theme park’ – we had a whole new world we were creating. Every attraction opening … every event or holiday … was new to us and to our guests.”
Jack remembers a touching story on Christmas Eve in 1957. “It was late, near closing time, and I was following a family walking down Main Street, which was elaborately decked out in Christmas lights and decorations. It was a magical scene only Disney could create. The family stopped by the Emporium shop near Town Square and looked at the holiday-themed windows, and then stopped in front of this beautifully decorated Christmas tree with the mechanical Santa Claus and dolls greeting guests. One of the kids said ‘Mom, this really is better than having Santa Claus.’ Yes, for this family, Disneyland was like ‘one big present’. I never forgot that special moment because it represented all that Walt wanted Disneyland to be.”
During the next 10 years, Disneyland experienced exponential growth in attractions, new lands, and attendance. Attendance shot up to over 10 million in 1965, making it the most popular outdoor attraction in the world by a large margin. Along with such popular attractions as Small World, Great Moments with Mister Lincoln, Carousel of Progress, and Ride to the Moon, the next over-the-top ‘land’ and attraction opened in 1966 was New Orleans Square.
Tragedy struck the company that same year when Walt Disney died of cancer. Jack remembers driving back to Disneyland that day and how everyone seemed so stunned at Walt’s passing. He realized that Walt’s passing would leave a huge hole in the heart and soul of a company driven by his visionary, creative leadership. Perhaps the landmark photo in Disney’s long history was of Mickey Mouse wiping a tear in front of the Magic Castle the day Walt died. It appeared on the front page of practically every paper in the world. Walt was loved that much.
A year after Walt’s passing, the Pirates of the Caribbean opened – a milestone in entertainment achievement, combining new audio-animatronic technology, set design, ride innovations and design, and creative story-telling that dazzled every guest brave enough to venture into the dark world of pirates … “Dead men tell no tales”.
Even though Jack likes to tell you that “we made it up as we went along,” the reality was that he and Disneyland were made for each other. One of the characteristics that strike you when you first meet Jack is his unassuming persona – you know he occupies a powerful position within the Disney Empire, but he never wears that on his sleeve. Jack’s un-imposing stature is a ruse: his smile never leaves him and his mind is working faster than a speeding monorail. Blessed with more than his share of common sense and inner creative insight to the 10th power, Jack was at the forefront of protecting the Disney brand.
More importantly, however, Jack was also the inspirational brand steward for everything Disney. From Walt to Donn Tatum to Card Walker to Ron Miller to Michael Eisner, each CEO looked to Jack and a small, intimate cadre of other long-time Disney executives, to give them their ‘read’ on what is the ‘right Disney thing to do’. Jack had that uncanny sensitivity to help guide the Disney brand on the world’s biggest stages – Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and Euro Disney.
His memoir traces personal and ‘grand public’ moments of his nearly 40 years at Disney that retell rather hilarious incidents as well as turning points in how the Disney brand became one of the world’s top 10 brands.
Jack and his team created benchmarks for what are now the accepted and given marketing programs within the entertainment world – such as group sales, a function not ever existing until Disneyland started selling groups to companies and schools. The widely popular Magic Kingdom Club had thousands of companies in the US with more than 10 million members … private parties … grad nights … and a host of holiday-themed events that populated Disney parks.
With unparalleled marketing and brand power, Disney was the master at using ‘OPM’ – other people’s money – through its hugely successful sponsorship programs. These relationships – formed at the birth of Disneyland in 1955 – became the fuel for Disney’s powerful marketing engine through creative and first-ever promotional co-branding. Disneyland and Disney World could deliver over-the-top marketing success with far smaller budgets than competitors. Universal Studios Tour, for example, would spend 3x the money in marketing to attract 1/3 the audience.
Why is that? Because Disneyland’s brand power was based on a phenomenally high customer satisfaction (98%) combined with nearly nine decades of producing hugely popular animated features and family-oriented movies, not to mention the world’s most valuable library of cartoon characters.
Who could compete with Disneyland’s incredibly creative and unique themed lands and rides, combined with Disney’s unmatched roster of animated characters who greeted you at the front gate – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, Tinker Bell, Snow White, Br’er Bear, and of course, my favorite Winnie The Pooh. This is what you call … Brand Power.
Jack Lindquist is a humble hero. He shucks off all the legendary marketing firsts he created or supervised. He devoted 38 years to creating, marketing, and protecting hundreds of Disney brands in a fantasy career.
In our next installment, we’ll talk about Yippie Day (a bad day for Disney), Walt Disney World, Epcot and the World Showcase, the fall and rise of Disney movies, and of Michael Eisner’s ascension and leadership of Walt Disney Company. It’s a quite a ride. Stay tuned!
[Editor’s note: “In Service to The Mouse” by Jack Lindquist, with Melinda J. Combs, debuts in early December. It will be available on amazon.com and bn.com after December 13, 2010.]