Marty Sklar, pioneering imagineer who channeled Walt Disney, dies at 83

Marty Sklar, pioneering imagineer who channeled Walt Disney, dies at 83
Marty Sklar, then principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, at Disneyland Resort in 2005. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Marty Sklar had only just graduated from UCLA, and here he was shadowing Walt Disney, his demanding new boss.

The fledgling writer was unsure how to make himself useful, but he had a mind to scribble down some of the maxims Disney laced into conversation.


"Know your audience." "Tell one story at a time." "Wear your guests' shoes."

Long after his mentor's death, Sklar recognized the treasure-trove of wisdom he had started compiling at Walt Disney's elbow in the late 1950s. He distilled it all into "Mickey's Ten Commandments," a widely circulated creed that remains a touchstone in the theme park industry.

The commandments were a cornerstone of Sklar's own half-century career at Walt Disney Co., where he led the creative development of the Burbank company’s parks, attractions and resorts around the world, including its ventures in the cruise business, housing development and the redesign of Times Square in New York.

Sklar died Thursday in his Hollywood Hills home. No cause of death was given. He was 83.

His retirement in 2006 marked the end of an era: He was one of the last remaining executives to have worked alongside Walt Disney in shaping the company into a global powerhouse. Sklar, who last served as principal creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the storied theme park design and development outfit, was so closely associated with the company's namesake that he became known as the Sorcerer's Apprentice.

“He embodied the very best of Disney, from his bold originality to his joyful optimism and relentless drive for excellence,” Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger said in a statement. “He was also a powerful connection to Walt himself. No one was more passionate about Disney than Marty and we’ll miss his enthusiasm, his grace, and his indomitable spirit.”

Martin "Marty" Sklar was born in New Brunswick, N.J., and attended UCLA, where he was editor of the Daily Bruin newspaper. While there, he got a summer job at Disneyland in 1955 — the year the park opened. Sklar, who grew up in Long Beach, had only just started working at Disneyland when Walt Disney asked him to give a 10-minute presentation on how he would create a newspaper for Main Street, U.S.A., the quaint themed area near the park's entrance.

"I was frightened. Here I was 21 years old, had never worked professionally," Sklar recalled in a 2002 interview with The Times. "He had time for even the smallest detail, like my newspaper."

Disney was impressed enough with Sklar that he hired him full time to write marketing and sales brochures for Disneyland after he graduated from UCLA in 1956.

Sklar soon became Walt Disney's lieutenant, and, according to several former colleagues, developed a reputation for being able to channel the boss' unique style in speeches and other material he'd write on his behalf.

"Walt and he seemed to think alike," said Dave Smith, Disney's former chief archivist, who began at the company in 1970. "Marty really understood Walt more than a lot of people."N

But unlike his famously charismatic and exacting boss, Sklar was low-key and unimposing. He was deeply revered by imagineers for his mentoring, and his links to the company's heritage — especially after Disney's death in 1966.

"He never said, 'Walt wouldn't have liked this,' or 'This is what Walt would have done,' but we just knew that is what he was thinking when he gave advice," said Jim Cora, the former chairman of Disneyland International.

Among Sklar's signature projects was his effort in the 1960s to promote Disney's planned resort in Florida, which required government approval.

"Nobody went to central Florida on vacation when we started that project," Sklar told The Times in 2002. "We had to create a resort destination."

As part of the pitch to the Florida Legislature, Sklar created a 20-minute movie on the history of the company and its founder. Walt Disney, however, was irritated that he hadn't seen the script earlier. "After a special screening ... Walt came up to me and said, 'I didn't realize anyone was writing my own obituary,' " Sklar recalled.

But Disney liked the presentation enough to ask Sklar to develop a 25-minute film on Epcot, a utopian community billed as a showcase for American industry and urban planning. The film played a key role in persuading legislators to sign off on the development of Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971. It was the last project Sklar worked on with Disney before he died, an event that had a major effect on him.

"It actually affected me more than when my father died," Sklar told The Times. "I finally realized I never had to think like my father, but in order to write for Walt Disney I had to try to think like Walt Disney and use words that he used. It got so deeply into that, it had a tremendous effect on me."

In 1974, Sklar was named creative leader of Imagineering, whose name is meant to evoke a blend of imagination and engineering. The group was established by Walt Disney in 1952 to dream up Disneyland and create a physical home for Mickey Mouse and other cartoon characters made famous on the silver screen.

For Sklar, whose portfolio of hits included attractions such as It’s a Small World and Space Mountain, it “was always about the guests’ satisfaction,” Cora said.

"Marty and I argued a lot about how certain things ought to be done — design versus operations — but we always came up with a solution that was good for both parties," said Cora, who retired in 2001. "I always looked to Marty as the keeper of the keys. Marty was kind of our conscience."

But as with any decades-long career, there were occasional rough patches. Sklar bore at least some of the blame when the Disney California Adventure theme park stumbled out of the gate in 2001 with poor reviews and lackluster attendance. He was sensitive to criticism of the project, but acknowledged that it could benefit from new attractions that would bring it "more in line with other Disney parks."

"Theme parks are living things," he said in 2002. "They can be manipulated, changed and grow."

After Disney made a sizable investment that included the addition of new rides, California Adventure's fortunes improved, and it has become a success, welcoming 9.3 million visitors last year, according to consulting firm Aecom.

Throughout his career, Sklar called on lessons he learned from Walt Disney. Remembering the chances his boss gave him early on, Sklar through the years recruited young, often inexperienced talent to build his Imagineering team. One of those hires, Andy Sacher, said Sklar gave him his big break when he brought him aboard as an intern in the 1980s. Later, Sacher said, Sklar offered him a job as an imagineer, a position he held in the early 1990s.

"He changed the lives of a lot of people — I am not the only one," Sacher said. Many current and former Disney employees took to social media to share similar testimonials.

After retiring, Sklar remained an "ambassador" for Imagineering for three more years. He wrote books about Disney, including one centered on "Mickey's Ten Commandments." Sklar was also one of a handful of people to have attended the opening of every Disney theme park in the world, including the debut of Shanghai Disneyland in 2016.

"He believed in the company — his heart and soul was in his job," said Ron Dominguez, a former executive vice president of Walt Disney Attractions who retired in 1994. Dominguez ran into his former colleague at the company's D23 Expo in Anaheim earlier this month, where they exchanged pleasantries.

"He was in good spirits," Dominguez said.


Sklar is survived by his wife of 60 years, Leah; son Howard and his wife, Katriina Koski-Sklar; grandchildren Gabriel and Hannah; daughter Leslie; and grandchildren Rachel and Jacob.




3:06 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction to Sklar's death.

10:40 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about Sklar's career.

This article was originally published at 12:25 a.m.