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After a Successful Stint at Disney Stores, Paul Pressler Is Becoming ... : THE NEW MAYOR OF DISNEYLAND

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The longer Paul Pressler stared at the rendering for a toy Simba (lion cub heroof the Disney movie “The Lion King”), the more he realized something wasn’t quite right.

It was the eyes. They lacked the empathetic spark Pressler wanted. So he had them changed.

And when the Disney executive began fiddling with the look of a new Disney Store, he went again for the heartstrings, designing displays to evoke great moments from “Snow White,” “Fantasia” and the studio’s other animated classics.

“Our characters are so emotional,” said Pressler, the former chief of Disney Stores who was named president of Disneyland earlier this month. “They exude emotion. . . .”

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That understanding has built Pressler’s reputation within Walt Disney Co. as a walking idea machine with an intuitive sense of what makes Disney characters and stories sell. Now, however, the 38-year-old executive is taking on one of the company’s toughest challenges.

Disneyland, about to enter its 40th year, had been searching for a high-profile manager to reinvigorate Walt Disney’s creations and cope with lower attendance, friction over cost-cutting changes and deterioration of the surrounding neighborhood. Moreover, after tantalizing the local community with images of a $3-billion theme park and hotel expansion, Disneyland now is scrambling to downsize its plans.

“It’s a huge job,” said former Anaheim Councilwoman Miriam Kaywood.

Pressler, a former toy industry executive, not only will lead Orange County’s largest private employer (about 12,000 people work at the park in the peak summer months), he will also have to contend with its unions when a major labor contract comes up for renewal next September.

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“It’s going to be as rough as they make it,” said Angela Keefe, president of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Local 681.

Pressler must also wrestle with the political pressures surrounding Disney’s expansion plan, which would add a theme park and potentially thousands of hotel rooms to Disneyland’s already dense environs.

“I equate it to running a city,” said Dennis Speigel, a theme park consultant in Cincinnati, Ohio. “The guy who takes on the running of a major theme park really becomes the mayor of the property.”

Pressler is starting as an unknown within the close-knit world of Disneyland. His task is made all the more difficult by the inevitable comparisons to the man he is succeeding--the enormously popular Jack Lindquist, who started at Disneyland the year it opened and remains a fixture of political, sports and charity circles in Orange County.

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So who is the new mayor of the Magic Kingdom?

The portrait that emerges from interviews with friends and colleagues is of a self-effacing, energetic Disney devotee known for an uncommon blend of business acumen and artistic inventiveness.

Pressler is a “talented, creative business executive . . . (who) nurtures great ideas and knows how to see them through,” Disney Chairman Michael Eisner said in appointing Pressler to his new position. Pressler is capable in the roles Eisner holds dearest: diplomat, numbers-cruncher and carnival barker.

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“I think I have a unique talent for drawing the best out of people and inspiring them to bigger and better things,” Pressler said. “Somehow I just see things, and I get sparked by new ideas and take off on new tangents. I never accept anything for the way it works.”

And Lindquist predicted: “He’ll make everybody forget me.”

Known for an easygoing manner, Pressler prefers staying home on Friday night with his wife and children and a stack of videotaped movies to working the social circuit. “If you had to rank his priorities, No. 1 would be his family and No. 2 would be his business,” said friend and colleague Steve Burke, chief operating officer of Euro Disney in France.

Pressler is “a guy who really keeps his ego in check,” observed veteran toy company executive Bruce Stein, who is now developing interactive entertainment possibilities with Hollywood mogul Peter Guber.

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A Long Island native, Pressler attended the State University of New York at Oneonta, a small campus outside of Albany, as an economics major. His first job out of college was as an urban planner in New York City.

After six months, Pressler said, he was ready to try something else. Choosing among jobs offered by a search firm, he went to work for Remco Toys, a small manufacturer in New York.

His big break in the toy industry came in 1982, when he was interviewed at Kenner-Parker Toys, then a subsidiary of General Mills.

“He was just incredible!” said Carole MacGillvray Rappeport, who now operates a toy consulting company in Santa Barbara. “He not only had some toy experience, he was just so personable.”

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Pressler was hired on the spot.

At Kenner-Parker, where he was vice president of marketing, Pressler exploited the licensing possibilities of the Care Bears, a hit teddy bear collection tied to a line of greeting cards. He became executive producer of the “The Care Bears Movie.”

Eventually, Pressler’s unit was dissolved when the company decided its efforts duplicated those of the major divisions, Kenner toys and Parker Bros. Pressler received several interesting offers, including ones from Mattel Inc. and Walt Disney Co.

Rappeport said she urged Pressler to take the Disney job, suspecting that “a whole new world would open up” for her star manager. He joined Disney in 1987 to oversee product licensing.

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Pressler first distinguished himself at Disney by helping to craft a deal with Mattel to design and sell toys for preschoolers featuring Disney characters and themes. The new product lines competed well with strong brands such as Fisher Price and Playskool.

The deal caught the eye of Barton K. (Bo) Boyd, president of the consumer products division, and he tapped Pressler to run the Disney Store chain, which today has 335 locations in eight countries.

It was Pressler, Boyd said, who realized how designers and engineers could be brought together with merchandising and construction employees to redesign the prototype Disney Store at the Del Amo mall in Torrance.

Pressler explains that he “wanted to make it more entertaining by utilizing more storytelling and segmenting the merchandise by age. We took the Disneyland concept of ‘separate lands’ and applied it creatively” to break the store into separate sections for adults, children, collectors and gift buyers, with each section centered on a different Disney movie.

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Pressler said the new merchandising design, unveiled a couple of months ago, has already proved to be a winner and will be adopted by other stores in the chain.

Pressler lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Mindy, 8-year-old son, Sean, and 4-year-old daughter, Jordan. He and television personality Bob Saget, who lives nearby, have become friends.

“We have very good neighbor karma,” said Saget, whose 5-year-old daughter is Jordan Pressler’s best pal.

The Presslers have been considering a move to Orange County, and Saget says the two men are such good friends that the thought of Pressler moving away to be closer to his new job is a traumatic one.

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Pressler cares for others but is devoted to his job, Saget said, noting: “He is a full company man. Whatever haircut you have to have, he has it.”

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Although he had never visited Disneyland before he joined the parent company eight years ago, Pressler says “complementary skills” will see him through the transition period as he gradually assumes his duties.

“I manage by walking around,” and will be “pumping up people with great ideas,” he explained. He is passionate about courtesy and being helpful to customers--qualities he has drilled into the 6,000 employees of Disney Stores.

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Although he doesn’t know much about the mechanics of theme park operations, he says he can lean on his management team until he learns. “If I had to do it alone it would be very scary,” he said.

He won’t be alone, and he already has plenty of supporters.

“No question, they need a strong marketing man down there,” said Boyd, himself a Disney theme park veteran. “They have got an incredible talent for that position.”


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