DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.6 – 1966 Walt Disney: Curious Salesman

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney History

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Published on March 20, 2013 at 4:04 am with 24 Comments

Bob Gurr, Disney legend and fan favorite, has set the Wheel of Years spinning once again. Wherever the red arrow points is where today’s story will start. Let’s see what fantastic story Bob has in store for us. . . 

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1966, so here we go. Walt embarked on one of his cross country efforts to enlist industry participation in his Epcot dream project in January 1966. He gathered up seven of us to fly with him on the company plane, a Gulfstream G1, tail number N234MM (originally registered as N732G). Besides myself, the others included Joe Fowler, Joe Potter, Marv Davis, Roger Broggie, Lee Adams, and Steve Mulle.

Roger was Walt’s mechanical production guru, Lee was head of all Studio electrical engineering, while Marv Davis was in charge of Epcot planning layouts. The two “Joes” were very interesting fellows; Admiral Joe Fowler had been in charge of all Disneyland construction and was now to head up all construction for the new Florida property. US Army General Joe Potter was Walt’s Vice President of Florida planning. Quite interesting to learn that WDW and Epcot was to be sort of an Army-Navy game.

We departed Burbank, heading to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania where we were to meet with Westinghouse Electric executives, while the plane went on the next day to New York City. The mission Walt had in mind was three parts – receive a new Disneyland Monorail electrical system proposal, tour the Westinghouse R&D Laboratories and ride their new Skybus transit demonstration, and show them his plans for Epcot. We had brought a lot of site plans, artistic drawings, and other WED data with us to make a formal presentation. Quite a number of Westinghouse executives were waiting to meet Walt and see Epcot ideas – Don Burnham, Chairman of The Board, plus many division VPs. We were also scheduled to do the same tours and proposals two days later at General Electric in Erie Pennsylvania.

Walt started right off with his show and tell to everyone present before we split into specific groups for further discussions. Next, the Westinghouse execs showed us all their advanced inventions, including a fabulous laser demonstration. Remember, the first patent for laser had been awarded to Bell Labs just six years earlier. This was way before any laser commercial products became available. I remember Walt was very impressed with what laser could do in the future and how it could be a part of Epcot one day. This was another example of watching Walt’s eternal curiosity in action.

Westinghouse had built a demonstration advanced automated transit system called Skybus, which they believed would be perfect for use in Epcot. The Westinghouse and Disney teams rode the Skybus vehicles and observed how the system was controlled totally automatic with no humans at the controls, something that Walt wanted to see applied to Epcot transportation. (The Skybus project never got past the demonstration stage – one car remains on display in Pittsburgh today).

After a wonderful lobster salad luncheon, the Westinghouse guys wanted to learn about Disney films, particularly the True Life Adventure series. Asked if Walt found a use for all the film footage shot in the wild, he told them that the “interesting” parts were left on the cutting room floor. It seems that some wild animals actually have a “wild” sex life that is totally unsuitable for children to ever see, if these nature films are to remain Disney films. Naturally, Walt had thoroughly enchanted these top executives with this off-color revelation.

We were chauffeured in several limos back to our hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. As Walt, Joe Potter and I entered the hotel lobby, Walt eyed the sundries shop and lunch counter. Even though I thought the lobster salad was sufficient, Walt was still hungry and asked us to join him to enjoy a cheeseburger and a malt. (General Joe was horrified!) As we entered the shop, Walt instantly saw that the Disney merchandise on display was on a bottom shelf. “C’mon boys” – Walt had us moving the Disney items, along with the price tags, to a top shelf, placing those items back down to where the Disney products were.

Just then a perturbed looking sales lady appeared – “MAY I HELP YOU?”. “Nope, we’re almost done here” Walt replied. Walt and Joe then ordered the burgers and malts for themselves, sending me up to my room – thank heaven! (I was very plump in those days and certainly didn’t need a second lunch).

I never forgot the sight of Walt Disney re-arranging the Disney merchandise and exploring the laser equipment like a little kid. Curious salesman indeed.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

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  • http://micechat.com Dusty Sage

    Bob, thank you do much for this fascinating look at Walt. Walt is often described as a visionary, but he was certainly a master salesman as well.

    Did that trip result in any Westinghouse sponsorships?

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    The thought of Walt moving his merchandise to a more prominent location in a gift shop just cracks me up.

    Another great story, Bob! Thanks for sharing!

  • KingEric

    THAT IS AMAZING! I can picture Walt rearranging the merchandise! How simply incredible! Thank you again for sharing your stories Bob! They are incredible to read!

  • wsiirola

    Awesome story!

  • KENfromOC

    Sounds like the Sky Bus was a forerunning of what Google is working on today with automated vehicles – Very interesting article!

  • Rick Wright

    What a great story! I can see in my mind a picture of Walt rearranging the shelves in the gift shop. What a character.

    Thanks Bob for another incredible story.

  • IndianaJenn

    I love all of these stories! Thanks Bob!

  • Matt Hamand

    I guess no detail really was too small for Walt to pay attention too. Even in a random shop.

    Great story!

    • DobbysCloset

      So now when we’re kvetching about some detail or another or whether something is the right shade of pink, we might actually be channeling Walt… Thanks for the great story.

  • RD Sussmann

    Nothing ever surprises me about Walt- and again Mr. Gurr you’re a fantastic storyteller.

  • justjohn

    Great story Bob! I absolutely LOVE that Walt rearranged a stores display to put Disney merch in the prime location!

    Thanks for taking the time to share with us!

  • Rideongprcs

    Loved the story. You were lucky to arrive in Pittsburgh in only 6 hours. I was on that plane in bad weather for a bouncy trip to Orlando that took over 8 hours with a refueling stop in Lubbock, Texas.

  • disneylandfan8

    Bob, another enlightening story! And to remember such exact details! Heck, I can’t even remember what I had for lunch three days ago! LOL

    Fascinating details about the trip, too. The gears in Walt’s brain were always spinning!

    Sure would have loved to seen the look on her face while Walt was rearranging! Wonder if she ever figured out who it was…

  • Demigod

    Such a fascinating story! I love hearing about the laser and especially about the Skybus. Reading about Bob and Walt and the inside stories he’s sharing is a great little treasure.

  • DisneySarah

    I just love that story about Walt rearranging the merchandise display. Made me smile!

  • Gullywhumper

    This is amazing! How many people can talk about flying with Walt Disney cross country in his private jet, Sharing a hamburger and malt with Walt, the doing some gorilla product placement rearranging! Plus I love the stories about Walt’s plans for EPCOT; how I wish that the current EPCOT could return to something closer to Walt’s vision, starting with the Peoplemover system for Future World that Disney originally planned!