Bob Iger has overseen the Disney’s Magic Kingdom and the rest of the Walt Disney Company as CEO for 15 years – the sixth chief executive since Walt himself, who founded it all with the drawing of a cartoon mouse named “Mickey.”
Walt, initially an animator, found the typical carnival atmosphere distasteful for families, so he “imagineered” Disneyland: a clean, colorful theme park for all ages in Anaheim, California. Though Walt perished in 1966, his Disney parks concept was repeated and expanded with openings in Orlando, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and most in June of 2016, Shanghai.
“After 40 trips to China in 18 years the creation of the park in Shanghai was the biggest accomplishment of my career – it’s authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese,” writes Iger in his autobiography “Ride of a Lifetime…Lessons Learned from 15 Years As CEO of the Walt Disney Company.”
Travel was Training and Seasoning for Success
Long before rising to run the “Happiest Place on Earth” Iger was a producer for the acclaimed Wide World of Sports, an ABC weekend television series that he says caused him to travel around the planet. Iger credites his success in show business to the international business travel which seasoned him.
“As a kid vacations were usually spent driving to mundane places in our car or going to the beach a few minutes from our house,” admits Iger, who grew up on Long Island, New York. (Though when he met Frank Sinatra he claimed to Old Blue Eyes he was from Brooklyn.) When Iger scored an entry-level position he’s described as “assistant to the production assistants” at the ABC Television Network, his magic carpet ride wasn’t far off. “I noticed the guys who worked in Sports were always off to somewhere exotic, often flying the Concorde to our European office in Paris and then going from there to cover events in places like Monte Carlo and Saint Moritz.”
From Mundane Family Vacations to Jet-Setting
Iger eventually was promoted to a seat on the aforementioned supersonic jet.
“The traveling I did, especially for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, changed my life. I hadn’t been out of the country before then. As the show’s weekly open (introduction) promised, we were ‘spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports,’ Iger recalls. “On any given week I might be at a surfing championship is Hawaii or a figure-skating event in Prague; a weight-lifting competition in Budapest or the Frontier Days Rodeo in Cheyenne. There was cliff-diving in Acapulco and downhill skiing in Kitzbuhel; and gymnastics in China or Romania.”
Iger said working early in his career at ABC Sports made him more sophisticated.
“I remember exactly where and when I ate my first fine French meal in Paris, the first time I ever uttered the word Montrachet, and my first experience driving through Monaco in a luxury sports car. For a kid who’d grown up in a split-level home in Oceanside, New York, it was head-spinning.”
Foreign Policy Platform Toward the Presidency?
It wasn’t all fun and games. Iger writes he also saw the challenges of life behind the Iron Curtain and gained an global view that may have served him well had he decided to run for the U.S. Presidency in 2020, something Oprah Winfrey and others urged him do. He’s so far demurred, in part at the urging of his wife Willow Bay. But long before that the travel experiences came in handy for Iger, anyway, when he worked under his Disney CEO predecessor Michael Eisner. Eisner, in 1998, appointed Iger president – president of a new division – called Walt Disney International.
“Disney had offices all over the world, from Latin America to India to Japan, but we didn’t have a coherent global strategy. We needed to grow internationally,” Iger writes. For years Eisner had his sights on a building a Disney theme park in China. “I was the only executive who knew anything about China…so I was tasked with finding a place to build it.”
Iger writes when they worked with the Chinese officials to select a workable site in Pudong, a small farming village on the outskirts of Shanghai, it wasn’t easy to envision a Disney castle in the middle of the canals which ran though vegetable patches in the small town of ramshackle homes with little children and stray dogs walking around. “Bicycles far outnumbered cars, and what we would consider ‘modernity’ was nowhere in sight.”
18 years and $6-billion later, 14,000 workers living on property completed the 93-acre park, which was four-times the size of the original Disneyland. The location ended up being advantageous because it was situated between a new international airport and what became “downtown” Shanghai. “One of the world’s largest and most vibrant cities,” as Iger describes it.
Tragedy and Sensitivity
During the exciting week of grand opening events for Shanghai Disneyland, Iger, as CEO, was meant to enjoy his finest career accomplishment. He met with dignitaries, cut the ribbon on the new park, attempted to give a speech partly in Mandarin for Chinese official and dignitaries at an opening ceremony which featured a 500-piece orchestra. Iger also rode rides with them so the media could take pictures. But Iger did this with a very heavy heart.
“I struggled to smile and it was a stark example of the truth that what people see on the outside so often doesn’t’ reflect what’s happening on the inside,” he reveals in his book. “During the multiple days of opening events the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting in Orlando occurred. Disney World has 75,000 employees in Orlando. We learned that two part-time Disney employees were among the 50 killed.”
In the midst of the grief for all of the victims, Iger learned another chilling truth. Federal investigators had video footage which seemed to indicate Downtown Disney’s House of Blues may have been the shooter’s initial desired target, but when the shooter arrived he saw five armed police officers in front. They were stationed there because there was a heavy metal concert at the venue that night. A look at records also showed the shooter had also visited the Magic Kingdom a number of times in the months before the attack. From Shanghai Iger directed Disney World engaged grief counselors and tightened up security.
Less than a day later, Iger wearing a microphone and leading a personal VIP tour of the new Shanghai Disneyland. During the tour, which included Star Wars-founder George Lucas, Iger was pulled aside by a Disney colleague. At that moment he was privately given word of a fatal alligator attack on the beach of Disney World’s Grand Floridian Hotel near the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. Lane Graves, a little boy from Nebraska, was killed.
Iger writes he insisted on phoning the little boy’s grieving father to offer sympathy and pledge any assistance possible…and then sat on the edge of his hotel bed shaking and crying so hard his contact lenses fell out. The boy’s father asked Iger to ensure a tragedy like his son’s death would never happen again.
“There are hundreds of lagoons and canals on property and thousands of alligators,” Iger writes. “Within 24 hours we they had ropes and fences and signs throughout the park, which is twice the size of Manhattan.”
Celebrity Sighting and Friendships
Lucas, who eventually negotiated with Iger and sold his filmmaking company and Star Wars franchise to Disney after visiting the Disney Hollywood Studios theme park in Orlando to rededicate the re-opening of the renovated Star Tours ride.
But another celebrity business titan, Apple founder Steve Jobs, who’d sold his Pixar movie studio to Disney and joined the Disney board of directors, didn’t much care for one element of an Orlando visit with Iger. Iger and Jobs had become friends and vacationed together in Hawaii, so in Orlando Iger gave him a personal tour of Disney’s new “Art of Animation” hotel at the resort.
“It’s a huge hotel, three thousand rooms, priced more affordably than many of our hotels. I was proud of its quality for the price,” Iger writes.
But upon being escorted through, Jobs told Iger the hotel was “crap” and that he “didn’t get it.”
“Steve,” Iger told Jobs, “This is for people who want to come to Disney World with their kids and can’t afford to spend hundreds of dollars a night on a room. It’s ninety bucks, and it’s a decent, clean, pleasant place.”
Iger writes that most people would have appreciated the quality and care Disney had taken in designing it, but that Jobs wasn’t a price-point type of guy.
Iger’s book Ride of a Lifetime is direct and revealing – though carefully so. Those who love travel and the industry will enjoy the personal dramas and emotions behind the most recent successor to Walt Disney – “the man behind the mouse.”