Lillian Disney Interview - October 1982by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have been working with Disney Legend Bill “Sully” Sullivan to capture some of his memories of working for four decades in various roles with the Disney Company. The book will be released by my publisher, Theme Park Press, this summer.
I’ve shared part of one of my earlier interviews in 2008 with Sully.
I’ve known and respected Sully for many years, and, roughly 15 years ago, he told me about an interview he had arranged with Walt’s widow, Lillian, at the dedication of EPCOT Center, where Sully was running Operations and would later become director of the park.
After two years of effort, I was able to track down that roughly 25-minute VHS tape and made copies for Sully; Diane Disney Miller (who had never been given a copy of the tape); several Disney friends, including the trainer for The UnDiscovered FutureWorld tour; and for the Disney University at Walt Disney World.
A photo of Lillian Disney from the Walt Disney World Main Street train station.
Fortunately, someone who had one of my copies has posted it on YouTube for Disney fans to enjoy.
I thought MousePlanet readers might like an exclusive preview, and a reminder to keep checking Theme Park Press for the official release of the book.
As Sully told me during one of our recent interviews for the book:
“For the dedication ceremonies at EPCOT Center, Mrs. Disney came down with [her daughter] Diane and [Diane’s husband] Ron, and we thought it would be a good idea to do an interview with her about EPCOT to share with the cast.
“I saw Diane driving around the property in a pargo [electric golf cart] with her mom and daughter. Mrs. [Lillian] Disney never did interviews but I asked her if she would do a quick one for me.
“Mrs. Disney said, ‘What are you going to use it for?’ I said, ‘We’re going to use it for history, so we can train our people.”
“She smiled and said, ‘Well, as long as it’s for you Sully, I’ll do it.’
“So, I got Bob Allen lined up—young Bob Allen, Bob Allen, Jr. He did projects for us out there at the park doing photography and stuff like that, interviews and stuff. We did an interview with her early one Monday morning about eight o’clock as I remember over behind the tea garden behind the English pavilion.
“Bob Allen and his crew set up and we had coffee and Danish with three generations of Disney women.
“Mrs. Disney was such a sweetheart and she was in a good mood which helped. She was beautiful about it. Then the tape got lost for almost a decade until you found the copy. I kept asking about it at Disney and no one knew. I didn’t even have a copy.”
Forty-eight year old Diane, wearing a dark blue blouse; 83-year-old Lillian, who was attired in a stylish red dress; and twenty-two year old Jenny with a white blouse and dull green vest sat comfortably on a bench in the gazebo behind the United Kingdom pavilion with their backs toward the Lords and Ladies shop entrance.
A moment from Walt and Lillian’s wedding anniversary celebration in The Golden Horseshoe, with daughters Sharon and Diane, just four days before the grand opening of Disneyland park. Official photo © Disney.
One of the things that constantly comes up in this informal interview is what Walt Disney must have faced when presenting new ideas to his wife. Throughout the conversation, Lillian is adamant, though pleasant, to keep things just exactly as they are and not to do anything new at all.
Bob: [Among] the three of you, you enjoy a perspective of everything we (Disney) have done as a company and the phenomenon of the product Walt started that has become in the world something that no one else in the world has. Could you just tell us how it feels from your point of view to be sitting where you are today, having been part of this from the very first idea?
Lillian: Quite wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing to see all of this. Each time we come back there is always more. It’s just beautiful. It couldn’t be any better. I don’t see how.
I thought that when they did the Empress Lilly and I told Dick [Nunis] ‘You can’t do anything better than this’ and they did. You see all this [EPCOT Center] and here it is. It’s just beautiful. Every place we look. Every little thing is. Even the surrounding here [gesturing to the back of the U.K. pavilion] is so beautiful. That and this. All of it.
Bob: Could you go back and maybe compare your feelings about EPCOT Center and what it felt like Opening Day at Disneyland.
Lillian: Disneyland. [Throws head back and laughs] That was really something. It was a beautiful thing and a big adventure for Walt and for all of us. And it was the start of it. Everything went wrong. All of the equipment wasn’t working and it was really pretty. I was home and heard all these things that were happening out there, you know. But it turned out to be a beautiful place too.
Bob: Do you have any memories of that time?
Diane: Just the reviews. Disney’s Folly. [Laughs] Some brilliant critic.
Bob: How about EPCOT Center? Knowing it from the inside out, is the reality what Walt would have wanted?
Diane: I don’t know it all that well. It was just mind boggling. Well, the concept. A year ago or so we were down here flying around in a helicopter. Maybe two years ago. I remember mother [Lillian] talking about how Dad would come back from the site of Disneyland and say, ‘Boy, we’re really moving dirt around!’ And when I saw those big machines (here) moving all that dirt around, I just knew what he meant. There is an excitement in seeing that re-contouring of a piece of land.
Lillian: He loved to move dirt. [Laughs]
Bob: Can you tell us anything that might be a piece of advice that we ought to know since we didn’t have Walt here to lead us personally to pass along?
Lillian: I think you are doing very well. I don’t think I could give you any advice. I don’t know how the organization has carried on like it has. It’s just beautiful. I don’t think we could give you any advice on that.
Bob: Here’s a loaded question that I have asked others…
Lillian: Just so you don’t ask my age. [They all laugh]
Bob: The question is from each of your points of view, would Walt have liked this?
Lillian: He would have loved it. He would have loved it and we think about that all the time. That he’s missed the whole thing, even the opening [of the Magic Kingdom]. He wasn’t here. And it’s all so grand. He would have been very happy.
Diane: You’ve made a lot of about…well not a lot but that’s…it’s not the original concept of what EPCOT meant. I think it would have evolved to this. Very definitely. I can’t see how he would have done it any differently. Because every thing I see here reminds me of him.
Standing in the American Adventure [pavilion] and that wonderful vocal group singing there, all of a sudden I got this image of Dad. He was a great sentimentalist. He would watch the flag lowering at Disneyland every evening they [Walt and Lillian] were down there and tears would ripple down his cheeks.
Lillian: Oh, yes.
Diane: I got this image of him standing there listening to the group with tears coming down his cheeks. And I know he would be there doing that. And this is all so much in character of his curiosity, and excitement about everything [like] the future, and yet [appreciation of] history, the world, Europe…
Lillian: But the thing that is so wonderful is because he had this vision before he died and it’s been carried on so completely. That’s what would make him feel so good.
When we would go out to eat, he’d take a paper napkin [makes motion of drawing on it] and tell me ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to do that and have all these countries come in and all’ and it’s happened which I think is wonderful.
Bob: Do you have a different perspective on the Disney product and EPCOT?
Jenny: Not really.
Lillian: If it’s not good, you better not tell us. [All laugh]
Jenny: I think everything is as wonderful as they do. There is a lot of excitement and talking with friends last night. They just think, ‘This is IT!’ I mean it’s fantastic.
Bob: What would you like to see Disney do now?
Lillian: Nothing. I think this is far enough. You’ve covered so much territory. It tires you to go from over there to here. I don’t think you can do any better. I don’t think there is anything. Do they have any ideas that you’re going to do something else?
Diane: It’s a wonderful, beautiful physical thing. But without the right people in it, you walk through it and that’s it. And I think the quality and kind of people that are working here in the shops, every where here, and (their) enthusiasm and friendliness, that whole feeling, I think that’s what you have got to keep working at.
Lillian: And the fact that they’ve done this not gradually but done in a hurry and still they’ve kept that same feeling. We haven’t any criticism at all.
Bob: It seems odd to me that soon we’ll be opening a Disneyland in Japan.
Lillian: I didn’t even want them to do the one in Japan. I thought this [EPCOT Center] was enough. We did this and the one on the [West] coast. But I understand it will be very nice. At least I hope it is but I think this was enough.
Jenny: You walk around here and at Disneyland and most of the people who come are Japanese.
Lillian: That’s right.
Bob: Could you see a world that had, for lack of a better word, a Disney “outpost” all over the world? One in Europe or South America?
Lillian: I think it should all from here [America]. Get all the recognition from all over the world from this place. That’s just my idea. I didn’t want them to do (the one in Japan). This all came up after Walt was gone.
Diane: We’ve always been very conservative. We sort of go “It’s nice the way it is. Why do you want to do that for?”
Lillian: Leave it alone.
Diane: I don’t think either one of us here is qualified (to talk about any of this).
Lillian: When he [Walt] started Disneyland. This is something nobody had ever done. There’s no pattern to follow. How can he do it? But still he had it all within his own organization to make it happen. He pulled it all together and went out and got good people and how did they know how to do that without any experience?
Diane: I think the question is asked a lot and was asked of us on the plane is “Where does your company find these people who can do these wonderful things so well that have never been done before?”
Lillian: But I’ve always had the feeling “Don’t get too big, too large.”
Diane: Too late.
Bob: Did you ever sit around the kitchen table and talk with Walt about what he was doing?
Lillian: Yes, but he did the talking. All the talking.
Diane: Sometimes we didn’t seem as excited as he thought we should be. I know he’d be all fired up about something way back in those days. He’d bring the pistons he was working on for his train, one of the beginnings of this whole thing [the theme parks].
He’d bring them to the dinner table at night and pass them around and talk about the pistons. He never stopped talking about what he was going to do and wanted to do. That didn’t make him boring or anything.
Lillian: I am so grateful that anything he thought of and started has come to pass. Very grateful. I think we all are. So grateful. It’s such a clean beautiful business to be in.
Diane: Why this kind of a thing [a theme park] appealed to Dad so much is you can change it. He got bored with things that you couldn’t change. With a film, you put it in a can and that’s it. But something where you can continually change the show, update them, upgrade if necessary, whatever. That’s why I think something like this is really in the spirit of everything that he wanted to do. I don’t think he ever would have gotten bored here.
Bob: Whatever business could Disney now get into? I’ve got to believe if Walt was sitting here, he would go, “OK, we’ve finished this. NOW….”
Diane: We haven’t done that ski resort [Mineral King] yet.
Lillian: We couldn’t do it, but we might some day.
Diane: That was something he wanted to do. He really liked the idea of skiing, thought it was neat going back to when he was younger. He never skied well but he liked it and got involved with the Olympics. I think we could do a wonderful thing with that.
Lillian: That’s sort of on the order of this [EPCOT Center]. Build it with a new slant.
Diane: But I think what your future dreams are for EPCOT is that it would be the original thing. EPCOT would be a center for ideas from all over the world. Important things would happen here. You start out entertaining beautifully and through that you build an audience and you begin to educate, begin to do other wonderful things and they all happen here.
Lillian: This would be the headquarters.
Bob: It seems to me that Walt had this amazing ability to look 10 or 20 years down the road and say 'That’s what we should be getting involved with now.'
Lillian: His mind was never inactive. I can remember when he was so interested in airplanes. We used to go over to the airport and stand and watch planes land. He was just thinking all the time. And railroads the same way. We’d go over and watch the trains come in and then all of that developed into this. I think his interest in all those things.
Our first plane was a little one and we had one pilot and Walt said then that he wanted all his sons-in-law and everybody to fly that plane so after he had been up in it two or three times, he said, 'I don’t want you to touch it. That’s a business all its own. You keep away from it. We’ll get pilots to fly that plane.” But he wanted the best of everything and he got it.
Diane: Apropos your question though. I think Dad really was at heart an entertainer. I think that was his prime concern but he was fascinated with progress, fascinated with all kinds of technology.
Given another upbringing, another sort of direction or something, he might have been Albert Einstein. I don’t know. He had that kind of mind. He would have pursued something with a passion to some point of discovery.
I think that he was really more concerned with that idea, even going back to when he was a child, that 'things will come from this.' I think that’s what he hoped to create in EPCOT, that center where wonderful things would happen, maybe scientific conferences.
All the great minds of the world together here at this wonderful place. Create a congenial atmosphere and wonderful things will happen like Cal Arts where he wanted to get all the arts together.
I think he really was an entertainer. He felt that was his expertise but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something beyond that.
Bob: Did Walt go to the movies to see the audience reaction?
Lillian: We went to every movie, every show that ever came along.
Diane: He loved entertainment. Loved the theater.
Lillian: We’d go to New York. We’d be booked into every show they had there.
Lillian: He was always searching. We’d go to Europe. He’d find everything over there he could. Always searching, just always. Anybody he’d talk to about anything. We were up at Germat and he was making a picture up there. He’d talk to the people that were just walking around, the ordinary townspeople, and get all he could get out of them about what they thought about things. He was a searcher of knowledge all the time.
Diane: He was curious about everything.
Lillian: He used to take the kids, Diane and Sharon, over to ride on a little pony ride and he’d sit there. I didn’t go with them. And he would watch the people if they liked it or something. And it would be a dusty little place but he’d sit there and then take them out to lunch. Take them over to the merry-go-round and watch them.
I didn’t think this [Walt Disney World] was possible. When I went with him to buy the property here, it was a horrible piece of property, dust and everything and he was excited about it. This was a big thing to do. God love him. He didn’t get to realize what you’ve all done.
Bob: Did you ever think he was just plain nuts?
Lillian: That was a big thing when he decided to buy all that property but he did it. Talked Roy [his older brother who was in charge of finances] into it and said to Roy, 'You go out and get the money and I’ve got the ideas.' And he did. [All laugh]
Bob: Could you give me one good memory about your grandfather?
Lillian: [smiling and putting her hand on Jenny’s knee] Don’t tell him about the Scotch.
Jenny: I used to drink Scotch and [they’d] give me ice cubes and now I’m addicted to the stuff. Oh, I shouldn’t say that. [They all laugh]
Lillian: We used to have highballs at home and when they [the grandchildren] were little, they were up at my house a lot and we’d have crushed ice and we would put cherries and oranges in it. These little mouths would come up for a bite of ice and we had little spoons. Diane’s oldest son when he was growing up said that when he got big he would drink Scotch.
Diane: He said, “What’s that stuff Granny drinks? I’m going to drink it all the time when I grow up!” [They all laugh]
Bob: Do you have any final thoughts?
Lillian: It’s all just here. It’s all wonderful. It’s beautiful. I can’t think of anything beyond it. [To Diane] I don’t think you can either, can you?
Diane: I can’t think beyond this. What makes it so wonderful is it’s so beautiful. It’s so beautifully done. Where we’re sitting is a beautiful little piece of London, a little park. It is just exquisite but without the people, the wonderful people that are part of this. That spirit…
Lillian: Just don’t change.
Diane: It wouldn’t be nearly what it is. It would seem empty.
Lillian: The quality of what they’ve done is so wonderful and all of this, for instance, and I see all the details on the buildings. Nothing is done cheap.
Diane: No, it’s not!
Lillian: The quality is there and they’ve made the quality be there.
Bob: Thanks so very much.
Diane: It’s nothing we are terribly accomplished at.
Lillian: I think you can just quit right now. I mean the whole thing. Now, I can put my glasses on. Just keeping developing what you have here and that will be the job. The beauty of the landscaping is so wonderful and we thank you.
A very interesting read. I found it telling that none of the ladies thought that Epcot should have gone with the original format of a live-in city - they seemed comfortable with the morphing of Epcot into a theme park. I also found it interesting that Lillian particularly didn't want the company to go on and build more parks around the world, but rather to just keep it in America and develop the existing parks more. Thanks much for posting this, Jim!
Thanks so much again for this wonderful article. Can't wait until the books comes out. I am so glad you are chronicling the Bob Sulley's history along with all the Disney history!