Card Walker Speaks

by Wade Sampson, staff writer
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I don’t know as much about Card Walker as I would like and I bet the same is true for most of the folks reading this column. I would like to know more because it would help me better understand the Disney Company between the death of Walt in 1966 and the emergence of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells nearly 20 years later.

Some of the former Disney cast members I have interviewed didn’t seem to care for Walker and felt that he blocked some imaginative projects. Of course, it may be that he was just being overly cautious at times to try to protect the company after Walt and Roy had passed away since Walker was primarily a business guy and not a creative person. However, to be fair, under Walker’s leadership, EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland were both built among other accomplishments for the Disney Company.

Esmond Cardon Walker, more commonly known as Card Walker, died November 28, 2005 at the age of 89 from congestive heart failure. Even though he retired from the company in 1983, Walker continued to serve as a consultant to the company until 1990 and was member of the board of directors until 1999. (He was made a Disney Legend in 1993.)

After graduation from UCLA, he began his career at Disney in 1938 as a traffic boy delivering mail to various departments He later went into the camera department and eventually became a unit manager for short subjects.

After serving in World War II, he returned to the Disney studio. In 1956, he became vice president of advertising and sales, before being elected to the board of directors in 1960 where he served for almost 40 years.

After Walt Disney died in 1966, Walker became executive vice president and chief operating officer. When Walt's brother Roy O. Disney died in 1971, he became company president, serving under Chairman and CEO Donn Tatum. In November 1976, Walker took over chief executive officer duties from Tatum, and finally in 1980 became chairman of the board upon Tatum's retirement. Walker himself retired as CEO three years later, in February 1983, but stayed on as chairman until May 1 to oversee the opening of the Tokyo Disneyland in Japan.

In 1990, Eisner said, "In a very real sense, Card is the link between the small, family-owned film company of the '30s and the major global corporation we are today. I'm grateful to have had the benefit of his experience, his judgment, and his convictions about the 'Disney way' of doing things."

My good friend and Disney historian/author David Koenig (and if you are interested in the creation of Walt Disney World and Card Walker, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of his popular and interesting book Reality Land) talked about Walker and his influence on Disney in the 1970s at this MousePlanet link.

Recently, I was given access to a few of the speeches that Walker gave after the opening of the Magic Kingdom and before the opening of EPCOT that might give a little more insight into the man. Here is an excerpt from one titled “Walt Disney World: Master Planning for the Future” given on October 5, 1976 to the 40th anniversary convocation of the Urban Land Institute.

The Institute’s membership was comprised of more than 6,000 organizations and individuals in the United States, Canada and some 50 other countries. It was formed to facilitate the enhancement, protection and responsible development of land and the group was very interested in what the Disney Company was doing with the “Florida Project.”

Walker spoke for close to an hour and here are a few excerpts from that speech that may be of interest to readers of MousePlanet. I am sharing these excerpts because they haven’t been reprinted and probably few if any Disney fans would ever get a chance to read the actual speech and there are a few great stories Walker tells that I have heard from others over the years but without other documentation to confirm them:

“The first two resort hotels, the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village, built in conjunction with U.S. Steel, utilized a new lightweight steel modular construction. The actual hotel rooms were manufactured at an assembly plant several miles away. Each room was completely outfitted, walls covered the bath fixtures installed and trucked to the site where they were lifted up by cranes and virtually plugged into the steel frame structures much like you would slide a drawer into a chest of drawers.

“Our first two resort hotels were located and designed as visual extensions of the park. The Contemporary Resort was located to provide a futuristic backdrop for Tomorrowland while the Polynesian Village provides an exotic backdrop to Adventureland.

“Along the east side of the property, we established the community of Lake Buena Vista, a planned community of hotels, townhouses, and recreation and shopping facilities. Our intent here was to showcase an example in landscaping, signing regulations, and other design elements, in contrast to the uncontrolled growth back along Disneyland’s borders. New building techniques were used here also. The TraveLodge, for example, is the world’s tallest building which features epoxy block construction.

“In order to meet the landscape demands for Phase One, very early in the game, we forecast types and varieties that would be called for and began to grow many of them ourselves right on the property. This included introducing for the first time to Florida many species from other areas of the U.S. and around the world. Our total landscape program drew on some 600 species of plant materials including 150,000 trees, 850,000 shrubs, and more than 1,000 acres of sod.

“Not all the construction was actually here on the site. The monorail trains for example, were designed and engineered by our Disney staff in California and then assembled at the Martin Marietta plant in Orlando.

“We also required 337 monorail beams to be precision cast using the first major application for three-dimensional, pre-stressed concrete. The nearest place that could handle the work was Tacoma, Wash., so we had to ship them 3,000 miles across the United States to our property.

“Overall, the construction program was the largest non-governmental project in the world at the time. At the peak of the building activity, we had more than 8,000 construction workers on the property at one time. This created another kind of problem. In order to train many of the good-looking young hostesses and tour guides, we had to take them through the construction areas. And every time we did, it literally caused a work stoppage. Well, we finally got smart and put them in coveralls and old coats before the construction crews would see them. Productivity went back up after that considerably.

“With the opening date only a year away, we made a detailed evaluation of the construction progress and problems. Finally, we decided that the only way we could finish on schedule was to assume the construction responsibilities ourselves. No one understood what we were trying to accomplish or how to come to grips with the unprecedented construction problems any better than our own people. So right in the middle of the stretch run, we formed our own construction company, Buena Vista Construction, and managed to bring the project in on time, October 1, 1971.

“Needless to say, we were pretty nervous when opening day rolled around. Why did we choose October 1? Quite frankly, we wanted to sneak it open. We deliberately chose the slowest month of the year because we needed a shakedown period where we could deal with smaller numbers of guests before the really big tourist season hit.

“But for Walt Disney World’s opening, the rumors were really flying. Some people had predicted that more than a million people would show up. Soon, everybody in Central Florida was believing it. And, despite the low tourist period of the year, pretty soon we were beginning to believe it ourselves.

“On the morning of October 1, we felt like we were bracing for the D-Day invasion. I climbed into a helicopter with our Chief Operating Officer Dick Nunis, and we took off in the early morning light to check the 'invasion.' We both got very excited because we could see a long string of car lights coming from the city of Orlando. But, as they approached the property, they turned off at the back gate. Almost all of them were employees. Everyone else was afraid to come out of their houses. The opening day crowd was, you might say, “underwhelming.” We had almost as many employees as guests. Well, after that, they did come. This week marks our fifth anniversary of operation and in that time, more than 59 million people have gone to Walt Disney World. Today, it stands as the No. 1 tourist destination in the world.

“Walt Disney had a goal for something far greater than just a theme park or even the world’s number one destination resort. When he came to Florida, he was looking far beyond his lifetime to the creation of an entire Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

“Ladies and gentlemen, that is why we are here in Florida. EPCOT is not a lofty, unattainable dream. It is a viable concept which is at the very heart of everything we’ve been master planning and creating at Walt Disney World from the very beginning. And much of the groundwork has already been laid…the first steps for the creation of EPCOT have become reality. We have over $150 million in underground systems, utilities and backstage areas never actually seen by the public. They are the backbone of the project, and in many circles they have created as much interest as the entertainment facilities themselves."

(Walker goes on at length to detail the use of computers, the innovative telephone system, the AVAC trash system, the monorails, WEDway People Mover, solar energy, and many other unique initiatives the Disney Company had already accomplished or were in the process of instituting.)

“More than a decade ago, Walt Disney decided that perhaps we could do a lot, that just maybe we could help chart the course of the future in our own way…through our ability as communicators…our ability to get things done. But Walt also knew that no one man and no one company could ever accomplish this task alone. The world is too complex for even one nation to attain this goal.

“Walt was a master communicator who developed an organization that could speak a kind of international language. He felt strongly that the answers to critical challenges facing the world are locked in people’s minds…people in universities, business, industry and government. Walt Disney believed that our organization could be the catalyst, a synthesizer of the best thinking of the world’s creative people and the communicator of these vital ideas.

“During the 45 minutes I have consumed here this morning, we, the citizens of this Earth have consumed over 1 million tons of energy-producing fuel that can’t be replaced…and we have consumed 356,000 tons of grain that must be replaced. Also, in the last 45 minutes 6,000 more babies have come into the world.

“If that doesn’t demand master planning or every dimension, I don’t know what does. If that doesn’t demand that the concepts, the ideals and solutions that EPCOT offers come to reality, I don’t know what does. Many years back, Walt Disney remarked after a long drawn-out meeting on one of our new projects, “Card, the way to get started on something is to stop talking and start doing”.

“The time is now to stop talking and master plan a blueprint for doing. Speaking for the entire Disney organization, we are just getting started and we hope that our dreams for EPCOT today become tomorrow’s reality for everyone. Thank you.”