New Disney president looks to remain strong

She's hailed as a team builder, sharp big-picture strategist, strong communicator and someone steeped in Disney traditions.

As the new president of Walt Disney World, Meg Crofton will likely be a steady force steering the world's most popular theme park.

"Walt Disney World is very strong, and Al has always led it with a very strong vision, so I'm looking forward to continuing to focus on that vision and focus on growth," Crofton said, referring to her predecessor, Al Weiss.

Two weeks ago, Crofton, 52, was named the fourth president and first female president in Walt Disney World's 35-year history. She ascends at a time when Disney World's growth no longer hinges on the development of new theme parks, but instead on gradual expansion, improvements and innovations.

Crofton takes the helm from Weiss, her longtime colleague, boss, confidant and mentor. He'll be staying at Disney World while heading a new executive layer of worldwide Disney theme-park administration, which Crofton helped design and inaugurate in her previous job, global executive vice president of Disney parks and resorts human resources.

Strong support

Crofton, who has been with Disney for 27 years, is a Disney insider not generally well-known in Central Florida. But her friends and acquaintances said they have no doubt she'll establish herself as a strong leader for Disney World, the main engine of Central Florida's economy, with 58,000 employees and deep influence in local civic and political affairs.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, Crofton expressed the same confidence.

"It's a very achievement-oriented culture, never accepting status quo, always pushing as an organization and as a group of leaders to do better. I know we'll change, and I know we'll grow. That will always continue. As far as our core vision is, delivering on the guest and cast experience, that's rock solid, and we'll continue it."

Time will tell how Weiss and Crofton evolve the differences in their roles, his as president of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, hers as president of Walt Disney World, both based at Disney World. Both, however, are known for team leadership, and they've long been on the same team.

"She's well thought of by Al. He really trusts her 100 percent, listens to her opinions," said Lee Cockerell, who retired this summer as Disney World's executive vice president of operations. "She's got great relationship skills and gets along with everybody, and figures out how to get things done."

Formative experiences

Crofton said Disney World, for her, is not a collection of hotels, attractions and entertainment, but of experiences and moments generated by people.

She recalls experiences such as a humid morning back when she was in charge of convention operations in the early '90s. A meeting planner told her everything was set perfectly for his group's breakfast on the Grand Floridian lawn, except that the grass was hazardous, slick with dew. Before she could respond, hotel employees ran over with towels, trying to dry the grass for him.

Or experiences such as watching her uncle get picked randomly from a crowd to participate in a show. Or the look on the face of her nephew with Down syndrome the moment he met his hero, an Indiana Jones character.

"To me, that was absolutely priceless," she said. "When I think about favorite attractions, those are the kinds of things that come to my mind."

She credits her father, the late Charles "Chuck" Gilbert, as her greatest professional influence. A former serviceman, test pilot, rancher, aerospace executive and consultant, he brought his family to Central Florida in 1960, during the heady NASA buildup at what is now Kennedy Space Center.

Mary Elizabeth "Meg" Gilbert Crofton was born in San Diego in 1953, one of six children of Chuck and Rosie Gilbert. After a couple of moves, the family landed at Satellite Beach when she was 6.

Chuck Gilbert sometimes would bring Meg to work, and she would watch him lead his teams. She said she was struck by the camaraderie and mutual respect. Once she had her own career, the two would talk several times a week.

"He was the most nonjudgmental person I ever knew. He was supportive, yet if I asked for feedback, he would give me feedback . . . honest feedback. That takes courage," she recalled. "He definitely had a profound impact on what I think about leadership."

Love for the outdoors

In Satellite Beach, she came to love the outdoors, particularly nature and especially the sea. Today, in addition to their Lake Virginia lakefront home in Winter Park, Meg and Rich Crofton, married since 1981, have a beachfront condominium in Melbourne Beach.

She enjoys fitness, goes on power walks, works out at both Winter Park YMCAs, takes yoga, boats around the Winter Park chain of lakes and walks the beaches of Brevard County looking for sea turtles and other wildlife.

And she spends as much free time as possible with her family: husband, Rich; her mother, Rosie, and Rich's parents, who all live in Winter Park; and numerous siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews.

Meg Crofton has been active outside Disney with Rollins College, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, the United Arts Council and the Civic Theater.

Now, she'll be stepping into broader, more powerful community circles where she's not well known. She said she and Weiss are discussing how they will split that responsibility, but clearly it will be shared.

"Right now my first focus is to make sure this business continues to deliver its results," she said. "I think if you give me that six-month window, you'll see me get very involved in the community."

Few expect her to have any problem establishing herself.

"I think Meg can do anything she puts her mind to," said Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie, a friend. "She strikes me as the kind of person who gets a lot done quietly, just gets it done."