Senior Vice President of Experience and Integration at the Disneyland Resort Mary Niven is retiring. After a career that spans 21 years, her last day with Disney will be Tomorrow August 14, 2021. As she prepares to close the book on this chapter of her life, she again gave a tour at Disneyland that shares the stories of multiple Disney icons with the lessons of business, leadership, and life lessons that can be learned from their stories.
The tour is the Heritage Tour and Mary Niven created it 10 years ago. The tour came about when Niven realized that some of the leaders at Disneyland Resort weren’t as connected to the history of the park. The tour takes a look at the windows of Main Street, USA, and garners from them the lessons that can be learned from the stories represented. While this tour was initially for leaders, it was expanded to other cast members several years ago. Mary Niven’s final time giving this tour was on July 29th. Leaders from both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure say this won’t be the final time the tour happens and they will continue this legacy.
“If you look down Main Street [from Town Square], Sleeping Beauty Castle looks so far away—but as you begin to walk toward it, you realize it’s less than a block away. That’s because the Imagineers used forced perspective”—an optical illusion that makes the castle look larger and farther away than it really is, Mary told the group. “Life is a lot like that. You start out in your Disney career and it feels like you have so much time, but you turn around and it’s 30, 40 years later. That’s why I encourage everyone to live their lives with a kind of forced perspective—a clear vision of what you want to do and what you want to be known for.”
The tour moved down Main Street, USA and the Disney Parks Blog shared some of the highlights of this tour.
Bill Evans was the landscape architect who Walt Disney brought in to help with landscape design. The project was rushed and had a very limited budget. However, Walt Disney suggested Bill look up Latin names of weeds that were growing and display their names as time and resources ran short. “The first day, guests were floored with the flora on display,” Mary shared. “It’s a great example of how when we see something that needs to be fixed or corrected, there’s always a solution.”
Xavier “X” Atencio was one of Disney’s animators, and a good one at that. However, Walt Disney saw something in him and brought him over to WED Enterprises (later Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1965. This soon led to Walt asking “X” to write tunes for Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. Out of this came Grim Grinning Ghosts, and Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirates Life For Me. One of the great things about Walt was that he got to know the people he worked with and saw talents that maybe they didn’t know they had,” Mary said. She also challenged the tour group asking: “Do you see the people you work with for the job they have today, or do you see them for their real potential?”
Roger Broggie was a builder for Disney. He built things many different things ranging from the stream locomotives to the Monorails. This complimented Walt Disney who was a storyteller and not a builder. “Walt knew that he needed people who had very different skill sets. When you’re choosing people to work on a team, always look for people with different backgrounds, experiences and skills. It may take longer to get the group going, but the results will be so much better in the long run.”
Richard and Robert Sherman, or the Sherman Brothers, may be known for writing songs for Mary Poppins or The Jungle Book. They also were known by Walt Disney as a source of joy. “There were days when Walt would face challenges and it was hard for him to work, so he’d ask the brothers to come to his office and play his favorite songs. Before long, his mood would change,” Mary shared. “When you’re having a bad day, have that favorite place to go or person you know will brighten your mood with just a smile. The sooner you feel better, the more effective you can be.”
Ron Dominguez grew up on the orange grove that would one day become Disneyland. He started his Disney career in 1955 as a ticket taker. Eventually, he would rise through the ranks to become the vice-president of Walt Disney Attractions. “All of us have a responsibility to make every new cast member feel welcome and help them,” Mary said. “You never know what kind of amazing talent they might have or the legacy they may leave.”
Chuck Boyajian was the first manager of Custodial Operations that was hired by Walt Disney. He was instrumental in establishing Disneyland’s reputation for cleanliness. Part of this was done by his insistence that it was every cast member’s job to keep the parks clean. “We had only four managers of Custodial in over 60 years; that kind of continuity is rare,” Mary noted. “Think about that when you plan a new initiative; how can it have a lasting impact?”
Bob Gurr designed over 100 vehicles for Disney. He designed things that ranged from the Autopia cars to the Matterhorn Bobsleds and so much more. He did all of this without formal education as an engineer. “The reason why he was so successful on cross-functional teams was because he asked great questions until he had the root cause of an issue or the best solution,” Mary said. “None of us can have all the answers, but we should know how to ask great questions—and know who has the answers.”
Jim Cora came to Disneyland in 1957 as an attractions host. 43 years later he retired as retired as chairman of Disney International. Throughout his career, he helped establish the cast member training program. “Jim was a great mentor of mine,” Mary said. “I learned that no matter which Disney park you visit, our cast members are what make them special. They may not look the same or have the same life experiences, but there’s something special about them. Success comes when you take time to pick great people and give them great training and tools for the role.”
Herb Ryman was the man who was tasked with putting Walt Disney’s vision of Disneyland on paper. This was incredibly important for Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother, who was trying to raise funds for the parks from the banks. “I’m still amazed at how much that drawing looks like Disneyland,” Mary said. “It shows us the value of being able to clearly articulate our ideas—and the value of being a good listener.”
Looking for investors for Disneyland, Walt Disney went to television networks and pitched a series based on Disneyland. ABC ended up making a deal with Walt and helped fund the park. This is represented by the Acme Business College window. “Nothing would get done without great partnerships,” Mary noted. “Don’t forget to thank the scheduler and the people who work hard every day to help you do your job.
Wathel Rogers was the man asked by Walt Disney to develop the Model Shop and then create a 9-inch figure of a moving and talking man. “At the time, it probably didn’t sound like the biggest project in comparison to other assignments, but that project led to the creation of Audio-Animatronics® at Disney parks, beginning with Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” Mary said. “It’s a reminder that no matter the project, there’s an opportunity for you to shine and make an impression.”
Jack Lindquist was Disneyland’s first advertising manager. He also would go on to become Disneyland’s first president. “He created some of the best traditions here, including the Ambassador Program and Grad Nites,” Mary said. “I once asked him how he got those ideas, and he said, ‘You always start with, what’s the business need? And then you design a program to support it.’” Mary said it was a lesson she draws from whenever cast or guests question why a beloved program is changing. “Heritage is our DNA, the essence of our brand, and that doesn’t change,” she said. “But traditions are the programs we create to support our heritage at a given time, and those need to adapt based on business needs. We always do it with sensitivity around our history, but we need to have courage to make changes when needed.”
The tour concludes at the Main Street Opera House where a green bench is on display that came from Griffith Park. This is where Walt Disney would sit and watch his girls enjoying the Merry-Go-Round and imagine a place where families could make memories together.
“This is my favorite place in the park,” Mary said. “But it’s not because it’s where Walt thought about Disneyland for the first time. It’s because we know he got up from that bench and invested everything he had, personally and professionally, in making that dream come true. And if we can come in every day and do something special for guests or fellow cast members, then Disneyland will be as relevant for people 60 years from now as it is today.”