About the Column

You may never have seen Larry Pontius in the park, but as the man in charge of the Mouse's marketing for seven years, Larry's influence on both Disneyland and Disney World was every bit as pervasive as the most celebrated of Imagineers. It was on Larry's watch that Disney World grew from a mere tourist destination to a cultural mecca. And now, every other week, exclusively on Disney Dispatch, Larry will be here to share stories from his magical Disney career.

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FROM: Pontius on Park Published Every Other Tuesday

The Ghost of Halloween

As Disney's new Director of Marketing, Larry Pontius was the 'outside bright boy' because he hadn't risen through the ranks. He was an 'outside' hire, and he quickly hit the brick wall of Disney corporate culture. Then began taking it down...

When last we met here it was the fall of 1974, the first gasoline crisis was in full swing causing a drop in tourism, and I had just been hired as the new director of marketing at Walt Disney World - or the 'outside bright boy' as some in management had tagged me behind closed doors.

The Disney Way... or the Highway

As I mentioned in my last column, it was a rolled eyes attitude that tossed logs in the way of new ideas. The most often used stumbling block was "We don't do it that way."

However, there were some real hurtles that had me shaking my head.

The first priority, the reason I was hired, was to stem the bleeding in attendance due to the gasoline crisis and the decline in tourism. It didn't take a bright boy to figure out the way to do that was to turn to the local market. Just like the folks in the north, they would be reducing their travel because of the cost of gasoline and Walt Disney World was right in their back yard.

So, I suggested we increase our advertising in the Central Florida markets, and asked to see the budget. Then rolling my way came a huge log. There wasn't any budget. In fact, Walt Disney World didn't do any advertising anywhere.

I can't remember who - probably because I was in shock -- but one of the other directors explained. We cut deals with companies like Coke and Kodak to be the official drink or camera or whatever of Walt Disney World, and for that privilege they advertise for us.

Great, I said. Which one of them wants to run a local campaign featuring special ticket prices in the Orlando Sentinel?

Special prices? We don't do it that way.

However, the powers that be saw it my way and we got an advertising budget of $25,000. The trick now was what to do with it. Surely, the bright boy would be monitored closely on this one.

Will Bright Boy Shine?

Frankly, I was concerned. This first one had to work. After a lot of head scratching with my entire department, we decided we couldn't just fritter the money away and settled on creating an event. That would allow us to give Central Florida residents a special reason to visit us. There's not much else happening in the fall, so we decided on Halloween.

I had to make a trip to the West Coast to get approval to shoot a television commercial, the first one ever made for Walt Disney World. And I don't think anyone involved will ever forget it. Imagine Walt Disney World, after closing at night. You're in Liberty Square, and a huge black stallion comes thundering across the bridge carrying the headless horseman. As he bears down on you, he rears back and throws a fearsomely carved pumpkin at you that smashes into pieces.

And that was the main key to the event. We arranged with Brach's to have trick-or-treat candy available at all the Main Street shops and encouraged kids to wear costumes (without masks for fear they would hurt themselves).

But the big draw of the first Halloween event was the chance to see The Legend of Sleepy Hollow at the Main Street Theater. The classic film had not been in distribution for quite some time.

But wait! This whole thing was conjured up by an 'outside bright boy', was it not? Doesn't he know "We don't do things that way?"

At the last minute, long after the advertising had started and the candy was being shipped, I had a stern message from Irving Ludwig, the president of Buena Vista.

Distribution. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow could not be played at the Main Street Theater at Walt Disney World. When I inquired why, he explained that it was not an official theater and did not play other movies from other production companies.

It took a phone call to Card Walker (then President of the Walt Disney Company) to solve the problem, but I'm still shaking my head.

At any rate, that's how the 'outside bright boy' took his first step to becoming just one of the boys. That first Halloween event was relatively successful and gave us a model for local marketing and future local events.

It didn't hurt my reputation as a problem solver either when early the next year attendance came roaring back.

Right after the gasoline crisis ended.

Larry Pontius is the author of Waking Walt, a novel that posits the incredible: Walt Disney really was frozen and now he has returned to life. The book is available in hardcover and soon in Kindle. Larry's second book, Future King, is imminent.