The Best Advice I Ever Heard

Mabel Sieh

A creative force behind Walt Disney Imagineering once learned his lessons from Walt himself

Mabel Sieh |

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Martin Sklar has been behind the designs of many theme parks all over the world for the past 50 years.
When you believe in something, says Martin Sklar, believe in it all the way. Sklar should know what he's talking about. The 78-year-old is a Disney legend.

He even worked side by side with Walt Disney himself, and he has designed many of the best Disney theme parks all over the world for the past 50 years.

"I've seen lots of dreams come true in my career," says Sklar. He joined Disney a month before the first Disneyland opened in California in 1955.

He was in Hong Kong earlier this month to speak at the 2012 Hong Kong Design Year, organised by the Hong Kong Design Centre. While he understands that young Hongkongers face a lot of pressure in their studies, he says they need to look beyond that.

"You don't have to spend all your time on one exam. It's all about time management. You must find out what interests you and pursue it," he says. When he was a student at the University of California, he discovered his passion for writing. He served as the editor of the campus newspaper and that is how he had the chance to work for Disney. "I was hired to create a 1890-themed newspaper, The Disneyland News, to be sold on Main Street during the park's debut year," he recalls. Working for Walt, he says, was the "greatest training by fire". He has learned many things from Walt, but one thing has stayed with him all his life.

"When you believe in something, believe in it all the way. Have confidence in your ability to do it right, and work hard to do the best possible job - this is what Walt told me." Sklar believes that is how the Disney company keeps breaking new ground in the business.

He also remembers how Walt constantly encouraged creativity in the team by pitching new ideas, and improving everyone else's by keeping an open mind.

"No idea is a bad idea. Many times when someone says something stupid or off the wall in meetings, [don't ignore it] ... There could be a real gem in the idea, even though at the time it may not sound like it," Sklar says.

Back in their time, they were all risk takers, he recalls.

"In the team, we never said 'no - because' but only 'yes - if'. We'd consider all ideas suggested by each other, and find a way to make them work. For a good idea to come, risk is necessary," he explains.

Sklar cites a story in Take a Chance, an article written by Walt.

"He talked about a boy who wanted to march in the circus parade. When the circus came to town, he signed up to play the trombone even though he had never tried it before," he says.

"I hope I never become too old or afraid to march in a parade."

That kind of attitude underlines the work of the Imagineering team - the writers, artists, architects and engineers who turn dreams into reality. "Though all team members are experts in their own fields, they need to learn skills outside their area," says Sklar.

Curiosity, he says, is one of the four important Cs at the company, followed by confidence, courage and consistency.

"During my days at work, I often asked my creative colleagues this question: 'Who has seen or heard something new this week that excited you?' And we had a great time sharing our stories."

"When you're young, use the time to learn. Learn as much as you can and as many things as you can. The reason why we are so good is because we keep on learning," he concludes.

For upcoming events at the Hong Kong Design Centre, visit: