When I was born, Walt Disney had already passed away. So when I have an opportunity to talk with someone who knew him, I want to hear the truth directly from their memories of what Walt was really like. In this third and final installment of The Bob Gurr Interview, Bob shares some of his first-hand memories of his time designing many of Disneyland’s most iconic attraction vehicles.
If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.
If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE.
Freddy Martin: What do you wish that people knew about Walt that few other people know?
Bob Gurr: You know the funny thing, you know I worked with him for 12 years, and I would say he was about as open and ordinary as anybody you’d ever run across. Everything about him, in a way, it was kind of a paradox, because when, one moment you’re with him and/or you’re doing something and he just seems like such an ordinary guy in a way. You know, the use of language the choice of food, the little expressions that, y’know, a typical Midwestern kid would use.
And then at other times, where he’d be in a place where there was other people present at the company’s and corporations and stuff, and they’re all awestruck by him because they see him as a god. And Walt was, it was kind of funny in a way, and I’d seen this personally at other times, where he was very aware that people perceived him kind of like a real great guy. After all, he invented Snow White, didnt he? Y’know, he invented Mickey Mouse. And he’s done a Disneyland and now he’s trying to do an EPCOT.
But in order for Walt to have a conversation with somebody, he’s got to be able to have everybody at the same level. And I would see him deliberately loosen his tie and leave it slightly askew. Or sometimes we’d be someplace where he was wearing a little hat, he had a pork pie hat, he’d just wad up in his pocket. Or when he’d take it out, he’d flop it on his head and not even re-adjust it. Just wherever it hit, it hit. Because it would send like little subtle signals that he’s okay. He’s okay to talk to. It’s okay to get close.
One day in Pittsburgh, we were at a party after a business meeting with Westinghouse up on a Hilltop Bar. And the bar was not very big. It was a little bit too small for the size team we had from Disney. We had 13 of us and the guys from Westinghouse, so you have to stand a little bit too close with your scotch mist in the afternoon.
Now think about safe space between people. Like when you, sometimes somebody will come a little too close to you and you can’t define that space. But you know when your space has been invaded and somebody’s talking right at you, it makes you nervous. Alright, well, that’s a human thing a lot of people don’t even think of. But that little distance of space is a little different for everybody.
Well, I saw Don Burnham, the chairman of the board at Westinghouse, with his drink talking directly to Walt, and I’m in the conversation, and I notice the guy’s lower lip starts to quiver. He starts to sputter. (laughs) And Walt backs up a little bit, y’know kind of casually. And I notice, yeah, boy this place is tight. So many of the other places we’re not like that. That was the first time I noticed that. Then thereafter, I could see that, Oh yeah, people do get uncomfortable around some people.
And boy! Around Walt Disney, people that are very lofty can suffer the same thing as a Disney fan.
So a lot of people ask these kind of questions about Walt Disney and I think it’s probably because, Lord knows how many books have been written about him how many magazine articles. So I would say the majority of the world, when you say the word “Walt Disney,” it’s mostly misinformation.
And obviously the only people that could tell you something that was different are only the people that are still alive today, and which there’s not a lot of us left.
But I can assure you that’s the way it was, from the day I met him. I was never introduced to him. I was just suddenly, I was there working on the car, the little autopia car. It was just very simple.
And then I watched the way he worked with people. And I’d say around him I would say the only time I was close to nervous was, I had to drive one of the company station wagons with him in the back seat behind me down Highland Avenue, which was a wiggly Street. And I think it used to have railroad tracks in it. And I thought, “Oh my God! I don’t want to crash this car. I’ll kill Walt Disney. He’s sitting right behind me!”
So there’s some nervousness there. But you know, to Walt, it’s just Walt.
Freddy Martin: What you just said about Walt Disney was profound. “He was ordinary.” That’s not what people think. They think he’s a legend. No, he’s ordinary.
Bob Gurr: I know, but see maybe once or twice a week he’d come in my office. Y’know, I had a big office. I had a leather chair. He’d just come in. He liked to walk around, see what other people are doing. Some days he’d walk in, never said a word, just look around and walk out. Other days, he’d stand and look what I’m doing or sometimes he’d just sit down, and then I’d go grab the little stool and go ahead and sit down, see what he wanted. So just as ordinary as could be.
I can only tell you what I know about him from personal experience.
Freddy Martin: What was the last conversation you had with him?
Bob Gurr: Well, there was the Omnimover project, we were designing what later became the “Atommobile” for the Monsanto attraction. And the president of Monsanto, he and Walt kinda had words once in awhile because they were still trying to refine what the guy from Monsanto wanted and what Walt thought he ought to have.
And I’d built a cardboard model, a full size one of the shape of the car body with the speakers up in like the corners of it. And I made it one way and Walt says, “Gee, I like it! I think that’s good.”
And this guy comes over and, y’know, who am I to tell the guy that Walt liked that and the guy says, “Oh no. I would like to have it this way. I want these ears to stand up a little bit more here. Can you cut that up and put it back together with some tape or something?”
And I did it! And I think within a couple of days Walt comes in and says, “Well what did you do that for?”
And he was not happy. you know? And I had to say that “Mr. President,” he said to do it. And Walt had some words that I can’t really remember, but the look on his face was like God damn it this is my park. This is the way we do it!” (Laughs)
I don’t want to get between two guys that are disagreeing, you know? And I’m the one with the tape and scissors!
Note: I asked Bob about his experience with Walt’s passing at this point, but he politely declined to answer. His response was very direct and guarded. It seemed that he has decided that questions of this nature are too intimate and personal. I respectfully moved on with the next question.
Freddy Martin: You’ve been honored with a window on Main Street. Tell us about it.
It’s on Center Street. You go up [Main] Street at Disneyland, you come to the first block and make a right turn. Look to the left, it’s a little narrow building, has one window. But it has an actual, dimensional model of a bicycle bolted to the wall next to the window. Normally everybody gets a window if you’re going to have a window, they just have a window.
And then the guys in the machine shop in the back knew that I was a mountain biker, and so they volunteered on their own time, they scrambled up some parts and built this cute little funky bicycle that’s not recognizable as anything authentic, but it’s cute. And they bolted it on the wall.
And right after the ceremony they walked in and they said, “Hey, do you like the bike? I found the parts. I built that for ya, and they let me bolt it on the building.”
Oh, that set off a ruckus! Now everybody after that wants a dimensional sign, of course. I guess two years later Rolly Crump and Don Edgren, they got [windows], Rolly got a nice sign in front of his, so that kind of set the stage.
Freddy Martin: Is there a place in Disneyland that still feels to you like it did way back in 1955?
Bob Gurr: Up until a couple years ago The Rivers of America was exactly that. But the rivers of America, they tell me, got chopped up, modified put in a railroad bridge, and behind the bushes is some alien city. That’s all I know. But The Rivers of America is the prime one.
That is so, so Walt. It’s leisurely. It’s got a lot of nature. We still have immovable concrete deer. We sort of had a strange Indian village, that was very much how you’d tell stories in the fifties of that nature. And we had a great attraction that’s on water. And there was no rush. That’s the main one.
But the other things that are missing that is also “so Walt” that wasn’t necessarily there to begin with, but it’s so Walt was Granny’s cabin and the goat farm. They were later, of course, but they were very representative of the same feeling that a guest would have wandering around back there. It’s much the way with Knotts has never, almost never change their ghost town area because it’s “Walter Knott.”
But up to about 2015 Walt’s park was pretty much Walt’s park. But it is changing. Y’know, the world changes, companies get big. Disney is the premier entertainment empire on the entire planet. That’s its job.
Freddy Martin: Is there anything at Disneyland the you would improve if you could?
Bob Gurr: You know me better than to ask me a hypothetical question. (laughs)
I picked that up from Harry Truman. Harry Truman was the master of that because Washington politics is murder and nobody liked Harry Truman. And he dispensed everybody with just what I told you. Because the way he couched it which I vividly remember. “You boys know me better than that. You know I don’t answer hypothetical questions.”
Freddy Martin: You can’t fix it so why answer it.
Bob Gurr: That’s right. And the other half of it is, what did Bob Dylan say? Don’t look back. He wrote a book, “Don’t Look Back.”
Freddy Martin: Speaking of looking back, tell me how the WaltLand tours came about.
Note: Once per month, Bob leads a guided bus tour through Glendale and Burbank to various sites where Walt lived, worked, and played while he was alive. It’s called WaltLand Disney Bus Tours. Learn more at WaltLand.com.
Bob Gurr: Oh, sometime in the spring of 2016, Ernie phones up and said, “Hey Bob, I have an idea.”
I knew he did those ghost tours in the City of Orange. He said I have an idea for a tour of Walt’s early life, the original homes, and where the Hyperion Studios, and the Merry-Go-Round and the barn, and all that. And I says, “Ernie, I’ve been doing that for 17 years for family and friends. I have a standard route that I have done.”
I never envisioned you could make a bus tour out of it. So, within a couple of days, we got in his car and I had drafted up a route and figured out a timing chart preliminarily, because I’ve been doing it for so long. And it was near identical to what he’d been doing, or wanted to do, and we tested it. And the timing was perfect. We only made one adjustment a couple months later and that’s all we ever did to it.
And so there it was, a thing that’s been going on and he had an idea and the idea was so parallel. And I thought we might do one or two of them and it turned out this thing never ends! I think we just did the 14th or 15th one I think.
Freddy Martin: What’s next for Bob Gurr?
Bob Gurr: Part of it you never know because there’s all kinds of things pop up all the time. I know I’ve got a [manager]. Y’know Ernie’s my manager now. I kidded last year and I says, “Every time I get these questions from people I need to have an agent! Because Marty Sklar, many years ago, would snarl at us and say, “We gotta stop doing this free stuff for the Disney Company. They never pay us. We gotta get ourselves an agent.”
But he never got around to really doin it. And so then I thought, well then, okay… Ernie’s the agent so we’ll see what he finds.
Freddy Martin: You started with a passion for cars. Are you still passionate about them?
It never changed. I had a Model A Ford I did extensive engine work on it. I did extensive engine work on my ‘35 Ford. And then by the late seventies I had an older Rolls-Royce and I thought, Well, that’s a 6 cylinder engine. It needs some more work, had a hundred forty-three [thousand] miles on it… It’s only a Rolls-Royce. It’s only parts. So I take it all apart, rebuild the engine, put it all back in the car and start her up. Runs normal. Doesn’t smoke anymore and that was a 70 day job.
I’m not afraid to tackle anything. One time in 1950 I think in ‘53 I had a something ‘51 MG. I thought, I’ll make this go faster. I’ll take the four-cylinder engine out and get a Willy’s F-head 6 and put it in there and do an engine swap. And I did an engine swap in about a month and I had a much faster car. People that fuss with cars and motorcycles, they usually figure things out.
Freddy Martin: Where’s the theme park world going next?
Well, in the broader sense, I don’t see anything drastically different because we’re still filling the world with theme parks. You see Walt was the first to do a real modern theme park, even though Tivoli Gardens and other places had existed for a very, very long time. But the idea of this generic theme park thing which would fit any size, any country, anywhere, y’know, what’s Disney got? 10, 11 of them now?
And it’s almost certain that the next big country that gets filled up is going to be India because there are so many people in India. Y’know, they’re going to grow in parallel to China. There’s so many theme parks in China. There’s so many companies in the Themed Entertainment Association. Vendors, they’re so busy all over China. And now Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, they’re all starting to compete with one another.
And if you follow MBS, that’s Mohammed bin Salman, the guys only, what? 30? And he’s the Prince of Arabia. And he was just here for a couple weeks, here in the country going around talking to everybody. Yeah, he wants to make sure that his population, the Arabs are 29 million people or so, that they’re going to grow in parallel with the rest of the world, with all the things that are enjoyable in life. And well, they’ve got oil money and they they still need to generate other money here eventually in the decades ahead.
I think, looking way ahead, when we’ve got the countries that can support it, we will sort of have done the infill of conventional theme parks. And I would love to come back in a hundred years and see what that next wave of innovation [is going to be].
It’s almost like when you have something and you infill all the stuff and now somebody says, “Ok, we’ve done that. Now what?” The “now what” usually leads to some people coming up with some brilliant stuff.
I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I see it’s way down the road. But it’s not there yet.
So there might be some kind of stuff, obviously some of its going to be virtual reality. But virtual reality, I think, is coming to a point where it’s going to be very generic in another couple of decades in a way. And it’s almost like there’s going to be a semi-throwback to more naturalistic environments that are entertaining.
I can’t tell you very much, but I was paid recently for an entire morning with probably one of the most important, far-out theme park designers in the world, and I can’t say anything more than that. But that was the thrust I could see that they’re headed at. And this person has always been in the forefront.
So, all I can share with you, is that, yeah, I might be the 86 year-old guy on the bus, but I did get invited to poke my nose into that next wave of the future.
Because it’s out there. ~
Many thanks to Bob Gurr for his time and generosity. Connect with him at BobGurr.com
Thanks to Bob’s manager, Ernie Alonzo for arranging the time and for giving Bob a platform to share his fascinating stories with us. Click the image below to get on board the next WaltLand Tour. – FM
If you missed Part 1 of The Bob Gurr Interview, CLICK HERE.
If Part 2 of The Bob Gurr Interview is where you want to be, CLICK HERE.