Delivering Disney Magic: Dick Nunis, Walt’s Apprentice

If you read about the origins and development of Disneyland in the early 1950s leading up to its opening in July 1955, the well-know names start with Walt and Roy Disney, followed by a small-but-influential group of Disney studio team members who used their imaginative talents to transfer ideas from the screen to reality.

Of course, that is an important part of the history of Disney – we wouldn’t have the parks without their creative brilliance.

But it’s one thing to create a place like Disneyland, and a whole other thing to run a place like Disneyland.

During the final, frenzied weeks of construction leading to opening day on July 17, 1955, the name Dick Nunis appears in the history of Disneyland – a new college graduate, hired to be a “gofer” for Van Arsdale France, who created the first orientation and training program for employees.

Nunis had met Walt Disney several years before (Walt’s daughter Diane was a classmate of Nunis, and was dating her husband-to-be Ron Miller, a teammate of Nunis’ at USC). That memorable first encounter included a ride on “The Carolwood Pacific Railroad” – a miniature train with over 1/2 mile of track circling Walt Disney’s home (one of the four foundational origin stories of Disneyland, but that’s for another day).

That train ride with Walt Disney foreshadowed the future of Dick Nunis, as he progressed from a gofer to chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, a forty-four year career at Disney on the operations side of the parks. 

Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Disney Dream Alive is the memoir of Disney Legend Dick Nunis. It is a warm personal reminiscence of learning directly from Walt Disney for 12 years, followed by more than 30 years devoted to championing his vision and standards as the Disney empire grew.

The story covers Disney’s highlights, including the 1960 Winter Olympics, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, and the development and opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Epcot, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. 

Unlike other Disney books, this story is told from the perspective of operations rather than Imagineering. It touches on decisions that defined the guest experience and Disney’s reputation for quality in areas ranging from capacity and people-moving, training, delivering a consistent “good show,” food service, and more.

This first-person narrative is presented as a series of wide-ranging vignettes. Some vignettes focus on personal, character-shaping events, such as the injury that ended his collegiate football career. Other stories touch on national events, such as Nikita Khrushchev’s derailed visit to Disneyland, the decision to close the park following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan’s assistance in expediting the visa process for cast members staffing the Epcot World Showcase. Few people have enjoyed a life so immersed in Disney magic.

These stories share that magic through the memories of one of the original doers and dreamers.

In my personal research and study of the history of the Disney company, I had long noticed the name of Dick Nunis and the many contributions he made at each stage of his Disney career.

When I learned that the long-rumored book from Nunis was being published, it went to the top of my list.

It did not disappoint!

As one of a very few individuals still alive who worked closely with Walt Disney, Walt’s Apprentice chronicles how Nunis learned directly from Walt Disney for a dozen years, then spent the next thirty years devoted to championing Walt’s vision and standards as Disney grow into a worldwide enterprise, “creating happiness” for young and old alike.

If you want to read a first-person narrative on Disney with a focus on the operational side, Walt’s Apprentice is a must.


Part of a regular series on 27gen, entitled Wednesday Weekly Reader

During my elementary school years one of the things I looked forward to the most was the delivery of “My Weekly Reader,” a weekly educational magazine designed for children and containing news-based, current events.

It became a regular part of my love for reading, and helped develop my curiosity about the world around us.

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