The modern Walt Disney Company may have come of age under its last two chief executives, but its rebirth began with Ron Miller, the last CEO with a link to Walt himself.
Miller, who died earlier this month at the age of 85, was much more than just Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Beginning with a short-term job shuttling design plans to the Disneyland construction site 1954 — the same year he married Walt’s daughter Diane — he had a hand in numerous Disney projects.
His earliest work included assistant director duties on 1957’s “Old Yeller” and the “Zorro” television series. Later, he worked on the secretive land acquisition spree for t would become Walt Disney World, and helped secure $30 million in highway funding needed for the never-built Mineral King ski resort in California.
Even back then, he wasn’t given much credit. According to John Taylor’s 1987 book “Storming the Magic Kingdom,” Miller knew people called him “a good-looking jock” behind his back and implied his career was only the result of nepotism. Walt, however, recognized Miller’s potential.
“He understood that people could do things before they understood that fact,” Sam Gennawey, historian and author of books like “Walt Disney and the Promise of Progress City” and “The Disneyland Story,” told Orlando Rising. “Ron is a fine example of that.”
‘What would Walt have done?’
After Walt’s death in 1966 and the retirement of company co-founder Roy O. Disney after Disney World opened in 1971, the reins of the company were handed over to Card Walker. Walker took a cautious approach, often appearing to base decisions on “What would Walt have done?” That way of thinking led to a kitschy, often corny slate of family-friendly comedies out of touch with popular taste. Subsequently, the studio’s fortunes sank in the ‘70s, with theme parks becoming the main revenue stream by the end of the decade.
As Miller assumed greater responsibilities, becoming company president 1978, he pushed for the company to take greater risks. Some weren’t successful in the short term, like 1982’s “Tron,” but others were more effect modernization efforts, like the 1983 launch of The Disney Channel, then a premium TV channel à la HBO.
It was over the objections of Walker and his “What would Walt do?” cohorts that Miller helped create Touchstone Pictures. This separate label allowed Disney to make more adult movies without besmirching the squeaky-clean Disney brand. Its first release, 1984’s “Splash,” was the company’s first live-action hit since 1969’s “The Love Bug,” grossing nearly $70 million on a $8 million budget.
“Now we could go after the best directors. We could go after the best writers. We hit quite a few home runs after that,” Miller said of the Touchstone’s impact in his final interview, published in December 2018 by the Nob Hill Gazette.
Keeping prices low
Theme parks did expand during Miller’s tenures as president and CEO. Disney World grew with the 1982 opening of Epcot and the first overseas Disney park, Tokyo Disneyland, opened in 1983. Yet Ron was considered more of a “studio guy” who stayed relatively hands-off with the parks and Disney Imagineers.
“As a former pro football player, Ron was big on teamwork and collaboration. He was not a shouter or a man who intimidated people,” Gennawey said. “His sheer physical appearance, confidence, and gentle manner allowed people space to provide the best advice.”
Management of the parks was much different in those days. Even after Epcot opened, the resort was made up of just two theme parks and three on-site hotels. In Disney’s view, both Disney World and off-site tourist corridors like U.S. 192 could benefit at the same time. Being a “good neighbor” was considered more important than maximizing revenue.
“Disney would gets its fair share and be able to provide a consistently quality product and maintain its service reputation,” Gennawey said. “As you can see today, growth is not always good.”
Ticket prices were also kept low. When Miller became CEO in 1983, a one-day ticket to Disney World was just $15.
“We probably were undervalued in terms of ticket price,” said Duncan Dickson, who was manager of staffing at Epcot when Miller was CEO and now teaches at UCF’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “That was one of first things that changed, they came in and started raising prices. It scared a lot of us because we were afraid we were going to price ourselves out of the market.”
This more passive approach to Disney World contributed to Miller’s downfall. With the company’s stock price languishing at less than $60 per share in November 1983, corporate raider Saul Steinberg was among those who realized the company was worth more in pieces than it was kept together under its current management. In the midst of a power struggle where Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, resigned from the board to force a management change, Steinberg swooped in and bought up Disney stock with the intent of dismantling the company.
The Steinberg was eventually bought off with $52 million in “greenmail,” but the Disney board lost faith in Miller as a leader. He was asked to resign as CEO in September 1984 — only 18 months after he took the role.
“I’m very disappointed in this,” he told board members before they voted on removing him as CEO, according to Taylor’s book. “I’ve given my life to this company. I’ve never worked anywhere else. And I’ve made progress with this company. I think I’ve taken great strides in leading it as far as it has come. I feel like this is a betrayal.”
New leadership, new Disney
Miller was replaced as CEO by Michael Eisner, then an executive at Paramount Pictures. Miller had earlier tried to bring Eisner into Disney as president and chief operating officer before Walker, still the company’s chairman, nixed the idea because Eisner was an outsider to Disney.
According to Dickson, the culture within the company and at Disney World quickly changed under Eisner and new president Frank Wells.
“I was a minor player in those days, but the focus changed from employee experience and making the guest happy to stock price,” he said. “Prior to Eisner and Wells, we never really worried about the stock price.”
Eisner went on to run Disney for more than 20 years. In that time, Disney World greatly expanded with new hotels and two theme parks, while at the same time becoming more reliant on college students for its workforce and greatly increasing ticket prices. A one-day Disney World ticket was $18 after Eisner took over. By the time he left in 2005, the same ticket cost $59.75.
A forgotten legacy
The sticker shock alone is enough to make older Disney fans wistful for Miller’s style of management. But even if he was pursuing a kinder, gentler modernization, he was still aiming to transform the company.
“Ron doesn’t get the credit he should for greenlighting some very innovative movies,” Dickson said. “Probably the most notable is ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Eisner gets all the credit for that, but Ron actually greenlighted that movie.”
It wouldn’t be the first time Eisner was mistakenly given credit for ideas that originated under Miller. The long list of such projects includes, according to Gennawey, the initial planning for what would become Disneyland Paris.
Touchstone Pictures may have been Ron’s most enduring legacy at Disney. The label was used for many successful PG-13 and R-rated films from 1990’s “Pretty Woman” to 1998’s “Armageddon.” Six Touchstone films were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, starting with “Dead Poets Society;” only four Disney films have earned the same honor.
To Dickson, there’s little mystery why Eisner and current Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger get more credit for their contributions as company leaders. “They were there longer,” he said.
After leaving Disney, Miller and his wife resettled in California’s wine country, creating the successful Silverado Vineyards. Their last major project was founding the Walt Disney Family Museum in 2009, which Miller said Diane considered “magnificent.”
In his final interview, however, his biggest desire seemed to be a reunion with Diane, who died in 2013. When asked what he would do with a magic wand, Miller answered, “Have my wife with me. Five years of living alone, it’s tough.”
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