The idea in the quote below was laughed at…and not in a good way. But Walt Disney World Publicity master Charlie Ridgway had keen PR instincts and knew, at the very least, he could get a good photo out of it that would run in the local Orlando print media so he decided to do it anyway. If you spend any kind of time on idea development, sometimes your “crazy idea” does have legs. My intent with this blog post is to let every marketer know that sometimes you just need to go with your gut feelings. Usually our initial feel for an idea is often the best one. Don’t let others squash your creativity, just build on it.
The crazy Donald Duck idea turned into a national PR bonanza for Walt Disney World and Donald Duck’s 50th Anniversary celebration. Here’s the way it went as told by Ridgway in my book Inside the Disney Marketing Machine – in the Era of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells:
“We were sitting around thinking what we could do for Donald Duck’s 50th birthday,” said Ridgway. “We said, okay, we’ll have a parade and we’ll do some decorations for it. And I said, ‘What if we could train 50 white ducks to follow Donald Duck down the street in the parade?’ And everybody laughed and thought that was the silliest thing they ever heard. I thought we could get a great photo out of it.” While others may have scoffed, Ridgway pursued the idea. “I called the guy who was the head of Walt Disney World’s Discovery Island at the time in charge of birds and things. He said he didn’t know if we could do it, but he called some friends he knew in the bird business and they said that the training could be done, but the ducks would have to bond with Donald Duck from the time they’re born.”
That’s all Ridgway needed to hear. He put the wheels in motion. “We arranged to have Donald go to Miami to a hatchery where a bunch of ducks were hatching out and we got some great footage of Donald down on the floor with them as they’re coming out of the shell.” Never one to let a marketing opportunity go by, Ridgway added, “That was covered by the Florida television stations. Then we brought the ducklings back to Walt Disney World and put them out at the farm at Fort Wilderness because there was a petting area out there. While they were growing up every few days we would send Donald out there to play with them and throw out some lettuce and get them to follow him around. As they grew up and changed from little yellow ducklings to grown up white ducks they got closer and closer to Donald, eventually trailing him everywhere.”
Moving forward, it was decided to put the ducks in Donald’s 50th parade. “We built a small enclosure behind City Hall in Town Square that was by my office so we could keep an eye on the ducks,” explained Ridgway. “I probably came up with the idea that as long as they were going to a party, they ought to have party hats on.” The Walt Disney World Wardrobe Department figured out how to make birthday hats for them, but the problem became how do you get the hats to stay on their heads? “The wardrobe guy came up with the idea of using Velcro,” said Ridgway. “So they glued the Velcro onto the feathers on the top of the duck’s heads and then you could stick the hat up there with a little rubber band on them that went under their chins.”
Concerned that the ducks couldn’t walk the whole long parade route, Marketing decided to develop a little float on which they could ride. Ridgway recalled that “We put a picket fence around the float so the ducks wouldn’t fall off and a song was played that went quack, quack, quack. During the hotter weather when the ducks get warm they panted, so it looked like they were singing the quack, quack, quack. Then we said, okay, we have to have a birthday cake for them. They really liked corn, so we froze corn in the shape of a cake. We put the ducks on the lawn in front of the castle and they were very good about attacking it. The ducks were the hit of the parade all the time we celebrated Donald’s 50th birthday. The reaction of the guests was wonderful.”
But what happened to the ducks at the close of the Donald’s 50th parade and celebration? “We decided we couldn’t very well have the ducks for Thanksgiving dinner or anything like that when we got through with the event. We decided to give them away to major zoos around the country. At that point, we put velvet ribbons around their necks with nametags on them, taking the names of Disney characters. There was Snow White duck and Alice in Wonderland duck and so forth. The ducks were presented to different zoos wearing their hats and nametags.”
The ducks all lived a very long and good life. They were popular in the zoos as having been the ducks in Donald’s 50th birthday parade at Walt Disney World. Of course, giving the ducks away to zoos opened the door to even more publicity, as Ridgway soon found out, “Every time we gave a duck away to a zoo, and we did so all over the country, we got local TV, radio, and print publicity on it.”
And that’s how one crazy idea hit the marketing bullseye!