How to Market Unlikely Events

The following article features a partial chapter from my book Inside the Disney Marketing Machine entitled, “Marketing an Unlikely Anniversary.”  It focuses on how taking an idea that most would consider a non-starter can be molded into a phenomenal success when full force creativity in injected into the mix.  Enjoy!

For Disneyland’s 30th Anniversary there had to be a great PR angle that would give Disneyland Publicity the opportunity to promote the celebration every day of that year, 1985. The big idea that served as the marketing anchor for the yearlong “birthday party” came from Disney’s marketing master, Jack Lindquist.   At the time he headed marketing for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World and ultimately became Disneyland’s first president. He retired from the company in 1993 and passed away in 2016 at age 88 , but his out-of-the-box marketing concepts were always home runs.

In all my years at Disney I cannot think of one person who ever said an unkind word about Jack Lindquist. He was down to earth, was ever approachable, and would listen to anyone when it came to marketing ideas from street sweepers in the park to executive colleagues. He always had a mischievous twinkle in his eye and you never knew what to expect.

“Jack Lindquist is my idol,” said Phil Lengyel, a long-time Walt Disney World marketing executive.  “I remember before Eisner and Wells came onboard when were getting ready to open EPCOT Center and we needed to pitch Card Walker, then the company CEO, on some extra programming money that we needed to do some newspaper advertising,” he said. Lengyel flew to L.A. to participate in a meeting with Lindquist and Tom Elrod, his marketing boss, to take Walker through their thinking.

“I get to the Studio and we had this meeting all set up for 9am in Card’s office where he was waiting to start the session. I get there and there’s no Jack and there’s no Tom,” Lengyel remembered.  “There I am and I’ve got my slide projector to click Card through this thing.  Now I had only met him a couple of times so when I get to his office I reintroduce myself and make small talk for a few minutes.” Still no Jack and Tom.

“Card finally says, ‘So what’s going on?’ and I decided I’d better start,” said Lengyel.   “So I take him through the stuff, just the two of us.  And then he says, “Are you asking for money?”  And I said, “Well there’s an element of budget to this…..”  And he said, “You’re asking for money.”  I said, “Yes, I am.”  He got up, unplugged my slide projector and walked out.”  Lengyel rushed over to Lindquist’s office and there he was sitting at his desk smiling from ear to ear.  Lengyel said, “Where were you?” and Lindquist replied, “He threw you out, didn’t he?”  Lengyel said, “Yeah, where were you?   You were supposed to protect me and help me.”  “Oh, I knew that was going to happen,” Lindquist responded.  “I didn’t need to see that.”  Lengyel said, “So what are we going to do?”  Lindquist said, “Oh, we’re going to do it anyway.” That was Jack Lindquist.

For Disneyland’s 30th anniversary, Lindquist came up with a concept focusing on something called “The Gift Giver Extraordinaire.”   His proposal seemed so off the wall that he put his job on the line to get a buy-off to proceed with the idea. So what exactly was a “Gift Giver Extraordinaire”? Jack explained:

“In late 1984 we had gone through the L.A. Olympics at Disneyland which turned out to be a bomb in terms of attendance and we were way under attendance projections at 9.2 million visitors,” he said. “I knew in 1985 we had to do something spectacular. We didn’t have a new attraction, and I started thinking about an anniversary. It was Disneyland’s 30th year but everyone told me that nobody celebrates a 30th anniversary. “So what?” he responded.

“I thought about cars,” he continued, “because they’re pretty universal and have both great male and female appeal. What if we gave away cars?” But this wasn’t the first time Lindquist had come up with an idea to use cars to entice people to a specific location. Before he started working at Disneyland (two months after the Park opened in 1955 serving as the theme park’s first Advertising Manager), Lindquist worked for an L.A. ad agency and represented Kelvinator, a company that made washers, dryers, refrigerators, and other appliances.

“Every week I had to come up with another gimmick to get customers to go down to a local appliance store that sold Kelvinator products and hopefully the salespeople could hook them in to buying a new product, ” Lindquist said. “I was always coming up with crazy stuff to make that work and one week I decided we would give away cars to people who would come down to the store to get an appraised value on the appliances they owned.   I went out and bought twenty used cars at wholesale for $50 each,” he explained.

“We did a local TV commercial that said, ‘Mom, how would you like a second car so you can take your kids to the doctor or go shopping?’ In those days, nobody had a second car,” Lindquist said. “Of course the kind of cars I bought were not exactly the cream of the crop. If they had one good side that would work because that’s all we wanted to show to the camera,” he laughed. Despite a few dents here and there on the cache of cars, “The promotion worked so well I had to go out and buy 200 more!”

And so a Kelvinator promotion was the genesis of Lindquist’s idea to give away cars (new General Motors vehicles this time) during Disneyland’s 30th anniversary. He wrote up a plan for how it would all work and said to Ron Miller in his last weeks as Disney CEO, “If we do this promotion we’ll do 12 million in attendance in 1985 and it will be a record year, two million more than we did in 1984.” Miller didn’t buy it.

But Lindquist did not give up. When Eisner replaced Miller, he pitched the idea again, this time to the new CEO, but with one big caveat. Lindquist explained, “I was sitting behind Michael on an airplane headed for Orlando,” he said. “Michael had only been with the company for a few weeks when I pitched the idea to him.” Eisner thought the concept was ‘ridiculous.’ I told him I’d make him an offer – if we don’t hit 12 million in attendance by December 31, 1985, I’ll resign.” Eisner reconsidered and responded, “Well, if you think that much of it and you’re willing to put your job on the line, let’s give it a try.”

Lindquist’s big idea and how is was structured is explained in the press release below that was distributed to international media in late 1984:

Disneyland Celebrates 30th Anniversary

Disneyland_30On July 17, 1955, Disneyland welcomed its first guest. Today, three decades later, plans are underway to honor the Magic Kingdom’s 250 millionth visitor and to celebrate 1985, Disneyland’s magical 30th year, with the world’s most festive yearlong jubilee ever.

The extravagant celebration is launched on Jan. 1, 1985, with a burst of excitement as Disney characters, singers and bands rally at the Park’s Main entrance for the unveiling of Disneyland’s “Gift-Giver Extraordinaire Machine.” A computerized wonder, the specially created device will award prizes in the largest sweepstakes ever undertaken in the 30-year history of the Magic Kingdom. On that date, Disneyland’s Main Gate will literally be transformed into one of the Park’s most exciting areas as flashing lights and whistles welcome guests who will have the opportunity to win an estimated 400,000 gifts in 1985.

Focusing on the number 30, commemorating Disneyland’s anniversary, gifts will be awarded to every 30th, 300th, 3,000th, 30,000th, 300,000th, and 3,000,000th guest entering the Park. Prizes range from commemorative Disneyland passports for every 30th guest to new General Motors’ cars for the 30,000th, 300,000th, and 3,000,000th visitors. It is expected that an unprecedented 400 GM automobiles will be given away in the 12-month period. All of this excitement will culminate with the “Gift-Giver Extraordinaire” countdown to the luckiest prizewinner of all, Disneyland’s 250 millionth guest.

“We had to put all our Park divisions to work to make this happen,” Lindquist said. “It was an extraordinary measure of teamwork. First we had to computerize Disneyland’s entire Main Gate that involved working with Park Operations. But all Disneyland factions including Finance, Safety, Security, Guest Services, Custodial, Parking, and more, came into play. Of course, the primary driver was going to be the Marketing/Entertainment team.”

The Legal division also played a large part in putting together the promotion. A big hurdle to overcome was to the issue of whether The Gift Giver Extraordinaire promotion was in fact a “giveaway” vs. a “raffle,” an important legal distinction to make everything work on the up and up. “Giveaway” by definition is: the act of giving something away free. “Raffle” by definition is: the act of purchasing tickets to win a prize.

The problem was that guests who bought a ticket into the Park were automatically in the game…that meant it was a “raffle” because they purchased entry. Lindquist needed for the promotion to be a giveaway. “The way we solved that problem was by setting up a “free” turnstile at the Park’s Pet Center adjacent to the Main Gate entry and one at the Disneyland Hotel,” Jack said. “So you didn’t have to buy a ticket to be eligible.” In fact, the “free” turnstile attracted many daily visitors.

“Every morning there were some people who came to the Park, parked their car, went to the hotel, went to the turnstile, went back to their cars, went to work, then stopped on the way home,” Jack explained. “We actually had three or four people win cars this way during that year.”

To further lend credibility to the entire operation, Price Waterhouse (today PriceWaterhouseCoopers), the company that keeps all the Academy Award® winners names secret until the Oscar® broadcast, was hired to stand behind the integrity of the entire promotion. Of course, having The Gift Giver Extraordinaire wasn’t the only highlight of the 30th year, there were many more offerings to market that year as described in the continuation of the Gift Giver Press Release:

Once inside the Magic Kingdom, the birthday celebration continues with a variety of in-Park entertainment to delight every member of the family. “A parade every day” is just one of the features of the 30th anniversary along with an exciting calendar of fun-filled special themed events. Highlights of those be showcased include:

The premiere of Disneyland’s incomparable New Main Street Electrical Parade. After a two-year absence, this dazzling production, staged in complete darkness, returns in Spring, 1985 to spectacularly illuminate Main Street, U.S.A., with over a half-million sparkling and color lights outlining its procession.

On Disneyland’s actual 30th birth date, July 17, 1985, a 30-hour around-the-clock-and-more anniversary bash will be held. Guest bands, top-name talent, birthday parades, parties and surprises will continue non-stop as the “happiest place on earth” welcomes guest to join in the celebration for 30 consecutive hours.

“Galaxy,” (name later changed to Videopolis), an all-new high-tech dance and entertainment facility is scheduled to open at Disneyland in the summer of 1985. This exciting new addition to the Magic Kingdom will give teenagers the opportunity to dance and enjoy the music of live bands in an electrifying atmosphere unlike any they’ve ever before experienced at the Park. Included within the multi-faceted Galaxy complex will be a themed dining area and a challenging electronic video game facility.

Marking its 30th anniversary along with Disneyland is the original “Mickey Mouse Club.” For five weekends in October/November the entire Park will be themed to that show as members of the original Mouseketeers don their ears once again and perform live, on stage, in a musical recreation of that well remembered show. A special “Mickey Mouse Club” parade and rally will add to the fun.

In addition to those highlighted above, still more themed events include Disneyland’s “Salute to the American Hero,” “Springtime Fantasia,” “Small World Days” and the Magic Kingdom’ traditional Christmas extravaganza.

All in all, Disneyland’s 30th – the year of the “Give Giver Extraordinaire,” non-stop special events, a parade every day, more live stage shows – adds up to the biggest, best and most ambitious 12-months in the history of the Magic Kingdom.

There was so much going on in the Park for the 30th year. However, it was The Gift-Giver Extraordinaire that drove the marketing to sky-high levels and I was right in the middle of it (oh, and Jack Lindquist kept his job).

The next chapter, “Cars, Cars, Cars,” defines the inner workings of the Gift-Giver Extraordinaire and the marketing rewards reaped every single day for a full year from it.  Coming soon to this blog, thesynergywhisperer.com.

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