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What happens when you spend three decades publicizing all things Disney at the Walt Disney World? There aren’t many people you can ask that question other than long-time Disney PR guru Dave Herbst. The short answer is that you get a career full of interesting anecdotes and amazing experiences. Recently, Blooloop’s Chad Emerson (right) visited with Dave following his retirement from Disney to discuss just a few of these stories from 30 years with the Mouse.
Blooloop: 30 years in the amusement industry, much less with one company, is quite a career. Share with us how you got started at Disney.
Dave Herbst (pictured left with his wife of nearly 45 years, Kathy): In 1977, when I was a sportswriter in Pittsburgh, we took a family vacation to Florida. At the urging of some family friends, we made Walt Disney World Resort (that’s “Disney World” in casual conversation) part of our agenda. I’m hesitant to say it was a life-changing experience, but I will say it left me with a dream. As we were driving down I-95 toward Miami following two days in the Magic Kingdom, I announced to my wife, “I’m going to work there.” She was sufficiently amused by the pronouncement that if it hadn’t been for the seatbelt, she’d have laughed her way out of the car. I suppose my dream might have become a nightmare!
Back home following vacation, I wrote a letter of inquiry to the Disney employment office and received a “Thank you for your interest, but…” reply. I was at once disappointed and curious: The letter noted there currently wasn’t a position available for a person “with my qualifications, ” leaving me to wonder what I might be qualified to do. My affection for The Mouse was not diminished.
We returned to Disney World twice in the next three years, and I gushed about the experience in conversations with friends and colleagues. One of those colleagues, Jonathan Lansner (now of the Orange County Register), was a devout reader of Editor & Publisher, the print-media trade publication. In summer 1981, he spotted an ad in E&P for a “publicist” at Walt Disney World. I jumped on that like Willie Stargell (right) jumped on hanging curveballs! And my dream came true. Then, as now, I was involved in a role seeking to gain exposure for Disney World in news/editorial media.
Blooloop: What was one of the most rewarding moments during your career at Disney?
Herbst: The sum of 30 years is a cache of “rewarding moments.” It has been a rainbow reaching from the fall of 1981 to the fall of 2011 – beginning with a phone call from Charlie Ridgway, the publicity guru I mentioned earlier, during which I surmised Disney had interest in me. I mentioned more than once during the conversation that I was pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream. Actually what it was, was the first paragraph of a “dream come true.”
Rewarding moments come in a variety of styles. Grade-A blunders are rewarding moments when you learn from them (particularly if the only sanction you receive is a stern “Don’t let that happen again!” – which, by the way, has occurred more than a couple of times during my career). Accomplishments on a personal level are rewarding moments. Achievements that truly benefit the people on whose behalf you are laboring are certainly the kind of rewarding moments that may allow you to continue onward to other rewarding moments without changing your address!
When you have a rewarding moment that is both grand on a personal level and significant to your employer you strike the mother lode. I’ve experienced a few of those – both before and during my Disney career. One that truly stands out involved a relationship with a radio personality named J.P. McCarthy (right). He is no longer with us, but his memory is deservedly enshrined in the Radio Hall of Fame … and in the minds of people such as myself. I’d listened to J.P. during my years as a sports journalist in Michigan circa 1970. He was the morning show host on WJR-AM, “The Great Voice of The Great Lakes” – a 50-thousand-watt clear channel signal that took J.P. into receivers far from the studio in Detroit’s Fisher Building. J.P. also hosted a mid-day show called “Focus” that presented long-form interviews with people of interest from a variety of “walks.” When I’d tune into “Focus, ” the mental picture I drew was of a couple of people – J.P. and his guest – sitting on a couch with a cup of coffee, conversing. The interviews were that comfortable. In my experience, J.P. was the epitome of a talk radio person. While I worship no man, I put J.P. on the top shelf of my “most-admired shrine.”
Fast-forwarding to the early 1980s, I was assigned Michigan as a publicity territory for Walt Disney World. As I planned a trip, Charlie Ridgway commented, “If you’re going to Detroit, you ought to give my old friend J.P. McCarthy a call.” Charlie didn’t hear my response, because I spoke it only in my head: “Yeah, sure Charlie, like J.P. would give me the time of day.”
On a subsequent morning while Charlie was away on vacation, the phone of fellow publicist Tony Altobelli rang, and I listened as he commented that I’d probably want to take the call. Asked what the call was about, Tony said it was from Detroit and added information that was a bit hacked up but close enough to accurate that I concluded it was J.P. calling. My phone rang, and when I politely greeted the caller, the response was “Good morning, Dave, this is J.P. McCarthy, and we are live on WJR.”
The couple of minutes that followed involved an update about what new experiences vacationers from Michigan might discover that spring at Walt Disney World. During an ensuing conversation off-air, I gushed and shared Charlie’s suggestion. “Oh, you’re coming to Detroit?” J.P. responded, adding, “Give my producer, Hal Youngblood, a call and we’ll do something on ‘Focus.’”
Talk about an “OMG moment”!
I traveled to Detroit, I did a segment on Focus (sans the couch and coffee cups of my mental picture), and we began a relationship that continued for the rest of J.P.’s life. Our promotions department, which worked with programming, was quite impressed. They’d tried, unsuccessfully, to cut a deal to bring J.P.’s show to Walt Disney World.
On a subsequent visit to Detroit, as I prepared to move behind the mic for a segment on Focus, J.P. said, “David, I have a mission for you … if you choose to accept it.” (The “Mission: Impossible” theme is echoing in my head as I share this.)
“What’s that, J.P.?” I responded.
“Well, I’d like you to think about a reason for me to bring my show to Walt Disney World, ” he said, adding, “Not right this minute. When you get back to Florida, think about it and let me know.”
Talk about experiencing another “OMG moment”!
Back from the business trip, I got the blessings of Promotions Manager Tom Kennington and Marketing boss Tom Elrod to “go for it.” I appreciate it that they stepped aside and let me “do my thing, ” which was an idea J.P. initially was not sold on …
Oldsmobile (a Michigan company) was sponsor of our PGA TOUR event at the time, and we also hosted the finals of the Oldsmobile Scramble, an event that during the year involved more than 100, 000 amateur golfers. J.P. was an avid golfer, and when I put those events together with the timing – the fall, when Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula become joined to Florida as a “Southern Peninsula” through the migration of “snowbirds” – I believed it added up to a justifiable reason for J.P. to do his show from Disney World … and to play in the three-round pro-am portion of our tournament.
“Not exactly right” – or words to that effect – was J.P.’s initial reaction to the proposal. When he allowed that GM really thought it was a great concept, I said, “So do I, J.P.”
“Yeah, I think it makes so much sense.”
“Well, let me give it some more thought.”
J.P. did give it more thought … and it happened! My radio hero did three days of his show from Walt Disney World through an agreement wrought by a friendly business relationship. I could share more, but words equal trees equal money!
Blooloop: What about one of the most challenging experiences?
Herbst: Even when you liken your career to a rainbow arching 30 years, there are challenges. After all, where there are rainbows, there are dark clouds and showers.
I’ve begun some preliminary work on what may become a book manuscript about my 30-year career “preaching the gospel according to Mickey.” Within that is a segment entitled “A Dickens of a Year” that begins …
It was the best of times … theoretically.
It was the worst of times … realistically.
This is a tale of two VPs, one year, and me.
It was the mid-1990s, and plans were moving forward for a 200-acre campus of sports facilities (now expanded to 250 acres and known as ESPN Wide World of Sport Complex). There was a realization that a “sports information” function was necessary. And nearly a decade-and-a-half beyond my sports journalism days, I was ready to return to my career roots–to fulfill, perhaps, a career dream that didn’t happen early on.
Hands-down, the most challenging year of my entire career – not just at Disney, but inclusive of the 14 years-and-change before Disney – was my year in the sports arena. I was so enthralled with the possibilities that I simply didn’t ask enough questions about the role. In fact, I believe the only question I may have asked was, “When do I start?” Pathetic! But then again, I still had a few blonde hairs left at the time.
If I’d asked about the scope of the sports information department, an honest reply could have been “Look in the mirror.” But I didn’t ask. So I became the Manager of Sports Information with a staff of me, answering to a Director of Sports Marketing who I depict thusly: Unfortunately, I had a boss who demanded every move I made (save for those of the bowel variety) be captured and ultimately reported.
That added up to, well, “a Dickens of a year.” But it wasn’t a lost year. There were rainbows as brilliant as any of my life. And shamelessly I’ll mention that if I finish “Rat on The Mouse” and the manuscript finds favor with a publisher, you’ll be able to read about those rainbows … and, as Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story.”
Blooloop: Based on your extensive experience in the amusement industry, how do you think media interaction might change in the future?
Herbst: I’d need a crystal ball to answer that! I don’t have one – and it isn’t the type of question I can pose to my Magic 8 Ball. But I certainly can offer several thoughts.
First, there is the matter of economics. It plays a huge role in what both media people and PR people are able to do.
Second, with or without grand spectacles, communicators responsible for the amusements “beat” … and PR people responsible to make sure the world knows what is going on inside the industry … need one another.
Third, I cannot imagine a communicator being able to tell the story without actually seeing and experiencing the kinds of thrills and entertainment offered by the amusement industry!
Disney images: Kind courtesy Disney