It’s never easy to say goodbye to a legend. Sadly, Disney fans have had to do this with the passing this week of former chairman of Walt Disney Productions, Dick Nunis, at the age of 91.
Born May 30, 1932, in Cedartown, Georgia, Nunis was a former football star for the University of Southern California before moving into business. To say he got in on the ground floor of Disney is no exaggeration, as he was hired for Disneyland just weeks before the park’s grand opening in 1955.
Nunis caught Walt’s eye with his hard work and dedication as well as an eye to the future. By 1961, he was director of park operations, and it was he who pushed Walt to expand Disneyland and Disney properties. That was paid attention to by Walt and his successors.
Nunis was a key player in the development of what became Walt Disney World, overseeing its change from a planned city to theme parks, and in 1971, was named executive vice president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland.
1980 saw another promotion for Nunis as president of the Outdoor Recreation Division. This had him overseeing the creation of EPCOT Center, the Disney-MGM Studios and Tokyo Disneyland as well as a consultant on Disneyland Paris.
Retiring in 1999, Nunis earned the honor of his name placed in one of the windows of Main Street on Disneyland. He published his memoir Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Disney Dream Alive in 2022, sharing his amazing stories.
Nunis’ legacy and impact on Disney
Nunis’ impact on the Disney park expansion can’t be ignored. Many Imagineers cited him as keeping Walt’s spirit alive and the parks. As he stated in his memoirs and interviews, “Walt believed strongly that what would make Disneyland different was the people — he wanted them to feel that they were part of the organization. That’s why he established the first-name policy — he was Walt, I was Dick and so on. From an overall operations point of view, the most important thing is to work together to make sure that when guests come, they have a wonderful experience.”
Nunis helped guide Disneyland into its expansion, adding top-notch attractions like Star Tours, Splash Mountain and more. He was also critical in developing both EPCOT and the Disney-MGM Studios, seeing Florida as a wonderful way to expand Disney operations and provide more thrills. His work in Tokyo and Paris also helped establish Disney parks as a worldwide operation and the powerhouse we know today.
CEO Bob Iger paid tribute to Nunis and his impact on Disney in a statement.
“Today, we mourn the passing of Dick Nunis, a true Disney Legend whose contributions to The Walt Disney Company have touched the lives of millions of people all over the world. What started as a summer job training future Disneyland employees would ultimately become a storied 44-year career at Disney. Dick took the values and philosophies he learned directly from Walt and incorporated them into everything he did at Disney. We are grateful for his many achievements and we extend our deepest sympathies to his family and loved ones.”
Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Experiences, added his own statement.
“On behalf of every Cast Member, Crew Member, Imagineer and employee of Disney Experiences, I want to express my gratitude to Disney Legend Dick Nunis… and my condolences to his family following the sad news of his passing. Dick’s impact on our theme parks business is everlasting. Along with our founder, Walt Disney, Dick helped shape our business, create happiness for millions of families around the world… and set a standard that an entire industry must now live up to.”
Dick Nunis was one of the most underrated forces behind Disney’s international growth and his loss is a big one for the company. Yet his legacy is a reason why Disney parks today are as amazing as fans love.