Bob Gurr, Disney Imagineer Puts Theme Park Magic Into Motion

LOS ANGELES — It took more than Tinker Bell and fairy dust to create the magic of America’s best known theme park. It took Bob Gurr.




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As one of the original Walt Disney (DIS) Imagineers, Gurr played a key role in bringing hundreds of Disneyland’s most famous rides and attractions to life. If it moves in Disneyland, Gurr likely had a hand in building it.

Gurr was the chief designer of the Monorail. And he designed and engineered the Matterhorn Bobsleds and the mechanisms whirring inside of the metal skeleton of a robotic Abraham Lincoln.

Gurr learned management skills straight from one of America’s greatest entrepreneurs — Walt Disney himself. Gurr applied those lessons in his own businesses. The result? Awe-inspiring adventures for Disney, Comcast’s (CMCSA) Universal Studios and others.

Still active at 89, Gurr has become something of a late-blooming rock star among Disney fans. Disney named him one of its “Legends” in 2004. He still receives fan mail, is sought out by autograph hunters and maintains a public appearance schedule.

From his home perched in the hilly northern reaches of Los Angeles, he has plenty of observations to dish out to fellow designers and engineers based on six decades creating some of America’s best-known attractions.

Bob Gurr: Let Curiosity Lead To Creativity

Gurr’s top advice starts simple and basic: be curious. Ask questions — lots of them. Never stop learning, including about fields that you never thought you’d touch.

“Walt’s No. 1 characteristic was curiosity,” Gurr said. “A lot of people don’t understand the word.”

Disney would stroll among those creating the various attractions coming together in his groundbreaking theme park, leading up to its opening in 1955. He constantly asked probing questions. Not to issue orders, but to inspire.

Think More Expansively

Walt Disney motivated employees to think more creatively, Gurr says. Disney, Gurr said, was a master of “planting the seed” of an idea and leaving it to the Imagineer to figure it out.

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“When an idea was evolving, oh man, an eyebrow would shoot up and (he would have) a twinkle in the eye,” Gurr said. “He would say ‘Bobby that’s looking pretty good,’ but he would say, ‘what if?'”

Gurr happily accepted the challenge. Those what-if’s turned into some of Disneyland’s greatest early attractions. An example? Such an exchange gave the Monorail a sleek, futuristic look.

Push Yourself Into New Fields

The push toward building something better forced Gurr to seek out of his own education. He’d dive into fields in which he had no formal training.

Gurr had studied to become an automotive designer on a General Motors (GM) scholarship. And he’d gone to work for Ford (F). But he was given routine, monotonous assignments that left him restless.

At one point he was told to design 100 hood ornaments in a day. He found it painfully unfulfilling. Gurr still keeps one of the prototypes in his backyard as a reminder of starting out.

Take On The Impossible Like Bob Gurr

Yet Gurr relished big challenges working among the Imagineers. He employed his wits, a lifelong love of cars and airplanes and his ability to ask questions. Learning from experts in the entertainment company’s many shops turned Gurr into a self-taught engineer.

Gurr didn’t shy away from tough assignments. Asked whether he could take on something new, the answer was almost always “yes.”

So while his auto design skills came in handy in styling Disneyland’s Autopia cars, he also worked on the chassis.

Hire Self-Starters, Not Resume Pushers

Gurr wasn’t alone in willingness to tackle just about any issue that came along.

“All of early Imagineers were like this. We were self starters. We were curious,” Gurr said. “Walt seemed to have a sixth sense about what somebody might (be able to) do.”

Time and time again, Gurr was put to the test. Disney wanted to create a robotic Abraham Lincoln for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The 16th president later became a mainstay at Disneyland. And Gurr was among those charged with coming up with the mechanics to make Honest Abe bend, gesture and talk. It wasn’t an easy task: “skinny president. Hard to get all the parts in,” Gurr said.

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To find the kind of workers who weren’t afraid to take on anything, Disney had little use for applicants’ flashy resumes. “He would tell people bluntly: ‘I don’t care what you did. I want to know what you can do for me next.'”

Keep Alternatives Up Your Sleeve

Gurr said he dodged potential disasters when it came to some of his biggest challenges. How? Never depending on a single solution. If Plan A wasn’t working, he strove to be ready with Plans B, C and D.

Having alternatives would come in handy multiple times over his career. After leaving Disney, Gurr took over the quest for an illusion to wow audiences gazing into the nighttime sky at the closing ceremonies for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Another firm envisioned the idea of a mock flying saucer that would appear and descend on the stadium. Gurr took over the troubled project. And he deduced crafting the saucer as a solid disc wouldn’t work.

Instead, Gurr gave the saucer a more open design. He wired it together with cables like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Appearing to the theme from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the simulated UFO blinked its lights and beamed a searchlight into the throngs below as it dangled from a helicopter hovering high above. The illusion was a smash hit.

Bob Gurr: Offer Up A Better Way

Gurr finds alternatives that would not only be better, but cheaper.

He advised Disney executives creating the Catastrophe Canyon special-effects attraction for the Hollywood Studios back lot tour at Walt Disney World. Gurr showed an explosion of a gasoline-laden tanker truck would be more exciting than the group’s previous idea of an oil tank catching fire. The move, he said, saved $400,000.

Gurr said he worked to be the guy who gets the job done. He “won’t blow smoke” when he agrees to take on a tough task. Such honesty paid off when he was finding ways to create a gigantic King Kong for Universal. And it also helped on the project building a pirate ship that would sink during cannon duels at the entrance to the Treasure Island hotel in Las Vegas.

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Keep Working

Gurr is not done. He’s still tackling interesting tasks, just not as often.

Gurr still parcels out advice to visitors who take him out for a bowl of soup at a local eatery. And he dove in on a chance to take a fresh look at the electric scooters rented to the impaired at theme parks. Gurr saw how to make them decidedly better. “I did not realize what handicapped people have to do,” he said.

Even as he plans a 90th birthday luau, Gurr refuses to stop working.

“What’s the point of retirement?” He asks. “If you are curious, if you are still having fun, why would you even think of retirement?”

Keep Your Mind And Body Active

Gurr parks a motor home in his driveway for beach getaways. He still rides his bicycle. And he regularly runs a helicopter flight simulation program on his computer to keep hand-eye coordination skills sharp.

Mostly, through, he is devoted to constant learning. Gurr reads the newspaper every morning, clipping out articles for further thought. He watches television programs he deems to be informative. And he skips those that are pure entertainment. On Friday nights, Gurr said he reflects on all the new things he has learned since the previous Monday.

His advice for those starting out? “Remember what your biggest passions are.” Pursue them relentlessly, starting from the ground floor and working your way up.

And yes, stay curious.

Bob Gurr’s Keys

  • Legendary Disney Imagineer designed more than 100 attractions for Walt Disney, including Autopia, Matterhorn Bobsleds and the Monorail.
  • Overcame: Early-career frustrations with monotonous assignments in automobile industry.
  • Lesson: “Remember what your biggest passions are.”

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