Disney Fans, Community Saddened By the Loss of Legend Behind Construction of Disney World

disney legend dick nunis cinderella castle
Credit: Disney/D23/Canva

Disney Parks fans and the Disney community are saddened today by the loss of Disney Legend Dick Nunis, who was instrumental in the development of the Walt Disney World Resort and its attractions. He was 91.

dick nunis

Credit: D23

Disney Legend Dick Nunis passed away in his “adopted hometown” of Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, a friend of Nunis’s family has confirmed.

Disney Legend Dick Nunis served as the former chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, but he began his career at the Disneyland Resort in 1955. He was instrumental in growing Walt’s one-park enterprise into what it is today, with 12 individual theme parks around the world.

Per The Walt Disney Company:

“[Nunis’s] legacy includes significant milestones in Disney theme park history, including the development of “Project X,” which eventually became the Walt Disney World Resort.

History of Walt Disney World Part 1: Magic Kingdom

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

“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,” said Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company. “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.”

dick nunis disney legend

Credit: University of Central Florida

“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,” said Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s Chairman of Experiences. “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

Credit: ITM

Born May 30, 1932, in Cedartown, Georgia, Nunis received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California (USC). His ambition to become a professional football player and coach was cut short, however, when he suffered a broken neck while playing ball. In 1955, he graduated from USC with a Bachelor of Science in Education.

Nunis learned about Disneyland through his classmate, Ron Miller, who was Walt’s son-in-law. On a lark, he decided to apply for a summer job at the new theme park and was hired by Van France—founder of The Disney University and author of the park’s orientation and training program—in May 1955 as an orientation training instructor. Just prior to the park’s July 17, 1955, debut, the duo began training Disneyland employees. Among members of their first class were Walt and his executives.

During those early years, Nunis learned Walt Disney’s theme park philosophy firsthand. And, as he guided the growth of Disney’s outdoor attractions from a single park into a worldwide resort, the premier theme park executive always kept his focus on the people.

disney legend dick nunis

Credit: D23/Dick Nunis, Twitter

“Walt believed strongly that what would make Disneyland different was the people—[Walt] wanted them to feel that they were part of the organization,” Nunis said, speaking about Walt Disney and the culture 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.”

walt disney

Credit: Disney

Nunis coined a phrase in his work as a trainer that embodied Walt’s philosophy, as he shared during a Q&A with Disney twenty-three in 2022. “One of the phrases we used a lot in training—‘the magic mirror of your smile’—that was my phrase.” The expression, his wife, Mary, explained, meant “you smile and ‘the mirror’—in this case another person—smiles back.”

Nunis soon worked his way up to attractions supervisor, developing standard operating procedures for the park’s attractions. Many of these are still in use today. In 1961, he became director of park operations and helped develop Walt Disney World Resort.

In his address to the cast members on the occasion of the Tencennial of Disneyland in 1965, Walt recounted a conversation he had with Nunis about the future of the park. “You know,” Nunis told Walt Disney, “We’ve got to take care of these people. Honestly Walt, we’ve got to expand Fantasyland. We’ve got to expand this (park).” Walt said that Nunis had him working harder than he’d ever worked before to expand Disneyland in order to accommodate the millions of additional guests he knew would visit every year.

Disney Legends: Dick Nunis - What did you learn from Walt Disney about  being a good leader?? - YouTube

Credit: YouTube/Disney Legends Series

From 1967–74, Nunis also served as chairman of the Park Operations Committee, and, in 1968, was bumped up to vice president of operations. By 1971, the year Magic Kingdom opened at Walt Disney World, he was named executive vice president of Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

In 1980, a month after his 25th anniversary with Disney, he was named president of the Outdoor Recreation Division, additionally overseeing EPCOT Center and, later, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios). Nunis also consulted on plans for Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris while serving on the Walt Disney Productions Board of Directors.

Nunis once said in an interview with France, “Disney is successful because we are dealing with people. And the words ‘quality’ and ‘pride,’ that is really what it is all about. As long as we design, build, engineer, maintain, and market with quality, that’s going to give our people great pride, and I’ve always said—and I believe it very strongly—that if you don’t have the quality, then you can’t have the pride, and if you ever lose the pride, you certainly will never have quality. And that’s what we should build on for the future.”

On May 26, 1999, 44 years to the day after he joined The Walt Disney Company, Dick Nunis retired from his role as chairman of Walt Disney Attractions. Later that year, he was honored with a window on Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland and was named a Disney Legend.

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

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