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Ride of a Lifetime: Chapter 11

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The Ride of a Lifetime is a work of nonfiction. Some names and identifying details have been
changed.

Copyright © 2019 by Robert Iger

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random
House LLC, New York.

RANDOM HOUSE and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random
House LLC.

Hardback ISBN 9780399592096

International edition ISBN 9781984801463

Ebook ISBN 9780399592102

randomhousebooks.com

Cover design: Pete Garceau

Cover image: Gavin Bond

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CONTENTS

Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Prologue

Part One: Learning

Chapter 1: Starting at the Bottom

Chapter 2: Betting on Talent

Chapter 3: Know What You Don’t Know
(and Trust in What You Do)

Chapter 4: Enter Disney

Chapter 5: Second in Line

Chapter 6: Good Things Can Happen

Chapter 7: It’s About the Future

Part Two: Leading

Chapter 8: The Power of Respect

Chapter 9: Disney-Pixar and a New Path to the Future

Chapter 10: Marvel and Massive Risks That Make Perfect Sense

Chapter 11: Star Wars

Chapter 12: If You Don’t Innovate, You Die

Chapter 13: No Price on Integrity

Chapter 14: Core Values

Appendix: Lessons to Lead By

Photo Insert

Dedication

Acknowledgments

About the Author

I
PROLOGUE

N JUNE 2016 I made my fortieth trip to China in eighteen years, my
eleventh in the past six months. I was there to oversee the final

preparations before the opening of Shanghai Disneyland. I’d been CEO
of the Walt Disney Company for eleven years at that point, and my
plan was to open Shanghai and then retire. It had been a thrilling run,
and the creation of this park was the biggest accomplishment of my
career. It felt like the right time to move on, but life doesn’t always go
the way you expect it will. Things happen that you can’t possibly
anticipate. The fact that I’m still running the company as I write this is
a testament to that. Much more profoundly, so are the events of that
week in Shanghai.

We were opening the park on Thursday, June 16. That Monday, the
first wave of VIPs was scheduled to arrive: Disney board members and
key executives and their families, creative partners, investors and Wall
Street analysts. There was a huge international media contingent
already there and more coming in. I’d been in Shanghai for two weeks
and was running on adrenaline. Since my first location-scouting trip to
China in 1998, I was the only person who had been involved in the
project from day one, and I couldn’t wait to show it to the world.

In the sixty-one years since Walt Disney built Disneyland in
Anaheim, California, we’d opened parks in Orlando and Paris and
Tokyo and Hong Kong. Disney World in Orlando remains our largest,
but Shanghai was of a different order than all the others. It was one of
the biggest investments in the history of the company. Numbers don’t
really do the park justice, but here are a few to give some sense of its
scope. Shanghai Disneyland cost about $6 billion to build. It is 963
acres, about eleven times the size of Disneyland. At various stages of its
construction, as many as fourteen thousand workers lived on the
property. We held casting calls in six cities in China to discover the
thousand singers, dancers, and actors who perform in our stage and
street shows. Over the eighteen years it took to complete the park, I
met with three presidents of China, five mayors of Shanghai, and more
party secretaries than I can remember (one of whom was arrested for
corruption and banished to northern China in the middle of our
negotiations, setting the project back nearly two years).

We had endless negotiations over land deals and partnership splits
and management roles, and considered things as significant as the
safety and comfort of Chinese workers and as tiny as whether we could
cut a ribbon on opening day. The creation of the park was an education
in geopolitics, and a constant balancing act between the possibilities of
global expansion and the perils of cultural imperialism. The
overwhelming challenge, which I repeated to our team so often it
became a mantra for everyone working on the project, was to create an
experience that was “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.”

In the early evening on Sunday, June 12, I and the rest of my team
in Shanghai received news of a mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in
Orlando, fifteen miles from Disney World. We have more than seventy
thousand employees in Orlando, and we waited in horror for
confirmation that some of them were at the club that night. Our head
of security, Ron Iden, was with us in Shanghai, and he immediately
began calling his network of security contacts in the States. It was
twelve hours earlier—just before dawn—in Orlando when we first
heard the news. Ron told me he’d have more information when I got
up in the morning.

My first event the next day was a presentation to investors over
breakfast. Then I had to shoot a long interview with Robin Roberts of
Good Morning America, which included touring the park and riding
attractions with Robin and her crew. Then there was a meeting with
Chinese officials about protocol for the opening ceremonies, a dinner
with members of our board and senior executives, and finally a
rehearsal for the opening-night concert that I was hosting. Ron
periodically gave me updates as I moved through the day.

We knew that more than fifty people had been killed and nearly as
many injured, and that the shooter was a man named Omar Mateen.
Ron’s security team ran Mateen’s name through our database and
found that he’d visited the Magic Kingdom a couple of months before
the shooting, then again the weekend before. There was closed-circuit
television footage of him on that last visit, pacing outside a park
entrance near the House of Blues, in Downtown Disney.

What we learned next shook me in a way few things have over the
course of my career. It wouldn’t be made public until nearly two years
later, during the trial of Mateen’s wife as an accomplice to the murders
(she was later acquitted), but federal investigators informed Ron that

they believed Disney World had been Mateen’s primary target. They’d
found his phone at the scene of the shooting, and determined that it
had been pinging off one of our cell towers earlier that night. They
studied the CCTV footage and saw him, again, walking back and forth
in front of the entrance near the House of Blues. There was a heavy
metal concert there that night, which meant extra security—five armed
police officers—and after a few minutes of casing the area, Mateen
could be seen walking back to his car.

Security cameras picked up two weapons in Mateen’s possession, a
semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic pistol, hidden inside a child’s
stroller, along with a baby blanket that hadn’t yet been taken out of its
packaging. Investigators suspected that his plan was to cover his
weapons with the blanket and wheel them up to the entrance before
pulling them out.

Our head of Parks and Resorts, Bob Chapek, was also in Shanghai,
and he and I consulted throughout the day as Ron passed on more
news. We were still anxiously waiting to hear if any of our people had
been at the nightclub, and now we were concerned that the news of our
being a target would soon be leaked. It would be a big story and would
take a difficult emotional toll on the community there. The bond you
form in high-stress moments like this, when you’re sharing
information that you can’t discuss with anyone else, is a powerful one.
In every emergency I’ve encountered as CEO, I’ve been grateful for the
competence and cool heads and humanity of the team around me.
Bob’s first move was to send the head of Walt Disney World, George
Kalogridis, back to Orlando from Shanghai, to give his people on the
ground more executive support.

The data on Mateen’s phone showed that once he got back to his
car, he typed in a search for nightclubs in Orlando. He drove to the
first club that came up, but there was construction going on in front of
the entrance, and traffic was backed up. The second result was Pulse,
where he ultimately committed his massacre. As the details of the
investigation trickled in, I felt horror and grief for the victims of the
shooting, and at the same time a sickening “there but for the grace of
God” relief that he’d been deterred by the security we had in place.

I’m often asked what aspect of the job most keeps me up at night.
The honest answer is that I don’t agonize over the work very much. I
don’t know if it’s a quirk of brain chemistry, or a defense mechanism I

developed in reaction to some family chaos in my youth, or the result
of years of discipline—some combination of all of those things, I
suppose—but I tend not to feel much anxiety when things go awry. And
I tend to approach bad news as a problem that can be worked through
and solved, something I have control over rather than something
happening to me. But I’m also all too aware of the symbolic power of
Disney as a target, and the one thing that weighs heavily on me is the
knowledge that no matter how vigilant we are, we can’t prepare for
everything.

When the unexpected does happen, a kind of instinctive triage
kicks in. You have to rely on your own internal “threat scale.” There are
drop-everything events, and there are others when you say to yourself,
This is serious, I need to be engaged right now, but I also need to
extricate myself and focus on other things and return to this later.
Sometimes, even though you’re “in charge,” you need to be aware that
in the moment you might have nothing to add, and so you don’t wade
in. You trust your people to do their jobs and focus your energies on
some other pressing issue.

That’s what I was telling myself in Shanghai, half a world away
from Orlando. This was the most momentous thing the company had
embarked on since Disney World opened in 1971. We had never
invested so much in something, with so much potential—for success or
failure—in our nearly hundred-year history. I had no choice but to
compartmentalize, to focus on the last-minute details of the opening
ceremonies, and trust in my team in Orlando and in the protocols we
had in place.

We have a system that tracks employees whenever a disaster
occurs. If there’s a plane crash or a hurricane or a wildfire, I get reports
on who’s unaccounted for, who’s had to evacuate their homes, who lost
a friend or relative or pet, whose property was damaged. We have well
over two hundred thousand employees around the world, so if
something catastrophic happens, the odds aren’t insignificant that one
of our people has been touched by it. After the 2015 terror attacks in
Paris, I learned within hours that vendors from an ad agency we work
with were killed. In the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting in the fall
of 2017, I got reports right away that more than sixty of our employees
were at the outdoor concert that night. Fifty of them knew someone
who was either killed or injured. Three had been shot themselves. And
one, an employee at Disneyland, had been killed.

By Tuesday morning in Shanghai, we’d learned that two of our
part-time employees were among those killed in the nightclub
shooting. Several other employees were friends or relatives of victims.
Our trauma and grief counselors went to work, contacting those
affected and arranging mental health services.

MY ITINERARY FOR those days leading up to the park’s opening was
scheduled down to the minute: leading park tours and giving
interviews and attending rehearsals to give final notes on the opening-
ceremony performances; hosting lunches and dinners and meetings
with shareholders and vendors and members of our board; meeting
with Chinese dignitaries to pay proper respects; dedicating a wing of
the Shanghai Children’s Hospital; practicing a brief speech, part of
which was in Mandarin, that I’d be giving at the opening ceremony.
There were even small intervals during which I was scheduled to get
makeup, change my clothes, or sneak a quick snack. On Wednesday
morning, I was leading a VIP tour of about a hundred guests. Jerry
Bruckheimer was there, and George Lucas. Some of my direct reports
were there with their families. My wife, Willow, and our kids were
there. Everyone wore headsets, and I spoke into a microphone as I led
them through the park.

I remember exactly where we were—between Adventure Island and
Pirate Cove—when Bob Chapek approached me and pulled me aside. I
assumed he had more news from the shooting investigation, and I
leaned in so that he could privately give me an update. “There was an
alligator attack in Orlando,” Bob whispered. “An alligator attacked a
young child. A little boy.”

We were surrounded by people, and I hid my rising sense of horror
as Bob told me what he knew so far. The attack had occurred at our
Grand Floridian Hotel resort at about 8:30 in the evening. It was now
around 10:30 A.M. in Shanghai, so, two hours ago. “We don’t know the
status of the child,” Bob said.

I instinctively started praying that somehow the boy was not killed.
And then I started scrolling through the history in my mind. Had this
ever happened before? In the forty-five years the park had been open,
as far as I knew, a guest had never been attacked. I started to visualize
the property. Bob told me it happened on the beach at the resort. I’ve

stayed in the Grand Floridian many times and know that beach well.
There’s a lagoon there, but I’ve never seen anyone swimming in it.
Wait, that wasn’t true. The image of a man swimming out to retrieve a
balloon that his child had lost came to mind. It was about five years
earlier. I remembered taking a picture of him as he swam back to
shore, balloon in hand, laughing to myself at the things parents are
willing to do for their kids.

I finished the tour and waited for more news. There’s a protocol for
what rises to me and what gets handled by someone else, and my team
will regularly wait to tell me something until they’re sure it’s accurate.
(To their frustration, I sometimes chide them that they don’t report
bad news to me fast enough.) This time the news came to me
immediately, but I felt desperate for more.

George Kalogridis, whom we’d sent back in the aftermath of the
nightclub shooting, landed right around the time of the attack and
began to deal with it instantly, passing information on to us as it
became available. I soon learned the boy was missing. Rescue teams
hadn’t found the body. His name was Lane Graves. He was two years
old. The Graves family was staying at the Grand Floridian and had
gone down to the beach for a scheduled movie night. The movie was
canceled because of lightning, but they and some other families
decided to stay and let their kids play. Lane took a bucket to fill at the
water’s edge. It was dusk, and an alligator that had come up to the
surface to feed was right there in the shallow water. It grabbed the boy
and took him under. The Graves family had come to Disney World
from Nebraska, George told me. A crisis team was with them. I knew a
couple of members of that team. They were exceptional at their jobs,
and I was grateful they were there, but this would test them in the
extreme.

That night was our opening concert in Shanghai, to be performed
by a five-hundred-piece orchestra and featuring the world-famous
pianist Lang Lang, along with a lineup of the most revered composers
and singers and musicians in China. Prior to the concert, I was hosting
a dinner for a group of Chinese officials and visiting dignitaries. I did
everything I could to focus on my responsibilities, but my mind
returned constantly to the Graves family in Orlando. The thought that
they had come to Disney World, of all places, and suffered such an
unimaginable loss, loomed over everything.

Thursday morning, June 16, was opening day. I woke at 4:00 A.M.
and worked out, to try to clear my head, then wandered to a lounge on
our floor and met with Zenia Mucha, our chief communications officer.
Zenia and I have worked together for more than a dozen years. She’s
been with me through it all, good and bad. She’s tough, she’ll tell me
straight to my face when she thinks I’m making a mistake, and she
always has the best interests of the company at heart.

The story was being reported widely now, and I wanted our
response to come from me. I’ve seen other companies deal with crises
by letting a “company spokesperson” be their official voice, and that
strategy has always struck me as cold and a bit cowardly. Corporate
systems often work to insulate and protect CEOs, sometimes to a fault,
and I was determined not to do that now. I told Zenia I had to issue a
statement, and she immediately agreed that it was the right thing to
do.

There is so little you can say to make sense of something like this,
but we sat there in the lounge and I dictated my feelings to Zenia as
honestly as I could. I talked about being a father and a grandfather,
and how that gave me the slightest window into the parents’
unimaginable pain. Fifteen minutes after our conversation, the
statement went out. I returned to my room to start to get ready for the
opening. Willow was up and out, and my boys were asleep. I couldn’t
seem to do what I needed to do next, though, and after several minutes
I called Zenia again. When she answered her phone, I said, “I have to
speak with the family.”

This time I expected pushback from her and from our general
counsel, Alan Braverman. This could become a complicated legal
situation, and lawyers want to restrict the possibility of saying
anything that might exacerbate liability. In this case, though, they both
knew this was something I needed to do, and neither of them offered
resistance. “I’ll get you a number,” Zenia said, and within minutes I
had the phone number of Jay Ferguson, a friend of Matt and Melissa
Graves, the boy’s parents, who’d flown to Orlando immediately to be
with them.

I sat on the edge of the bed and dialed. I didn’t know what I was
going to say, but when Jay answered, I explained who I was and that I
was in Shanghai. “I don’t know if they’ll want to talk with me,” I said,
“but if they do, I would like to express my sympathies. If they don’t, I’ll

express them to you and ask you to pass them on.”

“Give me a minute,” Jay said. I could hear talking in the
background, and then suddenly Matt was there on speaker. I just
started talking. I reiterated what I’d said in the statement, that I was a
parent and a grandparent, that I couldn’t fathom what they must be
going through. I told him that I wanted him to know from me, the
person at the top of this company, that we would do anything we could
possibly do to get them through this. I gave him my direct number and
told him to call it if he needed anything, and then asked if there was
anything I could do for them now.

“Promise me that my son’s life won’t be in vain,” he said. He was
speaking through heaving sobs, and I could hear Melissa also sobbing
in the background. “Promise me you’ll do whatever you can to prevent
this from ever happening to another child.”

I gave him my promise. I knew from a lawyer’s perspective that I
should be careful about what I was saying, that I should consider
whether that was somehow an admission of negligence. When you
work in a corporate structure for so long, you become trained to give
legalistic, corporate responses, but I didn’t care about any of that in
this moment. I reiterated to Jay that he should call me if there was
anything they needed, and then we hung up, and I sat there shaking on
the edge of my bed. I’d been crying so hard that both of my contact
lenses had come out, and I was vaguely searching for them when
Willow walked into the room.

“I just talked with the parents,” I said. I was at a loss for how to
explain what I felt. She came to me and wrapped her arms around me.
She asked what she could do. “I just have to keep going,” I said. But I
didn’t have anything left. The adrenaline that had been powering me
for the last two weeks, all that this project meant to me and the thrill
I’d felt at sharing it, had drained away. In thirty minutes, I was
scheduled to meet the vice premier of China, the U.S. ambassador to
China, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, the party
secretary of Shanghai, and the mayor of Shanghai, and lead them on a
tour of the park. I felt like I couldn’t move.

Eventually I called my team and said to meet me in the hotel
lounge. I knew if I described the conversation to them, I would start
crying again, so I kept it short and told Bob Chapek what I’d promised
Matt Graves. “We’re on it,” Bob said, and sent word back to his team in

Orlando right away. (What they did there was remarkable. There are
hundreds of lagoons and canals on the property, and thousands of
alligators. Within twenty-four hours, they had ropes and fences and
signs up throughout the park, which is twice the size of Manhattan.)

I went off to meet the dignitaries. We rode rides and posed for
pictures. I struggled to smile and go on with the show. It was a stark
example of the truth that what people see on the outside so often
doesn’t reflect what’s happening on the inside. When the tour was
over, I was scheduled to give a speech to the thousands of people
gathered there in the park, and millions more in China watching on
TV, then cut a ribbon and officially open Shanghai Disneyland to the
world. Disney coming to mainland China was a major event. There
were members of the press there from all over the globe. Both
President Xi and President Obama had written letters that we were
planning to read at the opening. I was well aware of the weight of it all,
but I also couldn’t stop thinking of the anguish of Matt Graves’s voice
on the phone.

As I walked away from the vice premier, the president of Shanghai
Shendi Group, the Chinese company we’d partnered with, caught up to
me and took me by the arm. “You’re not going to talk about Orlando,
are you?” he said. “It’s a happy day. This is a happy day.” I assured him
I wouldn’t say anything to dampen the mood.

Less than half an hour later, I found myself sitting alone on a
banquette in the Disney castle, waiting for a stage manager to give me
the cue that it was time for my speech. I’d memorized the lines in
Mandarin that I was planning to deliver, and now I was struggling to
recall them. It was true, it was a happy day, and I needed to try to focus
on that and recognize what it meant for all the people who had worked
so hard, for so long, to make this day happen; and for the people of
China, who would have this place to dream about in the same way that
I and so many American kids dreamed of going to Disneyland. It was a
happy day. It was also the saddest of my career.

I’VE WORKED FOR the same company for forty-five years: twenty-two of
them at ABC, another twenty-three at Disney, after Disney acquired
ABC in 1995. For the past fourteen years, I’ve had the enviable task of
being the sixth CEO to run the company since Walt founded it in 1923.

There have been difficult, even tragic, days. But for me this has also
been, to steal from a phrase, the happiest job on earth. We make
movies and television shows and Broadway musicals, games and
costumes and toys and books. We build theme parks and rides, hotels
and cruise ships. We stage parades and street shows and concerts
every day in our fourteen parks across the world. We manufacture fun.
Even after all of these years, I still sometimes find myself thinking,
How did this happen? How did I get so lucky? We used to call our
biggest, most exciting theme-park attractions “E-Tickets.” That’s what
comes to mind when I think about the job, that it’s been a fourteen-
year ride on a giant E-Ticket attraction known as the Walt Disney
Company.

But Disney also exists in the world of quarterly earnings reports
and shareholder expectations and countless other obligations that
come with running a company that operates in nearly every country in
the world. On the least eventful days, this job requires an ability to
constantly adapt and re-adapt. You go from plotting growth strategy
with investors, to looking at the design of a giant new theme-park
attraction with Imagineers, to giving notes on the rough cut of a film,
to discussing security measures and board governance and ticket
pricing and pay scale. The days are challenging and dynamic, but
they’re also a never-ending exercise in compartmentalization. You
address one thing—What are the attributes of a Disney princess in
today’s world and how should they manifest in our products?—then
you put it away and shift your focus to the next: What will our slate of
Marvel films be for the next eight years? And those are the rare days
when things actually unfold according to schedule. As the week
described above makes all too clear, there are also, always, crises and
failures for which you can never be fully prepared. Few will be as tragic
as the events of that week, but something will always come up.

This is true not just of the Walt Disney Company but of any
company or institution. Something will always come up. At its
simplest, this book is about being guided by a set of principles that
help nurture the good and manage the bad. I was reluctant to write it
for a long time. Until fairly recently, I even avoided talking publicly
about my “rules for leadership” or any such ideas, because I felt I
hadn’t fully “walked the walk.” After forty-five years, though—and
especially after the past fourteen—I’ve come to believe that I have
insights that could be useful beyond my own experience.

If you run a business or manage a team or collaborate with others
in pursuit of a common goal, this book might be helpful to you. My
experiences from day one have all been in the media and
entertainment world, but these strike me as universal ideas: about
fostering risk taking and creativity; about building a culture of trust;
about fueling a deep and abiding curiosity in oneself and inspiring that
in the people around you; about embracing change rather than living
in denial of it; and about operating, always, with integrity and honesty
in the world, even when that means facing things that are difficult to
face. These are abstractions, but my hope is that the stories and
examples that are significant to me as I look back at the long arc of my
career will help them feel more concrete and relatable, not just to the
aspiring CEOs of the world but to anyone wanting to be less fearful,
more confidently themselves, as they navigate their professional and
even personal lives.

For the most part, the book is organized chronologically. Since my
first day at ABC, I’ve had twenty jobs and fourteen bosses. I’ve been the
lowliest crew member working on a daytime soap opera and run a
network that produced some of the most innovative television (and one
of the most infamous flops) of all time. I’ve twice been on the side of
the company being taken over, and I’ve acquired and assimilated
several others, among them Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and, most
recently, 21st Century Fox. I’ve schemed about the future of
entertainment with Steve Jobs and become the keeper of George
Lucas’s Star Wars mythology. I’ve thought every day about how
technology is redefining the way we create, deliver, and experience
media, and what it means to be both relevant to a modern audience
and faithful to a nearly hundred-year-old brand. And I’ve worked hard
and thoughtfully to make a connection between that brand and billions
of people around the globe.

As I near the end of all of that and think back on what I’ve learned,
these are the ten principles …

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