Remembering Disney Legend Dick Nunis

Disney Legend Dick Nunis, the former chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, passed away December 13 surrounded by his family in his adopted hometown of Orlando, a family friend confirmed. He was 91.

Nunis, who began his career at Disneyland in 1955,  was instrumental in guiding the growth of Walt Disney’s outdoor entertainment enterprise from a single park in Anaheim into what today has grown to become a world-class global theme park and resort business. His legacy includes significant milestones in Disney theme park history including the development of “Project X,” which eventually became the Walt Disney World Resort.

“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.”

“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, Chairman of Disney 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.”

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.

“Walt believed strongly that what would make Disneyland different was the people—he wanted them to feel that they were part of the organization,” Nunis once said. “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 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.

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, exactly 44 years to the day after he joined the company, Nunis retired as chairman of Walt Disney Attractions. That same year, he was honored with a window on Main Street, U.S.A., at Disneyland and was named a Disney Legend. Nunis’ window, located above Disney Showcase, reads: “Coast to Coast Peoplemoving, World Leader in Leisure Management, Dick Nunis, Proprietor, Founded 1955, Offices Anaheim, Orlando, Tokyo, Wave Machines a Specialty.” The “Coast to Coast Peoplemoving” refers to Nunis’ role in convincing hundreds of Disneyland cast members to move from California to Florida to help open and operate the Walt Disney World in 1971.

The “wave machine” reference is an inside joke. In 1971, Nunis pushed for the installation of a wave machine in the Seven Seas Lagoon at Walt Disney World. Although the machine provided the desired waves, it produced unforeseen complications and was quickly removed. However, Nunis remained an advocate of providing surfing at the resort and finally got his wish when an updated version of the wave machine opened in 1989 at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park.

Upon receiving his window at Disneyland Park, Nunis stated, “This is really quite an honor and a privilege to have my name up on Main Street with so many great people that have dedicated their lives to making Disneyland what it is today.”

In 2022, Nunis released the memoir Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Disney Dream Alive, which follows Disney’s highlights, including the development and opening of Disneyland, Walt Disney World, EPCOT, Tokyo Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris, in addition to the pageantry for the 1960 Winter Olympics and the Disney attractions at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. He also shared anecdotes about learning directly from Walt and championing his vision as Disney expanded worldwide.

Nunis is survived by his wife Mary, his children, Rich, Lisa and Corey, and his grandchildren, Richie, Dean, Madison, Landon, Annabelle, and Greyton.