Raymond L. Watson was born on October 4, 1926, in Seattle, Washington. After moving to Oakland, California, in 1934, Ray was raised by his grandmother, spending his summers at the state beaches and parks where his father worked as a carpenter. After a short stint in the Unites States Army Air Forces Cadet Training Program toward the end of World War II, Ray enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley, receiving his B.A. in 1951 and a master’s degree in 1953, both in architecture.
Wasting no time getting started on a career that would help change the face of urban planning and development, Ray’s first job was planning a civic center for the city of Stockton. He left Northern California in 1960 to join the Irvine Company in Orange County, enticed by the company’s 90,000 acres of undeveloped land.
“At that time,” Ray recalled, “there was a spirit within the Irvine Company. We had a blank paper for our creative juices and our plans could go from this blank page to the ground. There is that same spirit in Disney.”
Ray first got involved with Disney in the mid-1960s when he was asked to meet with Walt to discuss EPCOT, the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” which was still just a dream in Walt’s imagination. Walt needed advice from someone with urban planning experience on the same gigantic scale as his new project, and Ray, who was currently developing what is now the city of Irvine, was a perfect fit. Although he was never actively involved in the development or construction of Walt Disney World, Ray would frequently stop by the site whenever his business affairs took him to the East Coast. And in 1973, when he was president of the Irvine Company, Disney’s then-CEO Donn Tatum asked him if he would be interested in serving on the Board of Directors for Walt Disney Productions. Ray accepted the position on May 28, 1974.
His early tenure on the Board saw the expansion of Walt Disney World and the opening of Disney’s first water park, River Country, in 1976. Grandest of all, however, was the opening of Epcot Center on October 1, 1982; at that time it was the largest private land development project ever, at a cost of more than $1 billion. Disney Chairman Card Walker retired after the April 1983 opening of Tokyo Disneyland, the Company’s first international theme park, and Ray was elected to the position of chairman of the board in his place.
It was a tough nine months in 1984 as Ray, along with Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold, fended off not one, but two hostile takeover attempts during perhaps the most tumultuous period in Disney’s corporate history. On September 22, 1984, Ray stepped down as chairman to let the Board of Directors bring in new CEO Michael D. Eisner and new president Frank G. Wells. He remained on the Board and served as part of the Executive Committee until his retirement in 2004, after serving the Company for 30 years and establishing a worldwide reputation as a real estate development visionary.
Ray passed away on October 20, 2012, in Newport Beach, California.