Nephew Is Disney's Last Disney

ANIMATION CHIEF, whose "Fantasia 2000" opens in December, is carrying on the family tradition at the studio founded by Uncle Walt.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. - As a child, Roy Disney roamed the halls of his family's animation studio, careful not to bump the elbows of the animators drawing on their storyboards.

As a major shareholder of Walt Disney Productions, Disney wasn't so mindful about knocking people around a bit. He grew frustrated with the company's direction in the 1970s, resigned as an executive and worked to throw out the management team. He eventually succeeded and has helped lead the entertainment giant into some of its most successful times.

`Biggest sandbox in the world'

Today, the last Disney to have an active role in the company started by his uncle, Walt, and his father, Roy O., says he still enjoys playing in "the biggest sandbox in the world."

"There's just more fun and more stuff to do than you can imagine," he said in a recent interview at Walt Disney World.

Disney, 69, has just completed perhaps the most satisfying project of his career: serving as executive producer of "Fantasia 2000," a sequel to the animated classic "Fantasia." He is in charge of the animation division of what is now called the Walt Disney Co., and he has no plans to slow down.

"Fantasia 2000" is to premiere at New York's Carnegie Hall on Dec. 17 and open on IMAX screens on Jan. 1. It will be the first animated feature-length film to play on IMAX screens.

With his trim mustache and squinting eyes, Roy Edward Disney looks like his legendary Uncle Walt and has the easygoing personality of his father, Roy O. Disney. Disney, who Forbes magazine says is worth an estimated $900 million, has an unassuming, almost shy, manner.

"He's a symbol of the traditions of the company that are so important," said Marty Sklar, vice chairman and senior creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering, the company's creative division. "He's a physical symbol, a real icon of the Disney family and the Disney tradition."

Disney said he had no intention of working for the company when he was growing up. He wanted to design airplanes, "but the engineering part of the work just didn't work for me."

He worked as an assistant film editor on the TV show "Dragnet" before joining Disney in 1954 in the same capacity. He then worked as a writer, director and producer, primarily on nature films, during the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1970s, old-guard executives - whom many believed ran the company under a "What would Walt do?" philosophy - derided Disney as the "idiot nephew." They ignored his complaints that they were neglecting the company's film division, which Disney believed was the heart of the company.

Disney's unhappiness with management led him to resign from his job as an executive in 1977, but he still retained a seat on the board of directors.

"The years leading up to that were hard," he said. "I just felt creatively the company was not going anywhere interesting. It was very stifling."

Disney, then one of the company's largest shareholders, eventually became so disenchanted with management that he resigned from the company's board of directors in 1984.

Conflict led to Eisner years

His resignation, and subsequent threats of a hostile takeover, eventually resulted in a management shake-up in 1984 that brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells to lead Disney. The change toppled his cousin by marriage, Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller, from his position as president and chief executive officer.

Disney rejoined the board as vice chairman, and, after Eisner and Wells were installed as the top executives, he assumed responsibility for the company's animation division, even though he admitted he can't draw.

He played a major role in revitalizing the studio's once-moribund animated feature films in the 1980s, said Sklar. "Roy's whole career has been about enabling the feature animation of the company, especially since Eisner" joined in 1984.

His animators praise Disney for giving them lots of artistic freedom on their projects.

"He gave us so much freedom and was very concerned about the integrity of the music," said Eric Goldberg, director of Walt Disney Feature Animation, who worked with Disney on "Fantasia 2000."

Company facing declining earnings

The company is currently going through another difficult time, facing a second straight year of declining earnings. Eisner, the company's current chairman and CEO, has ordered a major cost-cutting effort, finished a management overhaul and plans to slow the growth of retail stores.

The company recently named Sanford Litvack, senior executive vice president and chief of corporate operations, as another vice chairman to the board. The move wasn't expected to affect Disney's position on the board.

Disney and his wife, Patricia, who live in the Los Angeles area, have two sons and two daughters, each of whom has worked for the company but has not stayed. Disney believes his son, Tim - who is still in the film industry - may be the only third-generation Disney to return.

In the meantime, his goal is to ensure that his father's accomplishments in developing the business side of the company aren't overlooked.

As part of that effort, a statue of Roy O. Disney sitting on a bench with Minnie Mouse will be unveiled in the near future at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando. The park already has a statue of Walt Disney holding Mickey Mouse's hand in front of Cinderella's Castle.

After 45 years with the company, Disney has a tenure that surpasses his uncle by two years and approaches that of his father, who worked 48 years for the company.

"I was just always around it," he said. "That's why I laugh at that 45-year thing."