Disney Legend Dick Nunis, the former chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, passed away on December 13, 2023 surrounded by family in his adopted hometown of Orlando, Florida. He was 91. Nunis was one of the most important figures in the history of Disney Parks & Resorts, and if you’ve never heard of him or don’t know much about him, I’d beseech you to take a few moments to read this.
In announcing the passing of Nunis, the Walt Disney Company shared a lovely tribute. That details how Nunis began his career at Disneyland in 1955, and was instrumental in guiding the growth from a single park in Anaheim into what today has grown to become a global theme parks 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.”
Dick Nunis was born on May 30, 1932 in Cedartown, Georgia. He received a football scholarship to the University of Southern California, but his dream of becoming a professional football player was cut short by injury. In 1955, he graduated from USC.
Nunis learned about Disneyland through his classmate, Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law. Nunis applied 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 opening, the duo began training Disneyland employees–including Walt Disney and his executives.
Often referred to as the “preeminent theme park executive,” Dick learned from Walt to keep his focus always on the people. Nunis was a big believer in the theme park philosophies of Walt Disney, especially when it came to the quality of the experience and emphasis 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.”
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.
Nunis worked his way up to attractions supervisor, developing standard operating procedures for the park’s attractions–many of which are still in use. In 1961, Nunis became director of park operations and helped develop Walt Disney World Resort. From 1967–74, Nunis also served as chairman of the Park Operations Committee. In 1968, he was bumped up to vice president of operations. By 1971, Nunis 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. Nunis also consulted on plans for Tokyo Disneyland and Euro Disney while serving on the Walt Disney Productions Board of Directors. He was also involved in producing the pageantry for the 1960 Winter Olympics and the Disney attractions at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair.
Nunis once said in an interview, “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 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 Walt Disney World and finally got his wish when an updated version of the wave machine opened in 1989 at Typhoon Lagoon.
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.”
Nunis is survived by his wife Mary, his children, Rich, Lisa and Corey, and his grandchildren, Richie, Dean, Madison, Landon, Annabelle, and Greyton.
Turning to our thoughts, I still remember the first time I saw Dick Nunis in person. We had been attending all of the D23 events for 5+ years at that point, and had heard pretty much every living Walt-era Disney Legend speak about their experiences. Except Dick Nunis. He had become our white whale, of sorts, and seeing him in the Disneyland 60th Anniversary cavalcade on July 17, 2015 made our day.
Despite never being at any of the ‘golden age’ events hosted by D23 that we attended, Nunis was always a larger-than-life figure in the stories told by other Disney Legends and Imagineers about building Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and the international parks. He was often presented as an “admirable adversary” or somewhat-friendly foil. Joe Rohde’s Instagram post called Nunis “a dragon in a cave” while offering an amusing anecdote that’s representative of tales other Imagineers and executives have told.
It was a fascinating dynamic at D23 events. These being Disney-hosted, the speakers were always varying degrees of diplomatic and candid. It was also, in some cases, decades after the fact. In other words, there was no reliable narrator. So it was always difficult to ascertain whether time had healed old wounds and given a greater sense of perspective, or if they were just being “Disney nice.” (I’ve long wondered whether the influence of some speakers prevented others, including Nunis, from appearing at those D23 events.)
Regardless, a picture was painted over time of Dick Nunis as this exacting and protective figure–a defender of the magic and keeper of the Four Keys. Nunis would stop at nothing to ensure that the company honored the legacy of Walt Disney and made decisions in keeping with his spirit. I believe he was described as a “stubborn SOB” on more than one occasion, but not in a derogatory sense.
Rather, it was in a loving way suggesting that, although you didn’t want to be on the opposite side of an argument with Nunis, his motivations were always pure. That he was acting selflessly with the best interests of Cast Members, guests, and the company as a whole in mind–not advancing his own agenda or interests. But nevertheless, that he would take a scorched earth approach to uphold the Disney way and standards.
Many (if not most) of the stories I’ve heard about Nunis revolve around the Four Keys–Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency–in that order. It seems like even the most infamous and legendary stories other Cast Members told about Nunis relate to his steadfast adherence to the Four Keys. He would attempt to uphold their standards–even if it meant derailing projects or making enemies. (Suffice to say, there’s a reason our 2024 Walt Disney World Refurbishment Calendar discusses being “Nunisian” practitioners of the Four Keys.)
While Dick Nunis was sadly never on stage with any of his contemporaries during the golden age of D23 events, he did finally appear during “The Dawn of the Disney World” at the 2021 Destination D23 event held for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. (That whole panel is worth watching from the very beginning–think of it like a ‘director’s commentary’ for the excellent A Portrait of Walt Disney World: 50 Years of The Most Magical Place on Earth.)
Even more significantly, Dick Nunis published his memoir just last year with Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Disney Dream Alive. This book is worth reading, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has had their fill of Imagineering books and wants something more from a management or operations perspective.
However, I also wonder what could have been with that book. If Nunis wrote it a decade or two ago, or if he published it outside the imprint of Disney Editions. While there is a bit of his trademark gruffness and the writing is matter-of-fact, it also reads with a sense of restraint.
It’s as if the editors exercised a heavy hand or Nunis had lost his sharp edge in the twilight of his life. Even the stories told at D23 events about Nunis suggested far more controversy and conflict. That was especially the case coming from the older guard, many of whom had a DGAF attitude and were freer to speak their minds. Regardless, it’s still a very worthwhile read that’ll give you a newfound appreciation of the people who bring the parks to life beyond just the Imagineers. (It’s also the best we have and will ever get now that he’s gone.)
Ultimately, that’s the importance of Dick Nunis in a nutshell. He was not a celebrity Imagineer or high-profile corporate executive, he rarely made public appearances, and almost never gave interviews. Consequently, his outsized role often flies under the radar, and despite his Legend status, Nunis is routinely overlooked by Disney fans.
This is really unfortunate. By all accounts, Nunis was one of the keepers of Four Keys and guardians of Walt Disney’s flame. He is arguably the most formidable figure in the early development of Walt Disney World, and shaping the complex into being in the image and legacy of its namesake. Dick Nunis will very much be missed, even if he’s the most influential Disney Legend that fans know little-to-nothing about. Do yourself a favor and take the time this holiday season to correct that.
Thoughts on the passing of Disney Legend Dick Nunis and his legacy as a defender of the magic and keeper of the Four Keys? Have you heard any interesting or amusing anecdotes about Nunis over the years? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!