My “Backstage with Ron Onesti” column has featured more than 100 “behind-the-scenes” experiences with celebs, entertainers and rock stars. Each week, I talk about the ways I have been fortunate enough to connect with these icons of the showbiz world. The reader gets to be “on the inside” for a while, and is let in on the human side, or sometimes the inhuman side, of these intense individuals I work with on a weekly basis.
But this week, I am in Orlando, Florida, with my family. Over the past couple of years, personal time has been at a premium. After opening my fifth entertainment venue recently, it was time to take a couple of days off (which only means I am texting, phoning and emailing from a state other than Illinois).
Yes, as our 12-year-old daughter is staring teenager-dom square in the eyes, we thought this would be a good time for a semi-last visit to the “House that Walt built,” The Wonderful World of Disney. And I’m not ashamed of the fact that the place still gets me emotional, as well, as it fires me up to come home with more ways of entertaining my guests, and to enhance their entertainment experience at my venues.
At first, you kind of feel like you are being herded like cattle into the place. The theme park has huge parking lots, trams, shuttle busses and long lines. But then, all-of-a-sudden, the magic happens.
Fantasy becomes reality, for kids of all ages, as guests walk around the grounds at any of the Disney parks. Huge butterflies, castles, a golf ball the size of the Sears Tower (that’s right, the Sears Tower), princesses, a couple of mice, a couple of dogs, a duck, and literally countless other characters and attractions help take you away to places you may never go to in real life.
The fact that Walt Disney was a visionary is an understatement. How he went from a moving-picture cartoon called “Steamboat Willie” to a putting together an experience that brings the entire world down to “kids size” was pure genius.
They went from “amusement parks” to “theme parks.” But as I walk around, I can see that attention to detail and the sheer concern of making every element of the experience perfect — and what made it special was more important than what it ultimately cost.
“What could he have been thinking?” I wondered. “How could he take brick and mortar, paint and fabric, and create such a place?”
I think it was because of his special relationship with Mickey. Mickey represents the child in all of us. With all the technology that surrounds this place, there still is that presence of Walt and Mickey that makes us feel like family. One of the warmest feelings I got while at the Magic Kingdom was seeing the statue of Walt holding Mickey by the hand.
One of my favorite artists is the “Americana” legend and Saturday Evening Post cover superstar Norman Rockwell. And my favorite painting of his emulated a self-portrait of himself. It was a rendition of him looking into a mirror as he painted his own face.
The Walt Disney painting had Mickey in the same artist’s seat, looking into a mirror while painting what he saw. However, what the artist mouse saw in the mirror was the face of Walt Disney. Rockwell was a huge fan of Disney, from one illustrator to another, he idolized him.
My couple of degrees of separation between me and Walt come as a result of the Arcada Theatre. The original owner of the theater was Lester J. Norris, a local pioneer in the development of St. Charles. Before marrying into the wealth of Texaco Oil and the family that owned a patent to barbed wire, he was a cartoonist and illustrator for the Chicago Tribune. One of his best friends was his brother illustrator and fellow Chicagoan, Walt Disney. Lester would even come up with characters for Walt to consider, but none were ever selected, to my knowledge.
I have always been a follower of the visionaries. My heroes since childhood are Thomas Edison, P.T. Barnum, Bill Graham (pioneer concert promoter) and Walt Disney. It has been my dream to build something that folks would want to come to. Something that takes them away from their regular lives, their challenges and their tragedies, even if just for an hour or two.
It seems when most people have young children, the “bucket list” item is to take them to a Disney property. My dream is to create experiences that are on the “bucket list” for us aging rockers and lovers of music. A place where we can take our children and grandchildren by the hand and talk about the way things used to be, the way Walt did with Mickey.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.