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The Disney Dish with Jim Hill Episode 458: Remembering Disney Legend Dick Nunis (1932 – 2023) Released 12/18/2023

This episode is brought to you by: Storyworth , Cirque Du Soleil: Drawn to Life , Agent of Excellence , and Touring Plans .


Normal Open: Welcome back to another edition of the Disney Dish podcast with Jim Hill. It’s me, Len Testa, and this is our show for the week of Shmursday, December 18, 2023.  


On the show today: News! And in listener questions, how much guacamole is too much?  Then in our main segment, Jim pays tribute to Disney legend Dick Nunis.


Let’s get started by bringing in the man who says that ‘you better watch out’ is fine, but ‘you better not cry’ is a dealbreaker.  It’s Mr. Jim Hill.   Jim, how’s it going?


And we’d like to introduce a special guest for today’s show,


iTunes: Thanks to new subscribers viggliotec, JackHaleyMom, Matt Strobbe, and Paul Sweetman, and long-time subscribers Rob Bliss, Jessica Kravitz, Kirk Landry, and Megan Baumgartner.  Jim, these are the Disney Imagineers training the Ursula animatronic at Journey of the Little Mermaid, to grant guests’ wishes, like Ariel’s legs for her voice.  They say that they’ve got Ursula to understand almost every conceivable guest wish, but the best offer they can make right now is an upgrade to preferred parking and a leftover 50th anniversary iridescent cupcake.  So maybe don’t ask for too much.  True story.


We’re moving the show off of Bandcamp and on to Patreon beginning with our show on January 1, 2024. We’ve just released our third video with Imagineer Jim Shull, who helped build Disney-MGM Studios. Sign up at and don’t forget to close down your Bandcamp subscription after that.


The news is sponsored by TouringPlans helps you save time and money at theme parks like Walt Disney World.  Check us out at



  • Sad to report that former Disney chairman Dick Nunis passed away last week. He was 91.
  • Hired for Disneyland prior to opening in 1955
  • Director of Park Operations in 1961. Helped develop Walt Disney World, then later EPCOT, Disney-MGM Studios, Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris.
  • Reminder that if you’re traveling to a Disney park for the holidays, you’ll still need park reservations and some of those dates are already full:
  • MK: Dec 25
  • DHS: Dec 19 (tomorrow)
  • You can still visit these parks after 2 pm without a reservation, if you have the park-hopping option
  • Jim’s story on Phil Holmes


Katherine sent in a Disneyland food survey with a question I don’t think we saw in the similar survey from Walt Disney World. Here’s the question:

Len: I like this question because it addresses the difference in demographics in Disneyland, where most guests are locals.  I suspect that in Walt Disney World, you’d get a majority of people choosing one of the first two options. But Disneyland might be different.  

Listener Questions

From StinsyLinson:

I got the same Epcot survey about dining choices that you spoke about last week. When I was taking it, I got the vibe that they were trying to get a sense of what to do about sit down restaurants in a theme park that has become so wholly about the festival booths.

How do they fill reservations when everyone spends all their time dining at festival booths? My responses made it clear that I only booked a table service restaurant because of candlelight processional and I felt I had no choice (and I was pretty mad about that as Le Cellier was running 1 hour behind).

Maybe there’s no data to back that up and they’re not having trouble filling tables at restaurants, that’s just how I interpreted my survey.

From Nic via our Patreon page:

Len adds: Hunchback and The Spirit of Pocahontas were both staged at the Backlot Theater on New York Street.  Pocahontas first premiered in 1993, ran for 28 minutes.  Lasted until 1996, replaced by Hunchback, which ran until 2002.

A couple of points:

  • These shows were expensive to run because they had a lot of talent and a lot of support staff.  Big stage shows are expensive and an ongoing expense.
  • Some of these stage facilities are massive and purpose-built
  • Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is about the size of Star Tours and Backlot Express combined.

Also, someone who attended our talk at MIT gave us a bag full of Marvel greeting cards. Whoever did that, thank you so much.  It made our Christmas card list much easier to manage. I really appreciate it. Thank you.

A listener who’ll we’ll keep anonymous recently submitted a “Right to Know” request to Disney Parks & Resorts, asking for all of the data Disney has on them.  

  • And this listener said that the first response from Disney was to send back a form with the very basics, like the email addresses they have registered, the annual pass they hold, and online subscriptions to things like Disney+ and ESPN+.
  • But our listener knew that there was more information, and wrote back to Disney saying “This doesn’t include things like my annual pass use or other in-park activity, so I don’t think this response conforms to the law, at least in California.
  • Then Disney sent them 63 pages of information.  Single-spaced. In 6-point font.

Research/Patents (use query "disney enterprises".as AND "theme park".ab)


We’re going to take a quick commercial break.  When we return, Jim recaps the career of Disney legend Dick Nunis.  We’ll be right back.

MAIN TOPIC - iTunes Show

Dick Nunis Tribute

We lost Dick Nunis yesterday. Given that it had been almost a quarter of a century since this Disney Legend had left the Company (He resigned as Chairman of the Disney Parks and Resorts on May 26, 1999. 44 years to the day that Dick started at Disney), a lot of the pieces that were published yesterday about this storied 91-year-old had a … Well, kind of a “Remember who this guy was” tone.

Mind you, if you ever had dealings with Nunis (And I was lucky – over the 45 years that I’ve worked as an entertainment reporter – to have a couple of sit-downs with the guy), you never forgot him. Because Dick Nunis was tough.

Mind you, he was a Disney guy through-and-through. Given that Dick learned directly from Walt himself how the Parks should be run, there was no bigger true believer when it came to doing things the Disney way. But behind his constant smile and very firm handshake, there was steel. Not to mention a very distinct “Don’t f’ with me” attitude.

Of course, you’d expect no less from a guy who was born during the darkest days of the Depression (This was back in May of 1932 in Cedartown, Georgia. A tiny little city in the Northwestern corner of that State). The Nunis family – hoping for a better life out West – traveled like so many did in the mid-1930s to Southern California. Where Dick then grew into a promising amateur athlete.

Thanks to Marvel, Disney fans now have a basic understanding of the multiverse. How different paths in life might have led to different outcomes. Well, for a time there, Dick seemed destined for a career in professional sports. He got a football scholarship in 1951 to attend the University of Southern California. And this 182-pound defense back seemed destined for great things … Until – in Nunis’ sophomore year at school (This would have been 1952) – during a heated game with USC’s hated rival, UCLA … Dick broke his neck.

And that was that for Nunis’ career in sports. After taking a year or so off to recover from his injury, he graduated from USC with a bachelor in education in the Spring of 1955. But at that point, the then-23-year-old Dick didn’t really know what he was going to do with his life. His dream of being a professional football player was dead.

But then one of his team-mates from USC – a guy named Ron Miller – offered Nunis a suggestion. “You have your bachelors in education, right?,” Ron said. “My father-in-law is building this thing out in the orange groves of Anaheim. He needs to train a whole bunch of employees to work at the place. If you want a job for the Summer while you sort things out, why not apply there? I’ll put in a good word for you with him.”

And that is how – on May 26, 1955 – Dick Nunis got hired to work at Disneyland. His very first job at the Company was as a training assistant. Nunis worked under Van France, and Dick helped get the first 600 folks who were hired to work at the Happiest Place on Earth get the hang of being “ … Happy Disneylanders.” That’s what they were called back in the day, Len. NOT Cast Members, but Happy Disneylander.

And Dick Nunis was definitely a Happy Disneylander. He loved being part of the original team that pulled this family fun park up out of the ground. So when the Summer of 1955 gave way to Fall, Dick put off the idea of using his Bachelors in Education to get a real job as a teacher. And – instead – opted to stay at Disneyland and see what other opportunities presented themselves.

And – within a few short months – Nunis transferred out of Training and found himself a gig as attractions supervisor. It was during this time that Dick had his first real run-in with Walt. As the story goes, Nunis was the Area Manager in Adventureland at that time. And after Walt went on the “Jungle Cruise” one Sunday afternoon and had a less-than-spectacular ride – Disney found the then-25-year-old Nunis and climbed up one side of him and down the other. Complaining that he had just gotten a four minute-long ride on what the Imagineers had designed as a six-minute-long experience.

Dick tried to explain to Walt that – because of the enormous crowds in the Park that day and because of the huge line of Guests who were waiting to experience the “Jungle Cruise” – Nunis had told the Skippers to speed things up a bit. So that they could then get back to the dock faster and then take the next boatload of Guests out for a cruise quicker. Thereby getting this Adventureland attraction’s line down to a manageable size and lowering the Guests’ overall wait time.

Walt wasn’t having it. He told Dick that “ … these people paid for a six-minute-long ‘Jungle Cruise’ and you’re going to make sure that they get it. Don’t worry about the line. Always give the Guests the best possible show. That’s why they got in line in the first place. They heard that the ‘Jungle Cruise’ was a great show. And we always need to deliver on that expectation.”

And because he learned this lesson firsthand by having Walt Disney yelling at him, Dick Nunis never forgot it. More to the point, Dick began to borrow Walt’s educational technique. Which is to say: You come down hard on people, frighten them, so that they then always do what they say.

And because Dick Nunis consistently delivered in whatever department he was placed in at Disneyland, he quickly rose through the ranks. By 1961, Nunis was the director of park operations down in Anaheim and one of Walt’s most loyal lieutenants.

I want to stress here that one of the main reasons that Disneyland ran so smoothly back in the 1960s was because people down in Anaheim were deathly afraid of Dick Nunis. They knew he was one of Walt’s favorites (and Dick knew it too) and – to be honest – a lot of folks were afraid to cross the guy.

Mind you, when Walt died in December of 1966, things got interesting for Dick for a while. A number of the folks he’d crossed at the Park over the years then began to look for ways to settle some scores. But Nunis – who, from all those years of playing football, learned that sometimes the smartest play of all is to just step off the field for a while … Well, Dick decided that – since things were getting a little hot in Anaheim – it might be smart to change locations for a little while to someplace even hotter. Which was Orlando, Florida.

Dick had been part of the team that originally developed Walt Disney World. But when that project began to wobble in 1968 or thereabout (There was some talk at that time of flat-out abandoning the idea of developing the full 40-square-mile parcel that the Company had purchased in the early 1960s and just building the Magic Kingdom theme park down at the corner of I-4 & 192. Where the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex is located today).

Nunis actually did battle with Disney’s board of directors and convinced them that – if they opted not to develop the full WDW parcel – they’d then be turning their back on Walt’s dream for “Project Florida.” Walt’s brother Roy O Disney never forgot Dick’s passionate defense of his brother’s plans for all of that swampland down in Florida. So when construction of Disney World fell behind schedule in the Fall of 1970 and it looked like the Resort wouldn’t be ready for its previously announced October 1971 opening date, Roy O reportedly said “Send that Dick Nunis guy down there and see if he can turn things around.”

And it was at this point that the real legend of Dick Nunis got founded. Since he was 3000 miles away from corporate headquarters, away from the prying eyes of all those people who had been trying to derail his career at Disney after Walt died, Dick was free to do whatever he wanted. Just so long as Walt Disney World did meet its October 1971 opening date.

There are so many tales from this time about Dick Nunis effectively frightening people into doing their jobs that it’s hard to pick one specific example. But know this: On the other side of Walt Disney World opening, Dick Nunis was hailed as a hero by Disney’s Board of Directors. In 1971, the very same year the Resort first opened, Nunis was named Executive Vice President of both Walt Disney World AND Disneyland.

And for the next 13 years or so, Dick was untouchable. Since the Parks were making money hand-over-fist at a time when Disney Studios was genuinely struggling to make movies that connected with moviegoers in the 1970s & early 1980s, no one dared to tell Nunis what to do. The projects that got built at the Parks were largely the ones that Dick championed.

And since outside firms regularly reached out to Nunis and offered him the opportunity to come run their companies (Which is something that Dick made sure Disney’s board of directors knew about) the word coming down from on high at the Mouse House was that “For God’s sakes, don’t do anything to upset Dick Nunis. We don’t want him to leave. He’s the reason that the Parks are so financially successful.”

And this was what Michael Eisner was told when he was installed as the Company’s new CEO in September of 1984. And for a time, Michael toed the line. But after 5 years or so (During which Eisner bumped heads with Nunis a number of times over which attractions should get built at what Parks), Michael decided that he had had enough.

Which is why – in 1991 – Eisner promoted Nunis to Chairman of Disney Parks & Resorts, while making Judson Green (who’s been the Company’s CFO) the new president of attractions. Dick was set up with a plush suite of offices in the Sun Bank building (which is just across the street from where Disney Springs sits today), a full staff and no real responsibilities. Nunis’ job – from here on in – was largely ceremonial. Judson made the day-to-day decisions about what went on in the Parks. Whereas Dick … Whenever it was time for Disney to present an oversized check to the United Way of Central Florida, Nunis was the guy that you called.

And for a number of years, because Dick was nothing if not loyal to The Walt Disney Company (He was the one who reviewed many of the history books that were written about Disney and then had final say over which stories got told. I know this for a fact, because I worked with Van France on his “Window on Main Street” book back in the late 1980s. That book – which was finally published in September of 1991 by a now-defunct publisher up here in New Hampshire – originally had dozens of great behind-the-scenes stories about how Disneyland really operated during the early days. But Dick wouldn’t allow Van’s book to be published until some of the more salacious stories were removed first.

Nunis was able to do this because A) France was in charge of the Disneyland Alumni Association at the time (which regularly needed permission from the Company to stage events & member meet-ups at the Parks) and B) a lot of the pictures that Van wanted to include in “Windows on Main Street” had been taken by official Disney photographers. So that they were then property of the Company. And Dick wouldn’t allow Van to use these images without first removing a number of those stories.

Just so you know, Len: I have a copy of the original manuscript for France’s “Windows on Main Street.” It’s a far juicier read than the version that was published in September of 1991. Remind me to get you a copy to read at some time.

Anyway … We jump ahead now to April of 1994. Which is when Disney Company president Frank Wells dies in a helicopter crash. And as far as a lot of people at Disney are concerned, Michael Eisner was never the same after Frank died. Wells was able to persuade Eisner not to go ahead with some of his kookier ideas. But with Frank now gone, the Walt Disney Company slowly began to wobble off-course.

And by May of 1999, Dick Nunis had seen & heard enough. Though he had often talked about wanting to be a 50-year man at Disney, given what Eisner was up to at that time (Dick could look over the horizon and see that – if things continued to follow their current course – things weren’t going to end well for Eisner. Which is what then happened in 2003 & 2004 with the whole “Save Disney” thing).

People at the Company were taken aback by Nunis’ sudden exit from Disney. But Dick already had a second act in mind. Remember that bachelors of education that Nunis got at USC back in 1955? Well, Dick had decided that he was finally going to make use of that degree by joining forces with the University of Central Florida.

Mind you, then-Florida governor Jeb Bush may have had a hand in Nunis’ exit from Disney. Word had gotten around that Dick wasn’t happy with the way the Mouse had been treating him (The joke at the time was that the people who worked on the third floor of the Sun Bank building – which was the floor directly below where Nunis’ corporate suite was located – could constantly hear Dick moaning & growling as he pulled against his chains). So Jeb reached out to Dick and said “ … we’re getting ready to set up a Board of Trustees at each of the Florida State Universities. And we were wondering if you'd like to be a charter member of the Board we’re looking to set up at the University of Central Florida.”

And Nunis (who – after growing up in Cedartown, Georgia – had become an enthusiastic resident of Southern California. Only to then find that he loved living in Central Florida) gladly accepted this new position.

He threw himself into this Board of Trustees assignment. And given that Dick had lots of experience when it came to building things, the University of Central Florida underwent an astonishing building boom during Nunis’ tenure at this school. With the 45,000 seat Bright House Networks Stadium opening there in September of 2007. Not to mention the 10,000 seat UCF arena opening on campus that same month.

Dick’s stint on the UCF Board of Trustees (which lasted from 2001 – 2008) and his push to get some world-class sports facilities built on that campus was what allowed the University of Central Florida was to move into the Big 12.

After that, having reached the age of 76, Nunis decided that it was now time to step back and enjoy time with his wife Mary and their grandchildren. Dick remained a proud Disney alumni. Though it’s been said that he didn’t always recognize what the Company had become – what with the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm & Fox.

Pushed for years to write a memoir about his time at the Mouse House, Nunis finally delivered last year (2022) with the publication of “Walt’s Apprentice: Keeping the Disney Dream Alive.” For those of us who have traded Dick Nunis’s stories for years, this was a surprisingly toothless book. Because – right to the end – Nunis was a loyal company man – the very best Dick stories (the ones where – through force of personality or sometimes just plain brute force – Nunis got his way) were left out of this 320 page Disney Editions book.

A lot of Disney fans like to quote something Walt supposed said (i.e., “If you can dream it, you can do it.” FYI: Walt never actually said that. By that I mean, Marty Sklar wrote that phrase for Walt to say in an episode of the “Wonderful World of Color” TV show. But Walt never actually said that phrase in day-to-day conversation). But they kind of miss the real point of this phrase.

Yes, it’s important to dream things up. But you also have to have the iron will & ability to turn that ephemeral dream into a reality. And Walt needed the Dick Nunis of the world to actually do that. Tough guys who would take on genuinely impossible assignments – like turning 40 square miles of swampland in Central Florida and then somehow turning that into a Vacation Kingdom.

You only get the ability if you’re someone like Dick Nunis. Who – because he played football so fiercely that he actually broke his own neck – knew that the only way to victory is by fighting & to claw for every single yard.

And that’s what Dick Nunis did every day. He was one of the toughest men I ever met. Loyal to a fault when it came to the Walt Disney Company.

He was a fun guy to talk to. I remember getting to talk with Nunis once about the New Orleans-themed hotel & restaurant that Dick once wanted to build right across from where the Lilly Belle was docked along the shores of Lake Buena Vista (where Disney Springs is located today).

Nunis had a real vision for the next phase of that area. One where there would have been a monorail line that would have taken Guests from EPCOT Center over to the shopping village. Not only that, but there was to have been a PeopleMover line that – once you got off that monorail line – was to have given Guests the opportunity to get off at various stops around Lake Buena Vista, including Hotel Plaza and the Treehouse Villas.

Mind you, this was one of those ideas that Michael Eisner nixed when he came in as Disney’s new CEO. But that’s probably a story for another time.

Anyway, Len Testa & I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to the friends & family of Dick Nunis, one genuinely tough guy (Every time you enter the Magic Kingdom, you should thank this guy, folks) who will definitely be missed.


That’s going to do it for the show today.  You can help support our show by subscribing over at, where we’re posting exclusive shows every week.  

Patreon: That’s going to do it for the show today.  Thanks for subscribing and supporting the Disney Dish.



You can find more of Jim at, and more of me, len at

One last thing: A GoFundMe has been set up in memory of our beloved producer, Aaron Adams, who passed away two weeks ago.  You can find that at, and donations there will go directly to Aaron’s wife Sabrina.  And on that GoFundMe page - no donation required - you’ll find a link to what I think is the best show Aaron ever did - the American Adventure script, which was a Bandcamp exclusive, so most of you have never heard it.  It’s really amazing and Aaron plays the role of Will Rogers.  That’s


iTunes Show:  We’re produced spectacularly by Eric Hersey, who’ll be defending his Golden Noodle award with a mixture of mozzarella,  gruyere and breadcrumbs, plus a secret pasta shape, at the 7th Annual Mac and Cheese Festival, on Saturday, January 13, 2024, on Sherman Avenue, in beautiful, downtown Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.


While Eric’s doing that, please go on to iTunes and rate our show and tell us what you’d like to hear next.

For Jim, this is Len, we’ll see you on the next show.