THE MOUSE HANDLER 


;On your next visit to the ;Magic Kingdom, instead of sprinting to Splash Mountain, slow down and take a moment to check out the second-story windows of the shops lining Main Street USA. The various business advertisements there are more than decoration; they are permanent tributes to the people who helped build the park. Along with Roy E. Disney's sailing shop and Dick Nunis' gym, you'll find the home of "Ridgway and Company Public Relations — No Event Too Small."

;;Charles Ridgway, the man behind that window, served more than four decades as Disney's press agent. From Anaheim and Orlando to Paris and Hong Kong, Ridgway has formed friendships with the industry's most powerful people and had a front-row view of Disney's expansion into a global empire — all without losing his sense of humor or humility. After a lifetime of getting other people's stories into print, this Disney legend has told his own story in Spinning Disney's World, one of the most entertaining books written about the rodent that reshaped Orlando.

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;If the words "media relations" conjure unseemly images in your mind, you're not alone — Charlie would agree. In 1955 he was a newspaper reporter in Southern California, "sneaking" behind the construction walls to capture some of the first photos of Disneyland as it was being built. When offered a job with Disney in 1963, he "spent many sleepless nights debating whether [he] wanted to leave the news business for publicity," finally deciding that "this was probably the only PR job in the world I could stomach for more than a few weeks."

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;From his tiny office in Main Street's City Hall, Ridgway quietly guided the media-driven growth of Disneyland's image in the world's imagination. "The man who told Walt where to stand" posed a significant portion of the park's most iconic images, most notably those taken shortly before Disney's death. Ridgway claims credit for "prematurely" alerting the press to Walt Disney World's planned existence, and in the late 1960s he was among the resort's first employees. From Disney World's 1971 debut until his recent retirement, Ridgway oversaw press events for the grand openings of countless parks, hotels, parades and more, concluding his career by writing the media guide for Hong Kong Disneyland.

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;Remarkably, until the Eisner era, Disney had no paid national advertising, relying instead on free publicity. They transplanted Ronald Reagan's snowed-out 1985 Inaugural Parade to Orlando; got the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to endorse a parade; and kick-started the age of ENG (electronic news gathering) by using live satellite uplinks for the 1982 opening of EPCOT Center. Ridgway also relates memories of how Orlando has changed, such as the plight of the proprietor of Johnny's Corner; his tiny hunter's bar on State Road 535 was so overwhelmed by construction workers that he sold the business rather than order more beer.

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;Structurally, stories in Spinning Disney's World skip around with little chronological or thematic coherence — it's like listening to a favorite uncle ramble through memories of the old days. Ridgway is almost unfailingly positive about the Mouse's management; declining to criticize Eisner, he says, "Walt himself was the greatest micromanager of all." His ire is saved for the Orlando Sentinel and former reporter Rod Johnson, who wrote stories about nuclear power plants and sewage disposal that Ridgway considered "pure speculation" published "just to embarrass" Disney. Such coverage led to the newspaper's removal from Disney hotels and break rooms — a move that Ridgway says he was not behind.

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;In his memoirs, between anecdotes about training ducks and chaperoning royalty, Ridgway keeps returning to the values Walt preached: Treat the press with respect, insist on detail and quality above cost-cutting, and let the parks sell themselves. Charlie's legacy is in the people he hired and mentored, like current head of print media relations Rick Sylvain (with whom he once shared a near-death experience in a Cairo buggy). One hopes that they remember the PR principles he passed down. Ridgway recently spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Citrus Club, and Disneyana fans will seek him out as he continues to conduct his book tour of Central Florida — it's a rare opportunity to meet a true Disney legend.

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;(Book readings and signings by Charles Ridgway: 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, April 7, at Barnes & Noble, Colonial Plaza Market Center, 407-894-6024; 7 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday, April 13, at Reading Trout Books, Celebration, 321-939-2265; 6:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Friday, April 27, at Urban Think!, 407-650-8004; www.intrepidtraveler.com)

arts@orlandoweekly.com

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