On this day in 1894, Disney Legend Joe Fowler was born in Lewiston, Maine. The retired Navy Admiral was tapped by Walt Disney to oversee the construction of Disneyland in 1954. In recognition of Joe’s effectiveness and positive outlook, he became affectionately known as “Can-Do Joe.”
After graduating second in his class at the U.S. Naval Academy and earning a masters degree in naval architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Joe began what would eventually be a 32 year career in the Navy. One notable assignment took him to China to aid with the construction of gunboats for patrolling the Yangtze River. While researching the river, Joe hitched a ride on various ships including the British gunboat, HMS Cricket. While onboard, he shared a room with none other than Prince Edward, who would later go on to become King of England (albeit briefly). Joe retired from the Navy in 1948 having earned the rank of Admiral. In 1951, he was asked to help the Defense Department streamline duplicative supply procurement systems. The following year Joe was appointed by President Truman as the Director of the Defense Supply Management Agency and tasked with improving military supplies cost efficiencies. As his time in the role came to a close, a Senator on the Appropriations Committee told Joe that “You may be interested to know that this past year you have saved one-fourth of the federal budget.” As Joe modestly put it in a later interview “So that’s a pretty good result.”
By now you’re probably wondering how a distinguished Navy Admiral wound up working for Walt Disney. That path would begin during his time at the Defense Department when Joe hired the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to conduct a study. Through that process he met C.V. Wood, who along with his SRI colleague Buzz Price, also conducted the Disneyland site study that resulted in selecting Anaheim as the park’s home. In April of 1954, C.V. called up Joe, who was living in the northern California city of Los Gatos, and told him he was going to bring an unnamed man by his house. The man was Walt Disney, who was in the area to look at a railroad.
According to Joe, he and Walt had a nice chat and he was asked about contributing to the Disneyland project. Walt invited him down to see what they were working on. Joe excitedly told his wife, “This is great. I’m going down and see a studio at the invitation of the head. I don’t know anything about the motion-picture business. I’ll be back tomorrow night.” As Joe tells it, he was picked up at the airport by Ron Miller, Walt’s son-in-law who was working at the company, and taken to the studio. After a brief visit with Walt, Joe was whisked away to an office by a secretary and told, “You’re Joe Fowler? Here are some contractors we want you to talk to.” Three weeks would pass before Joe flew back home and even had a conversation with anyone at the company about a salary.
Joe was soon given the unenviable task of ensuring the construction of Disneyland was completed on time and with constrained resources. He was on hand when the first orange trees were uprooted to make room for the park in the summer of 1954, less than a year before the park was set to open. Joe oversaw the various contractors working on the project as well as coordinated with the Imagineers designing attractions and other park features. Joe once shared in an interview that early on Walt explained to him, “Now, look, I will try to have the ideas, and you make the engineering a reality out of it. You can’t do it, tell me.”
One project that fit Joe’s skillset exceptionally well was the Mark Twain steamboat. He contributed to the design of the ship’s hull and ensured the Rivers of America included a dry dock for ship maintenance. He told Disney biographer Bob Thomas in a 1973 interview that Walt used to call the dock “Joe’s Ditch” and hated spending limited money on anything guests wouldn’t notice. Joe pointed out that “Well, it was typical of Walt: very shortly he made an asset out of something that had bothered him” and put in a fish house food stand. As a tribute to Joe, Walt named the area Fowler’s Harbor. Today, a sign labeling one of the buildings as “Fowler’s Inn” continues this honor and seems more fitting than a “Joe’s Ditch” sign.
Throughout its construction, the budget for Disneyland was escalating as Walt and the Imagineers kept looking to enhance the park. According to Joe “In July I had a budget of 4-1/2 million. And in September it went up to 7. And in November we talked 11.” In December of 1954, with scarce money being allocated for various attractions, Joe recognized he had a more basic construction challenge at hand. “By that time I had made up my mind we simply could not get the millwork accomplished outside, either with regard to the degree of perfection we needed or with regard to its volume. We had to have our own metal.” So Joe approached Roy Disney, the financial decision maker at the company, and pleaded for $40,000 to build a mill inside what is now the Opera House on Main Street. Roy replied, “Jesus, Joe, can’t do it. We’ve borrowed on the life insurance and everything. Can’t get any more. . .” Joe approached Roy the next day to revisit the subject. This time, Roy relented “Yes, I’ve got your money. Go ahead.” Joe said later “And that was the turning point.”
By all accounts Joe maintained his positive, “can do” spirit throughout Disneyland’s construction despite the stresses of opening the park on time and budget. In June of 1955, a month before the park was set to open, C.V. Wood said to him “Joe, we might just as well postpone it ’til September. We’re not going to make it.” Determined and focused on completing his objective, Joe replied back “Woody, we have to make it.” Years later Joe still looked back fondly on this hectic time: “So many things happened in the course of our building Disneyland that were reminiscent of a wonderful experience.” For ten days leading up to the opening of Disneyland on July 17, 1955, Joe never left the site and slept in his office.
After the park’s opening, Joe was put in charge of its operation. In addition to running Disneyland day-to-day, Fowler was heavily involved in Walt’s ongoing efforts to “plus up” his park. In one instance, that Joe later described to Harry Wessel in a 1993 interview, he put his Navy experience to work to satisfy Walt’s wishes. As part of the Tahitian Terrace’s construction in Adventureland, a corral tree was to be added between the restaurant and the Jungle Cruise unloading dock. Since corral trees can’t be transplanted, an artificial tree was built by the Disney shop. When Walt saw the tree after it was installed, he was deflated and disappointingly said “Oh, Joe, I wish that tree was twenty feet higher.” Joe replied, “Walt, when I was in the Navy, they would design and build the ships. And we had a ship, say, six hundred feet long, and if we wanted to make it longer, just cut it in two, add to the body, and that would make it nine hundred feet. That’s what I could do to that tree.” Pleased by this solution, Walt said, “Go ahead.”
Joe also contributed to Disneyland’s so-called “second grand opening” in 1959 that included a trio of new attractions, the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail, Matterhorn Bobsleds and Submarine Voyage. Shortly after their completion, Joe was summoned to Walt’s office at the Studios where he was joined by other Disneyland Imagineers. Walt congratulated Joe on his efforts and presented him with a plaque designating him as the “Commander-in-Chief of the Disneyland Navy.” However, Walt was quick to note “But don’t forget, that I am still the overall secretary of defense.”
When Walt’s attention shifted to building a second theme park in Florida, he once again turned to Joe. Working together with Buzz Price and others, Joe would participate in various site scouting trips in Florida, all of which were conducted in secrecy. After the Orlando site was selected and purchased, he would be busy working on the park designs and assembling the construction team. After Walt’s death on December 15, 1966, it was Roy Disney and Joe Fowler, along with Joe Potter, who took the reins of the project and ensured Walt’s vision was carried out. In recognition of Joe’s leadership on the Walt Disney World project, a steamboat at the Magic Kingdom was named in his honor (sadly, it was damaged beyond repair in 1980 during a maintenance mishap). In 1997, the Magic Kingdom I ferryboat used to transport guests across the Seven Seas lagoon was re-christened as the Admiral Joe Fowler.
By all accounts, Joe and Walt respected and cherished each other, both personally and professionally. In his interview with Bob Thomas, Joe shares a funny anecdote that highlights his preparation for every scenario, and Walt’s appreciation of “Can-Do Joe.” On one of the Disney World site scouting trips, Joe, Walt and Buzz were staying at a hotel and, hoping to stay out of public eye as much as possible, were holed up one evening in Walt’s room. After being dispatched by Walt to buy a couple bottles of liquor, Buzz returned empty-handed and explained that it was Sunday so liquor wasn’t for sale. Exasperated, Walt said, “You can’t get any liquor?” Joe then spoke up, “Well, Walt, I got a couple of bottles in my bag that I always carry for emergency.” Walt quickly announced to the group he was rooming with Joe.