Thursday morning, June 16, was opening day. I woke at 4:00 A.M. and worked out, to try to clear my head, then wandered to a lounge on our floor and met with Zenia Mucha, our chief communications officer. Zenia and I have worked together for more than a dozen years. She's been with me through it all, good and bad. She's tough, she'll tell me straight to my face when she thinks I'm making a mistake, and she always has the best interests of the company at heart.
The story was being reported widely now, and I wanted our response to come from me. I've seen other companies deal with crises by letting a "company spokesperson" be their official voice, and that strategy has always struck me as cold and a bit cowardly. Corporate systems often work to insulate and protect CEOs, sometimes to a fault, and I was determined not to do that now. I told Zenia I had to issue a statement, and she immediately agreed that it was the right thing to do.
There is so little you can say to make sense of something like this, but we sat there in the lounge and I dictated my feelings to Zenia as honestly as I could. I talked about being a father and a grandfather, and how that gave me the slightest window into the parents' unimaginable pain. Fifteen minutes after our conversation, the statement went out. I returned to my room to start to get ready for the opening. Willow was up and out, and my boys were asleep. I couldn't seem to do what I needed to do next, though, and after several minutes I called Zenia again. When she answered her phone, I said, "I have to speak with the family."
This time I expected pushback from her and from our general counsel, Alan Braverman. This could become a complicated legal situation, and lawyers want to restrict the possibility of saying anything that might exacerbate liability. In this case, though, they both knew this was something I needed to do, and neither of them offered resistance. "I'll get you a number," Zenia said, and within minutes I had the phone number of Jay Ferguson, a friend of Matt and Melissa Graves, the boy's parents, who'd flown to Orlando immediately to be with them.
I sat on the edge of the bed and dialed. I didn't know what I was going to say, but when Jay answered, I explained who I was and that I was in Shanghai. "I don't know if they'll want to talk with me," I said, "but if they do, I would like to express my sympathies. If they don't, I'll express them to you and ask you to pass them on."
"Give me a minute," Jay said. I could hear talking in the background, and then suddenly Matt was there on speaker. I just started talking. I reiterated what I'd said in the statement, that I was a parent and a grandparent, that I couldn't fathom what they must be going through. I told him that I wanted him to know from me, the person at the top of this company, that we would do anything we could possibly do to get them through this. I gave him my direct number and told him to call it if he needed anything, and then asked if there was anything I could do for them now.
"Promise me that my son's life won't be in vain," he said. He was speaking through heaving sobs, and I could hear Melissa also sobbing in the background. "Promise me you'll do whatever you can to prevent this from ever happening to another child."
I gave him my promise. I knew from a lawyer's perspective that I should be careful about what I was saying, that I should consider whether that was somehow an admission of negligence. When you work in a corporate structure for so long, you become trained to give legalistic, corporate responses, but I didn't care about any of that in this moment. I reiterated to Jay that he should call me if there was anything they needed, and then we hung up, and I sat there shaking on the edge of my bed. I'd been crying so hard that both of my contact lenses had come out, and I was vaguely searching for them when Willow walked into the room.
"I just talked with the parents," I said. I was at a loss for how to explain what I felt. She came to me and wrapped her arms around me. She asked what she could do. "I just have to keep going," I said. But I didn't have anything left. The adrenaline that had been powering me for the last two weeks, all that this project meant to me and the thrill I'd felt at sharing it, had drained away. In thirty minutes, I was scheduled to meet the vice premier of China, the U.S. ambassador to China, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, the party secretary of Shanghai, and the mayor of Shanghai, and lead them on a tour of the park. I felt like I couldn't move.
Eventually I called my team and said to meet me in the hotel lounge. I knew if I described the conversation to them, I would start crying again, so I kept it short and told Bob Chapek what I'd promised Matt Graves. "We're on it," Bob said, and sent word back to his team in Orlando right away. (What they did there was remarkable. There are hundreds of lagoons and canals on the property, and thousands of alligators. Within twenty-four hours, they had ropes and fences and signs up throughout the park, which is twice the size of Manhattan.)
***** TABLE OF CONTENTS *****
PART ONE. LEARNING
1. Starting at the Bottom
2. Betting on Talent
3. Know What You Don't Know (and Trust in What You Do)
4. Enter Disney
5. Second in Line
6. Good Things Can Happen
7. It's About the Future
PART TWO. LEADING
8. The Power of Respect
9. Disney-Pixar and a New Path to the Future
10. Marvel and Massive Risks That Make Perfect Sense
11. Star Wars
12. If You Don't Innovate, You Die
13. No Price on Integrity
14. Core Values