Walt Disney is famous for his quotes, and perhaps the most poignant one was… “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality” And in Walt’s long and storied career, this certainly rings true. From Walt’s humblest beginnings to the zenith of his triumphs, he always had the most talented and devoted people on his staff to make his dreams come true. From Ub Iwerks and Carl Stalling in the beginning, there are countless people over the years who contributed to making his ideas and dreams come to fruition.
Conceivably one of the most important and sometimes overlooked architects of Walt’s dreams was Joseph W. Fowler. Joe was born on July 9, 1894 (D-December 6, 1993) in Lewiston, Maine. He attended Annapolis and graduated in 1917, second in his class, and served in World War I as a navigator on a submarine. He went on to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in naval architecture in 1921. He was a veteran of both World Wars and thus began an illustrious career in the Navy spanning more than 35 years as an engineer and designer of naval ships. In the 1920’s Joe was commissioned to design and build gunboats in Shanghai, China. His skill and talent continued as he designed and built the U.S.S. Saratoga and Lexington, the largest aircraft carries in WWII. All during WWII, Joe was in charge of all the West Coast shipyards during World War II.
In addition, he oversaw submarine construction and repairs at the Portsmouth Naval Yard in Kittery, Maine, and the assembly line launching of the Kaiser fleet class of cargo ships. During his long naval career, Joe met many historic luminaries such as Lyndon Johnson, Harry Truman and Dwight D Eisenhower. He even shared a bunk on a British gun ship on the Yangtze River with Edward, Prince of Wales. Joe finally retired in 1948 after 35 years in the Navy, with the rank of Rear Admiral. After retiring from the navy, he became a private consultant. But he was recalled during the Korean was by the Defense Department to cut the red tape in the naval supply systems. He was appointed by President Truman in 1952 as civilian director of the Federal Supply Management Agency, tasked with eliminating waste.
Joe thought he was retired, but that actually did not happen. He was about to enter Disney’s fold and begin another storied career. Joe Fowler’s Disney tenure began because Walt had always wanted a boat ride in Disneyland. Even in the drawings of the small park he planned on his Burbank lot, there was a mention of a “Mississippi Steamboat.” When Disneyland was in the planning stages, Walt knew he had to have the assistance of some major talent in this undertaking. He remembered meeting Joe Fowler once through a friend. Walt contacted and convinced Joe to join his construction team and he oversaw the construction of Disneyland and later, the building of Walt Disney World. But it was Fowlers knowledge of naval ships and construction that was instrumental in building Disneyland’s paddlewheel steam boat.
Joe was known as the “Can do” guy. Walt hated hearing two things…”How much it costs” and “It can’t be done” In fact one day, Disney legend Bob Matheison recalled Walt and Joe on a stage in Adventureland. There was a waterfall and dressing room off to the side. Walt mused that he wanted the waterfall to part, and the performers come out, then the waterfall close behind them. Joe turned and without hesitation said “Can do, Can do” and at the time did not have any idea how to do it, but did it. After the opening of Disneyland, Joe continued to manage its operations for the next ten years. He was also the technical advisor of Walt’s blockbuster Sci-Fi live-action film, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea.
During the early 1960’s and ‘70’s Joe was again tasked with the planning and building of the “Florida Project”, Walt’s second theme park. At first he traveled to Florida to help scout out a site for the park. Eventually ground was broken in 1967. He was in charge of the construction and engineering, and because of him, the park opened on schedule in 1971. He was so instrumental in the parks construction, he had at one point held three positions…Director of construction for Disney’s Buena Vista Construction Company, Senior Vice-President of engineering and construction for Walt Disney Productions and Chairman of the Board of WED Enterprises, the former name of Walt Disney Imagineering.
There are many nods to Joe’s contribution sand invaluable knowledge, that without, Walt’s Theme parks may not be the successes they are today. In Disneyland, the docks across from the Haunted Mansion are named “Fowler’s Harbor” It also features a building called “Fowler’s Inn” One of the ferries that transports guests from the Ticket and Transportation center on the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Magic Kingdom was renamed “Admiral Joe Fowler”. The original name was the “Magic Kingdom I” Although Admiral Joe Fowler is included in the list of uncounted individuals who over the years helped Walt Disney realize his dreams; he was without question, one of the most productive and knowledgeable men in Disney History.