Obituary: Harrison ("Buzz") Price, 1921-2010
BY Kasey Wehrum
Remembering Walt Disney’s favorite research economist
Key to the Kingdom Harrison ("Buzz") Price (far right) looks at plans for Disney World with Walt Disney (far left) and another Disney executive.
Before Walt Disney could build the happiest place on earth, he relied on Harrison ("Buzz") Price to help him locate it. A research economist who pioneered the concept of site-selection feasibility studies for the recreation and leisure industries, Price in 1953 handpicked the 160 acres of orange groves in the then-sleepy city of Anaheim, California, as the ideal location for the future home of Disneyland. Price died on August 15 at 89 of a chronic anemic condition.
A decade after Disneyland, under the banner of his company Economic Research Associates, Price determined that the equally unlikely city of Orlando would be the prime spot for Disney's second major theme park, Disney World. "He nailed both of those locations, dead center," says Chip Cleary, chairman of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, or IAAPA.
Terry Van Gorder, former president of Knott's Berry Farm, used the term roller coaster math to describe the science behind Price's feasibility studies. In actuality, dozens of factors, such as population trends, accessibility, and climate, were evaluated as part of the studies. "He was a consummate numbers guy," says David A. Price, one of Buzz's four children. "He had a real analytical mind, but he also loved being around creative people. He could wrap his numbers around their creative thoughts."
Born in Oregon City, Oregon, Price studied mechanical engineering at Cal Tech and got an M.B.A. at Stanford prior to joining the Stanford Research Institute, where he did his initial work for Disney. After Price's success with Disneyland, Walt Disney encouraged Price to form his own company.
"Buzz's work cut across all kinds of business lines, so Walt thought it was important for him to be outside the company," says Marty Sklar, former vice chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Walt didn't want any yes men. In truth, he didn't have to worry about that. Buzz had guts. He didn't do things to make people happy; he simply believed in what the numbers were telling him."
Price summed up his mantra nicely in his 2004 book, Walt's Revolution!: "Guessing is dysfunctional. Ignoring prior experience is denial. Using valid numbers to project performance is rational."
Price sold Economic Research Associates in 1969 and later started the Harrison Price Company, which performed feasibility studies for world's fairs, amusement parks, museums, parks, and zoos. All told, Price worked on more than 3,000 projects.
Price remains a legend in the field of research economics. "People assume that theme parks are like Field of Dreams -- build it and they will come," says IAAPA's Cleary. "They aren't. There have been plenty of projects built in the amusement industry that were total disasters. But if Buzz gave you the green light, you knew you had a very good chance at success."
Staff editor KASEY WEHRUM has written for Inc. magazine on subjects ranging from the businesses behind professional bull riding to gadget inventor and father of the infomercial, Ron Popeil. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Worth, Budget Travel, and on MSNBC.com. He lives in Brooklyn.