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Thanksgiving Turkeys, Presidential Pardons, & Overcoming Barriers

“Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.”

Henry Ford

It’s the time of year when America is prepping for the feast to end all feasts: Thanksgiving. It’s a holiday built around family and traditions. Things like cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and of course, turkey!

And while turkey sales skyrocket in November, there is one lucky bird who is guaranteed to make it through the season without ending up on the dinner table…the official turkey pardoned by the President of the United States of America.

While there is much debate over the first official Presidential turkey pardon (with rumors that it goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln), historians do know that the modern-day turkey presentation began with President Truman in 1947, with pardons of the bird coming sporadically until the 1980s, when President Bush turned it officially into an Annual Turkey “Pardon” instead of just an Annual Turkey “Presentation”. With each President, the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony has grown, turning it into one of the most memorable events of the season.

There is one particular Presidential Turkey Pardon that will forever be burned in my memory, for it was the year my team and I at Disney were tasked with the impossible and overcame 7 tremendous barriers to achieve something truly amazing.

The year was 2005. It was the 50th Anniversary of Disneyland, and as the Head of Public Relations for Disney Parks, my team and I had spent the entire year launching massive PR campaigns.

Now technically, the 50th anniversary had already come and gone (July 17th, to be exact). And so, we found ourselves facing our first barrier:

Barrier #1: How do we get the press to cover an event that’s already happened?

The team began to think through ideas. I pressed them to look at major annual events they’d be covering anyways and see if there was an angle there (the media is always looking for a new angle – we just needed to give it to them). We discussed Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, among other ideas. Eventually, we started talking about the upcoming Presidential turkey pardon. We wondered: where do all the pardoned turkeys go?

After some research, we learned that most of the pardoned turkeys go to local farms or petting zoos after the ceremony. Kind of a lackluster way to live out their days after such a prestigious appearance at the White House! These turkeys are pardoned by the leader of the free world…shouldn’t they have a more regal retirement?

We felt we could do better. We were, after all, in the business of making dreams come true!

So, we started brainstorming and landed on an idea. What if instead of being sent to a local farm, we took these famous fowls and brought them to the happiest place on earth: Disneyland?

You see, this was during the heyday of Disney’s famous Super Bowl Promotion, where players on the winning team would be asked “You just won the Super Bowl! What are you going to do?” And they’d respond: “I’m going to Disneyland!” If it was good enough for Super Bowl champs, it would certainly be good enough for the pardoned turkey, right?

The idea had barely been introduced before I was on the phone with the White House. Sure enough, they loved it! So, the team and I got to work on planning the specifics. It was in that moment that I realized we were facing our second major barrier:

Barrier #2: How do we get a full-grown turkey from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles?

Actually, the question became “How do we get two full-grown turkeys from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles?” As it turns out, the Official White House Turkey travels with a “stunt double”. Unfortunately, turkeys live a relatively short life and are known to die suddenly from heart attacks. To avoid the risk of a last-minute issue with the Presidential pardon ceremony, there is always a backup turkey on hand to swap in if needed. More on this later…

So, we needed to fly two birds cross country. A team member first suggested that we charter a corporate jet. However, an expense like this would have to be approved by the CEO. And as it turns out, Disney had just installed a new CEO of the organization. As easy as the corporate jet would be logistically, we realized that our very first request of the new CEO probably shouldn’t be: “Hey, can we charter a private jet for two turkeys to come to Disneyland?”

So, I started looking at commercial options. Because of their health concerns, turkeys could not fly in the cargo hold; they’d have to be inside the cabin! And with it being that close to Thanksgiving, it turned out to be a bit of a nightmare, as flights were long sold out at nearly every airline I tried. After many “no’s”, I finally remembered that I had an old friend working at United. I gave them a call and proceeded to have one of the strangest conversations of my entire career. It turned out that United did have a flight from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles that had a few coach seats still available. Unfortunately, the kennels that could hold a full-grown turkey were too large for coach seats. Meaning that these birds had to go first-class or not at all…leading us to our third barrier:

Barrier #3: How do we convince first-class passengers to give up their seats for two turkeys?

Working with United, we were able to offer up some very strong incentives to get folks to move from first-class to coach. Let’s just say the people who gave up their seats were given a very nice Disney vacation for the next few years…

But now we had another problem. What would happen when folks showed up for their flight only to be greeted by two gigantic turkeys in the cabin? United was clear that they did not want to have this be a surprise to passengers. After all, no one buys their ticket with the hopes of sharing a row with a wild bird! Especially considering that 2005 was the year of the Bird Flu outbreak, so the idea of spending 5 hours sharing the same air with two gigantic birds wasn’t a high priority for most folks

And so, we met our next barrier:

Barrier #4: How do you get a crowded plane of passengers excited about traveling with two wild turkeys during a Bird Flu epidemic?

We had to devise a way to not only inform the passengers on this flight as to what to expect, but to get them excited about it as well.

Undeterred, we put our heads together and finally came up with an idea. What if we launched a campaign with passengers that celebrated this as an honor, not as an inconvenience? So, we did just that, sending every passenger a commemorative postcard ahead of their flight that read as follows: In honor of guests Marshmallow & Yam, no turkey will be served on this flight! Instead, passengers would be served delicious ham and cheese sandwiches. United got in on the fun as well, changing the call sign of the flight from UA632 to TRKY01. That’s right, the flight was officially “Turkey”01 from Washington D.C. to Los Angeles.

Feedback started to roll in…and passengers were thrilled! They thought it was an honor to be traveling with the Presidentially pardoned guests, and loved the postcards, which they now considered a special keepsake.

And so, with the transportation set, the fateful day arrived where our turkeys received their pardons. Two days before Thanksgiving, President Bush took the stage to give the pardon, during which he told reporters the following:

“This year is going to be a little different. Marshmallow and Yam were a little skeptical about going to a place called “Frying Pan Park.” I don’t blame them. So, I’m proud to announce that Marshmallow and Yam will serve as honorary grand marshals at Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And they’ll go on to spend the rest of their natural lives at Disneyland.”

Watching the event live, the faces of our team sank. Disneyland didn’t have a Thanksgiving Day Parade…

Barrier #5: What do you do when The President of the United States tells the whole world you’re hosting a Thanksgiving Day Parade (when you had no intention of doing so)?

We couldn’t believe it! The campaign was going so well, and we had overcome so many challenges. It was the home stretch…all we needed to do was get the birds safely to L.A. But now, in front of millions, the President promised that the turkeys would be the Grand Marshals of a Thanksgiving Day Parade that did not exist!

The team immediately asked what we were going to do. “Uh, Duncan? We don’t have a Thanksgiving Day Parade…”

“Well,” I responded, “The President of the United States just told the world that we do. So, we better start planning!”

And that’s exactly what we did. While Marshmallow and Yam were whisked away to catch their flight on TRKY01, the team jumped into full planning mode. With only two days to go before Thanksgiving, there was absolutely no time to spare.

While the team was handling the logistics of the parade, I was called into what would become my favorite meeting of all time. Inside were 56 Disney Executives. The topic?

What do we do if something should happen to one of the turkeys during the parade?

You heard that right. You see, during the planning of the turkey trip, word had gotten out about the fact that every Presidential turkey had a backup in case of unfortunate unforeseen circumstances. While the Disney team was saddened to learn that this was a necessary requirement due to the chance of illness or, heaven forbid, death – we realized that we too needed to also prepare ourselves in case something should occur. After all, this parade was going to be seen by thousands live, and millions more across the globe through media coverage.

And so, our sixth barrier arose:

Barrier #6: How do you prepare for the unforeseen circumstances that could occur with a high-profile turkey on camera in your theme park?

And so, surrounded by 56 major executives, we discussed the “turkey tactics” of our parade. You can probably see why this became my favorite meeting of all time. The mix of seriousness and ridiculous was quite amusing – only at Disney!

In the end, we did come up with a solution. We would just have one of the birds serve as Grand Marshal. For the vehicle carrying them, we’d devise a special “Turkey Lazy Susan”. Marshmallow would be front and center throughout the parade, but in case something was to happen to him during the parade, the device would turn so that Yam (who had been riding comfortably out of view of the crowd) would take over Grand Marshal duties for the remainder of the trip.

Crazy? Yes – but it would work! And it did work. Two days after the sudden announcement from President Bush, Marshmallow served as the Grand Marshal of the first-ever Disneyland Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Parade over, there was one final barrier we hadn’t thought of during the craziness of all the planning:

Barrier #7: What do you do with two turkeys in a busy theme park?

In the chaos of the campaign, we hadn’t fully thought through what we would do once it was over. We knew that since President Bush had mentioned that the birds would “…spend the rest of their natural lives at Disneyland” we couldn’t give them away. And so, Marshmallow and Yam became the first two residents of what would eventually become the Disneyland Petting Zoo.

“Crazy” wouldn’t even begin to describe the days we spent putting this campaign together. But in the end, we pulled it off. In fact, the Turkey Pardon campaign ended up being the most successful of all our 50th Anniversary campaigns!

It was the perfect example of what happens when you find innovation within your own organization. What started as a simple conversation about turkeys led to a massively successful PR campaign, and thanks to some amazing creativity and innovation by my wonderful team, the first-ever Disneyland Thanksgiving Day Parade. A parade so successful that Disney has continued it every year since!

With the success of the first turkey “retirement” at Disneyland, we were fortunate enough to spend the next seven years working with President Bush and President Obama to bring more Presidentially pardoned turkeys to the park. Even President Obama, who early in his Presidency mentioned that he thought the whole ceremony was a bit “hokey,”, eventually went on to say that the Thanksgiving tradition became one of his favorite traditions during his time in office.

That first Presidential Turkey Pardon Campaign of 2005 will forever live on as one of my favorite moments of my career. It showed our team what we were capable of – even when faced with massive barriers. There were so many opportunities to give up. Yet we kept going. Day by day, challenge by challenge until we emerged on the other side victorious.

As Henry Ford famously said: “Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.” In the case of the Presidential Turkeys, we always thought we were going to pull it off. And in the end, we proved ourselves right.

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