LOS ANGELES -- Roy E. Disney, who died Wednesday at 79, was an avid ocean sailor who won the California-to-Hawaii Transpacific Yacht Race in record time a decade ago and backed programs to bring youth to the sport.
"He was very competitive, but we always had a lot of fun on the boat," said Gregg Hedrick, who managed Disney's boats and sailed 100,000 miles with him over 24 years. "We always had the best sailors on the boat and that was what made it fun 'cause he was such a good sailor and he could hold his own with any of them."
The nephew of Walt Disney competed 15 times in the Transpac, a 2,225-mile race that begins off Los Angeles and ends off Oahu's Diamond Head.
Hedrick said Disney was a sportsman "but you knew when it was a competitive moment on the boat ... and we all worked really hard, you'd all work a lot harder for Roy because you wanted to see him win."
In 1999, his 74-foot Pyewacket III was first to finish, completing the voyage in seven days, 11 hours, 41 minutes and 27 seconds. That broke the record of 7:15:24:40 set in 1997 by his son, Roy Pat Disney, who took over the job of skippering Pyewacket II after his father broke a leg and was unable to sail.
"Sheer pandemonium," Hedrick said of the 1999 victory. "We were coming down that Molokai Channel doing 25 knots in that boat and we had a big puff hit right at the buoy and the (speedometer) was reading like 28, and everybody was screaming and the cameras were flashing."
The record stood until 2007. Another new record was set this year.
Disney last sailed in the biennial Transpac in 2005. He planned to sail in 2007 but changed his mind just before the race began and turned his boat over to his son.
Transpac spokesman Rich Roberts said the surprise decision involved a project that Disney and wife Leslie DeMeuse-Disney were working on to train a team of young sailors to compete on their own in that Transpac.
The project drew more than 500 applicants in their late teens and early 20s. After a long period of training, 11 were selected to crew a boat named Morning Light.
Disney said at the time that he had become concerned about trying to follow Morning Light's progress and sail his own boat at the same time.
"I've been apprehensive about it, and when you're worried, maybe it's not the smart thing to do," he said.
A documentary called "Morning Light" was released in 2008.
Roberts said that on Wednesday, he received word that a member of that crew, Genny Tulloch, who has gone on to world class racing, had just learned she was a nominee for a woman-of-the-year award presented by U.S. Sailing sponsor Rolex.
"She's the first one out of that Morning Light group to be nominated for that," he said.
U.S. Sailing said in a statement that Disney made an impact on the sport from youth sailing to the Olympic level and beyond.
Company Announces Disney's Passing
Company president and chief executive Bob Iger said Disney was much more than a valued 56-year company veteran.
"Roy's commitment to the art of animation was unparalleled and will always remain his personal legacy and one of his greatest contributions to Disney's past, present and future," Iger said in a statement.
Although he generally stayed out of the spotlight, Roy Disney didn't hesitate to lead a successful campaign in 1984 to oust Walt Disney's son-in-law after concluding he was leading the company in the wrong direction.
Nearly 20 years later, he launched another successful shareholders revolt, this time against Eisner, the man he'd helped bring in after the previous ouster.
Eisner and his wife issued a statement expressing their sympathies over Disney's death.
New Era of Disney Animation
Don Hahn, an executive producer at the Disney movie studio, credited Roy Disney with ushering in a new era after taking over the animation department in 1984. Together, they helped make such blockbusters as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King."
"He took it under his wing, was a cheerleader, a coach, therapist," Hahn said.
John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, also lauded Disney.
"He put his heart and soul into preserving Disney's legendary past, while helping to move the art of animation into the modern age by embracing new technology," Lasseter said.
DreamWorks Animation chief and former Disney studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg said Disney's death would be felt by "everyone who works in the entertainment industry."
"His passion for the art form of animation was infectious and inspiring," Katzenberg said in a statement Wednesday.
Born in 1930, Roy Disney had practically grown up with the company. His uncle Walt Disney and his father, Roy O. Disney, had co-founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio seven years before, later renaming it The Walt Disney Co.
While Walt was the company's creative genius, his brother was the one in charge of the company's finances.
Starting in the 1950s, the younger Roy Disney worked for years in the family business as an editor, screenwriter and producer. Two short films he worked on were nominated for Academy Awards: the 1959 "Mysteries of the Deep," which he wrote, was nominated as best live action short, and the 2003 film "Destino," which he co-produced, was nominated as best animated short.
Despite his heritage, Roy Disney never got the chance to lead the company. But as an investor who grew his Disney stock into a billion-dollar fortune, he had a huge impact on the company's destiny.
In 1984, dissatisfied with the leadership Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller was providing, Disney resigned from the company's board of directors and sought investors to back a bid to install new management. (Miller was the husband of Diane Disney Miller, Roy's cousin.)
His efforts resulted in the hiring of Eisner and Frank Wells, who led the company as a team until Wells died in 1994.
During that time, Disney rejoined the board and rose to become the company's vice chairman and chairman of its animation division. He also became a savvy investor over the years, forming Shamrock Holdings with his friend and fellow Disney board member Stanley Gold in 1978.
The fund grew to become a major investor in California real estate, the state of Israel and other entertainment and media companies.
Gold, president of Shamrock Holdings and a friend of Disney for 35 years, described him as steadfastly loyal to his principles and his friends.
"He was a gracious, humble gentleman," Gold said in a statement.
After years of dissatisfaction with Eisner's leadership and the company's lagging stock price, Disney and Gold resigned their board seats in 2003 and launched a shareholder revolt.
In his resignation letter, Disney called for Eisner's ouster, complaining that on his watch the company's standards had declined, particularly at theme parks like California's Disneyland and Florida's Walt Disney World.
Initially rebuffed, Disney rallied small investors and enthusiasts who responded to his folksy complaints about peeling paint at the theme parks and his anger at being told he would have to leave the board because he was too old.
Shareholders eventually delivered an unprecedented rebuke to Eisner, withholding 45 percent of votes cast for his re-election to the board. The chief executive was later stripped of his role as board chairman and announced his retirement in 2005, a year before his contract was up.
Disney initially opposed Iger, Eisner's successor, but they reconciled and in 2005 Iger named Disney a board member emeritus and welcomed him back to company events. Disney didn't attend board meetings and at the time of his death was no longer a significant shareholder.
Born in Los Angeles on Jan. 10, 1930, Roy Edward Disney was Roy and Edna Disney's only child. As an adult, he bought a castle in Ireland and indulged his passion for yacht racing, setting several speed records.
He was also an active philanthropist, supporting the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, a school founded by his father and uncle.
"It's kind of hard to imagine us without him," said school president Steven D. Lavine, citing Disney's unflagging support.
In 1999, he matched a gift from The Walt Disney Co. to establish an experimental theater space as part of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. He named the theater for his parents.
In 2005, Disney pledged $10 million to establish the Roy and Patricia Disney Cancer Center at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank.
© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.