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Disney Sets Sail

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At 78, Morning Light producer Roy Disney has no plans to curtail his rigorous sailing regimen.

(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner)

At 78, Roy Disney shows no signs of slowing down.

Three years after orchestrating a successful insurrection against then Disney chief Michael Eisner and becoming Director Emeritus of his father Roy and uncle Walt’s media empire, the two-time Oscar nominee (for the animated shorts Destino and The Little Matchgirl) is tirelessly promoting his latest project: Morning Light, a documentary about one of his passions, competitive team sailing.

Disney and co-executive producer Leslie DeMeuse, whom he recently married, would be the first to tell you that “Morning Light” is about more than a sport or even one of its premier events, the Trans-Pacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. (Founded in 1906, the Transpac was originally scheduled to begin in San Francisco until that year’s earthquake forced a last-second relocation.) The film chronicles the journey of 15 handpicked amateur sailors, aged 18 to 22, who were thrown together last year during a whirlwind training course in hopes of beating scores of veteran racers to the Hawaiian finish line.

To accomplish that, Disney says, they needed to learn a few basic lessons.

“It’s a classic race, 2,500 miles in length, and it puts things like patience, teamwork and the ability to concentrate at a premium,” says Disney, who began sailing in his late 20s and has competed in the Transpac at least 16 times, though he’s begun to lose count.

“The idea was that a group of young people could work together just as easily as a group of older people who have done it before. You can’t just throw them on the boat and tell them to sail it, of course. They needed to work as a team, they needed training. You can see in the film how much they matured.”

“The ocean can teach you a lot about life, about rising to a challenge,” adds DeMeuse, who co-founded Channel Sea Television in 1983 and has produced yacht-racing coverage for ESPN. “We wanted to show what these kids were like when they left the docks, what they went through and how they had changed by the time they reached the other side.”

From the time Disney and DeMeuse announced their plan to recruit an untested crew for their 52-foot racing sloop, Morning Light, they received 534 applications from sailing enthusiasts of all ages, despite their stated preference for college-age competitors. (“We had a 41-year-old guy who said, ‘I don't care what your age requirement is, I want to go,’” Disney recalls.) In the end, though they met hundreds of qualified candidates, Disney and DeMeuse narrowed the field to 15, based more on strength of character than sailing skills.

For Disney, who claims to have inspired the character Goofy but hardly seems suited for the role, that was always the point. Morning Light is a movie about people, not just sailing, and it stands as proof that one of sport’s most abused clichés – that what really matters is not whether you win or lose but how you play the game – can still ring true. And that, more than anything else, is what keeps him in the game.

"I love the ocean," he says. "I'm planning on racing in the Transpac again next year. I don't intend to stop anytime soon."

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