The Merchantainer (Magazine Spring 2016)
A Japanese proverb says, “There is nothing that cannot be achieved by firm imagination.” This saying has Dr. Stephen Salyers as its modern ambassador. Dr. Salyers, or Doc as he is more commonly referred to, was born with Ocular Albinism, a condition which prevented his optic nerve from fully forming, leaving him skirting the line of legal blindness.
However, as a child, his parents made sure his condition never kept him from doing the things he wanted to do. But they also never let him use his poor eyesight as an excuse. Despite his parental support, it’s certainly not easy to be visually impaired as a child. His condition left him with a choice: to lay down and let circumstances beyond his control get the best of him, or to embrace his limitations and work past them. So, with a conscious choice to make the most of the cards he had been dealt, the man Doc began to take shape.
Because of his vision impediment, Doc always felt like he had a “rich imagination,” so from a young age, he was fascinated with what his mind could do. One year for Christmas, his step-dad bought him an electric train set and built an 4’ x 8’ train table. It was a plywood sheet, devoid of anything but the tracks. It was his first canvas, the first place he could let truly make the most of his imaginative capabilities.
“I would build this thing up and tear it apart, and build it up and tear it apart again,” he said. “And eventually it led to me building theme parks on it.”
Doc’s fantastic mind expanded further under the tutorship of his grandfather. A gentleman to the end, his grandpa was a major influence on young Stephen. He would sit and patiently teach his visually impaired grandson to read by using a storybook Bible.
Following the natural progression of childhood imagination, Doc fell into the warm embrace of the father of all things spectacular and fun: Walt Disney.
His fascination with Disney started with watching reruns of the original Mickey Mouse Club after school. He was captured by the creativity, but mostly he was fascinated by the animation. By age 10, he was reading every book about Disney and animation that he could find.
The first time he visited Walt Disney World at age 8, he was immediately enthralled by the magic of the place.
“We call it the Disney Wow,” he said. “That first moment you walk in the park, it’s unlike anything else.”
But for a child with such a serious visual impairment, the park meant so much more to young Salyers.
“It was the first place I had ever been that matched or exceeded my imagination.”
After that first visit, Doc began to feed a newfound love for the happiest place on earth. As an adult, he now makes the pilgrimage religiously, several times a year in fact. This love for all things Disney would later transfer into his academic studies as well as his career path.
Salyers became the first member of his father’s family to graduate high school and go to college and graduate school. After getting a degree in communications from Radford University, a state school nestled in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, it was on to bigger and better things; Doc had his eye on a doctorate. First came a masters in humanities and communications from Regent University in Virginia. It was at this point that Doc got his first full-time teaching job at Emmanuel College in Georgia for two years. He took his next step at Florida State University where he received a PhD. It was at this point, while working on his doctoral dissertation on the evolution of Creative Immersive Environments at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, that he decided that it was time to try and work for Disney.
For three years he worked for Disney in “merchantainment,” the meshing of entertainment content with product information. He made the most of his vision impairment by teaching classes about disability awareness. He moved into retail at Disney’s Magic Kingdom in his third year. He then became a cast member trainer and also did work with Guest Satisfaction Measurement.
It was at this point that he ended his time at Disney and focused his full attention on completing his doctorate work. In 2000, he finished his degree at Florida State and became Dr. Salyers, bestowing upon himself the crowning achievement in American education as well as his famous nickname.
Doc often gets asked why he chose to do his doctoral work on Disney.
“Why wouldn’t I study the sixth largest communications company in human history?” he said.
His imagination and humor are what make Dr. Salyers one of the most interesting, quirky people at King’s. He calls himself, “the quirky sitcom neighbor that everyone wishes they had but no one actually does.” And, according to his FA Joshua Hinen ('17), he lives up to that reputation.
“He loves to make strangers on the street uncomfortable,” said Josh. “Like he’ll just randomly start making bird noises or something.”
Born “blind as a bat,” as he would tell anyone who asks, Doc has achieved more than most people with perfect vision ever will. He is quirky and goofy, hilarious and odd, but behind it all lies an imaginative, wise, and genuinely kind man.
Editor's Note: this feature ran in the Empire State Tribune Spring 2016 Magazine.