That business acumen served him well. Watson went on to serve as president of Irvine Co. in the 1970s. And after leaving the company in 1977 to start his own development company, he returned as vice chairman for Irvine Co. from 1986 to 2003.
Bren—who was part a group that acquired control of Irvine Co. in 1977 and who became sole owner of the company in 1996—called Watson “a wonderful friend and confidant.”
Along with the creation of numerous neighborhoods in Irvine, Watson worked on the development of Fashion Island and Newport Center. He also was a longtime supporter of UC Irvine’s development.
A pedestrian bridge used daily by thousands of students at UCI’s “front door” was named in his honor in a 2005 ceremony.
“Ray Watson was instrumental in advocating and advancing the vision of the great new city of Irvine around the new University of California, Irvine campus,” UCI Chancellor Michael Drake said. “The campus has lost a great friend and supporter.”
Along with his work at Irvine Co., Watson played a key part in the history of Burbank-based Disney, helping oversee the 1982 opening of Florida’s Epcot Center, which at the time was touted as the largest private land development project ever.
Watson said he first met Walt Disney in the mid-1960s, when plans for Epcot were in their infancy.
Walt Disney “figured maybe I could be helpful to him thinking about what this experimental prototypical community should look like,” Watson said in 2003. “I was flattered.”
Watson joined the board of Walt Disney Co. in 1974, the same time as Shirley Temple.
“She’s a very smart lady,” said Watson, who was one of the few outside directors on the company’s board at that time.
He served as Disney chairman during a nine-month stretch in 1983 and 1984, a period that saw him help fend off a pair of hostile takeover attempts.
“Ray exhibited incredible leadership, sound judgment, and grace under pressure, particularly during the difficult period in the mid-1980s,” Disney Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Iger said.
Watson retired from the Disney board in 2004 and continued to live in his home of 48 years, in Newport Beach’s East Bluff—one of the first Irvine Co. villages that he helped design and plan.
He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Elsa Watson, and their four children (and spouses): Kathy (husband Bill), Bryan (wife Lisa), Lisa (husband Michael) and David (wife Julie).
Watson also is survived by his sister Doris and 10 grandchildren.
“Both your career and your family need a vision and constant care,” Watson said in 2003.
“Our father was passionate about his work and could never imagine doing anything else professionally,” son David Watson said.
A memorial service is tentatively planned for Nov. 11 in the Irvine area.