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Ten Things I’ve Learned from Walt Disney

January 30, 2011

Although I had intended to pack today, my new Kindle has again interfered with my intent to do anything else but read. I met up with Kelly and we hit the local Books Inc. where I found a desktop book on sale about one of my favorite entrepreneurs of all time, Walt Disney. After spending two hours reading the book from cover to cover, I downloaded Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (Gabler) which is the first biography by a writer given full access to the Disney archives. I’m 600 pages in 24 hours later (I barely slept last night!) and I have to tell you: this isn’t only the best biography you’ll ever read, it is the best book on business you’ll ever find.

I only hope that we don’t lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.
-Walt Disney


1. Do things only because they are fun, if you find them fun, chances are that others will too.

Shortly after Walt bought his home in Holmby Hills, he attended a train show in Chicago. Inspired by the mini models of the latest steam engines, he hired an engineer to put a mini train set in his backyard for his family and guests to ride in, complete with an “S” shaped tunnel so that when you went in one side you couldn’t see the end of the tunnel. The engineer of the tunnel said to Walt, “You know, it would be much cheaper to build a straight tunnel instead of digging out the curve”. Walt responded, “it would be much cheaper to not build it at all.” If it’s not fun, why do it?

I think this is especially important in my own career in merchandising and design where often costing challenges dictate styling. If you try and simplify something to the point where it’s not fun, emotional, or exciting to the consumer, chances are they aren’t going to buy it.


2. You have to grow older, but you never have to grow up.

Books are filled with anecdotes from Mousketeers and Imagineer’s children from time spent with Walt, but here are two that I feel best epitomize the man.

First is a story from Harrison Ellenshaw, the son of a Disney artist who would often go down to Disneyland with his dad when it was under construction. On one occasion, Walt was walking through the park and said to Harrison, “c’mon over here.” They walked over to the railroad tracks and Walt pointed at a handcart and said “jump aboard!” Harrison jumped on and Walt began pushing that thing to get it up to speed. Once it was in motion, a huffing and puffing Walt jumped on the cart and they rode together until it came to a complete stop. Can you imagine being a ten year-old seeing an adult getting as much of a thrill out of riding a handcart as you?

The second story comes from Shirley Temple at the 1939 Academy Awards. She was there to present the Oscar to Walt for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. When she saw the specially designed Oscars she knew the large one was for Walt and the small seven ones were for the dwarfs. Concerned, she asked Walt “where is Snow White’s award?” Walt laughed, and then accepted the award on Snow White’s behalf.


3. Trust your instincts.

Walt had an instinct that made Disney, Disney.

One day Walt pulled a book off the shelf and handed it to a producer and a songwriter. “My daughters and wife thing this is very good. I read it and think there’s a lot in it. Read this and tell me what you think,” and he handed them the book Mary Poppins. I don’t know if you’ve all read the book Mary Poppins, but there’s not story line, only a series of short stories centered on different incidents that never really string together in any sort of traditional movie format. The two producers read the book twice and developed a story line from six of its chapters.
Back in the office on Monday, the producers met with Walt and sang him a few of the songs they had developed. After the pitch, Walt asked to see their notes. He looked at the table of contents, which was all marked up and laughed. Then he showed them his copy: the same six chapters were underlined. He knew they were the right men for the job.

When it came to casting Mary Poppins, Julie Andrews was little more than a stage actress in New York. Walt chose her, making this her first ever film. Bill Walsh, a producer, recalls her first makeup test. As soon as she was on the screen Walt said, “we’re home!” She had outstanding empathy and presence, and only Walt (and the camera) knew it instantly.


4. No good idea is ever garbage.

Walt wouldn’t allow the janitor to empty the garbage pails in the animation studio until he had personally been through every one.
Often, the animators would return in the morning to find he had shuffled through their drawings or uncrumpled discarded sketches and pinned them to their boards with notes.  Sometimes your ideas are better than you think.


5. Never accept rejection.

MGM’s Louis Mayer once rejected the opportunity to distribute Mickey Mouse cartoons shortly after Walt originally debuted the character because he said that pregnant women would be frightened by a large mouse on the screen. So Walt started his own studio. Today, MGM is worth about $7 billion dollars. Disney is worth $75 billion.

You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
-Walt Disney


6. Be a storyteller.

If there was one predominant skill Walt Disney had, it was the gift of storytelling. He used stories to convey his vision and inspire employees. In the winter of 1934 he gathered his top animators on a soundstage. “Walt was standing at the front, lit by a single spotlight in the otherwise dark space,” writes Gabler in Walt Disney. “Announcing that he was going to launch an animated feature, he told the story of Snow White, not just telling it but acting it out, assuming the characters’ mannerisms, putting on their voices, letting his audience visualize exactly what they would be seeing on the screen. He became Snow White and the wicked queen and the prince and each of the dwarfs.” The performance took more than three hours. “‘He was a spellbinder,’ recalled animator Joe Grant.”


7. Reinvent yourself when necessary.

In 1941 the success of Snow White gave employees grandiose expectations that the studio couldn’t fulfill. When the animators went on strike, Walt never again had the same passion for cartoons or movies. After the strike, Walt went into about a decade of wilderness. The only thing that kept him going was what’s next: Disneyland and TV. More of a behind-the-scenes director than an actor, when Disney was first going on the air Walt learned to host shows, acted in “One Hour in Wonderland” and gradually became more comfortable in front of the camera, funny even. You can see in the footage how he changed between the beginning of television and the opening of Disneyland. He never changed as a person, but TV led to a more polished personality.


8. If you have a talent, share it with others.

The New York World’s Fair in Queens represented a huge opportunity for Disney. Wanting to invest in new technology for animatronics and theme park attractions, he offered his services to companies who were hosting pavilions at the fair creating and writing the song for “It’s a Small World” for Pepsi Cola, building “The Circle of Progress” for GE, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” for the Illinois pavilion, and the Ford Magic Skyway (an early version of the People Mover). All the attractions were funded by sponsors, and all were moved to California and still exist at Disneyland today. Only with the funding from corporations could Disney experiment with new technologies.


9. Fall in love with ideas, not with money.

Walt was a self proclaimed bad business man, in fact, his brother Roy handled all the matters of money.  In the summer of 1959, Walt wanted to install the Matterhorn, Monorail, and Submarines but Roy had other ideas. Apparently, the Disneyland balance sheet was just coming out of the hole and it would be another two or three years before financing was available. Roy left for Europe the next day to raise money for motion pictures and by the weekend Walt has put a team in place to start construction on the three new attractions. As for the money, Roy had to figure it out when he got back.

Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money.
-Walt Disney


10. Enlarge your vision–whatever your dream, dream bigger.

At a birthday party towards the end of his career, Walt asked Art Linkletter (a TV celebrity at the time) what his opinion was on doing a Disneyland in Florida. Walt was upset with the jungle of motel signs right next to the resort in Burbank and wanted to buy a lot of land in Orlando. So Walt said, “whaddaya think of it?” and Art replied “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Why not?”
“Because, Walt,” Art said, “Disneyland is the only park of its kind in the entire world. It’s like the pyramids of Egypt, Niagara Falls, or the Grand Canyon. If there’s two then it isn’t unique anymore.”
Walt explained how he had learned so much from Disneyland. All the things they did and how it was like an experimental laboratory and in Florida they could correct all the things they wanted to do differently.
Art said, “In that case, I change my mind. You’re not doing it just to make more money?”
“No,” Walt said, “I’m doing it to do it better.”

If you can dream it, you can do it.
-Walt Disney

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  1. Papa permalink
    January 31, 2011 7:38 am

    Excellent continuing education, Rachel!

  2. February 5, 2011 8:15 am

    Love this post! I’m going to run out and buy this book now…. I just watched a special on the creation of PIXAR and there are so many parallels between what PIXAR accomplished and what Disney accomplished in his early years.

  3. Liz Bishop permalink
    February 9, 2011 1:33 pm

    Rachel, thank you for all of the reminders of Life and Business attitudes that Walt Disney had. One of Walt Disney’s grandaughters was a year behind me in High School. She was pretty and positive – like you! I love that you are keeping up with your blog and I can’t wait to see you new place! xxoo


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