I often hear people state “What would Walt do?” when they believe the present leadership of the Disney Company has done something they don’t approve of. When I hear this, I think to myself, the man has been dead for 45 years. You’ve never met him. All you know of Walt is the polished image he and his PR people put out there. How do you know what he’d do?
Walt was always growing and learning. He was always abandoning one idea for another. He was always moving from one project to the next. And he continually changed with the times. We have no way of knowing what he would think today (at the age of 110). And as you’ll see later in this article, it can be dangerous to lock ourselves into his “unknown” mindset.
Before I go any further, I want to point out; I’m a big fan of Walt Disney. This man gave me untold hours of joy. When I was a boy, I grew up watching the Mickey Mouse Club, Disneyland, and later, the Wonderful World of Color on TV. I visited Disneyland yearly in my youth and when I turned 18, I got a job there that lasted 9 years. Every time I see the American Adventure, I get goose bumps when I see Walt’s picture included with the other famous Americans in the final montage. I’m so happy the Imagineers felt him worthy to be added to this distinguished list. Walt was a genius and an inspiration in many ways.
In no way do I want to detract from all the great things Walt accomplished during his life, but over the years the Disney Company has promoted him to something akin to a demigod. The Disney Company has a marvelous talent of publicizing their successes and brushing their failures under the rug. Because of this, the general public often forgets that Walt was human and made mistakes. And Walt made some decisions that are certainly questionable – decisions that if they were made today, would create an outcry to be heard around the world of Disney. Because of some of his decisions, I’m not sure Walt’s “perceived” opinions should necessarily be the litmus test for every project the Company takes on today. By “perceived” I mean, what people “believe” to be Walt’s opinion on a particular topic.
First, let me give you just a few examples of some of the questionable choices Walt made at Disneyland.
One of the rides initially planned for Disneyland was to be called “Canal Boats of the World.” Here, guests were to sail past famous landmarks from various countries. However, the cost of building Disneyland skyrocketed and the landmarks were never built due to budget constraints. The boat ride was completed, but not the scenery. Yet, Walt made the decision to use this attraction anyway due to the incomplete nature of Disneyland on opening day. So when Disneyland premiered on July 17, 1955, guests spent ten minutes on this ride sailing past dirt hills and the ride operators remained silent as there was nothing to point out along the way. Even by 1955 standards, this was pretty pathetic and the ride garnered the nickname “The Mud Bank Ride.” After two months of mechanical failures and guest complaints, the ride was closed. It reopened a year later as Storybook Land Canal Boats.
As we all know, Walt had a love affair with trains. And of course, Disneyland was going to have two steam trains of its own, one passenger train and one freight train. When Ward Kimball happened upon the construction of the cattle cars, he instructed the workmen to make the openings between slats 12 inches apart, rather than the 4 inches that the plans called for. He knew these larger openings would afford guests better views of Disneyland as the train circled the park.
When Walt caught wind of this, he called Ward on the carpet. Walt told Ward that he had no business changing the plans. Ward then asked Walt, “You want ’em to see the Park, don’t you?” Walt countered with, “I want people to know how it feels to be a cow or a sheep riding in those cars.” Of course, Walt got his way and the slats remained at 4 inches apart. But Walt was dead wrong. People clamored to ride in the passenger train and shunned the freight train. After enough complaints were registered at City Hall, Walt reluctantly had the cattle cars remodeled to provide better views.
Walt loved the circus. And he wanted Disneyland to have its own version of the big top to be located on land adjacent to Disneyland for the upcoming Christmas season. His staff pleaded with Walt to reconsider. They argued that circuses are events in their own right. People come to Disneyland to see Disneyland. They’re not going to leave the park to walk next door and spend a couple of hours under the big top. Walt wouldn’t listen and insisted a circus be created.
On opening day, one calamity after another played out. If something could go wrong, it did. But more than that, the public wasn’t interested. Day after day, the seats remained empty. Management adjusted the schedule, ticket prices, and anything else they could think of to lure guests to the Mickey Mouse Club Circus, but nothing worked. This ended up being one of the biggest flops in Disneyland history.
In 1959, Disneyland opened the Monorail, the Submarine Voyage, and the Matterhorn. Once again, the project ran out of money and the interior of the Matterhorn was never completed. Riders could easily see steel girders, wooden beams, chicken wire, and plaster whenever their bobsleds were inside the mountain (as could those riding through on the Skyway). This totally ruined the magic of believing you were in Switzerland careening down a real mountain. Although the original plans called for the completion of the interior, Walt did not make this a priority after the attraction opened – he moved on to other projects and completely forgot about the Matterhorn. In fact, the finishing of the Matterhorn interior never occurred during his lifetime. The interior was not completed until 1978 – twelve years after Walt’s death. Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Walt would leave such an important aspect of a ride incomplete – but he did.
Walt also made many compromises because of his brother Roy’s insistence that they adhere to some sort of a budget. Walt could often strong-arm Roy into doing things his way, but frequently the realities of the real world forced Walt to settle for less than he aspired to. Do you really think he wanted to allow a concessionaire to sell brassieres on Main Street or have the Bathroom of the Future as one of his Tomorrowland attractions? He did so because it was the right business choice at the time and his dreams needed to take a back seat to reality.
Now let me show you what happens when an entire organization starts to ask “What would Walt do?”
Even though Walt Disney Productions went public in 1940, Walt still ruled the company with his foresight and imagination and Roy’s financial genius helped him realize his dreams. There were certain Imagineers and executives who could make suggestions to Walt, but it was Walt who ultimately made the final decisions. Walt almost always got his way.
Walt died on December 15, 1966. At that moment, the Company froze in time. Old-timers will tell you that the Company had no direction. Nobody knew what to do next or how to proceed. There were several projects and movies already in the pipeline that contained Walt’s inspiration, but once those ran out, what would they do next? As new opportunities came to life, the Imagineers and executives would continually ask themselves and one another, “What would Walt do?” But nobody really had the definitive answer. How could they? Everyone had their own opinion of Walt’s way of thinking, but their opinions did not match. This effectively locked the company into gridlock and the mindset of 1966. They forgot that Walt was always growing and changing. In fact, the years between 1967 and 1983 are known as “The Dark Ages“ in Disney history.
During “The Dark Ages,” the Company created many forgettable movies and neglected Disneyland to focus on the Magic Kingdom and then Epcot. During this time, the Company became vulnerable to hostile takeovers and in 1984 narrowly fought off an attempt from Saul Steinberg to buy and dismantle the Company. Now I can’t say that the “What would Walt do” philosophy was the only reason for the Company’s downturn, but it did play a major role in the direction the Company had taken.
In late 1984, Roy E. Disney, son of Roy O. Disney, forced then Disney President Ron Miller out of office and replaced him with Michael Eisner (CEO) and Frank Wells (CFO). One of Michael’s first directives was to stop the “What would Walt do” mentality. He forged ahead, making decisions he thought were best for the company and the public, not based on the memories of a leader now gone for 18 years. He knew the Disney Company needed to keep up with the times.
It’s easy to second guess Walt. But is this fair? I certainly wouldn’t want someone second guessing my thoughts after I die (or even while I’m alive). I think the best we can ever do is agree that Walt tried to bring us quality entertainment. But even at that, we can debate what “quality” is. I recently wrote a blog about the Grand Floridian, the Disney flagship hotel. Many people wrote in telling me that the Grand Floridian is a fantastic resort. But one gentleman wrote in saying that the resort didn’t live up to its potential. This individual could easily invoke the “What would Walt do” argument to support his position. In another blog about Golden Oak, one reader wrote in saying that Walt would never approve of this project, while someone else was sure that Walt would love this endeavor.
Personally, I’m disappointed that the new Voyage of the Little Mermaid attraction is using Omnimover technology rather than the more advanced and trackless LPS (Local Positioning System) used on Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland. But I’m not going to say, “Walt would have used the LPS system” because I really don’t know what he’d do. After all, this is the same man who left the Matterhorn unfinished.
Most non-smokers are happy with the current smoking policies management has implemented at its parks and resorts. Walt was a longtime, heavy smoker. So how do you think he’d feel if he were told today that he was not allowed to smoke in any of his hotels and he would be relegated to small sections of his parks if he wanted to light up? I don’t know. And nobody else does either.
Am I happy with all of the decisions Disney management makes today? Absolutely not. Do I think Disney management has made some colossal mistakes since Walt’s death? You bet I do. Do I think that Disney sometimes lives off of its laurels? Yup. But my list of dissatisfactions is probably entirely different than yours. And we could probably both claim that Walt would take our own side of the argument.
Walt made his share of mistakes – just like the management teams that came after him. But Walt’s mistakes seem to be forgotten and forgiven, while we seem less willing to forget the mistakes of those who followed.
So what would Walt “think” about his Company if he rose from the dead and viewed it today? Big picture — I believe he would be astonished to learn there were now eleven theme parks around the world bearing his name and a twelfth under construction. He’d be amazed that his Company has a fleet of four cruise ships. And he’d be surprised to find out that his TV and movie studio is one of the largest and most profitable in the world. I imagine he’d feel that his Company is moving in the right direction. I know that’s my opinion.
But maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he’d be ticked off to learn that the city of Epcot was never built. Maybe he never wanted to build another theme park after the Magic Kingdom. Maybe he wanted to focus his attentions on solving urban sprawl. And had he moved in this direction, the resort of Walt Disney World would not be the place we enjoy today. There would be no Epcot, Studio, Animal Kingdom, or parks in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
As for the details, I don’t know what Walt might think. For all we know, he might hate how the Haunted Mansion, a classic “Disney” attraction, turned out – the first attraction to open without his personal stamp of approval. And he might love “Stitch’s Great Escape,” an attraction considered to be a failure by many.
It seems that we only bring Walt’s name into the conversation when we believe that current management has blundered. We use Walt’s “opinion” as justification that our views are correct and the Imagineers’ judgments are wrong. I don’t have a problem with people complaining about some perceived “less than stellar” achievement that the Disney Company has created. I do this all the time. I only have a problem with people justifying their opinion with the unknown thoughts of a man who has been dead for 45 years.
In conclusion, I want to say that Walt Disney was a great man. The world is a better place because of his existence. Let us remember all of the marvelous and fantastic contributions he brought us during his lifetime. But let us not second guess what he may or may not have done if he had lived longer. We just don’t know. The best we can do is guess, and this really isn’t fair to his memory.