Every once in a while the world will witness a person leave a mark so indelible on it, that the story of their life will grow to mythic proportions. This was the case on December 5, 1901 when Walter Elias Disney was welcomed to the world in a Chicago Hospital.
Born to modest beginnings but not destined for a modest existence, Disney would use the loving encouragement of his doting mother, and the nervous skepticism of his cautious father to pursue his dreams and bring joy to what would eventually amount to billions of people around the world.
In his sixty-five years on this earth, Uncle Walt would experience great triumphs, crushing defeats, rousing successes and devastating setbacks. His life that was a ride with twists and turns that were worthy of a spot in one of his groundbreaking amusement parks.
His inspiration and influence on Hollywood is legendary. George Lucas; a titan in his own right wrote Star Wars with Disney in mind. Steven Spielberg, who is one of the greatest directors in history cites Disney as his greatest influence. The list is endless.
Walt Disney was as close to a living God as it could possibly get. When he died prematurely of lung cancer in 1966, his death was subject to a wide range of Urban legends. For a minute, let us suspend reality and say that Disney was cryogenically frozen. One would have to wonder what his opinion on the direction that the very company that bears his name has taken.
It is likely that he would not be happy with things as they are now. The company itself has lost its way. While Walt’s legacy has been appreciated around Hollywood and the world, his own company has seemed to have taken almost every measure to rid itself of his ideals. Outside of the statues of him outside of their theme parks, Walt Disney’s influence on the Walt Disney corporation is all but undetectable.
His Vision Has Been Erased From The Parks
While Disney as a boss was known as a perfectionist and a strict taskmaster, his relationship with his fans was warm, outgoing and personable. Walt was known for engaging with park goers. Getting feedback directly from the guest’s mouth was important to him. He would talk to children and some times even wait in line with some lucky park goers.
I cannot imagine Bob Iger deigning to attend any Disney event that is open to the common folk. He certainly wouldn’t engage with fans willingly. I would be willing to bet my last dollar on him having a small child detained by security should they dare to approach him without solicitation.
- Disney wanted picnic areas for families to rest and take a break from all of the excitement. Iger pushed for cabana rentals in Tomorrowland for $650.00 a day.
- Disney Oversaw every aspect of the Parks operations, making sure that everything met his exact specifications for a first class guest experience. Management that followed saw fit to increase prices whenever the opportunity presented itself.
- Disney wasn’t afraid to experiment with new things and fail along the way. Current management can’t even renovate Splash Mountain in a timely manner.
The philosophy and culture changed drastically. Parks that were designed with imagination, whimsy and a desire to have an escape from everyday life were overtaken by a sterile board run by a series of real life Gordon Geckos.
“If You can dream it, You can do it!” slowly mutated into “Greed is good” over time without Walt’s steady hand to bring humility back into the boardroom.
Disney Was An Artist First And A Businessman Second
Every businessman sets out to make a profit. That’s what makes him a businessman and that’s what keeps his company going. However, there are traditionally two types of businessmen out there. Conservative businessmen usually play things safe and create a sterile, lifeless environment designed for minimum risk and maximum profit. Then there are the mavericks who like to take risks, try new things, and share their experience with us no matter the consequence.
Disney was a maverick, and one of the best mavericks to ever step out into the public eye. Disney didn’t see his missteps as failures. Nothing was a failure to him and everything was a learning experience. He was never a victim of his setbacks and he always gave himself room to grow.
A lot of his projects lost money initially. Fantasia was a box office disaster. Walt’s passion project almost sank the studio. He didn’t retreat into his ivory tower, or blame the fans for not going to see it, or vilify critics that didn’t like it. He went back to the drawing board and won us back with Dumbo, which was sixty minutes of magic that still captures the hearts of fans over eighty years later.
When Sleeping Beauty went over budget and underperformed at the box office, Disney saw this as a shock. The movie was beautifully done and is now one of the crown jewels to his legacy. When it initially failed, he didn’t blame misogynists for not wanting to see a princess movie. He soldiered on, surmised that “Princess Movies” need a break, and gave us back to back smash hits with One-Hundred and One Dalmatians and The Sword In The Stone.
Walt was the type of man to embrace his failures and in many cases love them more than his successes. If he was alive when The Black Cauldron was being made, he wouldn’t have mourned its failure. He certainly wouldn’t have floated the idea of shutting down the animation studio. He would have championed it just as much and loved it even more than his prize pieces.
He would have loved the concept of a movie like Mars Needs Moms and marveled at the technology that the movie used, which was revolutionary at the time. The failure would have been nothing more than another temporary setback, and in his eyes it would have been just another hurdle to clear in order to bring his company into the future.
Walt Disney never failed. He just navigated obstacles.
The Acquisitions Would Not Sit Well With Him
Between 2009 and 2020, Walt Disney Studios went on a spending spree. They spent billions of dollars on purchases and would go on to acquire Marvel Comics (2009) LucasFilm (2012) and 20th Century Fox (2019). This culture of corporate raiding that Bob Iger instituted would not have sat well at all with Walt Disney.
The idea of Captain America, Iron Man, or Darth Vader pushing Mickey Mouse and Co. out of the spotlight is probably enough for him to get up out of his grave right now and ask Bob Iger what the big deal is.
Disney prided himself on his art and his vision. He didn’t pride himself on the art of Stan Lee. He didn’t care about what was going on at Fox studios. He would have more likely than not partnered with George Lucas and developed Star Wars with him. What he wouldn’t do, is show up to Skywalker Ranch like Michael Corleone and give Lucas an offer that he couldn’t refuse.
These major acquisitions went against everything that Walt Disney stood for as the proprietor of his own company.
Disney Would Never Placate China
With all of the human rights violations running rampant in China, I doubt that Walt Disney would have even begun to consider working with the Chinese Government on theme parks, and editing his work simply to appease them.
He certainly wouldn’t have filmed Mulan inside of and around a concentration camp and thanked the CCP for it. The very thought of that occurring under his leadership would probably have made him sick.
I have made this argument before, and people have been quick to point out that Walt Disney did a lot of work with other countries in his day, including the USSR. There is a big difference here, and this particular counterpoint is misleading.
Yes, Walt Disney worked extensively on the Moscow Fair in 1959. The Soviet Union was every bit as brutal to its citizens back then, and the CCP is to Chinese citizens today. However, Walt’s ventures with the USSR were not for profit. They were good will missions and exhibitions that called for unity and world peace.
He wasn’t looking the other way while Uyghur Muslims are being purged from the Chinese mainland.
If you really want to know how Walt Disney felt about brutal dictators and how they treat their citizens, I urge you to check out his wartime cartoons, including this classic.
Disney’s History Has Been Muddled By Modernism
Modern journalism has had common sense take the back seat to sensationalism. Everybody has to get the clicks and Disney is not an exception to this relatively new rule. Even his own relatives are chasing the clicks and the clout and are dragging his name through the mud. Accusations of racism have plagued Disney’s name for years and I think a lot of this rhetoric has to do with putting a modern lens on the culture that Walt was born into.
This is not an excuse for the Golden age of Hollywood. A lot of reprehensible things were said and done in that time period and a lot of pain was caused. This is more of a measurement of the man himself and what type of man he would be in any other time period. If you took Walt Disney, and moved his birth up sixty years to 1961, I wholeheartedly believe that his virtues would line up with the time in which he was born.
He would be just as beloved and just as committed to making everybody around him happy. It is likely that he would be referred to as a great man.
When Song Of The South made its world premiere in Georgia at the Fox Theater in 1946, racial segregation laws prevented the star of the film, James Baskett from participating in the festivities as Atlanta was a racially segregated city at the time. These laws also applied to the extensive roster of African Americans who were part of the shows cast.
Baskett respected the laws and left quietly for his hotel room. Walt Disney, appalled by the events that unfolded chose to skip the premiere of the film out of respect for Baskett, Haddie McDaniel and the other African American workers barred from the theater and is even said to have spent the night with Baskett instead.
That is not a trait of a man who is a terrible person or truly racist.
Yet, the rumors of ill intent that have plagued Disney since the invention of the internet have caused his very company to side with his detractors and leave his mark on the company to fade over time.
Shamefully, whimsy and merriment have given way to virtue signaling. Experimentation and innovation have been sacrificed for profit and corporate sterility. Fun and togetherness has been cast aside and in its place came activism, political grandstanding and the delusions of being a fifty first Senator.
Walt Disney was a dreamer. He was a visionary who dared to take everything he participated in to new heights. He had all the reasons to give up and every opportunity to throw in the towel. He never quit and always looked forward. When Universal Studios parted ways with Disney and kept his beloved creation, he mourned the loss of Oswald The Lucky Rabbit but created Mickey Mouse as a spiritual successor.
Behind the scenes he was shy, insecure, self deprecating and constantly striving to reach perfection. Publicly he was larger than life, warm, welcoming, and outgoing.
He was a flawed man with the best of intentions. He is misunderstood by many and universally loved by many more than that. He was the quintessential American and deserves much more recognition from the people that run his company than he gets. Today, on the day of his birth, Bob Iger has yet to acknowledge him in any way shape or form. This ignorance is shameful, and solidifies the fact that this company has no sense of gratitude for the things that came before them and no self awareness.
Happy Birthday, Uncle Walt. You deserve much more recognition than you’re getting right now. So allow me to be the one to say thank you for all you’ve done, and for the unforgettable mark that you left on me and the rest of the world.h
Let us never lose the gift of individual thought,