Saturday, October 18, 2014

"I'm not Disney anymore..."

Disney's California Adventure
I was reviewing some material I used in one of my Arrow Development postings and came across these quotes from Walt;

"I'm not Disney any more. I used to be Disney, but now Disney is something we've built up in the pubic mind over the years.  It stands for something and you don't have to explain what it is to the public. They know what Disney is when they hear about our films or go to Disneyland. They know they're gonna get a certain quality of entertainment. And that is what Disney is."

"What is the difference between our product and the other?...  The thing that makes us different is our way of thinking, our judgement and experience acquired over the years.  Giving it 'heart.' Others haven't understood the pubic.  We developed a psychological approach to everything we do here. We seem to know how to 'tap the heart.' Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group."

Walt Disney Productions Stock Certificate Image

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walt's Disneyland Story Memo

Sometime in 1953 a prospectus for a place called Disneyland was prepared. In twelve pages it outlined the purpose and form of a new type of gathering place, one for people of all ages and backgrounds. It was to be a place to find happiness and knowledge, teach and be taught, share hopes and dreams and be a source of courage and inspiration for all the world. 

It remains the voice of the man who dictated it and the place which followed and bears his name.

Holographic Re-creation

Friday, July 11, 2014

Walt's Estate and Legacy

An article in the December 22nd, 1966 Times Record offers some details on the disposition of Walt's estate.  Fourty-five percent went to the family; Lillian, Diane, Sharon and their children. 

Another fourty-five percent went to the Disney Foundation. Five percent of that (2.13% of the total) was reserved for charitable organizations, at the discretion of the foundation. The remaining portion of the second fund (42.87% of the total) went to the California Institute of the Arts.

According to online sources; "The Walt Disney Company Foundation was established in 1951 by Walt and Roy O. Disney to serve The Walt Disney Company's philanthropic needs and interests. It does so today along with Disney Worldwide Outreach, part of The Walt Disney Company.

The Walt Disney Company's outreach initiatives are dedicated to making the wishes of families and children a reality through public service initiatives, community outreach and volunteerism in the areas of compassion, learning, the arts and the environment.

To learn more about The Walt Disney Company Foundation and Disney's outreach programs, visit" In 2013, the Disney Company donated $369.5 million in strategic philanthropy.

Disney Will Leaves Three Trust Funds

Los Angeles (AP) - The will of Walt Disney - leaving three major trust funds - was filed for probate yesterday, naming his widow, Lilian, as a trustee and executor of the estate.

The document, dated March 18, disposes of Disney’s separate property and his half of community property. No estimate of the estate’s value was given except to note that the moviemaker left “substantial real and personal property.”

Disney, 65, died last Thursday.

Also named trustees and executors were attorney Herbert F. Sturdy and United California Bank.

The first of the trusts was named the Disney Family Trust, leaving 45 percent of the estate to Mrs. Disney and two daughters and grandchildren. The daughters are Mrs. Ron Miller, Encino, Calif. and Mrs. Robert Brown, Tarzna Calif.

The second trust <was> another 45 percent of the estate, which went to the Disney Foundation. The will said five percent of this is to remain in the foundation to be earmarked for charitable organizations, at the discretion of the foundation.

The remaining 95 percent of the second fund goes to the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles. Disney was instrumental in founding the institute, a college level professional school for the creative and performing arts. It now has a student body of 950.

The third fund (10% of the total?) went to benefit three nieces and a sister. The nieces are Marjorie Davis, of Beverly Hills, Calif., Dorothy Disney Puder, Bakersfield, Calif., and Phyllis Bounds, Los Angeles. The sister is Ruth Flora Beecher of Portland Ore.

Disney is also survived by two brothers, Roy O. Disney and Raymond A. Disney, who received no bequests.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Price & Fowler - Walt's Kind of Employees

One of the things I've noticed in my reading about Walt is the type of people he would hire. Particularly in the early days, he seemed to be looking for potential more than skills.  I suspect that part of the reason for that came from the fact that Disney was doing things which had never been done before, so looking for someone with experience was a waste of time. As far back as Laugh-O-Grams Walt would hire people and then train them. In those days, he was probably learning how to do what he wanted at nearly the same time.

Walt, Buzz and C. V. Wood
There are stories which come to mind which illustrate this. The first has to do with Harrison (Buzz) Price of SRI, who was frequently asked to evaluate the viability of ideas and projects.  Buzz had an approach that suited Walt and Roy’s needs perfectly. When answering one of Walt's frequent questions, Buzz would reply; “Yes, if...”  Regarding this Price said; “Yes if…" is the approach of a deal maker.  It points to what needs to be done to make the possible plausible. ‘No because…" is the language of a deal killer. Creative people thrive on ‘Yes if.” To which Buzz added; “Walt liked this language.”

Fowler points out details of Disneyland to King Hussein
Two other examples of this are told by Harry Wessel of The Orlando Sentinel in Joe Fowler's Obituary;

''Can do'' was both Fowler's trademark attribute and his favorite expression. When he was directing construction of Disney World, The last thing he'd always say is 'Can do.' Frank Hubbard, retired president of Hubbard Construction Co., recalled; That meant, 'Get out, I've got somebody else to see. Get this done as soon as you can.'

Bob Matheison
Disney Vice President Bob Matheison, vividly recalled a conversation between Joe and Walt in the early days of Disneyland. They were looking at a performing stage that featured a waterfall, with a dressing room off to the side. ''Walt turned to Joe and said, 'I'd like to part the water and let the entertainers come out, and then have the waterfall close behind them.' ''Joe never batted an eye,'' Matheison recounted. ''He just said, 'Can do, can do.' I know he had no idea how he was going to part the water, but he said it without hesitation - 'Can do.' And, by golly, he went ahead and did it. He parted the water and closed it back up again.'' In a later interview Fowler recalled; ''Walt said to me a couple of days after I was hired, 'Now look, I will try to have the ideas, and you make the engineering realities of them.' ''

Walt, Joe and a Curtain Waterfall (Mashup)
Can Do!
I'm pretty sure that was the same attitude Walt had when he was dealing with Arrow. He trusted them to deliver on what he wanted, and as long as he was happy with your work, he let you do it.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Three Walt's and Three Rooms

Two of the big questions many people have about being creative are; How do you do it?, and Is there a recipe?  I'm not sure anyone has fully answered either yet. Part of the difficulty in doing so is that it's one thing to study creativity and another to practice it.  Some of the most famous designers have maintained that you can't do both; that you can study or practice creativity, but not at the same time.

I recently posted about the similarities between Imagineering and Design Thinking after studying the lives of very creative people and looking for common themes between them. That turned out to be much more difficult than I expected, not only because of the sheer volume of reading material, but also because Walt and the Imagineers and Arrow's Development's founder's didn't really talk much about their methods. Even when they did, their vocabularies were quite different. Disney spoke in the context of telling stories and making movies while Karl Bacon and Ed Morgan were speaking as engineers and ride designers and others like William Lear and Tomas Edison were speaking in the context of their specialties.

Today we're going to look at a creative method that hasn't gotten much press. I'm talking about the idea of the Three Walts or Walt's Three Rooms.

Oliver Johnston was born on Oct. 31, 1912, in Palo Alto, Ca. where his father was a professor at Stanford. "Ollie"was one of Disney's "Nine Old Men".  Many feel that the two most accomplished of the group were Ollie and his close friend Frank Thomas. The pair met at Stanford in the 1930s and after graduation were hired by Disney for $17 a week when the studio was expanding to produce full-length feature films.

Ollie once noted that he and Frank "were bound to be thrown together" at Stanford, since they were two of only six students in the art department at the time. When not in class, they painted landscapes and sold them at a local speakeasy for meal money. 

Ollie also commented about Walt that there were actually three of him and that you never knew which one was coming to your meeting;;
  • First was Walt the Dreamer.
  • Second was Walt the Realist.
  • Third was Walt the Critic. 
Not only were there three Walts, when ideas were being developed there were three different rooms which were used to investigate, discuss and refine them.
  • Room 1 was for brainstorming, where all ideas were presented - no naysaying allowed.
  • Room 2 was for storyboarding & sketches of potential characters for the story.
  • Room 3 was for putting the project under the microscope. 
Room 3 was called the Sweatbox and it was there that the entire project was presented, not only to the team, but to the Devil’s Advocates, the most famous one being Walt.  In these "Critic"meetings no one was personally attacked, but it was where things either became a reality or were put on hold for later, sometimes much later!

Here are some detailed descriptions of what happened in each phase and room:

DREAMER - Dreamers spin innumerable fantasies, wishes, outrageous hunches and bold and absurd ideas, without limits or judgment. Nothing is censored. Nothing is too absurd or silly. All things are possible for the dreamer. Dreamers ask: If I could wave a magic wand  and do anything I want – what would I create? (Pixie Dust - df) How would it look? What could I do with it? How would it make you feel? What is the most absurd idea I can conceive? The Dream-storming in Room 1 was the space for asking "What if?" and "Why not?"

REALIST - The realist builds the dreamer’s ideas into something realistic and feasible. They try to figure out how to make the ideas work and sort them into an executable plan. To be a realist, ask: How can I make this happen? What are the main features and aspects of the idea? Can I build on ideas from the features or aspects? What is the essence of the idea? Can I extract the principle of the idea? Can I make analogical-metaphorical connections with the principle and something dissimilar to create something tangible? (Inversion, Forced Association- df) How can I use the essence of the idea to create a more realistic one?

CRITIC - The critic reviews all the ideas and tries to find flaws in them by playing the devil’s advocate. Critics, ask: How do I really feel about it? Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better? Does this make sense? How does it look to a customer? A client? An expert? A guest? Is it worth our time to work on this idea? This was also where Walt was when he suggested "plussing"things up.

For example; Suppose someone wanted a better way to water their garden.  The dreamer might suggest  teaching the plants how to talk, so they can tell you when they are dry. The realist develops this into an animated bird that monitors the moisture content of the soil. The realist refines the idea by exploring various sensors, hardware and software. Finally, the critic evaluates the idea for all possible flaws and problems.

Organizing these into process steps you get;

Step 1 - “WHAT are we going to do?”

Dream big. Any idea, no matter how absurd, can and should be suggested. Defining the big, bold objectives that will shape your project.

The Room Setup: Open, airy rooms with lots of light and high-ceilings are the best for thinking big. The team should sit in a circle facing each other to promote collaboration and creative flow.

Mindset: Any idea is fair game. This step is not about feasibility, it’s about surprise. Set aside your assumptions and push yourself to think in new ways.

Step 2 - “HOW are we going to do it?”

Here the focus is on creative execution. How will the idea be implemented? Who’s doing which tasks? What’s the timeline? In Disney’s case, this phase would involve sketching out characters, discussing plot, (storytelling - df) and populating storyboards.

Room Setup: A practical room with a large dry-erase board or wall which facilitates strategic planning. The team should sit in a semi-circle facing the board as everyone participates in the planning process.

Mindset: This is where you roll up your sleeves and fill in the blanks. You may find a gem of an idea from the first step that needs to be fleshed out. During this phase, seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility. When something doesn’t make sense, question it.

Goals: Seek to resolve every uncertainty around timing, logistics, and feasibility.

Step 3 - “WHY are we doing this?”

Ask “Is this the right approach?” In this final phase, the critic enters the fray, asking the hard questions. Is the plan really doable? Are there unwieldy aspects that need to be cut? Are you meeting the overall project objective? The process shifts from dream-storming, to subsequently practical. The environments in the various “rooms” prompt us to adopt the best mindset at the right time, ultimately giving great ideas the thoughtful consideration they require to ultimately be implemented.

Room Setup: Analytical thinking is best done in smaller, more constrained spaces. (The Disney crew used a small room under the stairs.) The team sits in a single row facing the project plan, which promotes criticism of the project, but not individual people.

Mindset: Pose the difficult questions and share the earth-shattering doubts.  In considering How, you’re likely to get lost in the weeds. The Why? step provides the perspective from the balcony as opposed to the dance floor. In this phase, consider the plan in the context of your business and your long-term mission.

Where traditional brainstorming approaches would probably have us patting ourselves on the back and adjourning the meeting, Imagineering, and Design Thinking, go deep: they are methodical, disciplined, and time-intensive up front.

Here are some possible Disney Mascots or Characters for Walt's three rooms:

The Realist - Ludwig Von Drake is the analyst.
The Dreamer - Mickey has the vision, heart and empathy.
The Critic - Donald Duck has the eye for what's missing or just plain wrong.

Realist, Dreamer and Critic

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Making Walt Cry

Although current theories lack harmony regarding the purpose and function of crying, they agree that it comes in response to strong emotions. Scientists have even discovered that tears produced during emotional crying have a different chemical composition from other types of tears. I think you can tell a lot about a person based on what can make them cry.

Throughout his life, Walt had an expressive nature and great empathy for children. He had an attraction to the theater at an early age and developed vivid storytelling as a key element of both his personality and his craft.  Although very little has been written about what could move him to tears, what has been written is revealing;

Disney assigned bothers Richard and Robert Sherman to develop the songs for Mary Poppins. Over the course of two weeks they sketched out five pieces, but the one Walt liked the most was "Feed the Birds".  He said it would replace Brahm's Lullaby and cried every time he heard it. Another soft spot were his daughters. He cried at both of their weddings.

Coming from the generation that he did, it's significant that Walt Disney was so comfortable with emotions. He clearly understood the importance of emotional content in everything he did.

Explaining what made Disney's works different from everyone else's Walt said:

"The thing that makes us different is... Giving it "heart"...  We developed a psychological approach to everything we do here. We seem to know how to "tap the heart." Others have hit the intellect. We can hit them in an emotional way. Those who appeal to the intellect only appeal to a very limited group."

It's Mother's Day.  Give your mom a hug.

There were two other things which could bring Walt to tears; Fear of Failure and America, Abraham Lincoln in particular.

During the difficult period which led up to his first breakdown, unexpected setbacks could trigger crying spells. Clearly,  the pressures of operating with limited support and the possibility of failure were a source of deep distress.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Walt's Relationship with Money

In council with the Seven Dwarfs

During a recent visit to the Walt Disney Family Museum, I overheard one of the guests who had just finished viewing the portion of the exhibit on Mickey Mouse chuckle somewhat cynically and say; "Who'd have thought a mouse could make someone a millionaire?" 

Reflecting on his observation made me realize that the present success of Disney, with it's $140 Billion market valuation, might give some people the impression that Walt was successful from the start and mostly interested in the money.

There is no question that the availability of money made a big difference.  Walt once said that the lack of money was his biggest problem. But underneath that statement is a much deeper truth.

"Biggest problem? Well, I'd say it's been my biggest problem all my life. MONEY. It takes a lot of money to make these dreams come true. From the very start it was a problem. Getting the money to open Disneyland. About seventeen million it took. And we had everything mortgaged, including my personal insurance."

1950 was a turning point in Disney's financial future. Up until that time his drive to always
"plus it up" and do things which hadn't been done before had resulted in a string of financial shortfalls; near misses; being robbed a couple of times; a few break-evens and finally, after 30 years, enough of a success to nearly balance the books - or at least get the debt down to the point that Bank of America wasn't wondering what they'd gotten themselves into with this crazy Disney fellow.

That doesn't sound like the kind of rags-to-riches story that inspires many today, with some software startups getting stratospheric buyouts in a matter of a couple of years.

"Disneyland is a work of love. We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money."

Walt commented that most people didn't understand how he thought about money. For him, it wasn't something to be acquired and hoarded. It was a resource to be applied to making and improving things.

In 1956, Walt explained his attitude about money, to his daughter Diane, in this way;

"All I know about money is that I have to have it to do things.  I don't get any fun out of possessing it. On the other hand, there is no truth in the theory that I have no regard for money.  I do, but not in the way some people mean.  I think of money as tool. I don't want to bank my dividends from my Disney stock; I'd rather keep that money working."

In his book "An American Original"Bob Thomas quotes Walt a little differently:

"I've always been bored with making money, I wanted to do things, I wanted to build things. Get something going." "People look at me... some of them say; 'The guy has no regard for money.' That's not true. I have had regard for money. But I'm not like some people who worship money as something you've got to have piled up in a big pile somewhere.  I've only thought of money in one way, and that is to do something with it, you see? I don't think there is a thing that I own that I will ever get the benefit of, except through doing things with it."

When you think about it, money in and of itself, has no intrinsic value, particularly these days when it is often just a number in a few kilobytes of computer memory somewhere. It is what the money represents that creates the power.  Money is primarily the value of stored labor. Walt seemed to understand this instinctively.  Perhaps it was the result of his upbringing and all those years of working for his father, basically for his childhood room and board.

That being so, there is another principle at work here.  The need to get others to help out when the job gets too big for just one person. I suspect Walt's persuasive powers of storytelling helped out quite a bit there - and his persistent optimism. Walt didn't use Tom Sawyer's methods of selling whitewash.  Walt was sincere and committed to the idea that people were basically good and would respond to that in others.

That's part of the reason why Disneyland prospered when other theme parks failed. It was patterned after a world where there was a lot of good in everyone and everything.

Not exactly what Walt had in mind

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Four States of Warren Buffett & Walt Disney

This morning I received an item from LinkedIn's Pulse feature entitled The Four States of Warren Buffett and it felt very familiar. I'm posting an edited version of it here, for the purposes of comparing Warren with Walt. First, the commentary on Warren Buffett; (Thanks to Ankit and Akshay and the Stanford Launch class for Pulse!) 

People respond to authenticity: they need to know that a leader is everything they seem to be. They recoil from baseless bravado and overblown promise. Today all leaders are on under constant public scrutiny. 

One of the best places to see corporate brass is at their annual shareholder meetings. Some seem highly scripted and defensive affairs, with questions and answers anticipating every possible stockholder accusation or complaint. Buffett hires a stadium and conference centre for three days. He has dinner with them at his favorite restaurant. There are six hours of unscripted, no holds barred interaction. It is a positive conversation between management and shareholders. It is a celebration, rather than an interrogation. Its interaction at the most basic, human level.

When it comes to making big decisions, some leaders listen to their insticts, while others ignore it. Some even pass the tough choices to their advisers or simply pick the the lowest risk option. Warren Buffett knows how to follow his gut.  He has an instinct for value and knows that success usually comes with time, not in the moment. Over and over, he has listened to his gut instinct – informed by his vast research – to guide his business decisions. Buffett places a premium on tangible value, trusts his instincts and, with enviable patience, stays the course. 

Recruiting the right people to take with you on the journey is essential. Look for authentic, loyal people who are trustworthy and which you like being around. With staff like that, a leader can confidently empower them with responsibility and delegate the decision-making. Buffett's core team is just 24 people. He has complete trust in his operating managers to run the companies which he owns. Empowered workers with decision-making authority are the hallmarks of great leadership. It also enables you to profitably invest in your staff and give them freedom of movement they need to make their own decisions, accept the risks and deal with the outcomes of those decisions.

Real leaders are givers. For them, success is not about accumulation, it is about how you made your community a better place. How you stimulated positive views, encouraged people to be better and supported those who needed it. Warren Buffett is not about money. Whether he is lobbying President Obama to change unfair tax laws which allow him to paying 19 per cent while his staff are paying over 30, or committing 85 per cent of his fortune to support the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the essence of Warren Buffett is giving back to the community. Money is a by-product of Buffett's passion, rather than the core of his focus. 

Buffett was born August 30, 1930. Walt Disney was born December 5, 1901, in adjacent generations. Their "old fashioned" values of loyalty, decency and trust – so prevalent 100 years ago - are worth more today than ever before. Alex Malley suspects they are the true source of Warren Buffett’s wealth. I suspect that was true of Walt Disney as well.

At a time where the United States appears to live in the moment, when once it had the vision to land on the moon, it's worth considering Warren Buffett, the man, built a culture that will be his succession plan. He reminds the world that traditional values build hard working and big thinking economies.

With one minor exception about delegation, I suspect that if you went back thru this article and substituted "Walt Disney" for "Warren Buffet", the message would still ring true.

Here are some quotes from Walt on these same topics:


"I go right straight out for the adult. As I say, for the honest adult. I go for those people that retain that something, you know, no matter how old they are; that little spirit of adventure, that appreciation of the world of fantasy and things like that. I go for them. I play to them."

"I have no use for people who throw their weight around as celebrities, or for those who fawn over you just because you are famous."


"When Walt Disney was making his films, he trusted his instincts and made films for himself, but they appealed to everybody, not just kids."  -  John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering.


"I don't pose as an authority on anything at all, I follow the opinions of the ordinary people I meet, and I take pride in the close-knit teamwork within my organization."

"No one person can take credit for the success of a motion picture. It's strictly a team effort. From the time the story is written to the time the final release print comes off the printer, hundreds of people are involved — each one doing a job — each job contributing to the final product. And — if the picture wins an award, the feeling of satisfaction... can rightfully be shared by each and everyone."

"In order to make good in your chosen task, it's important to have someone you want to do it for. The greatest moments in life are not concerned with selfish achievements but rather with the things we do for people we love and esteem, and whose respect we need." 

"Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards — the things we live by and teach our children — are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings."

Here is one that I hadn't seen before this morning, which I particularly like:

The important thing is the family.  If you can keep the family together — and that's the backbone of our whole business, catering to families — that's what we hope to do.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why This Blog? (2016 Update)

Some of you are probably wondering what could motivate me to put the time and effort into doing this blog. It's a fair question. In order to answer it, I have to tell you a couple of stories.  But before that, I'll give you a short answer; Walt Disney was an amazing individual. There are already over a dozen Disney biographies and it seems like a new one comes out almost yearly. He's been compared to Steve Jobs and the company which bears his name is known and admired around the world.

Five years ago I decided to try discover and understand the things that made Walt who he was.  That is what I intend to put in this blog. Not Disneyland trivia or movie facts. This blog is supposed to be about the Who, What, Why, When, Where, and How of Walt.

Now to the story; It's about a jacket which an friend of mine gave me many years ago.  It's not an ordinary, run-of-the-mill jacket, as you can see from the picture below. It's a Walt Disney Imagineering "cast member" jacket. That means its intended for employees. (Disney refers to employees as cast members and patrons as "guests".)

The copyright tag on it is dated 1988, so I've had it for over 25 years.  It came with one condition; under no circumstances was I to wear it in The Park.  The request was from one of my closest and most trusted friends and I honored it until a few of years ago, when he let me know that I was released from that obligation.  Since then it has been worn at Disney's California Adventure, but only once.  

On that occasion cast members treated me differently. One asked me when I'd worked for Disney. I felt uncomfortable and replied that it was a gift from an old friend and that I hoped to be working for Disney soon - which was true, my profile was on DisneyJobs and I'd applied for a couple dozen openings. I also have a companion piece to the jacket. (Isn't it amazing the things you can find on eBay.)

This item will not leave my house. It's too symbolic and I'm a little concerned that it should never have left the Disney Creative campus in the first place. This badge and the jacket represented what had become my highest employment aspiration; to be an Imagineer.

When I was a kid, I didn't really care for Disney one way or the other.  We watched the show on TV, but in those days my humor ran closer to Bugs Bunny than Mickey Mouse and I had no interest or desire to be a member of the Mickey Mouse Club.

My parents took me to Disneyland when I was about 8. It was fun, but I didn't really "get it", except for the rides.  Half a century later, I know that Disneyland isn't about the rides. It's about how the experience.

In 2011, I read Walt Disney Imagineering: A Behind the Dreams Look at Making the Magic Real. After that I read; Inside the Magic Kingdom: Seven Keys to Disney's Success. Next was Creating Magic: 10 Common Sense Leadership Strategies from a Life at Disney. Then came; DisneyWar, Work in Progress, Be Our Guest and The Imagineering Workout, followed by The Disney Way, The Revised Vault of Walt, How to Be Like Walt and Disney U.  Most recently, I've completed Diane Disney Miller's The Walt Disney Story and was at the time of this post's writing, about half way thru Bob Thomas' excellent An American Original.  There were a few other artistic books and memoirs of the Nine Old Men. I've also been to the Disney Family Museum and Disneyland twice.

That's a lot of Disney to digest. Some might call it compulsive.  It didn't feel that way to me, particularly since I opted out of Disney when I was a kid. Eventually I decided that I'd just matured enough to really enjoy and appreciate it. My wife says I'm finally having a childhood.

Late in 2012, I made the acquaintance of an ex-Disney employee who has become the closest thing I've ever had to a fairy-godmother.  She listened to my jacket story and understood. After that she bacame regular source of guidance and insight. One of her comments was that I really didn't need to work for Disney to be an Imagineer. (We'll come back to that idea a little later.)

In his book, Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull says that by 1973 the technically adventuresome Disney was long gone. That may have been so. I've also been told by a couple of ex-employees that Disney is now big and bloated and buried in bureaucracy. Then, they'll turn out a movie like Frozen or a short like Paperman and I'm not so worried about the nay-sayers.

For ten years I was with Apple Computer. For a while I thought that was the closest I'd ever get to being an Imagineer. It's been interesting to learn that many of the traits of an Imagineer have a direct parallel to Design Thinking. I also decided that if I didn't get to work as an Imagineer before it was my turn to move on, I was going to tell my youngest daughter to slip that badge in one of my pockets before they closed the lid. It turned out that wasn't going to be necessary.

Update - December 2014

Back in the fall of 2014 I had the opportunity to spend about two hours with four remarkable men who are on the inside of the bubble surrounding a part of Disney Imagineering. It was in the context of a somewhat impromptu job interview. I'd been advised that one of them was very, very smart and known for getting to the heart of the matter very quickly. It may not have been my best interview ever, but it also wasn't my worst. We talked about my background and accomplishments, they talked about their needs. One of them also talked about The Magic. He commented that it had been a long time since he'd had a conversation like that.

After the interview I received some feedback that there was a project I might get a shot at, if it was funded. That wasn't a job offer, but it was a small sign that I was good enough to make the cut.
At the time I was OK with that. Sometimes circumstances combine to prevent things coming together perfectly, right then. When that happens, you make the best of it and keep moving forward. It was a good feeling to know a smart, tough, veteran Imagineer thought I was good enough to give me a chance.

I decided I still wasn't going to wear that jacket in the park, but that I would wear it elsewhere, as a sign of my commitment and respect for what it represented. I also started doing Design Thinking workshops, began coaching a team of mechanical engineering students working on their senior year project and put my plans with Mickey on the shelf.

Then the phone rang. The project was funded. You may of heard of it; Tokyo Disneyland is doing a multi year expansion to Fantasyland. I started work on November 10th, 2014, for the Ride Engineering Group in Glendale.

A dream is a wish your heart makes when you're fast asleep, but luck favors the prepared. The new cast member jackets are pretty cool too. Mickey is only on the front, but they have a nicer hood.

I miss Walt, even tho I never met him in person. What he stood for resonates with me and I hope it does for you also.  I wanted to help with what he was doing and to the degree that what I do at work honors his vision, I'm getting the chance to do that. 

My intention here is to explore some of the things about Disney that haven't been overworked and which sparked some insight in me. The things which helped shape and build him into the remarkable person he became and create the things he did.

Oh, speaking of Walt. He used to work in an office that used to be behind this wall; I was recently told that the IT guys occasionally hear his cough when they are working around there.

You can still start reading my thoughts on what all this has to do with Walt here.

Update - August 2016;  I was the lead Ride Engineer for the Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast for 368 days, from November 10th 2014 to Friday, November 13, 2015. Belle got put on hold and I was a "green badge" aka Staff Extension. The dream is still alive. In July OLC published this concept sketch of one possible scene from the show; That ten passenger creamer like cabin design is the visible legacy of my year doing work for Walt's muse.  I still hope experience it, in 2020, or so.

TDL Enchanted Tale of Beauty and the Beast attraction concept art

Walt and Tom - Seeking Perfection in Every Way

Don't be nervous Mr. Disney. They only cost $186,000 each.

One of the less explored areas of Walt's life are the three times which he spoke of reaching the end of his rope. The first was in 1931, the same year that Mickey Mouse was born.  His description of the event is a bit stoic:

"I guess I was working too hard and worrying too much.  I was expecting more from my artists than they were giving me, and all I did all day was pound, pound, pound.  Costs were going up; each new picture we finished cost more to make than we had figured it would... so I cracked up.  I became irritable and I couldn't sleep. I reached a point where I couldn't even talk over the telephone without crying. I was an emotional flap."

Diane describes her fathers' trouble as due to an "acute attack of perfectionism." I don't think she made that clinical of a phrase up.  Another thing she mentioned was Walt's feelings about films that he'd just completed. He'd repeatedly say; "I'm sick of it.  There are too many things wrong with it. I'm sick of it."

There is an interesting parallel here with another great inventor; Thomas Edison.

In 1901, Orison Swett Marden interviewed Edison and asked: "What makes you work? What impels you to this constant, tireless struggle?" Edison's reply was fascinating;
"I like it. I don‘t know any other reason. Anything I have begun is always on my mind, and I am uneasy until it is finished; and then I hate it... when it is all done and is a success, I can‘t bear the sight of it. I haven’t used a telephone in ten years, and I would go out of my way any day to miss an incandescent light."

Can you imagine Walt saying that about Disneyland?

A review of Walt's professional accomplishments and failures up to 1940 may help set the stage here:

Jan, 1920 - Walt and Ubbe Iwerks form Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. The business survives for a month. (Setback 1)

1922 - Walt quits Film Ad and incorporates "Laugh-O-gram Films" with $15,000 from local investors.

July, 1923 - "Laugh-O-gram Films" files for bankrupcy. Walt moves to Hollywood planning to become a director. (Setback 2)

October 16, 1923 - Walt & Roy sign a contract with M.J. Winkler to distribute Alice's Adventures.

Febuary, 1924 - Disney Brothers' Studio opens.

March, 1924 - The first "Alice Comedies" reaches theaters.

July 13, 1925 - Walt marries Lillian.  He later joked: "I couldn't afford to pay her, so I married her!"

1927 - The renamed Walt Disney Studios is contracted to make Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.  As a work for hire, all rights are owned by Winkler/Mintz. When costs overrun expenses and Walt tries to re-negotiate, Mintz offers an unacceptable ultimatum. Walt quits, essentially loosing everything. (Setback 3)

November 18, 1928 - "Steamboat Willie" opens in New York to rave reviews. Film companies come calling. Distributors clamor for more Mickey. Walt signs a contact with Pat Powers, who primarily wants to promote his Cinephone sound system, and returns to California with a check for $2500. 

1929 - Walt hires a lawyer in regards to the deal with Powers. Ub Iwerks signs a contract to work for Powers, which stuns Walt.  (Setback 4) Mickey Mouse Clubs spring up all over the country.

1930 - Walt breaks off negotiations with Pat Powers, suspecting him of being crooked. Disney can't afford a lawsuit, so he walks away and starts over. (Setback 5)

In 1934, Walt decided it was time to try for a full length animated feature.  The story was Snow White. He initially estimated that it would cost $500,000 to produce.  By the time the two million drawings were combined together into the 83 minute movie, that would balloon to $1,488,422.74.  The studio was deeply in debt.

For the first half of production, Walt would be intimately involved.  In 1935, he would begin to exhibit many of the same symptoms he did four years earlier; crankiness, sleeplessness. This time he was treated with thyroid injections, which only made things worse.  Roy suggested he and Walt take Lillian and Edna on a European Vacation as a wedding anniversary present and "for putting up" with them for so long. The trip did the trick. When Walt returned he told his secretary to call the doctor and tell him that he was cured and, with regard to the thyroid injections; "He can shoot those things in his own butt from now on."

Although Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would earn $8 million in its first release, the costs of studio expansion and making Bambi, Dumbo, Fantasia and Pinocchio, plus Walt's ever present need to push the envelope and wow the audience, would keep the Disney Studio on the financial roller coaster all the way thru 1940.  By that time the company had 1000 employees and a brand new $3 million studio.  Roy called Walt into his office one day to discuss the situation.  While explaining that they owed the bank $4.5 million, Walt broke out into laughter.  Roy demanded to know what was so funny. Walt replied;

"I was just thinking back. Do you remember when we couldn't borrow a thousand dollars? And now we owe four and-a-half million... I think that's pretty damn good."

(Remember, this is just the first half of the story. At this point Walt is still just making movies. Disneyland and EPCOT are just a gleam in his eye.)

The third incident happened after they had moved into the new studio in 1939.  The building was air conditioned in order to provide a comfortable environment for the animators with temperature and humidity control for the ink and paint staff.

Walt was was working late one evening and happened to be there at 10:30 when the air conditioning shut down for the night.  He describes the experience;

"Whoooooooo, like submerging in a submarine.  I yelled, but there was nobody around.  I ran over to the window and clawed and scratched, trying to get it open. All I did was cut up my fingers. I finally had to break the window so I could breathe."

Walt had ordered all the window handles removed to prevent them being opened and destroying the benefit of the air conditioning. That sounds like a panic attack to me.  Again, I'm not a professional, but the irrational fear of suffocation while in a large well ventilated space fits the bill.

What is truly amazing is that over the years Walt kept coming back, somehow keeping up his spirits, holding to his standards over and over, thru setback after setback, until he finally triumphed.

Given all he would eventually accomplish, I suppose a "nervous breakdown" had to be expected. Sometimes, it's a fine line to walk between brilliance and insanity. Whether you prefer to call it an attack of acute perfectionism, post traumatic stress disorder, or just working too hard, Walt bounced back and overcame it. That was his way. He was an optimist.

Dave Kelley might say that Walt had Creative Confidence. One thing I know for sure is, if you quit, your progress will stop.

I'm glad Walt didn't quit.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Practically Perfect and Probably Painful in Many Ways

In 1888, the Santa Fe Railroad had a line from Kansas City to Chicago which ran generally east and north, thru what is still some of the most rural parts of America.  If you wanted to visit this part of the country today, you'd take Highway 24 east out of Kansas City, past Independence, then north on 65 to Carrolton, east again and then north on 24 to Marceline, then north east again, past Mark Twain Lake, into Monroe City, over to I-72 into Springfield and north again into Chicago.  It was a lot easier, and more direct in 1915 to just take the train.

The Chicago Santa Fe line pulled east out of Kansas City, following the Missouri River, and then turned north, with stops at Hardin, Carrolton, Newcomb, Bosworth, Mendon, Rothville and then Marceline.  Eight stops further on was Rutledge.  Mark Twain's boyhood home of Hannibal is just a few miles east and Springfield, the birthplace of Route 66, lays beyond that.  This is the cultural heartland of America.

I mention Rutledge because my grandparents, William Preston Francis and Lottie Ethel Tull, both grew up and were living there in 1910 when Walt Disney was living in Marceline. Even today, Rutledge is considered just a village, with a population of only about 100 people. By comparison, Marceline is huge; roughly twenty times the size.

Summertimes when I was a boy, my family would pile into the car and head out to visit our Missouri cousins, so when I read about Walt's boyhood on the farm, its very easy for me to imagine what it was like for him. All my aunts and uncles were farmers, who ate their big meal at noon and worked very hard, pulling a living out of the soil and watering it with their sweat and tears.

With so much simplicity and bucolic bliss, you'd think Walt would have had a stress-free childhood, and in some ways he did.  His biographers write of happy times wandering the countryside by himself or with his Uncle Ed, but they also tell of the sometimes harsh realities of life on a farm with a father who had a temper and very high standards of behavior and performance.  I mention this because it sheds light on some of Walt's key traits which ultimately contributed to his unique success.

Anyone who has grown up with a perfectionistic parent knows the drill. Everything has to be done just so and their way. If you fall short of their expectations, there is often a price to pay.  At the same time it can plant seeds of discipline and order which can lead to expertise and mastery in the skills needed to succeed in life and business - depending on how you choose to respond to the influence.

The core human reactions to stress vary in a range which psychologists bracket between fight or flight. The Darwinian  explanation is that anciently we expected one of two outcomes when confronted with a deadly threat; eat or be eaten. The biological response may tell the tale a little better; Our brains have two parallel paths which process input. One is automatic and the other rational. The automatic side has the edge, timing wise. It gets us ready to fight or flee ASAP.  At the same time, the rational path considers the bigger picture, compares it with memories and then supports or overrides the automatic, fight or flight, response.

The result is that our adult reactions to stress or surprise are a shifting blend of rational and emotional. Things we are repeatedly exposed to can become part of our nature. Our initial, unconscious responses are automatic and by the time we realize there may be other available paths, it is often too late to undo the damage, both to ourselves and others.

I see this scenario playing out in Walt's experience with renegotiating the contract for distribution of the Alice Adventures.  Charles Mintz was clearly an adversary, seeking the advantage over the younger, less experienced Disney.  When the attack is launched, Walt's first response is to fight - "I'll rebuild" and then flight - Walt quits, leaving nearly everything behind.

A similar scenario played out in the life of another iconic figure; Steve Jobs.  In 1985, he lost the battle for control of Apple when John Scully and the board of directors forced him out.  Another interesting Jobs-Disney parallel is their mutual commitment to excellence.  Early in their careers both Walt and Jobs had a reputation for ignoring costs in the pursuit of perfection. They both also bounced back and ultimately succeeded beyond anyone's wildest expectations.

I'm not in the psychiatric trade so I can't speak to this professionally, but over the years I've had a lot of experience with perfectionists.  It is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it drives people to incredible acts of creativity and achievement. On the other hand, it can cause immense misery and suffering when forcibly imposed on others.  That is the main difference I see between Disney and Jobs.  Although both were driven to excellence, Walt managed to keep his humanity about him almost all of the time.  Diane Disney one said of her father; "He only got mad when he felt hurt." Sometimes our anger is a way to scare someone off who you are afraid may hurt you.

Other people's feelings were extremely important to Disney, probably in part because he was in touch and comfortable with his own. He had empathy for nearly everyone he ever met.  Walt was a private and simple man, one with roots in the heartland of America.  He understood the pain of feeling not good enough and the relief of being somewhere that was open and easy to understand. Somewhere like a small town with a main street where everyone knows your name and wants you to succeed.


Image from Tours Departing Daily - which is beyond a doubt the best collection of HDR Disney images on earth.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Third time's the charm, so keep trying.

“Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm” 

When Walt got home from the war, jobs were scarce. Two of his uncle Roy’s friends, named Pressman and Ruben, ran an art shop for the Gray Advertising Company and were in need of an apprentice. Walt went to see them, bringing samples of some of the illustrations he’d done in France. That portfolio was enough to get him hired. Initially, Ruben and Pressman didn’t even know how much to pay him.  

After the first week, Ruben came by Walt’s drawing board, looked at his work and said “I don’t know.” Walt though he was about to be canned, but then Ruben added; “How about fifty a month?” Even though this was at time when the average income was about $1500 per year, Walt was so excited that he went to find his Aunt Margaret, one of the first people to encourage his artistic skills, and tell her that he was actually getting paid to draw pictures.  Unfortunately, the end of the year brought layoffs and Walt was the first to go.  By that time he’d picked up quite a few drawing tricks and was thinking of getting work on his own. One of the other employees at Gray was Ub Iwerks, who was good at calligraphy and airbrushing. Ub was laid off at the same time and very distressed about it. In typical fashion, Walt suggested that they go into business together. 

Attempt #1

As part of the deal for their first client, Walt suggested that instead of getting paid in cash, they’d take just enough space for Ub and him to work at. Their first month they brought in $135.00, and were rent free. Such was the founding of Iwerks-Disney Commerical Artists. Walt's first commercial venture would soon to end, but begin the process of teaching him important lessons along the way.

In 1921, Disney was contracted by Milton Feld to make twelve animated cartoons, which Walt called Newman's Laugh-O-grams. Laugh-O-gram Films incorporated on May 23, 1922, using the assets of the failed, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists company, plus $15,000 from local investors. Laugh-O-grams would also have problems making ends meet within a few months, Walt was living at the office, taking baths once a week at the train station and eating on the good will of local restaurants.  Part of the problem was that he hadn’t learned how to correctly price his product yet. 

Kansas City dentist Thomas B. McCrum wanted Walt to produce a short subject about dental hygiene. Pulling some of his old staff back together, Disney made Tommy Tucker's Tooth, which brought in $500, that was then re-invested in the live-action/animation demonstration film Alice's Wonderland.  Laugh-O-gram Films would file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July 1923. Selling his camera to get enough for a one-way train ticket to Hollywood, Walt went to live with his uncle Robert and his brother Roy, bringing along an unfinished reel of Alice's Wonderland.

Attempt #2

While in California, Walt continued to send out proposals for the Alice series, in hopes of obtaining a distribution deal. On May 14, 1923 Walt wrote to Margaret Winkler, a New York film distributor, inquiring if she might be interested in Alice's Wonderland.  At this time Winkler was the top cartoon distributor in the world.  That September she viewed the Alice pilot reel and was intrigued with the idea of a live-action girl in a cartoon world.  

Margaret signed Walt to a year-long contract, knowing that that Laugh-O-grams had just gone bankrupt two months earlier.  Disney formed the Disney Brothers Studio but changed its name to The Walt Disney Company on October 16, 1923.  Margaret Winkler tutored Walt and insisted on editing all of the "Alice Comedies" episodes herself.  In 1924, she married Charles Mintz, a film distributor who had been working for her since 1922.  Soon after, she had her first child and retired from the business, turning the company over to her husband.

For the first two years, the  Alice series did well, initially paying $1800 to $2000 per reel. But Charles Mintz was unhappy with the production costs and suggested they develop a new character, insisting that it shouldn’t be a cat, as there ere “too many cats on the market” already.  At the same time, Universal Studios wanted to get into the cartoon business with a character of their own. 

It was the contract with Universal Studios that lead to the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. 

The first version of Oswald was rejected by Universal, who wanted a Charlie Chaplinesque character and thought the first version was too old and fat.  Walt was apologetic, telling Mintz;

"I am sorry that the first Oswald was such a keen disappointment to everyone…  This work was animated by a man of experience [Ub] whom I am willing to put alongside of any man in the business today,”  "Hereafter we will aim to [make] Oswald a younger character, peppy, alert, saucy and venturesome, keeping him also neat and trim."

Going back to the drawing board, Disney and Iwerks, created a second cartoon, Trolly Troubles, with a much younger, neater, Oswald.  It was released on September 5, 1927.  The press and audiences loved it. Co-incidentally, Oswald was the first Disney created character to generate spin-off merchandise: a chocolate-covered marshmallow candy bar, a stencil set, and a pin-backed button.

On February 6th, 1928, Disney and Lillian traveled to New York City in hopes of renewing the Alice contract at a higher rate.  The film was playing at all the best theaters and bringing in $2250 per reel. Walt wanted to raise that to $2500.

Mintz offered $1800, but promised large turnarounds if the studio's finances improved. (This was on the verge of the Great Depression and signs of economic weakness were beginning to show around the world.  Black Tuesday was only a year and a half away.)  Mintz also told Walt that his staff had all been offered more money than they were currently getting, if they'd come work for Mintz. Walt retorted to go ahead, that he'd build a new organization.  In fact, Walt felt crushed. Back at the hotel, he told Lillian that the bottom had fallen out from under the studio.

Deeply distressed at Mintz’ actions, Disney decided to quit, which would leave Oswald and his animation staff behind.  Everything Walt had worked for had been taken form him, except his old friend Ub Iwerks, who would not abandon him.  Mint'z actions must have felt to Walt like the ultimate betrayal. (We'll come back to this later. -df)

Attempt #3

On the long train ride home, Walt decided to create another character, and retain all rights to it. He and Iwerks developed Mickey totally in secret. Walt had learned some very hard lessons about trusting people, valuing your work, pricing your product and following your dream. Years later, he would be very careful about who he shared control and partnered with.  It's also interesting to note that two of the people who first saw and encouraged his talent the most clearly were women. 

As they say, the rest is history.  Mickey would become the most popular and successful cartoon character in film history and the foundation of a global entertainment empire. 

Postscript - Justice is Blind and Done

While things seemed to go in Mintz's favor for a while, Oswald’s animators Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising asked Universal President Carl Lemmle to remove Mintz form the project and suggested they should be the ones to continue the Oswald series.

Laemmle denied their requests and terminated Mintz’s contact.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Uncle Ed

If you can't say sumpthin' nice...

In her 1956 book, The Story of Walt Disney, Diane Disney Miller reveals some very interesting details about her father that don't get a lot of coverage in other sources. One story in particular caught my attention because of the peek it gives into Walt's personality as a boy.

It has to do with his uncle, Edward J. Disney, who was born in 1867. One of nine children of Kepple and Mary Disney, Ed was, in Diane's words, "a case of arrested development". Ed would travel as he pleased, moving between the homes of his brothers and sisters, staying as long as he liked, then moving on when he felt it was time to go. The extended family all took Ed in and enjoyed having him around. Walt referred to Ed as "a boy who never grew up." and loved his uncle so much that when Ed dropped in to visit, Walt never wanted him to leave. Describing Ed, Walt said;

"I've never met a finer person. Uncle Ed may have been touched in the head, but he was happy. He spent hours wandering through the woods. He knew all the birds and their calls, and he knew the names of all the plants. It was a privilege to wander with him. There wasn't anybody happier and friendlier, and I loved him.  To me, he represented fun in its simplest and purest form. I never could figure out who was crazy, Uncle Ed, or everybody else."

I don't know what might qualify as "arrested development", but clearly, Uncle Ed wasn't stupid. He knew how to get around on his own. When it was time to move on, he'd head over to the train tracks near the farm and hitch a ride into town. Knowing the names of all the plants and birds also isn't a trivial achievement. One of the most obvious of Ed's traits is his child-like nature. He clearly had a kind, good and gentle heart, which must have resonated deeply with Walt.

One of the things that many Disney critics seem to have in common is a disbelief that Walt could have really been as good as his "public image". Some biographers seem to go out of their way to find examples which can be interpreted as hiding a darker side. I'm sure there were parts of Walt that could be critical and judgmental. He clearly had significant personal and professional struggles.  It would have been difficult not to pick up some "attitude" growing up having a stern parent, like his father.  But that wasn't Walt's focus. He wanted to concentrate on the positive aspects of things.

David Hand, animator and supervising director on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Bambi, says that in the early days some of the staff would see a poorly done movie and want to get a copy so they could criticize it, but Walt wouldn't allow it. He say;

"Look, don't go looking at that kind of stuff. Just look at good stuff. If you find good stuff, let's look at it, but don't look at bad stuff."

There are other stories of Walt expressing disapproval to members of his staff, but it was about the quality of the work, not personal.  Hand said Walt didn't scold people, unless they were in the "sweatbox" before a preview. (We'll talk about Walt's Three Rooms later.)

I suspect that's because Walt learned early about the pain of being criticized and the corresponding need to do things perfectly, in order to avoid further criticism and punishment.

Maybe we could all learn a thing or two from Uncle Ed.  I'm pretty sure Walt did.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Hello There! This is about Walt.

Vhat do vee haf here?

I suppose it had to happen sooner or later and today is as good a day as any.  I'm going to admit in public, to the entire world, that over the past two years I've become a HUGE fan of Walt Disney. Please note that I didn't say the Walt Disney Corporation, or Disneyland, even Walt Disney Imagineering, although I do admire each of them for particular reasons.  I mean Walter Elias Disney the man. 

Of course, there is a story behind this, which I hope at least some of you will find enlightening and entertaining.  I'm going to try and tell it in as rational a way as I can, but I have to warn you in advance that this admiration did not come easily or lightly. It's the sort of appreciation you normally reserve for your family and pets.  The "don't mess with my dog or my kids unless you've got a darn good reason and have done your homework" kind of admiration that comes after a lot of refection and study.

So, welcome! Please remember to keep your arms, hands and legs inside the vehicle at all times, remain seated and don't un-fasten your safety harness.  As much as possible, I'm going to stick to using images that are in the public domain, my own work or property, beginning with Ludwig, of course, who I love because, as well all know, he knows everything about everything! The image is derived from a 1960's vintage animation cell, numbered 29 of 221. I haven't been able to figure out which episode it's from yet, but it is an original, hand painted, xerographic outline cell. I've added the image of Walt on the slide from a Walt Disney Productions specimen stock certificate, series ZQ, dated 1967.

O.K., let's get started...