The world lost Walt Disney this month back in December 1966. With his passing, the world of entertainment lost an amazing man. Walt Disney was an exceptional businessman and a remarkable innovator. He was a visionary and a unique creator who never seemed to run out of ideas. He began his career as a scruffy young film maker in Kansas City and in time he would migrate to Hollywood where he would confound his critics by building an entertainment empire. Even with his success, Disney regretted not having a college education. Yet, his skills as a businessman would soon be evident. A man of his time, Walt Disney had the scrappy determinism of an American entrepreneur and totally believe success could be found through hard work and the sincere belief in a dream.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of young graduates right out of business school. Eager and passionate, most couldn’t wait to get their careers underway. Like Olympic athletes at the starting line, they were ready to sprint toward the finish line leaving their competitors in the dust. I’ll not mention their names, but these bright young people eventually moved up the ladder and a few even managed to garner the coveted title of CEO. As expected, they found a home in today’s top media companies. I’m hardly a business type and probably couldn’t tell you the first thing about running a company. My job is making the stuff that’s usually marketed by these companies. I’m a Disney animator and an artist. I’ve spent my career as a filmmaker, storyteller and maker of magic. However, even the business of magic is still business after all. However, Walt Disney never attended business school. Though totally self taught, the Old Maestro could easily have taught us all a thing or two.
So, how exactly does one manage magic you might ask? I can’t think of a better example than my old boss, Walt Disney. We called him “The Old Maestro” because Disney conducted his remarkable enterprise from his tinsel town podium. Much like the Sorcerer in Fantasia, his baton could easily have been a magic wand. With a confident wave, Disney could command a platoon of living broomsticks or turn a little wooden puppet into a real boy. He could teach an elephant to fly or transform a pumpkin into a glistening silver carriage. Confident with his movie product, Walt fearlessly entered the medium of television when Hollywood studio executives deemed the new medium a threat. Walt Disney recognized an ally when he saw one and was determine to use the emerging new platform to sell his product. I arrived at the studio in the fifties during what could only be called a creative explosion. Along with his live-action and animated film product, Walt had entered television and constructed a theme park in nearby Anaheim. As far as Disney was concern, the sky was the limit.
The decade of the sixties provided more creative and business opportunities and Disney met them head on. He partnered with the New York City Worlds Fair in 1964 and pondered the construction of a ski resort in California’s high Sierras. A new theme park in Florida was on his agenda along with what might be called the biggest gamble of his long career. No longer satisfied with simply providing entertainment venues, the Old Maestro began planning his city of Tomorrow on the vast properties he had acquired near his theme park venue. By caprice, I found myself working with Walt Disney in 1966 on what would be his final film project. Seriously ill with only months to live, Disney continued his role as creative leader. Not a person on our team was the wiser because the Old Maestro worked with the same furious determination that characterized most of his career. Then, suddenly he was gone.
Walt Disney’s remarkable enterprise continues to enjoy success today. Yet, I’d venture few at his amazing magic factory know much about the man who co-founded the company. Some may have childhood memories of the avuncular television host who introduced fanciful stories about princesses and bunny rabbits. Some might compare Walt Disney to a PT Barnum like pitchman who sold fanciful dreams to an eager public. However, there was nothing cynical about Walt Disney. He truly believed in his special mix of business and magic. Lucky for us, we believe it as well.