Next!

Top level managers seem to have found a popular new word in today’s business jargon. The word is, “Disruption,” and big shot senior VPs love to continually speak of disruption as though it were an end in itself. They don’t take into account disrupting things hardly guarantees moving forward. You don’t simply destroy old conventions and think all will be well. You still have work to do. You have to evolve. You have to consider what’s next. Back in early nineteen sixties, the Old Maestro, Walt Disney was focused on what was next and he called a meeting with some of his staffers. For the majority of the team, meetings with the boss were rare. Disney usually met with his top story guys, animators and department heads. However, this day was different. We met in a sweatbox on the second floor of the Animation Building because Walt Disney decided to address a number of his team. He wanted to share some very important news. And, what was that news, you might ask? It wasn’t about disruption…it was about what was next.

What indeed was next? If anything characterized Walt Disney it would have been his attitude of looking forward. Walt was a visionary always focused on the future and what was to come. He gave scant thought to past successes and achievements. On the other hand, Walt was never deterred by failures or missteps. These things were all part of his creative process and Disney was well known for embracing the future and sharing his exciting views with all who would listen. The fifties had been a creative and productive time for Walt Disney Productions. Walt had moved forward with his plan to continue making animated feature films, yet he also continued his new love for live-action storytelling. Disney had taken the bold step of plunging headlong into the new medium of television and taken the biggest risk of his career by building a sizable theme park in nearby Anaheim. Things could not have looked better for Walt when he held an armload of Academy Awards at a fifties Oscar ceremony. No doubt about it, the fifties had been amazing for the little Burbank cartoon studio. Yet, in the words of Al Jolson’s jazz singer in the Warner Bros. “Talkie,” Walt was eager to tell all, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

A hush fell over the crowed space as the Old Maestro stepped to the front of the room. Attired as always in a grey business suit, shirt and tie, Walt’s avuncular manner put everyone at ease and he immediately had our attention. Without the use of flashy powerpoint graphics or dazzling displays, the boss captivated the crowd by allowing us to share his vision of the upcoming decade. First of all, a new slate of animated and live-action films would add to Disney already profitable film library. That media treasure trove would be strengthen by the new medium of television and would allow new opportunities for creative storytelling. But wait, there’s more! Walt Disney Productions agreed to partner with the Worlds Fair to be held in New York City in 1964-65, where several brand new attractions would be created especially for the world famous exposition. What else? Walt Disney’s Imagineers were already hard at work creating concepts for a new ski resort to be constructed in California’s High Sierras. The mountain top vacation mecca would be dubbed, “Mineral King,” and would offer winter vacationeers the finest in ski slopes and other family attractions. Truly a winter wonderland, Walt could envision millions flocking to his snow covered paradise. A Walt Disney theme park in the high Sierras.

The Disney staffers looked at each other incredulously. Was Walt really going to do all this, they wondered? Far from done, the Old Maestro continued his pitch. Soon, Disneyland would have a sister park in Orlando Florida where Walt’s imagineers would finally have the “elbow room” to practice their theme park magic. Not wanting to repeat the mistake he made with the Anaheim park, Walt was making sure his Orlando theme park would have a “canvas” large enough to showcase his magical ideas and theme park attractions. However, there was another reason for the expansive Florida property on the opposite coast. That exciting news was saved for last and Walt Disney eagerly let us know what was next. EPCOT was next. And, what is EPCOT? It was Walt Disney’s Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow. No longer content creating entertainment venues, Walt Disney Productions would move from fun and fanciful attraction makers to City Planners. They would create a sustainable working city that would serve as a model for urban development. EPCOT would not only be for cities across this great nation — but cities around the world.

Now, we knew what was next, and we had gained a glimpse of the incredible future Walt Disney had planned for us. No doubt Walt’s ideas were audacious. Some critics might have viewed Disney’s vision of the future a tad arrogant. Such opinions mattered little to The Old Maestro as he focused on the future. Sadly, things don’t always go as planned and Walt Disney would never see the Orlando theme park he so meticulously planned. He would never realize EPCOT or play a meaningful role in the way modern cities evolve. Even as his life came to a close that Thursday evening in Saint Josephs Hospital, the modern day visionary stared at the ceiling above his hospital bed. He saw his beloved theme park and the city of the future. “This is where we’re headed,” Walt must have pondered that quiet winter evening. “This is next.”

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.

The amazing, Walt Disney. Back in the early sixties he shared what was next with members of his staff. I was lucky enough to be in the room.