The Remarkable Walt Disney, and the Challenge for Those Who Followed

It was the Remarkable Walt Disney…
…who managed the creative magic that evolved into Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

As the world watches Disney, celebrating Disneyland’s 50th anniversary, it becomes clear that changes are coming to Disney theme parks, animation projects, and movies. Amidst controversy surrounding top Disney management and the corporate board of directors, it makes sense to look at how Walt Disney originated management systems that, years after his death, would become the model for great business management and customer service around the world.

Perhaps even more surprising is how successfully the model has survived through the deaths of Walt Disney and his brother Roy, and succeeding management teams.

After Walt, Roy
Roy O. Disney had been more than a brother to Walt; he was, perhaps, his biggest booster and champion through the years.

As a youngster, Walt looked up to his older brother, Roy, for guidance and help. Roy assumed the role of protector, watching over Walt and even sending him a few dollars from time to time when Walt’s first business was getting started in Kansas City.

When Walt moved to California in 1923, It was Roy who came up with the first money and who checked himself out of a hospital to help Walt with his new venture, the Disney Bros. Studio.

Roy had been considering retiring, but when Walt died in December, 1966, Roy decided to stay active with the company and finish building Walt’s latest dream, the “Florida project,” which became Walt Disney World.

It was a difficult time. Over the years, the Disney organization had developed into two camps, “Roy’s boys,” the finance and business arm; and “Walt’s Boys,” the creative force behind the Disney accomplishments.

Roy’s challenge was melding the two camps into one. It was not an easy task, because dealing with artists was difficult for him.

Throughout construction, Roy and others in the company asked the question, “What would Walt do?” Their answer, created with the experience and association with Walt for many years, guided them in building a remarkable complex at Walt Disney World.

The Card Walker Years
Finally, Roy named Card Walker as his successor, probably because he felt Card was be a good leader and was likely to carry on with Walt’s vision. After all, that had been Roy’s role all those years.

Walker was effective at carrying out Walt Disney’s plans. The studio finished up projects that carried Walt’s blessing, and even Epcot, Walt’s dream “city of the future,” was built into a theme park at Walt Disney World. The “city” aspect of Epcot wasn’t built, however, because they weren’t too sure how to do that. But they knew how to put together a theme park, with attractions that would involve people, so that was what happened at Epcot.

As years passed, the company began to founder, running out of ideas that carried Walt’s blessing. In asking “What would Walt do?” they were really asking, “What did Walt do?” The result? They followed old plans, and ran out of material. There were few new directions for the company to go.

As the company stagnated, no new theme park attractions were developed and attendance dropped, movie projects were uninspired and profits lagged there, too.

Finally, in an effort to revive the tiring company, the board named Ron Miller to lead the company. Walt Disney’s son-in-law, Ron had a number of ideas to get things rolling.

Time, however, would not be friendly to Ron. After years of reduced profitability, the company had become attractive as a takeover target, and the wolves were circling the Disney camp.

Michael Eisner’s Opportunity
Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew and son of Walt’s brother, Roy, resigned his position on Disney’s board of directors and started looking for a friendly suitor who would allow the company to remain independent. (Roy E. Disney returned to the board later.)

The short story is that Ron Miller was thrown out in 1984 before he had much opportunity to make a difference, and Frank Wells was brought in as president, with Michael Eisner as CEO. Eisner had been at Paramount, and before that ABC. His challenge: Re-energize Disney and make it into a respectable movie studio.

Eisner and Wells insisted on radical change. New movie projects were started, new people brought in to the operation. The new staff was resistant to adopt the Disney culture, and wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt became evidence of misplaced loyalties.

At the theme parks, an interesting discovery was made. Walt Disney had put in place a training and management system that was so good, it was still working many years later. In spite of reduced attraction development and the resulting reduction in attendance, the guests who did go to Disneyland and Walt Disney World were delighted with the Disney style of customer service.

Eisner’s attention to the parks was focused on developing new attractions and expanding the hotels and hospitality business associated with park visitors. Theme park admission prices were increased over time to more realistic levels.

While the changes implemented by Eisner and Wells were received by Disney theme park employees with mixed feelings, park attendance was boosted and profits climbed.

One of the secrets of the original Disney management was the balance between Walt Disney and his brother, Roy.

Michael Eisner had a similar balance in his corporate office with Frank Wells. Their joint synergy resulted in a company with booming business, developing profitable projects in nearly every part of the business.

Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter accident in 1994. The death sparked a breakup between Jeffrey Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, leading to the creation of Dreamworks SKG. It also destroyed the synergistic management at Disney. Eisner, without Wells, was to discover the company losing profitability despite his efforts to continue growth.

Ultimately, that led to Roy E. Disney’s resignation (again) from the board, and an offer, later rescinded, from Comcast to buy the company.

Then, Disney’s Board of Directors named Disney president Bob Iger to replace Eisner. Iger was Eisner’s choice, and critics wonder if he will show the new leadership needed now by Disney, or will simply sustain the Eisner legacy.

Indeed, a shareholder lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company seeks to nullify the most recent election of directors and to revisit the selection of Eisner’s successor.

The Keys to Disney’s Success
It’s most interesting to look back at the Disney organization, back to the days of Walt and Roy Disney and the creation of Disneyland. When the park opened in 1955, Walt realized that they were hiring a lot of new employees, and those employees didn’t understand their jobs in the sense of the history and reasons for creating Disneyland. He felt it was important for everyone to understand “why” things were done, more than “what to do.”

Part of this came about after a contract security guard refused to allow Walt and his wife access to one of the buildings at Disneyland, and after reports of contract parking lot attendants who were less than courteous. He ordered these functions converted to Disney employees, and insisted on training.

Walt directed the creation of Disneyland University, designed to accomplish just that.

As a result, he suddenly had a huge organization of people who understood the company’s culture, and had an idea of what the name “Disney” was supposed to mean. Still, today, new employees at Disney themne parks are run through an orientation training that includes “Traditions,” focusing on the history and values of the Disney organization.

Whatever happens at Disney, one would hope that management would focus and refocus on the key success values Walt designed in the business. These are principles that will work for you in your business, too. Some of these include:

  • Walt Knew What Audiences Wanted. Unlike most of the liberal entertainment establishment, Walt Disney had a unique understanding of what most of America wanted to see. Perhaps because of his Missouri upbringing, he was in touch with conservative middle – America. He knew what they liked, and he knew how to make them laugh. This resulted in a reputation for family movies and attractions. There was a great deal of trust in the Disney name.
  • A Quality Show. Walt insisted that guests receive a quality show. At a theme park, this includes service, food, merchandise, decor, landscaping, and, of course, the attractions themselves. Walt was not afraid to invest in quality, knowing that a halfway job means you wasyed all the money.
  • Attention to Detail. An extension of the quality angle, Disney’s attention to detail is exquisite. I like to point out the walkways in Frontierland at Disneyland. The pavement is colored brown to look like mud, and it’s been “tracked up” with boot prints, houseshoe prints, and buggy tracks. You may not see it when you’re there, but your feet will feel it. Walt said it’s amazing how much you experience with your feet.
  • Uniqueness. Walt didn’t like to make sequels to his pictures. “You can’t top pigs with pigs,” he said, after creating a hit with “The Three Little Pigs.”
  • Value. “Give the public everything you can give them,” Walt said. Disney’s stance was to give people a value so they would return with their friends. Walt wasn’t motivated by money. He liked money, and loved success, primarily because it allowed him to create. Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, commented on this historic Disney concern for value at the 2004 annual meeting when he said, “Consumers know when you’re giving them value for their money, and they know if you’re selling them second-hand goods.”
  • Friendliness. Walt was distressed at amusement parks where the employees were unfriendly and often scary. He insisted that people at Disneyland be friendly. Once The Wall Street Journal wrote, “You can see more respectful, courteous people in Disney World in an afternoon than in New York in a year.”
  • Enjoy the work. Walt loved his work. He loved creating and telling a story, and riding herd on creative people as they put a project together.
  • Listen to Guests and Employees. Walt walked around Disneyland almost every day, talking to guests and cast members. He learned what they liked, and discovered what was troubling. It created a two-way dialogue. It was real, unlike most companies where they talk about “open doors” but the communication is all top down.
  • Cross Promotion. One of the secrets at Disney is making the various activities promote each other. Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland was built four years before the movie was released, providing constant promotion. Not overtly, the movie promotes Disneyland. Today, Disney cross promotes and develops theme parks, cartoons, movies, television programming, cable channels, music and clothing. It’s no accident when ABC’s Good morning America broadcasts from Walt Disney World.
  • Not Afraid to Fail. Walt knew the only was not to fail was not to do anything. He tried things, and learned from the failure, or the success.
  • Innovation. Walt was always innovating, adding sound to cartoons, creating feature length animated movies, and creating Disneyland. He was always looking ahead. If Walt had been around, he might have invented the Internet. Certainly he would be leading in providing entertainment online.
  • Value in the Name. Walt knew that “Disney” had become more than his family name, or the company name. People seemed to attach feelings to the Disney name, and that was more important that a quick profit on a movie or attraction.
  • Understanding your values. When you examine why you’re in business and what you believe, and translate that to your business values, it establishes purpose and mission for your firm. That helps management, too. Roy Disney once said, “It’s easy to make decisions once you understand your values.”

To be successful today, you need to entertain your customers, giving them an experience that is matched by no other.

What do your people say when they answer the phone?

How do they handle customer service problems?

How do they deliver your product or service so that your customer is surprised at getting something beyond what was expected?