Walt Disney, some people idolize him while others villainize him.
This is what happens when someone in the public eye seems larger than life itself.
Regardless of what you think of Walt Disney, there is no denying the impact he had on entertainment and our culture. I think when someone reaches such heights it is easy to put them in another realm. Something almost beyond human, superhuman.
Casting someone in that position is not only untrue, it is unfair. Why do we do it? Perhaps to make it easier for us to rationalize how they accomplished what they did. Maybe it just makes us feel better when we compare our accomplishments next to theirs.
Something that really stood out to me when I did my research for this article was how incredible human Walt Disney was. He got excited, he was difficult to work with at times, and he was hurt by the actions of others. In other words, he was just like us. Amazingly so. That realization just makes him that much more fascinating to consider how he went through the same trials and tribulations that all of us do and achieved what he did.
Let’s look at Walt Disney and what made him just like us, and then what made him special.
He was just like everyone else
1. He needed the support of his family
Walt Disney was able to flourish because of his big brother, Roy Oliver Disney. Roy didn’t know anything about the entertainment industry. It was not his intention to start a studio. However, he did know Walt and he was protective of his baby brother.
His love and desire to ensure his little brother didn’t get taken advantage of by others led him to partner with Walt. They started the Disney Bros. Studio in 1923. They even lived together as roommates and were a great team.
2. He tested his ideas out on his friends and peers
An extraordinary night occured while experimenting with the idea of putting sound to animation with Steamboat Willie. Walt and his small staff set up a proof-of-concept trial. The employees had their wives and girlfriends come to give their impressions on the results.
A projector was set up shining the animation onto a sheet with the backgrounds drawn on it. Behind the sheet was another room with a window to allow a view of the back of the sheet. The unseen men in the room created the music and sounds corresponding to the action. The effect was that the synchronized sounds correlated perfectly with the animation. It was a huge hit. That night left them all exhilarated to make history with the first fully synchronized sound cartoon.
Another story of Walt Disney presenting an idea to his peers was his initial telling of his concept for Snow White. Walt had some employees come to the soundstage one evening after dinner. They didn’t know what to expect. When they arrived, Walt told them he was going to launch an animated feature. He continued by presenting his vision by acting it out. The entire feature. He took on all the characters with their corresponding mannerisms and voices. It was quite a show and took over 3 hours.
Walt was known for acting out characters. He communicated exactly what he wanted for each character by perfectly impersonating them. The evening left all the employees in attendance energized with a clear image of what Walt wanted to see in their version of Snow White.
3. He felt betrayed at times
As a young animator, Walt had some tough times. Charles Mintz was a producer and distributor for Walt’s work, but went on to create his own studio. Mintz offered a decrease in payment to Walt to become one of his employees. Walt refused. Not only did Mintz create a competing studio, he took many of Walt’s employees with him. To add insult to injury, he also had ownership of Oswald the rabbit, a character created by Walt. This left Walt without his employees and his character.
Not too many years later, Walt was using Pat Powers to distribute his sound cartoons. Financial conflicts arose concerning the amount of money due to the Disneys. Walt was suspicious. Pat Powers then proceeded to lure Ub Iwerks, a top Disney animator, away from Disney in a deal to create his own animation studio. Once again, Walt felt betrayed.
4. His endeavors sometimes failed
Although he did have some promising events in his early career, it was filled with just as many setbacks. His first studio Laugh-O-Gram went into bankruptcy. His Iwerks-Disney partnership failed to thrive as a business as well. It seems that his early years were spent really struggling just to survive and get some attention. Fortunately, he was persistent with his dream.
5. He had hobbies about which he was passionate
Although some would call Walt obsessive about his studio, he did manage to have some hobbies on the side. For a while Walt got into polo. In the 1930s, polo was popular in the Los Angeles area. Walt had many polo horses and enjoyed playing even though he had never been terribly athletic in his life. During one polo incident, he had a bad fall and hurt his neck. The injury continued to cause him pain through the rest of his life.
Another passion was trains. Walt loved trains. He loved them so much that he created his own miniature train and railway at his home. He would ride the train and take others along for a trip. He called it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. It had 2,500 feet of track. His wife was upset that it would take over her flower garden so he build a tunnel and wrote up a mock contract for right-of-way on the property. Just like his work, he fully committed to his hobby complete with his own engineer outfit and hat.
6. He got disillusioned and discouraged
Walt was emotionally driven in his ideas. When he had the passion for a project, he was going full throttle. When it wasn’t, it left him lost. Finances often ran counter to his grand plans. Others didn’t necessarily see his visions. With the inconsistent resources and support along with the challenges he faced, it left him feeling as if he had to fight to survive. I think we can all relate to that.
7. He got energized when inspired
The idea of an amusement park had always been in the back of Walt’s mind throughout his life. It seemed to pop into conversation at times when people didn’t know what he was talking about. When Walt finally decided the time was right, he went all in.
The pursuit of his dream was tireless. He had always dedicated a lot of time to his projects, but when it came to working on Disneyland it seemed to be on another level. He was more energized and happy than anyone had seen him in years. Even after opening day, there was always room for improvement. It was a living, breathing thing to him.
He was special
1. He was a great storyteller
As mentioned earlier, Walt had an uncanny knack for acting out characters. He understood that to engage the audience he needed to make them feel emotion. The only way to do that was to embody the cartoons with characteristics and scenarios that humans could relate to. That was a novel approach at the time. He created cartoons that made people cry.
(See Related: Why stories are irresistible)
2. He made his innovative vision a reality
Despite the Depression, 2 World Wars, and other challenges during his life, he was still able to produce some of the great treasures of the entertainment industry. When asked what his secret was, he replied, “This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four Cs. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy, and the greatest of all is confidence.”
Obviously, confidence is key when creating things the world has never seen. I would say that his constancy was amazing. He was resolute about his pet projects. He had a strong and clear vision of how he wanted things done and that wasn’t always conducive to teamwork. To say he was hands-on is a great understatement. He did what he felt he needed to do to make his vision a reality. I believe his passion was why he was so successful.
3. He believed in endless possibilities and he wanted others to believe too
Although he came from humble beginnings, his imagination was unlimited. He was a genius with endless possibilities.
(See Related: Discover the possibilities)
He put his heart and soul into his work. He made sacrifices to succeed because he knew he could achieve the unimaginable. He wanted to share that message with the world. His determination towards innovative excellence strongly embodies the American spirit.
“Somehow I can’t believe that there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secrets of making dreams come true…When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.” ~ Walt Disney
Other things you may not know about Walt Disney
- He collaborated with Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. They worked together for months developing drawings and storyboards for Destino which was inspired by a Mexican song. Unfortunately, the project was never completed. Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, discovered the artwork many decades later. He attempted to create what the project may have looked like upon completion. You can see the video of Destino at youtube.
- Contrary to popular myth, Walt Disney was not cryogenically preserved. He was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn.
- Walt wanted to serve in the military during World War I, but he wasn’t yet old enough. He signed up with the Red Cross and ended up driving ambulances, chauffeuring officials, and running errands in Europe during the war.
- His studio was involved in creating World War II propaganda and other government films, such as one that encouraged citizens to pay their taxes.
Shedding light on genius
Did you see things in Walt Disney that remind you of yourself? I do. It is super inspiring to see.
I have to admit I have a little nerd crush. I love when I see people that are super focused on creating something of for the world. Especially something new that the world has never seen. That is what makes life so exciting to me. Do you feel the same way?
I am sure that you knew some things about Walt Disney, but did you learn something new? Were you inspired? Let me know in the poll or comments.
7 Things You May Not Know About Walt Disney from history.com
10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Walt Disney from Time.com
Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Knopf, 2006. Print.
Profiles in Greatness: Walt Disney from success.com
Seven Lessons of Walt Disney from forbes.com
The Walt Disney Studios History from studioservices.go.com
Walt Disney, Me and a Few C’s from success.org