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Alex Stroup and Kevin Yee
August 3, 2000

--Walt Disney
Walt Disney opening up his theme park
  Would Walt be happy with today's Walt Disney Company?

A hypothetical take on Walt's possible reactions to today's Disney Company.


  As I am wont to do, I'd like to start off tonight with a disclaimer: much of what we're going to say today is likely to be personal opinion, maybe hearsay, and maybe just plain extrapolation. Walt is gone, and the very nature of the question - would he be happy with the company today? - is really just a matter of perspective. 

Or is it? I have a definite answer to the question: Walt would *not* be happy with the Company if he were resurrected yesterday. But if Walt had never died and simply retired or toned down his responsibilities, it turns out I think he would be pleased.

The great game of "what if" is lawn darts for historians; strangely fun but it doesn't really serve any purpose. This will definitely be an exercise in personal opinion and will probably reflect our respective views of Walt more than his views of the current state of the company. 

I think that, overall, Walt would be happy with the company as it now exists. This would be true if for no reason than that he wouldn't really care about any of the departments not directly related to creative content.

  An interesting point, and I agree with most of your assessment. But really, creative content includes more than just the theme parks and animated movies. Is ABC really what Walt would have wanted? NASCAR on ESPN? A money-losing, "me-too" venture into cruise line operations?

I hate to be predictable about it, but I think Walt would be happy with some things and livid about others. First, I think he'd be happy about the revival of animation. Some of the films in the last decade or so (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid) rank right up there with his classics. Let me ask you your thoughts on animation before I get too carried away.

Oh, I think he would be happy with it. I think Beauty in the Beast, in particular, represented and presented everything Disney. But we need to remember that by the time of his death Walt had pretty much moved on from animation into other pursuits. 

As to how he would have felt about NASCAR on ESPN, I don't think he would have cared too much as long as it didn't interfere with the things he wanted done. I do think he would have agreed completely with the idea behind the ABC/Capital Cities purchase. Walt, more than anyone, understood the value of TV in cross-selling Disney products. 

One thing we need to keep in mind is that, while he was not as naive a businessman as sometimes portrayed, he was always willing to live with whatever business model it took to get his projects done. Those details he left to Roy.

  Great points. Indeed, Walt was performing synergy long before the term itself was even coined. 

But something else you mention here is critical: Walt did always want to do new things, and push the boundaries. In this respect, I'd actually think Walt would be displeased with the way some things have evolved. Disneyland is more or less the same experience now. Splash Mountain, though fun, is not really a new concept. The California Indiana Jones ride is the closest to a brave new technology we've seen post-Walt, in my opinion. 

What has Disney done since Walt died? In a nutshell, it stagnated at first, then it expanded by cloning itself. The additional parks (MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom) are copies of things other people have done. Ditto the cruise line. I agree the ABC purchase he would agree with, but honestly, Disney has not been very groundbreaking about new television shows. ABC was in last place until Regis' Millionaire show, and this was imported from England.

Well, I don't think that is particularly fair to the current company. One advantage that Walt had is that he (until late in life) only had to innovate on a single front. Walt's development was in many ways very linear. 

The fact that Walt was constantly innovating (and for most of his life had only one product line with which to innovate) has created an expectation in most people that everything Disney does will be innovative, and this just isn't possible when they have their fingers in so many pies. 

It may not have been successful, but I do think that Disney's attempt at a family cruise experience was very innovative for the industry. Direct marketing of the studios products through the Disney Stores was innovative at its time. In animation, Dinosaur was technologically innovative if not thematically. 

I think Walt would actually appreciate the unusually high level (for a corporation) of innovation that goes on at Disney these days.

  I only half agree that Disney is an innovative company. I think that Disney innovates "within the box," to appropriate a New Economy term. True innovation is thinking outside the box, and taking real chances. 

You're quite right to point out that the company is not so nimble as it used to be. I consider the very diversified nature of the company to be a drawback. The real innovators these days are companies who take chances - like DreamWorks (founded by the guy who brought us the three great Disney movies mentioned above), or Steve Wynn, who is basically responsible for the modern Vegas. 

It's no coincidence that Vegas looks Disneyfied these days. Wynn does it better than Disney does, if you ask me. I recently had a conversation with an Imagineer who told me that Wynn frankly reminds him of Walt, with his visionary scope and innovative thinking.

What has Dreamworks done that is so innovative? They've made some good movies (and considering the mediocre quality of their animated efforts, you have to wonder how much credit Katzenberg deserves for Disney's successes), but nothing that blows me away. 

And the "new" Vegas is an abomination. Putting a roller coaster on a casino is the equivalent of Joe Camel, training the next generation. (Though you shouldn't take me wrong, I loved the "old" Vegas). 

But we are straying here. I'd like to bring up a situation where I think Walt would disapprove but would be wrong. I don't think Walt would approve of the current live action films being produced by various Disney labels (other than Disney itself). But if Disney hadn't moved away from 100% G ratings then the company probably would not have survived the early 80s.

  You mean the Miramax label? Movies about gay priests and the like? No argument there. It reminds me of my original point (and you were right that we were straying); namely, that Walt would be less likely to be annoyed if he lived through the years 1966-2000. I think he would have changed with the times, as you might suspect. 

The problem with a topic such as ours is that we're basically plopping a 1966 man into 2000. As the Disney company changes and adapts to the constantly evolving culture, it becomes increasingly far from the frozen-in-time morality and "stance toward innovation" promoted about Walt.

I wasn't necessarily speaking of Miramax (do most people even realize that Miramax is a Disney company?) but I think that Touchstone has even gone way beyond anything Walt would have approved (even if he had lived through to today). 

He may have approved of Bringing Out the Dead as art, but not as a Disney movie. And I have to assume that he would have considered Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo as the sin against mankind that it is. But that said, production of movies that would have been unacceptable to Walt represents a line of revenue that the company just could not live without.

  For the most part, it sounds like we're agreeing. I do think Walt would be more displeased than you do, apparently, and I base that on the company's track record of expansion. 

I get the feeling that Walt's method of creativity and innovation was not to be confused with simple expansion. He refused to do Snow White or 3 Little Pig sequels, yet the market is inundated with Disney sequels constantly now.

Walt agreed to do another theme park only because it would be the "wienie" attracting people to his "City of Tomorrow".

(the ironic part being that EPCOT as he imagined it would never have succeeded).  
  I consider it significant that most of the Imagineers from Walt's day have expressed varying degrees of disagreement with the company's direction since Eisner took over. That has to say something!
Yes, it says that they are upset that Imagineering is no longer the center of the Disney universe. 

And the Imagineers are probably correct. With Walt around, the parks would have a stronger history of innovation. 

Remember, though, just about everything that we like about WDW was designed and created without Walt's presence. 

Every great movie since 1970 was done without Walt (and MANY bad movies were done WITH Walt) 

The new park going in at Tokyo Disneyland is looking very good without Walt. 

I'm not saying that every move Disney has made in the last 34 years has been good, but the Disney batting average over that time is definitely exceptional, whether Walt would approve or not.


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Dual Reviews

Alex and Kevin debate current events and review Disney books.

This column is about opinions; unfortunately, we don't know any important Disney insiders so they are just our opinions. We are bringing this column to you as two ordinary Disney fans, much like yourself. We hope you enjoy and respond.

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