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A “behind–the–ears” look at Disneyland
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David Koenig
Mailbag — Week of December 10, 2001

What If?
For readers of last week's article on Walt Disney's 100th, the headline—"If Walt Were Alive…"—was less a hypothetical statement than a heart-felt wish.

Mailbag

Among the respondents, a Disneyland cast member wrote:

I just read your article and I have to tell you that I agree with everything you said. Walt's legacy and business philosophy are more of a cash cow than ways to run a business to Eisner, Pressler, and their ilk. They have forgotten what this company was based on.

Being a cast member, I see the disconnection between management and the cast members (and the guests, for that matter) on a daily basis. They walk around the park in a hurry, trying not to be stopped by any guests. They wear their nametags in haphazard ways. They don't even smile! I know the suits don't care about me or anyone else for that matter. They care about the bottom line and that is all.

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

Still, I can't help but wonder what lies on the horizon. Do you think that there is a chance that Walt's business practices can still be reinstated? Maybe down the line, a new CEO could wipe out the current management's philosophies (milk everything for what it's worth; to heck with quality; if it's good enough for Six Flags…, etc.) and put Walt's philosophies back into practice. I asked my grandmother this question and she said it wasn't possible. Today's business world wouldn't allow it. But I think it can work.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see what happens…

I agree with both you and your grandmother; it could work, but I can't see today's business world allowing it. My guess is that if Eisner could "play" Walt and spend his days bouncing from new idea to new idea, Wall Street would crucify him—mainly, because he lacks the ideas and charisma of Walt. There's no twinkle in Uncle Michael's eye.

The cast member responded:

I guess we'll have to wait for a future CEO. Eisner has tarnished his image with the public as well as the fans / customers. It's too late for him. What the WALT DISNEY Company needs is a fresh start. A CEO who understands what Walt was trying to do: diversify.

Diversification is what made Walt's Company great. He experimented, tried new things, entered new fields. That's why the competitors couldn't cut it. He was always one step ahead of them!

The current management (Eisner, Pressler, etc.) threw that away in 1995, after the Indiana Jones Adventure. They just didn't have the foresight (or the patience) to create another quality attraction. It just didn't make money fast enough for them. They wanted something short-term that would make tons of money. What they got was DCA.

Eisner's (as well as Pressler's) mentality was, "The public is stupid. They'll see the Disney name on it and come in droves." Eisner underestimated the intelligence of the American public and is paying dearly for it. Walt RESPECTED the intelligence of his audience. He knew the public was expecting something new and different and he didn't want to let them down.

Today's business atmosphere is just not akin to taking risks. They milk whatever they have for all it's worth (sequels, franchise attractions, etc.). It's really sad to see that creativity has taken the back seat to money-making and appeasing stockholders.

But, I do have a very positive outlook for the future. I really do think there will be a future CEO that will look at the Company we have today and say, "My gosh! Where did all the magic go? Those were very dark times in the history of Disney. But, the days of Eisner and his ilk are over!" It's a silly hope, I know. But, that's what I believe. Businesses are always saved from the brink of disaster that way. I mean look at what happened to Walt Disney Productions in the late '70s/early '80s. I think history will repeat itself… someday…

Another cast member chimed in:

Read your latest article on Walt on MousePlanet. My reaction: Right on the mark!

Roger wrote:

Just finished reading your latest column, "If Walt Were Alive," and even before I finished it I knew I had to write to say thank you. Boy, you really hit the nail on the head, several times over, and not just about the current management at Disney. Your article is true for many corporations.

The more I read about Disney and the more I read about Pixar, I realize that John Lasseter is the current heir to Walt's throne. True entertainment geniuses only come along every so often, and I find it ironic that the three this past century (Jim Henson being the second, obviously) have all been tied to Disney. And Eisner has had both in his grasp and manage to piss them off (well, Henson's family, anyway).

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

What a dream it would be if Pixar were able to take over Disney. Premiere had a great article about Pixar recently and that's when it really struck home to me. THEY are the ones who are following Walt's grand example, they are proving that Walt's ideals are just as sound today as they were in 1923. The difference between Steve Jobs and Eisner is that Jobs knows when to get out of the way. Any chance that Pixar can buy the Jim Henson Company?

Thanks again. I'm posting this one on my wall.

Another employee wrote:

I realize that you're going to get a boot-load of mail on this article, so I'll try to keep this brief.

As a 25-year-old guy, I obviously never had the chance to meet Walt. However, I've worked for four divisions of his company—including the vaunted Feature Animation group and the downright horrible Disney Store, Inc. I've seen the company as a fan growing up in the '80s and '90s, and read many books about the company pre-and post-Walt.

I think your article was wrong. I respect your idea, and you had many great points in it, don't misunderstand me. But if Walt was still running the company, and not if he was 100 years old, I think the whole INDUSTRY would be different.

Obviously Florida would have turned out differently. EPCOT would be what it should be, a city. There'd be no Studios or Animal Kingdom, or Pleasure Island, either. Sure, there'd be theme parks, but it would be so very different. That city could, right now, rival New York and Los Angeles as a hub of creativity. And I'm not talking Lou Pearlman and boy bands creative. I don't even think we can imagine it.

The Burbank Studio would be really, really different, as well. I doubt there'd be a Touchstone, and no Miramax either. Most likely we'd have had lots of fun family content. I bet we'd even have had Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Imagine that. No LucasFilm. No DreamWorks. Disney would be rolling in the dough. And thus the film industry would be vastly different.

Walt probably wouldn't have made TV Animation. Or at least as we know it. No Duck Tales, Gummi Bears, Wuzzles, Recess, Pepper Ann, etc. If he did go this route, the quality would be so superior to what it is today.

And no lame sequels. No Return of Jafar. No (Belle's) Enchanted Christmas. Imagine this world. "You can't follow Mermaids with Mermaids …"

I'm smiling right now.

But then what about Feature Animation? Would the new crew have been recruited in the '70s? Would Howard Ashman have been pulled in? Or would Feature Animation have floundered and died like it almost did?

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

But more than this, who knows what Walt's next project would have been after Epcot? You can reasonably say that his fickle cycle ran about 20 years—1920 animation, 1937 Snow White, 1955 Disneyland, 1972 Florida. I bet in the mid-1990s, imagining that Walt was a robot and not aging and not getting sick, he would have a new experience. Something that is beyond you and me.

And right now WDI would be working so hard on this, or that, or the other thing, that all of this talent would stay. To get a chance to work with WALT? You bet. Budgets wouldn't be a problem, either. Imagineering wouldn't be the sieve that it is today.

Imagine this, a world with Walt. Better, worse, or just different, it's still something to excite the imagination.

Anyway, keep up the great work at MP!

Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could find out which of us was right? (Though I like your prediction a lot better…)

Chris Kitamura wrote:

Hi, David! This was a great article for the anniversary of Walt's birthday. I definitely agree with the things that you pointed out that Walt would have still wanted to do the things that he was famous for. I don't think that those characteristics would have had to pass if he were still alive today.

As much as he never seemed to be a great business man, he really was. He cared about the product and the people more than the money, and that is a business ethic that I hardly see at all anymore. The company still probably would have had him as a figurehead. It's too bad because Walt would have brought so much to the business world still and still could have been a pioneer. Of course that's also if we could slow down the aging process because, after all, he would've been 100 today!

Rob Kucinski wrote:

It is unfortunate in this day and age, but Walt would never be able to succeed in what corporate America has become. What you wrote was not, as you had alluded to, an article about Disney-specific, but instead all large corporations. I recently relocated from a large company to a smaller company for the reasons you stated in the article. Prior to coming to my new home, I did receive a job offer as an Engineering Services Manager at Walt Disney World. I had to turn it down, although it would have been a dream come true for me four years ago. However, with the current conditions in all large companies, I am glad I moved to a smaller company. They are more personable, value the individual, and allow a lot more individual freedoms in performing one's work.

As large companies go, however, what I have read about Disney's downsizing is about as good as a company can do, since they all have to respond to the almighty shareholder (of which I am one, but have no desire to have huge profits and growth, but instead long-term value, which would be near impossible to lose with Disney). They did a much better job of letting people go than my former employer has done recently. (Just a note, I left before the downsizing, and had been looking for over three years for the right move).

I hope Disney does not give in totally to the $$$ of the shareholder and investment shareholders, and try to look focused on the future and big picture. It looks like they are beginning to see the downside of the short-term with DCA vs. DisneySea, and maybe the wake-up call has come.

I will still continue to vacation at Walt Disney World every year or so with my family because, despite all the problems, it's still in my book, "the Best of the Worst" of Corporate America.

Jeremy wrote:

I'm a big fan of Mouse Tales; I've read it a couple of times. I recently picked up a copy of More Mouse Tales. The reviews that I read said that while the book was good, it was a bit more depressing. While the first book focused mainly on funny and humorous anecdotes about Disneyland and more of a "behind the ears look," the second book focused largely on why Disneyland today is not the same place it was just a decade ago and what the problems have been that lead to that decline in show quality.

While I found that review to be somewhat true, what it really did for me was get me even more excited to someday work for the company. I had a brief internship with WDI while in college and saw firsthand how many problems the company had. But at the same time, especially when talking to some of the people who had been around forever such as Marty Sklar, Bruce Gordon, David Mumford, etc., I also saw how much potential there was in the company.

In short, your book did not depress me but rather had the exact opposite effect. I am more eager now than ever to strive for excellence and put every effort forward to join the company and rise to a position of leadership to restore Disneyland to its former glory.

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

I would make every effort to walk the park and talk with guests to hear their opinions first hand. I would not want to be "back-doored" to every attraction but rather wait in lines to see the guest's experience. I would hope to listen to suggestions from cast members on how to improve things.

Basically, I'd want to run things the way Walt did. Now, I don't claim to be the genius that he was but I do have the innate desire to produce the best quality work environment for employees. The happier they are, the happier the guests are. I'd want to see as much as I could from the guest's perspective to ensure a quality show every time. Every day there are hundreds of people who walk through Disneyland's gates for the first and last time. I would not want to short-change them. I would hope to make Disneyland one of those places that people flock to in droves to work.

So I say, "Thank you," for that book. I'm sure I'm not the only one who feels this way and I appreciate you presenting the standard to which upcoming management needs to aspire to in order to not only maintain the current Disney standard but to break through it and achieve the old Disney standard.

Now let's all get out there and create a park that would make Walt proud!

Finally, fed up with cast members bemoaning the park's recent serve-yourself Costume Shopping program, Gary wrote:

I'm sure this subject has been beaten to death by now. However, there is a great little book out now called Who Moved My Cheese. What a great tie-in to the Kingdom of the Mouse! I would recommend it to anyone who is having a difficult time coping with change in the workplace.

If it's any consolation, it appears that no one in the American workplace is escaping change. Success is measured these days by how well and how quickly one adapts to all the changes.

Promotional photo  Disney
Promotional photo Disney

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.

After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); all titles published by Bonaventure Press.

He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.

You can contact David here.

LINKS

Click here to go to David's main page for a list of archived articles.

Visit MouseShoppe to purchase copies of David's books. (Clicking on the link opens a new window.)

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