Walt Disney Predicts the Future of Entertainment

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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"Now it is time for a preview of the world of tomorrow. We step into the future and find fantastic atomic-powered machines working for us. The world is unified and peaceful. Outer space is the new frontier. We walk for a time among the strange mechanical wonders of tomorrow." — Walt Disney on the record Walt Disney Takes You to Tomorrowland (1956)

I recently spent a good many years gathering verified quotes of Walt Disney in an attempt to better understand what he may have thought about things like America, religion, education, women, art, and more. In general, he was usually pretty consistent and optimistic in his beliefs over the years.

That book, Walt's Words: Quotations of Walt Disney with Sources! features some of Walt's thoughts about what the future might look like. Here are a few examples:

  • "Today, modern ways have reached into nearly every corner of the globe. Yet in many lands, old and colorful customs continue, unchanged by time, undisturbed by the march of progress. As the past slips slowly but certainly into the future, these traditions of yesterday may soon be lost forever in all the tomorrows yet to come."
  • "To the youngsters of today, I say believe in the future, the world is getting better. There is still plenty of opportunity. Why, would you believe it, when I was a kid I thought it was already too late for me to make good at anything.
  • "The age we're living in is the most extraordinary the world has ever seen. There are new concepts of things, and we now have the tools to change those concepts into realities. We are moving forward.
  • "The years seem to be going by faster and faster. I guess it's because so much happens these days that's going at top speed."

Walt definitely felt that the future would be filled with monorails, Peoplemovers and other as yet undreamed-of vehicles of mass transportation that would carry people comfortably, quickly and efficiently to their destination.


Walt's love of technology stretched beyond Tomorrowland to new inventions and innovations.

He never would have suspected that, 50 years after his death, the prime source of transportation at his Florida Project would be noisy, crowded buses that sometimes were so full that those who had waited patiently to be picked up found no more room and had to wait for the next one.

Of course, while I might be able to make an informed guess as to what the Walt of 1966 (the year in which he died) MIGHT have thought about something, even those who personally knew him (and that number is declining at an alarming rate each year) could not hazard an assumption about what the Walt of 2017 might think about something today.

Disney Legend Jack Hannah, responsible for many of the great Disney animated short cartoons, told me back in 1978:

"When people ask me 'What would Walt think about this?' or 'What would Walt do about that?' the thing is you never knew what he would do or say. He was always a surprise. You'd think 'This is something Walt will love because he loved it in the past' and he would tear it to shreds while you stood there with your mouth open.

"Walt had this tremendous faith in the future. That it would be better for everyone."

Would Walt have wanted his company to buy and rely on franchises developed by others? Would Walt have wanted parking to any of his parks to be $20, especially with no improvements? Would Walt have approved of continually up-charging guests for certain experiences? Would Walt have wanted Disney theme parks outside of the United States? Would Walt have approved of remaking his classic films? And so many other questions.

Certainly, the company started to stagnate after his death with his staff continually trying to second guess what would Walt think and do. By doing so, they tried to simply repeat and repeat what Walt might have done in the past.

The answer is that nobody really knows what Walt would have done. Walt would have been influenced by many things that were happening and was constantly adapting and trying new things to keep his business alive.

With his love of new technology and using it to entertain and communicate, I suspect Walt would have had great fun with today's world of social media, CGI, virtual reality and more. He would have looked at all of it as a new opportunity. He always used new technologies like Audio-Animatronics as just another tool to tell stories.

Walt famously said, "It is a curious thing that the more the world shrinks because of electronic communications, the more limitless becomes the province of the storytelling entertainer."

Walt would have adapted, as he always did, to the changes happening around him. However, his core beliefs would probably have remained unchanged and he was not shy in committing to those beliefs even if it cost him money.

With the introduction of alcohol at some table service restaurants at the Magic Kingdom, there has been some discussion about what Walt might think about this change in policy. When Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, it followed the same policy that Walt established at Disneyland when it opened in 1955.

Disneyland is a "dry" amusement venue, meaning that alcohol is not served in the location. The few exceptions like Walt's private apartment and the exclusive Club 33 restaurant in New Orleans Square were not available to regular guests and controlled how much alcohol was dispensed.

Before Disneyland, most amusement parks and carnivals relied heavily on the sale of hard liquor and beer to significantly increase their profits and add to the spirit of "fun" at those venues that comes from imbibing too much of a different kind of spirit.

"I could have got most of my costs back (on building Disneyland) with beer concessions alone. A lot of adults will come here, but Disneyland is primarily for children and I don't think kids and liquor mix," Walt told newspaper reporter Florabel Muir in July 1955 to explain why alcoholic beverages were prohibited even though, like most men from that time period, Walt himself enjoyed having a drink after work or at a social gathering.

"No liquor, no beer, nothing. Because that brings in a rowdy element. That brings people that we don't want and I feel they don't need it. I feel when I go down to the park I don't need a drink. I work around that place all day and I don't have one," Walt shared with Saturday Evening Post writer Pete Martin in June 1956.

Walt envisioned Disneyland as a family park and saw that the inclusion of alcohol in other entertainment venues often changed the behavior of the visitors and the tone of the area. It became a threatening or disturbing environment rather than a location of safety and comfort.

Alcohol in a Disney theme park was first introduced in Florida's Epcot Center in 1982, because that park was considered an adult experience and that the many international visitors would have expectations of having alcohol with their meals since that was a part of their culture. When Disneyland Paris opened, there was no alcohol and that policy was changed within its first year in response to the massive complaints from guests wanting a glass of wine with their meal as were their tradition.

Most Disney parks do serve alcohol (except for Disneyland Park and Tokyo Disneyland Park; Tokyo Disney Seas does serve alcohol).

Admiral Joe Fowler, who was in charge of construction for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, told me in 1988 about a meeting in the early 1960s where Walt Disney was considering building a multistory indoor amusement venue in St. Louis. It was a story he often repeated but this is how he told it to me:

"At some point well into the dinner, August Busch, owner of Anheuser-Busch brewery and a powerful man in St. Louis, stood up, when he should have sat down and said something to the effect of 'Any man who would build something like this, and then not serve beer and liquor inside, ought to have his head examined'.

"Well, when Walt heard that his eyebrow arched straight up. Once we were all on the company plane and headed back to California, Walt gathered us for a meeting and said, 'All right, forget about St. Louis.'"

Other factors were involved in the cancellation of the St. Louis project, including the fact that Walt felt that the city would put up most of the money but the city thought that Walt would put up all of it. However, the alcohol issue was a contributing factor to Walt's decision to cancel a multistory indoor theme park that would have featured the first version of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction.

From personal experience, I will admit that the first New Year's Eve I worked at Epcot supervising the World Showcase promenade, I ran into two instances where 20-something young people were on the ground, curled up in fetal positions and lying in their own vomit from too much alcohol. I had to call Security and assist in removing them backstage.

When I worked as a street entertainer at Pleasure Island, it was even worse, especially with some guests bringing in their own alcohol.

A little over a year after the opening of Disneyland, Walt's reputation as a visionary entertainer in multiple mediums was assured. He was asked to write his idea of what the world of entertainment might look like in 50 years for a time capsule to be opened in 2006. I don't know if that time capsule was ever unearthed and opened.

Fortunately, the Disney Archives has a copy of this typewritten document signed by Walt but few people have ever seen it. So here in Walt's words are his thoughts about how entertainment would be different and the same in the future:

Prediction of Entertainment in the World 50 Years From Now

By Walt Disney October 9, 1956

"Greetings from the city of Los Angeles, U.S.A. and the long vanished days of 1956! We have been asked to surmise, for this occasion, what may be the state of entertainment arts industries in the world of 2006.

"It has been difficult enough to predict the course of public diversion, especially the fortunes of motions pictures, television and place called Disneyland in which we have been engaged, even a few years ahead, let alone half a century in the future. This would be a feat for another Jules Verne, an Einstein, an atomic wizard or a space engineer: I have not powers of seership!

"But of one thing, I'm sure. People will need and demand amusement, refreshment, and pleasant relaxation from daily tasks and frets as much in your day as they have in ours and in all the generations of mankind into the remote past. What the exact nature and implementation of these mass entertainments may be doesn't make much difference it seems to me.

"Humanity, as history informs us, changes very slowly in character and basic interests. People need play much as they need toil. They never cease to be fascinated by their own powers and passions, their base or noble emotions, their faiths and struggles and triumphs against handicap – all things that make them laugh and weep and comfort one another in love and sacrifice out of the deeps of their being.

"Through historical time – and even among our aboriginal forefathers – all the races of man have been dramatizing these eternal quests and conquests of mind and heart in arenas, around tribal fires, in temples and theaters. The modes of entertainment have changed through the centuries; the content of public shows, very little. So we must base any prognostications on these elements.

"Mindful of the phenomenal discoveries and applications of science to all our activities and institutions, it seems no mere guess that public entertainment will have become machined and powered by atomic and solar energies long before you read this capsule. The extension of radar and other as yet untapped sources of cosmic force may well have changed the entire technique of communication, in the theatre and television fields as well as in other areas of informational broadcast.

"Millions of people in massive assemblies around the world may now be viewing the same staged or natural event, scanned by some incredibly potent scope, in the same amount of time. They may even be viewing presently obscured vistas on neighboring planets as one might look at neighbors across our Los Angeles streets.

"Omniscience will have drawn closer to futile senses and perceptions, for our entertainment as for our livelihood – yours, I should say, who will read this in your 21st Century.

"If our fondest hopes prevail, the world of 2006, Anno Domini, will have outlawed war and this old earth will be in such a flowering of civilization as the family of man has never seen. And that will have a profound effect upon the subject matter of the world's playtime and escapist mechanisms.

"In the basic human elements however, the showmen of your new day I am sure will still recognize and understand the entertainment makers of our vanished time.

Walt Disney"

Comments

  1. By Jimbo996

    Hey, I heard you on SweepSpot. Great interview.

    Walt Disney is definitely forward looking, but his fascination with people movers and monorails suggests a high density residential model that just doesn't exist in America. Having traveled to Japan and Hong Kong where Disneylands were built, they don't quite work as theme park attractions. If he didn't get involved with entertainment and theme parks, Walt Disney would be Donald Trump as a billionaire developer. He'll be involved with creating new cities and civic centers with people movers and monorails; however, public transportation works best with high capacity trains.

    The problem with "What Walt Would Do?" is Walt is a visionary and any quotes on the past is not relevant. He would be a different person today. He'll be the one creating the new mediums and finding new content for them. Walt would be the one inventing VR for instance.

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