Walt Disney Has Left the Parkby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I was laid off from the Walt Disney Company in 2009 along with thousands of others. During my time there, I received many awards (including Partners in Excellence, only given to the top five percent), recognitions and successes in many different departments from Entertainment to Animation to Marketing to more. Because I kept a positive attitude about my layoff, I ended up doing some projects for Disney as an approved outside vendor.
However, this has not stopped people from complaining to me long and loud about how the Walt Disney Company is running its business under the mistaken belief that I somehow know what is going on and have some influence to change the situation. I do not.
In fact, my doctor, who has treated me for decades, at my last quarterly examination spent the first ten minutes of my appointment complaining about the way he and his grandson were treated on their most recent visit to the Magic Kingdom including multiple issues with cast members being unhelpful or ignoring them.
People also constantly ask me, "What would Walt think about such and such?" or "Walt must be spinning in his grave because of such and such" or "This never would have happened if Walt was alive."
I try to point out that despite my decades of interviewing people who knew and worked with Walt, reviewing letters and memos from when he was alive and more, I might (and I emphasize "might") be able to hazard a guess as to what the Walt of 1966 might think. However, even then Walt would constantly surprise people with his choices.
When Walt remarked that the Rivers of America at Disneyland was getting too crowded with so much boat traffic, it was assumed he wanted to cut back on the activity. Instead Walt added another big boat, the S.S. Columbia. No one not even Joe Fowler expected that decision.
I have no clue at all what the Walt of 2022 might think about things today.
He would have been fascinated by new technology but only on how it might improve things for guests. He would have been faced with theme parks that have a greater demand than capacity. He would have struggled to find enough good people to fill the roles at the park.
He would have faced more competitors who produce things that are as good or better than individual things at Disney. He would have faced an audience whose needs and wants have changed significantly since he was alive. Even the definition of "family" has changed since he was alive as well as what is considered politically appropriate.
However, Walt would have addressed these challenges before they became a problem because he always looked at least five to ten years ahead and listened to the guests and frequently went into the park to experience what the guests were experiencing.
The bottom line is that Walt stopped being in charge when he passed away in December 1966 and, while there were still many in the company who wanted to continue his vision, the best they could do is try to finish the plans he had in development and try to repeat past successes.
It has been said that any successful company goes through three stages. First, there is the Innovator who has the vision and the passion and develops something unique. He inspires those who work for him to produce more than they ever realized was possible.
When he leaves or dies, he is replaced by the Caretaker who tries to maintain things but lacks the vision and passion so can only at best repeat and mimic what has gone before.
Finally comes the Undertaker who has no understanding or appreciation of the foundational philosophies and tries to leverage as many assets as possible and cut costs to the bone before the company finally dies.
I can say without hesitation that everyone I have interviewed has mentioned that the spirit of Disneyland changed after Walt passed away. Even though his brother Roy did his best to try to maintain things it was just not the same. The same policies were in place. Disneyland not only remained exactly the same but added things that Walt had approved before his passing. But it still was just not the same.
Part of the reason was that Walt lived and breathed Disneyland. It was as much a part of him as blood flowing through his veins. It was no coincidence that he had an apartment at Disneyland and spent time there.
Many people assume his small apartment above the firehouse on Main Street was built because in the earliest days of Disneyland it was a long, hot commute from Burbank to Anaheim and there were only five small hotels and two motels for a total of 87 rooms.
His daughter Diane told me, "He had the apartment there because he felt he HAD to be there at the park. More than that, he wanted to be there. He liked being there."
A sample question cast members were told to expect in the 1962 training manual entitled "You Are the Show" was "Is Walt ever in the park?" The response was "Definitely. He comes out frequently to check everything and have some fun too." He often visited with his family like his daughters and grandchildren.
Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan told me, "He'd be in the park all the time seeing what guests liked. Backstage, we had a real roach coach type of food truck for lunch. Walt was the one who put up a green tent to protect us from the sun and rain while we were eating.
"He'd come out there and eat at the roach coach as well. He loved hamburgers. He loved chili burgers. He had no airs about him. He was just one of the guys. He'd show up to make sure everything was being kept up and the guests were happy. He wanted us to be happy as well.
"For breakfast, we often saw him sitting and talking with Aylene Lewis, who was playing Aunt Jemina at the pancake house restaurant, and they were laughing.
"When it came to learning about Disney culture and how things should be done at the park, we learned that through Walt being there and watching him and what he did and what he said.
"Guests were important, but the cast members were as well, and he wanted all of them no matter what their job to be treated well. He was there almost every weekend and he was there on Wednesday for the Park Operating Committee meeting."
Dave Bartchard said, "I was hired to drive a truck hauling paint all over the place, but I hauled Walt Disney around the park as well. He didn't mind climbing in the filthy truck with me. He was there all the time and he always treated a man with respect no matter what his job."
Walt loved the park. He loved the people who worked there and those who came to visit. He loved changing and adding things.
Today, I thought I would take a brief look at what Disneyland felt like when Walt was alive. His physical presence helped provide the spirit of Disneyland, but his philosophies of how to operate an amusement enterprise continues to transform the industry today.
Walt decided to call the visitors to the park "guests" rather than customers. One of the reasons for the softer term was that people have a tendency to treat a guest differently. In general, a person is more patient and forgiving of a guest and tries to be a good host and accommodate their needs and wants.
The first 1955 Disneyland orientation training program was themed to "We Create Happiness".
On page six, the orientation book had the following, which was written and approved by Walt himself: "Meet the King of our Magic Kingdom. The most important person in Disneyland is a guest. A guest is a person who enters Disneyland seeking entertainment. A guest may be white, black, brown or yellow…Christian, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu…Republican or Democrat…
"Showoff or wallflower, big shot or small…Rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy…But, from the moment his car turns into the Disneyland parking area until he leaves, he is a guest of Disneyland. How we greet him, how we look, the big and little things, are all vitally important to the enjoyment of his day at Disneyland. A Disneyland guest is to us a King in our Magic Kingdom."
While Walt was alive, that philosophy never changed. Here is an excerpt from the 1962 cast member training manual: "We roll out the red carpet for the Jones family from Joilet just as we would for the Eisenhowers from Palm Springs. These VIPS will be from every state in the Union.
"They will represent every creed…Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu and others. They will be rich and poor, refined and unrefined. If God created them, you'll find them at Disneyland. And each must receive the red carpet welcome.
"Every guest is a King or Queen at Disneyland. Every guest is a VIP. This is a nice, human courtesy and on the practical side remember this guest is the one paying us to make him happy."
To Walt, every person who visited Disneyland was the same and should be treated the same. The earliest film of Disneyland shows an ethnic mixture enjoying the park.
What did it entail to be a good Disneyland host? Cause for reprimand or more likely instant dismissal included smoking, drinking, eating, gambling, fighting or talking loudly and profanely on stage. For the tour guides, they were only allowed to talk to another cast member while on tour if it was to get an answer for a guest. Anyone who instigated or participated in "horseplay" was dismissed.
"You must never deliberately stand with your back to a guest or argue with a guest."
"The safety of a guest is ALWAYS the most important thing at ALL times."
And, of course, there was the Disney Look in terms of appearance that kept getting stricter and stricter over the years. "No jewelry except for a modest ring or watch. No heavy perfumes."
The Disney Look was important and was "non-threatening" so that guests would feel comfortable approaching the cast member.
Walt required that all cast members be "aggressively friendly". Friendly is if someone comes up and asks for help you do it with a smile, realizing that even if you have heard the question dozens of times this is the first time this guest has asked it.
Aggressively friendly is if you see someone fumbling with a map or appears lost you do not wait for them to approach you but you approach them. You finish every encounter with "It's been my pleasure."
Disney Legend Dick Nunis told me when I talked with him over two decades ago, "We received complaints about attractions breaking down…long lines…the quality of the food…high prices…you name it. But we had one special asset which compensated for all our shortcomings during that period.
"That special asset was the Disney people. The compliments far overshadowed the complaints for the friendliness of our people and the cleanliness of the park. That was all Walt. It was always clear that was what he wanted."
For executives in the early days of Disneyland, they had to wear a bright orange tie so they could be instantly identifiable in the park by cast members and guests who needed assistance.
Marty Sklar told Walt that it got very hot in Anaheim and especially in the administration offices in City Hall and that Walt should consider installing air conditioning. Walt immediately refused and replied, "If I put in air conditioning you will all be in there instead of out in the park helping guests."
Imagineer John Hench told me "When he showed up at the park, he was always smiling. He always told us, 'You get down to Disneyland at least twice a month and you walk in the front entrance; don't walk in through the back. Eat with the people. Stand in line. Watch how they react to the work you've done down there'. This made an enormous difference in how we approached our work."
In addition, Walt felt that everyone who visited should be able to enjoy the park no matter what they paid. A rich person should have no advantage or special benefits over a regular person.
From the very beginning students, servicemen and clergy could get an admission ticket for seventy-five cents with proper identification. Groups and conventions, if they made arrangements ahead of time, could get discounts.
Disney Legend Rolly Crump told me the following story. He was sitting on a bench on Main Street with Walt. Walt loved sitting on Main Street and watching guests. A nun entered holding a rope. At the end of a rope was child and then the rope continued and there was another child, and another until it ended with another nun holding the end of the rope.
Walt was intrigued and sprang from the bench to ask the first nun what was going on. She explained that she was part of an orphanage and they had saved up just enough money to get ticket books for the children. Walt told her to wait a minute. He went to the ticket kiosk and reimbursed her all the money she had spent, gave the two nuns adult ticket books and made arrangements to pay for their lunch at the Red Wagon Inn.
A smiling Walt sat back down next to Rolly and said, "That was fun."
Walt told writer Pete Martin in 1956, "When people complain that Disneyland is too expensive, it sounds to me like they heard it somewhere and decided to repeat it. How can they compare Disneyland prices with anything else because there is nothing else like it?
"If they don't want to buy tickets for rides, they can pay their buck and pay their fifty cents for their kid and they can come in. They can sit on the park benches, take up the space, dirty up my toilets, litter up the street. They can sit around and hear my band. They can visit my free shows. They can do all that and more.
"You can't go to a state park without paying that. You've got to pay something. You pay so much a head or so much a car to go in a state park. We even have to pay government tax on admission. So it's really just ninety-one cents to get in. You can't go to the circus for that.
"You can spend hours enjoying the park for your admission ticket. I'm not insisting that people ride rides or buy things but I give them the opportunity. I'm continuing to add things, repair things and that costs money."
The Disney ticket book debuted October 11, 1955. Founder of Disney University Van France said, "We had major price resistance in 1955. Our competitors started the rumor that it cost $40 to visit Disneyland. This was impossible unless a person splurged wildly with purchases everywhere!"
Associated Press reporter Bob Thomas had estimated that if someone decided to pay admission and buy a ticket for every ride in the park, it might cost a little over eight dollars. With a ticket book, a guest knew exactly how much the total cost might be for a day at Disneyland – basically $2.50, a real bargain compared to regular price.
Walt was also clever. The ticket book was divided into different level tickets so it helped spread attendance throughout the entire park, not just the most popular attractions, and helped introduce guests to attractions they might have not decided to experience…except they had a ticket so they were tempted to give it a try.
In addition, Walt didn't want part of the Disneyland experience to be for a guest to constantly be reaching for his wallet. The Ticket Coupons didn't seem like real money and could be used on a future visit.
In 1962, a survey showed that guests expected to spend about five or six dollars total at Disneyland on tickets, food, souvenirs. The survey also showed that the average guest spent about five and half hours at the park, which meant that it cost the guest about a dollar an hour to visit Disneyland.
Disneyland was known for its cleanliness, with maintenance happening every single night. The bathrooms were cleaned several times a day because Walt knew the reputation of horrendous dirty bathrooms at amusement parks. He was known to "pop in" and check the bathrooms several times when he came to the park. It was also Walt who insisted there be no "coin slot" for people to have to pay to use the toilet, a common practice elsewhere to help cover maintenance costs.
Ron Hemminger, the son of the chief in the Indian Village and later an executive at Disneyland and Walt Disney World (where I met him) shared with me the following story.
Walt would take the executives out for a walk in the park early in the morning before Disneyland opened. The senior executives were in the front and junior executives like Ron were in the back struggling to try to hear. Walt would point out things he wanted fixed, changed, etc.
At one point, he crossed over in front of the group to pick up a piece of trash to put in a trash can. One of the executives in front said, "Walt, we have janitors to do that."
As Ron remembered it, Walt went ballistic and almost fired the guy on the spot. Walt yelled, "Our job is to take care of Disneyland. That means to keep it clean. It is everyone's job. We should never ask someone to do something we are not willing to do ourselves."
One of my favorite photos of Walt was taken accidentally in front of Main Street City Hall where he is picking up a piece of trash to put in a nearby trash can.
Walt did not just say motivational words, he showed by his actions that he meant what he had said and was willing to live it. The true spirit of Disneyland was Walt himself and he modeled it for the guests and the cast members.
For me, I can see some immediate differences between how Walt handled things at the park and how Disney executives do so today.