Roy Disney at NFFC

by Sheila Hagen, staff writer

"To me, it's a failure of mainly failing to figure out what to do with creative people. The heart of the failure to recognize that creativity is the basis of this company and what it was founded on. Every time we've ever been successful at anything, it was because we had creative people who had found new ways to do things, new things to entertain with and maybe instruct a little bit with too."

— Roy E. Disney on the recent closing of the feature animation unit in Florida.

Roy Disney answers questions at the NFFC convention. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix for MousePlanet.

Roy E. Disney was the featured speaker at the National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC) convention in Anaheim on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2004. He served as vice chairman of the Board of Directors of The Walt Disney Company and chairman of Walt Disney Animation from 1984 until November 2003 when he was forced to resign. NFFC President Jay Aldrich introduced Disney, as well as moderated the question-and-answer session following Disney's remarks.

After a few comments regarding recent updates to his Web site, (link), and a request that everyone sign up for membership and e-mail updates, Disney talked at length about his memories of his father and Walt and about his views on the management of the Walt Disney Company.

Roy Disney: So at any rate, I'm really just glad I took the opportunity to come down and speak to a friendly audience. [laughter] I've had a couple of experiences recently that weren't so friendly.

Thank you for all of your enormous support for the Disney idea, which I know you know as well as I do what it stands for. It stands for quality. It stands for family. It stands for getting your money's worth. It stands for a lot of innovation and a lot of new and creative ideas that make things fun every time you visit a park or go to a film. One of the reasons for my leaving, other than the fact they fired me [laughter], was that I saw that quality slipping away from us. The fact that so many people have already really agreed with me and agreed with an awful lot of others who are here, that that's been happening more and more frequently in recent times. It's really, really reassuring because one of my daughters, Abigail, said, "We have the advantage of being right." [applause] Thank you. I was hoping that line would get applause. [laughter]

At any rate, that really is my speech. We thank you enormously for being here. Please pass this around -- I'm sorry you had to come on a Saturday morning but we have to be out of town because of a rather sad loss of a good friend. We have to be at a funeral. Otherwise, I'd love to spend a little more time with everybody here. I know this is Saturday morning and Sunday's the big day, right? I should've thought to bring some auction items. I didn't think. [laughter] Make a few bucks. I'm off the payroll, too [referring to the fact that Disney employees are prohibited from selling items given to them during their tenure]. [more laughter]

So, that really is my speech but there are a lot of questions here...

Jay Aldrich: Okay, we're going to go to some of your questions here for Roy. This is from Dick: Please tell us your fondest memories of your father and also of Walt. And thank you for being here today.

RD: Okay, that's a question I could... Favorite memory of Walt? Probably, he kindly let me make a couple of films for him in the last, as producer, in the last few years before he died. One of them in particular, which I am sure none of you has ever seen, was called The Legend of El Blanco. [applause] Wow, I'm stunned! [laughter]

It was a film that was shot down in Mexico and I sort of inherited it. I tried to make it a very serious show and Walt hated it. He said, Let's turn it into a spoof. And we did.

You don't know how hard making a spoof is, but we got through it. We had this wonderful little quartet that came up from Mexico who had had the big hit record in Mexico of a song called, I think I can do this, "Supercalifragilistico-expealidocious" [said with Spanish accent]. [laughter] It was three guys and a girl, and they came up with me, who became the hosts of the show and narrated it. It really was pretty funny stuff. And we ran it again for Walt and I got at least four loud laughs from Walt in the screening. So maybe that's my fondest memory. It's little like Sally Fields, you know—he likes me, he likes me. [laughter]

My dad, of course, I've got memories forever of my dad. I think I was certainly proudest of him at the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, because of course as you know Walt died in '66. We had just bought all that land in Florida and there were all these sort of grandiose but very vague, ill-defined plans. What to do with all that land? I mean, actually, Walt never having time for an argument at the time because Walt wanted to build this futuristic city called Epcot where people were going to live. My dad didn't know how that made us any money. [Laughter] And argued with Walt that we needed to build a Magic Kingdom and some hotels first. And he would think about Epcot. It happened that Walt died during that argument so Dad sort of won it by default.

But at any rate, he put himself to work and he was about retire. In the next five years, just literally put his heart and soul into it at the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida. I think that opening day, I've never been prouder than anybody in my life. He stood up there issuing the official opening words. That was a great moment in all our lives. Laura remembers it, too, because both of our kids were there and equally proud. And I've been back a few times since. [laughter]

Roy Disney entertains the NFFC convention. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix for MousePlanet.

JA: The next two questions are sort of similar but I'll read them for you. From Anita and Dick: What sort of changes do you feel are needed in order for the Walt Disney Company to improve and grow? What is your No. 1 concern for the future of the Walt Disney Company—how would it change from today's approach to management?

RD: That's a hard question to answer without libel laws taking over. [Laughter] But I think there are two really basic problems, which we have to face. One is that we need to do everything we do better. I mean everything. We can't do it until we make up our minds that investing in the business to make things better is how we got where we got in the first place. We can't undercut everything we do by skimping on maintenance, skimping on paint, skimping on... in the case of films, saying we can make them good. [Applause]

Let me say that there isn't a person in the company... Well, there are others that we know the names of, who don't believe that, too. Who would help make it better if they could. They don't have the budgets, they don't have the manpower and the work is not appreciated. We owned a cattle ranch up in Oregon once a long time ago. It was my wife's brother and his family. The ranch manager up there one time said to us... We used to go up there a lot to try and figure out how you could make money off cattle. Don't ever try. [laughter] He said to us one time, because we did show up a lot. He said, You know in this business, they always say there's no fertilizer like the owner's footprints. [laughter]

And I think that's part of the problem, too. I think the people who really are responsible for the quality and upkeep aren't there enough and don't understand the problems; don't appreciate the hard work that goes into making the parks what they are or the films what they are. So, that's not answering the question, because the question is whether what do you do to fix it, but I think what I just said, it makes it self-evident, what has to happen. That's all on the website. [laughter]

JA: Our next question comes from Anita, Gary and Jason: What do you think the Walt Disney Company can do to improve cast member morale?

RD: Pretty much the same thing. Trusting people is something I thought Walt did more often than that. Everybody's got dignity. Everybody has pride in their work. Everybody wants to, and certainly there is an enormous history in this company, of people coming to work with us who wanted to work for us because it was a place where they could create a sense of well-being and fun in other people. They took their rewards... about what they did for somebody else. I think that needs to be sort of reinforced again. I don't think it is.

When you cut back on staffing, you also increase the workload on people that are still there. And so people are tired and a little more irritable. It's a cumulative thing. And I will repeat about the fertilizer. [laughter] You know, patting people on the back is not such a bad thing to do. I certainly have seen it in my own walking around the parks. Walking around any part of the company at all, is to walk around and find out what they do, and be interested and compliment them on their work. Pay levels—it's nice to be well-paid for what you do—but I think part of the paycheck reward is certainly, I've always felt, it's what I bring home inside of me really is the biggest paycheck of all. [applause] It's all basically non-answers to your questions. [laughter]

JA: Next question is from Dan: This may be off the topic however, but we're all huge fans. Question No. 1: What was it like growing up with Walt. No. 2: Tell us about the fun side of your dad. Was he all business while Uncle Walt was always playing around?

RD: They all played around. [laughter] My dad was certainly the more serious of the two of them. Walt was like a big kid all his life. He loved to have fun and I think truly his playground in a real sense was the company and enormously creative things that could be made to happen. But in order to do that, you have to be a businessman. You're going to read about me at some point: Roy just wants to go back to the past. He doesn't care how much money we spend on stuff. All he wants to spend a lot of money. And my growing up with my father... [laughter] You kind of get what you pay for. Also, that value created by investment is what makes a company grow. That is a total nonanswer to the question, but nonetheless, it's the philosophy of my dad and there were two other brothers as well, Herb and Ray, they were older than Walt. They used to come to our house when I was a kid on Sundays. In the summer, we had a big backyard and set up a croquet court out there. And these four brothers would get together, and they had to send me to my room. Because I would have learned a lot of new language. [laughter] I know it all now but... They had a lot of fun.

You know those years, of course the '30s and '40s were the Depression time. There were a lot of tough times in the country. And somehow or another, the Disneys were kind of counter cyclical because Mickey Mouse came along at the start of the Depression and made the company successful while a lot of other companies were failing. And it was because we brought happiness to people... Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They were all stories that told joy and kept people's minds off of their hard times. So, we appreciated that even then... But, they were all a lot of fun. They were great guys. I was a killer at croquet, too, after I grew up. It's a nasty game. Really brutal. [laughter]

Roy Disney received several standing ovations from the sellout crowd. Photo by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix for MousePlanet.

JA: Next question is from Hope: I'm on a couple of Internet message boards and there is lot of support for you there as I am sure you have found out. However, there's also a large feeling of futility because they see Michael Eisner as too powerful. Do you have any message for them?

RD: We're very conscious of the support and a lot of it has come I'm sure from some of you here in the room. We've had 6,000 or 7,000 messages on our website. One petition has, I know, close to 5,000 signatures of support. There's another petition website out there that's got even more. So, we're highly conscious of both of those things. There is a lot of support, and there is a kind of sense of frustration. We don't have an instant solution.

I think, you know, the main message right now that I can give everybody is that it may take a while. Our biggest saying around Shamrock is that we gotta figure out how to keep the ball in the air, keep the heat on these people. They're a little nervous. They're saying rather strange things behind our backs that we hear from third party sources. It sounds like a bunch of 12-year-olds so I refuse to repeat any of it. [laughter]

Certainly, we'll have some recommendations for those of you who are shareholders how to deal with this upcoming annual meeting, which is March 3 in Philadelphia. If you didn't know that, that's kind of a strange place for Disney picking to meet. There's a little escapism going on there. There will be proxies so you can vote your shares. We will at some point shortly let you know what we're working on. I guess you can probably guess. [laughter]

Those who want to go to Philadelphia will find we will be there, too. There are kinds of things I can't quite get to talk about because the famous guardians of corporate culture, the SEC, has a lot of very strict rules about that. We're being as circumspect as we can to convey our emotions without breaking any laws. [An audience member interjects, Not like Martha Stewart?]. No, not like Martha Stewart. Fortunately, that will not happen. I can actually promise that. [laughter]

JA: Here's a similar question from Laura: As a non-Disney stockholder, how can I help the cause?

RD: Stay with us on the website. Register with us on the website and we will follow up. We'd actually had just gotten some software installed that's going to enable us to get back to whoever's registered with the information. So beyond that, it's a little hard to answer that. Stick with it—we're doing our best from this moment on to have something new on the website every day. So, we're going to cost you a little money on the phone bills.

JA: From Patrick: How do you feel about the TV animation features and their effect on feature animation? And on the closure of the feature animation in Florida?

RD: That's a loaded question. I feel horrible about what happened in Florida. It was a series of things the way it happened where I thought were all the result of unbelievably bad management. The rumor mill down there for those of you who know about it was going fast and furious for the last year. That something like this was likely to happen. The main thing I feel about it is that all they've done is throw out both the baby and bathwater. Four years ago, we built a new studio down there. We built a new building to house the animation unit. These are the people who made Mulan, Lilo & Stitch and Brother Bear. They're pretty good.

We were hard at work on the next one, which I continue to think would've been a really cute movie. And they were abruptly told it wasn't going to go on and they should all look for another line of work. There's a few, some 30 of 250 in round numbers, who are under contract and will probably move to Los Angeles.

To me, it's a failure of mainly failing to figure out what to do with creative people. The heart of the failure to recognize that creativity is the basis of this company and what it was founded on. Every time we've ever been successful at anything, it was because we had creative people who had found new ways to do things, new things to entertain with and maybe instruct a little bit with too. Certainly ways to get—all of you have cares, everyone of us has cares—to get you out that for a little bit for a few hours in your life once in a while.

I think that is our mission, that's why when Disneyland was built, there was a berm there. Because Walt didn't want you to see the outside world just for that little bit of time you were with us. That kind of got lost in the shuffle, too, when [Disney's] California Adventure was built. That's really the answer, I think, to the question. We should be—I shouldn't say "we" as I don't work there anymore—we should be in the creative business and while they give it that name—I know I hear it thrown around a lot—we're not as creative as we were once. Creativity and making good creative material, I promise you, is the most fun thing to do in the whole world. [applause]

Getting people together and I was lucky enough to grow up around and work with for a long, long time. I used to say, I've got the best job in the world. I can't believe they let me do this. It was all the other people I got to work with. It's what made it fun. And I know that going there now, everybody is looking over their shoulders and take care what you say, you might get fired for saying that, for having a different opinion or voicing it.

One of the reasons I'm here right now is because the Board of Directors was told never to speak about company business outside the boardroom without Michael Eisner's permission. So we were very good about that at Disney. It came to the point now where the only way is to get out of there. I thank you for listening to me. I promise you that an awful lot of people who would say the same thing I'm saying now if they thought they could. And I find that awful. That's why things aren't as good as they used to be. Simple as that. If you can't have fun and you're trying to make other people have fun, how the hell do you do that? [laughter] That's yet another answer to a question that may not have been asked.

JA: This is a perfect question for our last question today so we can keep you on your schedule. It's from Gary: Do you still visit Disneyland Park and what changes have you seen over the years?

RD: Well, now I have to pay to get in, that's one thing. [laughter] No, astonishingly, a silver pass came in an envelope from the studio to our house this week. [applause]

We try to walk through the park when we can. I'm actually going to be down there week after next for a friend's birthday party so I'll get a chance to walk around a little bit. I've found that both here and in Florida, maintenance is not what it used to be. I think I see more and more [Disney sighs] junk on the ground that didn't get picked it up. It's like a reflex action, you know. We do it still. You see something there, you pick it up and throw it away. Bathrooms are not as clean as they used to be. We've seen light bulbs out and paint falling off and stuff. So I've seen a lot of things. It's not all good, but there's some good stuff, too...

Matt Ouimet has replaced Cynthia Harriss as [president] of Disneyland. I like Matt a lot. I think he's a really good guy. Given the opportunity for him, that's the hard part, to do the job the way he sees to do it. It'll get better. There's a lot of wonderful people... And we're just going to try and let them create.

JA: Roy, on behalf of the NFFC, we want to give you this as a token of our appreciation today. [He presents a crystal plaque to Disney.] [applause]

RD: Thank you very much for having me here. I hope I haven't been too serious because I know you're here to have fun. So do have fun. Stick with us, stay on the Web site, [Audience rises to give a standing ovation]