Of Failure and Success: The Journey of Walt Disney

by Jeff Kober, contributing writer

Ever feel like things aren't working out? Do you feel your life is a failure? Do you wish you experienced more success?

When you think of success, it's easy to think of Walt Disney. Surely he was successful. He created more than 81 feature films and hundreds of shorts. He earned more than 950 honors, including 48 Academy Awards. He founded the California Institute of the Arts. And he built Disneyland.

But those honors came from difficult challenges—even failures. And, yet, from hard times came important lessons and events, which would serve him later. Walt's life was filled with such events. Painful, difficult moments. But out of them he grew and in many ways succeeded. For comparative purposes, I've identified several such moments in Walt's life.

1. Walt's brothers were so frustrated about their relationship with their dad that they all one by one ran away from home early in their lives. First it was Herb and Ray over a dispute about money they had earned. Later it would be Roy, who at 19 felt treated like a little boy by his father's domineering attitude. Eager to move on himself, Walt himself would lie about his age so he could be an ambulance driver during World War I.

Still, despite the dysfunctionality he and his family experienced, Walt Disney became the leader and the voice of family entertainment. Of Disneyland, he would comment how badly he wanted a place where children and parents could enjoy time together. Millions of families come together because of the entertainment Walt Disney and his legacy has produced. And he, along with his brother, did their best to honor and support their parents until the day they died. Importantly, he was a good son.

2. At age 22, Walt experienced bankruptcy after the failure of a cartoon series in Kansas City. He headed to Los Angeles with $40 in cash, and an imitation-leather suitcase containing only a shirt, two undershorts, two pairs of socks and some drawing materials. Feeling that others did animation better, his goal was to be an actor out in Hollywood. It never occurred.

The upside was that he and his brother Roy realized there was no animation business headquartered in California. They set up stakes and the rest is history. In time they became the most successful team of brothers in Hollywood.

3. On the heels of a successful run with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt learned not only that he did not hold ownership of the character, but that most of the artists who worked for him had committed themselves to working for the distributor instead. Essentially, Walt's entire organization was taken from him, with the exception of his artist Ub Iwerks.

Still, on a train ride back from that fateful meeting in New York, Walt created a new character in Mickey Mouse, who would serve as symbol of the entire company. Iwerks himself would serve to help design Mickey, and he supported Walt in pioneering many innovative achievements, including the xerographic process adapted for cel animation and work for WED enterprises. Most importantly, he was considered Walt's oldest friend.

4. In the early 1930s, Walt suffered what he called, "a heck of a breakdown." He was anxious about the ability for cartoon shorts to really deliver serious profit. Beyond being irritable at his employees, that breakdown included sleepless hours in bed at night. There were story sessions where he was completely unfocused and unable to contribute. He would even plunge into crying spells at a moment's notice. At the urging of others, he and his wife took a second honeymoon by going on a long-anticipated voyage down the Mississippi River. But when they arrived at the St. Louis waterfront, they found out that the Great Depression had wiped out the passenger trade. They had to go elsewhere to vacation.

Ironic then, when Walt celebrated his and Lillian's anniversary days before Disneyland opened in 1955, they did so by taking their invited friends on the first trip down the Rivers of America on the newly built Mark Twain Steamboat. I wonder if that steamboat would have been dreamed of, much less built, if Walt hadn't wanted so badly to ride down the river on one.

And of course, returning from that second honeymoon, Walt was refreshed and ready to start on something really ambitious: The development of a full-length animated feature we would know as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It would be triumphant success.

5. From the windfall of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and Roy built a home so their aging parents could be close to them in California. Only poor construction and subsequent attempts at repairing it by studio workmen ended in their mother dying one morning from carbon monoxide poisoning. Walt and Roy were devastated by her death.

Nothing could fix or replace the loss of their mother in such a tragic manner. However, while there may be little if any connection, it is interesting to note that one of Walt's last visions in life was to build a community where many of the challenges of urban life would be resolved. That extended from concepts like monorails to Utilidors. But for the man who hosted the "House of the Future" at Disneyland, it also reexamined how homes would be safer and better constructed.

6. Walt and Lillian raised two daughters in the wake of what was known as "The Crime of the Century". This was in reference to the abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh's 20-month old son in 1932. With Walt being not only a celebrity but a prominent individual in terms of family entertainment, they became concerned about having their own children be seen in the public eye. Even window screens on the Los Feliz house they owned were reinforced.

Mindful of protecting and cherishing their daughters, Walt and Lilly spent many nights at home. They refrained from being Hollywood socialites. Walt and his wife deeply cherished their daughters and they, in return, deeply loved their father. Walt himself would accompany his children on daddy-daughter trips, many of which led him to early thoughts about building an amusement park enterprise.

7. Just prior to World War II, Walt experienced an acrimonious strike by his animators. The experience severed him from artists he had thought to be close to for years. To settle the strike, his brother sent him away to South America on a good will tour for the U.S.

From this good will tour came the films Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros. More importantly, Walt learned the importance of teamwork. He said: "Whatever we accomplish is due to the combined effort. The organization must be with you or you don't get it done." Years after he died, his artists would recall with great emotion the relationship and experience they had working with Walt.

8. On the morning following December 7, 1941, the United States Army took over the Walt Disney Studios as a repair shop for tanks and artillery. Walt's artists went to war. Worldwide markets were closed to film distribution. And even Walt himself had to have a government ID to get on his own property. Working on government projects, bookkeepers would question all expenditures.

Working on one project for the treasury department, Walt created a film starring Donald Duck called, The New Spirit. The film did much to inspire Americans to pay their taxes, something not commonly done back then. Those monies served to help win the war.

9. The company had more than $4 million in debts, and business was still very slow in the aftermath of World War II. The company was distributing films in Europe, but they had difficulty getting monies to come back to the Studios in the United States. Described by Roy O. Disney as "the lost years," after a heated exchange one night, he told Walt: "Look, you're letting this place drive you to the nuthouse. That's one place I'm not going with you!" Still, Walt struggled to deal with the stress he was facing.

With monies held in Europe, they began producing some of their first feature films across the seas. This supported Walt as he learned to diversify his studio beyond doing animation. He also took up a new hobby to deal with his stress: trains. And that interest in trains fed his interest in building a park with a train running around it.

10. Walt could not find the money to build Disneyland. The only way he could see was in doing television. But the major Hollywood studios put pressure on each other not to support television production as it would ruin the movie business.

Walt took courage and went with television anyway. From it, we have classics like The Mickey Mouse Club, Davy Crockett, and The Wonderful World of Color. Moreover, Walt gained the financing to open Disneyland.

11. On July 17, 1955, Walt Disney dedicated Disneyland before a television audience of millions. Meanwhile, forged tickets were bringing thousands of people into the park without his knowledge. The newly poured asphalt melted the heels of women, and a plumber's strike kept drinking fountains from being installed in time. Critics blasted it as "Black Sunday."

Walt resisted allowing the park to become poorly cared for. He held the park to high standards of customer service as well as paying attention to detail. The result was that Disneyland became a phenomenal success, spawning other parks, and creating a critical component of the Walt Disney Company.

So beyond all that disappointment and learning came fantastic success. Walt would say, "Get a good idea, and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it's done, and done right." In picking himself up and in learning from his mistakes and moved on. He said: "To some people, I am kind of a Merlin who takes lots of crazy chances, but rarely makes mistakes. I've made some bad ones, but, fortunately, the successes have come along fast enough to cover up the mistakes. When you go to bat as many times as I do. you're bound to get a good average."

So what's the lesson for you:

  1. Do you see struggle as the road to opportunity?
  2. Do you learn from your failures?
  3. Do you seek to get up to bat as often as possible?

In the end, our own success is defined not by opportunity, but in our persistence in defeat. Here's to vision, persistence, courage, and simply hard effort. Even in these more difficult times.

These are the ingredients of any Merlin. Surely they are the ones held by Walt Disney.

See you in the parks!