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Vanishing Walt

There is an article that gets written every few years by someone in the Disney fan community. It bemoans how the company is moving away from Walt Disney the person. How no one asks any more ‘What would Walt do?’

We all know that train has left the station. Comparing the international behemoth that is the Walt Disney Company today to the Walt Disney Company as it existed in the Eighties is like comparing a single school to a school district. They both do the same thing, but the scale is different and some of the soul is lost.

It is left to someone else to pick up the mantle of entertainer, futurist, businessman, and patriot that Walt Disney wore so well. Now that Roy E. Disney has died, there doesn’t seem to be any interest in the Walt Disney Family to pick up that thread and John Lasseter can only do so much.

But this isn’t about preserving Walt Disney’s Legacy(tm). This is more of a signpost. Just observing that the Walt Disney Company has completed the transition from considering Walt the person to exploiting Walt the brand.

The process began right around 10 years ago when the first ‘Walt Disney’ branded merchandise was rolled out for the 45th Anniversary of Disneyland. When Vault Disney vanished from The Disney Channel, the next year, the whole company became less about the history and nostalgia for the brand Walt created, a brand the executives at Disney must fear they can never live up to, and more about Disney — the brand.

With the retirement of Marty Sklar, from Walt Disney Imagineering, and Dave Smith, from the Disney Archives, just about every one who had a personal connection to the era when Walt Disney still walked the site or roamed the studio lot is gone. It’s been years since I’ve heard anyone describe it as Walt’s company.

Themeparks have become a balance sheet with a cash register at one end and expenses at another. Disney level animated story telling had to be outsourced to Emeryville. Disney Studios has yet to recapture the spark when it comes to quality family movies. Instead of the Mickey Mouse Club we have D23. Instead of stories we have franchises.

The point was made to me that Diane Disney Miller practically had to be drug down to Anaheim for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary. Who can blame her after what the board of directors did to her husband and former Disney CEO Ron Miller. As I said, it is a completely different company today than during that era. Still she decided to build her tribute to her father in San Francisco, close to her and away from the shadows of the company and her father’s legacy.

Talk of building a Disney Museum sponsored or owned by the Walt Disney Company at the company’s Glendale campus has recently heated up. That’s where the museum should have been in the first place. When the Walt Disney Company builds the museum they will be able to say, if you want to learn about Walt the person, go to the museum, if you want to learn about the Walt Disney Company, go look at the annual report.

The point is not to say it’s time to give up on our memories of Walt and Roy’s Disney, or that what the current regime is doing is ‘bad’. Just to make sure that everyone is aware the transition from one era to the other is finally complete. There should be no illusions among fans, stock holders, or cast members about what they’re supporting when they say ‘Disney’. They’re supporting the company as it exists today. If you’re talking about Walt Disney’s Legacy, you need to be clear about it and not expect the company to do anything more than run the calculations to see if there is a profit in it.

23 thoughts on “Vanishing Walt”

  1. The company must adapt to new ideas and concepts in order to continue being successful. That was the problem that they faced in the 80s. Too many people asked “What would Walt do” and they all tried to mimic his ideas, which led to poorly-done films. It was with the kids of CalArts who came in with all these brand new ideas about using computers to ink a film and returning to the musical genre that created the Disney Renaissance.

  2. This column just shouldn’t have been written. I don’t even know where to start. Ron Miller? Really!? Ron Miller!?!

    You so much as admit at the start that things are different now. Walt Disney has after all been dead nearly 45 years.

    Are you taking your vitamins?

    1. I think you’re reading too much into the column. Ron Miller is only in there so that people can understand Diane’s motivation a bit better. The real point is that the Walt Disney company now values Walt more as a brand than as the spirit of the company.

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  5. Seriously? I don’t understand the point of this at all. Walt Disney’s Disney was just as much about business and making money and franchises as today’s Disney is. He practically pioneered the whole concept of merchandising tie-ins. And why is the transition only now “complete” in 2010? Was it not complete when Roy Disney pushed out Walt’s son-in-law as head of the company and installed an outside exec from a rival studio? Or maybe before that when the company decided that EPCOT would have to be a theme park instead of the real working city that Walt dreamed of? Why don’t we just accept that the company changed the day Walt died. But are the movies put out by Pixar today any less magical or special than the stuff that Walt put out back in the day? Of course not. And Pixar IS Disney. Today’s Disney is not perfect. I have plenty of frustrations with both the studios and the theme parks, but let’s not put on rose-colored glasses about the “good old days” when Walt cared about the stories and now today they just care about the money. I simply don’t think it’s true.

  6. One should not forget that Walt himself was very, very aware of the fact the he was “not Walt Disney anymore”, as he once put it. He bemoaned time and time again that he had become “a brand”.

  7. Thanks for this entry. Unlike some, I see nothing wrong with taking a step back and looking at the transitions in the “world of Disney”. Certainly the retirement of Dave Smith is one of those markers. The death of Roy Edward was one, too.

    This kind of transition is unavoidable. There are plenty of people still alive who remember Walt Disney being on their TV when he was alive (I’m not one of them, I was born many years after his death). But the youngest people who fit that description are now approaching age 50. The Walt Disney Company is rapidly losing through retirement (of more than one kind) the remaining people who actually worked under Walt. More and more, it will just be a core of enthusiasts who will often think about the man behind the name – nobody else will care much.

    I have a collection of those softcover pictoral souvenir booklets sold at Disneyland. I have one from the mid-60s where Walt is pictured on almost every page, including the introduction. But soon after, he was only pictured on the introduction page, and then with each new edition his picture got smaller and smaller. That vanishing picture is an apt metaphor.

    Thank goodness for the family museum.

  8. Before you bash Ron Miller remember he did quite well in his short time as the CEO. This is from
    “Miller is perhaps best known for creating the Touchstone label, which allowed Disney to produce and release adult-oriented films without harming the family-friendly reputation of the Disney name. (Its first film was Splash, starring Tom Hanks.)[7] He was also responsible for establishing The Disney Channel and funding the films of young Tim Burton (Vincent and Frankenweenie), acquiring the film rights and putting into development the Who Framed Roger Rabbit project, initiating Disney’s first attempts at computer animation such as with the feature film Tron, and funding Disney’s first Broadway show (“Total Abandon,” with Richard Dreyfuss, 1983), all of which established foundations for future success for the Disney Company.”
    …I like to think he would not only WANTED but felt OBLIGATED to hold on to Walt’s values and probably done a much better job staying true to Walt than what has been done since his departure.

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  10. Some may canonize Walt, but there are others who look at his life for lessons and learn from his failings, faults and mistakes as well as his triumphs.

    Walt was far from perfect, but he still left an enduring legacy. He wanted to grow and diversify his company and really wasn’t out to line his own pockets in the way some CEOs have been in the past 20-25 years.

    People who worked with Walt say today’s society would be far different if he had been given the gift of another 10 years — and I tend to agree. No individual could put together the corporate partners to create the EPCOT of Walt’s dreams and ours once he passed away.

    I also don’t think it’s fair to lay blame at the feet of Ron Miller. It took Walt years to get over the 1941 strike — if he ever really did. It may take years before Ron and Diane Disney Miller are comfortable discussing or dealing with Ron’s ouster, orchestrated by a relative no less. I wonder how Walt and Roy Sr. greeted Roy E. when he arrived in heaven and if a new peace pipe was required.

    Ron Miller deserves far more credit from the company and the fans for charting a course for future growth as noted in a post above. None of us are perfect, but bless him for trying his best through some difficult times. I’m convinced that he’s no less responsible for the company’s success today than Michael Eisner, Frank Wells or Bob Iger.

    Also, Diane didn’t need to be dragged to Anaheim to celebrate Disneyland’s 50th. She was unable to attend the May 5 kickoff events, but participated in meet-and-greets and several events in advance of her appearance at the park on July 17, 2005. She had a wonderful time in what was a very sentimental journey to a place her father loved.

    She’s rightfully proud of her father and the foundation’s Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco captures far more of Walt’s soul, spirit and story than anything the company may build in SoCal. It’d be better if the company realized this and loaned or returned many items of historical significance to the family, from Walt’s personal correspondence to Granny’s Cabin. There’s a synergy that could benefit both the company and the museum if they’d just improve their existing relationship a bit — and no matter how good it may be now, it could be plussed and made better,

    I suspect Bob Iger learned from the Michael Eisner/Roy E. Disney battle not to ask the fans to pick sides in a family values vs, corporate values war. As Tony Anselmo said at the 2009 Disney Legend Awards ceremony: “People need to remember it was all built (not by a mouse) by a man and that man was Walt Disney.”

  11. I’m always fascinated when I read comments from the fans. There’s still a handful of people around who worked with Walt. Luckily, I was one of them. I agree things have changed, and of course with the passage of time, they had to.

    I’m not naive. Business is business, but regretfully, I’m hardly delighted with what the Disney Company has become.

  12. I’m confused about your views on what the Walt Disney Company has become, John. Are you disappointed at the things that they have been doing or are you telling us that Walt Disney is gone and to get over it? Absolutely, things have changed, but is it really for the better? I understand that the company has to adapt over the years to meet people’s needs, but that would happen even if Walt was still in charge. My point is that although change is necessary, that doesn’t mean that the company should abandon the values that Walt set in place, and those values shouldn’t be followed for sedimental reasons or cooperate reasons, but they should be followed because they worked and they will always work. I’m positive that there are people who could do just as good a job as Walt at running the company, and I’m sure that that person will come through for not only us, but the world someday, because Walt was out to make the world a better place, and money was second nature to him, and that’s how a truly great company is run. If all companies were run around the idea of changing the world instead of profits, the way Walt ran his company, the world would be a better place, and money would still come, but second nature, because innovation is profitable. It’s time we realized that it is still Walt’s company, as in the person, not the brand, and that they should stay true to his ideas that made the company so great to begin with. It is still possible to run the company as good as Walt ran it. He was not the only one who could do it, and I know there’s someone out there who truly understands what Walt would do. I don’t agree with the Walt Disney Company’s recent practices, but I still believe that things can be fixed and that the company can return to it’s former glory.

    1. I’ve tried to leave my views on what the Walt Disney Company has become out of this piece, although I think you can see it there between the lines. I’m more concerned with just marking the point at which the Disney company has transitioned to Walt as a brand as opposed to the legacy of Walt Disney.

  13. But again, I still don’t understand the point of the original article. The premise seems to be that for some reason, as of today, the transition from “Walt’s company” to “corporate behemoth” is finally complete. That makes no sense. It hasn’t been Walt’s company for decades. And it’s been a mega media company since at least the Cap Cities purchase in 1996. There’s been both good and bad in the years since then, but I think The Walt Disney Company is still doing good stuff today that is worthy of Walt’s legacy.

    1. It’s not that transition I’m concerned with. Rather I’m just marking the transition from Disney honoring the legacy of Walt Disney the man to exploiting Walt Disney as a brand. It’s a pretty significant transition if you ask me.

  14. As an earlier post said, it happened when Walt was still alive.

    I regret that my post may have been perceived as a slight to Ron Miller, that was not my intention. But to harken back to the “good old days” just after Walt died, makes to sense at all.

    To repeat my original post and several others, this should piece should not have been written. Did you think you were going to gain points with the old guard? You can’t pine for the days when the founder roamed the halls and have a American Idol Experience Winners tab on your blog. You just can’t.

    It must have been a slow news day at The Disney Blog that day.

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