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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.