HOW WALT DISNEY MADE MAGIC REAL.
Lillian Disney could sense something big brewing in early 1952. It was one of those times, she would say, “when Walt’s imagination was going to take off and go into the wild blue yonder and everything will explode.” Walt began liquidating long-held family assets, borrowing against his life insurance policy, selling properties, and even selling the rights to his own name. Walt Disney was planning something new: he was planning to kick down the walls dividing his movies and real life.
When Disney’s children were very young, he’d tried to take them to places where their imagination could run wild. But at every carnival or fair, the people and the place were dirty, poorly run, and filled with vice. Walt wanted to create a place where people could take their family and forget the concerns of the everyday world – a place that would be beautiful, safe, and filled with endless wonder. So at about the same time that he had started selling assets and conserving his capital, he pulled aside one of his art directors and had him begin working on concept sketches for his park. The sketches started to unveil the vision he had in his head, a utopian world where guests live the fairy tale.
Ever since his early days as an artist and animator in Kansas City, Walt had had a unique belief in the power of his thoughts. As time went on, he became an expert at manifesting his dreams into physical forms, many times creating the technology needed as he went. But nothing could have prepared him for the challenge of manifesting Disneyland. The vision for this project was to take the imaginary world of Disney’s movies and manifest them into a physical experience. That would require him to test the limits of his storytelling ability. Disney knew little about the experiential side of entertainment; his expertise and success was in storytelling through the mediums of animation, film, and television. Disneyland would bring his imagination outside of the two-dimensional world and transport his customers into a three-dimensional story.
To make this dream world a reality, Disney personally chose some of the studio’s most talented individuals, took a small building on the Disney lot, and formed a new company, WED Enterprises, an acronym for Walter Elias Disney. This interdisciplinary dream team would be tasked with creating the design, development, and construction of Disneyland. Made up of an extraordinary group of people with diverse talents, WED had storytellers, engineers, animators, contractors, directors, writers, artists, set designers, lighting designers, sound engineers, and many others. They would interpret the Disney stories by building beautiful sets and giving them the interactivity and resilience to wow thousands of guests daily.
The plans for the 160-acre site called for 5,000 cubic yards of concrete and a million square feet of asphalt. The designs included a replica of an 1800s main street, manmade riverbeds for steamboats and jungle cruises, a mile of railroad tracks, and a full-scale Bavarian castle. Walt was at the construction site pushing the WED team every day, giving his attention to every detail, every blade of grass, every leaf on every tree. As former executive Marty Sklar described it, “The things we worked so hard to avoid is letting people out of the story with discordant details…. even the trash cans in the park are for that particular story or theme.” The attention to detail and level of execution were extraordinary. “His animations created a perfect and artificial world, and what he was really doing was making that material in Disneyland. He always thought of Disneyland as a living animation, a living movie, and he thought that people would love to enter a film, not just watch it.”
Just like the final cut of a movie before it’s released to theaters, Disneyland had to be perfect. The day before the park opened, one crew was trying to dig out a 900-pound mechanical elephant that was sinking, another put lead weights onto a train so it wouldn’t tip over when riders came on board, and Walt himself spray-painted back drops for the 20,000 Leagues under the Sea exhibit. No detail was too insignificant to be noted. The park officially opened with the biggest and most ambitious live television cast ever on July 17, 1955, and beginning on July 18 at 2 A.M., crowds began lining up to be the first members of the public through the gates. Disneyland drew a million visitors in its first ten weeks, within two years it was drawing five million visitors annually, and in 2014 drew 16.2 million attendees.
The WED team, now known as the Imagineers, had combined their moviemaking acumen with an active education, hard work, and ingenuity to eventually experience firsthand what the watchers of their films came to believe: if you dream something, it can come true. They had transformed an orange grove into the Magic Kingdom by combining Walt’s purpose with a wealth of experienced creativity and flawless execution. The Imagineers had made the magic real.
Today, the Imagineers continue to combine their storytelling ability with innovative technology to create magic, holding over one hundred patents in special effects, ride systems, interactive technology, live entertainment, fiber optics, and advanced audio systems. Consequently, Disney Theme Parks have introduced a multitude of technological landmarks such as Audio-Animatronics and computer-controlled thrill rides.
While the Imagineers have tremendous resources and an explicit mandate to combine purpose, creativity, and execution that some creators may never have, it’s the simplified principles we learn from their work that matter most. What would happen if you were on a ride at one of the Disney parks and there was a glitch in the system? Or you had a poor food experience at one of the restaurants? Immediately, the magic, the patina they worked so hard to create, would begin to fade. And that perspective applies to all creative endeavors. If you’re an amazing writer but you don’t spellcheck or post regularly on your blog, you aren’t executing. If you’re an amazing chef but you can’t scale your cooking to work in a restaurant, catering operation, or some meaningful platform for sharing, you aren’t executing. If you’re a filmmaker but can’t seem to complete a film, then you aren’t executing (and, really, you aren’t a filmmaker).
The fact is, your magic is unrealized without execution. And if it’s unrealized, then it isn’t magic. You love Apple products not only because they’re beautiful or have great marketing, you love them because they work really well. You love your favorite restaurant not only because the food is great but because it’s consistently great. A product, a brand, and even a person—think of your friends—whenever you have an interaction with one of these entities, they’re making you a promise. The determination of whether you perceive these entities as good or bad or just OK comes from whether or not they live up to or exceed the expectations they create. And a reputation is the sum of a multitude of interactions. Once again, our story comes back to a simple human interaction. Are you better or worse than you say you are? Are you a man of your word? Are you a flawless executor? Or, as Bob Iger, chief executive of Disney said about Walt and his Imagineers, “Walt set a standard early on with the Imagineers, there was a standard that enabled people to come in expecting something and then giving something even beyond that. So they left thinking, how did Disney do that?” Walt always lived up to his word, he always tried to exceed expectations, he always backed up his dreams with execution, and that’s why he shared so much of his magic with the world.
Note: The story about Disney and flawless execution comes with one big asterisk: Your need to flawlessly execute must never come before your desire to create something truly special. In order to make magic, you must always push the limits of what’s possible. More often than not, executors or operators overestimate the importance of flawless execution so much that they sacrifice the soul of the idea or the purpose of the organization, just to make sure the trains run on time. That’s never OK. Think of managing this process as if it’s a triangle. On the top of the triangle is Walt, the visionary, and in one corner are the Imagineers, the creatives, and in the other corner, the Disneyland operations team. The job of the creator—in this case Walt—is to manage both sides of the triangle in order to ensure that the vision is never compromised. This is done by balancing the decision-making power and enabling an honest and open dialogue that ensures all decisions favor a preeminent manifestation of purpose.