Walt Disney was an incredibly obstinate man. His loyal big brother, Roy, somehow managed to deal with it. Whenever Roy asked Walt to keep costs down, he would impatiently say ‘I make the movies, you get the money. Just get us the money!’ And, somehow, Roy did.
As I listened to Walt Disney: The Triumph of American Imagination, certain features of the man came to light again and again. One of the most noticeable was Walt’s incredible stubbornness. In some cases, it was a good thing: he refused to cut costs to make lower quality animations, despite tremendous pressure to do so. In other cases, it was exasperating: Walt’s way was the right way, the ONLY way, and anyone who questioned it was derided. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the Disney staff, and especially for Roy. He was in charge of the business side of the company, and pleaded continually with Walt to keep costs reasonable. Roy had to fight hard to keep the company from closing down, much less make it profitable. Roy’s efforts almost failed several times: the company faced bankruptcy on multiple occasions after Walt overextended the company resources.
Another common theme was Walt’s perpetual dissatisfaction. He refused to be complacent, and nothing was ever good enough for Walt Disney. He always wanted more, better, the next best thing. This was great for innovation, but not so great for finances (and therefore, Roy’s mental comfort). It was for this reason that, despite the great success of Snow White and some of the other Disney films, the studio remained in a near-constant state of debt and on the brink of collapse. Walt insisted on using any money that was made (and more) to invest in the next project.
Initially, that next project was cartoon shorts, which then evolved into feature films. But over the years, Walt’s interests changed. Not too long after Snow White, he finally relented on his obsession with quality and innovation in cartoons. Where before he told his animators that nothing less than the very best would do, he now encouraged shortcuts. His interest in cartoons in general started to decline. This trend would continue over the coming years. But if you’re thinking he took his new free time to rest, you’re as wrong as Rapunzel was about her adoptive mother. Walt never wanted to sit still, and in fact he seemed entirely incapable of it. Most vacations he took were practically forced on him by concerned relatives or even doctors.
Since he didn’t want to take time off, Walt developed other passions to fill the void. First trains, then model towns. These led him to ever grander ideas, which eventually culminated in something far more ambitious than mere cartoons. This idea would eventually become Disneyland. Where before Walt couldn’t stop talking about his cartoon ideas, it was now the park that dominated all his conversations. He had previously flitted around the studio to see what each department was doing on his films, but now he prowled the park making sure every tiny detail fit his exacting requirements. When I say tiny details, I mean tiny: if he saw a single burnt out light bulb he would not only report it, but check back to make sure it had been changed quickly enough.
While light bulb obsessions may seem like overkill, it was exactly that attention to detail that made the park so incredible. Disneyland, according to Walt’s vision, would not be an amusement park. Walt had visited amusement parks with his daughters, and found them dirty, not fun for adults, and full of ‘unwholesomeness’. Disneyland was to be the opposite. Scrupulously clean, fun for the whole family, and practically oozing with wholesomeness.
Walt had many critics and even more skeptics: many thought his crazy scheme would never become a reality. But Walt, as he had done so many times before, proved them all wrong. The park was an immediate success. Visitors poured in, not just from California, but from around the world. Several foreign leaders came even came to see it. Finally, Disney had hit upon something that provided a reliable cash flow. But Walt was never one to kick back and retire, as he surely could have done.
Perfection was always Walt’s goal. And yet, ironically, whenever anything approached that state, Walt was still not satisfied. So it was with Disneyland. ‘Wildly successful’ was not good enough for him, and certainly no cause to coast. He needed to keep pushing the limits; he thrived on the edge of disaster. Walt himself summarized his attitude to life very well: “I function better when things are going badly than when they’re as smooth as whipped cream.” Walt never stopped trying to achieve the impossible.
It is therefore no surprise that Walt Disney stated that Disneyland would ‘never be done.’
He kept working on it, tweaking, retiring, adding new as he saw fit. But, even that could not keep Walt’s interest forever. He was ready for his next project: and he set his sights on the World’s Fair. To find out how it inspired the kind of attractions we know and love today, read Part 3, the conclusion of this series!
If you haven’t already, make sure to check out Part 1 too.