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Walt Disney

After a long, hot afternoon spent walking around Disneyland under the beating Anaheim sun, sooner or later you become obsessed with the hunt for air conditioning. At which point, you need to find someplace with a beefy climate control system, and fast. So now you have a choice to make: either spend another half hour standing in line outside the Pirates of the Caribbean, or head down to Main Street for some quality time with a robotic Abraham Lincoln.

By the time you make your way to the town square, you start to sense something odd about the place. Unlike the other major attractions, there's never a line outside "Great Moments" (except during the peak of summer). On top of that, the overall facade somehow reminds you of a Scientology intake center. But there's something else you can't quite put your finger on.

Then it hits you. Hey, that's kind of strange. Maybe you noticed it before and just forgot that, for some reason, the Great Emancipator got stuck with bottom billing. The marquee reads:

THE WALT DISNEY STORY
FEATURING GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR. LINCOLN

What kind of egomaniac puts his name next to -- much less atop -- Abraham Lincoln's? you wonder. Was that Walt's idea? While you're reeling from the sheer audacity, a neatly-dressed park employee with a beatific smile implores you to come inside. "The next showing will be in 15 minutes," she says. All of a sudden the Scientology vibe returns, only this time stronger. But it's still unbearably hot, so you try to ignore it.

When you step inside, the arctic blast really soothes the nerves. It takes a few minutes for the sensation of coolness to wear off, then you notice you're in a museum. While everybody's waiting for Mr. Lincoln to finish delivering a rambling remix of his old speeches, you're stuck in a large antechamber stocked with exhibits. There are a few Lincoln-related items, but they're vastly outnumbered by artifacts of Walt. So this, you realize, is what they call The Walt Disney Story.

The collection focuses on his long and successful career. There are photos of the Disneyland under construction, dignitaries in the park, and Walt doing his thing. The showcases are Walt's formal and working offices from Walt Disney Studios (behind glass, of course). They were relocated from Burbank, carpet and all.

This attraction (if you can call it that) lacks the wit and playfulness evidenced elsewhere throughout in the park. It's almost like visiting a national monument, or possibly a religious shrine. There's even a guest book to sign. Everywhere you look it's dry and dull and actually makes you eager for the crappy show to start. By the time the long row of doors leading into the auditorium finally swing open, you've been straining to hasten the process by means of telekenesis.

That is, unless you're some kind of Disney freak. In which case, you can't get enough of this crap.

the entrepreneur

If you didn't know it before you walked in, Walter was born in Chicago in 1901 and spent his early years on a 45-acre farm in Madeline, Missouri. Then his family moved to Kansas City, where he grew up. In 1918 he dropped out of high school and left to join the Red Cross ambulance corps. He arrived in postwar France and spent a year as a chauffeur for Army officers.

He returned to Kansas City in 1919 and spent a couple of years doing odd jobs. He got interested in animation and founded a company in 1922 to produce cartoons full time. Laugh-O-Gram Films got screwed by a couple of deadbeat clients and went bankrupt the following year. Then he went to California and started another cartoon company in 1923 with his brother Roy.

A few years later, the Disney Brothers Studio finally had a hit on their hands with a character named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. When Walt traveled to New York to renegotiate his distribution deal, it was only then that he discovered that he didn't own the rights to the character. Worse, the distributor offered Walt's staff more money if they would come to New York and work for him directly. Most of them jumped ship.

Back in California, Walt, his brother Roy, and artist Ub Iwerks hald a meeting to decide what to do next. Their only choice was to dream up a new character to replace Oswald. The first idea, a cat, was rejected because there were already too damn many cartoon cats in the world. Somebody countered with a mouse. Walt wanted to name it Mortimer, but his wife insisted on the name Mickey.

Coincidentally, the new mouse character bore a striking resemblance to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Mickey Mouse made his debut in the May 1928 cartoon "Plane Crazy." It was a minor success, but not what they needed. That was followed up by another Mickey vehicle, "The Gallopin Gaucho." Over the summer, they decided to use some of the latest technology to gain an edge on the competition. In November, they released "Steamboat Willie." It was the first cartoon set to a synchronized soundtrack -- the projector played all the music and made its own sound effects. People loved it, and a long series of Mickey Mouse cartoon followed.

Then Walt got screwed yet again by another distributor -- actually, it's a pretty dull story. Skip forward 20 years. By then the company had become the world's leader in animated films, and Walt himself something of a celebrity. In fact, they even changed the name of the business to maximize his name recognition. It was rechristened Walt Disney Studios.

Naturally, this attracted a lot of press, which forced the company to polish Walt's public image. A staff cartoonist designed his famous signature for him, and then taught Walt how to draw it. (He never quite mastered the thing -- genuine Walt Disney autographs look erratic and haphazard.) They wanted to project an image of him as a kindly father figure, interested mainly in artistry and not the business end of things. In fact, Disney certainly did love the artistic nature of his company's products. But he also quite plainly loved profits and market competition at least as much.

Walt was not an easy man to work for. At night, he would go through employee desks to check their work and count the number of pens. It was studio policy not to pay animators for the time they spent not drawing. They had to punch out whenever they got up to use the bathroom, get a drink of water, or even sharpen a pencil. If that weren't enough, the animators who produced the cartoons never received screen credit. The only name audiences ever saw was Walt Disney's, even though he hadn't so much as picked up a sketchbook since 1930.

So Walt always had to keep his eye out for any sign of labor troubles, of which there were plenty. In 1941, his animators finally went on strike, and they were joined on the picket line by several big names: Art Babbitt (Goofy), Bill Tytla (Dumbo), John Hubley (Mr. Magoo), Chuck Jones and Maurice Noble (Bugs Bunny), Bill Melendez (Charlie Brown), Bill Hurtz (Rocky and Bullwinkle), Hank Ketchum (Dennis the Menace), and Walt and Selby Kelly (Pogo).

Disney publicly fumed that Communist agitators were responsible for the unrest. In that way, his hatred for labor unions dovetailed neatly with his overweening sense of patriotism. About that, Walt once remarked:

"Actually, if you could see close in my eyes, the American flag is waving in both of them and up my spine is growing this red, white and blue stripe."

When World War II broke out, Walt Disney Studios participated aggressively in America's war effort, creating civilian propaganda, military training films, and even designing logos for the armed forces.

In October 1947, Walt testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was all too happy to tell them about how the Commies were trying to ruin his business. And he named four people he believed to be Communists. One of them was even a former Walt Disney Studios employee:

HUAC: Can you name any other individuals that were active at the time of the strike that you believe in your opinion are Communists?
WALT DISNEY: Well, I feel that there is one artist in my plant, that came in there, he came in about 1938, and he sort of stayed in the background, he wasn't too active, but he was the real brains of this, and I believe he is a Communist. His name is David Hilberman.
HUAC: How is it spelled?
WALT DISNEY: H-I-L-B-E-R-M-A-N, I believe. I looked into his record and I found that: number 1, that he had no religion, and number 2, that he had spent considerable time at the Moscow Art Theatre, studying art direction or something.

(By the way, Walt's human resources people must have kept fairly comprehensive records, for him to be able to find an ex-employee's professed religious beliefs in his dossier.) Anyway, over the next few years Disney was more than happy to help out the government any way he could. In 1954, while he was overseeing progress on a huge construction site in Southern California, the following memo made its way into Walt's FBI file:

Mr. Disney has recently established a business association with the American Broadcasting Company-Paramount Theaters Inc. for the production of a series of television shows, which for the most part are scheduled to be filmed at Disneyland, a multimillion-dollar amusement park being established under Mr. Disney's direction in the vicinity of Anaheim, Calif. Mr. Disney has volunteered representatives of this office complete access to the facilities of Disneyland for use in connection with official matters and for recreational purposes.

Perhaps in part because of Walt's generous spirit, the FBI agent recommended that he be designated a secret informer:

Because of Mr. Disney's position as the foremost producer of cartoon films in the motion picture industry and his prominence and wide acquaintanceship in film production matters, it is believed that he can be of valuable assistance to this office and therefore it is my recommendation that he be approved as a Special Agent in Charge (SAC) contact.

Meanwhile, Walt was in the process of spending a whole year and $17.5 million on that construction site in Anaheim.

Disneyland

Disneyland opened its doors to an invitation-only gala on July 17, 1955. Walt had invited 11,000 people -- press, celebrities, other dignitaries and their families -- to participate in the grand opening. And they came, all right. In fact, 28,154 actually showed up, owing to a large supply of counterfeit tickets. The VIPs included the California governor Goodwin Knight, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Jerry Lewis, Danny Thomas, and many others.

To fully capitalize on the star-studded event, Walt paid for live, coast-to-coast television coverage. It cost $11 million to stage the inauguration, which required 29 cameras, 63 technicians, and some celebrity hosts which included movie star Ronald Reagan. The 90-minute program reached an estimated audience of 90 million.

From a business standpoint, the park was intended to generate revenue year-round. That would take a lot of the pressure off the motion picture business. The movies required years of effort and huge capital outlays. Since each film was bigger and costlier than the last, they were effectively betting the farm again and again.

Also, the park would provide a venue for cross-promotions. In fact, he exploited this opportunity right away. The centerpiece of his park was Sleeping Beauty Castle, named after the Disney animated film currently under production and slated for release in 1959. Not to mention all the merchandizing opportunities.

But there was also another thing. For a control freak like Disney, the idea of constructing an amusement park from scratch must have been irresistible. There would be endless details to lord over. And the way he laid it out, with a tall berm encircling the property to block views of the surrounding city of Anaheim, Walt was creating nothing less than a world unto itself, stretching from one artificial horizon to the next.

People loved Disneyland, of course. Families were piling into their cars and driving hundreds of miles just to visit the park they saw on television every week. After a couple of shaky years it became a massive financial success, just as Walt had gambled.

Furthermore, Disneyland became a cultural icon. Even world leaders like Henry Kissinger were drawn to the place. Legend has it that during Kruschev's visit to the United States, his major disappointment was being denied from visiting the park. (The Secret Service were concerned that they couldn't guarantee his safety.)

Disneyland 2.0

After ten years, Walt had become dissatisfied with his creation. For one thing, he loathed the crappy hotels and restaurants that surrounded the park. And the site was so confined... he wished that he had more room at his disposal -- a lot more -- to pursue new ideas.

So in 1965, he secretly spent $5.5 million acquiring vast parcels in central Florida. Before the orange farmers realized what was happening, almost 28,000 acres had been bought up. At the same time, Walt was engaged in secret negotiations with the state government, in order to ensure complete autonomy. Only after everything was locked up did he reveal his plans to the public in a press conference.

"Here in Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland -- the blessing of size. There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we can possibly imagine."

The property was so immense that there were no neighbors to complain about loud fireworks or traffic snarls. Additionally, the state of Florida basically granted Walt carte blanche to do whatever he felt like. They even granted him the legal authority to construct and maintain both an airport and a nuclear powerplant at any time in the future. (This blanket preapproval has yet to be exercised.)

But then, before he could get any further, Walt suddenly died of a heart attack in December 1966. Contrary to the urban legend, no segment of Disney's corpse was cryogenically preserved for future revivification. He was cremated and his ashes interred in the Freedom mausoleum at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, California.

the cult

In the years following his death, Disneyphiles the world over continued to mourn the loss of such a great man. But he was more than a kindly figurehead. Walt was the driving force behind everything his company created. His had the guiding vision. He was a micro-manager who had the final say on everything. His loss left a huge, gaping void in the company's core.

His pet projects, Disneyland and Walt Disney World, continued along bravely for quite some time without their founder's supervision. After all, they could work from a veritable wishing well of plans and ideas Disney already put in the pipeline. New attractions continued to open, and animated films released -- all of them derived in whole or in part from ideas Walt had personally shaped.

But when they started pursuing Walt's less-developed ideas, things became horribly fucked-up. He wanted to establish an actual city in Florida -- EPCOT (the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). 20,000 people were going to live and work in an ultramodern, technophilic paradise free of cars, crime, and pollution. After the management realized how much money this thing was going to cost, they scaled it back to the point where it's now nothing more than a world's fair.

Finally, in 1977, the well ran completely dry. Space Mountain opened in Tomorrowland, and that was the end. It was the last attraction for which Walt had provided any substantial input. Then the project teams coasted for a while, coming to grips with the reality that nobody was going to uncover a hidden filing cabinet stuffed with more of Walt's great ideas.

They were forced to continue on without him. In an attempt to preserve the Disney legacy, whenever a design question came up, the Imagineers and animators asked one other "What would Walt have done?" They rarely agreed. And even after they reached consensus, the navel-gazing resumed when their proposals were reviewed by upper management.

All critical decisions were made by committee, leaving the company in a position later characterized by one author as resembling "the Roman Catholic Church, but without a Pope." As Disney animator Ward Kimball explained it, "any organization that was built by one man, one man's tastes and choices, will have a tough time adjusting to the rule of the committee where decisions are split among a group of people."

The inevitable product of this institutional hesitancy was creative stagnation. The Jungle Book, released in 1967, was the last movie Walt worked on. A string of mediocre films followed: The Aristocats, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Robin Hood, Pete's Dragon. Rampant groupthink was strangling the creative process, and nobody had a clear idea of what could be done about it.

Not even the park was immune. Walt's greatest legacy, Disneyland, slipped into maintenance mode for a long while. Part of the problem had to do with all the Walt-hugging preservationists. Anything the man touched had to be treated like an archeological relic. This sentiment was by no means isolated to the employees of the Walt Disney Company. Many fans took it upon themselves to argue on behalf of leaving the classic Disney attractions undisturbed. They would prefer to limit Disneyland development, in order to maintain the park as a shrine.

Finally, almost 20 years after Walt's death, the company realized that they had to start making hard decisions or attendance would shrivel up. So beginning in the mid-1980s there has been a series of sweeping changes. As particular rides become stale and lose popularity, they are rethemed to draw attendance. Most of Tomorrowland was gutted and replaced in 1998. The Swiss Family Treehouse became Tarzan's Treehouse in 1999. In 2002, the Country Bear Playhouse was bulldozed to make room for a Winnie the Pooh ride.

This stuff doesn't sit well with the committed Disney fanatics. Walt Disney Company chairman Michael Eisner experienced this firsthand in 1985 during an interview with a newspaper reporter:

"On the 30th anniversary night, I came down here with Frank [Wells] and the writer from the New York Times. And I was proudly telling about all the things we were doing at Disneyland, and I got to the George Lucas 'Star Wars' ride... 'We're going to put in this great Star Wars attraction with technology that has never been seen before. It's gonna be the attraction that's going to replace that dog, [Adventure Thru] Inner Space.' She said, 'How can you say "that dog?" That's the most brilliant attraction ever at Disney! Walt Disney himself designed it! How can you ruin Disney?' She then dragged me to go over on it. We rode it twice. She called me a monster."

That's when Eisner realized that, to the fundamentalists, changing anything in the park was immoral. And changing anything that Disney himself had personally created bordered on blasphemy.

The hardcore fans would like to see the place declared a national monument, to preserve what remains of Walt's original vision. In their view, the best thing would be if somehow the entire park could be hermetically sealed, stuck behind glass just like Walt's office down on Main Street.


Timeline

Jul 1936 FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover issues a memo to Walt Disney, telling him: "I am indeed pleased that we can be of service to you in affording you a means of absolute identity throughout your lifetime." The meaning of the phrase "absolute identity" has yet to be deduced.
2 Jul 1941 Variety runs an ad by Walt Disney accusing the leaders of the animators' strike to be employing "Communistic agitation."
24 Oct 1947 Walt Disney testifies before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He identifies Herbert K. Sorrell, William Pomerance, Maurice Howard, and David Hilberman as probable Communists. In the case of Hilberman (assistant animator, Snow White; production designer, Bambi), Disney offered the following evidence. He was pretty sure that Hilberman was an atheist who had also studied at the Moscow Art Theatre. Case closed.
1954 The FBI makes Walt Disney a "Special Agent in Charge Contact."
1954 McDonald's franchise agent Ray Kroc unsuccessfully appeals to Walt Disney about opening a restaurant in Disneyland:
Dear Walt,

I feel somewhat presumptuous addressing you in this way. Yet I am sure you would not want me to address you any other way... My name is Ray A. Kroc... I look over the Company A picture we had taken in Sound Beach, Conn. many times and recall a lot of pleasant memories.

I have very recently taken over the national franchise of the McDonald's system. I would like to inquiry if there may be an opportunity for a McDonald's in your Disneyland Development.

17 Jul 1955 Walt Disney opens Disneyland.
3 Oct 1955 In a banner day for children's television, Captain Kangaroo premieres on CBS and The Mickey Mouse Club on ABC.
14 Sep 1964 Walt Disney receives the Medal of Freedom from President Johnson in a White House ceremony.
Aug 1965 Brian Epstein meets with Walt Disney to discuss the possibility of The Beatles performing songs for the upcoming animated film The Jungle Book. Later, John Lennon nixes the idea.
15 Dec 1966 Walt Disney dies from lung cancer.


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