On December 5th, we celebrate and remember the birth of one of the great American innovators, storytellers, and pioneers- Walter Elias Disney. Born in 1901, Walt’s name remains synonymous with quality, joy, and fun. His legacy has stretched well beyond his passing in 1966, and his creations and work will continue on for years to come.
But what made this kid from the countryside of Marceline, Missouri so successful? How did the Disney name become the stamp of approval on animation, entertainment, and fun? While it is impossible to fully sum up the importance of the man in a few points alone, here are a few of the lessons we can learn from the way Walt achieved success.
Do not be afraid to fail
While the blockbuster, unprecedented success is celebrated, Walt’s life and career had its fair share of pitfalls. Several times, both before and after the advent of Mickey Mouse, Walt continually risked just about everything for the next project. An early adaptor, Walt was constantly on the cutting edge of technology and techniques, and threw himself and his companies behind methods that didn’t always come to fruition.
Perhaps most notable is one of Walt’s earliest “failures,” which came in the form of a little rabbit named Oswald. Several years before Mickey Mouse came to be, Walt and his partners had the little cartoon rabbit find moderate success in the burgeoning industry of animation. Through bad deals, harsh business tactics, and pure inexperience, Walt lost the rights to his creation, and was left back at square one. It would have been very easy for Disney to give up at that point, but he instead took what he learned, and began again.
Oswald would not be the last thing to almost completely bring down his work. Other projects, like the now-benchmark feature “Fantasia,” nearly drove the young company to financial ruin after a poor public reception.
The key to Walt’s legacy of success was turning his failures in to learning opportunities, and pushing through when times got rough.
“All the adversity I’ve had in my life, all my troubles and obstacles, have strengthened me… You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.”
Lean in to others
While there is no denying the brilliance of Walt, he was well aware of his weaknesses. Perhaps more important than his own work ethic and talent, Walt surrounded himself with other amazing creators, relying on the collective brilliance of his circles.
Of all his partnerships, none was more important than the one he had with his wife Lillian. Hired on as an ink artist in 1925, Walt found a companion to balance and drive him through the rest of his life. Lillian was tenacious, supportive, and loving, all of which helped build Walt both professionally and personally.
While Walt was a brilliant creative mind, he was lucky to have the business acumen and faith of his business partner, and older brother, Roy Disney. Often the most treacherous of things for an artist, Roy truly guided the business side of Walt’s studio, and kept the company going in a way that Walt could never do alone.
“You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.”
Easily the biggest supporter of Walt’s ideas was Walt himself. He threw himself at his work, finding ways to accomplish what had never been done, or even attempted before.
Famously, when pitching the concept of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” (a feature-length animated film, which had never been done before), Walt acted out the entirety of the story himself, playing every role, voices and all.
This is made all the more impressive when you consider the true nature of the man. While seen now and an engaging person, off-camera Walt was said to be reserved, quiet, and downright bashful. Despite this, he believed so much in the value of his own work, that he risked making a complete fool of himself to get his idea across.
“When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.”
Believe in, and make a better future
Walt was always known as a dreamer. He loved his family, his country, and his work, and constantly hoped for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. A running theme in all of his creations was the goal of inspiring and driving those to come toward new horizons.
It can be clearly seen in his vision for his parks. Tomorrowland was set in the distant future (of 1986), showing the wonders of what our future could hold. Walt’s EPCOT was to be a utopia, showing the world what could be achieved.
Always, Walt had an enduring faith in the human spirit, and knew that this world would only get better.
“Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.”
Walt Disney’s legacy endures not because of any single piece of animation, film, or park, but because of his willingness to believe in the absurd idea of happiness. We here at DAPs Magic look up to him for his ideas, his choices, and (most importantly) his joy.
“We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”