Walt Disney has built an entertainment empire that began, modestly, with short, animated films and has grown into a Movie, merchandise and theme park powerhouse. As it is with successful people, we all want to know, “How’d you do it?” I sat with Mr. Disney in his office on the Disney Studios lot and tried to get to the bottom of it.
You’ve had tremendous success in Feature Animation, live action films, television, theme parks. Did you ever doubt that everything would work out?
Somehow I can’t believe that there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secrets of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four C s. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy
There have been failures. Critical and financial. But those situations didn’t seem to slow you down. What’s your secret to weathering the bad times?
Everyone falls down. Getting back up is how you learn how to walk. There is great comfort and inspiration in the feeling of close human relationships and its bearing on our mutual fortunes – a powerful force, to overcome the “tough breaks” which are certain to come to most of us from time to time. 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. I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter. Do a good job. You don’t have to worry about the money; it will take care of itself. Just do your best work — then try to trump it. The important thing is the family. If you can keep the family together — and that’s the backbone of our whole business, catering to families — that’s what we hope to do.
Your studio has grown very large. Has the success changed your management style?
I believe in being a motivator. Leadership means that a group, large or small, is willing to entrust authority to a person who has shown judgment, wisdom, personal appeal, and proven competence. Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating those who work with me and aiming their efforts at a certain goal. All you’ve got to do is own up to your ignorance honestly, and you’ll find people who are eager to fill your head with information. Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards – the things we live by and teach our children – are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings.
What would you tell a someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
The more you like yourself, the less you are like anyone else, which makes you unique.
But being unique isn’t always enough to succeed the way have in any of the business you’ve undertaken.
I never called my work an ‘art’. It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment. Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future. People often ask me if I know the secret of success and if I could tell others how to make their dreams come true. My answer is, you do it by working.
So where do you start? How do you go about figuring out how to entertain the public?
The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. I am interested in entertaining people, in bringing pleasure, particularly laughter, to others, rather than being concerned with ‘expressing’ myself with obscure creative impressions. I dream, I test my dreams against my beliefs, I dare to take risks, and I execute my vision to make those dreams come true.
You’ve said that you never considered yourself very good at drawing. Why pick animation as a career?
Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive. This facility makes it the most versatile and explicit means of communication yet devised for quick mass appreciation. Of all of our inventions for mass communication, pictures still speak the most universally understood language.
Others were doing animation before you. What do you think separated your work from theirs?
At first the cartoon medium was just a novelty, but it never really began to hit until we had more than tricks… until we developed personalities. We had to get beyond getting a laugh. They may roll in the aisles, but that doesn’t mean you have a great picture. You have pathos in the thing. I try to build a full personality for each of our cartoon characters – to make them personalities. In our animation we must show only the actions and reactions of a character, but we must picture also with the action. . . the feeling of those characters.”
So you treated your animated characters as if they were live actors?
We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.
Are there other studios or animators that have influenced you?
I am not influenced by the techniques or fashions of any other motion picture company.
So your inspiration comes from within?
First, think. Second, believe. Third, dream. And finally, dare. When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable. All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them. “Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it, and work at it until it’s done right.
So if you take that approach the money just happens?
I don’t make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures. Money doesn’t excite me. My ideas excite me. I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral. Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money. We did it Disneyland, in the knowledge that most of the people I talked to thought it would be a financial disaster – closed and forgotten within the first year.
Did you ever imagine the kind of success you’d have when you made that first Mickey Mouse cartoon?
Mickey Mouse is, to me, a symbol of independence. He was a means to an end. Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner. I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.
Is there any end to what you can dream up?
I resent the limitations of my own imagination. We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.
You sound like my 8 year old son.
Every child is born blessed with a vivid imagination. But just as a muscle grows flabby with disuse, so the bright imagination of a child pales in later years if he ceases to exercise it. Childishness? I think it’s the equivalent of never losing your sense of humor. I mean, there’s a certain something that you retain. It’s the equivalent of not getting so stuffy that you can’t laugh at others. There’s nothing funnier than the human animal.
That reminds me of Peter Pan.
Why do we have to grow up? I know more adults who have the children’s approach to life. They’re people who don’t give a hang what the Jones’ do. You see them at Disneyland every time you go there. They are not afraid to be delighted with simple pleasures, and they have a degree of contentment with what life has brought – sometimes it isn’t much, either.
Do you ever look back on your creations and think you could do better?
Yesterday is a thing of the past. Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future.
Walt Disney died in December of 1966. This interview was put together from quotes that are attributed to him. Not all of the quotes are from the same time and many don’t have the benefit of the context in which they were originally uttered. With that in mind and the benefit of hindsight, I hope I have honored Walt’s ideas by trying to give them a reason for being said in the first place.