No, the title isn’t what happened to Walt Disney? I’m asking what happened to the dream of a special place where a dad could take his daughters and experience a place of magic and wonder. In case you never heard the story, when Walt’s daughters were very young Saturday was Dad’s day. Walt would take his kids to a merry-go-round and sit on a bench eating peanuts while they road.
Walt believed there should be a family park where parents and kids could have fun together. This may or may not be the truth and more of a Walt yarn than anything else. If you walk down main street in Disneyland, there’s an actual bench with an inscription saying “The actual park bench from Griffith Park Merry-Go-Round in Los Angeles, where Walt first dreamed of Disneyland.”
Unfortunately, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but this is not the bench Walt sat on and dreamed up Disneyland. In fact, there was no bench in Griffith’s Park for Walt to sit on. So, for those of you who have a picture from Disneyland of this bench you were sold a bill of goods. The truth is, in Disney’s Burbank studio there were sketches about the idea of a Mickey Mouse park with the date 1932; a full year before Walt’s first daughter Diane was even born.
So have we been scammed all these years? I don’t think so. Just because Walt made up a better story than the truth of the Disney parks’ origin doesn’t change how we used to enjoy them. A lot of people may have never even heard this story and it likely didn’t impact their enjoyment of this magical place. But, were he here today, what would Walt think of what’s become of his original vision? Would he still wax a tale of sitting on a bench or would he be shocked at the lines, crowds, lack of fresh Disney animation, and the greed of those now in charge.
This is a movie blog. So, why are you writing about an amusement park? The truth is there would be no amusement park if not for Disney movies. It was the magic of Walt’s animation that created Disneyland in Anaheim. The profits of Snow White is the money Walt used to make a deposit on 51 acres of land in Burbank where he began designing a modern studio specifically for the purpose of making animated films. During the 1940s and 1950s the Burbank studio was responsible for such animated features as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Bambi, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan.
Can you imagine a Disney park without the animation above? When Walt created Mickey Mouse he came up with the idea of a Mickey Mouse park. He used almost every penny made from his animated classics to fund the park. His brother Roy was the money man behind the Disney dreams. Walt would come up with the ideas and Roy would find a way to fund them. It took more than a few hit movies to finance Walt’s dream, so Roy turned to big companies to further fund Walt’s vision.
So what is this blog all about? Why all this talk of an amusement park in a movie blog. It’s because of the symbiosis between the movies and the parks and today they both seem sort of bankrupt. Not in the sense of being broke; Disney is still one of the most profitable companies on the planet. But, there’s a creative bankruptcy of new Disney ideas and no visionary like Walt.
After Walt and Roy’s deaths, the company lost their way. There wasn’t a visionary to lead the company into new territory. The parks were floundering and Disney was on the verge of a hostile takeover. It wasn’t until shareholders Sid Bass and Roy E. Disney made the move to bring in Michael Eisner, then president of Paramount studio’s, to takeover as the new Disney CEO and Frank Wells as President things would turn around.
Eisner took the company back to basics. Why was Disneyland and Disney World in trouble? They forgot what got them to the dance. Animated Movies! Soon after Eisner took over in 1984, he brought back the Wonderful World of Disney (a Sunday Night show hosted by Walt, followed by Eisner). And then came the films starting with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and the list goes on.
Under Eisner, Disney acquired Miramax Films, ABC, ESPN, Fox Family, and The Muppets. The profits started to jump and Disney was creating new IP as well as acquiring other mainstay family IP like the Muppets. Eisner took the money to increase the Disney Parks. The 90s became the Disney Decade with future parks EuroDisneyland (now Disneyland Paris), Disney’s MGM Studios, Disney’s California Adventure, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Disney’s stock kept soaring and creativity was at a high.
Without getting into more details, Roy E. Disney and Michael Eisner were not on good terms and frankly didn’t like each other. Whether it was the fortune Eisner made from taking payment in Disney Stock (a deal Roy agreed to) or Eisner bringing in higher ups that Roy wasn’t found of, either way the rift became too much and Eisner (with pressure from the board of directors) stepped down March 2005, one year earlier than his contract expired, and handed off duties reluctantly to Bob Iger who was serving as Disney’s President at the time.
Iger’s tenure has been more of care taker of the Disney Board of directors. Growth no longer came from original idea’s, but instead take overs. Staring with Pixar, a deal originally under Eisner, but he and Steve Jobs (at the time head of Pixar) did’t see eye to eye and Iger’s first priority was to get that deal done and to his credit he did. Next came the deal with Universal and their Marvel properties (Yes, Universal holds a majority of Marvel comic characters, but Universal doesn’t know how to use them. Hulk anyone?). Then what seemed like Iger’s master stroke when he made a deal to buy Lucas Films. And finally the creation of Disney+, which after the success of Netflix didn’t take a brain surgeon. Can you imagine Disney without these movie deals?
Well, we are now at the end of the Iger ERA and things are not looking so bright. In fact, Iger should be on a beach in Hawaii right now, but due to the Pandemic and some skepticism about his successor Bob Chapek, Iger agreed to stay on as special advisor while new CEO Bob Chapek was still learning the ropes. As of this blog Iger is still involved in the day to day operations as Chapek begins to take on a bigger role.
What’s next for Disney? Certainly with Pixar, Marvel, and Lucas in their stable it’s a pretty easy time to be a caretaker CEO and keep things on auto pilot. But look deeper and fans are starting to ask questions. It’s starting with complaints about the parks (see the connection yet?) and Chapek taking things away versus adding things. California took away annual passes, so Southern Californians now have to pay more if they want to visit the parks more. In Orlando fast passes, which were a hit have become lightning passes which, based on media feedback, are not as popular. But to bring this to a close where’s the Disney magic? Whens the last time you went to a new Disney movie that wasn’t a real life version of an animated movie, wasn’t made may Pixar, or didn’t have the name Lucas attached? I honestly don’t have the answer handy and cannot see anything new on the horizon made by Disney? Hence pondering where is Walt’s Disney?