As Disneyland launches its 50th birthday celebration, it seems appropriate to consider the founding father who turned his last name into an enduring brand and created a media giant that bestrides the planet. Walt Disney, as many have noted with varying degrees of accuracy, was not always the kindly, genial Uncle Walt who cared only about making children laugh. He was much more complex and more interesting.
From an early age Walt Disney found an escape from a less than idyllic childhood in art. While he had real talent, however, it was as an entrepreneur with an unquenchable desire to succeed that he really made his mark.
Some, notably Time magazine movie maven Richard Schickel, want to view that as Disney’s “dark side.” We believe entrepreneurs willing to bet their futures on an idea, those who don’t so much see a need and fill it as imagine something that has never existed before and challenge the public to embrace it, are one of the glories of the American story.
Disney undoubtedly had a darker side — consider some of the disturbing images in his first full-length animated feature, “Snow White” — and his nature may have been more controlling than genial. But he had an imagination that never wound down and the persistence and common sense to create many of the things he imagined.
He famously said that “I am interested in entertaining people … rather than being concerned with ‘expressing myself’ with obscure creative impressions.” Yet he repeatedly found ways to combine entertainment with education. Think of “The Living Desert” and the nature documentaries, “Fantasia,” which married animated imagery to great classical music, “Moments with Mr. Lincoln” or the Grand Canyon diorama.
Late in life, when asked what he was proudest of, he replied, “The whole damn thing, the fact that I was able to build an organization and hold it.” We like that, as we like that his burial site is on Freedom Way in Forest Lawn in Glendale, Calif.
Walt Disney was the first to see the potential in cross-media promotion, with TV shows, movies and parks. He was a hungry, restless soul who was never satisfied, always seeking new challenges, who saw Disneyland as something that would never be finished.
May this country always be a place where restless, impatient entrepreneurs have a chance — no guarantees, but a chance — to realize their dreams.