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Disney   /   Disney Animation   /   Disney Live-Action   /   Disney Parks and Resorts   /   The Walt Disney Company

OpEd: Stop Pretending You Know What Walt Disney Would Want – You Don’t

August 23, 2021Sean Nyberg

Disney fans on social media and in the blogosphere know the phrase far too well: “Walt Disney would hate this!” Or some iteration of the phrase. The most cringe inducing is “Walt Disney is turning over in his grave,” a great way to announce that you don’t know Walt’s history, as the man was cremated following his death in 1966. 

This line of thinking (Walt would hate what current Disney is doing) is ridiculous for more reasons than simply the specific disposition of his remains. Aside from the hubris that one must to have to believe they know Walt’s true feelings, a man they never met who died 55 years ago. It also ignores the biggest issue of them all – Walt would have no clue how to run the Walt Disney Company of 2021.

Critics would say “Aha! Exactly, the company would be unrecognizable to its founder, therefore it has gone off the rails!” But, no, that’s not the issue. It is not that the Walt Disney Company has betrayed Walt’s vision, it is that the company is so much bigger and more successful than Walt ever could have dreamed.

Let’s just look at theme parks.

When Walt died, Disney only owned one theme park, Disneyland in Anaheim California. They owned zero hotels (they didn’t own Disneyland Hotel until the 80’s). Disneyland was seeing around 6 million guests a year.

Today, there are twelve theme parks, two water parks, and nearly forty hotels spread over six resorts around the world. These parks attract (in non-covid times) nearly 160 million guests a year, that is 27 times more guests than Walt had to contend with in 1966.

Even if you just look at Disneyland, that park sees nearly 19 million guests a year, and the former parking lot is now Disney California Adventure, with annual attendance around 10 million guests. That is nearly 5 times more guests in that one plot of land alone. Not to mention going from Disney owning zero hotels at the time of his death, to Disney owning three hotels, along with a retail and dining district.

Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland in Anaheim California

That is just Disneyland, the growth in central Florida and around the world hadn’t even begun when he was alive.

While some may want to say “Hey! Walt planned out Walt Disney World before he died, he even picked the land himself.” True, but, Walt’s Florida Project was meant to be focused on EPCOT. No, not the EPCOT we got in 1982, he wanted it to be a true community where people lived, worked, played, shopped, and went to school. The 1982 theme park, with the geodesic sphere, was NOT what Walt had planned.

It is also important to remember that Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, the park that is celebrating its 50th anniversary this October, was never a passion project for Walt. It was a means to an end. The EPCOT he designed (NOT the one that was built) needed Magic Kingdom to help fund the expansive project. It was a place for EPCOT’s residence to work and to make money to pay Disney to rent homes in the experimental community.

So, before you start complaining that Walt would hate [Fill in the Blank], it is important to remember he would not recognize EPCOT (in any form from 1982 to today) and the Magic Kingdom was simply a financial necessity to fund his project that was never built. And, to be clear, it was never even close to being built. EPCOT purists will say the theme park that opened in 1982 was not Walt’s literal dream, however, its focus on learning, sustainable energy, and innovative thinking is in line with Walt’s general desire for his EPCOT, therefore, it is a fine replacement. That takes a true spark of imagination to make that logic work.

None of this is to say that Magic Kingdom or EPCOT are bad, in fact, they are brilliant and loved by millions. They just are not what Walt envisioned for the area. So if you are going to throw around “Walt would hate this” for every decision made by a Chapek, Iger, or Eisner, it’s important to remember that the Disney you grew up with in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000’s, is not anything Walt ever expressed a desire for before he passed in 1966.

Here are some other facts that might blow the minds of the “Walt would hate that” crew:

  • Walt died before Splash Mountain existed, therefore he has no opinion on a re-theme
  • Walt died before Fast Passes ever existed, both free and paid, therefore he has no opinion on the matter
  • Walt died before Disney had a Cruise Line
  • Walt never saw Little Mermaid, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, Frozen, Moana, Star Wars, Tron, Aladdin, and hundreds of other films that are considered Disney classics, therefore, he has no opinion on how they are represented in the parks, if they should have live-action remakes, and the race of the actress who plays Ariel.
  • Walt never heard of The Disney Channel
  • ABC was not owned by Disney at any point in Walt’s lifetime
  • Walt never had an opinion about on-site Disney hotel perks, because Disney never owned any hotels during his lifetime
  • Magic Express, Magic Bands, and Annual Passes did not exist in Walt’s lifetime, therefore he has no opinion on them
  • Etc

None of this means that guests cannot have their own opinions and preferences regarding these topics, but, it is disingenuous and wildly speculative to claim Walt Disney had any specific opinion on any of these things. Even by saying “XYZ change is not in the SPIRIT of what Walt desired,” you are plucking convenient public statements to support your own personal viewpoints and when you are just left with “it is not in the spirit of Walt’s original dream,” or whatever, you are truly scraping the bottle of the barrel to support your argument.

The Walt Disney Company that Walt knew was actually quite small. One theme park, no hotels, an animation studio that saw big hits and big misses, and a live action studio that never truly took off. Walt Disney is a massive success story, bringing us some of the most beloved characters and animated features of the 20th century, he perfected the modern day theme park, and he created opportunities for guests and audiences to disappear in his storytelling. He was a genius and always surrounded himself with the most creative and innovative thinkers and doers of his time.

READ: Pixar’s ‘Luca’ Opens Strong and Marks a Return to China’s Box Office

However, none of that would prepare him to know how to run The Walt Disney Company of 2021. The largest entertainment company in the history of the world.

  • Disney currently owns 14 of the top 20 grossing films of all-time. All of which were released in the last few decades. 
  • They own private islands for the exclusive use of their own Disney Cruise Line. 
  • They own a number of streaming services that are pushing 200 million paid subscribers around the world. 
  • They own theme parks outright (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris) and they co-own theme parks with foreign governments (Hong Kong Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland) and they license their theme park IP to foreign companies (Tokyo Disney).
  • Their consumer products division rakes in nearly $5 billion in revenue between retail sales and licensing deals.
  • They own a massive publishing company for their books, and Disney Music Publishing for their music.
  • They have some of the most popular Broadway musicals in New York and dozens of touring musicals around the US and in international markets.
  • Disney owns one of the largest television broadcasting networks, ABC, where they consistently top the ratings for primetime shows and both morning and evening news.
  • Disney owns tens of thousands of acres in real estate around the globe
  • Disney has nearly a quarter of a million employees
  • Disney is the largest private employer in the state of California.
  • Florida’s Walt Disney World is the largest single site employer in the United States.
  • In 1966 Disney’s stock price was .17 cents a share, today it is $178 a share.

All of those stats are used to illustrate the size, scale, and scope of the Walt Disney Company in 2021. The current Disney company is not just a larger version of Walt Disney’s 1966 company, rather, it is so much more grand that it would be unrecognizable. Making any “Walt would never let this happen” criticism wildly inappropriate, because Walt had no experience running a company of this size, with this many divisions, and with this number of employees, across states, countries, and continents. Not to mention the childish thinking that some DisTwit has a cosmic connection to a dead man who they never met.

Walt Disney, in his final months before he passed, with his true plans for EPCOT

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain (while he saw the original plans, we no idea if he would’ve liked the final result), Haunted Mansion (the plans for HM had many iterations during Walt’s lifetime, we have no idea if he would’ve liked the final result), Pinocchio’s Daring Journey, Star Tours, Toon Town, Finding Nemo Submarines, Winnie the Pooh Adventures, Indiana Jones Adventure, and any other ride built after 1966.

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked any of the Disney animated films of the renaissance period: Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, or Aladdin.

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked any of the Pixar films that Disney now owns: Toy Story, Cars, Coco, Soul, Inside Out, Incredibles, Luca, etc.

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked any of the modern day princess movies: Frozen, Raya and the Last Dragon, Tangled, Moana, etc.

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked any of the live-action remakes: Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, Lion King, Aladdin, Dumbo, etc.

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked the theme parks built after he died or were not at least in some phase of development when he was alive: Disney California Adventure, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney Studios Park, Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland.

We DO know that his plans for EPCOT were not realized AT ALL. We DO know that Magic Kingdom’s purpose, in Walt’s vision, was to provide a place for EPCOT residence to work and to draw in tourists to fund his community of tomorrow. Therefore, since EPCOT was not turned into the community he planned, then Magic Kingdom was not necessary. 

We have no idea if Walt Disney would’ve liked the idea of owning a cruise line (DCL), owning a broadcasting company (ABC), or owning a sports network (ESPN). Hell, he wouldn’t even know what a sports network is.

If it is not clear yet, we have no idea what Walt Disney would’ve liked or disliked about the growth of the company after his death, since he was not around to tell us. We can make some inferences on decisions that were made prior to his death, but not implemented yet (IE EPCOT falling short of Walt’s vision). But, other than that, the rest is unknown.

Walt Disney planted the seed for the company through his early animation, his ingenious storytelling, and his creation of Disneyland in 1955. He implemented high standards that are still used today by companies around the world. He raised the bar for animated filmmaking and he set a new standard in themed entertainment. He was a genius and he is a legend. He changed the world in his short lifetime.

You (the people who keep speaking for a man who has been dead for 55 years) are not Walt. You do not possess his genius, his foresight, or his creativity. So stop speaking for him. If there is any way to disrespect the man’s legacy, it would be for a DisTwit to start invoking his name to bolster a string of personal grievances.

This is not new, society has done it since the beginning of mankind. We ask “what would Jesus do,” we ask “what did the US Founding Fathers mean when they said…,” and we say “what would Walt want?”

To answer any of those questions is to assume that you have the knowledge that these historically significant figures possessed. You don’t. And, to put it bluntly, you need to get the f*** over yourself.

Share personal complaints about changes (or non-changes) within the Disney company, but do not pretend like you are privy to the private wishes of a man who died 55 years ago and would not recognize the current Disney company, due to it’s size, scope, and success.

Let the poor man rest in peace.


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    OpEd: Stop Pretending You Know What Walt Disney Would Want – You Don’t

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