Saturday, January 27, 2007

Getting to know Walt

If you're of a certain age, you may have memories like mine of the whole family sitting in front of the TV on Sunday evenings. In those days, the the main event was Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, which Walt himself hosted and which my family watched in glorious black and white.

In that pre-Michael Jackson world, Walt seemed like the kind of adult a kid might actually enjoy hanging out with, especially if you could hang out at Disneyland. Oddly enough, 40 years later, I got a chance to hang out at Disney World when the company's corporate training arm asked me to work with them on a customer service book, and I did actually enjoy it.

One of the things I discovered on the job was that Walt's TV show was simply a means to an end. In the early 1950s, he had an idea for a new kind of amusement park. His brother Roy, who held the company purse strings and was convinced that this was just another of "Walt's screwy ideas," would not finance it.

But Walt would not drop the idea. He formed a new company, which he financed by borrowing against his life insurance and selling his new vacation home. Eventually, he found a bank willing to lend him some more seed money and Roy, finally bowing to Walt's fixation, got on board. Then, ABC came knocking. Anxious to build its marketshare with a Disney show, ABC agreed to invest a few million dollars in Disneyland as part of the package and Walt's dream became a reality.

Walt used his hugely popular TV show to promote Disneyland to a nationwide audience. The park opened to sell-out crowds and ABC fanned the flames by televising the event. Soon, every kid in the country had to go to Anaheim and the Walt Disney Company was off on a long run of profitable growth.

Walt's been on my mind again lately because I finally got around to Neal Gabler's fine new bio of the man. It's readable, comprehensive (633 pages plus a couple of hundred pages of notes), and objective, which is great news -- most Walt bios are either funded by Disney or written by people who have axes to grind.

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