With the shocking news of former CEO Bob Iger’s return to Disney on Sunday night, there’s been a lot of buzz around his return to say the very least. There are more questions than we have answers to at this time, but there is one question we’ve had the answer to for decades: What can Bob Iger, or any CEO of Disney for that matter, do to turn things around for The Walt Disney Company as a whole, both in the Parks and with the rest of the House of Mouse’s endeavors?
This is a complex question, with a myriad of different possible answers, so, instead of wandering around with these different trains of thought, this article is going to focus on what the man behind the mouse has said: What was Walt’s advice? This article, while not exhaustive, draws heavily from Neal Gabler’s “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination” (2006), and will endeavor to hit on the finer points and details.
Where Has Disney Gone Off the Rails?
To understand how to fix things, we need to understand what things are currently broken in the Disney business model, both in Walt Disney Studios, as well as with the Disney Parks. With the ousting of Disney CEO Bob Chapek, let’s take a look back to see what went wrong.
Attention to Detail at the Studio
From Kansas City to Hyperion to Burbank, Walt’s vision could be summed up in one sentence:
“We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths”
While Walt wasn’t often one to do things first, he was always the one to do things best. This is why Steamboat Willie and Mickey Mouse by extension have been so popular since their release! While other studios were rushing to get cartoons into theaters, Walt took the time to assess each and every individual frame to ensure scenes made sense, gags landed and sounds lined up perfectly.
It was this kind of meticulous attention to detail that led to the success of the first feature-length animated film in history, The classic Walt Disney Picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Walt would pour over the work of animators, putting in his own two cents for each frame, and establishing a standard of creative excellence, not just making sure it was ‘good enough’. It took time, but the proof is in the print: a one-of-a-kind work of art that elevated animation beyond tropes, gags, and shorts. It also elevated Disney Animation to be the hallmark for the medium, a gold standard for every other animation studio after it to try and reach.
If the current studio is to bounce back, that kind of attitude needs to be the order of the day. Quality and quantity were always hallmarks of Disney in the early days. Walt even had different teams dedicated to producing shorts while they were working on features, just to keep the studio in the public eye, and on their mind. Fortunately, the studio isn’t far off! The streaming platform, Disney+ has allowed for limited series, animated shorts and more to be produced, but in order to take it to the next level, they have to “Keep moving forward”!
Attention to Detail at the Parks
Just like the studio, Walt was not the first person to build an theme park, but we can say unequivocally, he did it best. He created in very word and deed a Magic Kingdom. Disneyland was Walt’s playground. It literally became a home away from home, and he put his heart and soul into it. When in a panicked rush to get the Park built before opening day, an employee suggested cutting corners on a set piece for the Storybook Canals that would be minuscule, and difficult to see anyway. Walt Responded:
“Look, the thing that’s going to make Disneyland unique and different, is the detail. If we lose the detail, we lose it all.”
If Iger is to reclaim that same magic at the parks that so many have said has been lost, he needs to focus on the details. There is so much that has slipped under Bob Chapek’s watch: chipped and faded paint, cobwebs on signage, trash in corners, all the little things that, as Walt said, made Disneyland, and by extension, the other Disney Parks, unique and different. It’s those things that take us out of the world we live in, and provide us with that world of escapism, and relief, where we are free to be kids again.
As important as attention to detail is, it wasn’t just that which led to the success of Walt’s early work, nor will it be enough for Iger during his second tenure as Disney CEO. For Walt, it was also his passion for the work, and the subject that launched it to the success it well earned.
When Walt pitched Snow White to the animators, one of the crew, Ken Anderson, talked about how the meeting lasted three hours, and that Walt alone stood in the front, and performed the entire piece, acting out each role, each gag, each plot point until the very end. The animators weren’t the only ones treated to the performance either: anytime Walt needed to convince someone, backers, production crew, even Roy, he would launch into performance just to show people what an important project this was.
Walt poured this passion into his studio, and, when the company went public, and he could no longer exercise complete creative control, he diverted his attention, his energy, and his passion to Disneyland. Walking down Main Street, U.S.A., guests can feel that passion today, in everything they see, hear, and experience. This same passion drove Roy to build Walt Disney World as an homage to Walt, and the Imagineering teams from that day to this to build quality products and experiences the world over.
For Iger and his team to bring the Disney magic back, that same passion has to return, and not a passion for the dollar. Walt was very clear in talking with Imagineer Marc Davis:
“You and I do not worry about whether anything is cheap or expensive. We only worry if it’s good.”
While this philosophy may have led to some heartburn and hair loss on the part of poor Roy, it also led to a quality product in both film, and theme park entertainment that has stood the test of time. Walt was concerned about the company becoming one that was only concerned with money after he was gone, and spoke of it often in his later years. While it’s impossible to expect any company to ignore profits in this day and age, Disney has become synonymous with a quality product, no matter the expense, and it needs to be that way again.
With each passing day, Bob Iger seems to be making decisions to bring the company we know and love back to its roots, which gives fans plenty to hope for in these next two years. We will all be watching closely, and hoping that, more than anything, the new team honors the legacy of Walt, Roy, and those that built the great enterprise we all enjoy.
What else could Bob Iger and his team do to improve the company? Let us know in the comments below!