Sometimes, you have to be brave enough to forge forward with your dreams, no matter what others say. This was what brought about a shift in the world when Walt Disney conceptualized Disneyland. To understand the magic that has allowed Walt to make such an impact on the world, Jesse Cole sits down for a discussion with Dr. Disney himself, Jeff Barnes. They talk about the challenges faced by Walt Disney in his years leading up to the creation of the eponymous theme park, as well as the thought process that went into its design. They also talk about Walt Disney’s influence on how they do business and interact with people today.
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Chase Your Dreams: The Magic And Wisdom Of Walt Disney With Jeff Barnes
I am pumped to welcome Jeffrey Barnes, also known as Dr. Disneyland author of The Wisdom of Walt and Beyond the Wisdom of Walt and the only professor with an accredited college course on the history of Disneyland in the world. Jeff, welcome to the show, my friend.
I am absolutely thrilled to be with you, Jesse and I’m thrilled to be on the show with you and hello to all your readers.
I’m excited as I shared it and wrote you a letter, when I read The Wisdom of Walt and all of the readers know, I’m a big Walt Disney junkie. I don’t know if I took more notes than any book on that, on every single lesson that you had. I was like, “This is unbelievable,” and then I picked up Beyond and it kept going. I think it’s because of a little bit of your background. You’ve been teaching it and that is interesting. You have speakers, you have people but you have to be able to actually teach it. Tell me back, let’s do a little storytelling the Walt Disney way about you developing the course on Disneyland. Tell me a little bit about how that started and what a syllabus looks like because it’s fascinating to me.
I first went to Walt Disney World when I was ten years old and absolutely fell in love with it but didn’t get out to California in Disneyland until I was in grad school in 1988 and I hated it. Stumbled into the park at 11:00 AM on a Sunday. The big new attraction with Star Tours and Tomorrowland. I found the attraction but I was in the wrong place for the line because the line started way back at the beginning of Main Street and waited three hours for my very first Disneyland ride. By the time we finished that experience, it was 2:00 PM, the park was too crowded and too hot. By the end of the day, I was done.
If you had told me that I would end up doing what I’m doing now, 30 years later, I would have told you that you were absolutely crazy. I ended up staying in California long enough to realize that people in this state are crazy about that place. I got curious and that’s one of the lessons. If we’re going to be successful in anything that we do, we got to get super curious. That was one of Walt’s Cs to success and I’m like, “What did I miss? Why does everyone love it and I hated it?” I came to discover, Walt wasn’t born successful. In fact, he had more failures than successes and I had an opportunity to return three years later.
I started doing research because, at my heart, I’m a historian. As a result of that, I went back and saw the park through a completely different lens, a completely different perspective and everything opened up. That’s where I discovered the Disney parks, they’re not an escape but an example. Disney, even though they promote it as the place where dreams come true, I see it as the place that can show you how to make your own dreams come true. That is the foundation for the class that I teach. It is the message in both The Wisdom of Walt and Beyond the Wisdom of Walt.
You fell in love with Disney, you visited numerous times, you really got to know it and then you said you’re going to set up a course. I manage because, in the books, you share a lot of lessons but I’m actually interested in what does it look like for the students? Where do you start? It is reading a book and then there’s a whole semester of learning. A little bit that maybe not in the book are shared.
First of all, it’s the idea that Walt Disney isn’t this mythical or mystical figure but he was a real person with a story, a life and a biography. He was born in Chicago, spent his early formative years in Marceline, Missouri and ends up as an ambulance driver at the end of World War I. He had the bankruptcy in Kansas City, which I think was the pivotal turning point. As I talk about in my keynote, the first studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio, which goes bankrupt in 1923, he has that decision to make. He could give up or he could play it safe and he could stay where he is surrounded by friends and family or he could go all in. He decides to go all-in by boarding the train, coming to California and becoming a hero ultimately in Hollywood.
When he goes all in, he does it with $40, a single suitcase on a one-way ticket. He joins forces with his older brother, Roy, who was already here in Los Angeles. Together, they formed the Disney Brothers Studio that is the largest entertainment company anywhere in the world. I’m haunted by the question, what if Laugh-O-Gram studio had been a success. What if Walt Disney never goes bankrupt? Maybe he spends the rest of his life only in Kansas City. I know for a lot of us, we always want to be successful. We never want to fail but it was that failure that compels him to California, changed his life and ultimately changed the world.
What was powerful in your book, you talk about the sitting on the park bench, the vision, obviously you had a big failure and you had to keep pushing along the lesson there but the vision is shared, I’m guessing that’s also a big starting point. If you want to do things differently, make a big impact. You got to start with some kind of a unique vision.
For me in the class, I want the students to know that Walt Disney was a real person. He had his successes but he also had his failures to include bankruptcy. Of course, losing Oswald, the not so Lucky Rabbit as I like to refer to him and then coming up with Mickey Mouse but then Mickey Mouse wasn’t enough. He wanted to go all-in on full-length animated feature films and Snow White was this huge risk and then, of course, World War II comes along and he’s basically making no money. The army takes over the studio and he is producing films for the military with costs, virtually no revenue. Post-World War II, he wants to get into the amusement park business and that all comes as a result of taking his daughters, Diane and Sharon to Griffith Park. They’re riding this merry-go-round over and over again. Walt’s sitting on this park bench and he starts to dream of a place where the parents and the children can have fun together.
For me, I talk about this in the very first chapter of The Wisdom of Walt, they have that bench in the opera house on Main Street at Disneyland. Whenever we go to the park, we all have our favorite ride, a favorite show and favorite attraction. That park bench is my favorite anything in Disney Park because it represents the power of our ideas. It represents the power of our dreams. For me, it represents the power of “crazy thinking.” When Walt dreamed of an amusement park, everybody thought he was crazy to include his own wife and brother, Roy. In fact, Roy said, “Walt we are not building an amusement park.” They all thought it was going to be bankrupt, shuttered and forgotten in six months or less. Walt believed in himself, in his idea and he kept pushing and pushing.
What I want our students to know and the history of Disneyland class is they’ve got to believe in themselves, they’ve got to believe in their ideas. They’ve got to believe in their dreams and they’ve got to believe in their crazy thoughts because that’s how we change the world. That’s how our businesses get off the ground and I shudder to think, what would Anaheim look like now? What would Orlando look like now? What would the world look like now? If Walt had not gotten up off of that park bench and believed in himself and began working on his dream for a place called Disneyland.
I love that so much, I love Walt, a quote that people don’t share much about him but you shared it. “Money doesn’t excite me, my ideas excite me.” People that are driven by money, they’re not going to have the imagination, the dream, the ability to go all-in but people have to have ideas they get excited about. I’ll tell you, Jeff, you inspired me in the book that I’ve started writing with the fans and it’s going to be a lot of fun. That vision starting point, I started on a dugout bench and literally sitting on that dugout bench for the best seats in the house. I was bored out of my mind and I would realize, I bet Walt, going back there, he was sitting there and he’s like, “What do I get to do? I’m watching them play. Where can I part of this?” He had that same itch to do something more because it was a frustration point, it was a friction point of where this imagination comes from and the key is acting on it.If we're going to be successful in anything that we do, we need to get super curious. Click To Tweet
I know we can go into a lot of motivation here, I’ve been to Disney World probably 30 times but I’ve never been to Disneyland and obviously, in The Wisdom of Walt, you go pretty much the whole story of Disneyland. I’d like to take us through a little bit of arc and through some of the lessons of pulling up from Walt’s vision, pulling up to the parking lot. You talked about the main street impressions, going in tunnel vision. I’d like you to share a person that’s never been there, how we can learn from that experience of walking in the park?
You have to realize, first of all, the big market is on the East coast and Walt’s dream for Walt Disney World, it’s 150 times the size of Disneyland, 27,440 acres versus the original 180 acres here in California. Walt kept dreaming bigger and bigger but in California Disney World might swallow you while Disneyland hugs you. There is a charming storyboard effect here in California that the locals love. You have to remember, Anaheim is 33 miles South of Los Angeles and the park originally sat in an Orange Grove in Orange County, California. As you pull in, you have to appreciate the fact that what Walt wanted was to create not an amusement park but a story park, a theme park.
What you’re going to have the opportunity to do is to step into a story that is going to challenge you when you leave at the end of the day to go out and then live your own great story. As you go through those tunnels, the idea is that as you pull into the parking lot, at least originally, the parking lot now is a second part. Originally the idea was, you are by way of the parking lot attended being drawn and aided into literally the seat in the theater. Walt is thinking like a producer in Hollywood. He was a showman and Hollywood’s greatest storyteller and the elevated train station which you could see from the parking lot was the marquee, which was saying, “We’re telling a great story now. We’ve got a great show come this way.”
Was that what he would call weenie from the parking lot?
Absolutely and I know in 2021, the word weenie is a little bit of an odd word but Walt was a Midwestern guy with very simple taste and his favorite food was the weenie, a hotdog and chili. Every night when he got home from the studio, he would pull into the driveway, sneak in through the side door and pull out a couple of hot dogs or weenies. One was for himself and one was for his favorite poodle. He would use that weenie or that hot dog to get the dog or the poodle to go wherever he wanted the dog to go. He uses, what he referred to when he was designed in the park, architectural weenies to get us the guests to come and to go wherever he wanted us to go.
If we sit in the parking lot that doesn’t accomplish much, he needs us to come into the park. There are red bricks in front of the train station, the idea is you’re in the lobby of the theater, as you go through the tunnels, the idea of the tunnels is stage left stage right. When you step on Main Street, USA, you’re stepping into a recreation of what was Walt’s childhood town of Marceline, Missouri and go back to 1955. In 1955, the idea here was from an amusement park perspective or carnival perspective, a county fair perspective, there would be multiple entrances in and multiple exits out. Walt wanted a single entrance in and a single exit out because, as a movie producer, he understood the importance of that first impression and that last impression. He wanted to control the opening scene and the closing shot.
Every amusement park operator told him, “Walt, you can’t do it this way.” Every time an amusement park operator told him not to do it this way, he knew he was doing it exactly the way he wanted to do it. Again, he wasn’t building an amusement park, he was building a story or a theme park. Main Street, USA other than the railroad didn’t have any real ride shows or attractions. He had to have something that drew you deeper into the park. Once you’re inside the park, the first real architectural weenie is Sleeping Beauty castle. That’s what draws you deeper. It’s amazing because you’re standing on Main Street, USA which is a turn-of-the-century town and yet, at the end of the street is a medieval castle, you don’t even think twice about it. We keep following and we keep going. It’s beckoning and there’s zero cognitive dissonance. We keep going where Walt says to go and that’s the vision.
That’s the opening and then it goes on through before but I think what’s so powerful is it puts you in a state of mind. I remember as a kid in Disney World, you would start seeing the big things. The big arches coming in, you would see it and all of a sudden, you’re in state of mind then you get in the Main Street. You’re going the way things were and you feel at peace and you feel at home. To feel calm in an amusement park? Good luck but I’ll tell you, Jeff, how this relates to any company, very easily, how do you look at the entrances, the first impressions, what are the things that people see and how do you control it?
I’m still learning from you and others about Walt, he tried to control every aspect that he could and it sounds like a control freak, no. He’s trying to make the best possible experience and I’ll tell you stuff at our games, we’re fortunate that we sold out every game and fans try to leave every way. We have all the gates closed except the main gate because it’s a 1926 ballpark, they had numerous gates back in the day. They’re all sure we want them to come out and the first thing they see is our pep band, playing music at the end of the game.
We have our players greeting the fans and everyone’s dancing. We have a free sports station when you’re leaving. It’s all part of that last impression experience and if you watch everyone’s laughing, cheering, dancing, taking videos that are controlled. If they walked out the gate, the night was forgettable, parts of it were forgettable. What’s your last impression? That’s important. Do you want to keep going a little bit more on the details? I’m very fascinated by the details and the storytelling. I think everyone can learn from it.
A couple of quick points, first of all, as you’re going down Main Street, you’re going to get to the central hub. Originally there were four lands off the central hub, Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. If you turn right into Tomorrowland, think about this, it’s literally like Walt had one foot in the past and one foot into the future. He was a historian but he was a futurist at the same time. In terms of how good you feel when you’re in a Disney Park, the Imagineers are very intentional about creating what they refer to as the architecture of reassurance. They make sure that they control the environment so that you feel good about everything.
As a business owner, when is the last time you thought about that first impression? When is the last time that you thought about that last impression? We know that space and we walk into it every single day from a very routine mindset. Not from the guest’s perspective, not from the customer perspective but from an 8:00 to 5:00, 9:00 to 5:00, this is where I work perspective and we’re not thinking of it from the reassurance perspective.
I got a question about the reassurance. We’re known at every land has different music. It transitions perfectly as you’re walking into it, it’s exactly like a movie scene. The editing, the cross dissolve and everything when you’re thinking of a movie. I read in the masters they actually pipe in sounds of birds throughout the entire course. I never knew that they played bird noises to make you feel like it’s more natural. How did it start for Walt? Many people are like, “Disney it’s so far, we’re only five years into the videos.” How did it start with that type of obsession over details? There’s no way they had different music pumping in or when the parade comes through, the music syncs up perfectly when you can hear it, it’s unbelievable. In your research, how did it start Disneyland of the years that Walt was around as far as sounds details all that?
Honestly, it goes back to when he was working in Kansas City. He was developing a film called the Alice Comedies. He was doing something that was rather revolutionary in animation, where he was taking a real girl and putting her into the cartoon. When he got to California, he still had a portion of that film and there was interest in it and he was given money to try and finish that. Fast forward to 1955, he’s going to take you, he’s going to take me, he’s going to take the guests and put us into the show. He’s going to put us into the animation. He’s going to put us into the cartoon, except it’s going to be real. It’s going to be a place called Disneyland. I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about Disneyland as a cartoon set but that’s what’s happening.Believe in your dreams. Believe in your crazy thoughts. That's how we change the world. Click To Tweet
Some of us humans are part of the actual show put into it.
Exactly, it goes back to his attempt to do this with a little girl, by way of the Alice Comedies way back at Laugh-O-Gram Studio in the early 1920s. It’s fascinating.
Can we dive a little bit to talk about detailing the designs and all that? I remember you are talking about the trash cans. Can we give some more examples because I’m starting to lean on this, we have a yellow basis with the Bananas? We’re getting yellow chalk lines. I ordered a hundred dozen yellow baseballs, Banana balls and were going to make Banana foul poles. We are going to go all-in on this. We’ve done half of it and we have a long way to go but it matters. Dennis Snow and other Disney speaker, I’ve got to know, he says everything speaks and some of the things that you’ve learned about the details and maybe some lessons on it.
When Walt came home on one of the Saturday afternoons, daddy’s day where he had taken the girls, Diane and Sharon out, he gets back from Griffith park and says to his wife, Lilian, “Honey, we’re going to build an amusement park.” They laughed at Walt and said, “Those places are filthy.” Walt looks at her and says, “That’s the point, mine will be clean.” Know that one of your big mantras is, “If you’re doing things normally, you’re doing it wrong.” You’ve got to be different. Well, in the 1950s we had amusement parks, we didn’t have theme parks. Everybody knew that amusement parks were shady and dirty, that’s not where you want to take your family. One of the ways that Disneyland stood out was by being impeccably clean and the trash cans were seen, the trash cans told a story.
Walt figured out that you needed a trash can every 30 feet and the way he figured this out was, again, his favorite food was a hot dog or the weenie. One day he grabbed a hot dog and he walked with it. He figured out how long it took him to eat a hot dog, the answer was 30 feet. He was ready to throw away the wrapper after 30 feet. He told his crew, we need trash cans every 30 feet because that’s how long it took me to get rid of this hot dog. That’s what’s incredible about Disneyland versus all of the other parks.
Walt died of lung cancer in December 1966 before they broke ground in Florida in May of 1967. Disneyland remains the only part that Walt ever actually walked in. When you come to California, for me, it’s the sacred ground because Walt walked every inch of that park. He knew every blade of grass. He knew every brick in Disneyland. It literally was his magic kingdom. The trash cans are there because Walt said, put the trash can there. The trees are there because Walt said put the tree, it was his toy and it was his baby.
The vision in Florida was Walt’s vision but unfortunately, he didn’t live to see it to fruition. Going back to first impressions in Main Street, when you get to the central hub, originally there were four lands off, the Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The reason why there were four lands is that the emerging technology in the 1950s was television. Every other studio in Hollywood was terrified of that technology. Walt embraced it and recognized the power of that technology and knew that he could sell themselves, sell the studio, sell Disneyland by way of that new technology. As a result, he forms a partnership with ABC. ABC buys into Disneyland. He creates three new programs and puts them on ABC to include the Disneyland program, which becomes a giant infomercial for the park.
The reason why you have four lands is that, on average, there were four channels on a television set in downtown Los Angeles in 1955. Walt’s thinking is, you can pick a land once you get down to the central hub and he’s not going to micromanage, he’s giving you that first impression. You get to choose like you’re going to pick a channel. You get to choose your channel, you get to choose your story by way of Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. My point, whenever I do a virtual workshop is I tell the leaders, I tell the managers, “You want to train well, you want to make sure your team is prepared to make that great first impression but don’t micromanage.” Let people make their own choices and own decisions, like Walt let’s have the guests once they get to the central hub.
You referenced the training, which was interesting reading about Walt and the fact that this shows business done differently. It sounds like, he first thought that we’re not going to be like every other theme park, they’re dirty. One of the big things I read when he hired Van Arsdale France. He hired a new trainee and he said he only had one policy. He hated the dirt and the sloppy surface. That was all that Walt said. Was that the big differentiator? What else from the training can we learn the original training? That’s where it all started.
In reading your book, it was fascinating because you hire based on culture not based on their baseball knowledge. In fact, I almost get the sense that you look for people who don’t know a lot about baseball. Walt didn’t hire people who were in the amusement park business because he wasn’t building an amusement park. He was doing something completely new and he was doing something completely different. You’re not necessarily building a baseball team. You’re in the baseball business but you recognize, “I’m in the entertainment business.”
Walt was doing the exact same thing, he knew if he went out and hired amusement park people, he was going to get another amusement park. He was doing something completely new, something completely different. He tasked Van Arsdale France to hire based on culture and if he was going to build “the happiest place on earth” he would task Van Arsdale France to hire happy people, imagine that. If you hire based on culture, you can train them to do the rest. It’s hard to train people to be happy.
You said Walt’s favorite quote, I want to find it. It’s about happiness and you put it in perspective. I wrote it down, it’s my favorite quote, exactly what you’re saying on happiness. It was about the forced perspective. “Happiness is a state of mind. It’s just according to the way you look at things.”
That’s one of my favorite Walt’s quotes as well.
It’s so good because that’s what you hired towards it, then you look at it and you can know it right away. I’m going to quote this, I’m going to throw this one, Jeff, this was one of my favorite quotes from you, “When you love what you’re doing and you’re having fun doing it then you are living out your form of Fantasyland. Your fantasy becomes your true north.” I love that. Can we go like Fantasyland, everyone says, “You’re living in Fantasyland? That sounds like an amazing place to be.” I want to talk about that because this imagination and fantasy need to be talked about more in business and share how the lessons and things that you’ve been able to feed into people about this.If you're doing things normally, you're doing it wrong. Click To Tweet
When you talk about being true north, in the opening episode of the Disneyland television show, which premiered October 27th, 1954, many months before Disneyland opened on July 17th, 1955. Walt is able to start that long-running infomercial by previewing what the park was going to be all about. He talked about those lands, radiating out from the central hub, like the four points on the compass and Fantasyland is on the North point. I believe it represents the true North of the park because it is literally the heart of Disneyland. It represents Walt’s vision, a place where parents and children can have fun together. As you go through sleeping beauty castle, which again is the weenie at the end of Main Street, it is the weenie for Fantasyland and you can see King Arthur carousel spinning through the gates of Sleeping Beauty castle.
If you go back to the original vision, it starts with a park bench, where Diane and Sharon watch spinning on a merry-go-round, it is all coming together and they’re in Fantasyland. Fantasyland opens with the most number of attractions and it is still home to the most number of attractions. If you want to know what Disneyland is about, if you want to know what Walt was about, if you want to know what the happiest place on earth is about, you got to understand Fantasyland. In fact, when they opened the park, Walt refers to Fantasyland as the happiest kingdom of them all. I go back to one of my favorite stories, Walt was constantly giving VIPs, celebrities and political figures tours of the park.
He was giving Billy Graham a tour one afternoon. Billy Graham gave Walt what he thought was a compliment, “You’ve built quite a fantasy here, Walt,” and this really upset Walt. In fact, he pushed back at Billy Graham and said, “No Billy, this is reality. Everything out there, that’s the fantasy. This is reality.” I thought it was amazing that he turned everything upside down or inside out on Billy Graham to say no, this is the way the world should be and everything outside the magic kingdom, everything outside the berm, that’s the fantasy, the world hasn’t realized yet.
He’s such an optimist and that’s why he’s so inspirational to many people. That’s why when I read your book, I was like, “I thought I’d been dreaming for ten years.” I’m dreaming bigger now by reading your book because you continue to share those stories and I get asked the question a lot, Jeff. How do you guys come up with your ideas? Where do those ideas come from? Obviously, Walt was an idea man. We’ve talked about that but what are the lessons from him or that you’ve seen with everything in your life? How do you get people to embrace their imagination? How do you get them to go to that park bench, vison, think bigger and dream bigger? You talk about expanding your expectations. How do you do that?
You have to understand, I know everyone loves the idea that Walt was the dreamer and an idea guy. I believe that we all have ideas and we all have dreams. The difference is Walt took action and that is the real difference-maker. It’s not that Walt sat on the park bench and had an idea. He got up off of the park bench and took action on that idea. He believed in himself over and over again. For me and this is what I say to the students in my class. Even at age 53, despite Mickey Mouse, despite Snow White, despite all of the successes under his belt. At the age 53, Walt didn’t get to speak the words, magic kingdom and Disneyland magically appear out of Orange Grove in Anaheim. He still had to face every adversity and every obstacle in the world to see the dream of Disneyland come true, including overcoming the objections of his wife and his brother.
If you have an idea, if you have a crazy thought, if you have a dream, you’re going to have to face those same difficulties in those same challenges. As you know, part of my story, having read the book, I had a dream of teaching this class for years. I finally had the opportunity to do it. I give the first lecture, the students absolutely love it and then the next day, I get diagnosed with a brain tumor and they wanted to operate immediately. As a result of the severity of the surgery, I was going to be out of work anywhere from six to eight weeks minimum and that was going to result in canceling the class.
I had already decided, I was all in on teaching this class, $40 single suitcase and a one-way ticket, no matter what. I told the neurosurgeon, “No way. Not doing it,” and delayed it for two and a half months so I could teach my college course on the history of an amusement park. Everybody thought I was crazy but the point to that wasn’t so I could take kids to Disneyland and give them an easy A for riding roller coasters. The point was if the main objective of this class was you are going to face obstacles if you want to see your dream come true. If that is the main lesson of the class, how could I walk away from my students at the first obstacle that I faced? I couldn’t do it.
If you did it, you may not have ever started the class. The course may not have started and you won’t be able to make the impact and all the letters and emails and messages but you took action.
Yeah. We delayed the surgery, we taught the class and fortunately, the class was a success. The surgery was a success and that is what resulted in writing the book afterward and everything took off from there.
Amazing, this doesn’t compare at all but for the readers to know, some time ago, we started talking about taking the show on the road. Taking the Bananas to a whole different city out of not close to home, hundreds of miles away and doing it and then COVID-19 happened and we had a choice. Do we push this or do we actually do it? We made the choice that we’re going to do it. We’re going to find a city that’s ready and excited for us. We went down to Mobile, Alabama, hundreds of miles away. I’ll never forget, both nights sold out and at the end of the last night, we had a surprise firework show.
I learned that from you my friend because Walt Disney doesn’t have to spend the extra money on the Christmas parades. He doesn’t have to spend $350,000 on the Christmas parade. We spent a percentage of that on an extra firework show and we surprised the fans. Had The Greatest Showman soundtrack playing and there were mothers crying in the crowd with their kids because the first time together during COVID-19 smiling. A part of that memory, I ran out in the stadium, the bands playing the music, people aren’t leaving an hour after the game and I had to take my phone out because I wanted to remember something.
At the end of the night, this was an hour after the game ended. The players, the staff, the characters, the fans, their arms were around each other and everyone was singing Stand by Me. It was a memory that I’ll never forget. That never happens, that never inspires me to take our show all over the world because of that one moment, that day that we did in the middle of a pandemic safely as we could and that’s to a smaller degree. That’s what I’ve learned from you and I’ve learned from Walt. If you want to make a difference as Walt said, “All of our dreams come true. If we have the courage to pursue them.”
What I tell people when I’m speaking is, we have the ideas, we have the dreams. What we lack is courage.
100%. We’re going to do some games. We’ve got into the seriousness. We’ve got to the good stuff. We’re going to do a few games, the first game is truth and dare. Which one would you like first?Hire people based on culture and train them to do the rest. Click To Tweet
What is the best lesson that we can learn either from Walt’s failures or one of your failures?
No matter what whether it’s bankruptcy or losing Oswald, the not-so-lucky rabbit, you have to keep moving forward.
A great quote from Walt, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps moving us down new paths.” Now the dare, this is going to be intense, Jeff. This is what we do at our games, if you’ve already met shows, I know the readers do it. We actually have a sing-off at the stadium, 2,000 fans at one grandstand versus 2,000 fans at another grandstand. When the song stops, we have to finish that song’s lyric. I’m going to Disney with you and I’m going towards one of your actual chapter themes. I know you’ll have this as an easy one but get ready. When it stops, finish that song lyric.
Let it go.
Nailed it, there was like a whole another verse but I don’t even have that but let it go. You have a whole chapter in Beyond Walt Disney about learning to let go. How does fit with this big dream and big imagination? How does let it fit into that?
That was a hard chapter because the first book is mainly about Walt and his dream for Disneyland and what we can learn from Walt and what we can learn from Disneyland. The book did well and I was asked to follow it up with Walt Disney World. Walt died six months before they broke ground in Florida and I had to write about Walt’s passing. In the learning to let it go chapter, I write about Walt’s passing and we had to let him go and how tough it was to move on without Walt and to some degree, letting go of his original vision for what was supposed to be the focus in Florida and that was the City of Epcot. They built Epcot but they built it as a theme park, not as the city of tomorrow, which was what Walt wanted it to be.
We have these ideas and we have these visions and we have expectations for how things are going to turn out but they’re not always going to turn out the way that we think they’re going to be or the way that we want them to be. You write about this in your books, Jesse, you have these ideas and you have this factory of ideas, you do a lot of promotions and a lot of them are great. If you stop because a few of them fail, you’re dead. The ones that fail, you have to let them go.
100%, you have to let those go and then you have to let go of some to have people that can carry the vision hopefully. You can’t control everything and I think Walter had those experiences but you can’t control how the vision is carried necessarily.
For me in Disneyland, the example that comes to mind for me, which is almost comical when it comes to what you’re doing with Bananas. One of the first failures at Disneyland was Walt wanted to recreate what he tried to do as a child and that was having a circus. Everybody came to Disneyland to see Disneyland. They didn’t come to Disneyland to see the circus and the circus flopped. It was a major failure and he was heartbroken over it. Here you are, doing baseball but you’re creating a surface around it and it’s like a massive hit. Walt would be so stinking jealous of you dude.
I don’t know about that but I wrote that down after you wrote that, I wrote that whole thing. We can’t try to do so many things that outside of our route, people are coming to see the Bananas baseball circus. They’re not necessarily bringing a whole other act that doesn’t fit the Disney theme, the Bananas theme and that circus didn’t fit the theme. That goes into building a berm that you talk about, you have to actually build in that world that you want and you bring other things in that. It sounds like it is a distraction that takes away from what you’re trying to accomplish.
That’s a good point because the circus was actually outside the berm. That’s a good point.
I want to go into another game here. This is going to be a Walt Disney showdown. This will be the first-ever Walt Disney showdown that you’ve done. We’re going to name a business or industry and think of it as Walt was running it. What would he do? Using some of your lessons which I know you have so many e-ticket experiences and the berm and having an exit and all that. I want to start with, if Walt was running a car dealership, what would he do to make it experience Walt Disney like?
It’s amazing to me that they don’t make them more thematic. Why aren’t there more snacks? I mean not that he gives away a lot of things that are free but if I’m in there buying a $30,000 or $40,000 car, give me some free snacks.We have the ideas, we have the dreams. What we lack is courage. Click To Tweet
That’s a good point, it’s all those plusing that Walt would do but the storytelling and if you’re going into a car dealership, there is a story of the first car that was made of that. Why is there storytelling when you walk in and see the pictures, almost like a museum that you’re walking in that first impression? When I was thinking about you in the storytelling that you open up with everything. That opening shot, those first impressions, you’re telling a story. You walk into a car dealership, they’re all the same and they all feel the same. Do you want to throw an industry at me and I’ll try to think on my toes?
You said that you had a whole chapter on becoming an entertainer. We are in a world where people are getting entertained so fast. We’re in a TikTok world. We’ve become buried in TikTok talk right now. People want bite-sized entertainment. Education is still the average class, 1 hour and 20 minutes? An hour? Ninety minutes? It’s a long-form where you sit and go through it. I understand the value of deep work, we know the power of keynotes. We both give them but how do you entertain in bite bite-size moments? You can get this and share it. The professors, the people that are teaching in a TikTok world with quick bite-sized moments are going to win.
The whole education, you look at a college campus that needs to be an entire experience. People aren’t buying necessarily education. They’re buying the four years of experience, you’ve got gore and you’ve got High Point University, they’ve made it into a resort for kids, that’s winning in that sense. Education? Change the way it’s taught, if you’re looking at the whole experience, treat it like a Disney world, what is that add to it? That’s what I would think from a Disney.
There’s a book out there, If Disney Ran Your Hospital. I would love to see a, what if Disney ran your university?
That’s interesting. It’s such a good mindset. That’s why I wanted to go with the showdown, Jeff. Where would Disney? What would the vision be? It starts with, what are the frustration points, same thing, the amusement parks, dirty, it’s not a great experience and if you go there and then you design based on the details to fit that and you use it. I love how you said, with the music. You’re thinking of a movie, the transitions and the sounds and how they all go and that’s smart. What if we all think about everything we do as a movie? That’s what Disney’s background was. He got 20, 30 years started with sketches into that. I don’t think we talk about that enough. I’m so fascinated, you’ve been grilling me so I’m going to let you grill me for one second. Flip the script, you can ask one question.
Best keynote experience you’ve ever had.
This is hard, hopefully, the people that I spoke to are reading and don’t take it the wrong way. It was definitely Trek World for the Trek Bikes bicycle company. Big stage and there was a lot of skepticism of this crazy guy in a yellow tuxedo, speaking to a multi-billion-dollar brand. After I spoke to the CEO, the president came on stage and he asked a few questions and I asked him, “Can you tell me the one you wouldn’t believe moment that’s happened at this company? You guys have done amazing things.” He goes, “When this crazy guy comes on stage and completely wowed and it’s going to change our organization forever. That was a moment I’ll never forget.” When he said that to me, I walked off stage. I hugged the guy that brought me in and it was a special moment and now I’ve been with them 5 or 6 times since.
A moment that stands out for anybody is a moment that the expectations, you against what people are expecting. You defy the odds a little bit, you go against it. No one thought we could go to a different city and put on a show and sell out the ballpark. You post so many great questions in your book. If you want to get better answers, you got to ask better questions. You’re a professor, you’re a teacher, you’re an educator, you’re a speaker and you’re an author. What are some of the best questions you’re asking?
What would Walt do with COVID?
That’s a very timely question. Why does that interest you?
People are struggling with the current situation. Walt would roll over in his grave if they saw what Disney was doing with this or what Disney was doing with that. I’ve been very fortunate, I’ve had an opportunity to do a number of events with various Disney legends. Bob Gurr, who designed the Matterhorn and the submarines and various vehicles. Tom Nabbe, who Walt hired to be the original Tom Sawyer on Tom Sawyer Island. What I’ve heard those folks say is they never knew what Walt Disney was going to do on any given day. When I hear them say that, I have the opportunity to say the folks who worked with Walt didn’t know what Walt was going to do next.
I’m hard-pressed years later. I never met Walt, so I have no idea what Walt would do now. To think that I have a clue on what Walt would do with Disney now is arrogant on my part. I have no idea and how he would handle COVID. I know that he would put the guests first and that he would put our safety and wellbeing first because it was always important to him. The other thing that I know is, given how much opposition there was to him getting into the amusement or theme park business, Roy had called the banks and said, “If Walt comes down there to talk to you about that ‘damn amusement park,’ I want to know about it.”
At one point, the studio and the stockholders threatened to sue him over it, they were that convinced that was going to run them off the financial cliff. The fact that the park is still operating and is so successful and now the sun never sets on the Disney Park anywhere in the world. He would be thrilled to no end that but he was right, that it is so stinking successful. Is it being run exactly the way he would run it? Of course not but he would be thrilled that many people get to enjoy each and every day, what he originally envisioned and what he originally dreamed of.
I love it. Do you or Nikki have one moment where you guys were touched? You mentioned he still will put guests first. Is there one, when we say fans first moments, is there one moment that happened to you at Disneyland or Disney World or anywhere you’ve been in Disney that you will never forget?
I was speaking at the Disneyland hotel to a large group and they happened to have bought out the Napa Rose Restaurant the night before, which is a five-star restaurant in Orange County at Grande California at the Disney Resort. That remains the best meal we have ever had and it’s where we had eaten ten years earlier on our honeymoon. The idea that we would go back there and be treated by an event that was paying me to speak and it bought the restaurant out for a private. The idea that’s where we would be ten years later was crazy. We had no idea that our life and our vision could take us that far.
We always say every game is someone’s first game and even though that was a second cut time coming back for you, it was a time that you’ll never forget and that plays on the service, the food, everything was an experience that came into one.
It’s an open kitchen and all of the chefs are there. You tell them what you want and they carve it up and serve it up. It’s Disney at its finest.
Quite the experience. You’ve finished your books talking about legacy. What do you think the best lesson there is on leaving a legacy? Something from Walt, there’s something that you’ve learned that you want to leave people with?
I talk about being success lessons for everyone and it’s not a success for the sake of success. It’s about significance. I get handwritten notes, like what you graciously sent me, emails from readers, every month from around the country, literally around the world. It’s the idea that you could do something that is going to have an impact. At the end of the day, whether you’re a business owner, whether you’re a creative, whatever it is that you want to do, that idea, that park bench moment, being that mirror moment. That idea that your effort is going to have some impact or impression that is going to have some significance on somebody else, that’s the legacy. It’s not about success for the sake of success. It’s not about money for the sake of money. It’s the idea that you’re going to move the needle in somebody else’s life and pay it forward if you will. If you think about legacy as being about leaving something behind. I want to leave something forward.
Brilliant my man, I never heard that before and I’ll tell you, you have. As I say with the letter before, the impact that your books have made on me and our team, I have a share mostly but we’re building what we’re calling Banana Land and these experiences and geared on The Savannah Bananas. How we make baseball fun and everything trying to put our mind into what way Walt would think and the lessons that you share. I know you have the confidence and courage to do it. I know in 5, 10, 15, 20 years, it’s going to be creating memories for millions of people and you lay the foundation for that. I’m going to encourage all the readers. They know if I recommend a book, it’s the real deal and The Wisdom of Walt and Beyond the Wisdom of Walt, check it out, learn from Jeff. Obviously, he’s making an impact and Jeff wanted to thank you for everything.
Thank you, Jesse.
About Jeff Barnes
Dr. Jeffrey Barnes is a best selling author and world-renowned Disney keynote speaker on the life and lessons of Walt Disney. While most know the beloved characters and theme parks, few know Walt’s rags-to-riches story of perseverance that brought his success.
Disney faced many obstacles before attaining true success, and ultimately created his most iconic work through the challenges of The Great Depression. Where many would simply quit or take the easy road, Walt continued on following a few simple principles that guided his life.
It was only by deciding to go “All In” that he would start to build the brand synonymous with timeless stories known by billions around the world.
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