Monday, May 21, 2012

Is Walt Disney Being Marginalized?

Here is my preface to a few thoughts about Walt Disney and is status within the company he founded. A few years ago Mrs. DisneylandTravel and I went to the Carnation Cafe for the very first time. The wait to get in was short and we were hungry on this particular day. We hadn't gone to the Carnation Cafe before because, well, not sure but it may be because it is the very first place to eat when you get into the park. Maybe it was a little to far up front. Anyway, we enjoyed our meal thoroughly to the point where we make it a point to go to the Carnation Cafe on every one of our trips since that first visit. So during our first Carnation Cafe meal we got a visit from the Chef. His name was Oscar. He asked how our meals were and if we were having a good day and enjoying our time at the park. We felt honored and privileged to be visited by the Chef and watched as he visited other tables. 

In this particular year, we went back to the park about a month later for our next trip and visited the Carnation Cafe once again. I think it was December and a nice bowl of the baked potato soup would do nicely. Once again Chef Oscar came out to ask if everything was good and how we doing. ????? That Chef sure seems to spend a lot of time with the dining guests. On that trip when I would pass Carnation Cafe I would take a look, most of the time I would see Chef Oscar charming the guests. So I read up about the Carnation Cafe and Chef Oscar when I got home and found out that the nice man was Disneyland's longest tenured cast member (now at something like 55 years of service). He really wasn't a Chef at all. Of course he wasn't a chef, the Carnation Cafe with its limited menu selection is just like any other food place in Disneyland, its meant to serve food quickly without a lot of time and preparation. And the more I thought about it, Chef Oscar, with white coat and tall white chef's hat, could be considered a host or greeter but more than that, he was a character just like any of the many who roam the streets of Disneyland. He is part of the atmosphere, part of what make Disneyland special. But Chef? He may have been, but not anymore.

Has Walt Disney become a version of Chef Oscar? Walt Disney gave his heart and soul to the company he founded. He provided imagination, talent, and vision in the creation of his characters. He built an entertainment company for all to enjoy. He had money problems on and off for almost his entire career only because he continued to reach where no one in Hollywood had tried to reach before. He needed his brother Roy's help to run the company but together the succeeded in building the Walt Disney Company.

And he built Disneyland. He had to beg, barrow, and probably steal to get it done but he did it and charted new territory in the theme park business by providing a place that could be enjoyed by young and old equally. Walt opened Disneyland in 1955. He had a hand in every ride, every attraction, every show, every character, every restaurant that went into the park until his death in 1966 just before Christmas. He had help with a staff of "imagineers" that continued his work and vision in both Disneyland and the new Walt Disney World long after his death. Those parks will built on the ideas and imagination of Walt Disney. But are the now?

The imagineers left over from Walt's time have either retired or passed on. There are very few left in the company. Well, "company" may not be the right word. Disney is the largest media corporation in the world covering the spectrum from network and cable television, films, theme parks, gaming, cruise ships and resorts, and consumer merchandise. There's probably a few more enterprises Disney is in. 

Disneyland is now run by a real corporation. It's not run on imagination or creativity or vision so much anymore. It is run as a business with the theme park just an extension of all the other Disney brands and franchises. Disneyland continues to change, grow, delight, and prosper just as it did in Walt's time and just as Walt wanted but somehow, when taking a step back you see the work of corporate executives and accountants. Disney is a very profitable company and the theme parks need to hold up their end of the company pie.

You see Walt Disney as you walk around the park. There's the firehouse that contains the apartment he and his wife Lillian lived in while the park was under construction. You see Walt's statue in the Main St hub. You can ride on the rides and see some of the attractions he personally saw brought to life. And Walt appears in company artwork, and advertising, in books, on DVDs. Come see Walt, the man who built the Walt Disney Company and Disneyland. But somehow I get the feeling that the corporate executives that run Walt's company never ask the question, "What would Walt do?" anymore.

Now dead for 45 years, and none of the Disney family involved with the running of the company anymore, it seems that Walt has been reduced to the status of a character, a historic icon that actually has some financial value to the current Disney company. Walt still sells even if Walt isn't doing the selling. 

Some think that the way the current company operates would have Walt rolling over in his grave. I don't think so. Walt may have some argument with some of the direction the company is headed. He may have some issues with how a much of the imagination and quality once associated with Disney have been removed from various aspects of the company. He may have a little different vision for the future but overall, I think he would be happy with the outcome. Most of all, Walt wanted his company to be a successful innovator. And on that count, Disney has succeeded big time. 

What about the executives and accountants that now run the company? Well, Disney first sold stock on the New York Stock Exchange 10 years before Walt died. Walt and Roy sold stock off market even years before that as means to stay out of debt and finance future projects. The fact is that Disney is the best at what they do would probably please Walt even if he is being portrayed as every bit the iconic founding character as his Mickey Mouse.

Chef Oscar and Walt Disney. The visible surface of things is one thing, the reality is another.

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