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How Disney Culture Values Excellence

Few corporations have maintained such high standards as Disney.

by
Chris Queen

Bio

May 17, 2013 - 2:00 pm

We live in an era of disposable pop culture. All around us we see vapid reality series, uninspired (and uninspiring) music, movies that are little more than retreads of other bad ideas, and starlets who are famous merely for being famous. Of course, this stuff is not necessarily bad in and of itself — in fact, mindless pop culture can make for some great “guilty pleasure” moments.

 

The truth is, when any form of entertainment achieves excellence, we notice. Television programs like Mad Men and Friday Night Lights, music by artists such as Mumford & Sons and Zac Brown Band, and films like Lincoln and Les Miserables attract attention because they raise the bar in their genre.

The idea of excellence as something for which to strive goes back to the Bible. Jewish and Christian believers alike are aware of the admonishments in Scripture to give our all. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon advises:

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NIV)

And the Apostle Paul encourages the believers in Colosse:

And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

[...]

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

Colossians 3:17, 23-24 (NIV)

Walt Disney felt the pull to achieve excellence, in part because his name was on every product the studio created. He once said, “Anything that has a Disney name to it is something we feel responsible for.” He instilled the value of excellence in his staff as well — he once hailed his staff as “the ones who insist on doing something better and better.” A sign on a construction wall from my last trip to Walt Disney World expresses this value.

Over the course of the next couple of pages, we’re going to take a look at how this value of excellence shows up throughout Disney culture.

Everybody knows that the Disney Studios artists cut their teeth on animation. At first the cartoon shorts reflected the same crude gags and shortcut-laden techniques of all the other studios in the business, but Walt knew his studio was capable of more. So he added new innovations. Flowers and Trees was the first animated short to employ full Technicolor, and it won an Oscar. Three Little Pigs made use of a musical theme, created a mega-hit song in “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” and won another Oscar. The Old Mill marked the debut of the multiplane camera (which simulated 3-D effects) and won yet another Oscar.

By the middle of the thirties, Walt made up his mind that his studio would create the first feature length animated picture: Snow White and the Seven DwarfsWalt strenuously watched over every detail of the film’s production, and it became a runaway hit. With Snow White and subsequent features (particularly Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi), budget and time were no objects to Walt — much to the chagrin of his brother, Roy, who handled the studio’s finances. Instead, creating the perfect product mattered, and while many of these early films were not hits in their initial release, they eventually made profits and garnered respect and acclaim.

Later, Walt would turn his attention to live action films, and, when he was passionate about a project, he would exercise as much control as he could. This commitment to excellence didn’t always pay off, but the efforts produced classics like 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, and what many consider Walt’s masterpiece, Mary Poppins.

Today we can see a similar — if not greater — value of excellence in the works of Pixar, where computer animation is an art form. But Walt found an even greater, more exciting way to immerse guests into the worlds he envisioned.

Walt Disney’s initial plan for Disney World included a futuristic, experimental city.

Many people consider the Disney Parks to be Walt’s greatest legacy. In fact, he spent the last decade and a half of his life focusing on creating complete, immersive experiences for his guests. From Walt Disney’s initial vision to build a park where adults would have as much fun as their kids to the Imagineers’ continued creativity and use of innovative technology, the Disney Parks exemplify the commitment to excellence.

Initially, Walt’s idea for a theme park took root in the “daddy’s days” when he would take his daughters to amusement parks around Los Angeles on Sunday afternoons. Sitting on a bench waiting for his girls, Walt longed for a place where the entire family could have fun together, and he began to draw up plans for a small park across the street from the studio. It didn’t take long for his ideas to outgrow the land, and the company bought acreage in nearby Anaheim for Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

The vision for Disneyland shifted from just a Disney-themed amusement park to a destination where guests could forget the outside world once they entered the gates. Disney themed each attraction and every land of the park to the highest detail. Landscapers built an earthen berm to keep out the encroachment of the world. The park so successfully achieved its intent that respected members of the architectural community took note. Architect Charles Moore wrote:

…in an uncharitable sea of suburbia, Disney has created a place, indeed a whole public world, full of sequential occurrences, of big and little drama, of hierarchies of importance and excitement, with opportunities to respond at the speed of rocketing bobsleds (or rocketing rockets, for all that) or of horse-drawn streetcars.

Speaking at an urban design conference at Harvard in 1963, urban planner James Rouse said:

I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this: that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland. If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose, it’s meaning to people – more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development – you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity – the amusement park – and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really does become a brand new thing. It fulfills all its functions it set out to accomplish, un-self-consciously, usefully, and profitably to its owners and developers. I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other piece of physical development in the country.

But before long, Anaheim’s urban sprawl became too much, and Walt looked elsewhere to take his vision to the next level. The 27,000 acres the company purchased in central Florida allowed for ultimate control of the parks and their environs. Walt Disney World, which opened in 1971, also boasted creative new ideas and experimental technology. Disney even built an underground tunnel system at the Magic Kingdom which houses nearly all the “behind the scenes” systems and allows cast members access from one land of the park to another. Building three more parks in Florida has allowed Imagineers to raise the bar in terms of creativity and excellence.

Spaceship Earth is the centerpiece of Epcot’s Future World.

Disney has also built parks in Paris, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, with plans on the books for a park in Shanghai. In each park, advances in technology allow for innovative, exciting experiences for new generations.

Cynics may scoff at what Disney has to offer, and some hardcore fans have such high standards that they constantly carp when Disney falls short, but the Disney Parks continue to raise the bar for excellence in family entertainment.

Disney’s passionate pursuit of perfection has inspired me my entire life. I grew up on the classic films — along with some of the more obscure ones. My family takes multi-generational trips just about every year to Walt Disney World. Disney culture is a huge part of who I am.

More than anything else, those Disney vacations motivate me to pursue excellence even more in my daily life. Seeing how the Imagineers take care of every detail, appreciating theming and decor that are second to none, immersing myself in all things Disney – every aspect of my time at Disney World invigorates me. Without fail, I come home from these trips inspired to aim for excellence at work, at home, in ministry, and in my writing and other creative endeavors. It’s the pop-culture version of a mountain-top experience, and it’s what Disney can do for anyone.

All Chris Queen wanted to be growing up was a game show host, a weather man, or James Bond. But his writing talent won out. By day, Chris is a somewhat mild-mannered office manager for an IT managed services provider, but by night, he keeps his finger on the pulse of pop culture and writes about it. In addition to his Disney obsession (as evidenced by his posts on this website), Chris's interests include college sports -- especially his beloved Georgia Bulldogs -- and a wide variety of music. A native of Marietta, GA, Chris moved with his family as a child to nearby Covington, GA, where he still makes his home. He is an active charter member of Eastridge Community Church and enjoys spending time with family and friends. In addition to his work at PJ Media, Chris spent nearly a year as a contributor to NewsReal Blog. He has also written for Celebrations Magazine and two newspapers in Metro Atlanta. Check out his website, www.chrisqueen.net.

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All Comments   (8)
All Comments   (8)
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I recommend that EscapeVelocity's comment be unreported. Until then, I recommend clicking on it. It is why I have no plans to ever visit any Disney park.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"Song of the South" was a magnificent recognition of the little known reveries alluded to, an older ex-slave, "Uncle Remus"!
"Uncle Remus" actually was a very popular historical "character", created by a journalist at the turn of the last century, and written, in a very classic interpretation of a southern drawl!
The "Uncle Remus" stories were actually the insights of a fine mind, albeit formal education. and they were often the modernization of many traditional African stories told by African fathers and mothers, to their children.
The local animals were often the basic "Characters" of the stories, and they were given human insight!! Bre'r Bear comes to mind!
I believe the rabbit was the most ingenious of the lot having outsmarted the fox and others, who were hell-bent on having the "RABBIT" FOR dinner!
Walt Disney's movie portrayal was "spot on", as far as the loving and grandfatherly approach, of the ex-slave for ALL the youngsters of the neighborhood, regardless of their social status and color!
Misguided pressure of the 'sixty's drove the show out of the theaters, similar to the pressure always brought when discussing "Huckleberry Finn"!
Many cannot get beyond the rhetoric to see the real message, and it's a perfect setting for the "Usual Suspects" to get out, and bang their racial drum!
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
When I was coaching basketball I had seen a quote that I had put on the shirts of the players.

On the front was the single word EXCELLENCE

on the back was

CARING more than other think is wise
RISKING more than others think is safe
DREAMING more than others think is practical
EXPECTING more than others think is possible

It was taken from a comment made by an Olympic athlete, and in the spirit of the Olympics, in the spirit of Coach Wooden, excellence isn't about winning, it is about striving to do one's best and not settling for anything except the best that one can do

The result will sort itself out later.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
I've enjoyed to Disney World parks nearly every year for over 20 years now. But, I have noticed to steady creep away from Walt's ideals. Walt never allowed alcohol to be sold in his parks. He was dead against it. Now you see people walking all over the park drinking beer.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
The decline of Disney quality is so acute that it pained me to see this headline. Nevertheless, I skimmed the article. It's telling that Chris Queen's story of Disney quality ends with Walt's death.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
Disney a great company? MY ASS IT IS!

Are you at all familiar with the Copyright Term Extension Act?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copyright_Term_Extension_Act

NOTHING ever enters the public domain anymore just to pick at the bones of Walt Disney.

"The Act extended these terms to life of the author plus 70 years and for works of corporate authorship to 120 years after creation or 95 years after publication, whichever endpoint is earlier"

WAY easier to just live off Mickey Mouse than create ANYTHING creative.
45 weeks ago
45 weeks ago Link To Comment
"starlets who are famous merely for being famous."

And who is the biggest generator of these pop tarts? Why, Disney! It's the House of House whose kiddie-star PR factory created Britney Spears, Cristina Aguilera, Lindsey Lohan, Miley Cyrus.....
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
A friend of mine told me that Disney was making excellent movies for teens with good acting and content before the death of Disney president Frank Wells in 1994. Wells was overshadowed by Eisner in the public eye, and there were disagreements between them.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Wells
After his death in a helicopter accident, my friend said the good movies stopped and the "kiddie-star PR factory" started.
I am not implying that there was foul play involved at all, but as a Disney historian of sorts, Mr. Queen, could you investigate this downturn in the quality of the movies and programs? Did it coincide with the death of Wells?
Just look at the insipid shows for teens that today bear the Disney name. They are pretty silly fluff, barely rising above sit com standards. Most of all, I would like a source for and names of the quality movies produced during Wells' tenure.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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