More and more, I’m coming to the conclusion that it is best to read books about topics where you have an intense interest. I find that there are similar lessons across many books, but that at least for me, I’m much more likely to remember the lessons and the information in a book I’m deeply interested in.
I am very interested in Disney. I grew up in Minnesota, and to escape the brutal winters, we’d visit my grandparents in Florida nearly every year. My grandparents lived relatively close to Disney World, so I grew up visiting the park from age 5 on. Some of my best childhood memories are from Disney World and the surrounding parks and those experiences had a big impact on the direction of my life and interests.
Despite having spent many days at Disney parks and many hours watching his films, I knew very little about the man himself. This book by Neal Gabler is a thorough study of Walt Disney. It’s 633 dense pages of fascinating information. I think it’s best to just list some of the things that stuck out to me in this book:
- Walt had a difficult relationship with his father and spoke often about overcoming the obstacle of a sad childhood.
- Despite the sad childhood, a bright spot was when they lived in Marceline, Missouri, a small town that Walt eventually used as inspiration for Main Street at Disneyland and Disney World.
- Walt would have an entire movie in his head. For example, for Snow White, he would regularly act out a 3-hour version of the story, complete with all characters, facial expressions, and interactions. This reminded me a lot of Mozart who would have a whole symphony in his head before writing it down.
- Walt reminded me a lot of Steve Jobs in that they both had an unbelievably obsessive eye for detail. They both would start all over on a project of it wasn’t right.
- Walt had his brother Roy to take care of the business side. Someone made the comment that Roy’s goal was to stay out of debt. Walt’s was to stay in debt. Their partnership was one of the great ones.
- A strike at the Disney studios in the early 1940’s resulted in the loss of nearly half of the staff and forever destroyed the spirit of the studio. Walt’s later interests outside of the studio may have largely been a result of this disillusionment.
- During WWII, the Disney studio made movies for the government, educational films, and straight-out propaganda.
- I was surprised to learn of Walt’s overbearing and outright cruel treatment of his employees (again, similar to Steve Jobs) that contrasted quite drastically with his outward persona.
- Walt and his wife Lillian had 3 miscarriages. They had one daughter of natural birth and one adopted daughter.
- Walt & Roy’s mother died in a house they purchased for their parents. The special heater in the home malfunctioned and released carbon monoxide, killing their mother. That was the biggest heartache of Walt’s life. He lost his mom and felt mostly to blame.
- TV had a big impact on Disney. Here are some of the main ways:
- The Disney studio was one of the first film studios to make the shift to TV, and they did so with ABC, a small player at the time
- Disney later moved from ABC to NBC and was one of the first shows to make the shift from black and white to color.
- TV made Walt Disney known for his face and not just his name (he became as well-recognized for the Disney brand as Mickey Mouse).
- TV funded the creation of Disneyland. The money that came in from ABC was the seed funding that got Disneyland off the ground.
- Walt had a huge interest in city planning. He died before he could get his main city planning project off the ground.
- Walt and his wife founded the California Institute the Arts (CalArts).
I’m going to be reading Walter Isaacson’s Da Vinci book later this year. While reading the Walt Disney book, I kept thinking that Walt was the modern-day renaissance man. He was into so many different things – drawing, animation, full-length live-action movies, exhibit creator, art school founder, park creating, city planning, and train conduction, just to name a few. He’s had a tremendous impact on American culture and has created little bits of happiness for millions of people. What a legacy. What a man. What a book.