Niki and I took a drive on Memorial Day. This may not sound like much to you, but for me, it was a bit of a risk. I’ve taken the “Shelter in Place” orders seriously and haven’t ventured more than ten miles from home. I haven’t even been on a freeway since the governor first locked us down way back in mid-March. Now that California is finally reopening, albeit slowly, my timing couldn’t be worse. I am personally having to self-isolate in advance of brain surgery on June 4.
Welcome to citizenship in the land of vulnerable populations.
We took the drive anyway and went to Disneyland. The Happiest Place on Earth was, of course, closed, and yet we went. Why? Because it had been too long.
Way. Too. Long.
As we traveled west on the 91 freeway and transitioned south onto the 57, seeing Matterhorn Mountain has never mattered more.
Niki spotted it first, raising her hand and pointing skyward, but the emotion of the moment left her speechless.It took driving a few more miles and reaching the edge of the empty park before she was finally able to sob out, “I just miss it all so much.”
We took the drive, and I took the calculated risk, because I needed the reassurance. I needed to know in this crazy world, in these uncertain times, and in advance of another brain surgery, that Walt’s timeless park still stands. Now, obviously, the Magic Kingdom hasn’t gone anywhere. After all, in my last blog post, I shared videos of the Thunderbirds flying over the Disneyland Resort, and flags being raised on a resilient Main Street, U.S.A.
But seeing is believing. And on this Memorial Day, I needed to see it for myself. So I was willing to take that risk. I needed to take that chance.
As we drove around the park’s perimeter, I tried to take in as much from the outside as possible. The Matterhorn is the most obvious, but after sixty-five years of continuous growth and expansion, there is now a lot to see without ever going inside. The spires of Space Mountain, the monorail tracks along Harbor Boulevard, Tower of Terror (aka Mission Breakout) towering over California Adventure, the backside of Cars Land, the white-washed serpentine tracks of the Incredi-Coaster (California Screamin’) with Mickey’s Fun Wheel smiling down from above, Downtown Disney, and the very edges of Galaxy’s Edge.
This trip took me all the way back to early 1955. Like Niki and me, Walt once took a drive to a Disneyland that wasn’t open. His problem wasn’t a pandemic, but continuous construction delays. Atop an observation tower erected in the park’s center, Walt looked out on his property and saw what was, essentially, a giant hole in the ground. There were sewer systems, mounds of dirt, and critical support systems, but no show. For a man who was building Disneyland for the purpose of telling stories, it bothered him.
“I have half of the money spent,” Walt told Imagineer Harper Goff, “and nothing to show for it. Nothing. There isn’t one thing that any human being would spend .15 cents to come and see. I’m scared.”
I’ve done the math for you (you’re welcome), and .15 cents in 1955 is equal to $1.29 today. Niki and I would have happily paid $1.29, each, for our Disneyland drive-by last week. In fact, we would happily pay full price for a chance to walk back into our beloved park today…no rides, no shows, no parades, and no fireworks.
Just the park, please.
When Walt and his team of Imagineers were designing Disneyland, they developed and deployed a technique now known as the “Architecture of Reassurance.” The idea was to remove the conflict and chaos of our real world and replace it with a sense of safety and serenity in a carefully crafted, themed, and reimagined space. Walt didn’t just want a place where “parents and children could have fun together.” He wanted adults and children to feel better after having visited the Park. According to the Imagineers, after visiting Disneyland, Walt wanted guests to feel “more self-assured, stronger, alert, and much more alive.”
That’s why Niki and I took the risk and made the drive on Memorial Day. We never set foot inside The Happiest Place on Earth, yet just seeing, from a distance, Walt’s resilient park still standing after sixty-five years made both of us feel better. Stronger. Alert. Much more alive.
Suddenly, we were no longer scared.
I no longer felt quite so vulnerable.
I am convinced that when our world opens up again, we will need Walt and his Parks more than ever. Not for the traditional escapes of entertainment and amusement, but for their examples of reassurance and resiliency. This is why I just launched a brand new website, and have developed new Disney keynotes focusing on courage, leadership, and resiliency that will connect with audiences as we navigate through the Covid-19 crisis and beyond.
Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first), but most people wouldn’t do this upgrade and make this investment in a world where people can’t gather for large events and while personally dealing with a second brain tumor and facing major surgery. But isn’t that what risk, courage, conflict, reassurance, and resiliency are all about? Niki and I faced this in 2014 when I was first teaching my History of Disneyland class while delaying surgery for the first brain tumor. I survived, the class went on, and two best-selling books followed. The new website is there as a statement of faith. Just like the Parks will be ready and waiting when this pandemic is over, come August, after recovering from my current surgery, I will be ready to take the stage again.
Where did Walt learn resiliency? Not from his successes, but from his setbacks. Starting with the bankruptcy in Kansas City, through losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to staring at the hole in the ground that would one day become Disneyland, Walt kept bouncing backing back again and again.
You and your company can, too.
The Wisdom of Walt is here to help.
Let’s put Walt to work for you and your team.
Please check out and share the new website:
Better yet, don’t hesitate to reach out to me now (email@example.com
) for a virtual or in-person event in August or beyond.
It may not sound like much, especially for the die-hard Disney fans, but Universal Studios in Florida will reopen this Friday, June 5. SeaWorld on June 11. Walt Disney World’s Magic and Animal Kingdoms are scheduled for July 11. Then Hollywood Studios and Epcot on July 15. The California theme parks, including Disneyland, will hopefully soon follow. With my second brain surgery scheduled for June 4, I guess you could technically say that my “head” is the first thing scheduled to be “reopened.”
“Walt never thought he was beaten at anything—ever!”
— Lillian Disney
I will return with new and updated content on Wednesday, July 15. In the interim, thanks to a couple of good friends and colleagues who have agreed to serve as guest bloggers during my recovery, you will continue receiving content on June 17 and July 1. Your prayers, support, and well wishes are appreciated.
See You Real Soon!