The spires of Cinderella Castle stand majestically above the dozens (maybe hundreds) gathered under its watch. This building is an icon–of its resort, of America, of dreams coming true. Guarding its entrance plaza is a famous statue of its founder with his most special creation. A young child gazes at the statue and converses with her father.
“Daddy, who is that with Mickey?”
“That’s Walt Disney, sweetie.”
“Who’s Wild Disney?”
“He built all of this.”
“Even the castle?”
“Yes, even the castle.”
“Wow. That is wild.”
Ok, so even if its facts were a little skewed, this conversation I overheard in the Magic Kingdom last week is a raw glimpse into the public’s perception of who Walt Disney is. Even if a family loves the Disney brand or enjoys a visit to Walt Disney World, they may not have any real understanding that before any corporate identification, this all goes back to one man. On the fiftieth anniversary of Walt Disney’s death on December 15, 1966, today we celebrate and pay tribute to a person whose impact extends far beyond his lifetime.
I feel that most people (at least adults) are aware that Walt Disney was a real person, but the awareness stops there. Do they know where he was born? What his family life was like? The progression of his studio as his ambition and success heightened? What about his personality? His hobbies? His work ethic? There is a multitude of media produced over the years that provide accounts of Walt, the man. There are those that align their encounters with him to the jovial, fatherly figure depicted on television every Sunday night. Others point to a darker, grittier side. Still others are somewhere in between. Mapping out who to believe, what to take as fact, and what to dismiss might just be a futile endeavor with such an abundance of sources, especially with so much passed time since his death, and with fewer and fewer primary sources who knew him personally.
What we can all agree on today, then, is the thing from Walt’s life we all still share each and every day: his legacy. Whether you can rattle off every obscure fact about his Marceline childhood or whether you think his first name is “Wild”… or even if you haven’t even stopped to consider that the word “Disney” is something beyond a brand name… it doesn’t matter the level of knowledge, we all go through those entrance tunnels underneath the railroad and step into the Magic Kingdom just the same way, enjoying the enduring legacy of a genius entertainer.
This begs the question: Is it important to know about Walt Disney in order to appreciate his work? The short answer is no, but the better answer is that new layers of appreciation unfold the more one understands who Walt was as a person. At the very least, recognition of the fact that he was a person is a great starting point for some; just a simple awareness that this vacation kingdom didn’t materialize out of nothing, that the whole company was named after and led by a man whose work embodied his ideals. Going further, brushing up on a bit of biographical history about Walt will undoubtedly payoff with a multidimensional vacation experience, especially in Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Deeper still, an understanding of what ideals and principles were most important to Walt offers a fascinating study of which aspects of those concepts are most predominant when exploring Walt Disney World.
What about learning about Walt while we’re on vacation? Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream at Disney’s Hollywood Studios offers an excellent walk-through museum experience, though has recently become fragmented with promotions for Disney’s latest films as a replacement for a bio film. Beyond information itself, there are certain attractions that simply radiate with the very spirit of what Walt Disney was all about. Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress especially comes to mind as a beacon of the optimism and family that Walt so passionately stood for.
In the conversation shared above, the father might have been inaccurate with what Walt “built” and the timeline of the park’s construction (as the castle was constructed after Walt’s passing). The little girl might grow up wondering if “Walt” is a brother or cousin of “Wild Disney.” But the essence of that conversation, regardless, of fact, still got the core truth correct: The place that the father and daughter enjoyed together that day was made possible by a person who followed his dreams and inspired others to do the same. A different conversation I overheard later that same day on the Monorail cements the legacy with more perspective. As the Monorail glides around Seven Seas Lagoon, guests get a sometimes-revelatory bird’s-eye view of the scope and size of the Disney property. While looking out both windows at the miles of land surrounding them on either side, the couple conversed.
“…and that castle.”
“It really is. And you know the craziest part?”
“It all started as something inside one person’s imagination.”
That much is true. The collection of major resort destinations… the massive library of films… the array of television networks… the immeasurable connection people share with countless characters… whether Walt had a direct hand in the current components of the company he left behind, his legacy built all of it, and began with something as simple as imagination. With such a complex, fascinating, and prominent individual, a natural response is wanting to learn more. As we celebrate the legacy of Walt fifty years after his passing, we invite you to join us for a look back through the WDW Radio Show archives with episodes that highlight Walt, the person, in hopes that your enjoyment of his legacy can be deepened by your appreciation for who he was.
Blake graduated Appalachian State University studying Electronic Media Production/Broadcasting and Film. He is currently a participant of the Disney College Program. Blake’s favorite attraction is the hub grass. You can find him on Twitter @blake_242 or at BlakeOnline.com.