#276 – What Can We Learn From Walt Disney? With Jeff Barnes

Thomas Green here with Ethical Marketing Service on the episode today we have Jeff Barnes, Jeff welcome. Hi Thomas, would you like to take a moment and tell the audience a bit about yourself and what you Do. I would. So um my name is Jeff Barnes are otherwise known as Dr. Disneyland and I spent 20 years in higher education where I created the world’s only accredited college course on the history of Disneyland and I recently retired from higher education and now I travel the United States the world. I just got back from Canada um where I um write books and talked to audience about walt. Disney. Disneyland walt Disney world, but to be honest, thomas um it’s really about the significance of story and how we can take our love of Disney um and leverage that to then go out and live our own great story.

Thank you for the introduction. I am fascinated by the concept of, I think people do recognize that walt or his company, one of the two. And I’d like to ask you a bit about that have made a massive impact on the world, but not many people have, let’s say created a course based on him or you know, who speak about about walt and written books about him. So why did you do those things? Well, um yeah, I I came from a bit of a dysfunctional background which I know isn’t particularly unique. Um but I found a lot of comfort in in the Disney Parks and I I got super curious, you know, walt was asked one time and he never got past ninth grade in his own formal education, but he was asked one time, hey, what do you think is the secret to success? And walt said, you know, it really comes down to four C’s and coming out of higher education?

There’s a lot of students who think c’s get degrees right? So walt may have been onto something, waltz foresees to success were confidence, courage, consistency and curiosity. And out of those four at least for me. Um I’m insatiably curious and because I loved Disneyland, I was super curious about walt Disney’s story and he wasn’t born successful. I think we can all identify with that uh, impoverished childhood, difficult relationship with his father, um, bankrupt with his first studio. Nearly 100 years ago at the age of 21 lost his first successful cartoon character, which was not mickey mouse. And then um, when it came time to dirt to do the world’s first full length animated feature film, Snow White and the seven doors No one to include his own brother, thought he should expand beyond Um, the success of the short cartoons.

And at age 53 when he wanted to get into the amusement park business, everyone thought that Disneyland would be bankrupt, shuttered and forgotten in six months or less. And so I fell in love with that story of resilience, adversity, overcoming obstacles and for all of Walt’s success, he most wanted to be remembered as a storyteller and I, I just fell in love with the story. It’s an amazing answer, Thank you. And in my previous question, I alluded to the fact that I don’t know why, but what, what springs to me is um how do you differentiate between walt? Disney the man and Disney the company when you’re discussing these topics, uh that is a beautiful question and there absolutely is a distinction. Um you know, walt, the individual over time became a brand and even walt recognized that he wasn’t walt Disney and what he meant by that was walt.

Disney doesn’t smoke and walt smoked walt. Disney doesn’t drink and walt drank. Um and the person that we saw on television, starting on Wednesday nights with um the Disneyland tv program that came on abc, and then eventually the sunday night program, which was on NBC television, um that was a particular persona that um I I think the country in overtime the world fell in love with and, and walt was the persona and the voice behind mickey mouse, but starting in the 19 forties, Disney became a publicly traded stock company and those two are not necessarily the same thing and walt struggled with it as well. So, for example, when um, he was building Disneyland, um the studio and the stockholders nearly sued him over it, convinced that um his idea for an amusement park was going to bankrupt the studio.

And so a lot of people today don’t always agree with what the company is doing. Don’t think that um walt would agree with the direction that they’re headed. Um and you, you have to recognize that they’re not necessarily answering to walt’s legacy, they’re not necessarily doing quote unquote what walt would do, and it’s impossible to know what walt would do in 2022. Um They’re doing what they think is best for the bottom line stockholders. Well, you mentioned resiliency in your in your previous answer, and what do you think are the main messages or some of the main messages from the films that based on his experience of life, that he tried to put into those films so that kids could learn from them? Well, I think it starts with what walt understood story to be. And the temptation is to associate story with once upon a time and happily ever after, and nothing could be further from the truth.

Um WAlt recognized that every great story requires conflict and he never shied away from the dark shadows of life. Um He knew that in order to level up, you had to do hard and difficult things. And as a result, even though he was creating quote unquote Children movies, there were dark and difficult elements in all of those films. And like I said, walt had a difficult past. He had his own difficult childhood and yet at the same time, he continuously pressed forward. He never stayed stuck in that past. Um he he honored that past. He he knew the stories of that past. Um you know, we talk a lot today about vulnerability and walt leaned into the memories of that past, but at the same time he, he constantly moved forward?

His wife lily said, I’ve never seen walt beaten at anything and so, you know, rather than allowing external circumstances to dictate staying stuck. So for example, when he went bankrupt in Kansas city, he could have given up, he could have just stayed there and it would have been the safer option. It’s where he had friends that were, it’s where he had family. But rather than doing that Thomas, he boarded the train, he boarded the train for California and he boarded that train with $40 a single suitcase in a one way ticket. He was committed to his success. He was committed to moving forward and he took decisive action. It’s a really cool answer. Um do you know much about kind of kind of going on from what the previous question, I think I’ve heard it described as like he started off with the message of Wish upon a Star.

Um and then with um I can’t remember the name of the film now. It’s where one of them turns into a frog. I’m asking the right person, We’re one of what turns into a frog. Disney has a lot of movies that might be a theme actually. But Princess and the Frog is the film, She starts yet Yana and she starts talking about, you know about the fact that it does nothing and you should focus on hard work. And I think I heard that he was attempting to get people away from the concept of wishing and more towards the concept of hard work. Have you got any thoughts to that long and rambling question? Yeah. So We’ll also said beyond the 4Cs, if you want to accomplish something in life, you’re going to have to work at it. And the best way to get something done is to stop talking and start doing.

His brother Roy said, I never saw walt that he wasn’t guess what working. And so it starts with your beliefs followed by your thoughts, followed by your emotions, followed by your actions. Um A big part of my message when I’m speaking to audiences, like I was last week in Canada is that did Disneyland started as a thought. It started as a thought when he would take his two young daughters, Diane and Sharon every saturday afternoon, which was daddy’s day in the Disney household to Griffith Park in Los Angeles and the girls would write a merry go round and walt would sit on a bench and he was there on that bench, he wasn’t distracted like we are in 2022 with our phones and social media email and what have you and the girls are on the merry go round waltz on this bench and he has an idea, he has what many came to believe was a crazy thought. It’s on that bench that he began to dream of a place where parents and Children could have fun together.

Now thomas, I believe we all have thoughts. We all have ideas. We all have crazy dreams. But the key is walt gets up off of that bench, he gets up off of that bench and he, what he starts taking action. And one of his first steps, one of his first action steps is he draws up plans for what he wants to call mickey mouse Park on eight acres that he had available next to the studio in Burbank. Takes it to the Burbank City Council and the Burbank City Council tells him, no, they don’t want to quote unquote carnival atmosphere in their town. Well, this is a message in resiliency because walt understood that no simply means next option. And so he hires the stanford research group to serve a southern California and find him the best location for his amusement park. Again, that place where parents and Children could have fun together and rather than eight acres next to the studio in Burbank, they find him 100 and 60 acres for a magic kingdom in an orange grove in Anaheim.

We’ll fast forward to 1971. They’re gonna open up walt Disney world in central florida, which is 100 and 50 times the size of Disneyland, 27,440 acres. So he goes from eight acres, 260 acres to 27,440 acres. All from an idea on a park bench. But the key is what to get up and start taking action, probably a lesson there about. Even when you get to know it could be good for you as well, right? Because if he okay with the eight acres, I mean you never know where it could have gone there well and I believe that about the bankruptcy in Kansas city, um, if laugh zero g Studio is a success, then maybe walt Disney spends what the rest of his life in Kansas city, he needed to get on that train with $40 a single suitcase and a one way ticket.

He needs to join forces with his older brother Roy because if it’s not for Roy, he never founds the second studio, which today is the largest entertainment company anywhere in the world and the success of the second studio, the difference maker isn’t walt. The difference maker is Roy, that partnership was absolutely incredible. Is there any examples or anything that comes to mind for you about how learning about this topic has influenced you personally. So instances where you could draw upon that experience and apply it to your own life. Absolutely. So, um, when I was dean of student success at a university here in southern California, I was responsible for raising retention rates, raising graduation rates, I was working with struggling students and what it takes to be successful and achieve your goals. Those principles are fairly universal. I wanted to use something that I knew the students could identify with and what everybody loves here in southern California of course is Disneyland.

And so I started dreaming my crazy thought. My crazy idea was a college course on the history of Disneyland and I pitched what I called my quote unquote mickey mouse idea, got permission and worked on it for a solid year the day after I gave the very first lecture thomas and, and the students love it. And so if if you’ve been sitting on an idea, if you’ve been sitting on your dream, you need to understand the importance of taking action isn’t just for you. It’s for others as well. The students loved it. And then the very next day I was diagnosed with a life threatening brain tumor and the neurosurgeon at cedars Sinai in downtown Los Angeles said to me, um, it’s gotta come out today’s friday, you have the weekend to get your affairs in order. We’re gonna operate on Tuesday because of the invasiveness of the surgery. Recovery time is two months and you’re gonna be out of work that entire time, which meant the class would be canceled and who knows if it would ever get scheduled again.

I thought about it for about half a second and I remembered walt boarding that train in Kansas city and boarding that train with $40 a single suitcase in a one way ticket and I absolutely refused the neurosurgeon thought I was nuts and he wanted to know what class are you teaching that’s so important and so significant that you’re willing to take that kind of risk thomas. When I said to him history of well Disneyland, I thought he was going to kill me before the tumor ever had a chance. But I passionately believe we all have ideas, but I think even more so we reached that moment in our life where we have to go all in and that was my all in moment. I taught the class, spoiler alert, I had this surgery, It was successful and I went on to write two bestselling books and now again, I traveled the country in the world as an inspirational motivational speaker. Thank you very much for the answer and your affairs in order is a, is a somewhat intimidating, intimidating phrase.

Um, and I’m happy that you are, you had a successful surgery for those who perhaps also have received that message. Either, let’s say they’re going for brain surgery or someone says to them, get your affairs in order. What can you help them with? Um, those are tough moments. Uh, and we all have to recognize life is short and we don’t have forever and you know, the ideas, the crazy thoughts, the dreams that you’re sitting on. You got to get up off your own personal park bench and start taking action. Um, you know, I go back to when walt lost his first successful cartoon character, which again was not mickey mouse, it was Oswald, the lucky rabbit and he went with his wife lily to new york city um to negotiate what he hoped was going to be a bigger and better contract and instead, um, they took the character away.

So walt is steering bankruptcy in the face all over again. This is March of 1928 and on the train ride home rather than panicking, he pivots and it’s in that pivot, he remembers a character who had kept him company five years earlier during the bankruptcy in Kansas City. And that character was a little mouse. And so he sketches out the first story and that’s when he comes up with what we know today to be the world’s most popular and profitable cartoon character mickey mouse. But thomas before he ever got on the train, he sent a telegram to his business partner and yes, older brother Roy and part of that telegram said, do not worry everything okay? And I believe in our own individual life, career, professional business story. We’re always in a crisis coming out of a crisis are headed into a crisis.

And the constant message, we need to be telling ourselves is exactly what walt said to Roy. Do not worry everything okay. And yeah, you might be looking at bankruptcy, you might be looking at a brain tumor. Um, but it’s all in terms of how we frame our own life story. And for me, uh, yeah, the biggest conflict I ever faced was that brain tumor, But it also gave me what I’ve always wanted. And that was the opportunity to be an author. The opportunity to not just be a speaker, but a full time speaker. And what we need to recognize is the bigger our dragons, the better our story. The great answer. Thank you for sharing it. He referenced the class that you were going to teach and if I’m not mistaken, he said it was on goals. Is that right? Well, it was, um, so I used Disneyland as a vehicle for getting students to understand the importance of adversity, conflict, obstacles and achieving their own goals and their own success and now, um, because I’m no longer at the university, I write and speak full time.

I’ve actually moved the course to an online format. So folks can take it anywhere in the world. But yes, it, um, it focuses on the history of walt, the history of Disneyland, but it has very much a success and goal element to it. And um, what can we learn from walt on goals? Well, the importance of your ideas, um, the importance of framing your life in the context of story. Um, the importance of taking action, recognizing and you picked up on this already, um, that our adversities are moving us forward to where we want and need to be. And I think in addition to all of that, the park itself teaches us some wonderful lessons. So for example, um walt, having been a producer in Hollywood for decades before he built Disneyland. Now is going to be telling stories in an outdoor environment. He’s going to lose the control that he was accustomed to vis a vis a soundstage.

So how is he going to get that control back? Well, the solution came when he dredged out 350 tons of dirt in the rivers of America in frontier land and he took those 350 tons of dirt and built a 22 12 ft earthen Berm around the perimeter of the park. And if you’ve ever been to Disneyland, you ever been to the original magic kingdom? You’re in southern California, which is home to some 25 million people. And yet interestingly enough here inside Disneyland, it’s magical. It’s an escape. You would never, in a million years think that you’re surrounded by again, 25 million people. And it’s because of that perimeter. It’s because of that Berm. It keeps the magic of the Magic Kingdom in and the distractions of the outside world out. And I challenge people all the time. You need to build a Berm around your big ideas around your big goals.

So many of us, we get up every single day and we do the same thing over and over and over again, we get up, we go to work, we check our email, we listen to our voicemails, we attend the same meetings and we wonder why nothing changes in our life. If you were to build a Berm Around your calendar and believe it or not, it doesn’t really take more than 5-20 minutes in terms of a daily habit. But if you were to build some sort of Berm in your calendar for your big ideas for your big goals, focus keep those distractions out. Your life would change really quick. Three months or a year from now. I, I had been wanting to write my first book for more than two decades and on the other side of brain surgery after not knowing how to do it for 20 years, I finished it in 100 and 42 days. And part of that was because I got over myself because you know, we’ve been staring death in the face.

But then secondly, I used the Berm, I put um that on my calendar and I got serious about it. I wrote no less than 333 words every Single day. Sometimes I wrote more, but no less than 333 words 142 days later I sent it to the editor. So if you can build that berm around your calendar about the big things that you’re not doing instead of the other things that you’re doing every single day, you can level up in your life pretty quickly? Congratulations on becoming an author. Everything that you kind of highlight about him makes me think he had such an impact on the world and in a way, still does. Is there anyone that you think is comparable in modern day life? Um I actually think that steve jobs and I know steve jobs isn’t with us anymore either.

Um, but steve jobs, what so walt came from the midwest. He was born in Chicago Illinois in december of 1901 and then migrated to California in uh, 1923 steve jobs was born in California, but for me, steve jobs was sort of um, the second half, 40th century version of walt Disney in terms of his vision and um, the way in which he had an impact on the world. Now, steve’s personality, I think was a little bit different. And I think some of that was a byproduct of growing up in a different time and growing up on the west coast versus say the midwest, interesting, thank you. And, and by the way, when steve jobs died, he was Disney’s largest shareholder. No, I didn’t know that, but yeah, like you said, highlighting a slight difference in the personality there because it was known for being a bit rough, but it does make me think about perhaps the misconceptions we have about walt.

So are there any misconceptions that you here that you just know of flat out false? Um Well, first of all, walt was probably rougher around the edges than we realize. Um I read something the other day that the walt we see on television was um a little bit smoother than the walt in person. I don’t know that you achieve that level of success without being a bit of an S. O. B. Quite frankly. Um And walt could certainly be that maybe not on television, but he could certainly be that in person. Um And then, you know, secondly he didn’t have a lot of friends. Uh you know, he didn’t socialize a ton. Um He, you know, he didn’t like going out walt enjoyed his family and and he enjoyed his work. What do you make of the Tom Hanks portrayal of him? I enjoyed that movie quite a bit. Um It I I think tom Hanks did a fairly good job.

Um I think what was most important, regardless of whether it was 100% historically accurate, what was most important about that movie was when he flies over to London and they had the conversations about their fathers because um again walt had a difficult relationship with his dad and that never left him walt. Um Again born in Chicago, the only good memories from his childhood were the few short years he spent on a farm in Marceline Missouri and his dad wasn’t in good health as a result the farm failed, they ended up selling the farm when walt was nine years old and it absolutely broke the little boy’s heart. And when walt was building Disneyland, he wanted to create a single entrance in a single exit out which every amusement park operator in the world thought was a complete disaster.

And that single entrance in, single exit out is Main Street Usa which is a rendition of walt’s memories, perfected memories of Marceline Missouri from his childhood. Again, that’s walt being vulnerable, leaning into the wound of him having to leave Marceline when the farm failed and they sold it. So, um again, it’s a very touching moment in the film when he talks about his dad because, you know, he didn’t he didn’t have very good memories after the success of Snow White and the Seven dwarfs. He has the money to build the studio that is in Burbank to this day. And he’s taking his dad around trying to give his dad a tour and his dad doesn’t understand it at all, Like he’s like, son, what do you do here? What is this for? Um what what can you accomplish here? And his, his son walt is trying to explain what’s the studio, I make my movies, you know, this is where we’re going to, you know, do Pinocchio and you know dumbo and Elias doesn’t understand it at all.

And finally, out of frustration walt, exasperated, says it’s a hospital dad. And finally Elias goes, oh, okay, it’s a great answer, thank you. For whatever reason, the way my mind works, perhaps when I first had a look at the website, I was like, do you have any copyright considerations when you’re talking about Disney? And that type of topic, is that, is that front of mind for you at all? It was when I first started out, and you know, the sensitivities, there are very real and it all goes back to walt losing Oswald, The Lucky Rabbit. Um, you know, that was a very deep and personal wound for walt. And so they’re very, um protective of, you know, the characters and their copyrights and trademarks as well. They should be. And so what I was told was stay positive, which I am and stay away from characters, which I do, and as long as you do that, you’ll be fine.

And I’ve never um, actually worked for Disney, um, I have been brought in by Disney to do various events with Legends, Imagineers and cast members? Um, but fortunately, I’ve, I’ve never run afoul with with Disney Legal. And how did that feel when they asked you to ask you to help out for the first time? Oh, incredibly validating. Was that like an email or a phone call? Um, both, it was an email followed up with a phone call and um, you know, when you’re on property, like, at the Disneyland hotel and you’re speaking or selling books or you’re on stage at the contemporary resort interviewing imagineers or Disney legends, I mean, we’re talking people who actually worked with walt, it’s like, whoa, um you know, you had this idea and you went through this personal challenge and now like, here you are, and it’s like it was worth it. And I told you beforehand about question, I asked pretty much every guest is what does success mean to you, but since We have You here, and also you’re an expert on walt as well.

How would you answer that question? And how do you think that walt would answer that question for me? Um it’s twofold. I I believe that the students in my classes, the readers of my books, the listeners in my audiences all have an idea that can maybe not change the world, but can at least change their world and when I inspire and motivate and provide the resources that is going to allow them to get up again from their proverbial park bench and start taking action, then that means my I’m a success. I’m a success with my message, my mission, and my passion. And then I personally define success as again, living my own great story. Um and great story isn’t, you know, you know, happily ever after and you know, kumbaya and comfort.

It’s um you know, doing interesting, difficult, hard, challenging, exciting things and how do you think walt would answer the question, I think very similarly, um you look back at walt’s life and he never stood still. Um, he, he hated Sequels. He never wanted to repeat himself. So he starts out as an ambulance driver at the end of World War One comes home, wants to be an actor ultimately pivots to being an animator, then gets into um, full length animated films than into live action movies than an amusement park operator. And after the success of Disneyland, he goes on record saying there’ll never be another Disneyland and a lot of people fail to remember. He didn’t want to do walt Disney world as another.

Disneyland Magic kingdom wasn’t going to be Disneyland two point oh, that was all about Epcot and Epcot was genuinely going to be a domed city, walt was going to get into urban planning. And so I think for wall, as long as you are innovating, as long as you were growing, as long as you were in this state of becoming, then you are truly a success. Thank you for the answer. When he talked about how he goes from one thing to the next is somewhat contrary to a lot of the advice about specializing and staying in your lane, that type of thing. Have you got anything you’d like to add there? I, I do. Um, so when I was at the university, I did a lot of work with, um, undeclared students and that’s always an interesting bunch because they show up the first year and they’re in a dark place more often than not because they see their friends, they see their roommates and they’ve got life figured out right there, they’re gonna be nurses, they’re gonna be engineers, they’re gonna be mathematicians and here they are, they can’t even figure out their major and they feel so far behind And I know Walt’s story, but I also know the statistics that on average, 70% of all college students change their major at least one time.

So I would just say to the UN declares, look, um Everyone’s changing their major, you’re not behind, you’re actually ahead. And in today’s marketplace, how many people are going to go out, get a job and stay in that job and stay in that career for the next 40 years. Nobody. So um life is about pivoting and I think the last two years has taught us that one lesson more than any other. The great answer. Is there anything I should have asked you about today? Oh maybe. Um what’s my favorite Disney park attraction? Something fun. So, um I’m a huge space mountain fan here at Disneyland and Anaheim California and I know I I love doing the motivational, inspirational, um you know, let’s see what we can learn from wall, let’s see how we can level up in life. Um but there is still the let’s go to the park and have fun and Um when I had the search and I’ve had to, by the way, I had the first one was 2014 and then I had a second one in 2020 and each time I was grounded from doing you know the real fun rides at the parks.

Um but you know what I miss most and what I enjoy the most is being on space mountain and I’ll follow it up because I am kind of somewhat copying your question just with a slight slight tweak, what’s your favorite Disney movie dumbo? Why I cheer and root for the underdog. You like the bit where dumbo, gets a bit drunk and sees all the hallucinations. Yeah. Do you have any closing thoughts for us today? Um You know, let let go of um the dark and difficult things that have happened in your past. I mean that’s what walt did. Um Or at least he only kept one ft in the past I. E. Main street U. S. A. And believe in yourself. Believe in your ideas. Believe in your dreams, keep moving forward. Um No, when he was building Disneyland, he didn’t have a friend anywhere in the world.

Even his own wife and his own brother was out and today the sun doesn’t set on a Disney park anywhere in the world When Walt. Disney World was closed for two days due to Hurricane Ian the company lost $80 million dollars a day. So um you can do it. Um You just have to not just believe, but get up and start taking action. You can always overthink, but you can never overact for people who uh enjoyed our conversation today. I want to get in touch with you. How do they do that? So you can find me at the wisdom of walt dot com and um you can send me an email Jeff at the wisdom of walt uh dot com and then um I have a free blog and you’ll find this on the website. Um sign up. You’ll immediately get um a nice uh pdf on seven leadership lessons from the happiest Place on Earth.

And then a weekly Wednesdays with walt email, which will be a weekly source of inspiration, motivation. And then my books are available on amazon in all modalities, whether you want it in hardback paperback, uh e book, audiobook, but again, the best places to just find me at the wisdom of walt dot com. You can email me their sign up for my blog and if you sign up for the blog, you’ll get updates on when the next section of my history of Disneyland class is going to be offered. Well, thank you for your contribution. I think what you’ve shared today has a lot of value and I think also it’s it’s very different. So it’s nice to see people who are just not doing the same. Um I don’t know, let’s say being a coach where they’re just talking about goals. It’s actually something a bit more refreshing, which I guess is a lesson you’ve learned from walt, right, But thank you for being a great guest today. Thank you thomas.