Book notes: The Magic Kingdom

Anyone who thinks of him or herself as an experience designer needs to study Walt Disney’s life and work. Human experience was Mr. Disney’s canvas, and he built a hugely influential organization around the idea of creating experiences for people. (The Disney Imagineers—the people responsible for the design of the theme parks—are among the few professionals that can truly claim to design experiences. But I digress…) My fascination with Mr. Disney has led me to various biographies, including Bob Thomas’s studio-sanctioned Walt Disney: An American Original and the more critical Walt Disney: Triumph of the American Imagination by Neil Gabler. Recently I came across another biography that gave me some new insights into the man and his career: Steven Watts’s The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life.

While the other two books mentioned above are straight biographies, The Magic Kingdom’s objective is to give the reader an understanding of the relationship between the man, his work, and the historical and cultural context that he worked in (and helped to shape). It does this by means of a peculiar episodic structure: each chapter includes not just sections about Mr. Disney’s life, but also sections about the broader historical context he was working in, sections about the corporate history of the Disney organization, and brief biographical sketches of people who influenced Mr. Disney’s life and career during those times. The latter are particularly valuable; while much has been written about Mr. Disney himself, here we also learn about more obscure—but instrumental—figures in the Disney universe: Ub Iwerks, Bill Tytla, Art Babbitt, John Hench, Lillian Disney, Roy O. Disney, and more.

The book follows Mr. Disney from his difficult beginnings in the midwest, through the creation of the studio with his brother Roy, the triumphs of the Disney Golden Age during the 1920s and 30s (when they produced hugely influential—and profitable—pictures starring Mickey Mouse, the Three Little Pigs, and Snow White), onto a dark period during World Wide II, when they faced crippling labor and market problems and had to fall back to making propaganda films for the U.S. government, and finally to Mr. Disney’s Cold War reemergence as “Uncle Walt”, a jovial cultural warrior for the political right. The sections of the book that deal with the broader cultural context do a good job of placing the reader in the times, making clear the connections between the success of films like The Three Little Pigs and the events that were happening around them, like the Great Depression that was devastating the U.S. economy at the time.

Mr. Disney’s management style is an important part of the story. He was a demanding boss who did not tolerate mediocrity and didn’t settle for second-best. He seemed to inspire an almost mystical sense of love, fear, and admiration among his employees and associates. (Those who did not feel so inspired didn’t last long in the Disney organization.) He had a healthy relationship with money: he saw it as a tool to help him achieve bigger and better things, and never as an end in itself. (Choice quote: “Work is the real adventure in life. Money is merely a means to make more work possible.”) On the other hand, he was obsessed with the Disney studio, and was constantly thinking of ways of challenging the organization to move into broader, more influential fields. In animator Ward Kimball’s colorful description,

Sooner or later… no matter what you were talking about, he’d get back to his goddamn studio. He wanted to talk about it. This was HIM. This was his SEX! This was EVERYTHING! His sex wasn’t with his wife. No. The orgasms were all here. Everything. This [the studio] was heaven.

In many ways, Mr. Disney’s ego-driven management style seems very similar to what I’ve read about Steve Jobs: both characters were mercurial, forceful, obsessive, intuitive, charismatic, and completely focused on making the best products in the world without concern for sparing anyone’s feelings. Both created immensely influential organizations that changed the world by channeling the force of their unique visions of the future. (It is no coincidence that Mr. Jobs was the single largest shareholder in the Walt Disney Company at the time of his death. There was a natural consonance between these two men’s lives.)

The Disney organization pioneered the concept of marketing synergy (they called it “integration”), where a product or service is conceptualized as a part of a whole, and all parts support and promote each other. For example, the Disneyland TV show was a money-making product that also helped promote the Disneyland theme park, which in turn helped promote the company’s movies and TV shows, and so on. All of these entertainment channels were also complemented with all sorts of branded consumer goods, ranging from Snow White toilet soap, to Donald Duck orange juice, and the classic Ingersoll Mickey Mouse watches. The company managed to convey consistent and coherent messages across these channels that touched the hearts of millions of people, and achieved a presence in the marketplace that remains unchallenged even today. There are obvious lessons here for user experience designers working in cross-channel challenges, and the book provides valuable insight into how these (at the time, innovative) marketing strategies came about.

If you are in any way interested in Walt Disney’s life and work—and if you call yourself a user experience designer, you should be—The Magic Kingdom provides a well-balanced look at the man, his times, and the organization that he built to help him achieve his dreams. It’s worth checking out. Buy it at Amazon.