The Wisdom of Walt

Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth

by Jeffrey A. Barnes | Release Date: April 16, 2016 | Availability: Print

Put Walt to Work for You

How do you go from dreaming of a theme park to building one? Walt Disney laid the blueprint. Learn how he did it, and how his wisdom can guide you toward achieving the things that you dream of.

The experts told Walt it'd never work. A giant theme park, where parents and children could play together? Crazy! So Walt put all of his money into this crazy dream of his. He put his reputation on the line. Anyone else would have quit, discouraged and disillusioned, but Walt built Disneyland. How did he go from dreaming to doing? And how can you do the same, no matter what your goal?

In The Wisdom of Walt, Professor Jeffrey Barnes distills Walt Disney's vision, his knowledge, and his methods into a series of actionable lessons. Through historical vignettes about Disneyland, as well as plentiful examples and exercises, Barnes creates a framework through which you can apply Walt's wisdom to improve your career, your company, and your life. Learn to:

  • Listen to your "Walter ego" and start trusting yourself
  • Go "beyond the berm" with the secrets of Disneyland's success
  • Make a "Main Street impression" on everyone you meet
  • Create "E-ticket experiences" that keep them coming back for more


Table of Contents

A Note to the Reader


Introduction: To All Who Read This Happy Book

Chapter 1: Sitting on a Park Bench

Chapter 2: Pursuing Your Passion

Chapter 3: Listening to Your “Walter” Ego

Chapter 4: Telling Stories

Chapter 5: Facing Fear and Failure

Chapter 6: Mastering the 4 Cs

Chapter 7: Learning Your Lessons

Chapter 8: Building a Berm

Chapter 9: Making a Main Street Impression

Chapter 10: Using Forced Perspective

Chapter 11: Detailing Your Destiny

Chapter 12: Keeping Fantasy at the Heart of Everything

Chapter 13: Taking Care of Your Team

Chapter 14: Creating E-Ticket Experiences

Chapter 15: Starting Early

Chapter 16: Waiting in Line

Chapter 17: Becoming an Edutainer

Chapter 18: Having a Next, Always…

Conclusion: Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye



This book is a chronicle of one of the biggest and most unlikely success stories in the business or entertainment worlds. At least, we see the early chapters of the Disneyland story that way today.

The Disneyland dream was almost over before it had even begun. Walt Disney struggled for years to find the financial and political support to make his vision of a new kind of experiential family entertainment a reality. Like many dreamers, Walt could see what other people couldn’t. He understood the post-war American public’s pining for an innovative, clean, user-friendly attraction. Disneyland was not to be merely a creative expression built for its own benefit: it had to be a profitable business and diversification of Disney’s already powerful global media corporation. (We understand a little bit of that here at Garner-Holt Productions, Inc.—magic is a difficult business machine to feed!)

Renowned for his business and creative prowess at the helm of a significant film studio with valuable merchandising and publishing interests, Walt faced enormous adversity in introducing the Disneyland entertainment concept to the world—simply put, to most investors, the park appeared to be a losing venture, too bold, too new, too incredible to attach to a realistic business model. “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible,” Walt said. “Because dreams offer too little collateral.” Bill Butler’s grandfather was president of a local bank in the early 1950s and recalls meeting with representatives from Disney, who were trying to obtain financial backing for the park. He (and many others like him) passed on the opportunity, to his lifelong regret.

Disneyland’s biggest champion (and also one of the world’s greatest communicators) could do little to prove his dreams were viable other than to build them, to translate from paper and paint to steel and concrete. Walt was an action leader, a dynamic mover, always pressing for more, bigger, better, newer. Disneyland was the ultimate expression of leading through action in Walt’s time—and in any time since, really. It created a whole new market, changed travel dynamics worldwide, and planted the seeds of new cultures for both designers and consumers.

Of course, not all dreams turn out the way Disneyland did. Sometimes, the right alignment of talents, time, ideas, and money never comes. It’s the special dreamer (and leader) who keeps the flame of interest, of promise and hope, lit to guide not merely himself, but those who would be an audience to the dream. The stories told by Dr. Barnes in this book—of Walt, Disneyland, and his own personal stories—illustrate the fundamental truths of all dreamer-leaders, for all leaders must have vision for themselves to make it apparent to others.

We understand that intimately at Garner Holt Productions. Garner’s story is all about that: a teenager with a vision for creating a viable, profitable company to produce animatronics. Like Walt, Garner’s fantastic, magical product wasn’t the most apparent business model. Only through tenacity, through showing people what the business would do, and by playing the role of dreamer-leader could Garner turn a personal passion into a respected company—in fact, the largest animatronics company in the world. Much of that was because Walt is such an influence on our company. In fact, even today, with every project we complete for Disney theme parks around the world, we say, “We’re working for Walt.” It’s his passion for innovation, quality, and imagination that inspires us to give our clients more than what they ask for.

Dr. Barnes has added to the Disneyland canon a unique take on the park that we very dearly love. For his narrative, Disneyland is not merely the greatest themed experience in the world; it is the direct product of innovative and careful leadership. He captures the intricacies of theme park design (they are often annoyingly intricate) from Walt’s time to now, painting a living portrait of the park as a series of deliberate decisions, inspirations, failures, and triumphs. This is Disneyland as few have considered it, sixty years after proving Walt was the greatest dreamer-leader the world has ever known.

As a business, our company learns from many sources all the time. There’s always a new method or material, a new component or approach for our work in designing themed attractions and creating amazing animatronics. But we always turn to Walt’s park for the biggest lessons. Disneyland is still the ultimate expression of the creative arts: it is film, it is theater, it is fine art, it is architecture, it is history, it is music. Disneyland offers to us professionally (and to everyone who seeks it) a primer in bold imagination in nearly every genre imaginable.

And most of all, Disneyland is a temple to Walt’s unique brand of leadership. What follows in these pages is a prism for you to see the park the way we do, too. Don’t forget to get your Disneyland handstamp at the end. We’re sure you’ll want to return to this magical story many times.

Each time you enter Disneyland, a cast member offers you a guidemap. This gives you a lay of the land and allows you to plan your day around the various attractions, restaurants, stores, shows, parades, and fireworks.

Before you enter the world I have created in this book, I, too, want to provide you with a “map”. This orientation will guide and assist you in getting value from this book long after you finish reading.

First, below each chapter title is a quote from Walt Disney. This quote represents the kernel of Walt’s wisdom that we will explore in that chapter’s pages. Second, just as a day at Disneyland begins and ends on Main Street, U.S.A., each chapter begins and ends with a story about Disneyland. Walt once said, “Disneyland is the star. Everything else is the supporting role.” Disneyland is the “star” of this book. “The Happiest Place on Earth” has the lead role in teaching us valuable lessons about life, leadership, success, and happiness.

As you will learn, Walt created Disneyland as a visual showpiece for storytelling. After controlling the “opening shot” on Main Street, Walt wanted his guests to choose their own stories and adventures via the various attractions located throughout the park. It is fitting, then, that I share with you some of my own stories and adventures. The tales are true and represent themes we all have in common: work, family, childhood, success, failure, and love. This isn’t a love story, per se; however, you need to know I am madly in love with my wife, Niki, and that our story drives more than a few of the stories in this book.

Each morning, during the exciting ritual of “rope drop” on Main Street, the announcer declares Disneyland as the place where “dreams really do come true”. Today, I am living my dream by teaching a college-level course at California Baptist University in Riverside, California: The History of Disneyland. Yes, you can get college credit for this class; it counts toward the General Education requirement of U.S. History. Space is limited, however, so this book is my attempt to deliver critical course content to a larger audience. How this class came to be, the challenges I faced along the way, and the educational experience that ensued are also part of the journey ahead.

Finally, each chapter contains a Souvenir Stop. Here you will find the “take-home exercises” for that chapter’s lesson. Souvenirs serve as keepsakes and mementos of places we have been and events we want to remember. I hope you’ll want to take the lessons you learn in The Wisdom of Walt: Leadership Lessons from the Happiest Place on Earth “home” with you.

Please don’t set your souvenirs on a shelf or allow them to disappear in a forgotten drawer. I believe it is possible to live every day as if it’s a day at Disneyland. It isn’t always easy; too often the real world is filled with more problems than pixie dust.

My advice?

Listen to the park.

Walt envisioned Disneyland to be “ … a live, breathing thing.” Like any person, the park has its own personality. It has stood the test of time; its history and stories speak to anyone who will listen. Open your heart and you might discover the Wisdom of Walt and his Magic Kingdom.

Mickey Mouse Ears not required.

Jeffrey A. Barnes

Jeff Barnes is an author, professional keynote speaker, higher education administrator, university professor, and leadership/success coach. He has more than thirty-five years of professional speaking experience and nearly twenty years experience leading teams in higher education and teaching more than twenty different college courses in both the traditional classroom and online—including The History of Disneyland at California Baptist University in Riverside, California.

He attributes his passion for Disneyland to his love of history, story, and success. He believes the park teaches us some of life’s greatest lessons—as long as you know its history, know what to look for, and you are willing to connect it all to your own story.

Jeff lives in Riverside with his lovely wife, Niki, and their two boys, Logan and Wesley. Their daughter, Bethany, lives in Las Vegas where she works as an investigative journalist at the Las Vegas Review Journal. When he is not teaching or writing, Jeff enjoys spending as much time as possible at “The Happiest Place on Earth””

You can visit Jeff at

The berm at Disneyland separates the park from the rest of the world. It's important to know the whereabouts of your own berm, and to never lose sight of it.

What Is a Berm?

Disneyland has developed a worldwide fanatical following. This result is amazing, especially in light of the original Disneyland doomsayers who predicted the park to be “Walt’s Folly”. Of course, many said the same regarding Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, so technically Disneyland would have been “Walt’s Folly 2”. I love Snow White, but I would argue this story is one of those rare instances when the sequel is actually better than the original.

Despite the fears and cries of folly, Walt was right. Of course, Walt was right. Walt was right because he didn’t build “just” an amusement park. Walt was right because he was exploring a new medium of entertainment that he knew his audience would be more than eager to experience.

Walt never allowed the disdain of his critics to distract him from his dreams, “We are not trying to entertain the critics. I’ll take my chances with the public.” Long before the critics climbed onboard and the media made sense of it all, Disneyland made a magical, emotional connection with the masses. By September 1955, a million guests had already visited. Today, as Disneyland passes its 60th birthday, it is proud to proclaim that it has played host to well over 650 million guests over these past six decades. At first, the financiers couldn’t figure it out. Bankers didn’t get it. So-called “experts” were convinced the public would be equally puzzled. Walt once said, “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible because dreams offer too little collateral.”

The financiers were wrong.

The so-called experts were wrong.

Walt was right.

If you are curious enough, curious in the way Walt and the park encourage you to be, then at some point, you will want to extend your enjoyment into explanation. You will start asking questions. You will want to know more. Your desire to make the intangibles tangible will create an insatiable inquiry for how the park works. What is it exactly that makes Disneyland so special? How exactly do the Imagineers make all this magic? Like any good magician, the Magic Kingdom doesn’t readily share its secrets. And why should it? In many ways, those secrets are for our own protection. Disneyland is like a baby’s rattle. If you bust the rattle open to try to learn how it works, you end up breaking the rattle, thus muting the magic. Oops! There is one obvious Disneyland secret that I feel safe in sharing. It is okay to let you in on this because if you have ever been to Disneyland, then you have already seen it. If you’ve never been, then let me encourage you to pull up an image of Disneyland on Google Earth and play along.

Disneyland works because Walt had the wisdom to build a berm.

I know what you are thinking. A berm? I don’t even know what a berm is, but you are telling me that I’ve already seen one?

Yes. Yes, I am.

Blogger Randy Crane, at, sees the berm, an artificial hill that encircles Disneyland, as Walt’s masterful idea to control the view for Disneyland’s guests. To really be “in” Disneyland means to be inside the confines of the berm. If you’re not looking for it, you’ll probably never notice it, but it’s there, serving that important purpose. In describing the berm in The Vatican to Vegas, Norman Klein says, “Technically a berm was a shoulder of earth that obscured Anaheim from visitors.”

Remember how Walt wanted a flat canvas, a piece of land where he could forge his own rivers, make his own mountains, and create his own castle? Be careful what you wish for. Once cleared, Walt realized his canvas, his 160 Anaheim acres, was too flat. As a moviemaker, he was accustomed to having complete control of his set or soundstage. The dynamics of the real world aren’t nearly as pliable. The solution came by building a berm—a method of screening the park and the public from the real world—by surrounding the perimeter with twenty feet of raised earth. The 350 tons of dirt necessary for building the berm came from dredging the Rivers of America, Frontierland’s centerpiece waterway. Sam Gennawey writes in The Disneyland Story:

If Walt wanted to take his guests to the American Wilderness or the African jungle, he needed to make sure people were not seeing a freeway exchange, highrise buildings, or transmission lines from inside the park.

Beyond the Berm

Like the belt on a middle-aged man, over time, the berm has expanded along with the park. This expansion has allowed for the accommodation of additional attractions and even an entirely new area, Mickey’s Toontown, just beyond the original park perimeter in Fantasyland. Nonetheless, Disneyland remains landlocked, thus requiring even more magic to accommodate new ideas and additional advancement.

Today, part of the berm’s magic is how it plays tricks on your person. You can start an attraction clearly within the park’s confines and perimeter, pass under the berm and into a “show building” for the actual ride, and then back under the berm for your ride exit and re-entry into Disneyland. Yes, there are times when you physically depart Disneyland, but the magic masks you from knowing it.

Examples include the Indiana Jones Adventure in Adventureland. Aside from the popularity of this attraction, part of the reason for the one-eighth-mile long queue is to get guests beyond the berm and into the enormous show building that sits on the other side. You may not realize it, but you are actually closer to the Indiana Jones attraction when you are on the eastern end of the Downtown Disney shopping district than when you are actually in Adventureland.

My favorite beyond-the-perimeter excursion is the trip you take on Pirates of the Caribbean in New Orleans Square. Initially, I believed you spent your fifteen minutes sailing beneath the Square’s streets. Not true. The waterfalls at the beginning of your journey serve to plummet you below and beyond the berm. You then sail into another show building where your plundering, pirate adventure begins in earnest.

Yo ho, yo ho, beyond the berm for me!

For many guests, the Stretching Room in the Haunted Mansion, also in New Orleans Square, is a favorite scene. Know, however, that the Stretching Room isn’t just for show. It also serves a much more practical purpose. As you stand in the “dead center of the room”, watching the portraits betray their patrons, the elevator is taking you several feet below ground (six feet under, perhaps?). Once the room opens back up, you walk to your doom buggy. Unbeknownst to many, the walk from the elevator to the loading zone is a walk underneath the Disneyland Railroad train tracks, beyond the berm, and out into another show building that sits outside the park’s perimeter. You never actually ride inside the “mansion”. The antebellum style house was built as a façade in 1963, but construction on the attraction part, the show building beyond the berm, didn’t begin until 1967.

Lastly, there is Splash Mountain in Critter Country. For years, I tried to determine whether you ride through the mountain itself, or whether it, too, contains a show building. I would peek around the park’s perimeter or stare at images on Google Earth, trying to figure it all out. I finally unmasked the magic last March.

While riding Splash Mountain with my sister, we suddenly came to a stop early on in the show, long before the famed fifty-two-foot plunge that awaits you at the end. This had never happened to me before. Suspiciously, this was also the first time I was riding Splash Mountain with my sister. The same sister who exactly forty years earlier had peed in the Tiki Room.


We sat languishing in our logs for several minutes, and eventually, cast members came and carefully evacuated us. When we exited out of the “mountain”, it was obvious that we were actually leaving a building. Once outside, we traversed down stairs and into a backstage area that clearly sits beyond the berm. Now that I have experienced it, I can see it all clearly. Some might call it an epiphany, but I like to refer to it as my personal form of “ZipADeeDooDUH”!

The Power of Focus

Building the berm is what helped Disneyland be so successful. It is rarely noticed or appreciated by guests, but it is essential to the overall experience. The berm envelops the park and insulates you inside the magic. Building a berm can assist you in your success, too.

Focus is power.

Just as Walt did not want outside distractions diverting his guests’ attention, you don’t want distractions diverting you from your dreams, goals, and visions. And boy, are we distracted.

Digital devices fill our days and nights. We are rarely, if ever, unplugged. Walt built his berm years before cellphones, the internet, Facebook, or Twitter. Nonetheless, perhaps Walt was wise to the words of the poet T.S. Eliot: “We are distracted from distractions by distractions.”

Remember our opening story? The one where Walt is sitting alone on a park bench with only peanuts to keep him company? Imagine for a moment what that scene might look like today. Can you picture yourself sitting on that same bench with your mind engaged, and only engaged, with your ideas and your imagination? Probably not.

When I see myself sitting there, I see myself plugged into my cellphone. We live in a world where we can’t just “be”. Instead, we are constantly seeking outside validation via our Facebook posts, Twitter accounts, and email messages. “Walt unplugged” is the Walt that came up with the idea for Disneyland. We need to start building berms, especially between our technology and ourselves. Otherwise, we will always be plugged in. Always be distracted.

Technology will drown out our innermost thoughts and ideas, crush our creativity, and doom us to a life and world of status quo.

Continued in "The Wisdom of Walt"!

Once upon a time, you needed an "E-ticket" to ride the best attractions at Disneyland. Even though E-tickets are no more, you can still use the principle behind them to create E-ticket experiences in your life and at work.

“E” Is for Exceeding Expectations

We rarely remember it, but Disneyland used to have a separate admission for entry into the park and then individual tickets for the various attractions. Today, we are so accustomed to the one-day, multi-day, and annual passport ticket system that few know or remember the original pricing structure. However, the original pay-per-ride system is a fascinating story and offers a wonderful leadership lesson on creating an exceptional customer experience.

When Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, the general admission price was $1.00. This ticket was only good for entry into the park with individual tickets required for each attraction. These tickets ranged in price from 10 cents to 35 cents for the original opening day attractions. Walt realized quickly, however, that he needed to develop a system that would both help simplify guests’ expenses and enhance their park experience. On October 11, 1955, he introduced the very first Disneyland ticket book. This value package cost each guest $2.50 and included park admission, plus tickets, or “coupons”, to eight of the park’s twenty-one attractions. Most memorably, the original ticket book classified attractions into categories “A”, “B”, and “C”. “A” tickets represented minor attractions, “C” tickets were the best experiences the park had to offer, and “B” attractions were somewhere in between.

The original ticket book expanded in 1958 to include “D” tickets. The final update came in 1959 and was simultaneous with the park’s first big expansion. By that year, the success of Disneyland was no longer in question. With money on hand and financing now readily available, Walt naturally turned his attention toward Tomorrowland, the area of the park that was constructed last and suffered most from money shortfalls that invariably plagued Walt during construction. Simply stated, Tomorrowland was not up to the standards that Walt had set throughout the remainder of the park. On opening day, many of the Tomorrowland attractions were mere corporate exhibits. The “land” was almost all open space, with the little bit of “landscaping” that did exist consisting of weeds that, at the last moment, had been ingeniously labeled in Latin to make them appear intentional until proper landscaping could be done. According to Bob Thomas in Walt Disney: An American Original:

Walt’s principal concern was meeting the impossible deadline. … By January 1, 1955, it seemed imperative that some compromises had to be made. Tomorrowland was the least developed section of Disneyland; Walt agreed to his staff ’s suggestion to board up Tomorrowland with an attractive fence, announcing that it would open later. No sooner was the decision made than Walt rescinded it. “We’ll open the whole park,” he told his staff. “Do the best you can with Tomorrowland, and we’ll fix it up after we open.”

All of this changed in 1959. In one fell swoop, Walt transformed Tomorrowland into the “Land of Tomorrow” that he had originally envisioned. The expansion included the addition of three major attractions: the submarine voyage and its famed journey through “liquid space”, the monorail, and the first of Disneyland’s many mountains, the Matterhorn. Each new attraction represented a major advancement in technology and guest experience, giving birth to the famed Disneyland “E-ticket” for the best attractions the park had to offer. As stated earlier, the ticket books started with A, B, and C tickets; then Ds were included, and lastly Es for the newest or best attractions.

All three of these attractions remain in the park today, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds may well be the most unique. First, it sparked the range of mountains for which all Disney parks are now famous. Second, it became an instant symbol for children anywhere in Southern California. Once they could “spot” the Matterhorn Mountain, they knew they had arrived, at last, for their long-anticipated day at Disneyland. Today, the Matterhorn Bobsleds is no longer listed as a Tomorrowland attraction. Instead, it actually lives in Fantasyland. Walt didn’t “move mountains”; Disneyland just decided one day to redraw the boundaries. It is a reminder, however, as recounted in Gennawey’s The Disneyland Story, of Joe Fowler’s remark to Walt regarding the Matterhorn Bobsleds opening in time for the 1959 celebration:

I think we’ll have it finished on time, but next time, when we have to build a mountain, let’s let God do it.”

In 1983, the first American woman in space, Sally Ride, was asked about her space shuttle launch. She famously replied, “Have you ever been to Disneyland? That was definitely an E-ticket!” You know you are doing something right when you receive a nationally televised celebrity endorsement of your product, all the way from outer space, for free!

Have you ever wondered what it takes to get free advertising for your story, your product, or your brand? Have you ever asked yourself what it is about an Apple product that merits its fan base camping out in the elements the night before a major product launch? Perhaps you, too, have willingly turned over your hard-earned money for a $3.00 cup of Starbucks coffee and asked yourself what Starbucks does that allows it to charge such a premium price for what was once a fifty-cent cup of Joe?

The answer is in the experience. And not just any experience, but a memorable, E-ticket experience!

It seems obvious to us now, sixty years later, but given that everyone believed initially that Walt and Disneyland were destined to fail, one cannot help but wonder how and why it became such a success so quickly. The answer lies in Walt’s insatiable desire not only to meet, but also to exceed his guests’ expectations. Exceed really is the “E” in every E-ticket experience!

Doing vs Having

The first gift I ever gave Niki was her own little piece of Disneyland. It wasn’t much, but I am madly in love with Niki and Disneyland, so connecting the two as quickly as possible filled an obvious need for me. I went online and found a ticket book from 1977, the year she was born. My palms sweated and my heart palpitated as the minutes to the eBay auction ticked down. When at last I won, I saw it as an immediate sign that I would be successful in winning her heart as well.

I couldn’t wait to give her the gift. I found a card that communicated my feelings toward her without risking too much, and I was confident the ticket book would say the rest. Niki was appreciative, which was more reflective of her nature than her valuing my gift or her recognition of my burgeoning feelings for her. She confessed that she didn’t understand the gift because she had never been to Disneyland.

I then proclaimed that if she were interested in knowing anything about me, she also needed to know about Walt Disney and Disneyland. A bit of explanation was in order, so I lectured her on the history of Disneyland’s ticketing system and walked her through the different attractions represented on the various A, B, C, D, and E coupons. When she was still lost, I pointed out this wasn’t just any old Disneyland ticket book (like there is such a thing!), but one from 1977, the year my favorite attraction, Space Mountain, opened and the year she was born. Ohhhhhhh!

The only way she was ever really going to understand was to experience Disneyland herself, an experience I was happy to share with her on our honeymoon the following year. Giving her the ticket book gift was a great gesture, but we valued the experience, together, far more.

Most people do.

We spend far too much time and money chasing material possessions—possessions that bring us little pleasure and often end up possessing us. What we truly crave are experiences and the opportunity to share those experiences with those we love. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt explores recent research regarding “doing versus having”. Most people are far happier having spent $100 or more on an experience or activity than a material possession. Why? Haidt writes:

Most activities that cost more than a hundred dollars are things we do with other people, but expensive material possessions are often purchased in part to impress other people. Activities connect us to others; objects often separate us.

Continued in "The Wisdom of Walt"!

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