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Episode #43: The Wonderful World of the Walt Disney Family Museum

Grad Conn

December 23, 2020  •  13 min read

No one does experience like Disney. And no one does Disney like the Walt Disney Family Museum. It’s a master class in customer experience, and a testament to a man who managed to imbue exceptional experiences into everything he touched. From Disney’s start in Kansas City, to his struggles in Hollywood, we take a look at the circumstances that shaped Walt’s vision, and his unique ability to share that vision with the world.

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PODCAST TRANSCRIPT

Welcome to the CXM Experience. I am Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr, where we put the experience in CXM. I always like to talk about experience as being the new brand. Experiences are what companies are differentiating on. And the gold standard, I think, for many, many, many, many, many years and many decades, many generations, I would argue, is the Walt Disney Company. And what is quite interesting is the Walt Disney Company has managed to differentiate on experience almost from day one. And has done it brilliantly over and over again. And yet has not been copied nearly as much as you think. Because what they do and the way that they land experience is reasonably transparent. It’s not that hard to understand what they’re doing. And it’s been written about, they’ve got an institute where they teach it. There are all sorts of different ways of seeing it and experiencing it. And yet, it seems to be very hard to duplicate. I want to talk a little bit about a slightly different version of the Walt Disney experience today, that’s emblematic of the Walt Disney spirit, but is different from the company itself.

So typically, when we talk about the Walt Disney ability to deliver great experiences, we’re talking about the Walt Disney Corporation. And that Corporation has a fine-tuned and finely honed way of behaving. From calling their employees cast members, which is becoming more common now. But it was very unusual in the 80s, when they were doing it… to calling their customers guests, which, again, has become much more common. It was extremely unusual when they first started doing it. But, you think, that’s a company, right? That’s a company. They’ve got processes, they’ve got playbooks, they’ve got people that execute it all. They know how to do it. Their corporate entity that’s executing against a consistent set of principles. That’s just the way they are.

Then you go to the Walt Disney Family Museum. The Walt Disney Family Museum is not part of the corporation at all. In fact, I’ll give you a bit of a sneak peek in a minute on how much it’s not part of the corporation, or how much the corporation probably does not enjoy this particular place. But the Walt Disney Family Museum talks about the life and legacy of Walt Disney. It’s located in the Presidio of San Francisco. It’s in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area in San Francisco. And has taken three existing historic buildings in the Presidio. And in the main post area that faces the parade ground and has renovated those buildings and combined them. So there’s three buildings put together.

It opened more than a decade ago, in October 2009. And it’s not only not part of the company, but it is, in fact, a nonprofit. And it’s actually run by the Walt Disney family. It’s actually operated and funded by the Walt Disney Family Foundation. And that was established by Disney’s heirs, including Diane Disney Miller, Disney’s daughter and the founder of the museum. It’s not formally associated in any way with the company, or the media and entertainment conglomerate we all know and love. It’s 40,000 square feet. And it’s got some pretty cool stuff. It’s got a lot of Disney’s early work, a lot of interactive galleries, drawings and animations, movies. There’s this amazing 12-foot diameter model of Disneyland, as it would appear today if Walt Disney was still alive. It’s this alter future version of Disneyland that looks very familiar. It looks like Disneyland. But there’s a bunch of stuff there you never saw. There’s a bunch of stuff there that’s gone but would have stayed. And it’s this interesting alternative view of what Disneyland could be or should be.

It’s also got all of his awards. He won 248 different awards during his career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, all his Academy Awards, including the really cool honorary award that he got for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which if you’ve never seen the Shirley Temple presented to him at the Academy Awards, it’s pretty cool. And it’s a full-size Oscar. And then there’s little seven miniature Oscars cascading down representative of course the seven dwarfs. There’s a digital theater, which screens films on a daily basis. They’re 10 permanent galleries. And the most maybe coolest thing and most interesting and maybe valuable thing in the museum is that he was a famous railroader. Loved railroads. And in his backyard of his home, he had a rideable, miniature railroad. It was a miniature railroad, but you could sit on it. And it was called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. And the main locomotive was called the Lilly Belle. And that entire railroad and locomotive is in the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The thing about this museum is that it is potentially one of the most compelling experiences I’ve ever had with the Disney brand. And I want to talk about this concept of experience in that Walt Disney was able to imbue the idea of experience in such a way that even organizations that had nothing to do with his main company can still execute it. And there are three things I want to highlight about the museum that when you go… you have to go. I mean, if you haven’t been you have to go. Even if you’re not a Disney fan, you just have to go. It’s just the most amazing museum ever. The interesting part is it’s two stories. And when you walk in, the main story is all his childhood, growing up. And then it goes through his years in Kansas City, where he first attempts animation, which were ultimately unsuccessful. He went bankrupt in Kansas City. Great story about persistence and grit. And then got on a train, and then went to Hollywood to join his brother Roy, who said, Hey Walt, come out to California. This is the new place to be, and we’ll start a business together. And then the two brothers famously went on to found Walt Disney Studios.

And it is really the two brothers. I mean, people don’t give Roy nearly the credit that he should be given for making Walt Disney Company successful. But without Roy, it would not have happened. Without Walt it wouldn’t happen either. But it wasn’t just a Walt show. It was a Walt and Roy show.

Anyway, so the museum executes this transition brilliantly. You’re on the first story. You actually start by seeing all the awards. You walk through his early life and all his early life had a significant impact on his creative juices and what he imagined… and he brought back many things from childhood memory. And if you go down Main Street in Walt Disney World or in Disneyland, those are recreations of these homes. And then you get into an elevator. And when you get into the elevator, the elevator’s mocked up like you’re inside a train. You leave Kansas City, get in an elevator, doors close. And the train sounds start and the elevator sort of rumbles up to the second story. You essentially take an elevator ride and you walk out and you’re in the beginning of his Hollywood years. It is oddly compelling for a one-story elevator ride. You know, it’s such a significant transition. And they do it so well. And I think why did they do that where they come up with that? And it feels to me like the founders inspiration, can guide people in such interesting ways. It’s almost like, by saying it’s the Walt Disney Family Museum, they were compelled to make sure that the experience was really deep and really enjoyable.

The second piece of it is, then you’re in this second story gallery as you go through his whole history, building the studio. And what’s interesting about this one, there’s a lot of multimedia, a lot of interaction. You can spend a whole day in this place. I mean, it’s unbelievable the amount of content. But it’s a story that’s not very often told. It’s the thing I love about Walt Disney. People often ask me why I’m so obsessed with Disney. And, you know, I do love the experience. I do love being a kid. I’ll admit that. But I have such incredible respect for Walt Disney that I’m inspired by walking in his footsteps. And although I love Walt Disney World, been there more than 50 times. I once spent nearly a year in Disneyland. Went there every day. And what was so great about that… I just needed a bit of a break. So it was kind of a burned out time of my life. And so I just spent the days walking, and knowing that in certain parts of Disneyland, many have been replaced, but in certain parts of Disneyland, I’m still walking on things or touching things that Walt Disney himself would have created or touched, or put in place. And I found that really exciting.

So, what’s interesting about this story is the Walt Disney story, the untold Walt Disney story, the story the corporation doesn’t tell, is the story of enormous obstacles and setbacks. If you think about a normal story arc, where you’ve got a position of stasis, and then there’s an inciting incident, and then the protagonist or the hero attempts to move back to statis but encounters obstacles along the way. “Gravity” may be one of the best examples of that. That Sandra Bullock and George Clooney movies is an excellent example of that. Classic story structure. But this museum employs that classic story structure.

He’s got this bucolic life growing up in Middle America. And then goes through this series of obstacles to try to recreate that life for others as a new statis. And the trouble he had with unions, and cranky animators, and brutal competitors. He had a character called Oswald the rabbit, which was his first sort of hit. And Oswald the rabbit was literally… he went on a business trip to New York. And then the two weeks he was gone, because he had to take a train. The two weeks he was gone, the character was stolen. And all the animators left to go work for this other studio. It’s just amazing. Ub Iwerks, who was one of his original animators, let him down terribly. And it must have been a near mortal blow. But Walt Disney persevered. It was when he was coming back from New York after learning about the loss of Oswald, that he sketched out Mickey Mouse, and the legend was born.

But you don’t realize all the different strikes that happened, the challenges on productions. The grosses not being where they needed to be. Peter Pan was a bomb. Yeah, we don’t think about that now. But it was a huge bomb. The challenges to the grosses. The challenge of the war. People weren’t going to the movies, they couldn’t. And they move to war-time films. They were okay, but not great. And then, after the war, that all went away, and they had to rebuild their business again. There’s just this series of setbacks and challenges and obstacles. But if you really read it, if you really absorb the museum, it gives you this deep respect for the grip that’s required to build a company. And makes you very thoughtful about how hard it must have been to get there. And that’s the second part.

The third part. And this is the most amazing thing, is you’re kind of engrossed in this story. He’s overcoming obstacle, overcoming obstacle, overcoming obstacle. And then you walk into this gallery, just out of the blue. It’s the 10th Gallery. You look around and you realize that you’re in the gallery where he died. He died quite young. And he was only 65. He died December 15, 1966. And he always he was going to die young, but he thought he was going to die really young. When he met Lillian, his wife, he told her, Hey, listen, I’m only going to live for a few years. I’m not going to be your husband for long. And she said I’ll take the risk. Because a fortune teller had told him that his lifeline was short on his hand. And so he always took a lot of risks, because he always figured he’s going to be dead in a year, which is potentially part of his secret as well.

Anyway, so he’s still relatively young, about 65. Died from lung cancer. Smoked a lot. And then this room… now he’s dead. And it’s all the tributes flowing in from around the world, at the moment of his death. All these different world figures, and all these different news reports, all reporting on the death of Walt Disney. And imagine the kind of cultural figure that he was in the mid 60s. At this point, Disneyland would have been open for 11 years. And he was part of that whole baby boomer. And he’d been in everyone’s television set every night, on the Wonderful World of Disney’s since know the early 60s. And he was just a part of America. And then he’s dead. And I have been to a lot of museums in my life. I have never cried in a museum before. And you just sit there. And the impact of it hits you. They do an amazing job of helping you understand the cultural moment of his death. And, and you weep. It’s a tremendous experience.

And so when you walk out of the Walt Disney Family Museum, you walk out with the sense of what made him the person that he was. The obstacles he had to overcome to be able to communicate that vision to others, which is really what he wanted to do. He wanted to share with others, his vision of America and his vision of life. And then the impact of his passing at a relatively young age.

So if you get a chance, go to the Walt Disney Family Museum, if you don’t get a chance, make a chance and go to the Walt Disney Family Museum. It is experienced personified. They’ve done an incredible job of bringing that to life. And if they could do that online, it would be equally amazing. I’d love to see that. So for the CXM Experience, this is Grad Conn, CXO at Sprinklr where we put the experience in CXM. And I’ll see you next time.

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Grad Conn

Chief Experience Officer, Sprinklr

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