Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney

Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney - Startup Storey Entrepreneurship Guide

In this series of lessons we can learn from the greats, we turn to the one of the greatest entertainers of all time – Walt Disney – who built an empire of fun, love and excitement.

This article covers:

  1. How did Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company become so successful?
  2. Additional Business Lessons to Glean from Walt Disney
  3. Why the Vision of a CEO is Important
  4. How much was Walt Disney’s company worth when he died?

Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney - Startup Storey Entrepreneurship Guide

How did Walt Disney and The Walt Disney Company become so successful?

Provide a promise, not a product

The legend goes  that Walt Disney was sitting on a bench watching his daughters ride a  carousel when he came up with the concept for Disney World.

He noticed  amusement parks and state fairs were always littered and poorly  organized, and the employees were generally rude and resentful.

His wife once asked, “Why do you want to build an amusement park?  They’re so dirty.”

To which Walt replied, “That’s the point. Mine won’t be.”

From day one, Disney has focused on “the experience” as a key  component to increasing the value of its parks.


Always exceed customers’ expectations

One of the  reasons the Disney tradition stands the test of time is that Walt Disney  was more critical of his creations than anyone else could ever possibly be.

He was a relentless perfectionist with a keen eye for detail, often  forcing projects to go over budget and past deadline because he wasn’t  satisfied with the finished product.


Pursue your passion, and the money will follow

Walt  Disney went bankrupt more than once, leveraging everything he had in  terms of assets in order to build his studio, his films and his dreams.  The more profit one project yielded, the bigger the next would be.

His vision was constantly growing, and he used whatever capital he had to  allow that vision to evolve. His films and theme parks were labors of  love, built to revolutionize an industry, rather than maximize profits.


Stay true to your company’s mission and values

Walt Disney was famous for saying, “I hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse.”

Decades later, Mickey Mouse is still the crown jewel of the Disney  franchise, representing all the good will and imagination Disney  represents.

He’s also a constant reminder that the company has  strong roots and it embraces American values.


Differentiate your offerings

Every facet of Disney’s  operation is unique. Employees are called “associates,” visitors are  called “guests,” creative designers are called “Imagineers.”

And that’s  just the beginning.

The experience of being at a Disney theme park or  staying at a Disney resort is all about creating a dream vacation – one  where the attention to detail and personal service is just as memorable  as the attractions themselves.


Lead by example and delegate

Walt Disney was the  artist who originally sketched Mickey Mouse, as well as several of the  other iconic Disney characters. He even voiced several characters and  provided the inspiration for a lot Disney’s animated classics.

But as he built a studio and then an empire, he hired reliable men and women who  understood his vision and trusted them to translate that vision to  others.

By the time Walt broke ground on Disney World, he hadn’t drawn a  character for decades, nor was he a daily fixture at creative meetings.  

He built a strong foundation and developed self-reliant managers who  embraced his vision. That allowed him to turn his attention to even  bigger dreams, while the company and its employees continued to prosper.


Defy convention

So much about Walt Disney’s rise  was about bucking the odds and ignoring the critics, whether it was showbiz insiders telling him no one would ever sit still for a feature-length animated film, or others saying Walt was crazy for buying acres and acres of murky swampland in central Florida, Disney always  trusted his instincts first.

Einstein once said, “Great spirits have  always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Walt Disney  was a perfect example.


Leave behind something to grow

According to one  historian, “The true measure of a man’s greatness is what he’s left  behind to grow.” Disney World didn’t even open its gates until  nearly five years after Walt Disney’s death. And yet, the tradition  continues to evolve, almost 45 years later.

While Disney has diversified  in a number of ways, it’s still the company that started with a mouse.  

Perhaps Walt himself put it best: “Disneyland is something that will  never be finished, something I can keep ‘plussing’ and adding to. I just finished a live-action picture. It’s gone. I can’t touch it. I want  something live, something that will grow. The park is that.”

Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney - Startup Storey Entrepreneurship Guide

In addition, here are more business lessons that we can learn from Walt Disney and how we can apply them to our businesses:


Customer service

The art of making the customer feel like they are in control and resolving issues has become a craft for Disney. They know really how to make everyone feel special.

From the language they use when addressing issues to the absolute way they bring in people it’s why people love them.

Remember, they don’t have tourists at the Disney Resorts, we are called guests and those folks who help us are called Cast Members (the people at the Studios aren’t even called employees.)


Attention To Detail

The secret to Disney’s success – whether it be with the original animated features or the Theme Parks and Resorts – is the attention to detail to provide the Guest with a great experience. To do the things that enhance and don’t detract from the experience.

If a business uses this single principle through their each and every touchpoint – they will set themselves up for success!

Ask yourself, “How would Walt do it?” Or, “How would Imagineers do it?”

I heard recently that Starbucks may be adding a video feed of the barista in-store preparing your drink. Give you a bit of the theater you miss when not in the store. Fun idea!

Starbucks debated opening drive-thru locations for a long time because they don’t offer a nice experience. You drive around the back… past the dumpster… past grease dump station (for a restaurant), probably past some employee smoking… All a bad show…

Sadly, economics overcame aesthetics when the company realized adding a drive thru drove sales as if you opened a 2nd store in the same spot. Plus, moms LOVE drive thru locaions because they can get their latte without hassle of unpacking the kids!

When working at Starbucks, I used to ask… How would Disney do a drive through?What would a drive through be like if Imagineers designed it?

  • Would you put your car in N like a car wash and be pulled through like a ride?
  • Would you tune into a station on your car radio and hear a sound track?
  • Would it be in a dark tunnel where you could see scenes projected on the walls?

Use “attention to detail” to find out where you may be cutting corners. Use the “How would Walt do it?” to discover how you can be remarkable!


Companies could learn from Disney is how to make mergers and acquisitions successful.

History is littered with acquisitions that don’t get fully utilized, to acquisitions that go horribly wrong. In some cases, companies spend more on the acquisition than they ever get back in profits.

Disney, however, has seemed to turn M&A into an art form with huge, but successful, acquisitions like Pixar, Marvel, and most recently, Lucasfilm. They seem to be exceedingly effective at acquiring companies that expand their brand(s) in a massive way, integrating those new brands into their portfolio, and really capitalizing on everything from movies to parks to merchandise.

Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney - Startup Storey Entrepreneurship Guide

Watch the Experience Firsthand

There are some great books that offer a glimpse of how Disney works, but the best way to understand it is to go to the theme park and watch it firsthand.

Cast members – from the gate ticket sales to the railroad conductors all are trained and there are subtle tips you can pick up by just watching them work.


The vision of the CEO has to set the direction of the company.

Just as Steve Jobs set the right path for Apple to take, as written in Lessons to Learn from Steve Jobs for your Startup, it seems to be the same for Walt Disney.


This quote of Walt Disney: “I believe in being an innovator.”

This is what drove him to break the bank and add a soundtrack to Steamboat Willie, to bet the farm on creating a full-length feature animated motion picture (Snow White) and to mortgage the vacation home, sell his life insurance and beg for loans from ABC (which his company later bought) to build Disneyland.

Business Lessons to Learn from Walt Disney - Startup Storey Entrepreneurship Guide

Walt had an incredibly astute insight into what people are like and what we want.

He criticized his own movie, Alice In Wonderland after it fared poorly by realizing that it had “no heart” and that that’s what people are looking for.

Looking back on Fantasia, he cringed at the effort, but it was a direct outcome of the first point (above). He was constantly, keenly observing people and aiming to please them.

Shortly after Disneyland opened, he heard a mother reply to her son’s request to go on the Jungle Cruise as they walked passed it, “We went on that the last time we were here.” He was stunned and realized he would always need to keep innovating even in Disneyland.

The chief Disneyland landscaper asked Disney if he could put up a sign in a flower garden that said “keep out” because people were trampling the flower beds to take pictures of the Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Instead he instructed that stepping stones be installed there and a sign installed reading “Castle Photo Spot”.

The Disney Corporation no longer treats the parks as his “work of love”, as he put it, but it still constantly excels at innovating and delivering what people want.

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How much was Walt Disney’s empire worth when he died (in 1966)?

Roughly $80 million.

Walt Disney died in 1966. It looks like Warren Buffet bought 5% of the Walt Disney Company around that time for $4m.

It wasn’t exactly the day Walt died but it seems like Buffett bought his stock in 1965-1966, depending on what account you read. Either way, that would imply a market cap of $80m for the whole company!

Apparently Buffett considers selling this stake in Disney for only $6m among his greatest mistakes:


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