» Walt Disney’s 8 secrets to success

Walt Disney’s 8 secrets to success

January 26, 2010 by Bob Hill
Posted in: In this week's e-newsletter, Leadership

Walt Disney was an innovator and a visionary. But he was also one of the most successful business leaders of his time. Here are eight principles that made Walt Disney one of the greatest icons of the 20th century:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Differentiate your offer: 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Defy convention: So much about Walt Disney’s rise was about bucking the odds and ignoring the critics, whether it was show biz 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.
  8. 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: “Disney Land 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.”

Select quotes taken from The Quotable Walt Disney


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  • Robert Green

    This is such a great article and it is truly inspiring. I have sent it out to all my “associates” at All-Tex.

    Robert Green
    All-Tex Exteriors

  • Blake Henry

    Disney World didn’t even open its gates until nearly a year after Walt Disney’s death. And yet, the tradition continues to evolve, almost 45 years later.

    In fact, Walt Disney passed away in 1965, but Disney World didn’t open until 1971. Even then, the EPCOT wasn’t ready to open until 1982!

    That’s really leaving something behind!

  • Alan Kolody

    One wonders about the “expertise of the author when the author says Disney employees are called “associates”. As an employee of Walt Disney World throughout the 90’s I was told I was a “Cast Member”. Perhaps the author is taking a little more literary freedom than he should. Does he really know Walt Disney’s 8 secrets to success or is he applying his own ideas extrapolated from what he THINKS was the reason Walt Disney was succesful? And, can you believe it when he did not interview Walt Disney? How mush real research was performed here? Oh yeah, the Walt Disney Imagineering “imagineers” were the design and engineering group who created most (likely all) of the attractions.

  • Ryan Sauers

    This is terrific. I love the Disney way and always have. This is a great article and something I will ponder how we can improve in such a creative way. Ryan Sauers President/CMO Sauers Communications

  • Pingback: Today February 9th is the Disney Institute’s Birthday @ QUIRKY MARKETING CALENDAR

  • cole miller

    correction : Walt Disney died in 1966 . Disney World opened in 1971- FIVE years after his death not

  • Pingback: Walt Disney’s 8 Secrets To Success « smartbrandblog

  • Bob Hill


    I appreciate you pointing out that Walt Disney actually died five years before Disney World opened its gates. It was an oversight on my part. I’ve updated the post accordingly.

    Thanks for the heads up.

    Bob Hill

  • Jer

    Stumbled upon this post, and noticed a few things:

    1) While watching his girls on the carousel, it was DisneyLAND that Walt envisioned. The two parks are very different entities. Disney World was never actually meant to be until shortly before the man passed. The original ‘Florida Project’ was just meant to be EPCOT, and experimental city. It was financiers that forced Walt into building the Magic Kingdom in Florida due to the success of California’s park.

    2) Disney employees are called ‘Cast Members’. This has always been their title since Disneyland opened in 1955

    3) One of the most glaring mistakes in this poorly researched article: After Walt asked to have some new characters drawn up, it was Ub Iworks who was the first person to draw ‘Mortimer Mouse’ (1928). As with most things, Walt simply through out ideas and rejected the ones he did not like. Truth be that Walt was not much of an artists, especially in comparison to the talent he surrounded himself with. Fred Moore is credited with designing the more pear-shaped Mickey that is recognizable today. Years prior to this, in 1925, Hugh Harman has drawn some sketches of a mouse from Walt who was inspired by a pet mouse he had in his youth. Walt had nothing to do with the drawing of the famous Disney characters:

    Donald Duck – Dick Lundy, Fred Spencer, Carl Barks
    Goofy – Art Babbit
    Pluto – Norm Fergason
    Chip and Dale -Bill Justice

    The only characters he ever voiced were Mickey (in 100 shorts, from creation until 1946), and Minnie Mouse (2 times).

    You should really search things, before posting some glaring errors in the business ‘history’ of the WDC


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