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Walt Disney: the ultimate social entrepreneur

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Walt Disney: the ultimate social entrepreneur

Evan Baehr

Recently I had the privilege of spending some time with Glenn Beck over what was a rather epic dinner party, covering topics including life extension, overcoming addiction, and whether or not The Blaze would exist in heaven.  

During this visit Glenn gave a very special tour of some of his most prized artifacts and their stories. The picture above is the original map for Disney World, hand illustrated by Walt Disney himself the weekend before he went to pitch his business.  Glenn’s deep admiration for and inspiration from Walt Disney comes from what most people today think of as the lamest of the parks: EPCOT.  It turns out that Walt had a profound vision for the future and envisioned a place where those visions would be created, shared, and realized.  Unfortunately this vision was never realized at EPCOT—and that is where Beck hopes to step in to build the community that never was: a community to celebrate and realize what can be. 

Disney’s vision of the future was not merely utopian (more below on that); it was also deeply American, middle class, and aspirational.  On the manually typed cover page of the business plan reads this mission: 

Disneyland will be based upon and dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and hard facts that have created America.  And it will be uniquely equipped to dramatize these dreams and facts and send them forth as a source of courage and inspiration to all the world.

Cleary Disney had a creative vision for the future - and in particular an American future. But this was not merely political pablum; it was derived from a very deep philosophical worldview and communicated in a 40 minute movie (linked at bottom) that Walt directed himself; in fact, it was the last film he directed before he died.  

In Walt Disney, EPCOT, the Creation of a Commodified Utopia (see article), Matthew Arnold writes: 

Disney, however, was not a traditional reformer. He was largely uninterested in the systematic solving of modern urban problems like those in the Watts district of his hometown of Los Angeles. Instead, he seemed to feel that the best course of action would be to start all over again. As he explained in the film, “…the need is not just for curing old ills of old cities.... We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin land… and building a special kind of community.”

EPCOT would be an ever-evolving showcase of modern technology. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.

For Disney, the consummate businessman and innovator, planning techniques like urban renewal and political reform paled in comparison to the combined power of technology and efficiency enabled by modern capitalism. Disney felt that the corporation and not traditional government could best create jobs, prevent poverty, improve education, and provide for the common good. 

Even more impressive than his rhetoric and vision casting was his execution; he was not a speaker, he was a builder.  In a keynote speech before the 1963 Urban Design Conference at Harvard University, James W. Rouse said: 

I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this: that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland. If you think about Disneyland and think of its performance in relationship to its purpose, it's meaning to people—more than that, it’s meaning to the process of development—you will find it the outstanding piece of urban design in the United States. It took an area of activity—the amusement park—and lifted it to a standard so high in its performance, in its respect for people, in its functioning for people, that it really does become a brand new thing. It fulfills all its functions it set out to accomplish, un-self-consciously, usefully, and profitably to its owners and developers. I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other piece of physical development in the country.

Disney's vision was not merely philosophy; he had already executed one of the most important urban projects in history.  Meanwhile, his execution wasn’t merely for profit—he wasn’t a business guy who made lots of money and wanted to share his wisdom with the people.  Too often entrepreneurs become wealthy and "become passionate about a subject" and use time and money to influence outcomes; for them politics is the recreation of the leisure class. Disney began with a passion and a worldview then labored tirelessly to realize this reality through a for profit business; said another way, Disney built a for-profit company in order solve a big public problem.  Disney began with a confident view of how society ought to be so that more people will flourish--and he brought it to life as an entrepreneur. 

Through this activity he created rich, meaningful, life-giving experiences for over 525 million people (approaching twice the population of the United States).  And - that doesn’t event include his real vision of EPCOT.  Disney World is the greatest example of a “social enterprise” I have ever seen—a thriving business with the purpose of testing, experimenting, and then rolling out a new form of community—literally a new way for people to live so that they will flourish.