Happy Birthday, Disneyland: Taking a Page Out of Walt Disney's Playbook

Business.com / Managing / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Though Disneyland's opening day was one of Walt Disney’s greatest mishaps, there are plenty of positives to takeaway.

Can you believe Disneyland opened 60 years ago to the day? When they opened their doors on July 17, 1955, few could have predicted the international media empire that the brand would grow into—especially because that fateful day was far from perfect.

There are lessons to be taken from Walt’s missteps, but there is much to be admired from his successes. After all, Disney is now one of the most profitable businesses in the world and who better to learn from than the man who started it all?

Walt Disney was a man of vision, ambition and passion—a seemingly rare combination. When looking at Disneyland’s now billion dollar empire, one would never guess that its opening day was nothing short of a disaster. As many event planners experience time and time again, everything that could go wrong, did:

  • Counterfeited tickets nearly doubled the anticipated park attendance causing huge freeway backups, food and beverage shortages and broken down rides from overcapacity.
  • Trees were not finished being planted and the freshly laid asphalt was not yet dry, which caused female guest’s heals to sink in and stick.
  • Fantasyland had to be completely closed for a large portion of the day due to a gas leak.
  • The Mark Twain Riverboat had yet to have its capacity measured, causing water to come over the sides when guest attempted to look at other attractions.

Disneyland Opening Day

Image via Disneyland History

The press had a field day, forever marking the opening day as “Black Sunday.” Nevertheless, even though the day was a great disaster, Walt Disney was still able to teach entrepreneurs many valuable lessons from the way he reacted to such a business catastrophe.

Related Article: What Does Your Leadership Style Say About You?

1. High Risk, High Reward

Disneyland was built in less than a year, and although it is a childhood dream today, the theme park did not start that way. Walt once said that “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral."

He knew in his heart that Disneyland could be something magical and he trusted his gut instinct. It was certainly a risk to take going against what his advisors said, but in the end he was right.

Key Takeaway: Trust your gut. Take a chance. Nothing spectacular ever comes from sitting on the sidelines.

2. Trust Your Employees

Some people could speculate that Walt Disney bit off more than he could chew back in 1955, but Walt did something that all leaders struggle with and it payed off exponentially.

Disneyland Opening Day Employees

Image via Frontier Land Station

As the head honcho, it would have been expected that he would be the one running around in a panic due to to failures occurring throughout Disneyland. Instead, his employees were able to handle everything that was going on behind the scenes, allowing Walt to focus on the live broadcasting that he was in charge of. It is rumored that he was unaware of what went wrong until the next morning.  

Key Takeaway: At the end of the day, running around panicking over things that are out of your control will probably make things worse. It’s best to hire people you trust and then trust in them to get the job done.

Related Article: Six Keys to Managing a Team That's Smarter Than You

3. Roll With the Punches

Things are not going to be perfect. According to the former Chairman of Walt Disney Attraction Dick Nunis, Walt was told that he would have to decide between bathrooms or water fountains for opening day, and he responded by saying “they can drink Coke and Pepsi but they can’t pee in the streets— finish the restrooms!” Mr. Nunis said that this was a classic Walt Disney response.

Key Takeaway: Things are going to go wrong. You can sit and stress about them, or you can have a good attitude about it and fix what you can. 

4. Never Give Up

“It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.” This is one of Walt’s most famous quotes, and it embodies who he is and what Disney stands for. Living by this motto made Disney what it is today. Opening day included many seemingly impossible things, but he did it. Just think, last year the 11 Disney parks combines brought in almost a third of the $45 billion revenue. What started with a day of mishaps turned into a kingdom.  


Key Takeaway:
In the grand scheme of thing one bad day is nothing to be concerned about. Get up and dust yourself off because you never know where your hard work may take you.

5. Grow From Your Mistakes

Instead of dwelling on “Black Sunday,” Walt immediately took action to fix the issues at hand.  He took it as an opportunity to learn about his customer and how they would react to the park and vice versa. He took action to fix the issues and invited the press back for a second day experience.

Key Takeaway: Not even Walt Disney himself can rely on pixie dust to solve a problem. Rather than assigning blame, take mistakes as even more than a learning experience, but an opportunity to grow.

It’s easy to reflect back on "Black Sunday" and only remember the failures, but a lot is to be said about the things that did go right and the genius behind it all. Disney's success can be attributed to the many lessons learned from Walt Disney, the original imagineer.

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