Thursday, May 18, 2006
What's in a Name?
The formation of WED Enterprises in 1952 was a major turning point for Walt Disney Productions and in the personal lives of Walt and Roy Disney.
As biographer Bob Thomas recounts in Building a Company: “Lacking any encouragement from Roy, Walt decided to finance the planning stages of Disneyland himself. He established Walt Disney, Incorporated, installing himself as president…”
“…Roy was deeply concerned that stockholders would be disturbed over possible conflict of interest between Walt Disney Productions and Walt Disney, Incorporated. He suggested that Walt change the name of his company, and it became WED Enterprises, the initials of Walt’s name (Walter Elias Disney).”
Walt said, “Well, WED is, you might call it my backyard laboratory, my workshop away from work. It served a purpose in that some of the things I was planning, like Disneyland for example… it’s pretty hard for banking minds to go with it… so I had to go ahead on my own and develop it to a point where they could begin to comprehend what I had on my mind.”
Author Steven Watts describes WED’s original working environment in The Magic Kingdom: “As these endeavors unfolded, Walt developed a special fondness for WED. He spent many hours roaming its premises, inspecting mockups in the model room, tossing around ideas, and brainstorming with the staff about potential projects. The pressures that attended the Disney Studio’s extensive production schedule of movies and television shows had become overwhelming, and Walt found a kind of respite by escaping into this smaller, more innovative group.”
WED was soon in the business of Imagineering, the Disneyspeak union of imagination and engineering.
Out of WED’s Imagineering braintrust came the theories, aesthetics, design and engineering of Disneyland, the advancement of three-dimensional storytelling, the development of robotic techniques in Audio-Animatronics and the perpetuation of an “architecture of reassurance” as inspired by Walt Disney’s personal sense of optimistic futurism.
The Disney theme parks we all know and love would never have existed without the risks taken by Walt and WED. In this protected environment, capital served the creative, mighty corporations funded new technology for our amusement and business was never “as-usual.”
WED was not operated for short-term return-on-investment, but was the playground of artists who excelled in making the impossible tangible, exploring new avenues of entertainment and imagining a bettered society through the miracles of science and industry.
But such a subjective enterprise was never popular with Walt’s longtime adversaries, “the sharp-pencil boys.” The experimental research and development at WED was considered a money-pit, though the end-results of Imagineering birthed the inspirational, lasting assets that still drive profits today.
As the holding company for Walt’s personal services and royalties for the Walt Disney name, WED became a divisive business point between Walt and Roy Disney as their small operation grew into a larger enterprise beholden to investors.
When Walt Disney Productions finally purchased WED’s design and engineering operations from Walt in the 1960’s, Roy himself intervened in the increasingly contentious negotiations by refocusing his legal team on the creative contributions of his brother, “Let me say a few words. You seem to forget how important Walt Disney has been to you and your lives. None of us would be here in these offices if it hadn’t been for Walt. All your jobs, all the benefits you have, all came from Walt and his contributions. He deserves better treatment than what has been shown here.”
After Walt’s death, Roy stepped in to realize his brother’s dream of Walt Disney World. WED’s legacy was all but assured.
But in 1987, as Michael Eisner reinvented boutique Walt Disney Productions as the global corporate entity known as The Walt Disney Company, WED Enterprises was rechristened Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) in the bargain. Gone was WED’s cool mid-century modern logo. In its place was the bland corporate brand and letterhead font.
Along with the name change came a chilling transformation in culture.
“There was a severe power shift at Walt Disney Imagineering in the early-90s, which completely changed the creative landscape. The best ideas no longer made it into the parks, and WDI fell victim to the kind of personal politics and rampant cronyism that is often associated with Hollywood studios,” reported SaveDisney.com in 2004. “Many talented Imagineers were laid off or put out to pasture, while finance executives were given the power to make creative decisions.”
Under WED, artists were nurtured and brought up in the company for a lifelong career. At WDI, creatives became contractors hired from project-to-project, when the work was not outsourced completely.
The theme parks were now seen as little more than branded retail outlets. Increasingly risk-averse new offerings, attraction closures, budget-conscious re-dos, and slapdash merchandise-kin dark rides documented the change.
WED had been the Toymaker’s Workshop, domain of artists, entertainers, designers and dreamers.
WDI was the no-nonsense workplace of MBAs, real-estate developers, marketers and screamers.
The name of the game was now selling, not storytelling. Instead of WED’s otherworldly Pirates, ghosts and mighty microscopes, WDI built time-share condominiums, cruise ships and Mickey dolls that send consumer messages.
Yet this too has passed into history… Finally, after a very dark age for the Magic Kingdom, we stand at the dawn of a new era of empowered creators through the appointment of Pixar’s John Lasseter as the creative head of Walt Disney Imagineering.
As John told Fortune recently, “I can't tell you how thrilled I am to have all these new roles. I do what I do in life because of Walt Disney - his films and his theme park and his characters and his joy in entertaining. The emotional feeling that his creations gave me is something that I want to turn around and give to others.”
To that end, wouldn’t it be a fittingly symbolic gesture to return Walt’s original acronym – WED - to the division?
The return of WED Enterprises would loudly announce that the artists have come home to stay. Ideas are back in vogue. Innovation, quality and a reassuring experience beyond all expectations are once again the name of the game.
WED – Walter Elias Disney - is a name for Walt Disney Imagineering to live up to.