Walt Disney enjoys an almost unmatched reputation as a Great Innovator in the same vein as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. This extends to many epochs of his career, including the very concept of theme parks as we know them today. The problem is, he has been lionized so much, and put on so high a pedestal, that I think we’ve lost sight of the true accomplishment. Walt was less of an “innovator” than he was an “adapter”. This is true not only for the theme park concept, but also other heralded innovations he is given credit for.

Google definition of Innovator
Google definition of Innovator.


Let’s start with theme parks. Corporate Disney histories often claim that Walt Disney invented the theme park idea. But is it really true?

Walt admitted that he was partly inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Denmark. What’s in Tivoli Gardens? Well, it’s not a typical, traditional amusement park, with rides strewn everywhere and no sense of place. Instead, it’s got park-like features (think city park), but also discrete LANDS. That seems to make it something of a theme park (not an amusement park), doesn’t it?

Students of Disney company history can name another inspiration: Greenfield Village. This outdoor museum is more than just a collection of authentic and reproduction houses from American history: it’s also got some key city-park features that will look awfully familiar to Disney fans. Namely, it had a train encircling the property, an island with a river around it, and a paddleboat cirumnavigating the river. When did Walt see this? In 1948, while on a train trip with animator Ward Kimball. Disneyland looks a little less original seen in this light.

Liberty Belle at the Magic Kingdom
Liberty Belle at the Magic Kingdom

The timeline is important. Greenfield Village came first, with its Disneyland-like layout, and Walt’s new (renewed from childhood) interest in trains of all kinds. Kimball had a backyard train… and Walt just bought a house in Holmby Hills with a big backyard (in 1949). After some negotiation with his wife Lillian, he got permission to build his own backyard railroad, but his wouldn’t be full-sized like Kimball’s; Walt’s would be miniature. Thus was born the Carolwood-Pacific Railroad (named after the street he lived on). It opened in 1950.

The CPRR was popular, and operating it every weekend from his own house must surely have worn on Walt (and possibly Lillian). We should keep that in mind when considering Walt’s next proposed move: a miniature railroad (just like his one at home) to be built near the Studio. Originally conceived as a place for the families of his employees, Walt may have had a desire to not have his own domicile so overrun every weekend.

From Vanity Fair magazine.
From Vanity Fair magazine.

Disneyland as a concept grew from that Mickey Mouse Park (also known for a time as Disneylandia) into something much larger. It’s important to zero in on that: Disneyland was an outgrowth of an idea, not something Walt started with originally. It didn’t spring forth from his head fully grown, like Athena bursting forth from Zeus.

Walt famously worked out many details of the park on a single weekend with artist Herb Ryman. How many of the ideas were Herb’s, rather than Walt’s, will never be known. There exists here at least the possibility that Herb created some of the ideas for Disneyland.

Original Disneyland Map by Herb Ryman (courtesy of Disney and More)

Looking at the Ryman map, we see the germ provided by Greenfield Village: a circling train, an island, a river, a paddlewheeler, and historical buildings. This shows that at least SOME of Walt’s ideas were derivative. Tivoli may have entered his mind here as a model – he and other artists did some benchmarking of amusement parks in these years – so we could have additional inspiration there. [EDIT: an earlier version of this paragraph drew a connection to the Knott’s Berry Farm Calico Mine Train, but that attraction was actually created after Walt’s Rainbow Caverns].

So was the rest of Disneyland pure invention, then? Not so fast. We’ve already talked about the origins of Main Street, the island/boat part of Frontierland, the mine train, and the circling train. Other sections of the park were not invented out of whole cloth for the park, but ideas *repurposed* from other things in the Disney library. Fantasyland was the home to the Disney animated movies – no surprise there. The science shows and cartoons Disney was making popular in the 1950s gave Tomorrowland its “visit the moon” surface theme. The profitable True-Life Adventures movies gave spawn to True-Life Adventureland (until its name was shortened). The rest of Frontierland came from other properties Disney was working with (Zorro and Davy Crockett), plus Walt’s childhood fascination with Mark Twain books.

Even some of the ideas that came after the park opening had roots elsewhere. Those much-appreciated Audio-Animatronics? Not invented from thin air – Walt saw and purchased a mechanical bird, ordering his team to dissemble it to figure out how it worked, because he wanted something similar.

In none of the above cases was Walt inventing things that had never been seen before. The theme park was a three-dimensional *application* of other existing ideas. Once again, this shows Walt adapting ideas, re-purposing them, rather than inventing brand new ones.

Zorro was part of the park's first lineup.
Zorro was part of the park’s first lineup.


In fact, it COULD be argued that the attractions in Disneyland that are the most “original” are the ones that were guided by Walt’s inner team shortly after his death: Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion (Walt had fingers in both of those, but nowhere close to the level of involvement he’d had earlier at Disneyland. And even then, it’s not as if the Haunted Mansion was the first-ever haunted house attraction.

You could take this article’s central claim and expand it to SOME other (but not all) parts of Walt’s illustrious career. Below are some moments often heralded as huge Disney innovations, with some context added:

  • Steamboat Willie is celebrated as the first cartoon with sound, and it was. But it wasn’t the first film with sound – that would be the Jazz Singer (1927). Walt’s accomplishment would more truly be an invention if Mickey had been the first-ever sound in theaters. As it was, the sound cartoon was an adaption of someone else’s technology.
  • The first cartoon with sound and color? Fiddlesticks (1930)… created by Ub Iwerks, not Disney. There were actually many films (long and short) in color before Disney’s movies. It is true, however, that Flowers and Trees was the first Technicolor film – once again a refinement of a concept rather than having an idea no one had had before.
  • The multiplane camera that seems to be associated with Disney? It came after a long history of similar inventions.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs really WAS Walt being inventive and thinking of something no one else could conceive of – in fact, he was ridiculed for the vision before it came out.
  • Walt *did* have one other idea no one else did: Fantasia (ethereal cartoons with no words, only classical music, showing what someone might THINK while listening to music). It fared quite poorly in the box office, even upon re-release. That doesn’t speak well of Walt’s foray into truly new ideas.
  • CalARTS – this Disney-funded school for artists was a fairly unique creation.
  • Do the Alice Comedies qualify as new to the world?
  • The “Griffith Park Credo” where Walt famously claimed Disneyland began on a bench watching the carousel at Griffith Park, wishing a place could be built where families have fun together, would seem to imply that Disneyland was Walt’s idea born from this. But the train-backyard-Mickey Mouse Park-Anaheim evolution speaks otherwise. Plus, Walt did eventually include a carousel in his Disneyland, which perhaps implies he didn’t adhere completely to this credo himself.
  • EPCOT would have been new and visionary (or perhaps a refinement too; it’s not as if cities didn’t exist before Walt). But it never got built, so we will never know for sure.
The carousel in Orlando's Magic Kingdom
The carousel in Orlando’s Magic Kingdom

The question, of course, is whether “innovation” can and should always just mean adapting. Sometimes people understand the word to refer to creating a “new” concept, and this isn’t what Disney does.

Let’s imagine a startup car company (ACME Motors) now creating an all-electric car that works better, faster, longer, more powerfully, and cheaper than others on the road. Tesla and others were first with the concept; do we say ACME Motors innovated? Sometimes we do, especially when we mean that innovation is a refinement of processes and parts, rather than a new concept entirely.

In that overlap is where we CAN say that Walt Disney was an innovator. But mostly, he was an adapter. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of tinkering and refining. We need it, and we benefit from it. But Walt didn’t often have a vision for something that never existed before, the way Thomas Edison did. Visionary-level innovators don’t refine ideas so much as have the vision to see something no one has thought of before. This kind of accolade is heaped upon Walt sometimes, but it’s far from clear that he deserved it.

Walt was a successful adapter and he had the genius for knowing what the public would like. His brother Roy may claim Walt was a horrible businessman, but that only extends to the fiscal decisions, not the ones about putting his adaptions to work in a way the public can consume and purchase. For that, Walt was genius. And that’s enough–we don’t need to also label him an innovator (at least not in the “invention” sense) when his genius actually lay elsewhere.

Carousel of Progress was pretty original for its day
Carousel of Progress was pretty original for its day

Ultimate Orlando Clicks – Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Vehicle

We catch the mine train testing in action and examine some photos up close, plus catch up on other maintenance happening around the Magic Kingdom this week (Casey’s Corner refinements, moat/hub construction, Splash Mountain, etc).

Direct link: http://youtu.be/MbLA3aQDrUE

Re-Launching Ultimate Orlando

I’ve maintained a “side blog” since 2006 and now unify all my social networking around this one site and brand. That means I only use the “Ultimate Orlando” venues/accounts going forward on Facebook and Twitter. Also of note: I had to change the YouTube channel, so if you subscribe to the current one be sure you switch your subscription to the new one. If you follow me on any of these services, please update your bookmarks:

  • Geezer

    Interesting article Kevin……
    Not meaning to nit-pick but……Disneylands Mine Train, 1956, preceded Knotts, November 1960, by a few years.
    I’ve seen a number of photos of the construction of some of the Ghost Town buildings and they looked as if they were being built from scratch. I found this interesting article detailing most of the buildings origins and I don’t think any were moved from Calico. Even the Calico Saloon was copied at the old ghost town after being built at Knotts.


    Sorry,,,,I haven’t tried to insert a link here before…..”shrugs”

    Otherwise, I wanted to say that I think your ideas on Walts inspiration were interesting and I agree that he did a lot of research.

    Thanks for a fun article

  • FerretAfros

    While I certainly agree with the premise that Walt was more of an adapter than true innovator; he rarely came up with completely new ideas, but he did find ways to make existing things better than ever before, in a way that really connected with audiences. He had a way for knowing what people wanted before they knew they wanted it

    I do, however, question some of the ‘inspiration’ for DL’s early themes. The Davy Crockett and science/space-inspired programming came about as part of the Disneyland TV show, which was created as a promotional/finance tool for the park; without the park, who knows if that content would have ever been created. Additionally, the Zorro TV show wasn’t until 1957, so it’s unlikely that it served much concrete inspiration when designing the park circa 1954

  • Park Hopper

    There is no achievement in the history of mankind that doesn’t in some way derive from the work of others that came before.

  • Kevin Yee

    I did not double-check the Knott’s mine ride dates – looks like that one is a total miss and my fault. The nitpicking is appreciated! I will revise the sentence enough to make it clear to late readers what these comments were about; thanks.

    I agree that MOST human achievement comes on the backs of others. We usually use “innovator” to describe “visionary”, though – the sort of person who thinks something will work when no one does. Snow White is an example of that, as is electric light bulbs, nuclear fission, home computing, pocket smart phones.

    • Park Hopper

      So, you do think Walt was an innovator. Snow White and the 7 Dwarves was certainly his brain child. And as I remember reading, Disneyland was another idea that nobody thought would work.

      And although Fantasia was not a commercial success, one could argue that it was a collection of the world’s first music videos, not to mention the world’s first use of stereo sound in a motion picture. Sounds pretty innovative to me. Walt was just a little ahead of his time, that’s all, another characteristic of many innovators.

  • BC_DisneyGeek

    Interesting article with very good points made.

    The Disney connection will certainly give me something more to appreciate when I visit Tivoli Gardens this year.

  • Mousecat

    Interesting article. I would add some comments but I think my two books dive into this theory at great detail. Adapter is a good term but he did more than that. Eisner was an adapter. Eisner saw something, had his people copy it with some tweaks. Walt was a synthesizer. His incredible memory allowed him to put pieces together over decades to create something that felt completly new. Disneyland goes back to Electric Park in Kansas City when he was nine. The 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago had themed lands. It goes on and on.

    Sam Gennawey

  • lionheartkc

    It can be argued that adapters are the true geniuses of our society and the innovators are just the spark that gets them started. If you look back at the history of all great creations, you’ll find that the innovators toil in obscurity for years, even decades to finally come up with something that works, but is usually highly impractical. The adapters then come along and use their knowledge, skills, and network to take that spark and turn it into something that is really useful.

    You mention Tesla. They didn’t invent the electric car… heck they didn’t even roll out the first production electric car. What they did was refine the heck out of it, looking at all of the problems with early models and finding solutions to either minimize or even eliminate those problems. Now they are getting credit as innovators, but did they innovate or did they adapt?

    That is why Disney was at the top of their game for so long. They hired the best minds, the most talented creative and technical people, and then looked for things that they could make better.

    It’s a rarely understood point, but your article is really an outline of the difference between artists and designers. An artist take a blank canvas and creates something completely from their mind. A designer looks at the world, discovers things that can be made better, and sets out to do just that with whatever tools they have in their personal toolkit. Great designers have a very large toolkit made up primarily of pieces and parts that were created by others that came before them.

    Walt was a designer. He set out to solve the problem of having a place where families could have fun together, and he attacked that problem with a toolkit full of ideas that he had gathered over many years of experiencing the world with creative wonder.

  • Disney Adventure

    Something totally unique and new can be created from ALL derivative ideas or components. Which is certainly the case with Disneyland. As Mousecat astutely pointed out, Walt had lots of influences and ideas from the places he had visited over the 50 years before Disneyland was conceptualized. It’s apropos that Disneyland is called Disneyland because it truly reflects the man who created it.

  • Algernon

    Walt Disney’s greatest achievement would have been EPCOT, the city of tomorrow, had it ever been built. He spent tons of money researching it, and it would have set the trend for future communities. But when he died, the Disney officials in effect said, “This guy’s nuts–let’s build an EPCOT amusement park instead.”

    Wouldn’t it be great to experience all the planned versions of Disneyland that never came about? Today, Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion in cash and stock. Hopefully, with the Oculus Rift VR glasses, we will be able to experience not only the (much better) past versions of Disneyland, but the versions of Disneyland that never were.

    Virtual Reality may be the end of the brick and mortar amusement park. The modern day (Frankenstein) version of Disneyland will be competing with it’s (better) past versions, as well as incredible VR experiences.

    The Castle will probably end up in the Smithsonian, assuming anybody still goes there, either.

    • Marko50

      You may be right…eventually…but not with a pair of glasses. The sensation just isn’t there. You won’t be able to actually touch the walls of the castle, much less get the motion sensation of the rides – uh, attractions.

    • BradyNBradleysMom

      @Algernon — I’m 39. I remember back in the 1990s when the virtual reality people first started this kind of talk. The movie Disclosure is about some of this. Every few years, someone dusts of the “virtual reality will change the world!” stuff, I guess for something to talk about.

      It won’t ever replace actually going somewhere. More likely than not, the VR stuff will just be used in the adult entertainment industry and 15 years later there will be lots of guys who can’t function normally in life because they are addicted to VR adult entertainment.

      I can see VR changing that sort of adult industry permanently. I can also see it changing video games…and movies might change and evolve to be experienced in the VR format.

      But, actually going to a place, riding rides, eating amusement park food, and spending the day somewhere fun with family and friends won’t be replaced by VR.

  • BradyNBradleysMom

    Kevin Yee is definitely someone my dad would have called a “Big Thinker”. His articles are just so well-thought out and perfectly argued. When he presents information, he lays it out masterfully. The only thing I can compare reading a Kevin Yee article to is watching those card dealers in Vegas, how they can do all the tricks and deal the cards so fast. That’s what Kevin Yee does, he makes it all look so easy. He gives us history, a commentary on the present, humor, and all sorts of things to think about…and by the end of the article I am just amazed by all I learned from him. I feel so lucky that he writes on my favorite subject Disney because even when I don’t agree with him (which is rare) I feel enriched by his writing. My husband says I go on about him like I’m going to adopt him but when we go to the parks I am almost always talking about something Kevin Yee said so I feel like he is part of my “theme park family”.

    Oh, and I love in lines when we are talking about things Kevin Yee wrote about and other Disney fans get excited and want to talk about him too. I have met the best people from all over the world while talking about none other than Kevin Yee!

  • Tinkerbell

    I think it’s a mistake to lop someone like Walt into one category alone. He wasn’t just an adapter, not just an innovator, he was both and so much more. Being able to vacillate between all of these qualities – adapter, innovator, visionary, synthesizer, creative thinker, artist, designer, engineer, intuitive, leader, inspiration, all with plucky audacity- in any given moment, is, in my opinion, the root of his genius. He could take a tiny seed of any idea and make it something we’ve never quite seen before, and never realized we had been sorely lacking. I think all of that goes beyond one label. He was a real gift.

  • Asa

    Even all of the Disney feature films are adaptations from books written by others. Walt did not create the stories for anyone of them: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Brothers Grimm), Sleeping Beauty (Brothers Grimm), Cinderella (Brothers Grimm), Peter Pan (J. M. Barrie), Alice in Wonderland (Lewis Carroll), Winnie the Pooh (A. A. Milne), Mary Poppins (P. L. Travers), The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling), Dumbo (Helen Aberson), Pinocchio (Carlo Collodi), 20,000 leagues under the sea (Jules Verne), 101 Dalmatians (Dodie Smith), Lady and the Tramp (Ward Greene)…. the list goes on. Not a single story created originally by Walt Disney.

    Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm are much more original than Disney.