Last month, I took my Dad to a Braves baseball game in Atlanta. The promotional event that evening, on a hot and humid summer night, was “Christmas in July.” Given my obsession with the 1990s band, The Counting Crows, I couldn’t help but think of one of their most memorable songs, A Long December. Depending on your perspective, December was either arriving six months too early or six months too late. The choice is yours.
I was confused the entire evening. No one, including Olaf from Frozen, wants to see Santa sweltering through summer. Take Me Out to the Ballgame isn’t a Christmas Carol. My Dad, born in 1938, turns 80 on December 22nd. For nine innings I tried to figure out if I should say “Happy Birthday” six months early, or was I already three days late?
My wife, Niki, loved it! The Braves played the Dodgers that night and the only thing Niki loves more than the Dodgers, or Disneyland, is Christmas. When the Dodgers pulled ahead with a two-run homer by Yasiel Puig, Niki really got into the spirit of the season by caroling “O Christmas Puig, O Christmas Puig, How lovely are thy homers!”
And you thought my puns were bad!
Christmas in July also made me think of Walt. December is a long month for Disney historians. Walt was born on December 5th (1901) and died on December 15th (1966). Roy Disney, Walt’s older brother and life-long business partner, also died in December (December 20, 1971). Sitting in Sun Trust Park that night, in the middle of 2018, I thought about how it has been 52 ½ years since Walt’s death and that long December of 1966.
Today, what we remember are all of Walt Disney’s successes. These include the world’s most popular cartoon character, Mickey Mouse. The world’s first full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. And his original dream of Disneyland, a place where “parents and children can have fun together.”
What I fear, however, is that we have forgotten all of Walt Disney’s failures. This is why I begin my History of Disneyland class, and my professional presentations, highlighting what most people don’t know, or don’t remember, about the maker of the Magic Kingdom—Walt Disney failed as often as he succeeded.
To make my point, I want everyone to join me on a field trip. No, Dr. Disneyland isn’t taking you to the Happiest Place on Earth. At least not this time. Instead, I want to take you to Kansas City, Missouri. It will be a quick trip. We only need to make one stop: 1127 E. 31st Avenue.
This is the site of Walt Disney’s first studio, Laugh-O-Gram Studio. Founded in 1921, Laugh-O-Gram Studio is where Walt created the Alice Comedies; an early attempt at animation that placed a live girl inside a cartoon story. It is also where Walt faced his first failure.
After only eighteen months, Laugh-O-Gram Studio and Walt Disney were bankrupt. Standing at the intersection of Failure and Forward, Walt choose to go forward. In July 1923, Walt Disney boarded a train with $40, a single suitcase, and a one-way ticket. The bankruptcy compelled Walt to come to California. The financial failure forced him to join forces with his older brother Roy who was already in Los Angeles. Together, they formed the Disney Brothers Studio that today is the largest entertainment company anywhere in the world.
Like the original Alice Comedies, I want to invite you to step into the story. Walt’s story. I want you to imagine that you are Walt Disney. It is 1923, you are only twenty-one years old, but you are already bankrupt. You are already financially ruined.
You have a decision to make.
You can stay in Kansas City where it is safe. Where it is comfortable. Where you have friends. Where you have family. And where you can…give up.
Or, you can go all in on your dream. $40, a single suitcase, and a one-way ticket. You can board the train. You can come to California. You can be a hero in Hollywood. Step into the story and ask yourself this question: What will you decide?
This past summer, Niki and I celebrated July 4th in Kansas City. We stopped at 1127 E. 31st Street. Ninety five years later, we stood next to what is left of Laugh-O-Gram Studio.
I wasn’t ready.
This wasn’t the first time that I have walked where Walt walked. I know that it happens every time I step into Disneyland. In fact, when Niki and I went to Disneyland for our honeymoon in 2009 (Niki’s first visit), we dedicated a day to taking the wonderful “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour.
But that tour is all about the dream. The “Walk in Walt’s Footsteps” tour is all about the details. That tour is all about the story, success, and behind-the-scene secrets of Walt Disney’s original Magic Kingdom.
Nothing prepared me for Kansas City. Nothing prepared me for Laugh-O-Gram Studio. I kept going back to July 1923. I kept thinking about Walt and the roller coaster of emotions, choices, and decisions that he faced during that sinking summer 95 years ago. In 1923 there was no “Christmas in July” for Walter Elias Disney. Just a long December of disappointment and despair.
But he did give us a gift. The gift of a decision. Walt’s decision to come to California with $40, a single suitcase, and a one-way ticket didn’t just change his world. It changed the world. Perhaps you, too, have been there before? Maybe not to Kansas City. Maybe not to Laugh-O-Gram Studio. But we have all stood at the intersection of Failure and Forward. We have all experienced our own version of a Long December.
The key to Walt’s kingdom, the key to any kingdom, rests in the decision. Too many of us believe that our story and our success are determined by our current circumstances. Past failures and present realities make dreaming too difficult.
You can always make a different decision. You can always step into a different story. In fact, this is exactly what Walt was challenging us to do when he opened Disneyland in 1955. Every time we enter the park we walk through the tunnels, underneath the railroad track, beyond the berm, and into the story that awaits on the other side. We are repeating what Walt first attempted with his Alice Comedies.
A better story awaited Walt in California. But only after he made the decision. Only after he boarded the train. Only after he went all in on his dream with $40, a single suitcase, and a one-way ticket.
Today, if you are facing your own version of A Long December then I want you to be encouraged by both the song and the story. A Long December is about change, hope, and the possibility that “maybe this year will be better than the last.” Walt reminds us of the power of decisions and the importance of going all in.
What will you decide?
There is a lyric from A Long December that links the Counting Crows song to Walt Disney’s decision in Kansas City. At least that’s the way I hear it. As always, the choice is yours.
If you think that you might come to California, I think you should.