There’s not a child that didn’t grow up experiencing the wonder of Disney. The hardship to get to this position in the hearts of the world is less known.
Walt Disney first started out with the Laugh-O-Gram Studio where he invented a new approach to cartoon production (Ending up insolvent and broke). Disney was founded in 1923 and it’s a pretty amazing story. You should watch ‘Walt Before Mickey‘ on Netflix to understand how close we came to not having Disney today. Any founder will relate to the ups and downs. It was hard going and Walt took some incredible risks which eventually worked out.
So then consider Disneyland. Do you think it was an easy task to launch the first of its kind awe-inspiring playground? Probably not.
So what would the pitch deck, or ‘prospectus’ look like for Disneyland? Pause, how would you pitch it? Not an easy task, right?
So if you could see Walt’s deck, that would be pretty wonderous, right?
Well, here we go! It’s your birthday.
Not only are we going to see the deck they used to raise money, but also the original draft outline. As a bonus, I’m also going to share the plans for the Haunted House, just because, it’s interesting 😉
The deck isn’t just interesting to read for historical gawking, it’s a masterclass in how to communicate and inspire wonder. It really is a joy to read. Can you say the same thing about your deck?
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The prospectus draft
This comes from the author of Journal of Ride Theory. He geeks out on amusement rides.
He describes the draft, the first part is worth reading for context:
I like it because I get the sense it’s an edited transcript of Walt just making up fun stuff on the fly. I have no evidence for that, but I know he was good at telling stories without a script, and there’s something about the phrases used that sounds a bit like Walt talking off the cuff. But what do I know?
If you like history, read this otherwise skip on:
I found it ten or so years ago, in the files of Eyerly Rides in Salem. They had a contract to build the Dumbo ride and a windmill Ferris wheel for Disney, but the deal fell through when Lee Eyerly got cancer. Also, Walt insisted the ride must load everybody all at once, while the Eyerlys knew from experience that was an inefficient way to work the queue.
At one point, somebody at Eyerly went to a bookstore and bought a Little Golden Book (or something) of Dumbo so they could have reference pictures in order to design the fiberglass elephants.
Take Walt being intractable, add the Eyerlys insisting they knew their business, then throw in cancer, and the deal fell through — amicably, as I read the documents. Arrow Development got the contract for Dumbo. It barely worked on opening day and queues have been long for that ride ever since. The Ferris wheel idea wasn’t built until Disneyland Paris.
It’s interesting to note the structure of the document.
It starts out very boring, but specific.
As you look at the schematic aerial view map of DISNEYLAND – this portion of the park will encompass 50 acres of ground… On top of the embankment will run a 1/3 scale steam engine…
You have a basic overview of what this thing is now.
It then gets to the theme or vision of Disneyland:
The THEME OF DISNEYLAND is to leave the present day behind you and live in the World of YESTERDAY, TOMORROW and FANTASY. So — let us park our car and approach the entrance of DISNEYLAND
The prospectus then takes you on a journey to understand the playground. They don’t just list a bunch of ‘features’ they explain things in an emotive manner so compelling you can actually visualise being there, hearing the sounds.
Over the Photographers Shop might be a Dentists Office. Every now and then the tape machine will start and you will hear someone getting his tooth drilled and doing a little screaming. Over the Drug Store we could have a Vocal Teachers Studio and hear a Soprano taking her lessons, hitting a few clinkers, and the Vocal Teacher screaming at her.
The deck isn’t just all hopes and dreams. There is commercial thought build in.
Next we come to the RECREATION PARK. This will be a place where big industries such as Lockheed, General Motors or industries with 500 or more employees can have their pionies… Big industries will be able to lock themselves in this area and the public cannot walk into this 5 acres. However, the people from big industries can come in or out and participate in the park. We will cater their lunches to them.
Now here is the draft to read.Disneyland Prospectus
There’s a lot to read there. So maybe you didn’t? No bother, it’s weekend stuff.
So check out the actual prospectus now.
It’s quite similar to the draft in terms of some of the content and structure, but not in how it is written.
It’s like a Disney story written in a paper. It’s really quite a delight to read! It seems the final draft was prepared by an advisory firm.
Background (skip if you want)
These copies were made from one of the three sets of pitch-documents Roy and Walt Disney used to raise the money to build Disneyland. There are no archive copies of this document. Neither the Walt Disney Company nor the Walt Disney Family Museum has it. It’s owned by Glenn Beck…
Roy Disney (He controlled the purse strings) didn’t like the idea of Disneyland at first.
Walt doesn’t exactly like being told no, so he poached the best talent from the studios to aid in fleshing out his idea for a new kind of amusement park.
As work on Disneyland progressed, Roy pulled back on his opposition and agreed to raise funds. In September 1953, he took a trip to New York to visit with potential funders, including the television networks. They both felt there was potential for a new kind of deal to get this park financed. But they needed more than just ideas to share. Roy needed to demonstrate what the park would look like. He needed a pitch deck.
So, on Saturday, September 23, 1953, Walt called on a talented artist and friend, Herb Ryman and explained the situation.
You know how these bankers are, Herbie. They can’t visualize anything. They’re just thinking about money. My brother’s got to take drawings and plans to show them what to do.
Herb wished him luck, not quite catching on to the fact that Walt was asking him to help (quickly). If you’ve ever had to ship things fast, you’re going to relate to this:
I’m not going to do anything in two days. You’re crazy. You’ve got a lot of nerve to call me on a Saturday, hoping I can come up with something. Well I can’t. Nobody in the world can do it. It will embarrass me and you. I don’t want anything to do with it. We’re still good friends, but that’s impossible.
About two hours later, Ryman was hard at work. By Sunday night, he and Walt had finished a beautifully detailed drawing of the park.
With Roy at their side, he helped him win over investors and the $17 million it took to build Disneyland.
Selling the dream
The vision (of sorts) is not specific, but it is intriguing:
Where you leave TODAY…
and visit the World of YESTERDAY and TOMORROW.
Try writing something like that at the start of your deck!
These days I would probably write: “Disneyland is the future of amusement parks. Where you leave...”
The Disneyland story is clearly an ‘idea stage’ pitch. Nothing has been validated, it’s all a dream. So they have to share the dream with the ‘bankers.’ It communicates who the customers will be and how they will use the product, the ideas it is based on.
When it comes to explaining it, they don’t just say something boring. They explain what it is and why it needs to exist:
The idea of Disneyland is a simple one. It will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge…
Disneyland will be something of a fair, an exhibition, a play-ground, a community centre, a museum of living facts, and a show-place of beauty and magic.
It will be filled with the accomplishments, the joys and hopes of the world we live in. And it will remind us and show us how to make these wonders part of our own lives.
THAT is anything but dull.
The promise of money
It’s not structured like a business plan (nor pitch deck). It doesn’t say “here’s our business model.” The presentation sells a dream and peppers in the promise of money. In fact, there is a sort of structure to it. They explain each aspect of the park and how they will offer ways for customers to spend money.
Walt’s vision for what the company at one point called “merchantainment” was really quite ambitious. The first page boasts of a “mail order catalogue” that will offer everything for sale at Disneyland (a kind of super-duper version of today’s Disneyland Delivears). This catalogue was to include some crazy things like actual livestock, including “a real pony or a miniature donkey thirty inches high.”
Across the deck are allusions to corporate sponsors. They did actually execute on this.
When the park opened in 1955, there wasn’t much budget to kit out Tomorrowland, so corporate sponsors hosted some pretty lame exhibits: the Kaiser Aluminum Hall of Fame (a giant tin telescope, a tin pig, and exhibits about the role of aluminum in American industry); a Dairy of the Future that featured models of cows with IVs in their hocks gazing at videos of pastures; the Dutch Boy Color Gallery (exploring the future through paint mixing). The crowning glory was a big-top tent housing the special-effects kraken from the film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; it was staffed by a little person who hid inside it all day, making the tentacles wave (Lol, Wizard of Oz style!).
But you do what you have to do to hustle things into reality!
But it’s short on specifics. They don’t quantify revenue, rather it’s like ‘if you buy into the concept, you buy into the potential to make money from customers.’
Companies like Pinterest for years didn’t turn on the ‘money taps.’ They continually (purposefully) didn’t make any money so they could stick to showing user numbers and selling the ‘just think how much money we would make it we did start to make money!’ That’s only credible if you’ve got something sexy to sell. Walt was a bit of a celeb, so he could leverage his credibility to pull this off.
And he did. He got $17.5m.
To put that into perspective, in 1950 a dollar is worth $10.17 now. So that 17.5m is $178m today. That’s not a tiny sum.
If I haven’t made it clear already, I love how they write. It’s probably not going to work for more modern SaaS decks, but there’s certainly something to pick up on how you sell this in person with your words.
Use your credibility wherever you can
Great you got featured in TechCrunch. You put that in your deck right?
The funny thing is a lot of founders really don’t sell what special things they have. One founder I know had a father who was a minister and some really high-level connections beneficial to the industry. Did he share that, no?
Walt sells what he’s got.
Mickey Mouse, the best-known personality in the world has his MICKEY MOUSE CLUB headquarters in DISNEYLAND
Walt saying he’s throwing everything he has behind this.
In a sense, this is the special sauce… it’s not just some amusement park. No, it an amusement park backed by celebrities known the world over. Doesn’t that derisk some things for you if you were an investor?
Name the customer
They never mention ‘customers’- that isn’t a story. If they mention people they mention them by name. When you put a name to things, people can fill in the blanks.
Here is an example:
And a bakery shop where Johnny can watch the baker write his name in icing on his birthday cake
That beats the hell out of ‘customers can purchase cakes.’
Know your audience (aka show it)
A picture says 1,000 words. Show don’t tell.
Walt clearly wasn’t a dumb guy. He knew he needed more than some boring words. He needed to sell a dream, but he also needed to show it.
“You know how these bankers are, Herbie. They can’t visualize anything. They’re just thinking about money. My brother’s got to take drawings and plans to show them what to do.”
They had two days to pitch and so Walt made sure he had something to show.
Things to remember
The pitch ends leaving the key things for investors to remember (something I recommend you do in your deck).
DISNEYLAND will be the essence of America as we know it… the nostaligia of the past, with exciting glimpess into the future.
It will give meaning to the pleasure of the children— and pleaure to the experience of adults…
It will focus on a new interest upon Southern California through the medium of television and other exploitation…
It will be a place for California to be at home, to bring its guests, to demonstrate it’s faith in the future…
And, mostly, as stated at the beginning – it will be a place for people to find happiness and knowledge.
The last slide of your deck should list three reasons to invest that the Partner can remember.
So are there ‘slides’ missing in this ‘deck’? Yes and no. Let’s run through the normal bunch.
- Vision / company purpose: Yeah, that’s there!
- Problem: They don’t say ‘people are bored.’ They talk about a way for people to spend their time. It’s written with aspiration. These days you might spell it out, but if your idea is big enough, do you really need to? Do you need to explain why a place of wonder is based on an existing problem not being solved? If you had a cure for cancer, you prob can skip the slide ‘Cancer kills people’ and jump to ‘We’ve solved cancer.’
- Solution: The whole deck explains what it is
- Market size: They don’t talk about this explicitly. They explain at the end it’s a place for California and it’s guests (So families in the State area).
- Business model: They talk about the potential for sponsorship and merchandise, but don’t get anywhere near ticket prices. Maybe there was more info in other docs? The original business model was around shopping. A separate, low charge for admission and ride tickets were extra, so it was very cheap to pass through the gates in order to shop. In the 1950s and 1960s, doing your Christmas shopping at Disneyland was quite the thing in LA. These days you would need estimates, but we also actually have Excel now… yay
- Product: It’s explained at a high level in a very emotive manner
- Competition: This is a new concept. They don’t have a tonne of theme parks around to worry about. Their main concern is selling the need for a new service. If you were being pitched a first of a kind concept like this, would you focus on the competition? Not so much, you’re wondering if people will go to it and if there was a need.
- Special sauce: This is sort of implied. Walt was super famous, right? He doesn’t take that for granted though. He makes effort to remind people that folks like Mickey would be backing the venture.
- Team: The team is not ‘on paper’ but if Bill Gates called to ask for money, you’d take a call, right? Would you like to know more about who is backing this? They’re also raising $170m for a corporation… so it’s not a little bet on the side of investors.
- Timing: To put things into context, Disneyland was launched during the post-war boom-years where shopping was coming into its own as an American recreational pass-time. There is quite a lot of talk about selling merch here. It’s purely speculation but maybe this was a known trend
- Financials: Nothing specific here, but I don’t know how detailed you can get in the 1950s with pen and paper
- The ask: Sure, it’s not there
You can see a higher quality version here.
Bonus- Haunted Mansion prospectus
This is just for fun, since if you’ve read this far you find this as interesting as I do.
These are images of the original 1957 prospectus for the Haunted Mansion, as a first approximation of what Disneyland’s “spook house” might be. it was made available for sale by Heritage Auctions.
The Haunted House/Haunted Mansion Disneyland Notes and Plans Group (Walt Disney, 1957). Here is one of the single most important lots we have ever offered in relation to Disneyland. After reviewing a Ghost House in one of Harper Goff’s original concept sketches, Walt Disney gave the idea of a Ghost House to Ken Anderson. Mr. Anderson and Mr. Disney then visited the “Winchester Mystery House” in San Jose California. Walt asked Ken Anderson to create a story for a theme park haunted house. This is the group of extensive hand-typed notes and preliminary plans for a Disneyland “Haunted House.” It is in a soft binder with a label that reads, “2nd Revision September 17 ‘The Haunted House’ By Ken Anderson.” This has his notes from the Winchester House visit, with his entire 24-page story for the attraction. The binder has a two-page table of contents and a spec page for the Winchester House. Also included are two small sheets with his notes on the Winchester House dimensions. Also included, a folded 30″ x 18″ architectural drawing print of the inside of the proposed ride. Print reads Ken Anderson 9/2/57. This plan is loose. The Front Elevation plan is in the last page of the binder and is a fold-out. Minor handling, edge wear and folds to two architectural plans. Good condition.
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Amazing! Its truly remarkable piece of writing.