Adventurer's Spotlight: Walt Disney (115th Birthday Edition)


In Burbank, California at the Walt Disney Studios offices it often happened on Friday afternoons that Walt used to walk into the Sherman Brother’s office and simply tell them to “play it.” As the two brothers began to play and sing “Feed the Birds” while Walt would look out of the window and start getting tears welling up in his eyes… On December 5th, 1901 Walt Disney was born in his family home in Chicago, Illinois. The world has changed a ton since then. While it was a world with optimism and hope for the future, those with seemingly little power were not heavily regarded. Women were fighting for the right to vote and own property, and child labor was rampant, 10% of girls and 20% of boys (10-15yrs old) had jobs with dangerous conditions, long hours, little pay, and even less hope for a better life.

Just a few years later, Walt moved to Marceline, Missouri where his dad, Elias, purchased a farm just barely outside of the small turn of the century town. Walt remembered those few years in Marceline to be among the happiest of his life, especially as he remembered stories of the people and animals that he had the pleasure of meeting through the town.

As he continued into adulthood and began his career in animation, something about Walt was always drawn to telling pure stories that would delight families and bring them closer together. It was more than entertainment, it was compassion, it was born out of a love for people.

He regarded his animators and imagineers as family. He regarded his wife, Lilian, as his confidante and counselor. And against some parenting trends of the day, he regarded his children, Diane and Sharon, as his mission to love, nurture, and invest into. They were never a distraction or an inconvenience, his family was a constant source of joy.

This familiar joy was what inspired every piece of brick or metal that went into the building of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He built it for people. “To be a source of joy and inspiration for all the world,” he remarked in his opening day speech. He looked for intentional ways to love guests throughout the day with unexpected magical moments. Often times, Walt would walk around the park disguised with a hat so he could simply watch Guests enjoying his toys built to share with children of all ages.

So what does this have to do with an aging Walt looking out a window with a reflective song playing in the background? Walt’s vision and mission was always about people. Touching the lives of individuals through whatever medium he had to use, whether it was animation, live action, a theme park, or the Lily Belle railroad he built in his backyard. This was counter to many of his contemporaries who were heads of other studios or other corporate executives who might have seen people as the means to the end of amassing more cash. To them, people were just numbers. To Walt, people were individuals with personal stories.

As the Sherman Brothers began crafting the music that would accompany the new musical spectacular “Mary Poppins” they needed a song at the heart of it all. What they came up with, a simple song, about a little old woman who would sit outside of the church and feed the birds. As the story goes, the Banks children wanted to use the little money they had to buy seed to join in this elderly woman’s task, but to their father it made no sense to waste good money on creatures that could not possibly provide any return on the investment.

This reminded me of when Jesus once discovered his twelve main followers were bickering over which one of them was the best follower, typical scenario when you get a bunch of teenage and twenty something guys together. His response was paradigm changing, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:35-37 ESV).

To me it is significant Jesus chose a child to be the example of who to serve. When you invest and love a child there is NOT an immediate return, instead they are often considered a distraction, an annoyance, a frustration. So why would Jesus pick up a child and say that to receive a child was to receive Him? I think it is because God cares about the powerless. He cares about the hurting. He cares about those WHO CANNOT PAY BACK on the investment of time, energy, or resources. The Gospels are littered with examples where Jesus invested in the lives of those society discarded, and he simply looked at them as if they were a diamond hiding underneath some mud, just waiting to be cleaned off.

The birds waiting to be fed are different in each of our lives, they are the children, the lonely, the unloved, the hurting who surround us each day as we walk on by to the bank. They are crying out to be fed whether in physical needs or relational ones. They are waiting for somebody to care. I believe God has placed His followers on those streets to be the ones who spend the little cash or time they have to invest in those who cannot pay back.

This was the kind of life Walter Elias Disney led. One of love. A life filled with feeding birds and taking delight in watching them find a place of rest, hope, and life. Today we celebrate the birth of one of the most influential men in the 20th century, and the life he lived in still rippling in the lives of children of all ages throughout the world each day.

Richard Sherman remembers Walt’s afternoon musical visits in this way, “Usually after the hectic week, Walt would ask us how we were doing, and we'd tell him what we were working on. Then he'd ask us to play it, and I'd sit down and play, and he'd look out the window and get wistful. Then he'd turn around and say, 'That's what it's all about, isn't it?”

Feed the Birds.