Walt Disney’s Visual-Spacial Giftedness


Here is the world of imagination, hopes, and dreams. In this timeless land of enchantment, the age of chivalry, magic, and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales as rewritten by talented writers come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young-in-heart — to those who believe that “when you wish upon a star, your dreams come true.” —Walt Disney

Fantasyland, cleverly hidden behind Sleeping Beauty Castle, was, out of the five Disneyland lands, the one most important to Walt Disney himself. Disney’s flare for visual-spatial wonderment was played out here at what was once the core of the Magic Kingdom experience. The height of Sleeping Beauty Castle is only 180 feet above the moat but looks taller through a forced perspective where things are actually smaller as they are higher, thus making them look even further away. Behind the castle, guests enter into a fairytale world where dreams were dreamed, ideas were spun out without restrictions and storyboards were crafted to make simulated structures, characters and events all seem real.

Disney had an extraordinary capacity to think spatially, to create, to perform, and to improve on everything. His visualization ability was a real phenomenon. Disney had the capacity to truly think spatially, to come up with novel ideas using pictures to the exclusion of linear thinking language; to find or create new opportunities, new endeavors, new adventures; and to maintain a humble personal style that set an overall organizational tone of inspiration, integrity, competence and optimism. He had the visual-spatial ability to envision creative designs and bring them to market.

Visual-spatial ability refers to our capacity to represent the outer world internally in our minds. It’s the capacity to hold the world visually in our mind the way a Super Bowl quarterback successfully navigates his spatial field, or the way a chess player or sculptor represents a more circumscribed spatial world. It gives us the capacity to know where we are in space. If we find it easy to visualize things as though we were observers taking up different positions, like a fly on the wall, then we are strong in this ability.

Looking back to the three and a half years I worked for Walt Disney, I can better appreciate the many ways Disney demonstrated his visual-spatial giftedness. He had a unique ability to visualize multiple perspectives holistically, not just in words and numbers but with mental pictures. Disney was so good at processing and synthesizing several competing ideas or options simultaneously that he could create a whole new integrated picture or invention. When conceiving the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, he had a mental picture that would trouble him upon the project’s completion.

“Something is missing!” he said.

A college-student employee stepped up to add his opinion, “There are no fireflies!”

Disney responded, “Yes, that’s what’s missing. When artificial fireflies are added, my picture will be complete.”

Disney brought together very gifted executives and artists to assist him with taking creative pictures and designs to market. When he asked his visual-spatial executives to describe their world of tackling problems, they usually began with the pictures in their minds of what they were trying to communicate and then used visual words and metaphors to get across what they saw. By doing so, they were effectively connecting their own mental pictures with Disney while helping others on the team to make their own mental pictures of their ideas. This all translated into Disney’s people visually processing ideas faster together.

Disney firmly believed that in order to have something creative to think about, one must have rich visual imagery to gather and process rich spatial information of what is going on in time and space. If not, the work of imagination and creativity wouldn’t really happen. Disney’s visual-spatial capacity relied on his sense of sight — being able to visualize objects and imagery. He had the keen ability to see spatial relationships and to perceive and create images like wizards and pictures. His capacity was stimulated by his artists presenting to him unusual, delightful graphic designs and pictures, and engaging him in active imagination through visualization and pretending activities. Together, they could recognize relationships between objects and manipulate images, and then go on to develop a new design.

Disney also understood and embraced the process of change. He knew that in order to continue to progress and find success, he needed to be one step ahead of change. This was evident in his willingness to take chances on innovative technologies as they developed in his field. For instance, he waited years to produce Mary Poppins. When others expressed concern over perceived risks, Disney was always optimistic and had faith in his convictions and his creative artists. My favorite was Walt Disney Imagineering (also known as WDI, or simply Imagineering), the design and development arm of the Walt Disney Company, responsible for the creation and construction of Disney theme parks worldwide, founded by Disney in 1952 to oversee the production of Disneyland. WDI has since become renowned for its ability to turn fantastical ideas into magical realities and confront creative challenges every day. They did so by utilizing time-proven techniques and a belief that anything can be achieved if the mind is freed from conventional formulas.

Lucidity is possibly the strongest leadership capacity that Walt Disney possessed. He was able to see things and bring things together to stimulate creative conversation. He exemplified all of the spatial capacities to be considered a true visionary leader. Although he struggled to balance work and family life, he was always  there for his wife and daughters. Disney also had a passionate commitment to his employees. He knew each of us by name and insisted that everyone call him Walt. Throughout his life, and since his passing in December of 1966, Walt Disney did more to touch the hearts and minds of millions of Americans than any other person in the past century.

This was originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Brain World Magazine.

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