Interview with Pat Williams on ‘How To Be Like Walt’

how to be like walt

This year alone we’re getting some highly-anticipated films under the Disney banner including Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Maleficent, and Big Hero 6. Next year we’re getting the first Star Wars film from Disney. Aside from film, Disney has theme parks all over the world, owns the ABC and ESPN network, and pretty much has its hands on almost everything. There was even Saving Mr. Banks, the first feature film to feature Walt Disney, that was released in theaters a few months ago.

We had the opportunity to chat with Pat Williams. He’s the senior vice president of the NBA basketball team, Orlando Magic, and is a motivational speaker. One of his biggest inspirations is Walt Disney, and since he lives in Orlando, it’s not that hard to see why (Orlando is home of Walt Disney World). Williams talks about writing the Walt Disney biography, How to Be Like Walt, researching the American icon, leadership, and enjoying Disney World.

John “Spartan” Nguyen (Nerd Reactor): Your résumé is pretty impressive. You helped create and shape the Orlando Magic. You have also written a biography of Walt Disney. You have said that Florida is the sort of place where everyone looks up to Walt.

Pat Williams: Well, John, I moved down here in June of 1986, and the mission was to help create an NBA basketball team from scratch, an expansion team. We were successful in that effort. In fact, we’re in our 25th season.

But in addition to basketball, I got Disney-ized. I got caught up in Disney, fascinated by the world of Disney, and very, very intrigued with the life of Walt Disney himself. I kept running into senior Disney executives who had worked with him back in California, and I would always pick their brains about Walt. That’s where it all started, and that led me to write this book How to Be Like Walt. It’s a biography of Walt, but more importantly, it’s a motivational, instructional biography. I’m writing him at his life, but also teaching life points about what we can take from Walt’s life; things that we can learn from Walt and apply to our own life. I think that’s what makes this book a little bit different.

Nerd Reactor: Yeah, what makes the book really great is that it’s still universal, and relevant now. It was published a decade ago, and we’re still talking about it.

Pat Williams: It’s been out for a while, but it’s gotten a new revival here because of the movie Saving Mr. Banks, in which Tom Hanks plays Walt Disney. It’s a wonderful film, and I think it gave this book that I’ve written a real shot in the arm. So if you really want to get a wonderful picture of Walt Disney, go see the movie Saving Mr. Banks, and you’ll see Tom Hanks portray Walt Disney as well as it can be done, and then go pick up this book. I think you’ll have a really great picture of a true American hero.

tom hanks walt disney saving mr banks

Nerd Reactor: Every time I talk to people about Saving Mr. Banks, people always like to bring up the controversial stuff, like if he was “racist.” I’m pretty sure you got that too.

Pat Williams: Well, just to dispel all the myths, Walt was not anti-Semitic. He was not racist in any way, shape, or form. He was not frozen when his life ended. He’s not in some frozen vault right now waiting to make a big comeback. I’ve been to his burial site at the cemetery in Los Angeles, so he’s never going to reappear as a thawed out genius. No, he was a normal man that died at age 65, had a wonderful life and a great marriage. Two terrific daughters, and he had a slew of grandchildren. I talked to all of them in writing this book, to get their recollections of Walt Disney as a grandfather. So he was a remarkable man. We all think about him, and all that he created in movies and theme parks and everything else. But besides that, he was a great father, a terrific grandfather, a remarkable leader, and an extremely creative man.

Nerd Reactor: Yeah, he’s created quite an empire. Some people out there, they want to always try and bring that down somehow.

Pat Williams: He’s still a great hero. When you think about Walt’s life, I don’t know of anybody on Earth over the last hundred years who has touched as many people as he did. He’s touched every nation on Earth. Youngsters everywhere know of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They flock to Orlando – last year around 60 million visitors visited Disney World and all the other attractions in central Florida. It’s an amazing legacy that Walt has left behind.

Nerd Reactor: I’ve read an interview where you mentioned that while you were researching for the book, you actually visited certain places, including his hometown.

Pat Williams: Oh, I did a thorough job. I tracked down just about ever person I could find who knew Walt or worked with him. I think I got to almost all of them, and it was fascinating to talk to these men and women. I’m so glad that I got to them when I did, because the large percentage of them have passed away since I did my research and put the foundation of this book together. I got to those men and women just in time.

Nerd Reactor: Oh that’s good for those reading the book. Actual accounts from people who worked with Walt. Was anybody hesitant, or was everybody just happy to talk about Walt?

Pat Williams: I think I got to everybody. There was one long-time employee that I just couldn’t get to talk to me, Marty Sklar, but he has since written his memoir. The book came out last year, and he wrote it about his long history at Disney, working with Walt. I think he was the only one I couldn’t really get to and have a good conversation with. But everybody else, it was just delightful. They were eager to share their memories, talk about Walt as a person, as a boss, what they learned from him, the impact that he had on their lives. All of that was just really fresh in their minds, and they really loved talking about Walt.

Nerd Reactor: Did you watch Saving Mr. Banks with a critical eye, like, “That didn’t happen” or “OK, that’s pretty accurate”?

Pat Williams: Very much so John. I count myself really studying under a microscope, because I had really spent a lot of time researching that whole area of the making of that film, and Walt Disney’s quest to do, and all that he went through. I think the movie captured it beautifully. I think, if you really wanted to get a good, clear picture of how Walt brought that film to life, well, Saving Mr. Banks will do it for you. It seemed to dovetail perfectly with everything I had learned and written about it.

Nerd Reactor: I would say you’re doing quite well for yourself. So what part of Walt’s qualities has transferred to you?

Pat Williams: Well, I think, John, probably maybe the best way is in the field of leadership. I write extensively in that area, I speak about it, and I think I was just intrigued and fascinated to study Walt Disney as a leader – about the importance of having a vision and communicating your vision as people skills were very intriguing to me.

He had boldness as a leader, which you obviously need. He was very good at leading, and he wanted to make a difference in the world. There are many ways to study Walt Disney, but to answer your question, I think learning about Walt as a leader probably has had the biggest impact on me.

Nerd Reactor: Yeah. When you do motivational speaking, what is it that really gets you excited when you share things with people that want to learn from you?

Pat Williams: Well, I find that there is a tremendous interest in leadership, John, and we need great leaders at all levels. We need to develop leaders. I don’t think leaders are born. Well, they’re born; everybody’s born, but I think leadership can be enhanced, they can be developed, and I think that it’s important we do that, particularly with our youngsters. Our children, our grandchildren, our students, our young athletes. We need to be pouring leadership principles into them constantly, and teaching, and instructing them how to become good leaders in the future.

So I feel very compelled to do that through my speaking, and through my writing. I feel that really is a calling that I have right now, and I think it’s important to do that.

Nerd Reactor: That’s great. And do you think, considering the state of the current generation, we’re on a good path?

Pat Williams: I do. I think there’s a lot of instruction going on. There are a lot of valuable books coming out; I think there’s a much heavier emphasis on leadership in our country than ever before, and I think that’s a good thing. I think that youngsters can start learning about it at an early age. I’m very encouraged. I know that universities are offering courses in leadership; this surely didn’t happen back when I was growing up, so I think that’s a really nice addition that’s going on in our country. I’m encouraged by that John.

Nerd Reactor: Yeah, because right now we have so many ways to learn about leadership.

Pat Williams: That’s very well put. Listen, back in Walt’s day, there were no courses you could take on leadership. I think that Walt probably learned a lot on the fly, and learned a lot by studying other people but I’d say it’s a whole different era, a whole different time in our culture. I think that’s a positive for us.

Nerd Reactor: So if you were to walk into Walt Disney World, would they be like, “Hey, it’s Pat! Come on in! Make way!”

Pat Williams: Well, who knows. I guess it would be dependent on who’s at the gate that day, but we’ve developed some really good friendships with the Disney people. You can feel their presence all over this community. Disney is a very, very good citizen here in central Florida, and we’re certainly grateful for their support of the Magic basketball team.

Nerd Reactor: I’ve read some stories where Walt would go to the park before it opened, and ride around in his car, just by himself.

Pat Williams: I like to go out to the Magic Kingdom, and spend time on Main Street. That brings back so many memories. They’ve got names of people who were really the key part of the early part of Disney. Their names are printed up on the glass doors and windows. You can get a whole good look at the history of Disney. I find that very refreshing, just to sit there, absorb it and take it all in. Because I wrote about it, and I tracked down many of these people who were historical figures in the memory banks of the whole Disney empire, it’s fun to go back and sit there, just reflect on the good that took place in those starting days.

Nerd Reactor: What do you think about Disney now, in terms of them buying up everything? Right now, they have Marvel under their belt, and they recently picked up Lucasfilm.

Pat Williams: Well, they’re something. They’re not slowing down, that’s for sure, John. They’ve got strong leadership, and they’re not looking to the past. They’ve got big plans for the future with tremendous ideas. It’s marvelous to watch, and they’re doing some major stuff here in Orlando with Disney World. It’s going to be interesting to see how all that plays out. They want to make some big additions to the Animal Kingdom here, and turn it into a much bigger project than it is now. It’s fun to watch, and when you live here, it’s riveting and fascinating to see the thinking and planning. I’m a big fan of what they do. It’s an exciting company and they never slow down.

Nerd Reactor: What if Disney were to buy out Orlando Magic? [laughs]

Pat Williams: Oh, that will never happen. Our ownership is the DeVos family. Helen DeVos and her children are co-founders of the Amway organization, so we’ve got as good, or the best ownership in all of professional sports. The DeVos family is committed to this area, and really committed to the basketball team. We’re very blessed to have the kind of ownership that we have. Disney is a business partner, but certainly not involved in the ownership of the team.

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