Walt Disney’s Midwestern Roots

I have been reading about Walt Disney lately, mostly because I think he’s one of the most creative minds of my lifetime.  Creative people have always fascinated me.  In my work as a recruiter and career coach, they’re the type of folks I’m most drawn to.


I was surprised to discover that Disney was born in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood.  I don’t know why.  I just didn’t peg Disney as a Chicago kind of guy.  Hermosa was also the birthplace of another iconic American brand, Schwinn Bicycle.

Disney didn’t stay in the Windy City.  As a young child, he moved with his family to a farm in rural Missouri before settling in Kansas City.  It was there that Disney got his first job in animation.  It didn’t work out.  He was laid off and so he started his own company in the city before moving to Hollywood in 1923.

America was a lot bigger then than it is today.   There was no commercial aviation industry.  Los Angeles was still a small, relatively isolated place at the time.  It was at least a full day away by train and almost impossible to reach by car.  Route 66 wouldn’t be finished until later in the 1920s.  Leaving Kansas City for the wild frontier was a lot bigger deal than it would be today.  Disney went anyway.  I suspect that those who knew him best might have thought he was crazy.

I wonder what he was thinking.  Was the Midwest too cloistered for him?   It was for me.  I first left Indiana at about the same age.  I couldn’t wait to get out.  I went to Denver, a city that in 1981 probably wasn’t too unlike Los Angeles in 1923.  It had yet to grow and blossom.  It was cheap and opportunity was everywhere.

These days, not so much.  Denver is still a magnet but I sense most of those who are attracted to the Mile High City now don’t really understand that there’s nothing left there for them.  Denver has already been mined.  It has been played out.

To move there now is to make an implicit deal to accept a life where the numbers don’t work and that means perpetual poverty for most.   Like it or not, buying property is the easiest way to acquire wealth and it only works if you have a long horizon and a lot of upside.  That’s how the game is played.  It’s almost impossible to win financially if you move to a city where the average home already costs 5 or more times the annual salary.   You’re on the wrong side of the curve.  The math doesn’t work.

I think that’s why so many people have left California over the last twenty years.  I also see the same thing starting to happen in Colorado.  The people who leave first are the ones who have the clearest vision of the future.

It is worthwhile to pay attention to where they are going.  Cities that stand to benefit are relatively low cost in high quality of life states.   These are places where things like education and health care are still in relatively good shape and yet the cost burden of government is still manageable.  Fargo, Sioux Falls and Des Moines come to mind.

Where would Walt Disney would go today if he still had 20-30 years of highway ahead of him?  Beats me, but I suspect it might not be California.  I think there’s a good chance he might have come back to the Midwest.  At this moment in time, this is where the best opportunities to buy property, build wealth and carve out a good life going forward are located.  This is the the new frontier.


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