Born December 5, 1901
Chicago, Illinois, USA
Died December 15, 1966
Los Angeles, California, USA
Occupation Film producer
Spouse Lillian Disney
Walter Elias Disney
(December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966), was an American film producer,
director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, and philanthropist. He
was the son of parents Flora and Elias Disney, and had three brothers
and one sister. As the co-founder (with his brother Roy O. Disney) of
Walt Disney Productions, Walt became one of the most well-known motion
picture producers in the world. The corporation he co-founded, now known
as The Walt Disney Company, today has annual revenues of approximately
US $30 billion.
Walt Disney is particularly
noted for being a successful storyteller, a hands-on film producer,
and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme
park design. His brother Roy helped him tremendously with his work.
He also had two daughters, Diane and Sharon. He and his staff created
a number of the world's most popular animated properties, including
the one many consider Disney's alter ego, Mickey Mouse. He is also well-known
as the namesake of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort theme
parks in the United States.
Walt Disney died
of lung cancer on December 15, 1966, a few years prior to the opening
of his Walt Disney World dream project in Orlando, Florida.
Walt Disney's ancestors emigrated from Gowran, County Kilkenny in Ireland.
Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois. His father Elias Disney had moved
to the United States after his parents failed at farming in Canada.
As a child Elias moved with his family all around the United States,
as his father chased various business ventures. He also worked as a
mailman in Kissimmee (Orlando), Florida, future home of Walt Disney
World. Elias moved to Chicago in the late 1800's soon after his marriage
to Flora Call.
In 1906 the family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. Disney
later said that these were the best years of his life. Since he and
his younger sister, Ruth, were not of suitable age to help at the farm,
they spent most of their days playing. They would swim in the pond,
play with the farm animals, and lounge around under the trees.
While in Marceline,
Disney developed his love for drawing. One of their neighbors, a retired
doctor named "Doc" Sherwood, paid him to draw pictures of
Sherwood's horse, Rupert. He also developed his love for trains in Marceline.
He would put his ear to the tracks in anticipation of the coming train.
He would also look for his uncle, engineer Michael Martin, running the
In 1909, Elias Disney suddenly came down with typhoid fever and was
unable to work the farm, even with his older sons helping him. He sold
the farm and lived in a rented house until 1910, when they moved to
When the family
arrived in Kansas City, Elias Disney purchased a newspaper route for
the Kansas City Star. Since Walt's older brothers Herbert and Raymond
had left home, he had Walt and Roy help with the route. Working on the
paper route required waking up at 3:00 in the morning every day. Disney
later recalled that they would deliver the paper in the heat of summer
and during the dead of winter.
According to the
Kansas City Public School District records, Disney began attending the
Benton Grammar School in 1910, and graduated on June 8, 1911, being
held back a year so that Ruth could go with him. In 1915 Disney enrolled
in weekend classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. Because of his
early-morning paper runs, he had trouble concentrating and fell asleep
in class often. He was also prone to daydreaming and doodling during
Disney as an ambulance driver during the war.In 1917 Disney began his
freshman year at McKinley High School in Chicago, Illinois and began
taking night courses at the Chicago Art Institute. Disney was the cartoonist
for the school newspaper. His cartoons were very patriotic and political,
focusing on World War I. Disney dropped out of high school at 16 so
he could join the Army. But the army didn't take him because he was
too young to enlist.
Instead, Walt and
one of his friends decided to join the Red Cross. They were supposed
to be 17, but Walt was only 16 at the time. Against his father's will,
his mother forged his birth certificate so it said Walt was born in
1900 instead of 1901. The Red Cross sent him to France for a year. During
that year, he drove an ambulance covered from top to bottom with his
imaginitive Disney Characters.
When Disney returned to America, he told his father he wanted to be
an artist. When his father refused to support him, he went out on his
He moved into Kansas
City to begin his artistic career. His brother Roy worked at a bank
in the area and got a job for him through a friend at the Pesemen-Rubin
Art Studio. At Pesmen-Rubin, Disney made ads for newspapers, magazines,
and movie theatres. It was also there that he met a shy cartoonist named
Ubbe Iwwerks. The two respected each other's work so much, they became
fast friends and decided to start their own art business.
Disney and Iwwerks
(who now shortened his name to Ub Iwerks) formed a company called "Iwerks-Disney
Commercial Artists" in January 1920 (it was originally called Disney-Iwerks,
but the two thought they would be confused with a shop that made eyeglasses).
Unfortunately, few clients were willing to hire the inexperienced duo.
Iwerks left temporarily to earn money at Kansas City Film Ad. Disney
followed suit after the business venture went nowhere and collapsed.
Kansas City Film
At Kansas City Film Ad, Disney and Iwerks worked on primitive animated
advertisements for local movie houses. Disney was fascinated by the
possibilities inherent in animation. He spent many days at the Kansas
City Public Library reading over books on anatomy and mechanics. He
also read a book by Edweard Muybridge about animation. He used his time
at Film Ad wisely, experimenting with animation and film techniques.
He even borrowed one of the film cameras and experimented at home.
After two years'
experience at Film Ad, Disney felt he had enough experience to start
another business venture.
In 1922, he started
a small company called Laugh-O-Grams which began by selling short animated
films to local companies in Kansas City. By the time Walt had started
to create The Alice Comedies, the company went bankrupt. Even though
the company ended, Walt did not give up, he packed up what he had of
his Alice Comedies and decided to move to Hollywood to try and start
a new business.
When Disney arrived in Los Angeles, he had $40 in his pocket and an
unfinished cartoon in his suitcase. Interestingly, he first wanted to
break away from animation, thinking he could not compete with the studios
in New York City. Disney said that his first ambition was to be a film
director. He went to every studio in town looking for directing work;
they all promptly turned him down.
Because of the lack
of success in live-action film, Disney turned back to animation. His
first Hollywood cartoon studio was a garage in his uncle Robert's house.
Disney sent an unfinished print to New York distributor Margaret Winkler,
who promptly wrote back to him. She wanted a distribution deal with
Disney for more live-action/animated shorts based upon Alice's Wonderland.
Disney looked up
his brother Roy, who was recovering from tuberculosis in a Los Angeles
veteran's hospital. Disney pleaded with his brother to help him with
his fledgling studio, saying that he could not keep his finances straight
without him. Roy agreed and left the hospital with his brother. He never
went back and never had a recurrence of tuberculosis. Virginia Davis
(the live-action star of Alice’s Wonderland) and her family were
relocated at Disney's request from Kansas City to Hollywood, as were
Iwerks and his family. This was the beginning of the Disney Brothers'
In 1925, Disney
hired a young woman named Lillian Bounds to ink and paint celluloid.
He was immediately taken with her. She began to pull double duty as
secretary a few months later. Disney then began to take her out on dates,
their first being the Broadway show, No, No, Nanette. He would also
take her out on drives in the hills of Los Angeles. On one drive, he
asked her if he should buy a new car or a ring for her finger. They
were married on July 15, 1925. She later jokingly commented that he
was disappointed that she did not tell him to buy the car. They honeymooned
at Mount Rainier.
The new series, "Alice Comedies," was reasonably successful,
and featured both Dawn O'Day and Margie Gay as Alice after Virginia
Davis’ parents pulled her out of the series because of a pay cut.
Lois Hardwick also briefly assumed the role. By the time the series
ended in 1927, the focus was more on the animated characters, in particular
a cat named Julius who recalled Felix the Cat, rather than the live-action
Oswald the Lucky
By 1927, Charles B. Mintz had married Margaret Winkler and assumed control
of her business, and ordered a new all-animated series to be put into
production for distribution through Universal Pictures. The new series,
"Oswald the Lucky Rabbit", was an almost instant success,
and the Oswald character, first drawn and created by Iwerks, became
a popular property. The Disney studio expanded, and Walt hired back
Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng from Kansas City.
In February of 1928,
Disney went to New York to negotiate a higher fee per short from Mintz.
Disney was shocked when Mintz announced that not only did he want to
reduce the fee he paid Disney per short, but that he had most of his
main animators, including Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng (notably
excepting Iwerks) under contract and would start his own studio if Disney
did not accept the reduced production budgets. Universal, not Disney,
owned the Oswald trademark, and could make the films without Disney.
Mintz's offer and lost most of his animation staff. The defectors became
the nucleus of the Winkler Studio, run by Mintz and his brother-in-law
George Winkler. When that studio went under after Universal assigned
production of the Oswald shorts to an in-house division run by Walter
Lantz, Mintz focused his attentions on the studio making the "Krazy
Kat" shorts, which later became Screen Gems, and Harman, Ising,
Maxwell, and Freleng marketed an Oswald-like character named Bosko to
Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros., and began work on the first entries
in the Looney Tunes series.
It took Disney's
company 78 years to get back the rights to the Oswald character. In
a move that sent sports broadcaster Al Michaels to NBC Sports for their
Sunday night NFL coverage, the Walt Disney Company reacquired the rights
to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal in 2006.
card of Steamboat Willie credits both Walt Disney and Ub IwerksAfter
having lost the rights to Oswald, Disney had to develop a new "star".
Most Disney biographies state that Disney came up with a mouse character
on his trip back from New York. It is debated whether it was he, or
Iwerks who actually designed the mouse (which basically looked like
Oswald, but with round instead of long ears). The first films were animated
by Iwerks, his name was prominently featured on the title cards. The
mouse was originally named "Mortimer", but later christened
"Mickey Mouse" by Lillian Disney.
Mickey's first animated
short produced was Plane Crazy, which was, like all of Disney's previous
works, a silent film. After failing to find distributor interest in
Plane Crazy or its follow-up, The Gallopin' Gaucho, Disney created a
Mickey cartoon with sound called Steamboat Willie. A businessman named
Pat Powers provided Disney with both distribution and Cinephone, a sound-synchronization
process. Steamboat Willie became a success, and Plane Crazy, The Galloping
Gaucho, and all future Mickey cartoons were released with soundtracks.
Disney himself provided the vocal effects for the earliest cartoons
and performed as the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1937. Disney believed
Mickey would make it far into television.
Joining the Mickey Mouse series in 1929 were a series of musical shorts
called Silly Symphonies. The first of these was entitled The Skeleton
Dance and was entirely drawn and animated by Iwerks, who was also responsible
for drawing the majority of cartoons released by Disney in 1928 and
1929. Although both series were successful, the Disney studio was not
seeing its rightful share of profits from Pat Powers, and in 1930 Disney
signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures.
Iwerks was growing
tired of the temperamental Disney, especially as he was doing the majority
of the work, and so was lured by Powers into opening his own studio
with an exclusive contract. Disney desperately searched for someone
who could replace Iwerks, as he was not able to draw as well or as quickly;
Iwerks was reported to have drawn up to 700 drawings a day for the first
launched his successful Flip the Frog series with the first sound cartoon
in color, "Fiddlesticks," filmed in two-strip Technicolor.
Iwerks also created two other series of cartoons, the Willie Whopper
and the Comicolor cartoon series. Iwerks closed his studio in 1936 to
work on various projects dealing with animation technology. Iwerks would
return to Disney in 1940 and, in the studio's research and development
department, would go on to pioneer a number of film processes and specialized
was able to find a number of people to replace Iwerks. By 1932, Mickey
Mouse had become quite a popular cartoon character. The Van Beuren cartoon
studio attempted to cash in on this success by creating a specific process,
making these the first commercial films presented in this new process.
The first color Symphony was Flowers and Trees, which won the first
Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons in 1932.
First Academy Award
In 1932, Disney received a special Academy Award for the creation of
Mickey Mouse, whose series was moved into color in 1935 and soon launched
spinoff series for supporting characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy,
The family grows
As Mickey's co-creator and producer, Disney was almost as famous as
his mouse cartoon character, but remained a largely private individual.
His greatest hope was to be a father to many children. However, the
Disneys' first attempts at pregnancy ended in miscarriage. This, coupled
with pressures at the studio, led to Disney having "a hell of a
breakdown", as he called it. His doctors said that he had to get
away for a while, so he and his wife went on a Caribbean cruise and
then traveled to Washington, D.C.
When Lilly Disney
became pregnant again, Disney told his sister in a letter that he did
not care what gender the child was, just as long as they were not disappointed
again. Lilly finally gave birth to a daughter, Diane Marie Disney, on
December 18, 1933. Disney was excited to finally have a child. A few
years later the Disneys adopted a second daughter, Sharon Mae Disney,
born on December 21, 1936.
1937-1941: The Golden
Age of Animation
"Disney's Folly": Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Disney introduces his popular creations: Mickey, Minnie Mouse and Pluto
to Hansel and Gretel (Dorothy Rodin and Virginia Murray).Although his
studio produced the two most successful cartoon series in the industry,
the returns were still dissatisfying to Disney, and he began plans for
a full-length feature in 1934. When the rest of the film industry learned
of Disney's plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow
White, they dubbed the project "Disney's Folly" and were certain
that the project would destroy the Disney studio. Both Lillian and Roy
tried to talk Disney out of the project, but he continued plans for
the feature. He employed Chouinard Art Institute professor Don Graham
to start a training operation for the studio staff, and used the Silly
Symphonies as a platform for experiments in realistic human animation,
distinctive character animation, special effects, and the use of specialized
processes and apparatus such as the multiplane camera.
All of this development
and training was used to elevate the quality of the studio so that it
would be able to give the feature the quality Disney desired. Snow White
and the Seven Dwarfs, as the feature was named, was in full production
from 1935 until mid-1937, when the studio ran out of money. To acquire
the funding to complete Snow White, Disney had to show a rough cut of
the motion picture to loan officers at the Bank of America, who gave
the studio the money to finish the picture. The finished film premiered
at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21, 1937; at the conclusion
of the film the audience gave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a standing
ovation. Snow White, the first animated feature in English and Technicolor,
was released in February 1938 under a new distribution deal with RKO
Radio Pictures. The film became the most successful motion picture of
1938 and earned over $8 million (today $98 million) in its original
theatrical release, all the more amazing because children were only
charged a dime to see it. The success of Snow White allowed Disney to
build a new campus for the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, which opened
for business on December 24, 1939. The feature animation staff, having
just completed Pinocchio, continued work on Fantasia and Bambi, while
the shorts staff continued work on the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy,
and Pluto cartoon series, ending the Silly Symphonies at this time.
Pinocchio and Fantasia followed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into
movie theatres in 1940, but both were financial disappointments. The
inexpensive Dumbo was planned as an income generator, but during production
of the new film, most of the animation staff went on strike, permanently
straining the relationship between Disney and his artists.
Shortly after Dumbo
was released in October 1941 and became a successful moneymaker, the
United States entered World War II. The U.S. Army contracted for most
of the Disney studio's facilities and had the staff create training
and instructional films for the military, as well as home-front morale-boosting
shorts such as Der Fuehrer's Face and the feature film Victory Through
Air Power in 1943. The military films did not generate income, however,
and the feature film Bambi underperformed when it was released in April
1942. Disney successfully re-issued Snow White in 1944, establishing
a 7-year re-release tradition for Disney features. (The pattern was
not always strictly followed - Disney's version of Jules Verne's 20,000
Leagues Under the Sea was first re-released in 1963, nine years after
its first run in movie theatres, and Disney's financially disappointing
and critically drubbed version of Babes in Toyland, went straight to
television after its theatrical run, and never re-appeared in movie
The Disney studios
also created inexpensive package films, containing collections of cartoon
shorts, and issued them to theaters during this period. The most notable
and successful of these were Saludos Amigos (1942), its sequel The Three
Caballeros (1945), Song of the South (the first Disney film to feature
dramatic actors) (1946), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and The Adventures
of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The latter had only two sections: the
first based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, and
the second based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.
By the late 1940s,
the studio had recovered enough to continue production on the full-length
features Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, which had been shelved during
the war years, and began work on Cinderella. The studio also began a
series of live-action nature films, entitled True-Life Adventures, in
1948 with On Seal Island.
After the 1941 strike of Disney Studio employees, Walt Disney deeply
distrusted organized labor. In 1947, during the early years of the Cold
War, he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee,
where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance,
former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators.
(All three men denied the allegations.) Disney implicated the Screen
Actors Guild as a Communist front, and charged that the 1941 strike
was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.
Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show that from
1941 until his death, he spied for the FBI on union activity in Hollywood,
and illegally intimidated union activists. Since Jews were prominent
in the labor movement, some employees felt that Disney's actions were
motivated by anti-semitism.
Parks and beyond
During 1949, Disney and his family moved to a new home on a large piece
of property in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles, California.
With the help of his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, owners of their
own backyard railroad, Disney developed the blueprints and immediately
set to work creating a miniature live steam railroad for his backyard.
The name of the railroad, Carolwood Pacific Railroad, originated from
the address of his home that was located on Carolwood Drive. The railroad's
half-mile long layout included a 46-foot-long trestle, loops, overpasses,
gradients, an elevated dirt berm, and a 90-foot tunnel underneath Mrs.
Disney's flowerbed. He named the miniature working steam locomotive
built by Roger E. Broggie of the Disney Studios Lilly Belle in his wife's
honor. He had his attorney draw up right-of-way papers giving the railroad
a permanent, legal easement through the garden areas, which his wife
dutifully signed; however, there is no evidence the documents were ever
recorded as a restriction on the property's title.
The "Partners" statue at Disneyland in Anaheim, featuring
Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse.On a business trip to Chicago in the late-1940s,
Disney drew sketches of his ideas for an amusement park where he envisioned
his employees spending time with their children. He got his idea for
a children's theme park after visiting Children's Fairyland in Oakland,
California. This plan was originally for a lot south of the Studio,
just across the street. However, the city of Burbank declined building
permission. The original ideas developed into a concept for a larger
enterprise that was to become Disneyland. Disney spent five years of
his life developing Disneyland and created a new subsidiary of his company,
called WED Enterprises, to carry out the planning and production of
the park. A small group of Disney studio employees joined the Disneyland
development project as engineers and planners, and were dubbed Imagineers.
one of his earliest plans to Herb Ryman (who created the first aerial
drawing of Disneyland to present to the Bank of America for funds),
Disney said, "Herbie, I just want it to look like nothing else
in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train." Entertaining
his daughters and their friends in his backyard and taking them for
rides on his Carolwood Pacific Railroad had inspired Disney to include
a railroad in the plans for Disneyland.
As Walt Disney Productions began work on Disneyland, it also began expanding
its other entertainment operations. Treasure Island (1950) became the
studio's first all-live-action feature, and was soon followed by such
successes as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in CinemaScope, 1954), The
Shaggy Dog (1959), and The Parent Trap (1961). The Walt Disney Studio
was one of the first to take full advantage of the then-new medium of
television, producing its first TV special, One Hour in Wonderland,
in 1950. Disney began hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC named
Disneyland after the park, where he showed clips of past Disney productions,
gave tours of his studio, and familiarized the public with Disneyland
as it was being constructed in Anaheim, California. In 1955, he debuted
the studio's first daily television show, the popular Mickey Mouse Club,
which would continue in many various incarnations into the 1990s.
Walt Disney meets
with Wernher von Braun.As the studio expanded and diversified into other
media, Disney devoted less of his attention to the animation department,
entrusting most of its operations to his key animators, whom he dubbed
the Nine Old Men. During Disney's lifetime, the animation department
created the successful Lady and the Tramp (in CinemaScope, 1955), One
Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), the financially disappointing Sleeping
Beauty (in Super Technirama 70mm, 1959) and The Sword in the Stone (1963).
Production on the
short cartoons had kept pace until 1956, when Disney shut down the shorts
division. Special shorts projects would continue to be made for the
rest of the studio's duration on an irregular basis. Disney's mind was
set toward expansion, and he wanted to make longer films.
were all distributed by Disney's new subsidiary, Buena Vista Distribution,
which had assumed all distribution duties for Disney films from RKO
by 1955. Disneyland, one of the world's first theme parks, finally opened
on July 17, 1955, and was immediately successful. Visitors from around
the world came to visit Disneyland, which contained attractions based
upon a number of successful Disney properties and films. After 1955,
the Disneyland TV show became known as Walt Disney Presents. The show
went from black-and-white to color in 1961 — changing its name
to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color — and eventually evolved
into what is today known as The Wonderful World of Disney, which continued
to air on ABC until 2005, when it ceased as a regular series, due in
part to premium pay-cable rights currently held by the Starz! movie
network. Since 2005, Disney features have been split between ABC, the
Hallmark Channel, and Cartoon Network via separate broadcast rights
deals. It currently airs periodically, with features such as the December
2005 revivial of Once Upon a Mattress.
During the mid-1950s,
Disney produced a number of educational films on the space program in
collaboration with NASA rocket designer Wernher von Braun: Man in Space
and Man and the Moon in 1955, and Mars and Beyond in 1957. The films
attracted the attention of not only the general public, but also the
Soviet space program.
The TV series and
book Our Friend the Atom (1956, together with Heinz Haber) were produced
as part of an effort by the Eisenhower administration to enhance the
image of nuclear energy.
Early 1960s successes
(Left to right) Robert B. Sherman, Richard M. Sherman and Walt Disney
sing "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" (1964)By the
early 1960s, the Disney empire was a major success, and Walt Disney
Productions had established itself as the world's leading producer of
family entertainment. After decades of trying, Disney finally procured
the rights to P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny. Mary Poppins,
released in 1964, was the most successful Disney film of the 1960s and
featured a memorable song score written by Disney favorites the Sherman
Brothers. Many hailed the live-action/animation combination feature
as Disney's greatest achievement. The same year, Disney debuted a number
of exhibits at the 1964 New York World's Fair, including Audio-Animatronic
figures, all of which were later integrated into attractions at Disneyland
and a new theme park project to be established on the east coast, which
Disney had been planning ever since Disneyland opened.
Walt Disney first showed interest in ski resorts with his investment
in Sugar Bowl Ski Resort in the 1930s. However, his interest was brought
to a new level in the 1960s when he commissioned plans for Disney's
Mineral King Ski Resort. Official plans for the resort were announced
just months before his death. The project was eventually canceled due
to heavy protest from many environmental organizations, most notably
the Sierra Club. The 1970s saw yet another set of Disney plans for a
ski resort, in Independence Lake near San Francisco. Like the Mineral
King plans, the Independence Lake project was scrapped for many of the
same reasons. There are plans for two more new ski resorts to open in
In 1964, Walt Disney Productions began quietly purchasing land in central
Florida west of Orlando in a largely rural area of marginal orange groves
for Disney's "Florida Project." Disney did so under the mask
of many fake companies, in order to keep the price of land as low as
he could. As soon as the word got out that Disney was purchasing the
land, however, the prices immediately rose. The company acquired over
27,000 acres (109 km²) of land, and arranged favorable state legislation
which would provide unprecedented quasi-governmental control over the
area to be developed in 1966, founding the Reedy Creek Improvement District.
Disney and his brother Roy then announced plans for what they called
his 43-year Hollywood career, which spanned the development of the motion
picture industry as a modern American art, Walter Elias Disney established
himself and his innovations as a genuine part of Americana.
A pioneer and innovator,
and the possessor of one of the most fertile and unique imaginations
the world has ever known. Walt Disney could take the dreams of America,
and make them come true. He was a creator, a imaginative, and aesthetic
person. Even thirty years after his death, we still continue to grasp
his ideas, and his creations, remembering him for everything he's done
for us . . . . .
Walter Elias Disney
was born on December 5, 1901 in Chicago Illonios, to his father, Elias
Disney, an Irish-Canadian, and his mother, Flora Call Disney, who was
of German-American descent. Walt was one of five children, four boys
and a girl.
Later, after Walt's
birth, the Disney family moved to Marceline, Missouri. Walt lived out
most of his childhood here. Walt had a very early interest in drawing,
and art. When he was seven years old, he sold small sketches, and drawings
to nearby neighbors. Instead of doing his school work Walt doodled pictures
of animals, and nature. His knack for creating enduring art forms took
shape when he talked his sister, Ruth, into helping him paint the side
of the family's house with tar.
Close to the Disney
family farm, there were Santa Fe Railroad tracks that crossed the countryside.
Often Walt would put his ear against the tracks, to listen for approaching
trains. Walt's uncle, Mike Martin, was a train engineer who worked the
route between Fort Madison, Iowa, and Marceline. Walt later worked a
summer job with the railroad, selling newspapers, popcorn, and sodas
During his life
Walt would often try to recapture the freedom he felt when aboard those
trains, by building his own miniature train set. Then building a 1/8-scale
backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific or Lilly Bell.
Besides his other
interests, Walt attended McKinley High School in Chicago. There, Disney
divided his attention between drawing and photography, and contributing
to the school paper. At night he attended the Academy of Fine Arts,
to better his drawing abilities.
his first movie house on Marceline's Main Street. There he saw a dramatic
black-and-white recreation of the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ.
During these "carefree
years" of country living young Walt began to love, and appreciate
nature and wildlife, and family and community, which were a large part
of agrarian living. Though his father could be quite stern, and often
there was little money, Walt was encouraged by his mother, and older
Even after the Disney
family moved to Kansas City, Walt continued to develop and flourish
in his talent for artistic drawing. Besides drawing, Walt had picked
up a knack for acting and performing. At school he began to entertain
his friends by imitating his silent screen hero, Charlie Chaplin. At
his teachers invitation, Walt would tell his classmates stories, while
illustrating on the chalk board. Later on, against his fathers permission,
Walt would sneak out of the house at night to perform comical skits
at local theaters.
During the fall
of 1918, Disney attempted to enlist for military service. Rejected because
he was under age, only sixteen years old at the time. Instead, Walt
joined the Red Cross and was sent overseas to France, where he spent
a year driving an ambulance and chauffeuring Red Cross officials. His
ambulance was covered from stem to stern, not with stock camouflage,
but with Disney cartoons.
Once he returned
from France, he wanted to pursue a career in commercial art, which soon
lead to his experiments in animation. He began producing short animated
films for local businesses, in Kansas City. By the time Walt had started
to create The Alice Comedies, which was about a real girl and her adventures
in an animated world, Walt ran out of money, and his company Laugh-O-Grams
went bankrupted. Instead of giving up, Walt packed his suitcase and
with his unfinished print of The Alice Comedies in hand, headed for
Hollywood to start a new business. He was not yet twenty-two.
The early flop of
The Alice Comedies inoculated Walt against fear of failure; he had risked
it all three or four times in his life. Walt's brother, Roy O. Disney,
was already in California, with an immense amount of sympathy and encouragement,
and $250. Pooling their resources, they borrowed an additional $500,
and set up shop in their uncle's garage. Soon, they received an order
from New York for the first Alice in Cartoonland(The Alice Comedies)
featurette, and the brothers expanded their production operation to
the rear of a Hollywood real estate office. It was Walt's enthusiasm
and faith in himself, and others, that took him straight to the top
of Hollywood society.
Although, Walt wasn't
the typical Hollywood mogul. Instead of socializing with the "who's
who" of the Hollywood entertainment industry, he would stay home
and have dinner with his wife, Lillian, and his daughters, Diane and
Sharon. In fact, socializing was a bit boring to Walt Disney. Usually
he would dominate a conversation, and hold listeners spellbound as he
described his latest dreams or ventures. The people that where close
to Walt were those who lived with him, and his ideas, or both.
On July 13, 1925,
Walt married one of his first employees, Lillian Bounds, in Lewiston,
Idaho. Later on they would be blessed with two daughters, Diane and
Sharon . Three years after Walt and Lilly wed, Walt created a new animated
character, Mickey Mouse.
His talents were
first used in a silent cartoon entitled Plane Crazy. However, before
the cartoon could be released, sound was introduced upon the motion
picture industry. Thus, Mickey Mouse made his screen debut in Steamboat
Willie, the world's first synchronized sound cartoon, which premiered
at the Colony Theater in New York on November 18, 1928.
Walt's drive to
perfect the art of animation was endless. Technicolor was introduced
to animation during the production of his Silly Symphonies Cartoon Features.
Walt Disney held the patent for Technicolor for two years, allowing
him to make the only color cartoons. In 1932, the production entitled
Flowers and Trees won Walt the first of his studio's Academy Awards.
In 1937, he released The Old Mill, the first short subject to utilize
the multi-plane camera technique.
On December 21,
1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated
musical feature, premiered at the Carthay Theater in Los Angeles. The
film produced at the unheard cost of $1,499,000 during the depths of
the Depression, the film is still considered one of the great feats
and imperishable monuments of the motion picture industry. During the
next five years, Walt Disney Studios completed other full-length animated
classics such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.
Walt rarely showed
emotion, though he did have a temper that would blow over as it blew
up. At home, he was affectionate and understanding. He gave love by
being interested, involved, and always there for his family and friends.
Walt's daughter, Diane Disney Miller, once said:
Daddy never missed
a father's function no matter how I discounted it. I'd say,"Oh,
Daddy, you don't need to come. It's just some stupid thing." But
he'd always be there, on time.
Probably the most painful time of Walt's private life, was the accidental
death of his mother in 1938. After the great success of Snow White and
the Seven Dwarfs, Walt and Roy bought their parents, Elias and Flora
Disney, a home close to the studios. Less than a month later Flora died
of asphyxiation caused by a faulty furnace in the new home. The terrible
guilt of this haunted Walt for the rest of his life.
In 1940, construction
was completed on the Burbank Studio, and Disney's staff swelled to more
than 1,000 artists, animators, story men, and technicians. Although,
because of World War II 94 percent of the Disney facilities were engaged
in special government work, including the production of training and
propaganda films for the armed services, as well as health films which
are still shown through-out the world by the U.S. State Department.
The remainder of his efforts were devoted to the production of comedy
short subjects, deemed highly essential to civilian and military morale.
Disney's 1945 feature,
the musical The Three Caballeros, combined live action with the cartoon
animation, a process he used successfully in such other features as
Song of the South and the highly acclaimed Mary Poppins. In all, more
than 100 features were produced by his studio.
mind and keen sense for education through entertainment resulted in
the award-winning True-Life Adventure series. Through such films as
The Living Desert, The Vanishing Prairie, The African Lion, and White
Wilderness, Disney brought fascinating insights into the world of wild
animals and taught the importance of conserving our nation's outdoor
Walt Disney's dream
of a clean, and organized amusement park, came true, as Disneyland Park
opened in 1955. As a fabulous $17-million magic kingdom, soon had increased
its investment tenfold, and by the beginning of its second quarter-century,
had entertained more than 200 million people, including presidents,
kings and queens, and royalty from all over the globe.
A pioneer in the
field of television programming, Disney began television production
in 1954, and was among the first to present full-color programming with
his Wonderful World of Color in 1961. The Mickey Mouse Club was a popular
favorite in the 1950s.
But that was only
the beginning. In 1965, Walt Disney turned his attention toward the
problem of improving the quality of urban life in America. He personally
directed the design of an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow
(EPCOT). It was planned as a living showcase for the creativity of American
industry. Disney said this about EPCOT:
I don't believe
there is a challenge anywhere in the world that is more important to
people everywhere than finding the solutions to the problems of our
cities. But where do we begin? Well, we're convinced we must start with
the public need. And the need is not just for curing the old ills of
old cities. We think the need is for starting from scratch on virgin
land and building a community that will become a prototype for the future.
Thus, Disney directed
the purchase of 43 square miles of virgin land--twice the size of Manhattan
Island--in the center of the state of Florida. Here, he master planned
a whole new "Disney world" of entertainment to include a new
amusement theme park, motel-hotel resort vacation center, and his Experimental
Prototype Community of Tomorrow. After more than seven years of master
planning and preparation, including 52 months of actual construction,
the Walt Disney World Resort, including the Magic Kingdom Park, opened
to the public as scheduled on October 1, 1971. EPCOT Center opened October
1, 1982, and on May 1, 1989, the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park opened.
A few years prior
to his death on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney took a deep interest
in the establishment of California Institute of the Arts, a college-level
professional school of all the creative and performing arts. CalArts,
Walt once said, "It's the principal thing I hope to leave when
I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop
the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."
Institute of the Arts was founded in 1961 with the combination of two
schools, the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art
Institute. The campus is located in the city of Valencia, 32 miles northeast
of downtown Los Angeles. Walt Disney conceived the new school as a place
where all the performing and creative arts would be taught under one
roof in a "community of the arts" as a completely new approach
to professional arts training.
Walt Disney is
a legend; a folk hero of the 20th century. His worldwide popularity
was based upon the ideals which his name represents: imagination, optimism,
creation, and self-made success in the American tradition. Walt Disney
did more to touch the hearts, minds, and emotions of millions of Americans
than any other person in the past century. Through his work he brought
joy, happiness, and a universal means of communication to the people
of every nation. He brought us closer to the future, while telling us
of the past, it is certain, that there will never be such as great a
man, as Walt Disney.