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Walt Disney Biography
Elias "Walt" Disney (December 5, 1901 December
15, 1966), was an American film producer, director, screenwriter,
voice actor, and animator. One of the most well-known motion picture
producers in the world, Disney was also the creator of an American
theme park called Disneyland,
and is the co-founder with his brother Roy O. Disney of Walt Disney
Productions, the profitable corporation now known as The
Walt Disney Company.
Walt Disney is in particular noted for being a successful storyteller,
a hands-on film producer, and a popular showman. He and his staff
created a number of the worlds most popular animated properties,
including the one many consider Disneys alter-ego, Mickey
Walt Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois to Elias Disney and Flora
Call. He was named after his father and after his father's close
friend Walter Parr, the minister at St. Paul Congregational Church.
In 1906, his family moved to a farm near Marceline, Missouri. The
family sold the farm in 1909 and lived in a rented house until 1910,
when they moved to Kansas City. Disney was nine years old at the
According to the Kansas City Public School District records, Disney
began attending the Benton Grammar School in 1911, and graduated
on June 8, 1917. During this time, Disney also enrolled in classes
at the Chicago Art Institute. He left school at the age of sixteen
and became a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, after he
changed his birth certificate to show his year of birth as 1900
in order to be able to enlist in the service. He served as a member
of the American Red Cross Ambulance Force in France until 1919.
1920-1936: Early years in animation
Kansas City animation studios
Disney returned to the USA, moved to Kansas City and, with Ub Iwerks,
formed a company called "Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists"
in January 1920. The company faltered and Disney and Iwerks soon
gained employment at the Kansas City Film Ad Corporation, working
on primitive animated advertisements for local movie houses.
In 1922, Disney started Laugh-O-Grams, Inc., which produced short
cartoons based on popular fairy tales and childrens stories.
Among his employees were Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carmen
Maxwell, and Friz Freleng. The shorts were popular in the local
Kansas city area, but their costs exceeded their returns. After
creating one last short, the live-action/animation Alices
Wonderland, the studio declared bankruptcy in July 1923. Disney's
brother Roy invited him to move to Hollywood, California, and Disney
earned enough money for a one-way train ticket to California, leaving
his staff behind, but taking the finished reel of Alices Wonderland
Walt Disney's Alice Comedies: Contract and new
Disney set up shop with his brother Roy, started the Disney Brothers
Studio in their Uncle Roberts garage, and got a distribution
deal with New York City states-rights distributors Margaret Winkler
and her fiancée Charles Mintz. Virginia Davis, the live-action
star of Alices Wonderland, was sequestered from Kansas, as
was Ub Iwerks. By 1926, the Disney Brothers Studio had been renamed
as the Walt Disney Studio; the name Walt Disney Productions would
be adopted in 1928. One of the studios employees, Lillian
Bounds, became Walt Disneys wife; they were married on July
The Alice Comedies were 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 Rabbit
By 1927, Charles 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 became a popular property. The Disney studio
expanded, and Walt hired Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng from
In February 1928, Disney went to New York to negotiate a higher
fee per short from Mintz, but 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, but notably excepting Ub 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. Disney declined, lost most
of his animation staff, and he, Iwerks, and the few non-defecting
animators secretly began work on a new mouse character to take Oswalds
place. 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 a Oswald-like
character named Bosko to Leon Schlesinger and Warner Bros., and
began work on the first entries in the Looney Tunes series.
The creation of Mickey Mouse
Christened by Lillian Disney, Mickey Mouse made his film debut
in a short called Plane Crazy, which was, like all of Disneys
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 the Cinephone, a bootlegged 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 1947.
Joining the Mickey Mouse series in 1929 were a series of musical
shorts called Silly Symphonies, which began with The Skeleton Dance.
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, leaving
behind Powers and Ub Iwerks, who had been lured into an exclusive
contract with Powers. After heading the only mildly successful Ub
Iwerks Studio, Iwerks would return to Disney in 1940 and, in the
studio's research and development department, pioneer a number of
film processes and specialized animation technologies.
By 1932, Mickey Mouse became the most popular cartoon character
on the screen, and many competing studios such as Van Beuren and
Screen Gems created Mickey Mouse clones in hopes of cashing in on
Disneys success. After moving from Columbia to United Artists
in 1932, Walt began producing the Silly Symphonies in the new 3-strip
Technicolor process, making them the first commercial films presented
in a true-color process. The first color Symphony was Flowers and
Trees, which won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject:
Cartoons in 1932. The same year, Disney received a special Academy
Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse, whose series was moved into
color in 1935 and soon launched spin-off series for supporting characters
such as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto.
Walt Disney's daughters
As Mickeys 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 give birth to a childpreferably
a sonbut he and Lillian tried with no luck. Lillian finally
gave birth to a daughter, Diane Marie Disney, on December 18, 1933;
and the couple would adopt a second, Sharon Mae Disney, who was
born December 21, 1936..
1937-1954: Disney animated feature films
"Disney's Folly": Snow White and the
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 Disneys plans to produce an
animated feature-length version of Snow White, they dubbed the project
"Disneys 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. The first animated feature in English and Technicolor,
Snow White 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 US$8 million (today US$98
million) in its original theatrical release. 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 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
took over most of the Disney studios facilities and had the
staff create training and instructional films for the military,
as well as home-front propaganda 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 Bambi underperformed
when it was released in April 1942. Disney successfully re-issued
Snow White in 1944, establishing the seven-year re-release tradition
for Disney features.
Inexpensive package films, containing collections of cartoon shorts,
were created and issued to theaters during this period as well.
The most notable and successful of these were Saludos Amigos (1942),
its sequel The Three Caballeros (1945), Song of the South (the first
Disney feature to feature dramatic actors, 1946), Fun and Fancy
Free (1947), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949).
The later 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.
A dark chapter
In 1947, during the dark early years of the Cold War, Walt Disney
testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and
he named several of his employees as Communist sympathizers. Some
historians believe that the animosity from the 1941 strike of Disney
Studio employees caused him to bear a grudge. His dislike and distrust
of labor unions may have also led to his testimony.
1955-1966: Disney Theme Parks and Beyond
Carolwood Pacific Railroad
Main entry: Carolwood Pacific Railroad.
In 1949, when Disney and his family moved to a new home on large
piece of property in the 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 his own miniature railroad
in his backyard. The name of the railroad, Carolwood Pacific Railroad,
originated from the address of his home which 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 flower bed. He even named
the miniature working steam locomotive built by Roger E. Broggie
of the Disney Studios Lilly Belle in his wife's honor.
On a business trip to Chicago in the late 1940s, Disney drew sketches
of his ideas for a amusement park where he envisioned his employees
spending time with their children. These ideas developed into a
concept for a larger enterprise which was to become Disneyland.
Disney spent five years of his life developing Disneyland and created
a new subsdiary 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.
When presenting his plan to the Imagineers, Disney said "I
want Disneyland to be the most amazing place on Earth, and I want
a train circling it". 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.
Expanding into new areas
As Walt Disney Productions began work on Disneyland, it also began
expanding its other entertainment operations. 1950's Treasure Island
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 (1960). 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. Walt 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.
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 Disneys life time, the animation department
created the successful Lady and the Tramp (in CinemaScope, 1955)
and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and 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
These productions were all distributed by Disneys 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 immediatly 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,
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 continues
to air on ABC as of 2005.
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.
Early 1960s successes
By the early 1960s, the Disney empire was a major success, and
Walt Disney Productions had established itself as the worlds
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 many hailed the live-action/animation
combination feature as his 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 later were
integrated into attractions at Disneyland and a new theme park project,
to be established on the east coast, which Disney had been planning
since Disneyland opened.
"The Florida Project"
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." 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 "Disney World."
Plans for Disney World and EPCOT
Disney World was to include a larger, more elaborate version of
Disneyland to be called the Magic Kingdom, and would also feature
a number of golf courses and resort hotels. The heart of Disney
World, however, was to be the Experimental Prototype City (or Community)
of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short. EPCOT was designed to be an operational
city where residents would live, work, and interact using advanced
and experimental technology, while scientists would develop and
test new technologies to improve human life and health.
Death of Walt Disney
However, Disneys involvement in Disney World ended in late
1966, when he was diagnosed with lung cancer in his left lung, after
a life-long habit of chain smoking. He was checked into the St.
Joseph's Hospital across the street from the Disney Studio lot and
his health eventually deteriorated. He was pronounced dead at 3
AM PST on December 15, 1966, having just celebrated his sixty-fifth
birthday two weeks earlier. Roy Disney carried out the Florida project,
insisting that the name become Walt Disney World in honor of his
brother. Roy O. Disney died three months after the Magic Kingdom
opened for business in 1971.
1967-present: The Walt Disney Legacy
The Epcot theme park
When the second phase of the Walt Disney World theme park was built,
EPCOT was translated by Walt Disney's successors into the Epcot
theme park, which opened in 1982. The Epcot park that currently
exists is essentially a living world's fair, a far cry from the
actual functional city that Disney had envisioned. However, the
Celebration, Florida town built by the Walt Disney Company adjacent
to Walt Disney World harkens back to the EPCOT vision.
The Disney entertainment empire
Today, Walt Disney's animation/motion picture studios and theme
park have developed into a multi-billion dollar television, motion
picture, vacation destination and media corporation that carries
his name. The Walt Disney Company today owns, among other assets,
four vacation resorts, nine theme parks, two water parks, thirty-two
hotels, eight motion picture studios, six record labels, eleven
cable television networks, and one terrestrial television network.
Disney theme parks today
Today, what was known as the Florida Project is now the largest
and most popular private-run tourist destination on the planet,
but the Walt Disney shine is still there. From the 'Partners' statue
at the Magic Kingdom to the Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom, Walt
Disney is still remembered and his vision is still continued. His
fascination with mass transportation lives in the Walt Disney World
Monorail which runs through two theme parks and four hotels, and
his dreams of the future live on at Epcot in ahead-of-their-time
attractions and technological breakthroughs.
Disneyland has developed from a cramped theme park to an open resort
of two theme parks, three hotels and a large shopping complex. Walt
Disney World is the a popular destination for vacations by tourists
worldwide, and Tokyo Disneyland is the most visited theme park in
the world (it's sister park Tokyo Disneysea is the second). In September
2005, The Walt Disney Company will open Hong Kong Disneyland Resort
On May 5, 2005, The Walt Disney Company opened the Happiest Homecoming
on Earth celebration in front of Walt's Sleeping Beauty Castle at
Disneyland, celebrating fifty years of the world's most famous theme
park. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts are renowned over the world
for their attentions to detail, hygiene and standards, all set by
Walt Disney at Disneyland.
Disney animation today
Traditional hand-drawn animation, with which Walt Disney built
the success of his company, no longer continues at the Walt Disney
Feature Animation studio. After a stream of financially unsuccessful
traditionally-animated features in the late-1990s and early 2000s,
the two satellite studios in Paris and Orlando were closed, and
the main studio in Burbank was converted to a computer animation
production facility. In 2004, Disney released their final traditionally
animated feature film for the foreseeable, Home on the Range. The
DisneyToons studio in Australia continues to produce lower-budget
traditionally animated films.
Disney devoted substantial time in his later years funding The
California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), which was formed in
1961 through a merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and
the Chouinard Art Institute, which had helped in the training of
the animation staff during the 1930s. When he died, one fourth of
his estate went towards CalArts, which greatly helped the building
of its campus. Walt also donated 38 acres (154,000 m²) of the
Golden Oaks ranch in Valencia for the school to be built on. CalArts
moved onto the Valencia campus in 1971.
Lillian Disney devoted a lot of her time after Walt died to pursuing
CalArts and organized hundreds of fund raising events for the university
in her late husband's honor (as well as funding the Walt Disney
Symphony Hall). After Lillian's passing, the legacy continued with
daughter Diane and husband Ron continuing the tradition. CalArts
is today one of the largest independent universities in California
today, mostly because of the contributions of the Disneys.
Walt Disney Trivia
In the fifth grade, Walt memorized the Gettysburg Address (for
fun) and surprised everyone by arriving at school dressed as Abraham
Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. His costume consisted
of his father's old coat and a homemade beard. He even pasted a
putty wart to his cheek. His teacher was delighted. Little wonder
that years later, when his studio created the first fully functioning
audio-animatronic human figure for the 1964 New York World's Fair,
it was Abraham Lincoln!
Disney had very simple tastes in food. According to his daughter
Diane, "He liked fried potatoes, hamburgers, western omelets,
hotcakes, canned peas, hash, stew, roast beef sandwiches. He doesn't
go for vegetables, but loves chicken livers or macaroni and cheese."
Lillian Disney would complain, "Why should I plan a meal when
all Disney really wants is a can of chili or a can of spaghetti?"
Although a baptized Christian, Walt Disney was not a frequent
visitor to churches. Religious people would occassionaly ask him
to make religious films but Walt declined. However a number of his
Silly Symphonies featured figures from the Bible including :
- Hell's Bells (first released November 11, 1929) , featuring
- Father Noah's Ark (April 8, 1933), featuring Noah, Ham, Japheth,
Shem and their respective wives.
- The Goddess of Spring (November 3, 1934). Featuring Persephone
and a version of her uncle/husband Hades/ Pluto, identified here
- Noah's Ark (November 10, 1959). Featuring Noah, Ham, Japheth,
Shem and their respective wives. Not officialy released as a Silly
Symphony but very similar to them.
In 1940, the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation recruited
Disney as an Official Informant. He was later designated as a Special
Agent in Charge contact.
'Uncle Walt' could be seen around 1950s Disneyland doing menial
chores, like getting strollers for people, tinkering under the hood
of a car on Main Street U.S.A., fishing in Rivers of America, or
piloting the Mark Twain Riverboat.
In the fall of 1963, while seeking the site for Disney's new "Florida
Project", Walt and Roy Disney first flew over a coastal area
of Florida, and then the forest and swamps near Orlando which were
selected as the site to become Walt Disney World. Shortly later,
their plane landed in New Orleans on the way back to California.
There the Disney brothers learned of the assassination of John Fitzgerald
Kennedy, 35th President of the United States. He had been assassinated
earlier that same afternoon in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963.
One of the audio animatronic pirates on The Pirates of the Caribbean
ride introduced in 1967 has Walt Disney's face. It was taken from
the same life cast mold that was used to make the statue of Disney
that adorns the central square.
Walt Disney Quotes
- "All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to
- "It's kind of fun to do the impossible."
- "I would rather entertain and hope that people learned
something than educate people and hope they were entertained."
- "If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that
this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse. "
- "You're dead if you aim only for kids. Adults are only
kids grown up, anyway."
- "I've never believed in doing sequels. I didn't want to
waste the time I have doing a sequel; I'd rather be using that
time doing something new and different."
- "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known."
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