Walt Disney was a man that, to this day, remains undefinable, even by people who knew him closely. He was born in Chicago in 1901 to Flora and Elias Disney. He had three older brothers and a younger sister (TDC 2018). Most of his early life was spent in Marceline, Missouri (Biography.com 2014). This town is accredited for the themes of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. and Tom Sawyer Island, along with some of the Disney films. It’s obvious that this town had a large impact on Walt as a young child (Gabler 2006). He started his drawing and photography at McKinley High School in Chicago, where he took classes for each and also drew cartoons for the school paper. He dropped out of high school to join the army at the age of sixteen but was rejected for being too young. Instead, he drove an ambulance in France for the Red Cross, returning to the U.S. in 1919 (Biography.com 2014).
Upon his return to the United States, Walt moved to Kansas City and started a job as a newspaper artist. It was in this time that Walt created the well-known Mickey Mouse, whom he original called ‘Mortimer Mouse,’ a name his mother did not approve of. It is thanks to her that the well-known Disney icon is known as Mickey, rather than Mortimer (TDC 2018). He started making cartoons with Fred Harman, his first employee and partner in making cartoons, which they called Laugh-O-Grams. Due to the popularity of these cartoons, Disney was able to start his own studio, which he called, fittingly, Laugh-O-Gram. He hired some employees and started making a fairy-tale series called Alice in Cartoonland. He had some of his first major successes doing this series as it gained more popularity. However, this success didn’t last long, and by 1923 Disney and Harman had to declare bankruptcy (Biography.com 2014).
Walt had a rough start in Hollywood, often struggling to get by and scraping for money. It was in October of 1923 that he had his big break. He was given the rights to his Alice in Cartoonland series from his creditors in Kansas City and inquired about a possible way to get his foot in the door in the ‘big leagues’ of cartoon artistry. He wrote a letter to Margaret Winkler, a cartoon distributor in New York City and sent his Alice in Cartoonland sketches along with it. On October 16, 1923, Walt and his brother, Roy, signed a contract that agreed to $1,500 for the first six Alice in Cartoonland pieces and $1,800 for another six. This contract spurred the start of Disney’s success and in February of 1924 he was able to hire an animator, Rollin Hamilton, and also rented a small store that read ‘Disney Bros. Studio’ on the windows (Thomas 2017).
While the Alice Comedies were successful, starting a business wasn’t a cheap process for the Disney Brothers. Throughout much of the mid-1920s they found themselves asking people for loans. Amidst this trouble, Roy Disney was married to Edna Francis on April 11, 1925. Walt briefly dated one of the Disney brother’s employees, Lillian Bounds, and shortly after his brother’s marriage, was married to her in July of 1925 (Thomas 2017).
The 1930s brought the Great Depression and Mickey Mouse. After struggling to find the perfect voice for Mickey Mouse, Walt jokingly agreed to voice the character himself, and it ended up sticking. In an interview, Neal Gabler said that, ‘[Disney] regarded Mickey Mouse as his alter ego — the put-upon little guy who managed to forge his own reality,’ (Gillis 2015). Amidst the dark times in the country, Mickey Mouse was an instant sensation and became popular very quickly (Gabler 2006 and Biography.com 2014). As Neal Gabler put it in his book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination (2006), ‘In the end Mickey Mouse was the eternal promise of cheerful solipsism.’ Shortly after the increase in popularity for Mickey Mouse came Mickey’s friends, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. A popular cartoon with these characters was called Flowers and Trees and was the first short to be made in color and win an Oscar (Biography.com 2014).
On December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had its Hollywood premier in Los Angeles. This was the first full-length animated film. Walt Disney had spent four years on this film and dedicated all of his time to making it fit his vision perfectly (Gillis 2015). Within six months, the Disney Brothers were free of debt. Then in November 1939, tragedy struck when there was a problem with the furnace in the Los Angeles home of Walt’s parents, Elias and Flora. Flora died and this was a devastating loss for the Disney Brothers. Following this tragedy, the brothers relocated to Burbank, California, building a three-million-dollar studio. Snow White had grossed nearly 1.5 million dollars and won eight Oscars.
Despite the immense popularity of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and many requests for a sequel, Walt refused. He instead produced Pinocchio in 1940, Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, and Bambi in 1942 while still grieving from the loss of his mother. He went on to produce many more films, which are still popular today. The well-known Cinderella was released in 1950, followed by Treasure Island also in 1950, Alice in Wonderland in 1951, Peter Pan in 1953, Lady and the Tramp in 1955, Sleeping Beauty in 1959, and 101 Dalmatians in 1961. Over one-hundred features were produced by Walt Disney’s studio. The last major film Walt Disney produced that was successful was Mary Poppins in 1964 (TDC 2018 and Biography.com 2014).
Perhaps one of the first things we think of when we hear ‘Disney’ are Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In the early 1950s, Walt Disney traveled around, visiting other theme parks to try and clear up his vision for his theme park. He wanted a place where families could go to experience the magic that he had produced on screen. A team was formed in 1952 called WED, based on his initials, Walt Elias Disney. The building of the theme park was sponsored by ABC, one of the three main TV stations at the time, in exchange for a one-hour, once a week show. The Disney brothers produced Disneyland TV, targeting Baby Boomers and trying to draw them to the new theme park. America’s economy was booming at the time, as it was post World War 2. Disneyland was the first opened in 1955 in Anaheim, California, around thirty miles from his studio in Burbanks. There were four themed sections in this park, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Fantasyland, all connected from a central location that steams from the well-known Main Street, U.S.A. (PBS).
On July 18, 1955 people lined up starting at 2 AM on opening day. The headline in the New York Times read, ‘Disneyland Gates Open — Play Park on Coast Jammed — 15,000 in Line Before 10 AM.’ Opening day at Disneyland definitely did not go off without a hitch. The Russell Daily News out of Kansas wrote an article titled, ‘Walt Disney Opens New Park But Guests Call It Confused Mess,’ (Hughes 2018). There were record high temperatures, a gas leak, and an overload on the power grid. Despite all of this, Walt Disney was still extremely pleased with his work. Within ten weeks of opening, Disneyland had drawn in over a million visitors, and those numbers rose to five million visitors per year.
The original admission fee was $1 with rides costing between 10 and 30 cents each. Shortly after opening, ticket books began to be sold for $2.50 each that gave guests admission and access to rides. There was a railroad circling the perimeter of the park, stemming from Disney’s love of trains. Disneyland underwent many changes over the years and continued to increase in popularity and ticket sales. Former and future U.S. presidents and the Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev all visited Disneyland in the late 1950s. Walt Disney spent a lot of time in the park as well, but no one knew about a new project he had up his sleeve (PBS).
In the 1960s, Disney started buying land in Florida secretly for a project he called the ‘Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,’ more commonly known as EPCOT. He envisioned this project as a community where people really lived in the heart of Walt Disney World. Sadly, Walt Disney died of lung cancer in December of 1966. His brother, Roy took over the command of the construction and completion of Walt Disney World, but Walt’s EPCOT vision was never carried out. The new Florida park opened in October of 1971 and Roy passed away shortly after in December 1971. The legacy of Walt Disney lies in his vision of EPCOT. As Neal Gabler put it in his interview with Anna Gillis, ‘In the end, he wanted to change the way we live. He just didn’t live long enough to realize that dream,’ (Gillis 2015). At the time of its opening, Disney World had just one park, Magic Kingdom (Interexchange 2013).
The iconic and still functioning ride, It’s a Small World, opened in 1966. In 1973, the still very popular ride, Pirates of the Caribbean opened. Then in 1975, Space Mountain and the Carousel of Progress opened to the public. On June 11, 1977, Disney did something extremely high tech for the time and had the first Main Street Electrical Parade, something that still happens today. EPCOT, based on Walt Disney’s future vision, opened on October 1, 1982, making it the second park in addition to Magic Kingdom. It wasn’t until seven years later, in May of 1989, that Disney-MGM Studios, the third park, opened. The fourth park was added in April of 1998, Disney’s Animal Kingdom (Hanks 2011).
Amidst the expansion in Florida, the Disney brand was also expanding worldwide. In 1983, the first international theme park opened in Tokyo. Next came Disneyland Paris, then Hong Kong Disney, and quickly the Disney name was global. Disney now has eleven theme parks and forty-three resorts all over the world. There’s Disney cruise lines, guided Disney vacations, Disney water parks and campgrounds, and so many more Disney-themed attractions internationally (Interexchange 2013 and Robbins 2014).
Disney started out in Chicago and moved to a small town in Kansas. He was raised by parents who taught him how to work hard in order to be successful. From an early age, his interest in drawing cartoons and making animations grew. Through a lot of hard work, many failures, even bankruptcy and a few near-bankruptcy situations, Disney was able to produce a brand that is known by nearly every person in the entire world today. He started with a small theme park in Anaheim, California where his apartment still stands on Main Street, U.S.A. His vision continues to be carried out to this day.