Walt Disney

Walt Disney Biography

(1901–1966)
Walt Disney was an American motion-picture and television producer and showman, famous as a pioneer of cartoons and animated films. Disney was also the creator of Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Who Was Walt Disney?

Walter Elias "Walt" Disney co-founded Walt Disney Productions with his brother Roy, which became one of the best-known motion-picture production companies in the world. Disney was an innovative animator and created the cartoon character Mickey Mouse. He won 22 Academy Awards during his lifetime, and was the founder of theme parks Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney’s Parents and Siblings

Walt Disney’s father was Elias Disney, an Irish-Canadian. His mother, Flora Call Disney, was German-American. Walt was one of five children, four boys and a girl. 

Walt Disney’s Childhood

Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in the Hermosa section of Chicago, Illinois. He lived most of his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, where he began drawing, painting and selling pictures to neighbors and family friends.

In 1911, his family moved to Kansas City, where Disney developed a love for trains. His uncle, Mike Martin, was a train engineer who worked the route between Fort Madison, Iowa and Marceline. Later, Disney would work a summer job with the railroad, selling snacks and newspapers to travelers.

Disney attended McKinley High School in Chicago, where he took drawing and photography classes and was a contributing cartoonist for the school paper. At night, he took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago.

When Disney was 16, he dropped out of school to join the Army but was rejected for being underage. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and was sent to France for a year to drive an ambulance. He moved back to the U.S. in 1919.

Walt Disney’s First Cartoons

In 1919, Disney moved to Kansas City to pursue a career as a newspaper artist. His brother Roy got him a job at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio, where he met cartoonist Ubbe Eert Iwwerks, better known as Ub Iwerks. From there, Disney worked at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made commercials based on cutout animation.

Around this time, Disney began experimenting with a camera, doing hand-drawn cel animation. He decided to open his own animation business. From the ad company, he recruited Fred Harman as his first employee.

Walt and Harman made a deal with a local Kansas City theater to screen their cartoons, which they called Laugh-O-Grams. The cartoons were hugely popular, and Disney was able to acquire his own studio, upon which he bestowed the same name.

Laugh-O-Gram hired a number of employees, including Iwerks and Harman's brother Hugh. They did a series of seven-minute fairy tales that combined both live action and animation, which they called Alice in Cartoonland.

By 1923, however, the studio had become burdened with debt, and Disney was forced to declare bankruptcy.

Walt Disney Animation Studios

Disney and his brother Roy moved to Hollywood with cartoonist Ub Iwerks in 1923, and there the three began the Disney Brothers' Cartoon Studio. The company soon changed its name to Walt Disney Studios, at Roy’s suggestion.

The Walt Disney Studios’ first deal was with New York distributor Margaret Winkler, to distribute their Alice cartoons. They also invented a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and contracted the shorts at $1,500 each. In the late 1920s, the studios broke from their distributors and created cartoons featuring Mickey Mouse and his friends.

In December 1939, a new campus for Walt Disney Animation Studios was opened in Burbank. In 1941 a setback for the company occurred when Disney animators went on strike. Many of them resigned. It would be years before the company fully recovered.

One of Disney Studio’s most popular cartoons, Flowers and Trees (1932), was the first to be produced in color and to win an Oscar. In 1933, The Three Little Pigs and its title song "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" became a theme for the country in the midst of the Great Depression.

Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse and Other Characters

Disney’s first successful film starring Mickey Mouse was a sound-and-music-equipped animated short called Steamboat Willie. It opened at the Colony Theater in New York November 18, 1928. Sound had just made its way into film, and Walt was the voice of Mickey, a character he had developed and that was drawn by his chief animator, Ub Iwerks. The cartoon was an instant sensation.

The Disney brothers, their wives and Iwerks produced two earlier silent animated shorts starring Mickey Mouse, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho, out of necessity. The team had discovered that Disney’s New York distributor, Margaret Winkler, and her husband, Charles Mintz, had stolen the rights to the character Oswald and all of Disney’s animators except for Iwerks. The two earliest Mickey Mouse films failed to find distribution, as sound was already revolutionizing the movie industry.

In 1929, Disney created Silly Symphonies, featuring Mickey's newly created friends, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. 

Walt Disney Photo

Walt Disney with a cutout of his famous cartoon, Mickey Mouse.

Walt Disney Movies

Disney produced more than 100 feature films. His first full-length animated film was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937. It produced an unimaginable $1.499 million, in spite of the Great Depression, and won eight Oscars. This led Walt Disney Studios to complete another string of full-length animated films over the next five years.

During the mid-1940s, Disney created "packaged features," groups of shorts strung together to run at feature length. By 1950, he was once again focusing on animated features.

Disney's last major success that he produced himself was the motion picture Mary Poppins, which came out in 1964 and mixed live action and animation.

A few other of Disney's most famous movies include:

  • Pinocchio (1940)
  • Fantasia (1940)
  • Dumbo (1941)
  • Bambi (1942)
  • Cinderella (1950)
  • Treasure Island (1950)
  • Alice in Wonderland (1951)
  • Peter Pan (1953)
  • Lady and the Tramp (1955)
  • Sleeping Beauty (1959)
  • 101 Dalmatians (1961)

Disney’s Television Series

Disney was also among the first people to use television as an entertainment medium. The Zorro and Davy Crockett series were extremely popular with children, as was The Mickey Mouse Club, a variety show featuring a cast of teenagers known as the Mouseketeers. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color was a popular Sunday night show, which Disney used to begin promoting his new theme park. 

Walt Disney

Walt Disney stands in front of the Fantasyland castle at the grand opening of Disneyland, Anaheim, California, on July 17, 1955.

Walt Disney Parks

Disneyland

Disney's $17 million Disneyland theme park opened on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California, on what was once an orange grove. Actor (and future U.S. president) Ronald Reagan presided over the activities. After a tumultuous opening day involving several mishaps (including the distribution of thousands of counterfeit invitations), the site became known as a place where children and their families could explore, enjoy rides and meet the Disney characters.

In a very short time, the park had increased its investment tenfold, and was entertaining tourists from around the world.

The original site had attendance ups and downs over the years. Disneyland has expanded its rides over time and branched out globally with Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, and parks in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Sister property California Adventure opened in Los Angeles in 2001.

Walt Disney World

Within a few years of Disneyland’s 1955 opening, Disney began plans for a new theme park and to develop Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) in Florida. It was still under construction when Disney died in 1966. After Walt’s death, his brother Roy carried on the plans to finish the Florida theme park, which opened in 1971 under the name Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney’s Wife, Children and Grandchildren

In 1925, Disney hired an ink-and-paint artist named Lillian Bounds. After a brief courtship, the couple married.

Disney and Lillian Bounds had two children. Diane Disney Miller, born in 1933, was the couple’s only biological daughter. They adopted Sharon Disney Lund shortly after her birth in 1936.

Diane and her husband, Ronald Miller, had seven children: Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Walter, Jennifer, Patrick, and Ronald Miller Jr.

Sharon and her first husband, Robert Brown, adopted a daughter, Victoria Disney. Sharon’s second husband, Bill Lund, was a real estate developer who scouted the 27,000 acres in Orlando that became Disney World. Their twins, Brad and Michelle, were born in 1970.

Sharon’s side of the family became embroiled in a controversy after her death in 1993, when her trust became available to her three children. The trust included a caveat that allowed her ex-husband Bill Lund and sister Diane to withhold funds if they could show that Sharon’s children couldn’t properly manage the money. This led to accusations of conspiracy and mental incompetence, insinuations of incest, and an ugly two-week-long battle of a trial in December 2013.

When and How Walt Disney Died

Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1966 and died on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65. Disney was cremated, and his ashes interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles, California. 

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