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

Disney’s father was Elias Disney, an Irish-Canadian. His mother, Flora Call Disney, was German-American. Disney 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 Fact Card

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.

Disney 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 Disney 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.
Photo: United Artists/Photofest

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.
Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Walt Disney Parks


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 Disney’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.

READ MORE: Is Walt Disney's Body Frozen?

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.


  • Name: Walt Elias Disney
  • Birth Year: 1901
  • Birth date: December 5, 1901
  • Birth State: Illinois
  • Birth City: Chicago
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Male
  • Best Known For: Walt Disney was an American motion picture and television producer and showman, famous as a pioneer of cartoon films, including Mickey Mouse, and as the creator of the amusement parks Disneyland and Disney World.
  • Industries
    • Film
    • Television
  • Astrological Sign: Sagittarius
  • Schools
    • Kansas City Art Institute and School of Design
    • Chicago Art Institute
    • McKinley High School
  • Nacionalities
    • American
  • Interesting Facts
    • When Disney was just a teenager, he joined the Red Cross in 1918 and was sent to France for a year to drive an ambulance to help with the war effort.
    • Disney experienced many failures — including filing for bankruptcy — before he became a hugely successful animator and amusement park creator.
    • When Disneyland opened in 1955, it reportedly cost $17 million to make.
  • Death Year: 1966
  • Death date: December 15, 1966
  • Death State: California
  • Death City: Burbank
  • Death Country: United States

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  • Article Title: Walt Disney Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/business-leaders/walt-disney
  • Access Date:
  • Publisher: A&E Television Networks
  • Last Updated: January 7, 2022
  • Original Published Date: April 3, 2014


  • Laughter is America's most important export.
  • There's nothing funnier than the human animal.
  • I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known.
  • You may not realize it when it happens, but a kick in the teeth may be the best thing in the world for you.
  • I don't believe in talking down to children. I don't believe in talking down to any certain segment. I like to kind of just talk in a general way to the audience. Children are always reaching.
  • Money doesn't excite me–my ideas excite me.
  • Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America...with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to the world.
  • [Y]ou'll not find a single mousetrap around the house. I've never forgotten it was a mouse that made me what I am today.
  • The age we're living in is the most extraordinary the world has ever seen. There are new concepts of things, and we now have the tools to change those concepts into realities. We are moving forward.
  • Life is composed of lights and shadows, and we would be untruthful, insincere, and saccharine if we tried to pretend there were no shadows.
  • I don't care about critics. Critics take themselves too seriously. They think the only way to be noticed and to be the smart guy is to pick and find fault with things. It's the public I'm making pictures for.
  • For years afterward, I hated Snow White because every time I'd make a feature after that, they'd always compare it with Snow White, and it wasn't as good as Snow White.
  • I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter. With the laugh comes the tears and in developing motion pictures or television shows, you must combine all the facts of life — drama, pathos and humor.
  • All our dreams can come true — if we have the courage to pursue them.
  • Never do anything that someone else can do better.
  • Everybody in the world was once a child. We grow up. Our personalities change, but in every one of us something remains of our childhood.