The Magic Of Walt Disney
American producer, director, and animator Walt Disney (1901 - 1966) uses a baton to point to sketches of Disneyland, 1955. Source: (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
These days, the Walt Disney Company is one of the largest and most well-known entertainment corporations in the world. No longer just for children, they have acquisitions in major brands such as Star Wars, Marvel, and ABC Studios. They’ve also expanded their interests in the travel industry across the globe, with theme parks in several countries, transatlantic cruises, and Adventures by Disney itineraries on six continents. But it all started over a century ago with a little boy who liked to draw.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 5, 1901. He was the youngest of four sons born to Elias and Flora Disney, though his sister would be born two years later. While living in Marceline, Missouri, he developed an interest in drawing and painting, eventually selling his creations to friends and family.
The family moved to Kansas City in 1911 and it was there that Walt became fascinated with trains. The interest was likely inspired by his uncle, Mike Martin, who worked as an engineer. Eventually, Walt would get a job with the railroad himself, though it was only a summer job selling snacks and newspapers to the passengers.
Walt took drawing and photography classes while attending McKinley High School in Chicago as well as night classes at the Chicago Art Institute. However, he dropped out at the age of 16 to join the army only to be told he was too young. He joined the Red Cross instead, serving as an ambulance driver in France.
Back in the United States in 1919, he moved to Kansas City, where his brother Roy helped him get a job at Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. While there, he met Ub Iwerks, with whom he would later go into business. After leaving Pesmen-Rubin, Walt began making commercials using cutout animation for Kansas City Film Ad Company.
It was while working there that he decided to start his own animation company. His first employee was Fred Harman, a co-worker from the ad company. They began making cartoons, called Laugh-O-Grams, which were screened at a local theater. Eventually, Iwerks and Walt’s brother Hugh joined the company. Despite the popularity of their cartoons, the company was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1923.
Afterward, Walt and Roy moved to Hollywood along with Iwerks and the three of them created a new company call the Disney Brothers’ Studio. During this time, he began a business relationship with Margaret Winkler and her husband Charles Mintz. He also invented the hugely popular (at that time) Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
In 1925, Lillian Bounds, an ink artist, came to work for the studio. In July of that year, she and Walt got married. Their first daughter, Diane, was born in 1933 and they adopted their second daughter, Sharon, in 1936. Walt and Lillian would later celebrate their thirtieth anniversary just four days before the opening of Disneyland.
Due to shady dealings on the part of Mintz, Walt lost most of his animation staff as well as the rights to Oswald in 1928 (though Oswald was reacquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2006). This was a major blow; however, all was not lost. According to legend, it was on the train ride back from his failed negotiations that he came up with the idea for the world’s most lovable mouse.
Mickey Mouse and sound were introduced into film at the same time, with Steamboat Willie being the world’s first fully synchronized sound cartoon. It premiered on November 18, 1928, at the Colony Theatre in New York. Walt Disney himself was the voice of Mickey. Its success was followed by Silly Symphonies which introduced Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. In 1932, he won his first Oscar for Flowers and Trees, which was also the first to be released in Technicolor.
Eventually, Walt moved on from cartoon shorts, and on December 21, 1937, he released the first-ever full-length animated musical feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. This was an extraordinary undertaking, costing $1.5 million to produce while the country was still in the midst of the Great Depression. However, his risk paid off and he would go on to produce four more feature films over the next five years, including Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).
The company suffered a temporary setback in 1941 causing it to take a break from feature-length films, but by 1950 he was at it again with Cinderella (1950) and many more to come. The last major film to be produced by Walt himself was Mary Poppins in 1964.
Walt didn’t limit himself to film. In 1954, he became of the first to produce full-color television programming. One of the most popular programs was a variety show called The Mickey Mouse Club, as was his Sunday night show, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, which began airing in 1961 and would later become Disney’s Wonderful World of Magic.
But television wasn’t the only new frontier he braved. July 17, 1955, marked the opening of the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California. Future U.S. President Ronald Reagan hosted the live broadcast.
Disneyland was the first of many Disney theme parks and the only one to open during his lifetime. In 1965, he was already planning his second theme park while also turning his attention toward more practical matters. Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) was intended to be an actual town, his solution to “the problem of our cities.” Sadly, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and died of circular collapse in 1966 before this idea could become a reality. His brother Roy took over his companies and completed Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, where EPCOT would later become Epcot Center. In addition to expanding both Disneyland and Disney World, theme parks have since opened internationally in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong, and Shanghai.
After his death, an unsubstantiated rumor began circulating that Walt’s body had been cryogenically frozen, awaiting the day when mankind would have the technology to awaken and cure him. This myth has since been debunked and was never necessary anyway. Walt Disney has already achieved immortality through his legacy, which lives on in the hearts of children and adults throughout the world.
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