I thought, as a huge fan, it would be fun and fitting to do a brief story on the man himself Walt Disney, seeing that today would have been his 119th birthday. So let’s take a trip down memory lane and look at some of the remarkable highlights of one the one and only – Walter Elias Disney.
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5th, 1901 to his parents Elias and Flora Disney. Walt had always had an eye for art and and a fondness for creativity. In his younger years this was evident, especially when he would spend hours creating and experimenting with water colors. Walt’s Father Elias was very supportive of Walts artistic talent and would even arrange for him to take art classes. This early education paid off and Walt was able to do some artwork for his local high school newspaper. Walt was so clever and talented that when he was told he was too young to join the military, he used these skills to forge his way in. Upon acceptance into the armed services, some of his artwork was featured in military newspapers.
After his service Walt tried over and over to breakthrough into the animation world but kept facing roadblocks. It wasn’t until he met fellow animator Ub Iwerks that things finally started to turn around and they began doing some creative work for an ad firm in Kansas City. Eventually Walt, the consummate dreamer, began to adapt to new technology and techniques and started to work on cell animation. This led him to start his own company, but Walt’s business acumen had yet to catch up to his artistic talent and the company struggled, eventually being dissolved in 1923. So with unmatched natural abilities, lessons learned from his first business attempt, and, most importantly, a suitcase and a dream, Walt left his home town in Missouri and headed for Hollywood, California.
After moving to the west coast, Walt, along with Ub Iwerks and a handful of others, began working on a project called Alice’s Wonderland. The response was positive and Walt was able to sell it as an episodic series. This led to the creation of the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923 with his older brother Roy O. Disney. After Alice, Walt started to work on his next creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It turned out that Oswald was not really that lucky after all since Walt lost the character to another studio, along with most of his animators. His loyal friend Iwerks stayed with Walt and they went back to the drawing board to find a new mascot that would represent the company.
The two men came up with the idea of a mouse named Mortimer. After sharing the idea with his wife Lillian, she suggested they change the name from Mortimer to Mickey Mouse. Like most decisions in a married man’s life, the wife was right and the name was changed. After settling on the name, the duo worked together to come up with sketch and concept for Mickey and Walt provided the initial voice for the iconic character. In a truly revolutionary move, Walt came up with the idea of synchronized sound in animation and from that he created Steamboat Willie, the first ever time we meet an animated Mickey and Minnie Mouse. After a few years of success, the two men were split when Ub left Disney to work with a competitor. This led to Walt experiencing a nervous breakdown in 1931. Afterward Walt took a well-deserved break and he and Lillian spent time away from Hollywood so he could regroup and figure out his next step.
After some time Walt and Lillian came back to Hollywood. Walt was rested and rejuvenated and set his sights on bigger projects. His studio signed a deal with Columbia Pictures and they produced Mickey Mouse cartoons and Technicolor shorts. Walt had always wanted bigger and was reaching to do more. He had the idea of creating a full-length animated movie. Walt designed the multi-plane camera which he used to create and produce his first full-length movie the 1937 hit Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. The film premiered to rave reviews and Walt was even given a special Oscar for his groundbreaking work on the film.
The 1940s were tough for Walt and his company. After the success of Snow White, he had a series of films that did not perform well. Surprisingly, the movies that practically everyone knows today, such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo, were initially considered failures, or at least performed worse than Walt had anticipated. This put the a financial strain on the company. To shore up some more revenue, Walt made a collection of controversial war propaganda films at the height of World War II. This was also when Walt started making nature documentaries and hybrid (animation and live-action) films. This was all brand-new to Walt, but it helped bring in much needed capital and helped to fund future projects.
In the early 1950s, Walt had a string of hits in a new era of animated films. Films like Cinderella and Peter Pan were huge successes for the Disney Company, along with a number of live-action films like Treasure Island. With the studio enjoying a streak of successful films, Walt felt like he needed to do something more, something different, something never before seen. On one of his many Saturday trips to Griffith Park in Los Angeles Walt came up with the idea of building a theme park across the freeway from his Walt Disney Studios.
This was the birth of arguably one of Walt’s biggest and most iconic ideas – to create a theme park unlike anything anyone has seen before, called Disneyland. His original plan was to build this park across from his Burbank studio, that was scrapped when locals and the city government shot down his idea. They were concerned with the kind of crowds it would bring. So Walt decided to think bigger and not burden himself with the small plot of land in Burbank. After some research Walt and a small team found some orange groves in the small rural town of Anaheim, California.
After one year of construction, on July 17th, 1955 Walts Disney’s magical theme park Disneyland opened to the public. Like any brand new endeavor, it opened with a few operational wrinkles but they were quickly ironed out and the park has been running strong for the last 65 years. Of course, in perfect Walt Disney fashion, this was still not enough for him. With the huge success of Disneyland, Walt wanted to build an bigger and better theme park on the east coast in Florida. Roy was not on board at first but Walt convinced him of the possibilities and sold him on the financial windfall it could bring to the company. While Walt seemed to be singularly focused on his original dream for Epcot, an experimental prototype community of tomorrow, he knew he needed a popular theme park in the area to fund the construction of Epcot.
Unfortunately, Walt did not get to see this final dream come to fruition. On December 15th, 1966, at the age of 65, Walt lost his battle with lung cancer. He passed away at St Joseph Hospital directly across the street from his beloved studio. It has been said that right before Walt passed, as Roy stood at the foot of the bed rubbing his feet, Walt had told Roy to make sure that the Florida project happens. Roy made sure it was built and months after the Magic Kingdom opened in Walt Disney World, Roy passed away too. The Disney brothers gave the world everything they had and the world is a much better place because of it.
I just want to add that I am personally a huge fan and admirer of Walt Disney. Walt is the kind of person that brings out the kid in all of us and shows us that if you maintain a never-quit or never give-up attitude you can literally do anything, as long as you have imagination.
Happy 119th Birthday Mr. Disney, thank you for so so much .