Who is Walt Disney 101: The Life and Legacy of an Animation Pioneer, Entrepreneur, and Creator of Iconic Characters

Who is Walt Disney

Who is Walt Disney: Explore the inspiring journey of the legendary animator, film producer, and entrepreneur who created iconic characters like Mickey Mouse, revolutionized the animation industry, and built a global entertainment empire with theme parks and award-winning films.

Walt Disney: The Luminary Behind a Timeless Legacy

Walter Elias Disney, an American animator, film producer, and entrepreneur, profoundly influenced the animation industry. Born in Chicago in 1901, he cultivated his passion for drawing from a young age, attending art classes and eventually working as a commercial illustrator at 18. Together with his brother Roy, Disney formed the Disney Brothers Studio in California during the 1920s, where he collaborated with Ub Iwerks to create the iconic character, Mickey Mouse.

Disney's innovative approach to filmmaking led to groundbreaking developments, such as synchronized sound, three-strip Technicolor, and advances in camera technology. These innovations culminated in the creation of widely acclaimed animated films, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi. His prolific output continued post-WWII, producing classics like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and the Oscar-winning Mary Poppins.

In the 1950s, Disney ventured into the amusement park industry, opening Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in July 1955. To finance this project, he diversified into television with programs like Walt Disney's Disneyland and The Mickey Mouse Club. He also played a role in planning the 1959 Moscow Fair, the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the 1964 New York World's Fair. By 1965, Disney began developing Disney World and the visionary "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow" (EPCOT).

Despite his public persona as a warm and outgoing figure, Disney was privately shy, self-deprecating, and insecure. He set high expectations for himself and his team, and while some accused him of racism or antisemitism, these claims were refuted by many who knew him personally. Historiography on Disney encompasses a range of perspectives, from a purveyor of homely patriotic values to a symbol of American imperialism.

Walt Disney's enduring impact on animation and American cultural history cannot be overstated. A national cultural icon, his film work continues to be shown and adapted, while the Disney theme parks have expanded to captivate audiences worldwide. As a visionary pioneer, innovator, and entrepreneur, Walt Disney's legacy remains an indelible mark on the world of animation and beyond.

The Formative Years of Walt Disney: From Childhood to Red Cross Ambulance Driver

Walt Disney, an American animator, film producer, and entrepreneur, was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago's Hermosa neighborhood. The fourth son of Canadian-born Elias Disney and American Flora Call, he grew up with his siblings Herbert, Raymond, Roy, and Ruth. The family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, in 1906, where young Disney nurtured his passion for drawing and became fascinated with trains.

In 1911, the Disneys relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, where Disney attended Benton Grammar School and befriended Walter Pfeiffer, who introduced him to vaudeville and motion pictures. Disney delivered newspapers for The Kansas City Star and Kansas City Times alongside his brother Roy, often sacrificing sleep to maintain the demanding schedule. Despite this, he continued his artistic pursuits, attending Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute and taking a correspondence course in cartooning.

The family returned to Chicago in 1917 when Elias invested in a jelly-producing company. Disney enrolled at McKinley High School and contributed patriotic cartoons for the school newspaper, while also taking night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1918, Disney attempted to join the United States Army but was rejected due to his age. He instead forged his birth certificate and joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver, serving in France and drawing cartoons on his ambulance for decoration.

Upon returning to Kansas City in 1919, Disney worked as an apprentice artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, creating illustrations for advertising, theater programs, and catalogs. It was here that he met and befriended fellow artist Ub Iwerks, with whom he would later collaborate to create the iconic character Mickey Mouse. These formative years set the stage for Disney's extraordinary career as a pioneering animator, film producer, and entrepreneur.

The Early Struggles and Successes of Walt Disney

In January 1920, following a decline in revenue at Pesmen-Rubin, 18-year-old Disney and his colleague Ub Iwerks were laid off. They started their own business, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, but soon faced challenges in attracting customers. Disney decided to temporarily work at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, run by A.V. Cauger, to earn money. Iwerks joined him a month later. The company produced commercials using cutout animation, sparking Disney's interest in animation.

Disney started experimenting with animation at home and concluded that cel animation held more potential. Despite failing to convince Cauger to adopt cel animation, Disney partnered with Fred Harman and created "Newman's Laugh-O-Grams," short cartoons produced for the local Newman Theater. The success of these cartoons led to the establishment of Laugh-O-Gram Studio in May 1921. Disney hired more animators, including Iwerks, but the studio struggled financially.

Disney then began producing "Alice's Wonderland," combining live action with animation. However, it was completed too late to save the studio from bankruptcy in 1923. Disney, now 21, moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in live-action film directing. He managed to sell "Alice's Wonderland" to New York film distributor Margaret J. Winkler, leading to the creation of the Disney Brothers Studio with his brother Roy.

By 1926, Disney grew tired of the mixed-format "Alice" series and desired a fully animated project. He and Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but negotiations with Charles Mintz, who had taken over distribution from Winkler, went sour. Mintz attempted to reduce Disney's payments and recruited most of his staff, leaving Disney with only Iwerks by his side. Despite these challenges, Disney continued to pursue his passion for animation.

The Rise of Mickey Mouse and the Expansion of Disney Animation

In an attempt to replace Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney and Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, a character potentially inspired by a pet mouse Disney had during his time at Laugh-O-Gram Studio. However, the character's origins remain uncertain. Disney initially wanted to name the character Mortimer Mouse, but his wife Lillian suggested Mickey as a more suitable name. Iwerks refined Disney's initial sketches, making Mickey easier to animate. Disney, who had distanced himself from the animation process, provided Mickey's voice until 1947. As one employee stated, "Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul."

Mickey Mouse debuted in May 1928 with a test screening of the short "Plane Crazy." Despite a second feature, "The Gallopin' Gaucho," both films failed to secure a distributor. Following the success of "The Jazz Singer," Disney used synchronized sound in the third short, "Steamboat Willie," which became the first post-produced sound cartoon. With animation complete, Disney signed a contract with former Universal Pictures executive Pat Powers to use the "Powers Cinephone" recording system. Cinephone became the distributor for Disney's early sound cartoons, which gained popularity quickly.

To enhance the music quality, Disney hired composer and arranger Carl Stalling, who suggested the development of the Silly Symphony series. The series, which conveyed stories through music, began with "The Skeleton Dance" (1929), entirely drawn and animated by Iwerks. At this time, Disney also hired local artists who would later become the core animators known as the Nine Old Men. Both the Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies series found success, but Disney and his brother Roy felt they were not receiving their fair share of profits from Powers. In response, Disney tried to cut costs by urging Iwerks to streamline the animation process and asked Powers for increased payments. Powers refused and signed Iwerks away from Disney. Stalling resigned soon after, fearing the Disney Studio would close. In October 1931, Disney experienced a nervous breakdown, which he attributed to Powers' actions and his own overwork. To recover, Disney and Lillian took an extended vacation to Cuba and a cruise to Panama.

After losing Powers as a distributor, Disney Studios signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to distribute Mickey Mouse cartoons, which grew even more popular, both domestically and internationally. Disney introduced new cartoon stars, such as Pluto in 1930, Goofy in 1932, and Donald Duck in 1934. Encouraged by a new contract with United Artists, Disney filmed "Flowers and Trees" (1932) in full-color three-strip Technicolor and secured exclusive rights to the three-strip process until August 31, 1935. All subsequent Silly Symphony cartoons were in color. "Flowers and Trees" resonated with audiences and won the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) in 1932. Disney was also nominated for another film in the category, "Mickey's Orphans," and received an Honorary Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse.

In 1933, Disney produced "The Three Little Pigs," widely regarded as the most successful short animation of all time. The film won another Academy Award in the Short Subject (Cartoon) category. Due to the film's success, the studio's staff expanded to nearly 200 employees by the end of the year. Disney recognized the importance of emotionally gripping stories and invested in a separate story department with storyboard artists who detailed the plots of future films.

The Dawn of Disney's Golden Age of Animation

Seeking innovation and greater profits, Disney shifted focus from formulaic cartoon shorts to producing a feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1934. Many in the film industry predicted that this ambitious project would bankrupt the company, dubbing it "Disney's Folly." The first-ever full-color and sound animated feature cost a staggering $1.5 million—triple its initial budget. To achieve realistic animation, Disney enrolled his animators in courses at the Chouinard Art Institute and introduced the multiplane camera, creating an illusion of depth and a sense of camera movement through the scene.

Despite skepticism, Snow White premiered in December 1937 to critical and audience acclaim, becoming the most successful motion picture of 1938 and grossing $6.5 million by May 1939—the highest amount for a sound film at the time. This success marked the beginning of Disney's "Golden Age of Animation," with the studio releasing Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940. However, both films underperformed at the box office due to the onset of World War II, plunging the company into debt by February 1941.

To mitigate the financial crisis, Disney and his brother Roy initiated the company's first public stock offering in 1940 and enforced salary reductions, which led to a five-week animators' strike in 1941. The strike disrupted the production of Dumbo (1941), which was eventually produced with a modest budget and went on to receive positive reactions from audiences and critics alike.

Disney During World War II: A Shift in Production

Following the U.S. entry into World War II after the release of Dumbo in October 1941, Disney formed the Walt Disney Training Films Unit to create instructional films for the military, such as Four Methods of Flush Riveting and Aircraft Production Methods. Disney also collaborated with Henry Morgenthau Jr., the Secretary of the Treasury, to produce short Donald Duck cartoons promoting war bonds. Additionally, the company created propaganda films, including the Academy Award-winning Der Fuehrer's Face and the 1943 feature film Victory Through Air Power.

Although the military films covered costs, Bambi, which had been in production since 1937, underperformed upon its release in April 1942, resulting in a $200,000 box office loss. Combined with low earnings from Pinocchio and Fantasia, the company had amassed $4 million in debt by 1944. Despite these financial setbacks, Bank of America founder Amadeo Giannini expressed confidence in Disney's long-term success, urging patience and support for their endeavors. As the 1940s progressed, Disney faced increased competition from Warner Bros. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, leading to a decrease in short film production and a focus on combined animation and live-action projects. In 1948, Disney introduced the popular live-action nature film series True-Life Adventures, with Seal Island winning an Academy Award in the Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) category.

Walt Disney's Ventures: From Animation to Theme Parks and Beyond

During the early 1950s, Disney continued producing successful animated features, including Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). Simultaneously, he pursued live-action films, such as Treasure Island (1950) and The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), and formed his own distribution chain, Buena Vista. As Disney delegated the animation department's responsibilities to the Nine Old Men, he focused on other ventures, including the development of Disneyland.

Inspired by his visits to Griffith Park and Tivoli Gardens, Disney aimed to create a clean, family-friendly theme park. After securing zoning permission in Burbank and later purchasing a larger plot in Anaheim, he established WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) to develop the park. Disneyland opened in July 1955, featuring themed lands such as Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. The park's instant success attracted over 20,000 visitors daily and 3.6 million guests within its first year.

To fulfill ABC's funding conditions, Disney produced television programs, including the successful anthology series, Walt Disney's Disneyland, and the children's variety show, The Mickey Mouse Club. Disney also capitalized on the popularity of the Davy Crockett miniseries by forming Disneyland Records.

Disney engaged in various non-studio projects, such as consulting for the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow and designing ceremonies for the 1960 Winter Olympics. Despite these external commitments, he remained involved in film and television projects, including Man in Space (1955), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), The Sword in the Stone (1963), and Mary Poppins (1964).

In the 1960s, Disney contributed to the 1964 New York World's Fair, expanded the California Institute of the Arts, and developed plans for a ski resort in Mineral King, California. He also explored other theme park opportunities, including a failed attempt in St. Louis and the successful establishment of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, featuring the Magic Kingdom and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).

Throughout his career, Walt Disney maintained a strong presence in the studio's film productions, working on The Jungle Book (1967), The Happiest Millionaire (1967), and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968) up until his death.

Walt Disney: A Legacy of Imagination and Entertainment

Walt Disney, an American animator, film producer, and entrepreneur, was known for his heavy smoking since World War I. He often smoked unfiltered cigarettes and even used a pipe in his youth. In November 1966, Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent cobalt therapy. Unfortunately, on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65, he succumbed to the disease, causing circulatory collapse. His remains were cremated and interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.

Despite his passing, Disney's creative legacy lived on through the release of The Jungle Book and The Happiest Millionaire in 1967, bringing the total number of feature films he was involved in to 81. His posthumous Academy Award for Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day in 1968 solidified his lasting impact on the world of animation. Following his death, the Walt Disney Studios continued to produce live-action films but saw a decline in animation until the "Disney Renaissance" began in the late 1980s with The Little Mermaid.

Disney's ambitious plans for the futuristic city of EPCOT did not materialize as he had envisioned. After his passing, his brother Roy took full control of the Disney companies and shifted the project's focus from a functional city to a world-class attraction. In 1971, Walt Disney World was dedicated to Walt by his brother Roy. The theme park expanded with the opening of Epcot Center in 1982, resembling a permanent world's fair rather than the functional city Disney had originally conceived.

In 2009, the Walt Disney Family Museum, designed by Disney's daughter Diane and her son Walter E. D. Miller, opened in San Francisco's Presidio. The museum houses thousands of artifacts from Disney's life and career, including numerous awards he received. By 2014, Disney theme parks worldwide hosted approximately 134 million visitors, a testament to the enduring appeal of Walt Disney's imagination and innovation in the realm of entertainment.

Walt Disney: Family Life, Personal Beliefs, and Private Persona

In 1925, Walt Disney hired Lillian Bounds, an ink artist, who soon became his wife. They married in Lewiston, Idaho, and enjoyed a mostly happy marriage, although Lillian didn't hesitate to challenge her husband's decisions. Lillian showed little interest in Hollywood's social scene, instead focusing on supporting her husband and managing their household. Together, they had two daughters, Diane and Sharon, with the latter being adopted. The Disneys took great care to protect their daughters from the public eye and maintain their privacy.

In 1949, the Disney family moved to a new home in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles. Inspired by his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, Disney designed and built a miniature live steam railroad in his backyard, named the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Disney Studios engineer Roger E. Broggie constructed a working steam locomotive for the railroad, which Disney named Lilly Belle in honor of his wife.

Politically, Disney became more conservative over time, shifting his support from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party in 1940. He was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals in 1946 and testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Second Red Scare in 1947. Allegedly, from 1940 until his death in 1966, Disney provided secret information to the FBI, and in return, J. Edgar Hoover granted him access to film in FBI headquarters.

Walt Disney's public persona was notably different from his true personality. Described as shy, diffident, and self-deprecating by playwright Robert E. Sherwood, Disney concealed his insecurities behind his public identity. Colleagues commented that he rarely offered direct praise, opting to give financial bonuses or indirect compliments instead. Disney himself acknowledged this façade, once admitting, "I'm not Walt Disney. I do a lot of things Walt Disney would not do."

Walt Disney: Evolving Perspectives and Controversies Surrounding His Legacy

Over the years, perspectives on Walt Disney and his work have shifted, sparking polarized opinions. Early evaluations celebrated Disney as a patriot, folk artist, and promoter of culture. However, more recent views regard him as an embodiment of American imperialism, intolerance, and a degrader of culture. Critics argue that Disney manipulated cultural and commercial formulas, while others take issue with the sentimental, overly optimistic portrayal of American history in his work.

Disney faced accusations of anti-Semitism after he gave Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl a tour of his studio. Disney later disavowed this action, claiming ignorance of Riefenstahl's identity. No employees, even those who disliked Disney, ever accused him of making anti-Semitic remarks. The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges the presence of ethnic stereotypes in early cartoons but also highlights Disney's regular donations to Jewish charities and his employment of Jewish individuals in influential positions. Historian Neal Gabler, who had unrestricted access to Disney archives, concludes that the evidence does not support claims of anti-Semitism.

Racism accusations have also been directed at Disney due to racially insensitive material in productions from the 1930s to 1950s. Song of the South was criticized for perpetuating black stereotypes, but Disney later campaigned for an Honorary Academy Award for its star, James Baskett, the first black actor to receive such an honor. Gabler and Floyd Norman, the studio's first black animator, both argue that Disney was not racist.

Disney's post-WWII films have been criticized for promoting cultural imperialism, while others argue that his work merely reflected the values and aspirations of his time. Disney has been portrayed in various fictional works, and some commentators regard him as a cultural icon who shaped American consciousness.

In December 2021, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York honored Disney with a special exhibit titled "Inspiring Walt Disney," acknowledging his impact on art and culture.

Walt Disney: A Legacy of Animation, Awards, and Honors

Walt Disney, an American animator, film producer, and entrepreneur, holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations and wins, with a total of 59 nominations and 22 awards. He also received three Golden Globe nominations and two Special Achievement Awards for his work on Bambi (1942) and The Living Desert (1953), as well as the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award. Disney won an Emmy Award for Best Producer for the Disneyland television series, after earning four nominations.

Several of Disney's films have been deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, including Steamboat Willie, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, Dumbo, and Mary Poppins. In 1998, the American Film Institute included Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (at number 49) and Fantasia (at 58) in its list of the 100 greatest American films.

In recognition of his contributions to both motion pictures and television, Disney received two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in February 1960. Mickey Mouse, Disney's most iconic creation, was awarded a star for motion pictures in 1978. Disney was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1986, the California Hall of Fame in December 2006, and was the inaugural recipient of a star on the Anaheim walk of stars in 2014.

Throughout his life, Disney and his staff were honored with over 950 awards and citations from around the world, according to The Walt Disney Family Museum. He was made a Chevalier in the French Légion d'honneur in 1935, and in 1952, he received France's highest artistic decoration, the Officer d'Academie. Disney was also awarded numerous other national honors, including Thailand's Order of the Crown, Germany's Order of Merit, Brazil's Order of the Southern Cross, and Mexico's Order of the Aztec Eagle.

In the United States, Disney was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom on September 14, 1964, and posthumously received the Congressional Gold Medal on May 24, 1968. The National Association of Theatre Owners honored him with the Showman of the World Award, and the National Audubon Society awarded him its highest honor, the Audubon Medal, in 1955 for promoting the appreciation and understanding of nature through his True-Life Adventures nature films.

Disney's impact on the world continues to be recognized with numerous accolades, including honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, the University of Southern California, and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1980, a minor planet discovered by astronomer Lyudmila Karachkina was named 4017 Disneya in his honor.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who owned Disney after Walt Disney died?

After Walt Disney's death in 1966, his brother Roy O. Disney took over the management of the Walt Disney Company. Roy continued to lead the company and oversaw the completion of Walt Disney World in Florida, which opened in 1971. He postponed his retirement to ensure the completion of the theme park, which was one of Walt's final visions. Roy passed away in December 1971, and after his death, the company's leadership transitioned to a team of executives.

Who is Walt Disney's daughter?

Walt Disney had two daughters: Diane Marie Disney, born in 1933, and Sharon Mae Disney, born in 1936. Diane was the elder of the two and is often recognized as Walt Disney's daughter. Both daughters were born to Walt Disney and his wife, Lillian Bounds Disney.

Walt Disney Quotes

Here are some of Walt Disney’s most famous quotes.

All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them.
We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.
Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, dreams are forever.

To see more Walt Disney quotes, we recommend visiting the Walt Disney Quote section in Quotes Analysis.

We hope we have been helpful to you in this "Who is Walt Disney" article, and we hope you have a better understanding of who this amazing entrepreneur is!

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