Disney produced the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), which took three years to complete. Additional features included Pinocchio (1939), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). In Song of the South (1946), he merged live actors and animated figures. During World War II, Disney's studio produced cartoons for the armed services as training tools and morale builders.
Beginning with Treasure Island in 1951, Disney added live-action movies to his output, while still producing such animated classics as Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). Thereafter, his studio produced several animal stories (e.g., Greyfriars Bobby, 1960), musical fantasies (e.g., Mary Poppins, 1964), and television programs, beginning in the early 1950s with the weekly Disneyland and its famous Mouseketeers. Disney and his productions received numerous Academy and other awards during his lifetime. After his death, the Disney studios remained active, diversified, and ultimately became enormously successful. In the early 1980s, they began producing films for adults.
Disneyland, a huge theme park in Anaheim, Calif., which in part celebrates America's hometowns and small-town values, was opened by Disney in 1955. Disney's California Adventure, a second, smaller theme park in Anaheim, opened adjacent to Disneyland in 2001. An even bigger park, Walt Disney World, opened near Orlando, Fla., in 1971 as a theme park and resort, and Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom have since been added there. Disneyland parks have also opened near Tokyo (1983), in Marne-la-Vallée, near Paris (1992), and in Hong Kong (2005).
See biographies by D. D. Miller and P. Martin (1956), B. Thomas (1958), S. Watts (1998), and N. Gabler (2006); R. Schickel, The Disney Version (1968); C. Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (1973); M. Eliot, Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince (1993); R. Merritt and J. B. Kaufman, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney (1994); H. A. Giroux, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999); D. Smith and S. Clark, Disney: The First 100 Years (1999).
Walter Elias Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) was a multiple Academy Award-winning American film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, entrepreneur and philanthropist. Disney is famous for his influence in the field of entertainment during the twentieth century. As the co-founder (with his brother Roy O. Disney) of Walt Disney Productions, Disney became one of the best-known motion picture producers in the world. The corporation he co-founded, now known as The Walt Disney Company, today has annual revenues of approximately U.S. $35 billion.
Disney is particularly noted for being a film producer and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. He and his staff created a number of the world's most famous fictional characters, including the one many consider Disney's alter ego, Mickey Mouse. He received fifty-nine Academy Award nominations and won twenty-six Oscars, including a record four in one year, and thus holds the record for the individual with the most awards and the most nominations. He also won seven Emmy Awards. He is the namesake for Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in the United States, Japan, France, and China.
Walt Disney was born to Elias Disney an Irish-Canadian, and his mother, Flora Call Disney, who was of German-American descent. Walt Disney's ancestors had emigrated from Gowran, County Kilkenny in Ireland. Arundel Elias Disney, great-grandfather of Walt Disney was born in Kilkenny, Ireland in 1801 and was a descendant of Hughes and his son Robert d'Isigny (France) who settled in England with William the Conquereor in 1066.
His father Elias Disney moved from Huron County, Ontario to the United States in 1878, seeking first for gold in California but finally farming with his parents near Ellis, Kansas until 1884. He worked for Union Pacific Railroad and married Flora Call on January 1, 1888 in Acron, Florida. The family moved to Chicago, Illinois in 1890, where his brother Robert lived. For most of his early life, Robert helped Elias financially. In 1906, when Walt was four, Elias and his family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where his brother Roy had recently purchased farmland. While in Marceline, Disney developed his love for drawing. One of their neighbours, a retired doctor named "Doc" Sherwood, paid him to draw pictures of Sherwood's horse, Rupert. He also developed his love for trains in Marceline, which owed its existence to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which ran through town. Walt would put his ear to the tracks in anticipation of the coming train. Then he would look for his uncle, engineer Michael Martin, running the train.
The Disneys remained in Marceline for four years, before moving to Kansas City in 1911. There, Walt and his sister Ruth attended the Benton Grammar School where he met Walter Pfeiffer. The Pfeiffers were theatre aficionados, and introduced Walt to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures. Soon, Walt was spending more time at the Pfeiffers' than at home.
After his rejection from the army, Walt and one of his friends decided to join the Red Cross. Soon after he joined The Red Cross, Walt was sent to France for a year, where he drove an ambulance. In 1919, Walt, hoping to find work outside the Chicago Ozell factory, left home and moved back to Kansas City to begin his artistic career. His brother Roy worked at a bank in the area and got a job for him, through a friend, at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio. At Pesmen-Rubin, Disney created ads for newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters. It was here that he met a cartoonist named Ubbe Iwerks. Both of them became close friends and decided to start their own art business.
In January 1920, Disney and Iwerks formed a company called, "Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists". However, following a rough start, Iwerks left temporarily to earn money at Kansas City Film Ad Company. Disney would soon join Iwerks at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. While working for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Disney took up an interest in the field of animation, and decided to become an animator. Walt then decided to open his own animation business, and recruited a fellow co-worker at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, Fred Harman, as his first employee. Walt and Harman then secured a deal with local theater owner Frank L. Newman-arguably the most popular "showman" in the Kansas City area at the time- to air their cartoons — which they titled "Laugh-O-Grams" — at his local theater.
Virginia Davis (the live-action star of Alice’s Wonderland) and her family were relocated at Disney's request from Kansas City to Hollywood, as were Iwerks and his family. This was the beginning of the Disney Brothers' Studio. It was located on Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district, where the studio would remain until 1939. In 1925, Disney hired a young woman named Lillian Bounds to ink and paint celluloid. After a brief period of dating her, the two got married the same year.
The new series, Alice Comedies, was reasonably successful, and featured both Dawn O'Day and Margie Gay as Alice. Lois Hardwick also briefly assumed the role of Alice. By the time the series ended in 1927, the focus was more on the animated characters, in particular a cat named Julius who resembled Felix the Cat, rather than the live-action Alice.
In February 1928, Disney went to New York to negotiate a higher fee per short from Mintz. Disney was shocked when Mintz announced that not only he wanted to reduce the fee he paid Disney per short but also that he had most of his main animators, including Harman, Ising, Maxwell, and Freleng (notably excepting Iwerks) under contract and would start his own studio if Disney did not accept the reduced production budgets. Universal, not Disney, owned the Oswald trademark, and could make the films without Disney. Disney declined Mintz's offer and lost most of his animation staff.
With most of his staff gone Disney now found himself on his own again. It took Disney's company 78 years to get back the rights to the Oswald character. The Walt Disney Company reacquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal in 2006, through a trade for longtime ABC sports commentator Al Michaels.
After losing the rights to Oswald, Disney felt the need to develop a new character to replace him. He based the character on a mouse he had adopted as a pet while working in a Kansas City studio. Ub Iwerks reworked on the sketches made by Disney so that it was easier to animate it. However, Mickey's voice and personality was provided by Disney. As many of the old animators have commented, "Ub designed Mickey's physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul." Besides Oswald and Mickey, a similar mouse-character is seen in Alice Comedies which featured a mouse named Ike the Mouse, and the first Flip the Frog cartoon called Fiddlesticks, which showed a Mickey Mouse-look alike playing fiddle. The initial films were animated by Iwerks, his name was prominently featured on the title cards. The mouse was originally named "Mortimer", but later christened "Mickey Mouse" by Lillian Disney who thought that the name Mortimer did not fit. Mortimer later became the name of Mickey's rival for Minnie, who was taller than his renowned adversary and had a Brooklyn accent.
The first animated short with Mickey in it was titled, Plane Crazy, which was, like all of Disney's previous works, a silent film. After failing to find a distributor for Plane Crazy or its follow-up, The Gallopin' Gaucho, Disney created a Mickey cartoon with sound called Steamboat Willie. A businessman named Pat Powers provided Disney with both distribution and Cinephone, a sound-synchronization process. Steamboat Willie became an instant success, and Plane Crazy, The Galloping Gaucho, and all future Mickey cartoons were released with soundtracks. Disney himself provided the vocal effects for the earliest cartoons and performed as the voice of Mickey Mouse until 1946. After the release of Steamboat Willie, Walt Disney would continue to successfully use sound in all of his future cartoons, and Cinephone became the new distributor for Disney's early sound cartoons as well. Mickey soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the world's most popular cartoon character. By 1930, Felix, now in sound, had faded from the screen, as his sound cartoons failed to gain attention. Mickey's popularity would now skyrocket in the early 1930s.
Following the footsteps of Mickey Mouse series, a series of musical shorts titled, Silly Symphonies was released in 1929. The first of these was entitled The Skeleton Dance and was entirely drawn and animated by Iwerks, who was also responsible for drawing the majority of cartoons released by Disney in 1928 and 1929. Although both series were successful, the Disney studio was not seeing its rightful share of profits from Pat Powers, and in 1930, Disney signed a new distribution deal with Columbia Pictures. The original basis of the cartoons were musical novelty, and Carl Stalling wrote the score for the first Silly Symphony cartoons as well.
Iwerks was soon lured by Powers into opening his own studio with an exclusive contract. Later, Carl Stalling would also leave Disney to join Iwerks' new studio. Iwerks launched his Flip the Frog series with first voice cartoon in color, "Fiddlesticks," filmed in two-strip Technicolor. Iwerks also created two other series of cartoons, the Willie Whopper and the Comicolor. In 1936, Iwerks shut his studio to work on various projects dealing with animation technology. He would return to Disney in 1940 and, would go on to pioneer a number of film processes and specialized animation technologies in the studio's research and development department.
By 1932, Mickey Mouse had become quite a popular cinema character, but Silly Symphonies was not as successful. The same year also saw competition for Disney grow worse as Max Fleischer's flapper cartoon character, Betty Boop would gain more popularity among theater audiences. Fleischer was considered to be Disney's main rival in the 1930s, and was also the father of Richard Fleischer, whom Disney would later hire to direct his 1954 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Meanwhile, Columbia Pictures dropped the distribution of Disney cartoons and was replaced by United Artists. In late 1932, Herbert Kalmus, who had just completed work on the first three-strip technicolor camera, approached Walt and convinced him to redo Flowers and Trees, which was originally done in black and white, with three-strip Technicolor. Flowers and Trees would go on to be a phenomenal success and would also win the first Academy Award for Best Short Subject: Cartoons for 1932. After Flowers and Trees was released, all future Silly Symphony cartoons were done in color as well. Disney was also able to negotiate a two-year deal with Technicolor, giving him the sole right to use three-strip Technicolor, which would also eventually be extended to five years as well. Through Silly Symphonies, Disney would also create his most successful cartoon short of all time, The Three Little Pigs, in 1933. The cartoon ran in theaters for many months, and also featured the hit song that became the anthem of the Great Depression, "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf".
After the creation of two cartoon series, Disney soon began plans for a full-length feature in 1934. In 1935, opinion polls showed that another cartoon series, Popeye the Sailor, produced by Max Fleischer, was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Disney was, however, able to put Mickey back on top, and also increase Mickey's popularity further by colorizing him and partially redesigning him into what was considered to be his most appealing design up to this point in time. When the film industry came to know about Disney's plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow White, they dubbed the project as "Disney's Folly" and were certain that the project would destroy the Disney studio. Both Lillian and Roy tried to talk Disney out of the project, but he continued plans for the feature. He employed Chouinard Art Institute professor Don Graham to start a training operation for the studio staff, and used the Silly Symphonies as a platform for experiments in realistic human animation, distinctive character animation, special effects, and the use of specialized processes and apparatus such as the multiplane camera; Disney would first use this new technique in the 1937 Silly Symphonies short The Old Mill.
All of this development and training was used to elevate the quality of the studio so that it would be able to give the feature film the quality Disney desired. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as the feature was named, was in full production from 1934 until mid-1937, when the studio ran out of money. To acquire the funding to complete Snow White, Disney had to show a rough cut of the motion picture to loan officers at the Bank of America, who gave the studio the money to finish the picture. The finished film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21, 1937; at the conclusion of the film, the audience gave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a standing ovation. Snow White, the first animated feature in English and Technicolor, was released in February 1938 under a new distribution deal with RKO Radio Pictures; RKO had previously been the distributor for Disney cartoons in 1936, after it closed down the Van Beuren Studios in exchange for distribution. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and earned over $8 million in its original theatrical release. The success of Snow White, (for which Disney received one full-size, and seven miniature Oscar statuettes) allowed Disney to build a new campus for the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, which opened for business on December 24, 1939; Snow White was not only the peak of Disney's success, but it also ushered into what was known as the Golden Age of Animation for Disney. The feature animation staff, having just completed Pinocchio, continued work on Fantasia and Bambi, while the shorts staff continued work on the Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto cartoon series, ending the Silly Symphonies at this time. Animator Fred Moore had redesigned Mickey Mouse in the late 1930s, when Donald Duck began to gain more popularity among theater audiences than Mickey Mouse.
Shortly after the release of Dumbo in October 1941, the United States entered World War II. The U.S. Army contracted most of the Disney studio's facilities and had the staff create training and instructional films for the military, home-front morale-boosting shorts such as Der Fuehrer's Face and the feature film Victory Through Air Power in 1943. However, the military films did not generate income, and the feature film Bambi underperformed when it was released in April 1942. Disney successfully re-issued Snow White in 1944, establishing a 7-year re-release tradition for Disney features.
The Disney studios also created inexpensive package films, containing collections of cartoon shorts, and issued them to theaters during this period. The most notable and successful of these were Saludos Amigos (1942), its sequel The Three Caballeros (1945), Fun and Fancy Free (1947), and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (1949). The latter had only two sections: the first based on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving, and the second based on The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. During this period, Disney also ventured into full-length dramatic films that mixed live action and animated scenes, including Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart. After the war ended, Mickey's popularity would also fade as well.
By the late 1940s, the studio had recovered enough to continue production on the full-length features, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, which had been shelved during the war years, and began work on Cinderella, which became Disney's most successful film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The studio also began a series of live-action nature films, entitled True-Life Adventures, in 1948 with On Seal Island. Despite rebounding success through feature films, Disney's animation shorts were no longer as popular as they used to be, and people began to instead draw attention to Warner Bros and their animation star Bugs Bunny; by 1942, Warner Bros' Termite Terrace officially became the most popular animation studio. However, while Bugs Bunny's popularity rose in the 1940s, so did Donald Duck's; Donald would also replace Mickey Mouse as Disney's star character in 1949.
During 1949, Disney and his family moved to a new home on a large piece of property in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles, California. With the help of his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, owners of their own backyard railroad, Disney developed blueprints and immediately set to work on creating a miniature live steam railroad for his backyard. The name of the railroad, Carolwood Pacific Railroad, originated from the address of his home that was located on Carolwood Drive. The railroad's half-mile long layout included a -long trestle, loops, overpasses, gradients, an elevated berm, and a tunnel underneath Mrs. Disney's flowerbed. He named the miniature working steam locomotive built by Roger E. Broggie of the Disney Studios Lilly Belle in his wife's honor. He had his attorney draw up right-of-way papers giving the railroad a permanent, legal easement through the garden areas, which his wife dutifully signed; However, there is no evidence of the documents ever recorded as a restriction on the property's title.
When describing one of his earliest plans to Herb Ryman (who created the first aerial drawing of Disneyland which was presented to the Bank of America while requesting for funds), Disney said, "Herbie, I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train. Entertaining his daughters and their friends in his backyard and taking them for rides on his Carolwood Pacific Railroad had inspired Disney to include a railroad in the plans for Disneyland.
As the studio expanded and diversified into other media, Disney devoted less of his attention to the animation department, entrusting most of its operations to his key animators, whom he dubbed the Nine Old Men. During Disney's lifetime, the animation department created the successful Lady and the Tramp (in CinemaScope, 1955), One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), Sleeping Beauty (in Super Technirama 70mm, 1959) and The Sword in the Stone (1963).
Production on the short cartoons had kept pace until 1956, when Disney shut down the shorts division. Special shorts projects would continue to be made for the rest of the studio's duration on an irregular basis. These productions were all distributed by Disney's new subsidiary, Buena Vista Distribution, which had assumed all distribution duties for Disney films from RKO by 1955. Disneyland, one of the world's first theme parks, finally opened on July 17, 1955, and was immediately successful. Visitors from around the world came to visit Disneyland, which contained attractions based upon a number of successful Disney properties and films. After 1955, the show, Disneyland came to be known as Walt Disney Presents. The show transformed from black-and-white to color in 1961 and changed its name to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, moving from ABC to NBC, and eventually evolving into its current form as The Wonderful World of Disney. It continued to air on NBC until 1981, when CBS picked it up. Since then, it has aired on ABC, NBC, Hallmark Channel and Cartoon Network via separate broadcast rights deals.
During the mid-1950s, Disney produced a number of educational films on the space program in collaboration with NASA rocket designer Wernher von Braun: Man in Space and Man and the Moon in 1955, and Mars and Beyond in 1957.
By the early 1960s, the Disney empire was a major success, and Walt Disney Productions had established itself as the world's leading producer of family entertainment. Walt Disney was the Head of Pageantry for the 1960 Winter Olympics. After decades of pursuing, Disney finally procured the rights to P.L. Travers' books about a magical nanny. Mary Poppins, released in 1964, was the most successful Disney film of the 1960s and featured a memorable song score written by Disney favorites, the Sherman Brothers. The same year, Disney debuted a number of exhibits at the 1964 New York World's Fair, including Audio-Animatronic figures, all of which were later integrated into attractions at Disneyland and a new theme park project which was to be established on the East Coast.
Disney's involvement in Disney World ended in late 1966; after many years of chain smoking cigarettes, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He was admitted to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center across the street from the Disney Studio, where his health began to deteriorate, causing him to suffer cardiac arrest. Just before he was hospitalized, Disney was scheduled to undergo a neck surgery for an old polo injury; Disney was a frequent polo player at The Riveria Club in Hollywood, California for many years. On November 2, 1966, during pre-surgery X-rays, doctors at St. Joseph's Hospital in Los Angeles discovered that Disney had an enormous tumor on his left lung. Five days later, Disney went back to hospital for surgery, but the tumor had spread to such great extent that doctors had to remove his entire left lung. The doctors then told Disney that he only had six months to a year to live. After several chemotherapy sessions, Disney and his wife spent a short amount of time in Palm Springs, California before returning home. On November 30, 1966, Disney collapsed in his home, but was revived by paramedics, and was taken back to the hospital, where he died on December 15, 1966 at 9:30 a.m., ten days after his sixty-fifth birthday. He was cremated on December 17, 1966 and his ashes reside at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. Roy O. Disney continued to carry out the Florida project, insisting that the name be changed to Walt Disney World in honor of his brother.
Songwriter Robert B. Sherman said about the last time he saw Disney:
He was up in the third floor of the animation building after a run-through of The Happiest Millionaire. He usually held court in the hallway afterward for the people involved with the picture. And he started talking to them, telling them what he liked and what they should change, and then, when they were through, he turned to us and with a big smile, he said, 'Keep up the good work, boys.' And he walked to his office. It was the last we ever saw of him.
A long-standing urban legend maintains that Disney was cryonically frozen, and his frozen corpse was stored underneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. However, this was discredited due to the fact that Disney was cremated, and the first known instance of Cryonic Freezing of a corpse (of Dr. James Bedford) occurred a month later in January.
After Walt Disney's death, Roy Disney returned from retirement to take full control of Walt Disney Productions and WED Enterprises. In October that year, their families met in front of Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom to officially open the Walt Disney World Resort.
After giving his dedication for Walt Disney World, he then asked Lillian Disney to join him. As the orchestra played "When You Wish Upon a Star", she stepped up to the podium accompanied by Mickey Mouse. He then said, "Lilly, you knew all of Walt's ideas and hopes as well as anybody; what would Walt think of it [Walt Disney World]?". "I think Walt would have approved," she replied. Roy died from a cerebral hemorrhage on December 20, 1971, the day he was due to open the Disneyland Christmas parade.
During the second phase of the "Walt Disney World" theme park, EPCOT was translated by Disney's successors into EPCOT Center, which opened in 1982. As it currently exists, EPCOT is essentially a living world's fair, different from the actual functional city that Disney had envisioned. In 1992, Walt Disney Imagineering took the step closer to Walt's vision and dedicated Celebration, Florida, a town built by the Walt Disney Company adjacent to Walt Disney World, that hearkens back to the spirit of EPCOT. EPCOT was also originally intended to be devoid of Disney characters which initially limited the appeal of the park to young children but the company later changed this policy.
In an early admissions bulletin, Disney explained:
A hundred years ago, Wagner conceived of a perfect and all-embracing art, combining music, drama, painting, and the dance, but in his wildest imagination he had no hint what infinite possibilities were to become commonplace through the invention of recording, radio, cinema and television. There already have been geniuses combining the arts in the mass-communications media, and they have already given us powerful new art forms. The future holds bright promise for those who imaginations are trained to play on the vast orchestra of the art-in-combination. Such supermen will appear most certainly in those environments which provide contact with all the arts, but even those who devote themselves to a single phase of art will benefit from broadened horizons.
Walt Disney received the Congressional Gold Medal on May 24, 1968 (P.L. 90-316, 82 Stat. 130-131) and the Légion d'Honneur in France in 1935. In 1935, Walt received a special medal from the League of Nations for creation of Mickey Mouse. He also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on September 14, 1964. On December 6, 2006, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver inducted Walt Disney into the California Hall of Fame located at The California Museum for History, Women, and the Arts.