Walt Disney - Earth's Most Famous Showman

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Walt Disney - Earth's Most Famous Showman
Man and Mouse | War and Withdrawal | Uncle Walt of Disneyland

Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) was not only the greatest showman in his lifetime, he is also quite possibly the most famous American to have ever lived, and the winner of 22 Oscars, far more than anyone else. After all, there have been numerous American Presidents, Hollywood actors, authors, inventors and poets, but only ever one Walt Disney. He is one of only two men to have an entire major American studio named after himself1 and his name is now synonymous with animation, theme parks and family entertainment.

Walt Disney: Man or Myth?

As with all true showmen, his legend is far bigger than his life. Whenever interviewed, he would embellish and exaggerate his life story, editing it to make it more dramatic. His early life would appear to be harsher, the obstacles he had to overcome made greater and perhaps unsurprisingly rumours and questions have been raised over his life. Was his body, or just his head, cryogenically frozen to prevent his death? Was he secretly racist? Was he delusional, paranoid that Communists were constantly planning to get him?

Early Life

Walter Elias Disney was born on 5 December, 1901 in Chicago. His father, Elias, was a deeply religious, hard man who ruled his family with a firm grip. Walt's mother, Flora, was a teacher, 10 years younger than Elias and dominated by him in all things. Walt never felt close to his father2, perhaps as Walt was their fourth son after Herbert, Ray and Roy, but the youngest child in the family was their daughter Ruth. In 1906 the family moved to a farm near the small but rapidly growing railway town of Marceline, Missouri. This is where Walt spent his childhood, in a growing rural community where a coal mine was located on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. This was an idyllic area, located only 90 miles west from Hannibal where author Sam 'Mark Twain' Clemens had grown up. A nostalgic love of the American rural west would stay with Walt all his life, which he would frequently attempt to recreate in both his films and his theme parks.

Sadly Elias Disney was an unsuccessful farmer. Following ill health, falling crop prices and a 5-month-long coal strike in 1910, the Disneys were forced to auction off their stock, sell the farm and move to Kansas City.


After beautiful, rural Marceline, Kansas City was an urban disappointment. Elias purchased a Kansas City Star paper route which he expected his sons to work on. At 3:30am, Walt, Roy and Elias would load their handcarts with newspapers to deliver them. Walt, aged nine, would get home for breakfast at 5:30am, do a delivery round for a local pharmacy, go to school but leave before the end of the school day to deliver the afternoon editions. In school holidays Walt worked in a sweet shop in order to earn his own money, as he received no wage for the paper round, also selling ice-cream, eggs and butter on his route in an attempt to earn the family enough money to live on. This was Walt's life for six years.

Walt's oldest two brothers left home and lived elsewhere in Kansas City, but Walt stayed close to his sister Ruth and older brother Roy, who looked after him like a father. At school, Walt was obsessed with drawing, and often sold some cartoons he drew to a local barbershop, enrolling in the Kansas City Art Institute when 14. One of the few attractions of Kansas would be the Fairmount Amusement Park, which would later influence Disneyland. Walt and Ruth would be taken there by Roy.

The Great War: Walt's Great Escape

When America entered the Great War, Roy enlisted in the Navy and the Disney family moved to Chicago where Walt drew cartoons for school paper The McKinley Voice and worked for the O-Zell fruit factory. Desperate to escape, Walt tried to enlist in the US Navy, but being 16, he was rejected for being too young. He eventually succeeded in joining the Red Cross Ambulance Service by changing his year of birth from 1901 to 1900 on the form. He was originally stationed outside Chicago and learnt to drive an ambulance but almost immediately caught influenza in the epidemic of 1918 that killed over 20 million victims.

After the war ended he was sent to Paris in late November 1918. He spent his time drawing caricatures, and it was while working for the Red Cross Ambulance that he became an extremely heavy smoker, a habit that would eventually kill him. In September 1919, Walt returned to America.

Post War

Although on his return Elias had arranged for Walt to work in the O-Zell jelly factory, Walt was determined to be an artist. He moved back to Kansas City, sharing a house with his older brother Roy, and was hired as an artist at the small Pesmen-Rubin art shop, along with another artist named Ubbe Iwwerks, although this only lasted until the end of the Christmas rush. As they were both now unemployed, Walt proposed to Iwwerks that they form a business together, forming Iwwerks-Disney3, doing commercial art for local businesses, which only lasted for 2 months.

Soon after, they both worked for the Kansas City Slide Co in 1919/1920 as cartoonists, animating adverts using primitive techniques more appropriate for stop-motion. Hooked on the artform, Disney studied Edwin Lutz's Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development and learnt the techniques of cel animation4, continuing to attend art night classes with Iwwerks.

By 1921 Disney began making his own 1-minute long cartoon animations with Fred Harman, entitled Laugh-O-Grams, that were shown at the Newman Theater, the largest cinema in Kansas City. Around this time, Roy discovered he had tuberculosis, was considered to be at risk of dying and so moved for health reasons to California.

In 1922 Disney began animating fairy tales, a theme he would return to again and again throughout his life, setting them in a contemporary setting. He formed his first company, Laugh-O-Gram Films in 1922, despite being only 20 and legally too young to have done so. At the time, only 23% of cinemas in America regularly showed cartoons, so it was a very difficult market to find success in. Their only customer went bankrupt, owing them over $11,000.

Determined to keep going, Disney began work on combining live action with animation on a short film entitled Alice's Wonderland. In this, a young girl named Alice, played by Virginia Davis, enters a world of animation and interacts with cartoon characters. Yet before this was finished, Disney was forced to declare bankruptcy. He only raised enough money to live off by offering to film children for their parents to purchase as mementos. His first animation studio had ended in failure. He decided to leave Kansas City and relocate to be with his brother Roy, still recuperating in the Veterans Hospital in Hollywood.

Disney Brothers Studio

Disney arrived in Hollywood in August 1923 with all his possessions: a reel of Alice's Wonderland, basic animation equipment and a few tattered clothes, in a cardboard suitcase. After a couple of months of trying to interest producers in his Alice film, one, Margaret Winkler an experienced animation producer saw promise in mid-October. She ordered a series of six, on condition that they would be made by January 1924. No longer having an animation studio, Walt felt unable to cope until his brother checked himself out of the hospital. Though Virginia Davis, the star of the show, lived in Kansas, her mother was desperate for Virginia to be a star and readily agreed to move. Walt even persuaded his brother to become his manager and look after the financial side of the business.

By December the two brothers were renting a small office and an outdoor space, where Disney filmed Virginia against a white cloth, giving her instructions like 'Look frightened!', with no money to buy enough film to do retakes. The first six Alice animations, drawn entirely by Disney, were made on time. In February 1924 Disney hired his first animator, Rollin 'Ham' Hamilton, and was joined by Ubbe Iwwerks, who had now anglicised his name to Ub Iwerks, in June. Under Iwerks' influence, Alice's role in her own cartoons began to be eclipsed by the cartoons themselves, especially by a cat named Julius. Pegleg Pete also appeared as a recurring villain.

Another appearance at the studio, in January 1924, was 26-year-old Lillian Bounds, who worked as an ink-and-paint girl. Lillian and Walt married on 13 July, 1925, and lived in a tiny apartment. He was not the only person to get married, as the Disney's distributor Margaret Winkler married Charles Mintz, who gained control of Winker's company. Mintz, although enjoying the financial success of the Alice comedies, was unwilling to share the profit with the Disney Bros, who consequently had a falling out with the Davis family over how much Virginia would be paid. No longer able to afford her, Virginia was replaced by 4-year-old Margie Gay. Meanwhile in February 1925, the Disney Bros Studio had relocated to a small bungalow on Hyperion Avenue, where he renamed the studio to Walt Disney Studios. Walt was now overseeing production rather than animating himself. His life consisted almost entirely of being in the studio with some time spent at home; he did not socialise outside his work and family environments.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit: Unlucky for Some

In 1927, after 60 episodes the Alice series' novelty had worn out and the series was dropped. A new character needed to be created, which Charles Mintz suggested should be a rabbit. In March 1927 Charles Mintz signed a contract with Universal Studios to deliver 26 short cartoons featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. These, shown nationwide, were extremely popular, leading to Charles Mintz deciding in 1928 to take over the character and sell shorts direct to Universal, by hiring most of Disney's animators, and continue to make the profitable series without Disney. Although Disney had proposed and designed the rabbit, as Mintz had named him 'Oswald', he legally owned the character, which was later purchased by Universal5. Disney faced ruin and was in desperate need to create a new character.

Taking the Mickey

In 1928, the new character, Mickey Mouse6 was created by Disney, reportedly on the train from New York to Hollywood, the journey taking place immediately after he had learnt that he had lost the rights to Oswald. Mickey and Minnie Mouse first appeared in a short film entitled Plane Crazy, animated by Iwerks, who had tweaked Disney's original Mickey Mouse design. No studio were interested in this, or Mickey's second appearance. Disney decided to break new ground and have the third animated Mickey Mouse short film, Steamboat Willie, in synchronised sound. This was shortly after The Jazz Singer, the first talking picture, had been released. Mickey Mouse quickly became incredibly popular and starred in a series of short films.

In many ways Mickey became a victim of his own success; Mickey was soon adored across America and was considered an American icon. As Mickey was perceived as a representation of America, if he ever misbehaved, Disney received letters of complaint. Mickey was soon forced to strictly uphold all American values, which strongly limited what he could do.

Rather than rest on his laurels and mass-produce Mickey Mouse cartoons, from 1929 Disney followed his success with a more experimental cartoon series entitled Silly Symphonies. These combined music and animation, beginning with the much-acclaimed The Skeleton Dance, animated by Iwerks.

At the Height during the Depression

In October 1929, the Great Depression hit America. This wave of national unemployment helped Disney recruiting many of other studio's most talented animators, although Ub Iwerks, feeling neglected and in Disney's shadow, left to form his own animation studio. Disney had lost one of his oldest, closest allies, yet the financial situation ensured that his animators were dedicated, hardworking and loyal.

During this time, Disney was a workaholic, rarely found outside the animation studio, which kept growing almost beyond all recognition. All profits were ploughed back into the studio. In 1929, Disney encouraged his animators to attend night classes at the Chouinard Art Institute and by 1932 nightly art classes were held in the studio. The animators in the studio were expected to strive for perfection with every frame, and held to the highest possible standard. Disney always wanted to push the boundaries, as he had with sound, and the search for perfection led to new techniques being tried. When Disney planned a short film, rather than using the screenplay, key scenes were drawn out and attached to a board called a 'story board' – storyboarding soon became used not only across animation studios but by all filmmakers. Soon the Disney methodology dominated the animation industry. His insistence that background artists lay out the cartoon visually before it was animated created the term 'layout artist'. Everything that happened in the studio had to meet with his approval.

In 1930 Mickey gained his dog, Pluto, the Mickey Mouse Club had launched and in 1932 Goofy was created. Also in 1932 the first full-colour cartoon, a Silly Symphony entitled Flowers and Trees was released. Disney successfully negotiated the 5-year exclusive animated rights on Technicolor's three-strip colour film. Perhaps Disney's most popular short animated film was 1933's Silly Symphony Three Little Pigs, which gave the world the song 'Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?'.

Disney himself was too hard working, staying at the studio all hours of the day, and in 1932 had a breakdown caused by overwork. Marital pressures had also taken their toll, as in 1931 and 1932 Lillian's first and second pregnancies ended in miscarriage. Walt was under doctor's orders to take a break and to take up sport. He and Lillian finally enjoyed their first holiday as a married couple. In late 1932, having tried a variety of sports including swimming, dancing, horse-riding and golf, Walt became addicted to polo.

In December 1933 Walt became a father, to Diane Marie Disney. Sadly in 1936 Lillian suffered a third miscarriage, and so they decided to adopt a second daughter, Sharon Mae, on 31 December, 1936. He would dote on his daughters with all the affection he had sought but never enjoyed from his own father.

In 1934 Disney became the first studio to generate more income from merchandising than from film royalties. Also in 1934 a character whose popularity threatened to eclipse even Mickey Mouse was created; Donald Duck. Mickey had changed from his initial rebellious nature and evolved into the epitome of respectability, which had the disadvantage of making him less interesting than a naughty character. This is why Mickey often appears as the heroic foil to bad-tempered Donald or even Pluto. These shorts were initially released by Columbia, then United Artists, and later by RKO, the fifth largest film studio in America at the time, owning its own cinema chain.

Snow White

By the mid-1930s, Disney realised that for all the success of his short films, a short film is only the support for the feature film. The man who had been the first to introduce both sound and colour to animated films had ambitions to be the first to make the world's first full-length cel-animated film7, Snow White.

Disney would later delight in stating how, when the film was in production, the film industry predicted disaster and announced that no audience could be entertained by cartoon characters for more than ten minutes. The truth is that only one review in one newspaper called it 'Disney's Folly', while the rest of Hollywood were intrigued or full of anticipation. Unless he was referring to his wife, Lillian, who rarely saw her husband while he was consumed with making the film, preoccupied with it even when not at the studio. She encouraged Walt with words such as, 'I can't stand the sight of dwarfs. I predict nobody'll ever pay a dime to see a dwarf picture.' On its release, Snow White became the highest-grossing American film yet made, a remarkable achievement considering its key audience were children paying half-fares to see the film.

After Snow White's success, he began spending more time with Lillian and his daughters. He also quit playing polo after closely witnessing an accident at a match between MGM and the Disney Studios which resulted in the death of Gordon Westcott. Walt's limited social life, previously confined to the studio, family and polo, was now limited to the studio and family. Disney used the profits to build a new film studio building. Unlike the previous studio, Hyperion, which was an organically grown collection of buildings that had expanded from the original bungalow into several surrounding buildings, some bought and some erected, the new studio complex was purposefully designed from scratch.

Burbank Breakdown

After Snow White, Disney rushed into making Pinnochio, Bambi and Fantasia without fully planning them, in order to prevent his animators, the largest workforce he would employ, being idle. Only Fantasia held his complete obsessive attention the way that Snow White had. None of these films would return the cost of making them.

In November 1938 tragedy struck. With some of the profit from Snow White, the Disney Brothers bought their parents, Elias and Flora Disney, a new house nearby. Tragically the heater malfunctioned and Flora died of carbon monoxide poisoning in her en-suite bathroom. Walt never forgave himself.

In 1939 the new animation studio was constructed, opening in December. When Walt and Roy showed their father the new building, he kept asking 'What else is it good for?', wanting to know what use the Disney's would find for the studio building when their animation business failed. Walt assured him that they could use it as a hospital, and Elias Disney was more interested in having a tour of the hospital building for when the animation business failed than learning what Walt planned for each room as part of his animation empire. The new building cost $3 million and its design was scrutinised by Disney to ensure that it had a college campus appearance, but remain clean and efficient. It came complete with a commissary, snack bar, barbershop, gymnasium and male nude sunbathing area. Yet for all its refinement, the new layout seemed impersonal. The distance between departments had gone from in a neighbouring office to different buildings, leading to increased distances between people with different job titles. The most distant office of all was the one containing Walt Disney8.

When Pinnochio was released, the film failed to make back the money spent on it. This was in part because of the Second World War, which cut off many foreign markets including the key European markets. The financial failure led to extreme money problems, with the Disney studio making a loss of $260,000 in 1940. In order to raise money, Disney was forced to sell shares in the studio. This was a step Walt bitterly hated as it had meant that he had to sacrifice some control of his company. Pinnochio was followed by flop after flop, only Dumbo made any profit in the early 1940s.


In August 1940 the studio was $3 million in debt, and the bank ordered a reduction in expenses, especially wages. By this time there were over 1,200 members of staff at the studio, working on both feature films and shorts, and the studio was forced to consider letting many of them go as well as reduce the wages of the rest. Walt began a process he called 'weeding out marginal people' and 'getting rid of deadwood', although he was happy to accept Ub Iwerks back at Disney Studios after his own animation studio had failed.

The atmosphere at the studio became tense when it became apparent that anyone could be fired on the slightest pretext. Other legitimate concerns included resentment that no matter what anyone did, the only credit received was given to Walt Disney. Most of all, the wages situation was a source of frustration. People who did the same job did not receive the same wage. Wages were set by Walt depending on how much he wished to pay you on the day you arrived, and the wages were sometimes augmented by motivational bonuses, paid on an arbitrary basis, seemingly at random.

In December 1940, the Screen Cartoonists Guild informed Disney that they represented the interests of a majority of his employers and had some points to discuss, to which Disney replied,

If I can't have my own way… if somebody tries to tell me to do something, I will do just the opposite, and if necessary I will close down this studio.

Disney kept trying to assert his authority and refused to negotiate, increasing the tension and exacerbated the situation. In May 1941, Disney fired a large number of his staff that he knew belonged to the SCG Union. Shortly afterwards on 29 May, many of his remaining staff went on strike, with Disney films boycotted across America and organisations such as Technicolor refusing to process Walt Disney films in sympathy for the strikers. Estimates of how many employees were on strike have varied from 300 to 700. Disney himself was convinced that the strike was a result of a Communist plot to steal his studio from him. The strikers would later be lampooned in Dumbo as the clowns who ask for a raise.

The strike lasted until 16 September, after which the studio that had begun the year with 1,200 employers now employed 694. Disney spent much of the time of the strike in South America, having a tour of the continent on behalf of the Co-ordinator of Inter-American Affairs, an organisation dedicated to strengthen American ties with South America. He used the time to plan making two cheap films about South America that combined live-action and animation. While he was in South America, Walt's father, Elias Disney, died on 13 September. Walt chose not to attend the funeral.

Following the strike the Bank of America forbade the lending of more than $3.5 million to the studio, prevented the filming of more feature-length films and installed an Executive Committee which included a bank representative to govern the studio. Disney, terrified of losing control of his studio to the Unions, had lost control instead to the bank. Many of Disney's most talented animators that had survived the strike left the studio. Walt himself never forgave the strikers, and by all accounts felt betrayed, finding it difficult to trust his employees or anyone else again.

America at War and Un-American Activities

Dumbo was released to popular acclaim in late 1941, and was scheduled to be the front-cover feature of the December edition of Time magazine, but instead America found itself at war with Japan. The Disney studio was occupied by 500 soldiers on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, and for the duration of the war, Disney was ordered to make films for the American government. Many key animators were drafted into the war. Naval training films and films covering topics close to the government's heart such as tax evasion dominated the next few years. Donald Duck was press-ganged into making a propaganda appearance in an Oscar-winning short film originally titled Donald in Nutzi Land in which Donald wakes up in a nightmare Nazi dystopia. This was later renamed Der Fuehrer's Face after the accompanying song.

Disney was bored, wishing to be at the forefront and create his own propaganda rather than making films to order, and so chose to start his own propaganda campaign. He adapted a controversial book by Major Alexander P de Seversky, Victory Through Air Power, into an animated film, arguing that America's army and navy were redundant and that only an air force equipped with heavy bombers would have any impact on the war. During the war, he also spent more time with his family than he had previously.

In December 1943 Disney joined the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, or MPA for short. This organisation declared that it was created to protect the Hollywood film industry from Communism and other Un-American influences. Many members had other conservative, reactionary opinions and agendas, some were openly racist and anti-Semitic; consequently Disney was tarred with the same brush.

In 1947 the House Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into Communist activity in Hollywood. Disney was a full supporter of this shameful investigation, wanting revenge for the strike that had affected his studio. He also accused the League of Women Voters of being a Communist society behind the strike, a groundless statement he was soon forced to retract.

Also in 1947, as one of the symptoms of Walt losing interest in his own studio, when making the 9th Animated Classic film Fun and Fancy Free, for the first time Walt did not voice Mickey Mouse, instead asking Jimmy Macdonald to do so partway through. He was strongly involved in making Song of the South, the first Disney film to feature extensive live-action acting, although that film was later criticised for being racially insensitive. Despite the understandable concerns expressed that Song of the South could be viewed as portraying a positive image of slavery, Walt was convinced that any negative publicity the film generated was caused by Communists out to get him. Disney did use his influence to ensure that James Baskett won an honorary Oscar for his role in the 1948 Academy Awards.

1950s – Back in the Black

After the war ended, the studio came out of debt and the bank's control faded. Once again, Disney was able to make the films he wished. He also re-organised the Disney studios and allowed a group of nine senior animators9 a role in advising him, these would be nicknamed the 'Nine Old Men' after President Franklin Roosevelt's nickname for the nine members of the Supreme Court.

He also expressed his fascination for wildlife by authorising the making of short nature documentaries he called True Life Adventures, starting with the Oscar-winning 1948 film Seal Island. Despite the name 'True Life Adventures', these documentaries were often staged.

In 1950 the studio recovered some of its pre-war glory by releasing the highly successful Cinderella. While this was in production, the key European markets of Britain and France were again able to show Disney films, but in Britain, film profits were impounded with the insistence that the money be spent in Britain. Unable to relocate the Animation Studio and with $1 million at stake, Walt chose to begin making fully live-action films in Britain, starting with Treasure Island. Overseeing some of the production in Britain as part of a European holiday, and later heavily involved in editing by airmail from America, this became Disney's first, and highly successful, live-action film.

Off the Rails

When he had no freedom to create the films he wished to make and his studio no longer interesting him, Walt had found a new hobby; railways. In 1948 Walt had visited the Chicago Railroad Fair, which was a commemoration of the railways of America, complete with different displays involving replica recreations of where each railway line went through. This would later prove a key influence on Disneyland.

In late 1948 Walt began manufacturing his own miniature railway, a 7¼-inch gauge model Central Pacific 173. When in 1949 Disney bought the site of his new family home, which he was involved in designing himself, he purchased the house specifically so that he could build an extensive miniature railway circuit in the garden. When plans called for it to go through the area designated as Lillian's flowerbed, leading to a heated argument, a compromise was reached with the construction of a 90-foot tunnel beneath the flowerbed. The 2,500-foot railway was completed in late 1950 and named the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. The engine he had hand-crafted himself was named Lilly Belle, after his wife and was capable of pulling passenger-carrying carriages at speeds up to 30mph. The new home was designed to hold a swimming pool, film screening room and a soda-fountain and ice-cream bar as something his teenage daughters could enjoy.


Having made his own perfect worlds within his animations, his own replica railway and his own ideal house, Walt decided to make his own ideal world, inspired by his happiest moments of childhood, the Chicago Railroad Fair and shared times he had spent with his own daughters. One thing he had noticed in the fairgrounds he had taken his children to, such as Griffith Park's merry-go-round, La Cienega and Beverly amusement parks was that the children got to go on rides while the parents watched. Nowhere seemed to allow parents and children to enjoy time together in the way he had hoped he could spend with his father, but never had.

Walt's first idea was to build a series of miniature model tableaux of America he would name Disneylandia. These tableaux would be lit and animated, creating realistic worlds. In 1951 he hired dancer Buddy Ebsen to do a tap dance in front of a grid, which Walt filmed, and tried to create a mechanical figure that would recreate that dance. His team came to the conclusion that they could not convincingly replicate the actions on anything less than a full-sized figure. By 1952 his plans had transformed into building an amusement park. This was to be modest at first, merely a railway around the studio, which later developed into a village green, small town and a railway station. The project soon began to encompass all of Walt's interests, with early plans including:

  • A section based on his beloved home town of Marceline. This became Main Street USA.
  • An area inspired by his nostalgic view of America's frontier history. This became Frontierland.
  • An area inspired by his love of fantasy and fairytale. This became Fantasyland.
  • An area dedicated to his love of animals, complete with a jungle cruise featuring real animals. This became Adventureland.
  • An area dedicated to celebrating the future. This became Tomorrowland.
  • And a railway all around it all.

All of these elements would end up in Disneyland except for the animals on the jungle cruise; despite his hopes, the wild animals he most wanted to appear in the cruise could not be trained10, and he was forced to resort to animatronic animals instead. Disneyland and the other Disney Parks still use these ideas and their names for each land.

In 1952 Walt Disney launched a new company, named WED Enterprises after his initials, one which unlike the studio he fully controlled. Walt began hiring talented members of his studio staff to work with him on designing a theme park. As animation work in the 1950s was slowing down, this meant he was able to retain some of his most talented employees who might otherwise have been made redundant. He coined the name Imagineers to describe his design team, as their role involved a mixture of imagination and engineering.

He began studying other theme parks worldwide, measuring the widths of walkways and timing traffic flow. He also believed in keeping the same philosophy of making a film and applying it to the theme park, designing rides with storyboards. In 1953 160-acres in California were bought, he mortgaged his house, sold his holiday home out of town, yet he still needed to raise more money.

Easy as ABC

One way he planned to raise the money and provide publicity was by working closely with an American television channel. In 1954 ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, agreed to broadcast a television series that included excerpts from Disney films, promotional material for upcoming films, a progress report on Disneyland and features on the 'World of Tomorrow' and True Life nature programme, as well as a short Mickey Mouse Club. At the time, television was already very popular, with two thirds of American households owning a television. ABC was the youngest television network, and most people watched the more established CBS and NBC. ABC wished to catch up with its rivals and inspired by the prospect, invested heavily in the theme park, as did many other sponsors.

Disney became the first film studio to make programmes for television, considered to be film's natural enemy by many Hollywood studios. The series, named Disneyland, was first broadcast on 27 October, 1954 and was often hosted by Disney. The idea was that the programme would also include shows related to the park's themes, beginning with a Frontierland-themed series about Davy Crockett. This quickly became an international hit and the television episodes were edited and released as a cinematic film. The Disneyland television series, though popular, failed to break-even, but served as the greatest possible publicity for the park.

The park opened on 17 July, 1955. Although not fully built when it opened, live to a television audience of over 70 million, it quickly became a success. The park expanded so that when 3 new attractions, the Matterhorn bobsled attraction, a 20,000 Leagues Submarine ride and a monorail, opened in 1959, the 90-minute television special was hosted by Richard Nixon.

Walt Disney Productions and Disneyland merged in 1960. With the new theme park to occupy him, filmmaking began to lose its appeal. The studio stopped making animated shorts in 1957. He also seriously considered stopping making animated films altogether following 1961's 101 Dalmations, but instead relented and allowed animated film production to continue, though at a much reduced budget. Yet having made a success out of Disneyland, Walt was planning something larger, with a dry-run to play out on the world stage.

All the World's a Fair

In 1960 Walt was contacted by Robert Moses, co-ordinator of the 1964 New York World's Fair, with a view to creating exhibits. Walt began contacting sponsors in order to interest them in investing in these. He wished to see how popular these would be in New York as a test to see whether he could successfully open a second theme park on the eastern side of America.

Disney had very specific rides in mind, a car ride sponsored by Ford, a Hall of Presidents starring a life-sized robot Abraham Lincoln, and a Carousel of Progress sponsored by GE, General Electric. He had tried to inspire Coca-Cola to sponsor an exhibit featuring animatronic birds that evolved into the Enchanted Tiki Room. For the lifelike models of Lincoln and others, Disney used a system developed for the Polaris nuclear submarine that included programming used to control the figure. As this was based on a tape with electric pulses timed to coincide with the sounds also on the tape to give perfectly synchronised sound and movement, the system was called audio-animatronics. A last-minute exhibit for the fair was made for Pepsi and the United Nations International Children's Fund, entitled 'It's A Small World', this would become one of the world's most famous rides.


As he approached the end of his life, Walt became increasingly pre-occupied with leaving a legacy. When Mrs Chouinard who ran the Chouinard Art Institute had a stroke in the early 1950s, he donated vast sums of money to save the school which had taught his artists how to draw. With Mrs Chouinard's consent, he transformed the school, merged it with the Los Angeles Convseratory of Music in 1962 and named the result the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts for short.

Thanks to his television exposure, Walt had become the quintessential epitome of America. He was appointed Chairman of the United States Olympic Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics. This experience inspired him to plan a skiing centre at Mineral King, Sequoia National Forest, although this was still in development when he died.

In 1960 Disney signed a deal in which he would host a Sunday night television programme on NBC, entitled Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, one of the very first colour television programmes broadcast.

Mary Poppins

The last film made in his studio that he felt truly passionate about was Mary Poppins. He had tried to secure the rights to the book from author PL Travers in 1943, yet the strong-willed Travers was a difficult author to woo, and it took almost two decades before she allowed Disney to make the film. Even then she was a force to be reckoned with, wanting to cast Julie Harris as Mary Poppins, while Disney had already chosen an unknown English Broadway actress named Julie Andrews. Dick van Dyke was the fourth choice for Bert, with Cary Grant Disney's preferred actor. The film combined live action, animation and even included an audio-animatronic bird. The financial success of the year, it was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five.

Disney World and EPCOT

After Disneyland opened, Disney planned a sequel. In 1963 work on finding a large site in Florida began, buying a site twice the size of Manhattan. This was not only to contain a new theme park, but also the ultimate in new worlds to create; a new utopian city he planned himself. This city would be called EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, and would be a city that combined the best of rural traditions with city living, with futuristic and clean means of transport. Each house would be self-sufficient, generating its own electricity and recycling its own waste in a car-free, noiseless and pollution-free city centre. Yet even Disney could not afford to build a whole city on his own, and without commercial sponsors the project stalled. EPCOT instead would be used as the name of an educational theme park built in the 1980s.

Yet his vision was not forgotten. Long after his death the city of Celebration was formed on the south side of the Interstate Highway below Disney World in Florida. Although not built on the grand scale of the vision of EPCOT, Celebration is a functional community, with its own school, hospital and down town district, it is a real town with full-time residents.

The End

By this time of his life, Walt drank a scotch every day at 5pm, followed by cocktails at home in the evening. He began drinking heavily at weekends, and suffering from kidney stones and a polo injury affecting his leg and neck he had sustained in his youth in the 1930s. Noticeably ageing, when he appeared to host Disney's Wonderful World of Color, he was filmed using a diffusion filter to hide his ever-increasing wrinkles. On 11 November, 1966, Walt was scheduled for a routine operation to relieve the pressure of the polo injury. Yet during a preparatory diagnosis an x-ray revealed that Walt had severely advanced lung cancer caused by his constant smoking.

Walt stayed in hospital, undergoing cobalt treatment, but checked himself out on 21 November. He told everyone that he was recovering from a health scare, but the truth was that he was dying. He drew up a will donating 45% of his estate to his wife and daughters in trust, 45% to a charitable trust called the Disney Foundation (95% of this money to be dedicated to CalArts) and 10% to go to his sister, nieces and nephews. By his 65th birthday on 5 December he was back in hospital. His condition grew worse and worse, and he died on 15 December, 1966.

Walt was cremated and later interred at the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn, Glendale. Yet despite this, many choose to believe that Walt Disney is not dead. The myth persists that, like his characters Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or King Arthur he still lives, frozen in a perfect sleep, ready to awaken with a kiss from a beautiful princess when America needs him the most or the technology to restore his youth has been created.

So Who Was Walt Disney Really?

Walt Disney was one of the first celebrities of the television generation, appearing in homes nationwide across America. He was someone many felt they knew, without realising that his 'Uncle Walt' persona was the image that he worked hard to project. So who was he really?

Disney always projected an image of being a common man uninterested in money, and that was largely true. When he started his studio, he paid many of his animators a greater wage than he himself received, and the profits the studio made were reinvested into the studio, rather than his own bank account. Yet because he was not interested in money, it does not mean that he was not greedy, only that the greed was not monetary in nature.

Disney more than anything desired the power to rule and make his own decisions. Walt hated to delegate and feared sharing power; if anyone ever gained too strong a position in the company, he was either removed or reassigned. The only people he trusted in powerful positions for any real length of time were his brother Roy and friends Ub Iwerks and Hermen Kamen. Any attempt to control him was met with anger and hatred, particularly towards unions and banks.

Walt needed creative freedom, designing his own houses, railway and theme parks. Yet his artistic expression always led him to need to do more than he had already done – he was a man driven to always excel and beat his previous achievements.

Family Man

Although there is no doubt that though Walt was a workaholic, frequently completely obsessed with the projects he was developing at the time, he remained at heart a family man. He ensured that he spent Sundays with his children, determined to be a better father to his children than his own had been and desperate not to make the same mistakes.

Walt's marriage to Lillian was one full of affection and arguments. Lillian hated having to share Walt with his studio, Disneyland or the public and was often jealous of anything that took Walt away from her. She frequently criticised his endeavours, was uninterested in his films, his railway and even chose not to attend the opening of Disneyland. Walt, in buying her anniversary presents of, for instance, a necklace adorned with miniature replica gold Oscars to celebrate his success, was not exactly tactful. Yet Lillian and Walt often spent their time arm in arm, and Walt spent a lot of time having dancing lessons just so that he and his wife could dance together.

He was also very fond of his dogs, considering them intimate members of his family.

Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic?

The big recurring question hovering over Disney's life is whether or not he was racist, in particular prejudiced against Jews. There are four main facts that have been used to suggest that Disney was anti-Semitic. First is the cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face, in which Donald wears a Nazi uniform, although this film was government-appointed propaganda. Secondly, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Disney was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This anti-Communist organisation had many anti-Semitic members, yet though Disney freely associated with people with known racial prejudices, it does not prove he was prejudiced himself.

An earlier faux pas was made in 1933, when one scene of The Three Little Pigs showed the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a stereotyped Jewish peddler. This film was one that Walt was keenly involved in making and had complete control over, yet at the time racial insensitivity was common throughout Hollywood. On later releases, this scene was replaced.

The most serious lapse in judgement occurred in December 1938. Walt Disney gave German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl11 a tour of the Disney Studios, at a time when the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League was publicly calling for her visit to be universally boycotted. Disney was politically naïve, uninterested in world politics, did not read newspapers, he had no real political leanings other than a profound hatred of Communism. His publicly expressed opinion about the Second World War was that '[America] should let 'em [Europeans] fight their own wars'. Although he had visited Germany on his European tour of 1935, he largely felt that world affairs were not his concern, other than the loss of revenues the closure of the European markets represented.

So was Disney racist? In his defence, Walt employed several Jews at the studio and some were given positions of authority, including Joe Grant, head of the model department, production manager Harry Tytle and Herman 'Kay' Kamen, one of Disney's closest friends who handled all Disney merchandise from 1933, the principle source of income for the studio. Walt is also known to have donated money to numerous charities, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged and the American League for a Free Palestine, although some have argued that these donations were attempts to clear his name.

What Recurring Themes Occur in Walt Disney Productions Made in his Lifetime?

Although Walt Disney did not animate, direct or write the stories that he released as films, he contributed massively to the scripts and storyboards and chose and oversaw the projects from start to finish. So what recurring values and themes appear in his films and theme parks, and what do they tell us about Walt Disney?

Extremely evident is his fascination with railways, not only at his home and around his theme parks but also in films, such as Casey Junior in Dumbo or the railway in So Dear to my Heart. From his earliest projects, Disney was fascinated by Fantasy, and spent much of his life attempting to create his own fantasy world, whether in animation or theme park form. Similarly his nostalgic love of American history recurs. Yet there are themes that mean more even than that.

The first is the theme of wishing. Those who have a pure, unsullied wish that they believe in with all their hearts see these wishes granted. This reflects Walt's own positive can-do attitude, rewarded with international recognition and success.

Hard work is another common theme. Characters like Snow White and Cinderella are imprisoned by their families, forced to work hard in their youths before finally finding success, freedom and appreciation, and a happy ending, when they leave their families and go off to a happily ever after. This is a reflection of Disney's own life, where he did indeed work hard for a living before being able to escape and enjoy his just rewards.

Yet for all his attempts to be a loving father, his films rarely feature fathers. Where are the main characters' fathers in Snow White, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland or The Jungle Book? Even when the fathers appear, they are often distant or ineffectual figures in Pinocchio, Bambi, Song of the South, Lady and the Tramp, The Parent Trap or The Sword in the Stone. The last film Disney put his whole soul into making, Mary Poppins, is the story of two children reconnecting with their father in exactly the way Disney was never able to.

1The other being William Fox, whose Fox Film Corporation founded in 1915 merged with Twentieth Century Pictures in 1935 to form Twentieth Century Fox.2Many Disney films would later feature dead or distant fathers.3Disney would later state that if it had been called Disney-Iwwerks, it would have sounded like an opticians.4Cel-animation, also known as traditional or hand-drawn animation, uses a series of artwork drawn on 'cels', named after the transparent celluloid film on which the artwork was commonly drawn.5The rights to Oswald were finally bought back by Disney in 2006.6He briefly was to be called Mortimer Mouse, but Lillian considered this too pretentious. A mouse named Mortimer would later appear in the 1936 animated short Mickey's Rival.7Full-length stop-motion animated films had already been made, notably 1925's The Lost World' and 1933's King Kong.8To visit Disney animators first had to find the right building, climb two flights of stairs, walk along a lengthy corridor, pass through two offices, a reception room and bypass Disney's secretary.9Les Clark, Marc Davis, Ollie Johnston, Milt Kahl, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Woolie Reitherman and Frank Thomas.10Although the Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida, opening long after his death, was inspired by his vision, with a ride featuring real animals and visitors in safari cars instead of boats.11Leni Riefenstahl is widely regarded as the greatest propaganda filmmaker ever. The talent evident in her films, most famously Triumph of the Will, was exceeded only by the unpalatability of her message.

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