Overview of life
Walter Elias “Walt” Disney (December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) was an American film producer, director, screenwriter, voice actor, animator, entrepreneur, entertainer, international icon, and philanthropist, well known for his influence in the field of entertainment during the 20th century. Along with his brother Roy O. Disney, he was co-founder of Walt Disney Productions, which later became one of the best-known motion picture producers in the world. The corporation is now known as The Walt Disney Company and had an annual revenue of approximately US$36 billion in the 2010 financial year.
Disney is particularly noted as a film producer and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. He and his staff created some of the world’s most well-known fictional characters including Mickey Mouse, for whom Disney himself provided the original voice. During his lifetime he received four honorary Academy Awards and won 22 Academy Awards from a total of 59 nominations, including a record four in one year, giving him more awards and nominations than any other individual in history. Disney also won seven Emmy Awards and gave his name to the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in the U.S., as well as the international resorts Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland.
The year after his December 15, 1966 death from lung cancer in Burbank, California, construction began on Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. His brother Roy Disney inaugurated the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971.
Disney was born on December 5, 1901, at 2156 N. Tripp Avenue in Chicago’s Hermosa community area to Irish-Canadian father Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney, who was of German and English descent. His great-grandfather, Arundel Elias Disney, had emigrated from Gowran, County Kilkenny, Ireland where he was born in 1801. Arundel Disney was a descendant of Robert d’Isigny, a Frenchman who had travelled to England with William the Conqueror in 1066. With the d’Isigny name anglicised as “Disney”, the family settled in a village now known as Norton Disney, south of the city of Lincoln, in the county of Lincolnshire.
In 1878, Disney’s father Elias had moved from Huron County, Ontario, Canada to the United States at first seeking gold in California before finally settling down to farm with his parents near Ellis, Kansas, until 1884. Elias worked for the Union Pacific Railroad and married Flora Call on January 1, 1888, in Acron, Florida, just 40 miles north of where Walt Disney World would ultimately be developed. The family moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1890, hometown of Elias’ brother Robert who helped Elias financially for most of Walt’s early life. 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. In Marceline, Disney developed his love for drawing with one of the family’s neighbors, a retired doctor named “Doc” Sherwood, paying him to draw pictures of Sherwood’s horse, Rupert. His interest in trains also developed in Marceline, a town that owed its existence to the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which ran through it. Walt would put his ear to the tracks in anticipation of the coming train then try and spot his uncle, engineer Michael Martin, conducting the train.
The Disneys remained in Marceline for four years, before moving to Kansas City in 1911 where Walt and his younger sister Ruth attended the Benton Grammar School. At school he met Walter Pfeiffer who came from a family of theatre aficionados, and introduced Walt to the world of vaudeville and motion pictures. Before long Walt was spending more time at the Pfeiffers’ than at home. As well as attending Saturday courses at the Kansas City Art Institute, Walt often took Ruth to Electric Park, 15 blocks from their home, which Disney would later acknowledge as a major influence of his design of Disneyland.
In 1917, Elias acquired shares in the O-Zell jelly factory in Chicago and moved his family back to the city, where in the fall Disney began his freshman year at McKinley High School and took night courses at the Chicago Art Institute. He became the cartoonist for the school newspaper, drawing patriotic topics and focusing on World War I. Despite dropping out of high school at the age of sixteen to join the army, Disney was rejected for being underage.
After his rejection by the army, Walt and a friend decided to join the Red Cross. Soon after joining he was sent to France for a year, where he drove an ambulance, but only after the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
Hoping to find work outside the Chicago O-Zell factory, in 1919 Walt moved back to Kansas City to begin his artistic career. After considering whether to become an actor or a newspaper artist, he decided on a career as a newspaper artist, drawing political caricatures or comic strips. But when nobody wanted to hire him as either an artist or even as an ambulance driver, his brother Roy, then working in a local bank, got Walt a temporary job through a bank colleague at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio where he created advertisements for newspapers, magazines, and movie theaters. At Pesmen-Rubin he met cartoonist Ubbe Iwerks and when their time at the studio expired, they decided to start their own commercial company together.
In January 1920, Disney and Iwerks formed a short-lived company called, “Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists”. However, following a rough start, Disney left temporarily to earn money at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, and was soon joined by Iwerks who was not able to run their business alone. While working for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, where he made commercials based on cutout animations, Disney became interested in animation, and decided to become an animator. The owner of the Ad Company, A.V. Cauger, allowed him to borrow a camera from work to experiment with at home. After reading the Edwin G. Lutz book Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development, Disney considered cel animation to be much more promising than the cutout animation he was doing for Cauger. Walt eventually 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 screen their cartoons at his local theater, which they titled Laugh-O-Grams.
Presented as “Newman Laugh-O-Grams”, Disney’s cartoons became widely popular in the Kansas City area and through their success, he was able to acquire his own studio, also called Laugh-O-Gram, for which he hired a vast number of additional animators, including Fred Harman’s brother Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, and his close friend Ubbe Iwerks. Unfortunately, studio profits were insufficient to cover the high salaries paid to employees. Unable to successfully manage money, Disney’s studio became loaded with debt and wound up bankrupt whereupon he decided to set up a studio in the movie industry’s capital city, Hollywood, California.
Disney and his brother Roy pooled their money and set up a cartoon studio in Hollywood where they needed to find a distributor for Walt’s new Alice Comedies, which he had started making while in Kansas City but never got to distribute. Disney sent an unfinished print to New York distributor Margaret Winkler, who promptly wrote back to him that she was keen on a distribution deal for more live-action/animated shorts based upon Alice’s Wonderland.
Virginia Davis, the live-action star of Alice?s Wonderland and her family relocated from Kansas City to Hollywood at Disney’s request, as did Iwerks and his family. This was the beginning of the Disney Brothers’ Studio located on Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district, where it remained until 1939. In 1925, Disney hired a young woman named Lillian Bounds to ink and paint celluloid. After a brief courtship, the pair married that same year.
The new series, Alice Comedies, proved reasonably successful, and featured both Dawn O’Day and Margie Gay as Alice with Lois Hardwick also briefly assuming the role. By the time the series ended in 1927, its focus was more on the animated characters and in particular a cat named Julius who resembled Felix the Cat, rather than the live-action Alice.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit
By 1927, Charles Mintz had married Margaret Winkler and assumed control of her business. He then ordered a new, all-animated series to be put into production for distribution through Universal Pictures. The new series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was an almost instant success, and the character, Oswald drawn and created by Iwerks ? became a popular figure. The Disney studio expanded and Walt re-hired Harman, Rudolph Ising, Carman Maxwell, and Friz Freleng from Kansas City.
Disney went to New York in February 1928 to negotiate a higher fee per short and was shocked when Mintz told him that not only did he want 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?but not Iwerks, who refused to leave Disney?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 Walt. Disney declined Mintz’s offer and as a result lost most of his animation staff whereupon he found himself on his own again.
It subsequently took his company 78 years to get back the rights to the Oswald character when in 2006 the Walt Disney Company reacquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from NBC Universal, 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, which was based on a mouse he had adopted as a pet while working in his Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City. Ub Iwerks reworked the sketches made by Disney to make the character easier to animate although Mickey’s voice and personality were provided by Disney himself until 1947. In the words of one Disney employee, “Ub designed Mickey’s physical appearance, but Walt gave him his soul.” Besides Oswald and Mickey, a similar mouse-character is seen in the Alice Comedies, which featured “Ike the Mouse”. Moreover, the first Flip the Frog cartoon called Fiddlesticks showed a Mickey Mouse look-alike playing fiddle. The initial films were animated by Iwerks with his name prominently featured on the title cards. Originally named “Mortimer”, the mouse was later renamed “Mickey” by Lillian Disney, who thought that the name Mortimer did not sound appealing. Mortimer eventually became the name of Mickey’s rival for Minnie ? taller than his renowned adversary and speaking with a Brooklyn accent.
The first animated short to feature Mickey, Plane Crazy was a silent film like all of Disney’s previous works. After failing to find a distributor for the short and 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. After the release of Steamboat Willie, Disney successfully used sound in all of his subsequent cartoons, and Cinephone also became the new distributor for Disney’s early sound cartoons. Mickey soon eclipsed Felix the Cat as the world’s most popular cartoon character and by 1930, despite their having sound, cartoons featuring Felix had faded from the screen after failing to gain attention. Mickey’s popularity would subsequently skyrocket in the early 1930s.
Following in the footsteps of Mickey Mouse series, a series of musical shorts titled, Silly Symphonies were released in 1929. The first, The Skeleton Dance 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 thought it was not receiving 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 was their musical novelty with the first Silly Symphony cartoons featuring scores by Carl Stalling.
Iwerks was soon lured by Powers into opening his own studio with an exclusive contract, while Stalling would also later leave Disney to join Iwerks. Iwerks launched his Flip the Frog series with the first voiced color cartoon Fiddlesticks, filmed in two-strip Technicolor. Iwerks also created two other cartoon series, Willie Whopper and the Comicolor. In 1936, Iwerks shut down his studio in order to work on various projects dealing with animation technology. He would return to Disney in 1940 and go on to pioneer a number of film processes and specialized animation technologies in the studio’s research and development department.
By 1932, although Mickey Mouse had become a relatively popular cinema character, Silly Symphonies was not as successful. The same year also saw competition increase as Max Fleischer’s flapper cartoon character, Betty Boop, gained popularity among theater audiences. Fleischer, considered Disney’s main rival in the 1930s, 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 to be 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 reshoot the black and white Flowers and Trees in 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 in 1932. After the release of Flowers and Trees, all subsequent Silly Symphony cartoons were in color while Disney was also able to negotiate a two-year deal with Technicolor, giving him the sole right to use their three-strip process, a period eventually extended to five years. Through Silly Symphonies, Disney also created his most successful cartoon short of all time, The Three Little Pigs (1933). The cartoon ran in theaters for many months, featuring the hit song that became the anthem of the Great Depression, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf”.
First Academy Award
In 1932, Disney received a special Academy Award for the creation of “Mickey Mouse”, a series which switched to color in 1935 and soon launched spin-offs for supporting characters such as Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. Pluto and Donald became standalone cartoons in 1937, with Goofy following in 1939. Of all Mickey’s partners, Donald Duck, who first teamed up with Mickey in the 1934 cartoon, Orphan’s Benefit, was arguably the most popular, going on to become Disney’s second most successful cartoon character of all time.
The Disneys’ first attempt at pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Lillian became pregnant again and gave birth to a daughter, Diane Marie Disney, on December 18, 1933. Later, the Disneys adopted Sharon Mae Disney (December 31, 1936 ? February 16, 1993).
Diane married Ron Miller at the age of 20 and is known as Diane Disney Miller. The Millers established and own a winery called Silverado Vineyards in California. Diane and Ron Miller have seven children: Christopher, Joanna, Tamara, Jennifer, Walter, Ronald and Patrick. Years later, Diane went on to become the cofounder of The Walt Disney Family Museum, with the aid of her children. The museum was created to preserve her father’s image and reach out to millions of Disney fans worldwide. The museum displays a chronological view of Walt Disney’s life through personal artifacts, interactive kiosks and various animations.
Sharon Mae Disney was born December 31, 1936, in Los Angeles, California and was later adopted by the Disneys, due to Lillian’s several birth complications. In 1950, Sharon went on to star as herself in the Walt Disney Studios special One Hour in Wonderland. Sharon married Robert Brown in 1958, with whom she had one child, and they remained married until his death in 1967. Sharon married William Lund in 1969 and had two children with him, but six years later they divorced. Sharon was a philanthropist and had contributed to charities such as the Marianne Frostig Center of Educational Therapy and the Curtis School foundation. In 1993 at the age of 57, Sharon died from cancer at St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. After Sharon’s death, her estate donated $11 million to the California School of Performing Arts, where she was a member of the board of trustees for almost two decades. Sharon’s donation was commemorated by renaming the School of Dance the Sharon D. Lund School of Dance.
1937-1941: Golden age of animation
Following the creation of two cartoon series, in 1934 Disney began planning a full-length feature. The following year, opinion polls showed that another cartoon series, Popeye the Sailor, produced by Max Fleischer, was more popular than Mickey Mouse. Nevertheless, Disney was able to put Mickey back on top as well as increase his popularity by colorizing and partially redesigning the character to become what was considered his most appealing design to date. When the film industry learned of Disney’s plans to produce an animated feature-length version of Snow White, they were certain that the endeavor would destroy the Disney Studio and dubbed the project “Disney’s Folly”. Both Lillian and Roy tried to talk Disney out of the project, but he continued plans for the feature, employing Chouinard Art Institute professor Don Graham to start a training operation for the studio staff. Disney then 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 ? a new technique first used by Disney in the 1937 Silly Symphonies short The Old Mill.
All of this development and training was used to increase quality at the studio and to ensure that the feature film would match Disney’s quality expectations. Entitled Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the feature went into full production in 1934 and continued until mid-1937, when the studio ran out of money. To obtain the funding to complete Snow White, Disney had to show a rough cut of the motion picture to loan officers. The film premiered at the Carthay Circle Theater on December 21, 1937 and at its conclusion the audience gave Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs a standing ovation. Snow White, the first animated feature in America made in Technicolor, was released in February 1938 under a new distribution deal with RKO Radio Pictures. RKO had 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 on its initial release, the equivalent of $132,085,110 today.
Golden age of animation
Following the success of Snow White, for which Disney received one full-size, and seven miniature Oscar statuettes, he was able 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 also ushered in a period that would later be known as the Golden Age of Animation for the studio. Feature animation staff, having just completed Pinocchio, continued work on Fantasia and Bambi as well as the early production stages of Alice in Wonderland , Peter Pan and Wind in the Willows while the shorts staff carried on working 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 after Donald Duck overtook him in popularity among theater audiences.
Pinocchio and Fantasia followed Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into the movie theaters in 1940, but both proved financial disappointments. The inexpensive Dumbo was then planned as an income generator, but during production most of the animation staff went on strike, permanently straining relations between Disney and his artists.
1941-1945: World War II era
In 1941, the U.S. State Department sent Disney and a group of animators to South America as part of its Good Neighbor policy, at the same time guaranteeing financing for the resultant movie, Saludos Amigos.
Shortly after the release of Dumbo in October 1941, the US entered World War II. The U.S. Army and Navy Bureau of Aeronautics contracted most of the Disney studio’s facilities where the staff created training and instruction films for the military, home-front morale-boosting shorts such asDer Fuehrer’s Face and the 1943 feature film Victory Through Air Power. Military films did not generate income, and the feature film Bambi underperformed on its release in April 1942. Disney successfully re-issued Snow White in 1944, establishing a seven-year re-release tradition for his features. In 1945, The Three Caballeros was the last animated feature released by the studio during the war.
In 1944, Encyclop?dia Britannica publisher William Benton entered into unsuccessful negotiations with Disney to make six to twelve educational films per annum. Disney was asked by the US Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, Office of Inter-American Affairs (OIAA), to make an educational film about the Amazon Basin, which resulted in the 1944 animated short, The Amazon Awakens.
1945?1955: Post-war period
Disney studios also created inexpensive package films, containing collections of cartoon shorts, and issued them to theaters during this period. These included Make Mine Music (1946), Melody Time (1948), 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 Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, and the second on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving. 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.
By the late 1940s, the studio had recovered enough to continue production on the full-length features Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, both of which had been shelved during the war years. Work also began on Cinderella, which became Disney’s most successful film since Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. In 1948 the studio also initiated a series of live-action nature films, titled True-Life Adventures, with On Seal Island the first. Despite its resounding success with feature films, the studio’s animation shorts were no longer as popular as they once were, with people paying more attention to Warner Bros. and their animation star Bugs Bunny. By 1942, Leon Schlesinger Productions, which produced the Warner Bros. cartoons, had become the country’s most popular animation studio. However, while Bugs Bunny’s popularity rose in the 1940s, so did Donald Duck’s, a character who would replace Mickey Mouse as Disney’s star character by 1949.
During the mid-1950s, Disney produced 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.
Disney and the Second Red Scare
Disney was a founding member of the anti-communist group Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers as Communist agitators. All three men denied the allegations and Sorrell went on to testify before the HUAC in 1946 when insufficient evidence was found to link him to the Communist Party.
Disney also accused the Screen Cartoonists Guild of being a Communist front, and charged that the 1941 strike was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.
1955-1966: Theme parks and beyond
On a business trip to Chicago in the late-1940s, Disney drew sketches of his ideas for an amusement park where he envisioned his employees spending time with their children. The idea for a children’s theme park came after a visit to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, California. It also said that Disney may have been inspired to create Disneyland in the park Republic of the Children located in Manuel B. Gonnet, La Plata, Argentina, and opened in 1951. This plan was originally intended to be built on a plot located across the street to the south of the studio. These original ideas developed into a concept for a larger enterprise that would become Disneyland. Disney spent five years developing Disneyland and created a new subsidiary company, WED Enterprises, to carry out planning and production of the park. A small group of Disney studio employees joined the Disneyland development project as engineers and planners, and were dubbed Imagineers.
As Disney explained one of his earliest plans to Herb Ryman, who created the first aerial drawing of Disneyland presented to the Bank of America during fund raising for the project, he 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.
Disneyland grand opening
On Sunday, July 17, 1955, Disneyland hosted a live TV preview, among the thousands of people in attendance were Ronald Reagan, Bob Cummings and Art Linkletter, who shared cohosting duties, as well as the mayor of Anaheim. Walt gave the following dedication day speech:
To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past …. and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America … with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.
Carolwood Pacific Railroad
During 1949, Disney and his family moved to a new home on a large piece of land in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles, California. With the help of his friends Ward and Betty Kimball, who already had 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, came from his home’s location on Carolwood Drive. The railroad’s half-mile long layout included a 46-foot (14 m) long trestle bridge, loops, overpasses, gradients, an elevated berm, and a 90-foot (27 m) tunnel underneath his wife’s flowerbed. He named the miniature working steam locomotive built by Disney Studios engineer Roger E. Broggie Lilly Belle in his wife’s honor and 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.
Expansion into new areas
As Walt Disney Productions began work on Disneyland, it also began expanding its other entertainment operations. In 1950, Treasure Island became the studio’s first all-live-action feature, soon followed by 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (in CinemaScope, 1954), Old Yeller (1957),The Shaggy Dog (1959), Pollyanna (1960), Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Absent-Minded Professor (1961), and The Parent Trap (1961). The studio produced its first TV special, One Hour in Wonderland, in 1950. Disney began hosting a weekly anthology series on ABC entitled Disneyland, after the park, on which he aired clips of past Disney productions, gave tours of his studio, and familiarized the public with Disneyland as it was being constructed in Anaheim. The show also featured a Davy Crockett miniseries, which started the “Davy Crockett craze” among American youth, during which millions of coonskin caps and other Crockett memorabilia were sold across the country. In 1955, the studio’s first daily television show, Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC. It was a groundbreaking comedy/variety show aimed specifically for children. Disney took a strong personal interest in the show and even returned to the animation studio to voice Mickey Mouse in its animated segments during its original 1955?59 production run. The Mickey Mouse Club would continue in various incarnations in syndication and on the Disney Channel into the 1990s.
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. Although he was spending less time supervising the production of the animated films, he was always present at story meetings. During Disney’s lifetime, the animation department created the successful Lady and the Tramp (the first animated film in CinemaScope) in 1955, Sleeping Beauty (the first animated film in Super Technirama 70mm) in 1959, One Hundred and One Dalmatians (the first animated feature film to use Xerox cels) in 1961, and The Sword in the Stone in 1963.
Production of short cartoons kept pace until 1956, when Disney shut down the responsible division although special shorts projects would continue for the remainder of the studio’s duration on an irregular basis. These productions were all distributed by Disney’s new subsidiary, Buena Vista Distribution, which had taken over 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 on a number of successful Disney characters and films.
After 1955, the Disneyland TV show was renamed Walt Disney Presents. It switched from black-and-white to color in 1961 and changed its name to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, at the same time moving from ABC to NBC, and eventually evolving into its current form as The Wonderful World of Disney. The series continued to air on NBC until 1981, when it was picked up by CBS. Since then, it has aired on ABC, NBC, the Hallmark Channel and the Cartoon Network via separate broadcast rights deals. During its run, the Disney series offered some recurring characters, such as the newspaper reporter and sleuth “Gallegher” played by Roger Mobley with a plot based on the writings of Richard Harding Davis.
Disney had already formed his own music publishing division in 1949 and in 1956, partly inspired by the huge success of the television theme song The Ballad of Davy Crockett, he created a company-owned record production and distribution entity called Disneyland Records.
Early 1960s successes
By the early 1960s, the Disney empire had become 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 pursuit, Disney acquired 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 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.
Although the studio would probably have proved major competition for Hanna-Barbera, Disney decided not to enter the race and mimic Hanna-Barbera by producing Saturday morning TV cartoon series. With the expansion of Disney’s empire and constant production of feature films, the financial burden involved in such a move would have proven too great.
Plans for Disney World and EPCOT
In late 1965, Disney announced plans to develop another theme park to be called Disney World a few miles southwest of Orlando, Florida. Disney World was to include “the Magic Kingdom”, a larger, more elaborate version of Disneyland. It would also feature a number of golf courses and resort hotels. The heart of Disney World, however, was to be the Experimental Prototype City (or Community) of Tomorrow, known as EPCOT for short.
Mineral King Ski Resort
During the early to mid-1960s, Walt Disney developed plans for a ski resort in Mineral King, a glacial valley in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. He brought in experts such as the renowned Olympic ski coach and ski-area designer Willy Schaeffler, who helped plan a visitor village, ski runs and ski lifts among the several bowls surrounding the valley. Plans finally moved into action in the mid-1960s, but Walt died before the actual work started. Disney’s death and opposition from conservationists ensured that the resort was never built.
Death & Legacy
Illness and death
Walt Disney was a chain smoker his entire adult life, although he made sure he was not seen smoking around children. In 1966, Disney was scheduled to undergo surgery to repair an old neck injury caused by many years of playing polo at the Riviera Club in Hollywood. On November 2, during pre-operative X-rays, doctors at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, across the street from the Disney Studio, discovered a tumor in his left lung. Five days later a biopsy showed the tumor to be malignant and to have spread throughout the entire left lung. After removal of the lung on November 11, doctors informed Disney that his life expectancy was six months to two years. After several cobalt therapy sessions, Disney and his wife spent a short time in Palm Springs, California. On November 30, Disney collapsed at his home. He was revived by fire department personnel and rushed to St. Joseph’s where on December 15, 1966, at 9:30 am, ten days after his 65th birthday, Disney died of acute circulatory collapse, caused by lung cancer. The last thing he reportedly wrote before his death was the name of actor Kurt Russell, the significance of which remains a mystery, even to Russell.
Roy O. Disney continued with the Florida project, insisting that the name be changed to Walt Disney World in honor of his brother.
The final productions in which Disney played an active role were the animated feature The Jungle Book and the animated short Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, as well as the live-action musical feature The Happiest Millionaire, all released in 1967. Songwriter Robert B. Sherman recalled of 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.
Hibernation urban legend
A long-standing urban legend maintains that Disney was cryonically frozen, and his frozen corpse stored beneath the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland, but Disney’s remains were cremated on December 17, 1966, and his ashes interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. The first known human cryonic freezing was in January 1967, more than a month after Disney’s death.
According to “at least one Disney publicist”, as reported in the French magazine Ici Paris in 1969, the source of the rumor was a group of Disney Studio animators with “a bizarre sense of humor” who were playing a final prank on their late boss.
Although the rumor is acknowledged as false by most historians, Robert Mosley (in Disneys World (1986)) and Marc Eliot (in Walt Disney Hollywoods Dark Prince (1993)) argue that Disney may have known of cryonics and may have had an interest in the science. His daughter Diane wrote in 1972, “There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that my father, Walt Disney, wished to be frozen. I doubt that my father had ever heard of cryonics.”
After Walt Disney’s death, Roy Disney returned from retirement to take full control of Walt Disney Productions and WED Enterprises. In October 1971, the families of Walt and Roy 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, Roy 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 ?”. “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 functional city that Disney had envisioned. In 1992, Walt Disney Imagineering took the step closer to Disney’s original ideas 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. The company later changed this policy and Disney characters can now be found throughout the park, often dressed in costumes reflecting the different pavilions.
Disney entertainment empire
Walt Disney’s animation/motion picture studios and theme parks have developed into a multi-billion dollar television, motion picture, vacation destination and media corporation that carry his name. Among other assets The Walt Disney Company owns five vacation resorts, eleven theme parks, two water parks, thirty-nine hotels, eight motion picture studios, six record labels, eleven cable television networks, and one terrestrial television network. As of 2007, the company had annual revenues of over U.S. $35 billion.
Walt Disney was a pioneer in character animation. He was one of the first people to move away from basic cartoons with just “impossible outlandish gags” and crudely drawn characters to an art form with heartwarming stories and characters the audience can connect to on an emotional level. The personality displayed in the characters of his films and the technological advancements remain influential today. He was considered by many of his colleagues to be a master storyteller and the animation department did not fully recover from his death until the late 1980s in a period known as the Disney Renaissance. The most financially and critically successful films produced during this time include Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). In 1995, Walt Disney Pictures distributed Pixar’s Toy Story, the first computer animated feature film. Walt Disney’s nephew Roy E. Disney claimed that Walt would have loved Toy Story and that it was “his kind of movie”. With the rise of computer animated films a stream of financially unsuccessful Traditional hand-drawn animated features in the early years of the 2000s (decade) emerged. This led to the company’s controversial decision to close the traditional animation department. The two satellite studios in Paris and Orlando were closed, and the main studio in Burbank was converted to a computer animation production facility, firing hundreds of people in the process. In 2004, Disney released what was announced as their final “traditionally animated” feature film, Home on the Range. However, since the 2006 acquisition of Pixar, and the resulting rise of John Lasseter to Chief Creative Officer, that position has changed with the largely successful 2009 film The Princess and the Frog. This marked Disney’s return to traditional hand-drawn animation and the studio hired back staff who had been laid-off in the past. Today, Disney produces both traditional and computer animation.
In his later years, Disney devoted substantial time to funding The California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). Formed in 1961 through a merger of the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music and the Chouinard Art Institute, which had helped in the training of the animation staff during the 1930s, when Disney died, one-fourth of his estate went to CalArts, which helped in building its campus. In his will, Disney paved the way for the creation of several charitable trusts which included one for the California Institute of the Arts and other for the Disney Foundation. He also donated 38 acres (0.154 km2) of the Golden Oaks ranch in Valencia for construction of the school. CalArts moved onto the Valencia campus in 1972.
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 Family Museum
In 2009, The Walt Disney Family Museum opened in the Presidio of San Francisco. Thousands of artifacts from Disney’s life and career are on display, including 248 awards that he received.
Accusations of antisemitism and racism
Disney was long rumored to be antisemitic during his lifetime, and such rumors persisted after his death. Indeed, in the 1930s he welcomed German filmmaker and Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl to Hollywood to promote her film Olympia. Even after news of Kristallnacht broke in November 1938, Disney did not cancel his invitation to Riefenstahl.
However, in 2006 Disney biographer Neal Gabler, the first writer to gain unrestricted access to the Disney archives, concluded that available evidence did not support accusations of antisemitism. In a CBS interview Gabler summarized his findings:
That’s one of the questions everybody asks me… My answer to that is, not in the conventional sense that we think of someone as being an antisemite. But he got the reputation because, in the 1940s, he got himself allied with a group called the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, which was an anti-Communist and antisemitic organization. And though Walt himself, in my estimation, was not antisemitic, nevertheless, he willingly allied himself with people who were antisemitic, and that reputation stuck. He was never really able to expunge it throughout his life.
Disney eventually distanced himself from the Motion Picture Alliance in the 1950s. Gabler also claims in regards to Riefenstahl’s visit, the invitation was suggested to Disney by Jay Stowitts and that although Walt knew who Riefenstahl was, he didn’t know exactly what she represented in terms of politics, as he had no particular political leaning during the 1930s.
The Walt Disney Family Museum acknowledges that Disney did have “difficult relationships” with some Jewish individuals, and that ethnic stereotypes common to films of the 1930s were included in some early cartoons, such as Three Little Pigs and The Opry House however, the museum points out that he befriended many Jewish school mates; donated to several Jewish charities (The Hebrew Orphan Asylum, Yeshiva College, Jewish Home for the Aged, The American League for a Free Palestine) and was named “1955 Man of the Year” by the B’nai B’rith chapter in Beverly Hills.
Disney was also rumored to be a racist. According to Gabler, although he was not, he would however occasionally make racially insensitive remarks that were commonly used by white Americans at the time. For example during a story meeting on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs he referred to the scene when the dwarfs pile ontop of each other as a “nigger pile”, and while casting Song of the South he used the term pickaninny. Like many Hollywood film and cartoon producers of the time, Disney had engaged in racial stereotyping, and Disney cartoons of the period sometimes displayed racially insensitive material. Examples include Mickey’s Mellerdrammer in which Mickey Mouse dresses in blackface, the “black” bird in the short Who Killed Cock Robbin, Sunflower the half donkey-half black centarette in Fantasia, the feature film Song of the South, King Louie in The Jungle Book, the Indians in Peter Pan, the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp and the crows in Dumbo (though they were made sympathetic to Dumbo’s plight). Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies director Bob Clampett, director of the controversial but highly acclaimed short Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, claimed that
“Everybody, including blacks had a good time when these cartoons first came out. All the controversy developed in later years merely because of changing attitudes toward black civil rights that have happened since then .”
Despite Disney’s occasional slurs, there is no evidence that he expressed any hatred or bigotry against any racial group, publicly or privately, and he hired employees of all racial backgrounds, religions, and nationalities throughout his career. He also thoroughly enjoyed To Kill a Mockingbird, a film dealing with racial justice, claiming “That’s the kind of film I wish I could make.”