An American film maker and entrepreneur, Walter Elias Disney (1901-1966) created a new kind of popular culture in feature-length animated cartoons and live-action "family" films.
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, IL, on December 5, 1901, the fourth of five children born to a Canadian farmer and a mother from Ohio. He was raised on a Midwestern farm in Marceline, Missouri, and in Kansas City, where he was able to acquire some rudimentary art instruction from correspondence courses and Saturday museum classes. He would later use many of the animals and characters that he knew from that Missouri farm in his cartoons.
He dropped out of high school at 17 to serve in World War I. After serving briefly overseas as an ambulance driver, Disney returned in 1919 to Kansas City for an apprenticeship as a commercial illustrator and later made primitive animated advertising cartoons. By 1922, he had set up his own shop in association with Ub Iwerks, whose drawing ability and technical inventiveness were prime factors in Disney's eventual success.
Initial failure sent Disney to Hollywood in 1923, where in partnership with his loyal elder brother Roy, he managed to resume cartoon production. His first success came with the creation of Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie. Steamboat Willie was the first fully synchronized sound cartoon and featured Disney as the voice of a character first called "Mortimer Mouse." Disney's wife, Lillian, suggested that Mickey sounded better and Disney agreed.
Living frugally, he reinvested profits to make better pictures. His insistence on technical perfection and his unsurpassed gifts as story editor quickly pushed his firm ahead. The invention of such cartoon characters as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Minnie, and Goofy combined with the daring and innovative use of music, sound, and folk material (as in The Three Little Pigs) made the Disney shorts of the 1930s a phenomenon of worldwide success. This success led to the establishment of immensely profitable, Disney-controlled sidelines in advertising, publishing, and franchised goods, which helped shape popular taste for nearly 40 years.
Disney rapidly expanded his studio facilities to include a training school where a whole new generation of animators developed and made possible the production of the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White (1937). Other costly animated features followed, including Pinocchio, Bambi, and the celebrated musical experiment Fantasia. With Seal Island (1948), wildlife films became an additional source of income, and in 1950 his use of blocked funds in England to make pictures like Treasure Island led to what became the studio's major product, live-action films, which practically cornered the traditional "family" market. Eventually the Disney formula emphasized slick production techniques. It included, as in his biggest hit, Mary Poppins, occasional animation to project wholesome, exciting stories heavily laced with sentiment and, often, music.
In 1954, Disney successfully invaded television, and by the time of his death, the Disney studio's output amounted to 21 full-length animated films, 493 short subjects, 47 live-action films, seven True-Life Adventure features, 330 hours of Mickey Mouse Club television programs, 78 half-hour Zorro television adventures, and 280 other television shows.
On July 18, 1957, Disney opened Disneyland, a gigantic projection of his personal fantasies in Anaheim, CA, which has proved the most successful amusement park in history with 6.7 million people visiting it by 1966. The idea for the park came to him after taking his children to other amusement parks and watching them have fun on amusement rides. He decided to build a park where the entire family could have fun together. In 1971, Disney World, in Orlando, FL, opened. Since then, Disney theme parks have opened in Tokyo and Paris.
Disney had also dreamed of developing a city of the future, a dream realized in 1982 with the opening of EPCOT, which stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. EPCOT, which cost an initial $900 million, was conceived of as a real-life community of the future with the very latest in high technology. The two principle areas of EPCOT are Future World and World Showcase, both of which were designed to appeal to adults rather than children.
In addition to his theme parks, Disney created and endowed a new university, the California Institute of the Arts, known as Cal Arts. He thought of this as the ultimate in education for the arts, where people in many different disciplines could work together, dream and develop, and create the mixture of arts needed for the future. Disney once commented: "It's the principle thing I hope to leave when I move on to greener pastures. If I can help provide a place to develop the talent of the future, I think I will have accomplished something."
Disney's parks continue to grow with the creation of the Disney-MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom, and a extensive sports complex in Orlando. The Disney Corporation has also branched out into other types of films with the creation of Touchstone Films, into music with Hollywood Records, and even vacationing with its Disney Cruise Lines. In all, the Disney name now lends itself to a multi-billion dollar enterprise, with multiple undertakings all over the world.
In 1939, Disney received an honorary Academy Award and in 1954 he received four Academy Awards. In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Disney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom and in the same year Disney was awarded the Freedom Foundation Award.
Happily married for 41 years, this moody, deliberately "ordinary" man was moving ahead with his plans for gigantic new outdoor recreational facilities when he died of circulatory problems on December 15, 1966, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Los Angeles, CA. At the time of his death, his enterprises had garnered him respect, admiration, and a business empire worth over $100 million-a-year, but Disney was still remembered primarily as the man who had created Mickey Mouse over two decades before.
Further Reading on Walter Elias Disney
The best book on Disney is Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art, and Commerce of Walt Disney (1968). A useful source of technical information is Robert D. Feild, The Art of Walt Disney (1942). The most intimate portrait of Disney is by his daughter, Diane Disney Miller, The Story of Walt Disney (1957). Biographies of Disney appear in both the 1952 and 1967 issues of Current Biography. Disney's obituary appears in the December 16, 1966, issue of New York Times.