Biography of Walt Disney

Cartoonist, Innovator, and Entrepreneur

Picture of Walt Disney with Mickey Mouse.
American animator and producer Walt Disney with one of his creations, Mickey Mouse. (1935). General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Walt Disney started out as a simple cartoonist, yet evolved into an innovative and amazing entrepreneur of a multi-billion-dollar family entertainment empire. Disney was the renowned creator of Mickey Mouse cartoons, the first sound cartoon, the first Technicolor cartoon, and the first feature-length cartoon.

In addition to winning 22 Academy Awards in his lifetime, Disney also created the first major theme park: Disneyland in Anaheim, California, followed by Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida.

Dates: December 5, 1901 - December 15, 1966

Also Known As: Walter Elias Disney

Growing Up

Walt Disney was born the fourth son of Elias Disney and Flora Disney (née Call) in Chicago, Illinois, on December 5, 1901. By 1903, Elias, a handyman and carpenter, grew weary of the rising crime in Chicago; thus, he purchased a 45-acre farm in Marceline, Missouri, where he moved his family. Elias was a stern man who administered “corrective” beatings to his five children; Flora soothed the children with nightly readings of fairy tales.

When the two eldest sons grew up and left home, Walt Disney and his older brother Roy worked the farm with their father. In his free time, Disney made up games and sketched the farm animals. In 1909, Elias sold the farm and purchased an established newspaper route in Kansas City where he moved his remaining family.

It was in Kansas City that Disney developed a love for an amusement park called Electric Park, which featured 100,000 electric lights illuminating a roller coaster, dime museum, penny arcade, swimming pool, and a colorful fountain light show.

Rising at 3:30 a.m. seven days per week, eight-year-old Walt Disney and brother Roy delivered the newspapers, taking quick naps in alleyways before heading to Benton Grammar School. In school, Disney excelled in reading; his favorite authors were Mark Twain and Charles Dickens.

Starting to Draw

In art class, Disney surprised his teacher with original sketches of flowers with human hands and faces. After stepping on a nail while on his newspaper route, Disney recuperated in bed for two weeks, spending his time reading and drawing newspaper-type cartoons.

Elias sold the newspaper route in 1917 and bought a partnership in the O-Zell Jelly factory in Chicago, moving Flora and Walt with him (Roy had enlisted in the U.S. Navy). Sixteen-year-old Walt Disney attended McKinley High School where he became the school newspaper’s junior art editor.

To pay for evening art classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, Disney washed jars in his father’s jelly factory.

Wanting to join Roy who was fighting in World War I, Disney tried to join the army; however, at age 16 he was too young. Undeterred, Walt Disney decided to join the Red Cross’ Ambulance Corps, which took him to France and Germany.

Disney, the Animation Artist

After spending ten months in Europe, Disney returned to the U.S. In October 1919, Disney got a job as a commercial artist at the Pressman-Rubin Studio in Kansas City. Disney met and became friends with fellow artist Ubbe Iwerks at the studio.

When Disney and Iwerks were laid off in January 1920, together they formed Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Due to a lack of clients, however, the duo survived for about a month. Getting jobs at the Kansas City Film Ad Company as cartoonists, Disney and Iwerks made commercials for movie theaters.

Borrowing an unused camera from the studio, Disney experimented with stop-action animation in his garage. He shot footage of his animal drawings in trial and error techniques until the pictures actually “moved” in fast and slow motion.

Experimenting night after night, his cartoons (which he called Laugh-O-Grams) became superior to the ones he was working on at the studio; he even figured out a way to merge live action with animation. Disney suggested to his boss that they make cartoons, but his boss flatly turned down the idea, content with making commercials.

Laugh-O-Gram Films

In 1922, Disney quit the Kansas City Film Ad Company and opened a studio in Kansas City called Laugh-O-Gram Films. He hired a few employees, including Iwerks, and sold a series of fairy tale cartoons to Pictorial Films in Tennessee.

Disney and his staff began work on six cartoons, each one a seven-minute fairy tale that combined live action and animation. Unfortunately, Pictorial Films went bankrupt in July 1923; as a result so did Laugh-O-Gram Films.

Next, Disney decided he would try his luck at working in a Hollywood studio as a director and joined his brother Roy in Los Angeles, where Roy was recovering from tuberculosis.

Having no luck getting a job at any of the studios, Disney sent a letter to Margaret J. Winkler, a New York cartoon distributor, to see if she had any interest in distributing his Laugh-O-Grams. After Winkler viewed the cartoons, she and Disney signed a contract.

On October 16, 1923, Disney and Roy rented a room at the back of a real estate office in Hollywood. Roy took on the role of accountant and cameraman of the live action; a little girl was hired to act in the cartoons; two women were hired to ink and paint the celluloid; and Disney wrote the stories, drew and filmed the animation.

By February 1924, Disney hired his first animator, Rollin Hamilton, and moved into a small storefront with a window bearing “Disney Bros. Studio.” Disney’s Alice in Cartoonland reached theaters in June 1924.

When the cartoons were praised for their live action with animation backgrounds in the trade papers, Disney hired his friend Iwerks and two more animators in order to focus his attention on the stories and directing the films.

Disney Invents Mickey Mouse

In early 1925, Disney moved his growing staff to a one-story, stucco building and renamed his business “Walt Disney Studio.” Disney hired Lillian Bounds, an ink artist, and began dating her. On July 13, 1925, the couple married in her hometown of Spalding, Idaho. Disney was 24; Lillian was 26.

Meanwhile, Margaret Winkler also married and her new husband, Charles Mintz, took over her cartoon distribution business. In 1927, Mintz asked Disney to rival the popular “Felix the Cat” series. Mintz suggested the name “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” and Disney created the character and made the series.

In 1928, when costs became increasingly high, Disney and Lillian took a train trip to New York to renegotiate the contract for the popular Oswald series. Mintz countered with even less money than he was currently paying, informed Disney that he owned the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and that he had lured most of Disney’s animators to come work for him.

Shocked, shaken, and saddened, Disney boarded the train for the long ride back. In a depressed state, he sketched a character and named him Mortimer Mouse. Lillian suggested the name Mickey Mouse instead — a livelier name.

Back in Los Angeles, Disney copyrighted Mickey Mouse and, along with Iwerks, created new cartoons with Mickey Mouse as the star. Without a distributor, though, Disney could not sell the silent Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Sound, Color, and Oscar

In 1928, sound became the latest in film technology. Disney pursued several New York film companies to record his cartoons with the novelty of sound. He struck a deal with Pat Powers of Cinephone. Disney was the voice of Mickey Mouse and Powers added sound effects and music.

Powers became the distributor of the cartoons and on November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie opened at the Colon Theater in New York. It was Disney’s (and the world’s) first cartoon with sound. Steamboat Willie received rave reviews and audiences everywhere adored Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse Clubs sprung up around the country, soon reaching a million members.

In 1929, Disney began making “Silly Symphonies,” a series of cartoons that included dancing skeletons, the Three Little Pigs, and characters other than Mickey Mouse, including Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto.

In 1931, a new film-coloring technique known as Technicolor became the latest in film technology. Until then, everything had been filmed in black and white. To hold off the competition, Disney paid to hold the right to Technicolor for two years. Disney filmed a Silly Symphony titled Flowers and Trees in Technicolor, showing colorful nature with human faces, which won the Academy Award for Best Cartoon of 1932.

On December 18, 1933, Lillian gave birth to Diane Marie Disney and on December 21, 1936, Lillian and Walt Disney adopted Sharon Mae Disney.

Feature-Length Cartoons

Disney decided to portray dramatic storytelling in his cartoons, but making a feature-length cartoon had everyone (including Roy and Lillian) saying it would never work; they believed audiences just wouldn’t sit that long to view a dramatic cartoon.

Despite the naysayers, Disney, ever the experimenter, went to work on the feature-length fairy tale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Production of the cartoon cost $1.4 million (a massive sum in 1937) and was soon dubbed “Disney’s Folly.”

Premiering in theaters on December 21, 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was a box office sensation. Despite the Great Depression, it earned $416 million.

A notable achievement in cinema, the movie awarded Walt Disney an Honorary Academy Award in the form of one statuette and seven miniature statuettes on a stepped base. The citation read, "For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, recognized as a significant screen innovation which has charmed millions and pioneered a great new entertainment field."

Union Strikes

Disney then constructed his state-of-the-art Burbank Studio, deemed a worker’s paradise for a staff of about a thousand workers. The studio, with animation buildings, sound stages, and recording rooms, produced Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942).

Unfortunately, these feature-length cartoons lost money worldwide due to the start of World War II. Along with the cost of the new studio, Disney found himself in high debt. Disney offered 600,000 shares of common stock, sold at $5 apiece. Stock offerings sold out quickly and erased the debt.

Between 1940 and 1941, movie studios began unionizing; it wasn’t long before Disney’s workers wanted to unionize as well. While his workers demanded better pay and working conditions, Walt Disney believed that his company had been infiltrated by Communists.

After numerous and heated meetings, strikes, and lengthy negotiations, Disney finally became unionized. However, the whole process left Walt Disney feeling disillusioned and discouraged.

World War II

With the union question finally settled, Disney was able to turn his attention back to his cartoons; this time for the U.S. government. The U.S. had joined World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and they were sending millions of young men overseas to fight.

The U.S. government wanted Disney to produce training films using his popular characters; Disney obliged, creating over 400,000 feet of film (equating to about 68 hours of film if watched continuously).

More Movies

After the war, Disney returned to his own agenda and made Song of the South (1946), a movie that was 30 percent cartoon and 70 percent live action. "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" was named best movie song of 1946 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, while James Baskett, who played the character of Uncle Remus in the movie, won an Oscar.

In 1947, Disney decided to make a documentary about Alaskan seals titled Seal Island (1948). It won an Academy Award for best two-reel documentary. Disney then assigned his top talent to make Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953).

The Plans for Disneyland

After building a train to ride his two daughters around his new home in Holmby Hills, California, Disney began formulating a dream in 1948 to build Mickey Mouse Amusement Park across the street from his studio.

In 1951, Disney agreed to produce a Christmas TV show for NBC titled One Hour in Wonderland; the show drew a major audience and Disney discovered the marketing value of television.

Meanwhile, Disney’s dream of an amusement park grew. He visited fairs, carnivals, and parks around the world to study the choreography of people and attractions, as well as noticing the filthy conditions of the parks and nothing for parents to do.

Disney borrowed on his life insurance policy and created WED Enterprises to organize his amusement park idea, which he was now referring to as Disneyland. Disney and Herb Ryman drew out the plans for the park in one weekend with one entrance gate to "Main Street" that would lead to Cinderella’s Castle and off to different lands of interest, including Frontier Land, Fantasy Land, Tomorrow Land, and Adventure Land.

The park would be clean, innovative, and a place with a high standard where parents and children could have fun together on rides and attractions; they would be entertained by Disney characters in the “happiest place on earth.”

Funding the First Major Theme Park

Roy visited New York to seek a contract with a television network. Roy and Leonard Goldman reached an agreement where ABC would give Disney a $500,000 investment in Disneyland in exchange for a Disney one-hour per week television series.

ABC became a 35 percent owner of Disneyland and guaranteed loans up to $4.5 million. In July 1953, Disney commissioned the Stanford Research Institute to find a location for his (and the world’s) first major theme park. Anaheim, California, was selected since it could easily be reached by freeway from Los Angeles.

Previous movie profits were not enough to cover the cost of building Disneyland, which took about a year to build at a cost of $17 million. Roy made numerous visits to the Bank of America's headquarters to get more funding.

On October 27, 1954, the ABC television series opened with Walt Disney describing the coming attractions of the Disneyland theme park, followed by the live-action Davy Crockett and Zorro series, scenes from upcoming movies, animators at work, cartoons, and other child-oriented programs. The show drew a major audience, sparking the imaginations of children and their parents.

Disneyland Opens

On July 13, 1955, Disney sent out 6,000 exclusive guest invitations, including to Hollywood movie stars, to enjoy the opening of Disneyland. ABC sent live-cast cameramen to film the opening. However, tickets were counterfeited and 28,000 people showed up.

Rides broke down, water was inept for toilets and drinking fountains, food stands ran out of food, a heat wave caused freshly poured asphalt to capture shoes, and a gas leak made a few of the themed areas close temporarily.

Despite the newspapers referring to this cartoon-ish day as "Black Sunday," guests from all over the world loved it regardless and the park became a major success. Ninety days later, the one-millionth guest entered the turnstile.

On October 3, 1955, Disney introduced The Mickey Mouse Club variety show on TV with a cast of kids known as the “Mouseketeers.” By 1961, the loan from the Bank of America was paid off. When ABC did not renew the Disney contract (they wanted to produce all programs in-house), Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color debuted on NBC.

Plans for Walt Disney World, Florida

In 1964, Disney’s Mary Poppins feature-length movie premiered; the film was nominated for 13 Academy Awards. With this success, Disney sent Roy and a few other Disney executives to Florida in 1965 to purchase land for another theme park.

In October 1966, Disney gave a press conference to describe his Florida plans for building an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). The new park would be five times the size of Disneyland, including the Magic Kingdom (same park as in Anaheim), EPCOT, shopping, entertainment venues, and hotels.

The new Disney World development would not be completed, however, until five years after Disney’s death.

The new Magic Kingdom (which included Main Street USA; Cinderella's Castle leading to Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland) opened on October 1, 1971, along with Disney's Contemporary Resort, Disney's Polynesian Resort, and Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground.

EPCOT, Walt Disney’s second theme park vision, which featured a future world of innovation and a showcase of other countries, opened in 1982.

Death of Disney

In 1966, doctors told Disney that he had lung cancer. After having a lung removed and several chemotherapy sessions, Disney collapsed in his home and was admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital on December 15, 1966.

Sixty-five-year-old Walt Disney died at 9:35 a.m. from an acute circulatory collapse. Roy Disney took over his brother’s projects and made them a reality.