Who Was Walt Disney?

It all started with a mouse.

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A self-made entrepreneur and one of the most influential entertainment figures of the 20th century, Walt Disney rose from obscurity to create some of the world's most popular cartoon characters and eventually forged a multi-billion empire that endures to this day.

Early Life

Disney was born on Dec. 5, 1901 in Chicago, Ill., to his schoolteacher mother, Flora, and father, Elias, a former gold seeker turned preacher.

The family moved around Missouri, settling in Kansas City for a time, before returning to Chicago when Disney was a teenager. During World War I, he dropped out of high school and tried to enlist in the army, but was rejected due to his age. Instead, he joined the Red Cross and drove an ambulance in France.

After the war, Disney returned to Kansas City, where he found work at the Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio and made the fortuitous acquaintance of cartoonist, Ub Iwerks. Little did either know that they were about to become lifelong friends and business partners.

Disney and Iwerks formed an animation studio called Laugh-O-Gram Films, which produced the somewhat successful Alice Comedies series, though the company spent its short life struggling to survive. They went on to form the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studios in Los Angeles, where they made the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit series, which was nearly a failure before it was even shown.

But after revamping the character with Trolley Troubles (1927), Oswald became immensely popular and led to the creation of Disney's most enduring character.

A Mouse Is Born

While many think that Mickey Mouse was introduced in Steamboat Willie (1928), the troublemaking mouse made his first appearance in Plane Crazy (1928) and The Gallopin' Gaucho (1928).

Both animated shorts had difficulty finding an audience, but with Steamboat Willie, Mickey–originally named Mortimer Mouse–was properly introduced to the world.

The success of Mickey Mouse allowed Disney and Iwerks to introduce other iconic animated characters like Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Donald Duck. Disney's adeptness with animation and business allowed him to quickly forge a studio stocked with top animators and the latest technology. In 1932, Disney won an Honorary Oscar for Mickey Mouse. He also began branching out beyond the Mouse universe to make The Three Little Pigs (1933), The Tortoise and the Hare (1934), and The Old Mill (1937).

The Golden Age of Animation

Despite being criticized for wanting to make a feature-length animated film, Disney proved the critics wrong with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), an animated classic that was a commercial hit and set the standard for animated features. The film also allowed Disney to move his studio to Burbank, where it became the Walt Disney Studios.

From there, Disney made one classic animated movie after another in quick succession: Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). Disney's output slowed during World War II and it would be another eight years after Bambi that he would make another classic, Cinderella (1950).

He earned considerable criticism for his adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland (1951), a film that marked the beginning of the end of Disney's golden age.

The Empire Expands

Meanwhile, Disney suffered critical setbacks with Peter Pan (1953), Lady and the Tramp (1955), and Sleeping Beauty (1956), though all became popular with audiences in ensuing decades. Never satisfied with resting on his laurels, Disney sought to expand his reach into live action, television, and even theme parks. His first live action movie, Treasure Island (1950), is a classic and he took a personal interest of his ABC series, Disneyland, which he hosted. The popular variety show The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-59) made Annette Funicello a star and introduced the word Mousketeer to the lexicon.

Disney's greatest achievement at this time was, of course, the creation of the Disneyland theme park, which broke ground in the late 1940s and opened in 1955 to great fanfare.

Though it initially only featured 20 attractions, the Happiest Place on Earth drew large crowds.

Of course, Disney continued making animated movies like One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961) and The Sword and the Stone (1964), though both failed to reach the artistic heights achieved during the 1930s. He fared better with live action movies like Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Parent Trap (1961), featuring Maureen O'Hara and Brian Keith, and the musical Mary Poppins (1964), which earned star Julie Andrews the Academy Award for Best Actress.

His Final Years

Disney continued to expand his empire right up until his last days. In 1964, he began designing Walt Disney World in Orland, Fla., which at the time was the largest theme park ever created. He also envisioned the creation of the futuristic EPCOT Center, but was unable to see the project through to completion.

In 1966, Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer and died on December 15 due to complications. He was 65 years old. The following year saw the release of the last movies he had direct involvement in: The Jungle Book (1967), Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1967), and The Happiest Millionaire (1967). Disney's brother, Roy, took over the construction of Walt Disney Word, which opened in 1971.

Disney's legacy only grew after his death, while his media and theme park empire expanded to a size not even Disney himself could envision. So pervasive was Disney on culture that some began to resent its influence and dub it the Evil Empire due to crass commercialism and pursuit of profits at all costs.