Disney is one of the most recognized brands in the world, but few know as much about the man behind the Magic Kingdom, not to mention the hundreds of animated cartoons, countless feature films and endless toys that bear his name. An influential innovator and entrepreneur in the mid 20th century, Disney went from sketching a rabbit (yes, a rabbit) to running a multi-billion dollar empire.
Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago and was an avid artist from an early age. At 16, he enlisted in the Red Cross and served in World War I, driving an ambulance that he customized with his own cartoon drawings. Upon his return, he worked as an advertising cartoonist in Kansas City, Missouri, but this soured quickly.
Disney then decided to move to California, where he joined forces with his brother, Roy. Walt handled the creative aspects of partnership, while Roy focused on the business and financial end. The Disney brothers borrowed a little money, set up a studio in their uncle's garage, and made some noise with a series of black-and-white cartoons featuring a rabbit named Oswald, which he produced for Universal Studios. When Walt asked Universal for a raise, however, they balked. Since the studio retained the rights to the character, Disney quit drawing Oswald after 1928, although the series continued.
Disney went back to the drawing board, producing a silent cartoon called Plane Crazy that featured a new character named Mickey Mouse. But the advent of sound changed everything in Hollywood. To capitalize on the craze for "talkies", Disney delayed Plane Crazy and instead produced a second Mickey Mouse cartoon, this one with sound. Steamboat Willie, released in 1928, was the first animated film to feature synchronized sound. Despite the film's international success, Walt and Roy still needed cash, so they licensed Mickey Mouse's image for a fee of $300, to be used on a tablet of paper aimed at children.
Disney became fixated on using the newest technology for his films. He obtained exclusive rights to use Technicolor in animated films for two years, winning his first Academy Award in 1932 for the animated short Flowers and Trees, which was also the first full-color cartoon.
He would win 26 Oscars over the course of his career, the most awards given to any individual. During the next few years, Goofy, Donald Duck and several other memorable characters joined Mickey. But Disney believed the future of company was in feature-length films, and released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. It was the first feature-length animated movie to be produced in Technicolor, and cost nearly $1.5 million to make, an unheard of amount in Depression-era America.
Growth of the Company:
Disney recognized his strength was in story design, not actually animating, and by the time the brothers built a studio in Burbank, Calif., they employed more than 1,000 people, including animators. Building on the success of Snow White, Disney released Pinocchio and Fantasia in 1940, Dumbo in 1941, and Bambi in 1942.
But the late 1930s and early 1940s were tough times for American businesses. Disney made it through the Great Depression and World War II by dedicating much of his new studio to producing health, education and propaganda films for the U.S. government. It also produced short comedies aimed at boosting national morale. To raise additional money, Disney took his operation public in 1940.
The company did not produce any new feature films during World War II, but in 1944 it did re-release Snow White into theaters, bringing in a significant amount of revenue for that year. This would begin a common strategy of re-releasing films about every 10 years, and later regulating the availability of Disney films on VHS and DVD. The next big animated film came in 1950, with the release of Cinderella.
As the company grew, Disney diversified production beyond cartoons and animated movies. Treasure Island
, released in 1950, was the studio’s first live-action film, and the company formed Buena Vista Distribution a few years later. With its own in-house distribution company, Disney could continue to churn out movies while significantly saving on distribution costs. Live-action hits such as Swiss Family Robinson
in 1960 and Mary Poppins
in 1964 followed.
Disney's TV debut came around the same time as Treasure Island, with the special One Hour in Wonderland. The popular Mickey Mouse Club debuted as a TV series in 1955.
But it was another TV program that began in 1954, called Disneyland, that showed Walt Disney had even bigger plans for the company. A few years earlier, Disney established WED Enterprises as a separate company and began drawing up plans for Disneyland, a giant theme park. Because the park was technically part of a separate corporation, Disney was able to develop it in secret, worrying about how shareholders would react. Disneyland opened in 1955 as a theme park unlike any other the world had seen.
Disney employed a unique strategy to make the theme park quickly successful. He solicited several corporate sponsorships to subsidize costs, and outsourced food and merchandise within the park. Once Disneyland was earning revenue, the company repurchased those rights and kept the revenue internally. Plans for a second park, which ultimately became Walt Disney World, began with the acquisition of land in Florida in the 1960s. This second park would contain Disney's vision of what the future urban community would look like; he called it the "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow", now commonly known as Epcot Center.
The Dream Lives On: Walt Disney died in 1966, five years before Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida, and 16 years before Epcot Center opened in 1981. Time Magazine named Disney one of the most important people of the 20th century in its Time 100. In the profile, the magazine reveals a darker, unhappy side of the man who brought happiness to so many people.
But it's unfair to say that Walt Disney lost perspective during his ride to success. He's cited frequently as saying: "I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing, that it was started by a mouse."