Walter Elias “Walt” Disney ( December 5, 1901 – December 15, 1966) was an American entrepreneur, cartoonist, animator, voice actor, and film producer.
He was a prominent figure within the American animation industry and throughout the world, and is regarded as a cultural icon, known for his influence and contributions to entertainment during the 20th century. As a Hollywood business mogul, he and his brother Roy O. Disney co-founded The Walt Disney Company.
As an animator and entrepreneur, Disney was particularly noted as a filmmaker and a popular showman, as well as an innovator in animation and theme park design. He and his staff created numerous famous fictional characters including Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy.
Disney himself was the original voice for Mickey. During his lifetime, he won 22 Academy Awards and received four honorary Academy Awards from a total of 59 nominations, including a record of four in one year, giving him more Oscar 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 US, as well as the international resorts Tokyo Disney Resort, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disney Resort.
Disney died from lung cancer on December 15, 1966 in Burbank, California. He left behind a vast legacy, including numerous animated shorts and feature films produced during his lifetime; the company, parks, and animation studio that bear his name; and the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Disney was born on December 5, 1901 at 2156 North Tripp Avenue in Chicago’s Hermosa community area to Elias Charles Disney, who was Irish-Canadian, 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.
The family anglicized the d’Isigny name to “Disney” and settled in the English village now known as Norton Disney, south of the city of Lincoln, in the county of Lincolnshire.
In 1878, Disney’s father Elias Charles Disney 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 married Flora Call on January 1, 1888 in Acron, Florida, just 40 miles north of where Walt Disney World was later 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 elder 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, who paid him to draw pictures of Sherwood’s horse Rupert. Elias was a subscriber to the Appeal to Reason newspaper and Walt copied the front-page cartoons of Ryan Walker.
His interest in trains originated in Marceline, as well. The Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway passed near the neighbourhood, and Walt and Roy would run to a clearing of high ground when they heard the train whistle. If their uncle Mike Martin was the engineer he would wave and produce a long whistle, followed by two short ones. That functioned as a signal to the brothers.
Walt attended the new Park School of Marceline in fall, 1909. He and his younger sister Ruth started school together. Before that, he had no formal schooling.
The Disneys remained in Marceline for four years, until having to sell their farm on November 28, 1910. At that time, Walt’s elder brothers Herbert and Ray had been fed up with the constant work and little or no spending money, and they ran away in fall 1906.
Afterwards, the family moved to Kansas City in 1911, where Walt and Ruth attended the Benton Grammar School at 3004 Benton Boulevard, close to his new home. Disney had completed the second grade at Marceline but had to repeat the grade at Kansas City.
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,
On July 1, 1911, Elias purchased a newspaper delivery route for The Kansas City Star. It extended from Twenty-seventh Street to Thirty-first Street, and from Prospect Avenue to Indiana Avenue. Roy and Walt were put to work delivering the newspapers.
The Disneys delivered the morning newspaper Kansas City Times to about 700 customers and the evening and Sunday Star to more than 600, and the number of customers increased with time. Walt woke up at 4:30 AM and worked delivering newspapers until the school bell rang.
He resumed working the paper trail at 4PM and continued to supper time. He found the work exhausting and often received poor grades from dozing off in class. He continued his paper routine for more than six years.
The Disneys’ first attempt at pregnancy ended in miscarriage. Lillian became pregnant again and gave birth to 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 a winery called Silverado Vineyards in California. Diane and Ron Miller had 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. Diane died November 19, 2013 of complications from a fall at home.
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.
Sharon married Robert Brown on May 10, 1959, with whom she had one child. 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, Sharon died at the age of 56.
After Sharon’s death, her estate donated $11 million to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), where she had been a member of the board of trustees for almost two decades. The donation was commemorated by renaming the School of Dance as the Sharon D. Lund School of Dance.
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 during and after his lifetime. Diane Disney Miller created the museum with the aid of her children, 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.
After losing the rights to Oswald, Disney felt the need to develop a new character to replace the rabbit, and he conceived one based on a mouse that he had adopted as a pet while working in his Laugh-O-Gram studio in Kansas City.
Iwerks revised 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. The mouse was originally named “Mortimer” and 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 was Plane Crazy, a silent film like all of Disney’s previous works. Disney failed to find a distributor for the short and its follow-up The Gallopin’ Gaucho, so he created a Mickey cartoon with sound called Steamboat Willie. A businessperson named Pat Powers provided Disney with both distribution and Cinephone, a sound-synchronization process. Steamboat Willie became an instant success.
Plane Crazy, The Galloping Gaucho, and all subsequent 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. Mickey’s popularity grew rapidly in the early 1930s.