Born: December 5, 1901
Died: December 15, 1966
Animator and cofounder, Walt Disney Company
During his career, Walt Disney found ways to make children of all ages believe in a certain kind of magic. His films brought talking animals to life. His theme parks transported people to distant lands or make-believe castles. And through Walt Disney Productions, the Disney name became one of the most famous and trusted brands in the world. His company promoted him as a carefree man whose only goal was to "bring happiness to the millions." In business, however, Disney was demanding, seeking perfection in his art and total control of his business.
"When does a person stop being a child? Can you say that a child is ever entirely eliminated from the adult? I believe that the right kind of entertainment can appeal to all persons, young or old."
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. He was the fourth son of Elias and Mary Disney. He also had a younger sister. In 1905, the Disneys moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri. Disney later recalled the small-town atmosphere of the town when he built Disneyland. His family moved again in 1911, settling in Kansas City. Mr. Disney began a successful paper route, and Walt and his brother Roy helped him. Walt also showed an early interest in art, copying a popular comic strip and making up his own.
By high school, with his family now living in Chicago, Disney was winning recognition for his art, publishing his cartoons in the school paper. In 1918, about a year after the United States entered World War I (1914-18), Disney lied about his age to volunteer as a Red Cross ambulance driver. He arrived in Europe shortly after the war ended and spent most of his time as a chauffeur for army officers. In his free time, he kept drawing cartoons.
When he returned to the United States in 1919, Disney settled in Kansas City and began his career as an artist. His first job was at a commercial art studio, drawing animals in farm-equipment catalogues. Disney later worked for the Kansas City Slide Company, which created advertising films for local companies. Disney began to study the new art of animation for the ads, then began experimenting with his own cartoon films. By 1921, he was working on his own on the side, making short cartoons he called Laugh-O-Grams. Disney officially incorporated the company in 1922 and produced cartoons of fairy tales. The next year, however, the company went bankrupt. Disney took a half-finished film of Alice's Wonderland, which combined live actors with cartoon figures, and headed for California.
Walt Disney's earliest animation may have been a flip book he made for his sister when he was nine years old. He drew a series of pictures on different pieces of paper. Flipping the pages made the figures appear to move.
Disney set up a studio in his uncle's shop so he could finish Alice's Wonderland and make other films like it. His brother Roy was also in California, and he loaned Disney money to get his company off the ground. The two brothers went into business together, forming Disney Brothers Studio. By 1924, the "Alice" cartoons were playing in theaters on the East Coast and receiving positive reviews. Disney's personal life was also improving, as he started dating Lilly Bounds, a young woman he had hired to work at the studio. They were married in June 1925 and eventually had two daughters, one of them adopted.
Although Disney and his company struggled financially during the early years, he did well enough to buy a new studio and hire more workers. Disney was also constantly looking for new opportunities. In 1928, while coming home from a business trip in New York, he had an idea for a new cartoon creature, a mouse. Disney wanted to call him Mortimer Mouse; his wife suggested Mickey instead. Mickey became Disney's first cartoon star.
Around the same time, Disney saw that sound films, then a novelty, would change Hollywood. Matching music with cartoon action, however, was not easy, and Disney demanded perfection. At one point he sold his beloved car to finance a recording for one of his cartoons. Disney also worked hard, sometimes falling asleep in his studio after working late into the night.
After the success of Mickey Mouse and other short cartoons, Disney began planning his first full-length feature. In 1934, an excited Disney acted out the story of "Snow White" for his staff, playing all the roles. He was convinced the film would be a success. Once again, Disney was right in guessing what people would pay to see. As Time magazine wrote many years later, Disney had "a deep, intuitive identification with the common impulses of common people."
Creating animated films let Disney invent worlds that did not exist and gave him the control he craved. During the 1940s, he had an idea for a real world that he could also shape as he chose. Bob Thomas quotes him in Walt Disney: An American Original: The concept of Disneyland "started when my daughters were very young, and I took them to amusement parks on Sundays.… I said to myself… why can't there be a better place to take your children, where you can have fun together?"
At the new home Walt Disney built for his family during the 1940s, he included a half-mile railroad track for his own model train, which was large enough to carry several people at once.
In 1952, Disney formed a second company, Walt Disney Inc., to build his new theme park. He later changed the name to WED Enterprises. Out of WED came the Imagineers, the designers of new rides and new technologies that could make Disney's dreams come to life. One Disney idea was creating moving models of people that could talk. WED created these figures, called Audio-Animatronics.
In 1984, Michael Eisner became the first person with no personal connection to Walt Disney to lead Walt Disney Productions. And unlike most Americans, Eisner had never even grown up on Disney films as a child. He admitted that he first saw them with his own children. But like Disney, Eisner seemed to have a flair for the creative. And like the company's founder, Eisner could be difficult to work with, as he fought to have things done his way.
The product of a wealthy New York family, Eisner was born in 1942. He originally planned to study medicine, but found himself drawn to entertainment. After college, Eisner took a job at NBC, then moved over to ABC, where he worked with Barry Diller, one of the rising young television executives of the 1960s. During the 1970s, Eisner scheduled such hit shows as Happy Days and Welcome Back, Kotter. From television he moved to motion pictures, working for Diller at Paramount Pictures. Eisner, as president, helped Paramount regain its position as one of the top studios in Hollywood.
When Disney Productions first considered hiring Eisner, some important investors questioned if he was the right person to run the company. As he wrote in his autobiography Work in Progress, Eisner told them they needed someone with creativity to keep the company growing. "In a creative business," he said, "you … have to be willing to take chances and even to fail sometimes, because otherwise nothing innovative is ever going to happen." When Eisner got the job, he found ways to make money from old Disney products and created new animated classics to revive the Disney image.
During the 1990s, Eisner's moves made Disney one of the most successful stocks in the United States. But Eisner's personal style, considered arrogant by some, did not please everyone who worked for him. Disney developed a reputation as the cheapest film studio in Hollywood. And Disney's movement away from strict family entertainment into more "adult" content upset some people who felt Eisner was betraying Disney's wholesome image.
Disney under Eisner was also criticized for being too concerned with making money and controlling markets, instead of offering good entertainment. But in 2002, Eisner insisted to Fortune that he and the Disney company were still committed to quality. "There are two ways to make money in entertainment," he said, "the high road or the low road. The low road is a road that I don't choose to be on."
Disney, however, was not content with just building theme parks. He wanted to create a whole town. In the early 1960s, Disney's company began buying thousands of acres in central Florida. Part of the land would become a second theme park—Disney World—but Disney wanted to use some of it for a planned community, the "City of Tomorrow." In October 1966, Disney gave an interview describing his vision.
Bob Thomas quotes him as saying, "It's like the city of tomorrow ought to be.… It will be a planned, controlled community, a showcase for American industry and research, schools, cultural and educational opportunities."
Disney called his idea the Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Today's EPCOT features exhibits on science and technology, along with tributes to several foreign countries, but it is not the town Disney envisioned. Celebration, a nearby planned community the company opened in 1998, is probably closer to what Disney had in mind.
Disney's comments on EPCOT were some of the last public statements he ever made. A lifelong smoker, he died of lung cancer just a few months later, on December 15, 1966. Newspapers around the world mourned the loss of a man who had brought so much happiness to children and adults.
For many years, people spread a rumor that Walt Disney had ordered his body frozen after his death, hoping it could be unfrozen years later when doctors had a cure for cancer. The rumor was untrue.
Eisner, Michael, with Tony Schwartz. Work in Progress. New York: Random House, 1998.
Masters, Kim. The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip. New York: William Morrow, 2000.
Schweizer, Peter, and Rochelle Schweizer. Disney: The Mouse Betrayed. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc. 1998.
Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976.
Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Boroughs, Don, et al. "Disney's All Smiles." U.S. News & World Report (August 14, 1995): p. 32.
"From the Archives." Time (December 28, 1998): p. 14.
Gabor, Andrea, and Steve Hawkins. "Of Mice and Money in the Magic Kingdom." U.S. News & World Report (December 22, 1986): p. 44.
Gunther, Marc. "Has Eisner Lost the Disney Magic?" Fortune (January 7, 2002): p. 64.
Huey, John. "Eisner Explains Everything." Fortune (April 17, 1995): p. 44.
Koepp, Stephen. "Do You Believe in Magic." Time (April 25, 1988): p. 66.
Koselka, Rita. "Mickey's Midlife Crisis." Forbes (May 13, 1991): p. 42.
Schickel, Richard. "Walt Disney." Time (December 7, 1998): p. 124.
Streisand, Betty. "Shareholders Smell a Rat." U.S. News & World Report (March 3, 1997): p. 59.
Vinzant, Carol. "Eisner's Mousetrap." Fortune (September 6,1999): p. 106. Wiegner, Kathleen K. "The Tinker Bell Principle." Forbes (December 2,1985): p. 102.
Buena Vista Online Entertainment. [On-line] http://www.bventertainment.go.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).
Disney Online. [On-line] http://www.disney.go.com (accessed on August 16, 2002).
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: