The name "Walt Disney" conjures up images of cartoon characters, movies, and amusement parks - a brand name. But did you know that without Disney's love of trains, probably none of it would exist? Read on!
Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Hermosa, Illinois. His family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where Disney enjoyed a happy childhood.
In 1911, the family moved to Kansas City. Disney's Uncle Mike, a railroad engineer, sparked his love of trains. Young Disney even had a summer job working for the railroad, selling snacks and newspapers.
In 1917 the family moved again, to Chicago. Disney drew cartoons for his high school's paper and yearbook, while attending classes at the Chicago Art Institute. He did not finish high school, however - he dropped out at 16, during World War II, to join the army. His plan was not well thought out, because the army rejected him for his age, so instead he joined the Red Cross American Ambulance Corps and drove ambulances in France for a year.
Disney returned to Kansas City in 1919, looking for work as a newspaper artist. His brother, Roy, helped him land a job at Pesmen-Rubin Art Studio with commercial artist Ub Iwerks. Next, Disney made commercials using cutout animation at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. He said, "I started, actually, to make my first animated cartoon in 1920. Of course, they were very crude things then and I used sort of little puppet things."
In 1921 Disney opened his own animation business, making short cartoons called Laugh-O-Grams, which were shown in a Kansas City theater. That studio went bankrupt.
Walt Disney and his brother Roy decided Hollywood should be their next destination. They opened the Disney Brothers' Studio and invited Ub Iwerks to join them. From 1923 to 1927 they created a successful series of seven-minute fairy tales, combining live action with animation, called "Alice in Cartoonland." In 1925 Disney hired and soon married Lillian Bounds, an ink-and-paint artist.
During this time Disney created his first popular character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose personality was inspired by the popular silent movie star, Douglas Fairbanks. Oswald was the first Disney character to be merchandised, with a chocolate-covered marshmallow candy bar, a stencil set, and a wearable button.
Sadly, due to unfortunate business deals, the Disney Brothers Studio lost the rights to Oswald in 1928, along with all of their employees but Iwerks.
A Train Ride that Changed the World
After losing Oswald, the dejected Disney traveled home by train. Little did he realize that the loss of Oswald would lead to the birth of an iconic Disney character, the symbol for an empire. Disney later said, "Mickey Mouse popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner." Mickey Mouse was born!
At first Disney called his mouse Mortimer, but his wife Lillian convinced him that Mickey would be a more marketable name. Years later, Mortimer Mouse would come to life as Mickey's rival from Brooklyn.
Lillian Disney must have had a good sense of humor, for Walt Disney once commented, "I love Mickey Mouse more than any woman I have ever known."
The Disney studio quickly produced three cartoons with their new character, Mickey Mouse. The first two, "Plane Crazy" and "The Gallopin' Gaucho," were silent; the third, "Steamboat Willie," had sound, with Disney providing the voice of Mickey but speaking no actual words. "Steamboat Willie" was a success, so the studio re-released "Plane Crazy" with sound. Disney continued to provide the voice of Mickey until 1947.
"When people laugh at Mickey Mouse," Disney explained, "it's because he's so human; and that is the secret of his popularity."
In 1929 the studio began creating "Silly Symphonies," featuring Mickey Mouse and some new friends - Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. "Flowers and Trees," the first "Silly Symphony" released in color, won an Oscar.
Disney and his wife had a daughter, Diane, in 1933, then adopted a second daughter, Sharon, in 1936. Disney did all he could to make their childhood magical. He often read to them. "There is more treasure in books than in all the pirate's loot on 'Treasure Island,'" Disney once said.
One year, for Christmas, he had a Snow White playhouse built overnight for his daughters, in their Los Feliz, California, backyard. Disney said, "A man should never neglect his family for business." The playhouse had running water and a working telephone.
Ub Iwerks revolutionized animation in 1933, when Disney invented the first multiplane camera. His invention allowed layers of animation cels to move independently, creating the illusion of depth. William Garity created his own version of the device for Disney Studios, which was used to create 1937's groundbreaking film "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs."
"Snow White," the first full-length animated film, was known by many as "Disney's Folly" because it ran over budget and few thought audiences would pay to see a movie-length cartoon. The Disney brothers were forced to show rough cuts of the film to loan officers in order to secure additional financing. They ultimately completed the film and made a great deal of money, despite the Great Depression. The film earned a unique Academy Award, featuring a standard Oscar plus seven miniatures.
In 1939 Walt Disney Studios was relocated to Burbank, California. Two years later the animators went on strike; some never returned, and the studio took years to recover.
During World War II the U.S. military used part of the studio as a base. Disney made "Dumbo" during this time, along with training films for the military, propaganda films encouraging Americans to pay their taxes, and anti-Nazi shorts.
An Impressive Body of Work
Over the years Disney Studios produced over 100 features. "Bambi" and "Pinocchio" were among early masterworks, as was "Fantasia," an artistically innovative animation experience featuring an orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski. "Animation can explain whatever the mind of man can conceive." Disney once said. The well-known sorcerer in "Fantasia" was named Yen Sid, which is Disney backwards.
"Cinderella," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Peter Pan" followed. "Lady and the Tramp" was Disney's first wide-screen animated film. The studio's early live-action films included "Treasure Island" and "20,000 Leagues under the Sea." They added live-action documentaries in the '40s and '50s, including "Seal Island," which won an Academy Award for best short subject.
Forays into television included "Zorro," "Davy Crockett," "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color," and, of course, "The Mickey Mouse Club." Disney returned to the microphone for the latter, to once again provide the voice for Mickey Mouse.
The final film produced by Disney himself was "Mary Poppins," a huge success which featured a combination of live action and animation.
It's All About the Steam Engines
Around 1951, Disney installed The Carolwood Pacific Railroad train, featuring Lilly Belle the steam engine, on the grounds of the family's new home in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles. The 1/8 scale model featured 2,615 feet of track, a 46-foot trestle, and a 90-foot tunnel. He also built a barn to house the train and serve as a sanctuary.
Disney lived by the philosophy, "If you can dream it, you can do it." While in his barn, enjoying his train, Disney came up with the concept of imagineering - imagination plus engineering - and dreamed about developing an amusement park. He said, "I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train."
Disneyland opened in California in 1955, with Ronald Reagan serving as emcee of the opening festivities. "Disneyland is a work of love," Disney said. "We didn't go into Disneyland just with the idea of making money." Of course, he needn't have worried on that point.
Disney had an apartment above the Fire Station on Main Street, where he could work and survey the park. Whenever he visited, a lamp in a window of the apartment signaled his presence. "Disneyland will never be completed," he once said. "It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world."
Disney expanded his vision, planning a new theme park in Florida that would feature the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - EPCOT. The new park was under construction in 1966 when Disney was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Disney died on December 15, 1966, leaving his brother Roy to oversee construction of Walt Disney World, including EPCOT.
Some say Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen upon his death, but he was actually cremated. The first people to undergo cryogenics did so a month after Disney's death.
Disney's life was full of fun, and his legacy includes a slew of surprising trivia. For example, Mickey and Minnie Mouse were married in real life. Wayne Allwine, who voiced Mickey when Disney did not, married Russi Taylor, who voiced Minnie.
The many parks and resorts around the world could have been branded d'Isigny rather than Disney. The family's French ancestor, Robert d'Isigny, traveled to England with William the Conqueror in 1066, then anglicized his name. No matter the name, all of Disney's parks are embraced by his beloved trains.
In 2006 Walt Disney Co. acquired the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, the character Disney had lost the rights to in the '20s. A 2010 video game, "Epic Mickey," features a meta plot in which Oswald deals with his jealousy toward Mickey Mouse.
Walt Disney World in Florida features underground tunnels, so costumed characters can pop up in their proper worlds. Characters are not allowed to break character or sit down, and they are not allowed to say the word, "no."
In a hard-to-spot tribute, the creators of the film 'WALL-E' named their title character after Walter Elias Disney.
Speaking of hard-to-spot tributes, the Disney theme parks and movies feature Hidden Mickeys - tributes to the world's most famous mouse - some obvious, some subtle. Mickey was, after all, the first animated character to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Disney summed up his achievements in a wonderfully succinct way: "I only hope that we don't lose sight of one thing - that it was all started by a mouse."