Walt Disney (1901–1966) animator and businessman
Born in Chicago, Disney studied drawing informally as a youth. After a series of odd jobs, he studied art in the evening at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. In 1918, he served as an ambulance driver for the Red Cross in France. Upon his return to the United States, he became an apprentice cartoonist for the magazine Film Advertising. Deciding to pursue his interest in cartooning, he opened a small production company in Kansas City that produced animated shorts, which ran before feature films at cinemas.
After a short period, he moved his operation to Hollywood in 1923 and opened a movie studio dedicated solely to cartoons. In collaboration with his brother Roy Disney (1893–1971), the Disney brothers’ studio began producing cartoons featuring a heroine named Alice. These early cartoons became known as the Alice movies. By 1926, they had produced more than 50 short films.
The next cartoon character he created was Oswald the Rabbit, under contract with Universal Studios, and his cartoons became very successful. But he lost the Oswald copyright and had to create a new character. He developed Mickey Mouse after watching mice scurry around his studios. Originally, the character was called Mortimer. After a couple of short films, Mickey Mouse starred in his first hit, Steamboat Willie. It was the first cartoon with a sound track that Disney produced, and the film became very successful. By 1934, the company was producing more than 20 pictures per year, and profits were almost $700,000 per year. Part of the profits was from merchandise tie-ins that Disney helped pioneer along with manufacturers of consumer goods, a practice that the company continues today.
Success followed upon success. Disney produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hollywood’s first feature-length animated film, in 1937. It won a special Academy Award that year. Other successful full-length films followed, among them Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. When television made its breakthrough after World War II, Disney quickly embraced the medium. In 1950, his first television show was produced, and by 1954, he introduced his first television series, called Disneyland. The name of the program was also the name of the company’s first amusement park, opened in Anaheim, California, in 1955. The theme park became one of the most popular attractions in the country and prompted the opening of another in 1971 in Florida, called Disney World. This park, along with the EPCOT center, was planned from the mid-1960s. Disney himself did not live to see the opening. He died in 1966 in Los Angeles.
By the 1990s, under the leadership of Michael Eisner, Disney had become the world’s largest media company, with annual sales exceeding $20 billion. A Disney theme park was opened in Europe and another planned for Japan, and the company continued to engage in movie production, publishing, and television production in addition to the signature cartoons and entertainment parks. In 1996, the company expanded its operations, buying broadcaster Capital Cities/ ABC for $19 billion, giving it access to broadcasting and television stations across the country.
- Eliot, Marc. Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.
- Schickel, Richard. The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968.
- Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.