Disney lived in Missouri for most of his childhood and started selling pictures, paintings, and drawings he created to his neighbors and friends. After his family moved back to Chicago, Disney attended McKinley High School and took drawing and photography classes while working as the cartoonist for the school’s newspaper. He took classes at the Chicago Institute of Art at night and dropped out of high school at the age of 16 to join the military. Because he was underage, he was rejected and joined the Red Cross instead, and was sent to France where he drove ambulances for a year.
Disney finished his time with the Red Cross in France in 1919 and moved to Kansas City to become a newspaper artist. He began doing cutout animations for the Kansas City Film Ad Company, and experimented with cel animation with a camera the owner of the company let him borrow. He soon decided to start an animation business and produced short cartoons which he called Laugh-o-Grams that he screened at a Kansas City theater. After the cartoons gained a significant amount of popularity, Disney was able to open up his own animation studio and hire a fairly large amount of animators. In the few years it was open, his studio’s profits did not exceed the salaries he payed his employees, and Disney was forced to declare bankruptcy.
Unphased by this setback, Disney and his brother, Roy, pooled their money, moved to Hollywood, and started Disney Brothers Studio. There they searched for a distributor for Disney’s Alice Comedies, a series of live-action Alice in Wonderland shorts featuring a little girl named Alice having adventures in an animated world. They found salvation in Margaret Winkler who owned Winkler Pictures with her fiance, Charles Mintz. They struck a deal contracting out the shorts to Winkler Pictures for $1,500 each. After Winkler and Mintz married in 1927, Mintz assumed control of the company and ordered a new series of animated shorts from Disney to be distributed through Universal Pictures. The Disney studio created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit which was instantly popular. When Disney confronted Mintz about increasing his fee per short, Disney was surprised to find out that Universal owned the trademark to Oswald and Mintz had most of Disney’s animators under contract. Mintz informed an appalled Disney that he would be decreasing his production budget, and if Disney did not accept these new terms, he would produce the Oswald shorts without Disney.
Cutting his losses, Disney decided to strike out on his own once again with his brother and animator friend who had been with him from the beginning, Ubbe Iwerks. Together they created a new character, the iconic Mickey Mouse. With the addition of sound to film, Mickey Mouse soon became the world’s most popular cartoon character and Disney received an honorary Oscar for his creation of Mickey Mouse in 1932. Disney began producing many successful cartoons and set out to make the first full-length cel animated feature film in 1934.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in Los Angeles on December 21, 1937. Despite the effects of the Depression, Snow White was produced at an unheard of $1.499 million. During its initial release it grossed $8 million ($132,671,390 today), and Disney was given an honorary Academy Award featuring a full-size Oscar statuette and seven miniature ones. In the next few years following the release of Snow White, the Disney studios produced several more full-length animated films including Fantasia, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Dumbo.
In the 1940s, Disney experienced some setbacks when his animators went on strike, but began making more animated features in the 1950s including Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and others. When television gained mass appeal, Disney took advantage of this and produced some of the first full-color television programs. The 1950s also saw the opening of Disneyland, a family theme park that became a world-renowned tourist hot spot soon after its opening.
The Disney studios produced a plethora of feature films in Walt Disney’s lifetime including popular live-action and animated films like Mary Poppins. Plans for a larger East coast version of Disneyland called Disney World including the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow or EPCOT were put into motion in the early 1960s, but Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 1966 and passed away later that year. In his memory, Walt’s brother renamed the new theme park Walt Disney World and it was completed in the 1970s.
Walt Disney is a legendary figure whose name is now synonymous with creativity, imagination, and never giving up on your dreams.