Walter Elias Disney had a dream, and his dream came true, and we are all the benefactors of that dream. Millions of people all over this world have shared in the joy, happiness, and magic of what this amazing man created. His dream lives on in the generations of people, young and old, who have experienced the Disney dream, either at the theme parks, movies, television, and a whole host of Disney projects, including community outreach programs.
For those of us who call ourselves Disney fanatics, putting into words what Walt Disney did with his life, his dreams, and his optimistic hope for the future, is a privilege which we are honored to share with the world. “If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember that this whole thing was started with a dream and a mouse.” Walter Elias Disney
6. The Early Years
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901. He was the youngest of four sons born to Elias and his wife Flora. Their names were Herbert, Raymond, and Roy Oliver. He also had a younger sister, Ruth.
Elias Disney, Walt’s father was a strict disciplinarian, and although he was very hard on his children, Walt would later comment on how much he loved and respected his father. Elias had a strong work ethic, honesty and integrity, perseverance, and a love for family that would form the foundation for Walt’s future endeavors.
When Walt was about 5 years old, his parents bought a 45-acre farm near Marceline, Missouri. Life in Marceline was simple, and Walt really enjoyed working on the farm, and loved caring for all the barnyard animals. One of his closest companions was a piglet named Skinny, who was more like a puppy to Walt. The memories of these years on the farm would later greatly influence the subject matter of Walt’s cartoons and feature length films.
While living in Marceline, Walt was introduced to Uncle Mike Martin, a Santa Fe railroad engineer who befriended Walt and his siblings. He would give them candy, and sit on the front porch recalling all his railroad adventures, including stories about the legend, Casey Jones. Walt was captivated by Uncle Mike’s stories, and this is where his fascination with trains began.
In 1909, Elias became ill, was unable to keep the farm going, so he and Flora moved their family to Kansas City, where he bought a newspaper distributorship. Life in the city was not as easy as it had been on the farm. Both Walt and Roy had to wake up every morning and deliver newspapers, even in the harshest wintry weather. School, however, was a place where Walt could impress fellow students with his impression of his hero, silent film star Charlie Chaplin. It was here his cartooning skills began by telling stories and illustrating them on the chalkboard as he spoke.
5. The Teenage Years
In 1916, Elias sold the newspaper route, and moved the family back to Chicago. Walt attended McKinley High School during the day, and by night the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He also worked as a cartoonist on the McKinley High School magazine, “The Voice”.
By 1918, in the midst of World War I, Walt joined the Army ambulance corps and was overseas for 11 months. Walt would later state that his wartime experience changed his life, and being on his own at an early age made him more self-reliant, and increased his awareness and respect for the military, and boosted his love and devotion to his country.
4. Life Before Mickey Mouse
After the war, Walt left Chicago, took a train back to Kansas City, moved in with his brother, Roy, and began the next phase of his life. His first job was with a commercial art studio, where he met a young artist, Ub Iwerks, who would later become one of Walt’s greatest Imagineers. At the age of 18, both Walt and Ub formed their own company, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. From this experience, Walt began his own enterprise, Laugh-O-gram Films, which landed him an $11,000 contract to produce cartoons for Pictorial Clubs, Inc. Unfortunately, by 1923, Laugh-O-gram Films filed for bankruptcy. Walt, however, did not let this failure affect his spirit of optimism. With what little money he had left after paying off all his creditors, he purchased a first class railway ticket to California, and the beginning of the most adventurous years of his life.
3. Hollywood or Bust
Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Walt moved in with his Uncle Robert. He was unable to find a job anywhere, so Walt sent his only copy of “Alice’s Wonderland”, a film he had never finished because of finances, to Margaret Winkler, a well-known film distributor. After reviewing the film, Miss Winkler offered him a contract for six Alice Comedies at $1,500 per film. On October 16, 1923, Walt Disney signed a contract with M.J. Productions. This was the beginning of the Disney Brothers Studios.
From Alice Cartoons to the new Walt Disney Studio on Hyperion Avenue in Los Angeles, Walt worked diligently to promote his Studio as one of the best in the country. It was during this time that a young lady, Lillian Bounds began working as an inker-painter at the Disney Studios.
One night, Lillian was working late and Walt offered to give her a ride home. After that, they began dating, and on July 13, 1925 Walt Disney and Lillian Bounds were married, and remained lifetime partners.
2. The Birth of Mickey Mouse
After a major contract dispute between Disney and Charles Mintz, an American film producer, over financial issues and a character by the name of Oswald, the lucky rabbit, Walt could not accept the terms which included a cut in pay; thereby ending his relationship with Mintz and Oswald. On a train trip from New York back to Los Angeles, it is rumored that Walt began thinking seriously about a replacement for Oswald, and came up with the idea of a playful little mouse, whose name would become “Mickey”. On May 15, 1928, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Plane Crazy” was shown for the first time, and was an immediate success. The rest, as we say, is History.
1. Walt’s Dream Becomes a Reality
Mickey Mouse was just the beginning of Walt Disney’s amazing, magical journey. Over the next few years, Walt Disney Studios created numerous successful full length animated and live action films. Walt also had some major disappointments and tragedies along the way, but his optimism, faith, and hope kept him going. He never gave up on any project he started.
The idea of “Disneyland” was formed in Walt’s imagination while sitting on a park bench in Griffith Park in Los Angeles while watching his two daughters, Diane and Sharon, riding the merry-go-round. He thought how great it would be to have a place where the parents and their children could have fun together. This thought stayed with him, and he began researching amusement parks in the area.
The dream had begun. There was no stopping Walt. He found his new purpose now and the theme for the rest of his life, bringing happiness and joy to families all over the world. Walt’s dream, however, did not meet with much enthusiasm from anyone else. All of the experts told him his dream didn’t stand a chance, and his own brother, Roy, begged him to forget this strange obsession.
None of these negative reports, however, kept Walt from reaching for his dream. He began by depleting his personal savings account, cashing in his life insurance, and selling his vacation home at Smoke Tree Ranch. He was not giving up on his dream.
The biggest roadblock to fulfilling Walt’s dream was the finances. After many meetings with executives of the three major TV networks, Walt’s persistence paid off, and the ABC network put up half a million dollars and co-signed bank loans for an additional $4.5 million. In return, Walt gave ABC a 34.5 percent share of the Disneyland theme park, plus a weekly hour-long show called “Disneyland”.
Ground was broken for Disneyland on July 16, 1954, and one year later on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney’s Disneyland opened its gates, and thousands of guests and dignitaries shared in the reality of Walt’s dream coming true.
Disneyland became a huge success, and became America’s #1 tourist attraction. Walt, however, was not through dreaming. Another ambitious venture was just around the corner, “Project X”. For most of his adult life, Walt was fascinated with the future and what possibilities it held for upcoming generations. “Project X” was to become an experimental prototype community of tomorrow (Epcot) and Florida was chosen as the location of this latest development. Walt did not want to build just another theme park. He wanted this to be a city-a real working community of the future, with a futuristic transportation system, and a second Disneyland. He had become a serious student of urban problems, and this new community of tomorrow would feature a glass-domed fifty-acre air-conditioned hub, with People Movers and Monorails for transportation. There would be recreation facilities, schools, churches, sports complexes, shopping districts, office buildings, and residential neighborhoods.
Unlike the Disneyland project, finances were no problem this time around, and the plans for the “Florida Project”, were huge, and included the purchase of almost 28,000 acres of swampland near Orlando.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney passed away on December 15, 1966, and never saw his latest dream come true. However, his brother, Roy O. Disney, was determined to carry out Walt’s dream, and with love for his brother and a courageous effort, he oversaw the building of this community of tomorrow. He renamed it Walt Disney World, in honor his brother, and so people would always know that it was Walt’s dream.
On October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World was opened to the public. At the dedication, something happened that will forever be remembered about that day. As Roy was about to give his speech, he stopped, looked around as if something was wrong. He leaned over and whispered to an aide,“ Will you go find Mickey for me? We don’t have Walt anymore, and Mickey’s the nearest thing to Walt we have left.” Moments later, Mickey joined Roy on the platform. The picture of Roy and Mickey Mouse on that glorious day is priceless!
Today, Disneyland and Walt Disney World are two of the most famous theme parks in the world, with millions of visitors over the years. Walt’s magic lives on, and those of us who have been fortunate enough to have experienced his creations, are the lucky ones. We are the Disney fanatics. “Everybody can make their dreams come true. It takes a dream, faith in it, and hard work. Yet, the work isn’t all that hard because it is so much fun you hardly think of it as work.” Walt Disney.