Walt Disney Biography – American Entrepreneur, Animator, Film Producer, Legacy

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Walt Disney Biography and Legacy

Walt Disney was an American entrepreneur, film producer, voice actor, writer, and animator, who is regarded as one of the most important figures in the cultural history of America. He is now considered a national icon.

Disney is also considered a significant figure in animation history, having introduced several developments in the production of cartoons.

Early Life

Walt Disney was born on 5th December 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, to Elias and Flora Disney.

Disney was the fourth child and had three older brothers, Herbert, Raymond, and Roy. In 1903, his sister, Ruth, was born.

When Disney was 4 years old, the family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri. It was there that Disney became interested in drawing when he was paid to draw a neighbor’s horse. He soon began practicing drawing by copying the front-page cartoons of political activist and cartoonist Ryan Walker, that appeared in the Appeal to Reason newspaper.

Gradually, he also began using and experimenting with crayons and watercolors.

Early Education and Life in Kansas City

In 1909, Walt Disney, aged 7, began going to the Park School in Marceline along with his sister Ruth.

Two years later, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where Disney enrolled at the Denton Grammar School.

At the school, he met and befriended Walter Pfeiffer, who introduced him to motion pictures and to the theatre of Vaudeville (a theatrical genre of variety entertainment that originated in France at the end of the 19th century). Soon he began spending more and more time at Pfeiffer’s home.

Around this time, Disney’s father purchased a newspaper delivery route for The Kansa City Times and The Kansas City Star, because of which, Disney and his brother Roy had to wake up at 4:30 every morning in order to deliver the Times before going to school. And every evening after school, they would go around delivering the Star. This daily schedule was hectic and tiring and the two of them would continue to do it for more than 6 years.

Disney later enrolled at the Kansa City Art Institute, where he attended courses on Saturdays and also began a correspondence course in cartooning.

Moving Back to Chicago

In 1917, the Disney family moved back to Chicago.

In Chicago, Walt Disney, aged 15, enrolled at McKinley High School. He soon became the cartoonist of the school newspaper, where he often drew patriotic pictures of the First World War.

While attending High School, he simultaneously also attended night classes at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.

Brief Stint in the Army

After being rejected by the US Army for being too young, Walt Disney forged his date of birth on his birth certificate and joined the Red Cross as an ambulance driver.

During his time in the Army, some of his cartoons were even published in the army newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

A year later, Disney returned to Kansas City and began working as an apprentice artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There he drew commercial illustrations and cartoons for theater programs, catalogs, and advertising. It was Pesmen-Rubin that Disney met fellow cartoonist Ub Iwerks.

Starting a Business

After Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks were laid off by Pesmen-Rubin in January of 1920, they decided to start their own business called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists.

Unfortunately, they were unsuccessful in attracting enough customers to run the business and Disney was compelled to take up employment at the Kansas City Film Ad Company in order to earn some money. Soon Iwerks joined him at the company, being unable to run their fledgling business alone.

Their first business endeavor was short-lived and they were soon forced to give up on it.

Experimenting with Animation

At the Film Ad Company, Walt Disney began using the cutout animation technique to produce commercials, which piqued his curiosity in animation.

He soon began experimenting with animation at home with a camera and a borrowed book on animation, eventually coming to the conclusion that cel animation was a more promising method than cutout animation. But A.V. Cauger, who ran the Film Ad Company, was not convinced by Disney’s findings and was reluctant to try out the cel animation method.

Starting a New Business

Due to Cauger’s reluctance to try cel animation at the company, Walt Disney decided to start a new business with a colleague from the company, Fred Harman.

The two of them gained an important client in the local Neman Theater, for whom they produced short cartoons which were sold as Newman’s Laugh-O-Grams.

The Laugh-O-Grams was a success, and by May 1921 Disney and Harman established the Laugh-O-Gram Studio. Disney hired more animators for the studio, including Iwerks.

But even though the Laugh-O-Grams were a success, they failed to generate enough income to keep the company running. Disney even began production of a short silent film of 12 and a half minutes titled Alice’s Wonderland, which combined live-action with animation.

Unfortunately, the studio was unable to complete the film in time and went into bankruptcy in 1923.

Moving to Hollywood

In 1923, Walt Disney, aged 21, moved to Hollywood in the hope of becoming a live-action film director.

He tried to sell Alice’s Wonderland for a long time and was rejected until finally, film distributor Margaret J. Winkler offered him a contract for six Alice Comedies series, along with an option for two further series of six episodes each.

Subsequently, Disney and Roy established the Disney Brothers Studio (later known as The Walt Disney Company) in order to produce films. In 1924, Disney hired Iwerks and convinced him to move to Hollywood.


In July 1925, Walt Disney married Lillian Bounds, an ink artist he had hired early that year. The couple would go on to raise two daughters together, Diane, born in December 1933, and Sharon, who was adopted in December 1936.

Lillian provided great support to Disney while managing the household, but showed little interest in films or in the Hollywood social scene.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

By 1927, Walt Disney was tired of producing the Alice series. He now wanted to get rid of the mixed format and experiment with all animation.

Charles Mintz, who was by then handed over the distribution of the Alice series by his wife Winkler, asked Disney to provide some new material to distribute through Universal Pictures. Disney and Iwerks created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and tried to negotiate a larger fee for the production of the Oswald series.

But instead, Mintz sought to reduce their fee and even convinced many of the artists who worked for Disney to work for him directly. Disney also found out that the intellectual property rights to Oswald were owned by Universal Pictures. Mintz even went as far as to threaten Disney that he would start his own studio to produce the Oswald series himself if Disney did not accept the reduction in fees.

However, Disney was unmoved. He refused the ultimatum and chose to split with Mintz, losing most of his animation staff. Iwerks chose to stay with him.

Mickey Mouse

After losing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse, who would go on to become the most iconic character in animation history.

Disney made a few provisional sketches for Mickey Mouse, but it was Iwerks who revised and designed the character, making it easier to animate. Disney provided the voice of the character.

Around this time, Disney was slowly beginning to distance himself from the animation process.

The First Appearance of Mickey Mouse

In May 1928, Mickey Mouse first appeared as a single test screening in the short film Plane Crazy and then again in The Gallopin’ Gaucho. But both short films failed to land a distributor.

The same year, Mickey Mouse made his third appearance (often considered his first proper appearance) in the short film Steamboat Willie. The film was produced by Walt Disney Studios and released by Celebrity Productions.

Disney used synchronized sound in the film, thereby creating the first post-produced sound cartoon. He soon signed a contract with Pat Powers to use the Powers Cinephone recording system. Cinephone became the new distributor for Disney’s early sound cartoons.

These sound cartoons soon became quite popular among the audience.


Walt Disney hired composer and arranger Carl Stalling to improve the quality of the music in his cartoons. Together, they created the Silly Symphony series (a series of musical short films).

The Silly Symphony series and the Mickey Mouse series were both highly successful. But Disney felt that Pat Powers was not giving them their rightful share of profits, so he tried to negotiate with Powers for an increase in payment but Powers refused to do so.

Instead, Powers signed Iwerks to work for him directly. Iwerks’ absence provoked Stalling to resign, as Stalling believed that without Iwerks the studio would close down.

In 1931, Disney had a nervous breakdown due to these setbacks and overwork. He and Lillian decided to head off to Cuba and cruise to Panama for a long holiday so that he could recover.

Winning the Academy Awards

After losing Powers as the distributor of his cartoons, Walt Disney signed a contract with Columbia Pictures to distribute the Mickey Mouse cartoons.

The Mickey Mouse series became extremely popular not just in America but internationally.

Disney Studio also produced Flowers and Trees in 1932, in full-color three-strip Technicolor, as part of the Silly Symphony series. The film was a hit with audiences and won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon) in 1932.

Another short film by Disney, Mickey’s Orphans, was nominated in the same category. Disney also received an Honorary Award for the creation of Mickey Mouse.

From then on, all Silly Symphony cartoons were produced in color.

The following year, Disney produced The Three Little Pigs, which was also a hit among the audience. The film won Disney another Academy Award in the Short Subject (Cartoon) category and since then has been regarded as the most successful short animation of all time.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

By the year 1934, Walt Disney had grown tired of producing formulaic cartoon short films. He now wished to create a feature-length cartoon that he thought would be more profitable.

In view of this, Disney Studio began the long production of the musical fantasy film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs based on the German fairy tale.

The film took longer than expected to be produced and was three times over the budget. Many in Hollywood speculated that it would bankrupt Disney.

In December of 1937, after almost four years of production, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered to great critical and commercial acclaim. It was the first full-length traditionally animated feature film and the first Disney animated feature film and became the most successful motion picture of 1938. By the following year, it became the most successful sound film made to that date.

As a result of the tremendous success of Snow White, Disney was conferred with another Honorary Academy Award.

Snow White’s success heralded one of the most productive eras for the Disney Studio, often referred to as the Golden Age of Animation.

Facing Debt and Animators’ Strike

In 1940, Disney Studio released two more animated films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, both of which failed at the box office, resulting in them falling into debt by early 1941.

To tackle the financial crisis, Walt Disney started the company’s first public stock offering in 1940 and even implemented heavy salary cuts, which resulted in an animators’ strike that lasted for 5 weeks. Many animators left the studio, while many others had a strained relationship with Disney from then on.

World War II Years

After the US got involved in the Second World War, Walt Disney established the Walt Disney Training Films Unit to produce instruction films for the military such as Aircraft Production Methods and Four Methods of Flush Riveting. The unit also produced propaganda productions, including an anti-Nazi short film in 1943 titled Der Fuehrer’s Face, which ended up winning an Academy Award.

However, Disney Studio ran into more debt when their 1942 feature film Bambi failed at the box office and incurred heavy losses. Toward the late 1940s, Disney Studio reduced their production of short films and instead concentrated on animation and live-action production, for financial reasons.

In 1948, Disney began the production of a series of live-action nature films called True-Life Adventures. The first film in the series titled Seal Island won the Academy Award in the Best Short Subject (Two-Reel) category in 1949.

Other Ventures

By early 1950, Walt Disney became less involved in the production of animated films and began concentrating more on entirely live-action feature films such as Treasure Island (1950) and The Story of Robin Hood and his Merrie Men (1952). But the company continued to produce full-length animated feature films such as Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953).

Disney also began to think of other ventures in order to expand his empire.

After purchasing a plot in Anaheim, California, Disney began work on a theme park in July 1954. A year later, Disneyland was ready to open. The opening ceremony was broadcast on ABC, which attracted around 70 million viewers.

Disneyland was designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney. It was designed as a series of themed lands linked by Central Main Street, USA, and included Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Adventureland. And these lands were linked by a narrow-gauge Disney Railroad.

Disneyland was an immediate success. A month into its operation, it was receiving over 20,000 visitors a day. By the end of the first year in operation, around 3.6 million visitors had visited Disneyland.

Foray into Television

In 1954, ABC broadcast Walt Disney’s Disneyland, an anthology consisting of animated cartoons, live-action features, and other material from the studio’s library.

The television series was highly successful in terms of rating and profits and led to Disney’s first daily television program, The Mickey Mouse Club, which was also a hit. The television show was accompanied by merchandising of comics, coloring books, and other items connected to the show.

Disney also established his own record production and distribution entity called Disneyland Records after the theme song of the five-part miniseries Davy Crockett, called The Ballad of Davy Crockett, became an international hit, selling around 10 million records.

Later Projects

In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, Disney Studio continued to produce classics such as Sleeping Beauty (1959), One Hundred and One Dalmations (1961), Mary Poppins (1964), The Jungle Book (1967), and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (1968).

In 1965, Walt Disney announced that he would develop another theme park called Disney World (later Walt Disney World), a few miles southwest of Orlando, Florida. This park would be a larger and more elaborate version of Disneyland and would include resorts and golf courses.

Disney World opened in October 1971, five years after the death of Disney.


In November 1966, Walt Disney, aged 64, was diagnosed with lung cancer, which was mostly a result of his being a heavy smoker for much of his life.

He was treated with cobalt therapy but to no avail. In late November, he felt unwell again and was rushed to the hospital. On 15th December 1966, ten days after his 65th birthday, Disney died of a circulatory collapse caused by cancer.

Two days later, his body was cremated and his ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.


Since his death, Walt Disney is considered one of the greatest and most significant cultural icons of America.

He is, without a doubt, the most influential figure in the history of animation, one who experimented and revolutionized the film and animation world forever. He was a true pioneer and visionary in his field.

Disney received a record total of 59 Academy Award nominations, which included 22 awards. He was also nominated for 3 Golden Globes (but did not win any) and was honored with two Special Achievements Awards and the Cecil B. DeMille Award. He also won an Emmy for Best Producer for the Disneyland television series.

In 1960, Disney was inducted into the Hollywood Hall of Fame with not one but two stars. One for his television work and the other for his motion pictures. He was also inducted into the Television Hall of Fame in 1986 and the California Hall of Fame in 2006.

In total, Disney is said to have received more than 950 honors and citations from across the world. He has been a recipient of prestigious awards from countries such as Germany, Mexico, Thailand, France, and Brazil.

In 1964, he was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The work of Disney is widely regarded as some of the most culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant films and cartoons ever produced. Many of his films such as Steamboat Willie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Three Little Pigs, Fantasia, Bambi, etc, have become classics in the sphere of films and animation. And several of his characters such as Mickey Mouse, Goofy, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Pluto, Genie of Aladdin, and many others have become iconic and ever-lasting characters that continue to be popular to this day.

Apart from his professional success, Disney’s life serves as an inspiration to aspiring entrepreneurs and dreamers around the world. He rose from humble beginnings and transformed a minor fledgling studio into a giant multinational industry powerhouse. His company continues to create and produce films, television series, and stage entertainment.

I think we can all agree that Walt Disney was truly one of a kind.