Discovering your passion early on
Dreamers can come from unexpected places. In 1901, a child was born in Chicago. When he was four years old his family moved to Missouri. Even as a young boy, Walt Disney loved to draw.
His interest really grew when he was paid to draw the neighborhood doctor’s horse.
Continuing to practice, he loved to go out to the railway lines and draw the trains.
He continued to practice before school and after work, loving to go out to the railway lines and draw the trains.
By eighteen years old he had gotten his first job as a commercial illustrator. Although, his attempts to assist in World War I put a brief pause to his career, he never stopped drawing.
When he lied about his age to join the Red Cross he continued doing illustrations for a military newspaper and also made pictures on the side of the ambulance he drove.
Creating his first cartoons
He worked for several different companies in the beginning.
Walt would draw comics, do other writing assignments, and started studying animation. Along with a friend, Ub Iwerks, another cartoonist who Walt met while working as an apprentice artist in the Pesmin-Rubin Commercial Art Studio.
After being laid off, Walt began to find other places to work. In July of 1923 he made the move to Hollywood. At the time, New York was the hotbed of cartoonists, but Los Angeles held its own appeal because Walt’s older brother Roy was there recovering from tuberculosis. It was there he got a start by selling a cartoon titled Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Along with his brother, Roy, they started the Disney Brothers Studio to produce the films that had been contracted by a New York film distributor Charles Mintz.
They hired Lillian Bounds in early 1925 as an ink artist, and by that summer she and Walt had married.
The Disney Brothers Studio continued to produce the Alice in Wonderland cartoons even though Walt had grown tired of the series.
This led to tensions between him and Charles Mintz.
Walt’s conflict with him lost him one of his earliest characters, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit along with half his animation staff in 1928.
However, that loss instilled in Walt an even bigger inspiration. In that same year he created a character that is known world wide and possibly the most famous cartoon character in the world, Mickey Mouse. Steamboat Willie was the first sound cartoon and became a huge hit. As Walt himself put it, “…it all started with a mouse.”
And did it start. For decades following Mickey Mouse’s creation there were dozens of iconic characters in multiple shorts and later into full length feature films.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937, was an achievement that no one in Hollywood thought would work. It was incredibly expensive and used a variety of new techniques that Walt and his team had invented.
Again, as Walt put it himself,
“If you can dream it you can do it.”
More and more characters came out, several of the iconic Disney characters even helping raise money for the war effort in World War II. Walt was passionate about the United States and American history. It was important to him to be able to contribute.
Many of the stories throughout the 1940s had patriotic themes. In 1946, he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals.
Although, he got caught up in the Red Scare, throughout all of it he continued to produce films and other cartoons.
In 1950, Walt would have another grand idea.
People were passionate about his films and curious about visiting his studio. However, there wasn’t room to allow the public backstage so he began to consider creating a theme park.
He knew that if he took on something of this magnitude he wanted it to be different. Theme parks at the time were often more like carnivals, impermanent, dirty, and not always a place for parents and children. He decided to purchase property in Anaheim, California in an orange grove. It was some distance from the studios so he created a new arm of his company, the now famous Walt Disney Imagineering, the employees creatively called Imagineers.
Creative ingenuity was needed to create Disneyland, so he created a series of shows on ABC, which, at the time, was a new network. He drove viewers to their channel and in return they helped fund the new park. Walt’s passion for American history would soon come to life on Main Street, U.S.A., where he rented out many of the shops to outside companies in the early days.
The grand opening
Disneyland opened to great fanfare on Sunday, July 17, 1955. It was so popular that over 200,000 people showed up.
And this even though it was an invitation only event!
His fans were creative too.
People had fabricated tickets, and some even climbed over the fence to see the park.
It opened to the public the next day. There were twenty attractions. One of Walt’s favorites was the narrow gauge railroad that linked all of the lands of the theme park. Even future president, Ronald Reagan attended, as a Hollywood friend of Walt’s. By the end of its first year open, Disneyland had received over 3 million visitors.
Walt began expanding beyond just films, TV, and theme parks. With the success of shows like The Mickey Mouse Club he was able to spend time on other projects. He was tapped to help plan a contribution to the 1959 American National Exhibition in Moscow. He created a 360-degree film called America the Beautiful, which turned out to be one of the most popular attractions.
It is often overlooked that Walt was also a conservationist. He cared about animals and nature. He created several documentary films, the while not always accurate, inspired a generation of young people to look more closely at nature and science.
More iconic contributions would follow. It’s a Small World debuted at the 1964 New York World’s Fair and is now a mainstay at both Disneyland and Disney World. It was not long after that he announced plans for a Disney World on property he had purchased in Florida. He tagged the idea, “the Florida Project”, and similarly to Disneyland used his reach on TV to talk about developing the park in order to attract investors. Due to its larger land size, Disney World could be a much more elaborate version of Disneyland. Magic Kingdom would be the park that most resembled its California forebear, but Walt also had plans for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).
Which he described as:
an experimental prototype community of tomorrow that will take its cue from the new ideas and new technologies that are now emerging from the creative centers of American industry. It will be a community of tomorrow that will never be completed, but will always be introducing and testing and demonstrating new materials and systems. And EPCOT will always be a showcase to the world for the ingenuity and imagination of American free enterprise.
While this park does exist today, there were substantial changes from an actual city where people lived to the theme park it became.
Sadly, Walt would not get to see Disney World come to light. Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1966, after being a heavy smoker most of his life. And he passed away in December of that year. He was sixty-five years old.
Too soon to witness one of his greatest creations, a world where
his and others imaginations fame to life.
Despite his untimely death, Walt was an inspiration to many creatives the world over. His Walt Disney Company gave opportunities to generations of entertainers and artists. The Disney Parks, with three international parks, see millions of visitors every year. His company that started with nothing more than an idea and a love of drawing has become a juggernaut in the film industry and has touched the lives of millions of people all around the world. To quote Walt himself, “When you’re curious, you find lots of interesting things to do.”
Walt Disney certainly found “interesting things” to do and created some of the most influential art of the twentieth century. He blazed new trails and set a stage. As he said, “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
References and further reading:
The most amazing Ub Iwerks biography I’ve read
Walt Disney an american Original
The Walt Disney Family museum, a beautiful Ressource of media and history on Disney.
A full collection of works by Walt Disney
Historic Missourians Biography of Walt Disney