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Walt Disney (1901 - 1966)

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Introduction

Since the creation of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, the Walt Disney Company has provided cartoon lovers with hundreds of animated characters to cherish through movies, merchandise, and amusement parks. Walt Disney established a business empire based upon fantasy and what he considered to be good, old-fashioned fun. Disney’s imagination and determination helped his company to grow and prosper through several initial setbacks, the Great Depression
In late October 1929 a devastating stock market crash occurred on Wall Street. The crash was the result of risky financial decisions made by investors in the stock market. The value of stocks fell dramatically, sending the economy into a tailspin. Many people went broke and faced tough times. The crash was followed by the Great Depression, a severe worldwide economic downturn that lasted until World War II. Many people were unemployed during this time, income dropped, and many families became homeless.
, World War II
World War II was a global conflict that began in Europe on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. In response, Britain and France declared war on Germany. War broke out between the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and the Allied Powers (Britain, France, and the Soviet Union). Japan invaded China, occupied the Philippines, and seized a number of islands throughout the Pacific, while Germany captured much of Europe and North Africa before invading the Soviet Union. Millions of civilians were killed; Jews were specifically singled out by the Germans for extermination, as were other minorities, such as those who were mentally ill, physically and mentally disabled, homosexual, or members of political and religious groups who opposed the Axis Powers.

The United States provided aid to the Allied Powers but remained neutral until Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941. The United States then declared war on Japan and, in turn, Germany declared war on the United States. The United States joined the Allied Powers and launched an enormous war effort at home and abroad. On the home front, civilians made important contributions by helping to produce military equipment, supplies, and food in record amounts. American military forces fought in Europe, North Africa, and throughout the Pacific against the Axis Powers. By the end of the war, over twelve million Americans had served in the armed forces.

On May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered, bringing an end to the war in Europe. The war in the Pacific continued until the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in early August 1945. The Japanese surrendered on August 14, 1945. By the end of the war, over 418,500 American servicemen were killed, and worldwide an estimated thirty-eight million people lost their lives during the war.
, and the Cold War. His brand of fun continues to entertain today.
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Early Years and Education

Walter Elias Disney was born December 5, 1901, in Chicago, Illinois, to Elias and Flora Disney. His siblings were Herbert, Ray, Roy, and Ruth. Roy later helped his brother make the Disney Company a success. Walt’s parents grew tired of life in Chicago and decided to move closer to family on a farm outside of Marceline, Missouri, in 1906. Walt attended Park Elementary School. The small-town life of Marceline had a huge impact on Walt. It was here that he began to draw animals and indulge his imagination. Walt’s exposure to rural life influenced him throughout his career.

Walt Disney as a child Walt Disney as a child Walt Disney around the age of one while still living in Chicago.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]

After four years, the farm was not profitable, and Walt’s father became ill. In 1911 the family moved to Kansas City where Roy and Walt helped their father deliver newspapers. Walt was only nine years old when he had to get up at 3:30 a.m., seven days a week, to fold and deliver papers for two hours before attending the Benton Grammar School After moving to Kansas City in 1911, Walt attended the Benton School which was less than two blocks from his house on East 31st Street.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]
. Walt’s work responsibilities did not keep him from drawing and having fun. He attended the Kansas City Art Institute on Saturday mornings, and performed skits and vaudeville routines with friends at local theaters. Walt graduated from the Benton School, and soon the family moved back to Chicago.

Walt started McKinley High School in 1917 and he began to draw for the student newspaper. His biggest adventure Disney lied about his age and enlisted in the Red Cross Ambulance Service in 1918. World War I was over, but Walt got to go to France to assist military personnel as a driver in the motor pool.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]
at this time, however, was lying about his age (with the help of his mother) in order to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in Europe after World War I
Also known as the First World War, World War I was a global war that was centered in Europe. The conflict began on July 28, 1914, and lasted until November 11, 1918. It was triggered by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, on June 28, 1914. Alliances between countries were tested and war soon erupted. The two opposing alliances were the Allies and the Central Powers. The Allies consisted of the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire. The Central Powers were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Other countries were later drawn into the conflict, including the United States, which supported the Allies and entered the war on April 6, 1917. More than sixteen million died during the war and twenty million others were wounded. The National World War I Museum is located in Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
. Walt headed to France in 1918, and for nine months, he drove supply trucks and ambulances and chauffeured officers. When his tour was over, Walt returned to Chicago briefly, but rather than going back to school and getting a high school diploma, he headed back to Kansas City in 1919.
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Early Career in Kansas City

Kansas City Film Ad Kansas City Film Ad Kansas City Film Ad Service staff including Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks.

[Courtesy of the Baron Missakian Collection, University of Missouri-Kansas City]

Disney did not achieve financial success in Kansas City, but he experimented with and learned animation, created his first animated series, and trained a number of young artists in this new field. His first job was for Pesman-Rubin Commercial Art Studio designing letterhead and advertisements. There he met his longtime friend and associate Ub Iwerks. Disney and Iwerks were soon laid off, and they decided to start their own company. Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists lasted only one month.

Disney at work Disney at work Walt Disney works on a sketch at his drawing table for Laugh-O-Gram Films.

[Courtesy of the Baron Missakian Collection, University of Missouri-Kansas City]
From there, the two got jobs with the Kansas City Slide Company, later renamed the Kansas City Film Ad Company, making one-minute advertisements to appear before movies and live action films. Disney learned about animation at this job and eventually felt confident enough to start his own business. He left the Film Ad Company in May of 1922 to start Laugh-O-Gram Films in the McConahy building
The McConahy building at Forest Avenue and 31st Street in Kansas City, Missouri, housed Laugh-O-Gram Films, Disney’s first animation business in 1922 and 1923. The McConahy building at Forest Avenue and 31st Street in Kansas City, Missouri, housed Laugh-O-Gram Films, Disney’s first animation business in 1922 and 1923. The structure is undergoing renovations and is currently owned by a non-profit group called, Thank You Walt Disney, Inc.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]
 See how the bulding looked when Disney worked there. See how the bulding looked when Disney worked there.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]
at 31st Street and Forest Avenue. Disney put an ad in the newspaper requesting artists who wanted to learn animation to come work for him.

Disney’s first popular film, Alice’s Wonderland, was created here and featured a girl, Virginia Davis Virginia Davis appeared as Alice in Disney’s earliest cartoon, the Alice Comedies. The Alice Comedies featured a real girl who, after falling asleep, would wake up and find herself in cartoon land. Virginia and her parents followed Walt Disney to Hollywood and she appeared in 13 more cartoons.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]
, entering a cartoon world. He went on to make a series of these films, which are referred to as the Alice Comedies.

Disney and Staff Disney and Staff This 1924 photo shows Walt Disney with his staff, all of whom were from Kansas City, Missouri, and Margie Gay, who would later play the Alice character in the Alice Comedies. The men in the photo are (from left to right) Walker Harman, Ub Iwerks, Hugh Harman, Rudolph Ising, Friz Freleng, and Roy Disney. Walt Disney kneels beside Margie Gay.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]

Disney operated his new company for a year and a half. He had good ideas, but he was not a good businessman. Eventually his staff left because they were not getting paid. Disney declared bankruptcy and left Kansas City in July of 1923 to try his luck in Hollywood.

The building where Disney created his first films and operated his first professional film studio still stands and is being renovated. The talented animators who got their start in Kansas City eventually followed Disney to California, making up the core of professional cartoonists in the early days of the Hollywood animation scene. They included Ub Iwerks, Rudolf Ising, Hugh Harman, and Friz Freleng.


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Walt Goes to Hollywood

Hollywood Hollywood Originally Hollywoodland, the sign was put up by Los Angeles publisher Harry Chandler and movie star Mack Sennett in 1923 to promote their housing development in the Hollywood Hills. It was shortened to Hollywood in the 1940s. Each of the letters stands four stories high.

[Courtesy of Library of Congress; Photo by Carol M. Highsmith]

With $500 borrowed from his uncle, and help from his brother Roy, Disney started the Disney Brothers Studio. He acquired a New York distributor to release his Alice Comedies. Roy became the studio manager, and Ub Iwerks and Ham Hamilton joined the team as animators. The Alice Comedies became very popular, and soon Disney’s staff grew and he built a new studio on Hyperion Avenue.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Disney’s second successful animated series featured the playful character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]

In 1927 Disney created Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which was also a huge hit. At this time, Disney experienced the first of many setbacks with his new company. His distributor in New York, Charles Mintz, hired away most of Disney’s animators. He refused to negotiate a fair contract in order to force Disney to work for him, saying Universal Studios owned all of Disney’s creations. Disney did not give in to Mintz. He went back to Hollywood, and he, Roy, and his one loyal animator, Iwerks, began work on a new character.

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Mickey Mouse is Born

Mickey Mouse Mickey Mouse Mickey Mouse appears in safari clothes during a parade at Disney World’s Animal Kingdom.



[Courtesy of Jeff Corrigan]

After this experience, Disney was determined to be the sole owner of all of his cartoons. He needed a new idea, so Disney, Roy, and Iwerks shaped the character that would become Mickey Mouse. Iwerks drew the character, and Disney became his voice. According to Disney, the inspiration for Mickey Mouse came from an actual pet mouse he kept in his office in Kansas City.

Disney released Steamboat Willie in 1928, and contracted with Pat Powers and his Cinephone technology to put the cartoon to music, making it the most successful sound cartoon. The Silly Symphonies Series followed in 1929, and then disaster struck again in 1930. Pat Powers wanted to control the new Mickey Mouse cartoons. Again, most of the Disney staff left to work for Powers, including Ub Iwerks. Powers thought Disney would also follow for a large salary, but Disney did not. Instead, he and Roy purchased their contract from Powers, found a new distributor, and made Mickey Mouse the most beloved cartoon character of all time.

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The Walt Disney Studio

In 1925 the name of the Disney Brothers Studio was changed to the Walt Disney Studio. The same year Disney married one of his employees, Lillian Bounds. Together they had two daughters, Sharon and Diane.

Flowers and Trees, the first color cartoon using Technicolor film. Flowers and Trees In 1932 Walt Disney produced Flowers and Trees, the first color cartoon using Technicolor film.

[Courtesy of Dan Viets]

The Great Depression did not prevent the Disney Studio from growing. Disney continued to experiment with animation, color, and sound, buying exclusive rights to use Technicolor, a new three-color process, in his films. In 1932 he won his first Academy Award for Flowers and Trees and another one in 1937 for Snow White, the first full-length animated feature film. Also in 1932, the Disney Art School was established, and “the Disney style” of animation was taught to new artists.

A.F.L. Screen Cartoon Guild Strike Disney Company Strike The American Federation of Labor Screen Cartoon Guild Strike began at Walt Disney Productions, May 29, 1941, and lasted until the fall of that year.

[Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, UCLA]

By 1939 the studio needed a larger facility, so Disney built the Burbank Studio. In the early 1940s, Disney favorites such as Fantasia, Pinocchio, Dumbo, and Bambi were released. A labor strike in 1941 impacted the success of the studio. Strikers demanded fair wages and job security. The strike ended in the fall of that year, but some employees remained unhappy, and Disney felt personally betrayed by his staff’s actions.

Also in 1941, the U.S. Army moved onto the Disney lot and stayed for eight months. During this time, Disney did not have a lot of money to do feature films. He focused on government contracts that required him to make training and patriotic films such as Victory Through Air Power in 1943. Disney produced many educational and industrial films at this time.

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Disney in the 1950s and 1960s

Disneyland Disneyland Disneyland.

[Courtesy of Laura Jolley]

Disney recovered from the turmoil of the 1940s to give the public animated films such as Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, and Sleeping Beauty. He also ventured into live-action films, making twenty-four pictures between 1950 and 1961, including Pollyanna, Swiss Family Robinson, and The Parent Trap.

Disney took advantage of television to promote
Advertisement for tv show about Disneyland. Advertisement for TV show about Disneyland.

[Kansas City Star. July 17, 1955. p. 11e]
Advertisement for tv show about Disneyland. Advertisement for TV show about Disneyland.

[Kansas City Star. July 17, 1955. p. 2e]
his movies and his theme parks. The Mickey Mouse Club began October 3, 1955, and ran until 1959 on ABC. Episodes of Davy Crockett appeared on the television show, Disneyland, between 1954 and 1956, and were so popular that young boys everywhere wore coonskin hats to idealize their frontier hero.
Disneyland Castle Disneyland Castle Korean student Jong Sook Kim visits the Mad Hatter and Alice at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, June 5, 1964.

[Los Angeles Times Photographic Archives, UCLA]

The building of Disneyland Building Disneyland

[Courtesy Missouri State Archives]
in 1955 was a dream come true for Disney. With financial backing from ABC, he was able to create a fantasy world for both adults and children, allowing guests to immerse themselves in his cartoons rather than just watching them on the big screen. Disney based his “Main Street, USA,” upon the streets of small town America, particularly the buildings in downtown Marceline, Missouri. In fact, Disney paid a visit to Marceline in 1946 and likely did research for his park design. In 1938 Disney had written, “More things of importance happened to me in Marceline than have happened since—or are likely to in the future.”

Spaceship Earth Spaceship Earth One of the many attractions at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, is Future World in the Epcot Theme Park.

[Courtesy of Jeff Corrigan]

Throughout the 1960s, Disney continued to work with his staff of “Imagineers.” The theme parks allowed Disney a whole new outlet for creativity and building technology like audio-animatronics, which brought his mechanical characters to life. Disney began buying land and designing a second park in central Florida that would become Walt Disney World in 1971. Popular Disney movies during the 1960s included One Hundred and One Dalmatians, Mary Poppins, and The Jungle Book.

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Legacy

Walt Disney Park dedication Walt Disney Park dedication In July 1956, Walt and Lillian Disney, along with his brother Roy and wife Edna, visited Marceline, Missouri, for the dedication of the Walt Disney Municipal Park and Pool. More than 6,000 people showed up on July 4th for a chance to see Walt Disney.

[The Magic City Diamond Jubilee Celebration, Walsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1968, p. 14]

By the end of his career, Disney had grown from a struggling artist to a great visionary. Walt Disney holds the record for most Academy Awards won. He was known for his relentless work ethic and vision. Disney had a profound sense of what the public wanted, and he capitalized upon the prevailing sentiments of the times, whether it was the poverty of the Great Depression, patriotism during the 1940s, or anticommunist feelings of the 1950s.

The Dreaming Tree The Dreaming Tree Disney returned to Marceline several times. Here he visits the "Dreaming Tree" with his brother Roy. The tree is on the Disney farm in Marceline and Walt used to spend time there, sketching the animals around him.

[Courtesy of Kaye Malins]

The Freedom Foundation presented Disney with the George Washington Award in 1963 for promoting the American way of life, and President Lyndon Johnson awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Walt and Roy Disney were also instrumental in establishing the California Institute of the Arts in 1961.

Before he died on December 15, 1966 of lung cancer, Disney visited Marceline several more times. On July 4, 1956, he and Roy attended the dedication of the Walt Disney Municipal Park and Pool. Disney returned in 1960 for the Walt Disney Elementary School dedication Walt Disney arrived in Marceline, Missouri, on October 16, 1960, for the dedication of the Walt Disney Elementary School. Eldred Sage, Walt Disney, and Rush Johnson are shown viewing murals in the multi-purpose room.

[The Magic City Diamond Jubilee Celebration, Walsworth Publishing Company, Inc., 1968, p. 59]
. He never forgot the small Missouri town that influenced his work so much.


Text and research by Laura R. Jolley with assistance from Dan Viets

Meets Show-Me Standards SS: 2, 6, 7; 4th grade GLE 2a.A.

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References and Resources

For more information about Walt Disney's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Walt Disney in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.


  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
  • Books
    • Burnes, Brian, Robert W. Butler, and Dan Viets. Walt Disney’s Missouri: The Roots of a Creative Genius. Kansas City: Kansas City Star Books, 2002. [REF F508.1 D632bu ]
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds.  Dictionary of Missouri Biography.  Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999.  pp. 241-243.  [REF F508 D561]
    • Feild, Robert. The Art of Walt Disney. London: Collins, 1947 [F508.1 D632f 1947]
    • Finch, Christopher. The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdoms. New York: H. W. Abrams, 1973. [REF 508.1 D632 oversize]
    • Greene, Katherine, and Richard Greene. Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney. New York: Disney editions, 2001. [REF F508.1 D632gr2 oversize]
    • Kurtti, Jeff. Since the World Began: Walt Disney World, the First 25 Years. New York: Hyperion, 1996. [F508.1 D632k]
    • Smith, Dave, and Steven Clark. Disney: The First 100 Years. New York: Hyperion, 1999. [REF F508.1 D632sm]
    • Watts, Steven. The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1997. [REF F508.1 D632wa]

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's Website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following Websites:
  • Walt Disney Hometown Museum
    This Website describes what you can find at the Disney Boyhood Museum in Marceline, Missouri.
  • JustDisney.com
    Produced by Brad Aldridge, an artist and illustrator from California, this Website has a lot of information about Disney and his career in animation.
  • Walt Disney: A Biography
    This biography of Walt Disney appears on the Walt Disney Company’s Website.


Walt Disney Walt Disney in 1931 at the age of 30.

[Courtesy of the Baron Missakian Collection, University of Missouri-Kansas City]

Walter Elias Disney

Born: December 5, 1901
Died: December 15, 1966 (age 65)
Categories: Artists, Entrepreneurs
Regions of Missouri: Northeast, Kansas City
Missouri Hometown: Marceline

Walt Disney's Signature