Walt Disney created Mickey Mouse in 1928, produced the world’s first animated feature film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in 1937, opened Disneyland in 1955 and along the way became one of the most iconic figures of the 20th century. From the business setback that spurred him to develop his most famous cartoon character to the persistent myth surrounding his death, check out seven fascinating facts about this entertainment legend.
Born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, Disney, the fourth of five children, moved with his family to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, when he was four. It was in Marceline—a small-town community Disney remembered as an adult as having been idylli—that he first received encouragement for his burgeoning interest in drawing, from both an aunt as well as a neighbor who was a retired doctor. However, Disney’s father had difficulty making a living in Marceline and sold the farm in 1910; the following year, the family relocated to Kansas City. There, Disney’s father purchased a newspaper route and for the next six years Walt helped with the deliveries, working before and after school and on weekends. In 1917, his father sold the paper route and moved the family back to Chicago, where he was employed at a jelly and fruit juice company. Walt dropped out of high school at 16 (he had been an inattentive student but drew constantly) and, with the Unites States fighting World War I, joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps by forging his birth certificate in order to meet the Corps’ minimum age requirement of 17. He was sent to France in late 1918, shortly after the signing of the armistice that ended the fighting. Disney spent his time driving Red Cross officials and doing other tasks before being discharged in 1919.
Following his Red Cross service, Disney moved to Kansas City, hoping to become a newspaper cartoonist. Instead, he found work creating advertisements for magazines and movie theaters then became interested in animation. In 1922, he opened a film studio called Laugh-O-Gram but it struggled financially and shut down in 1923. That same year, he moved to Hollywood and formed Disney Brothers Studio with his older sibling Roy. After producing various short, animated cartoons, the studio started making a series in 1927 about a character Walt had developed called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, the next year, in what was a major blow, Walt lost the rights to his popular creation and many of his employees were poached in a corporate dispute. In response, he developed a new character originally dubbed Mortimer Mouse before it was decided Mickey would be a better moniker. Mickey Mouse made his official debut in a 1928 short film titled “Steamboat Willie,” one of the first cartoons ever to use synchronized sound effects. The rodent quickly became a star, and soon there were Mickey Mouse Clubs for children as well as merchandise and a comic strip. When Mickey spoke for the first time, in 1929’s “The Karnival Kid” (his words were “Hot dog, hot dog”), Walt was unhappy with how the character sounded and went on to lend his own voice to the mouse until 1947’s “Mickey and the Beanstalk,” when he said he was too busy to continue doing so.
During the war, Disney employees created educational films for various federal agencies, including a 1942 animated short, “The New Spirit,” commissioned by the Treasury Department to encourage people to pay their income taxes as a way to support the war effort. The film, which starred Donald Duck, was shown in thousands of movie theaters and even earned an Academy Award nomination. The Disney studio also made training films for the American military, and created, free-of-charge, more than a thousand insignia for military units; the designs centered around established Disney characters as well as new characters. Although Walt initially was reluctant to risk tarnishing his image as a non-political entertainer by producing blatantly propagandistic works, his team eventually turned out animated shorts such as 1943’s “Der Fuerher’s Face,” which made fun of the Nazis and again starred Donald Duck. Additionally, after reading the 1942 best-seller “Victory Through Air Power” by Major Alexander de Seversky, Walt, driven by his own patriotism, decided to adapt it as a 1943 live action-animated feature of the same name in order to win support for the book’s theories—considered controversial by some U.S. military officials—about strategic long-range bombing. Both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw the film, which reportedly made an impression on them.
The famous filmmaker had a long fascination with trains. His father and an uncle had spent time working on railroads, and as a teen in Kansas City Walt did a brief stint selling newspapers and snacks on trains. It was on a 1928 train trip back to Los Angeles from New York (after learning he’d lost the rights to his cartoon character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) that Walt began developing the idea for the character eventually known to the world as Mickey Mouse (contrary to legend, Walt didn’t have a pet mouse on which he based Mickey). Later, Walt constructed elaborate model train sets as a way to unwind from the stress of his job. In the late 1940s, he built himself a one-eighth scale steam locomotive, and after moving into a new home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles in 1950 he laid half a mile of tracks around the property for his railroad. He would dress up in a train engineer’s clothing and give visitors rides on his Carolwood Pacific Railroad, named for the street he lived on. His passion for trains is reflected at Disneyland, which has been home to its own railroad since opening in 1955.
Walt originally intended to build a small amusement park near his Burbank studio; however, his plans soon grew more ambitious and in 1953 he hired a research firm to find the optimal southern California location for a large-scale theme park. After studying factors such as population growth, weather patterns and transportation options, the firm recommended the site that would become Disneyland’s home: a 160-acre parcel, consisting mostly of orange trees, in Anaheim. Construction began in July 1954 and Disneyland opened a year later, on July 17. Opening day didn’t go smoothly, though: People produced counterfeit tickets, leading to an over-capacity crowd of attendees; rides broke; parts of the park were unfinished and a gas leak forced Fantasyland to be closed. Disneyland’s debut was showcased in a live TV broadcast—co-hosted by then-actor Ronald Reagan and seen by approximately 70 million Americans—yet the program was riddled with technical difficulties. Nevertheless, Disneyland was an immediate success, and after just one month the park had hosted more than half a million visitors. (Initially, it cost a dollar for adults and 50 cents for children to gain entry to the park, plus an extra 10 cents to 25 cents for every individual attraction.) Walt, who had been heavily involved in Disneyland’s development, enjoyed spending time at the park and even had an apartment there.
Disney holds the record for most individual Oscar wins (22) and nominations (59). In 1932, at the fifth Academy Awards ceremony, he earned his inaugural award, in the best short subject (cartoon) category, for “Flowers and Trees,” which used the new three-strip Technicolor process. Disney went on to win the same category at the next seven Oscar ceremonies. He scored one best picture nomination, for 1964’s “Mary Poppins,” but lost to “My Fair Lady.” (“Mary Poppins” did, however, rack up wins in five other Oscar categories, including best leading actress, given to Julie Andrews.) Disney also received four honorary Oscars, including one (handed out in 1932) for creating Mickey Mouse, another (in 1939) for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (child actress Shirley Temple presented Disney with the award, which consisted of a regular-size statuette along with seven miniature versions, as a nod to the dwarfs); and a third (in 1942) for “Fantasia” and its contribution to sound design.
In November 1966, doctors discovered that Disney, a longtime smoker, had lung cancer. He died at a Burbank hospital the following month, on December 15, at age 65. Not long after his death, stories began circulating in the tabloid press that the filmmaker had been cryogenically preserved—that is, he’d been frozen with the hope that science might one day make it possible for him to be brought back to life. Despite the persistent rumors regarding Disney and cryonics, he was, in fact, cremated and his ashes were interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
The first person to be frozen cryogenically was an American university professor in January 1967. Since that time, more than a hundred others have been cryopreserved, including baseball great Ted Williams, who died in 2002.