Discovering Disney: 10 Surprising Facts About Walt Disney
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company, a century of magic, imagination, and storytelling that has left an indelible mark on the world.
Walt Disney’s dream began with a mouse and grew into a global phenomenon that continues to enchant and inspire generations. This milestone celebration serves as a reminder of the enduring legacy of Walt Disney and the company he founded, a legacy that has brought joy to millions and will undoubtedly continue to do so for years to come.
Walt Disney, the filmmaker, businessman, and creator of dreams, remains an enigmatic figure with many secrets. Delve into the life of the man behind the magic with these 10 fascinating anecdotes:
1. Walt Disney, French Roots
Walt Disney may sound quintessentially American, but his name has purely French origins. “Disney” is an anglicized version of “d’Isigny,” the name associated with two Norman soldiers, Hughes d’Isigny and his son Robert, who ventured alongside William the Conqueror to conquer England. These distant ancestors of the Disney family profoundly influenced Walt, who made the Normandy flag a significant element of his creative universe.
You’ll also spot the region’s lion coat of arms on the Sleeping Beauty Castle bridge at Disneyland Paris and the castle flag in the introductory clip of Disney films. Even in hotels and restaurants worldwide, if you ask for butter, you might receive the famous Normandy butter from Isigny.
2. Walt Disney, A Hard Worker
Before becoming the successful filmmaker we know, Walt Elias Disney was the son of a humble working-class family. From a young age, he woke up at 3:30 a.m. to deliver newspapers with his brother Roy. He worked as a postman, a doorman in college, and a traveling salesman on a Missouri Pacific Railroad train, where his passion for steam engines blossomed.
On Saturday mornings, he took drawing classes at the Chicago Art Institute, inspired by these experiences. Main Street in his theme parks mirrors the small American towns of his youth. And in each Disneyland park, you’ll find a steam train.
3. Disney, An Affirmed Patriot
While Walt Disney is primarily remembered as the founding father of modern fairy tales, he’s more than that. Before creating Mickey Mouse, young Walt ardently tried to enlist in the army during World War I, alongside his brother.
When deemed too young to join, he resorted to falsifying his passport and joined the Red Cross. After the armistice, he was stationed in France, not far from Marne-La-Vallée, where Disneyland Paris stands today.
4. Walt Disney, Young Entrepreneur
Walt Disney’s entrepreneurial spirit ignited early. In 1920, at just 19, he started his first company, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, with partner Ub Iwerks. Shortly after, he founded another, Laugh-O-Gram, in 1922, where he produced short fairy tale films popular in local cinemas.
Financial constraints forced him to abandon the project, but he relocated to Hollywood with his brother and ventured into photography. It wasn’t until 1923, with Alice in Wonderland in hand, that Walt and Roy created Disney Brothers Studio, signing to produce 12 films with a New York distributor.
5. The Birth of Mickey Mouse
Before Mickey Mouse, there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a popular animated hero. A copyright dispute led to Walt parting ways with Oswald. Mickey Mouse, originally named Mortimer and later renamed by his wife Lilian Disney, was born from a quick sketch by Walt on a train.
He infused the character with his playful nature and let his partner Ub Iwerks handle the design. Despite initial struggles, Disney’s decision to produce the first sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie, proved successful. This iconic creation swiftly became one of the earliest trademarks of Walt Disney Studios, and Walt even received an honorary Oscar in 1932 for this lovable character.
6. Walt Disney, An Artist at Heart
Walt Disney confessed to being an average designer despite his drawing classes. He delegated the manual work to his associates and Imagineers, creative engineers. His genius lay in guiding and inspiring his team, turning dreams into reality.
Even the Imagineers admitted that after Walt’s 1966 passing, it was challenging to continue creating new theme park attractions. Though often seen as an exemplary businessman, he left financial and negotiation aspects to his more pragmatic brother, Roy.
7. Disney, A Conservative Utopian
Despite his avant-garde film productions, Walt Disney remained a conservative American who cherished his country. He designed Main Street and Frontierland in his theme parks, reflecting his vision of early 20th-century America.
Yet, the 1941 Disney studio strike and controversy surrounding the movie “Song of the South” challenged his perspective. It depicted a glorified image of slavery, sparking criticism. Disney recently announced plans to re-theme the Splash Mountain attraction to honor “The Princess and the Frog,” featuring Tiana, Disney’s first black princess.
8. Walt Disney, the Risk Taker
Walt’s willingness to take risks extended beyond Steamboat Willie. For Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he staked his studio’s finances and almost faced ruin. The film’s global success instilled investor confidence, enabling the creation of iconic works like Fantasia and Cinderella.
When he envisioned his first amusement park in California, he faced financial challenges. To fund Disneyland, he sold life insurance, his vacation home, and sought help from those around him. The ABC channel answered his call in exchange for a television show and the Zorro series. They financed the park with $500,000, leading to Disneyland’s monumental success in 1955.
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9. Disney, An Enthusiast of the Future
Walt Disney was always ahead of his time, whether in films, documentaries, or amusement parks. He believed that Disneyland should never be considered complete. He dreamed of building a self-sustaining city known as the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).
This city would be politically and economically autonomous, producing its energy. Unfortunately, Walt passed away during the construction of Walt Disney World, and his utopian project never materialized. Instead, his associates and Imagineers realized his vision through the theme park, EPCOT, opened in 1982.
10. Walt Disney in Numbers
- 22: The number of Oscars Walt Disney received, a record unmatched to this day.
- 19: Walt provided the voice for Mickey Mouse for 19 years, from 1928 to 1947.
- 3D: Disney pioneered 3D by developing the multiplane camera, adding depth to cartoon imagery.
- 17 years: The time it took Walt to secure the rights to Mary Poppins, which resulted in a 1964 masterpiece.
- $5.5 billion: The Walt Disney Company’s 2016 revenue from merchandise alone.
In honor of the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney Co., we’ve delved into the remarkable life of its founder, Walt Disney. Beyond the enchanting stories and timeless characters, Disney’s journey is filled with unexpected twists and inspiring achievements. From his humble beginnings to his pioneering contributions in animation and entertainment, Walt Disney’s legacy continues to captivate hearts around the world.
As we celebrate this centenary, may we remember the man whose imagination knew no bounds and who dared to dream, bringing joy to generations. The magic of Disney lives on, and with these ten incredible facts about Walt Disney, we hope to have uncovered a few more layers of the legend behind the mouse.
Walt Disney’s legacy is a tapestry of innovation, creativity, and determination, from his humble beginnings to global recognition. His impact endures, making him a true American icon. This conclusion pays tribute to Walt Disney and his profound impact on the world of entertainment.