On December 5, 1901, Walter Elias Disney, was born in Chicago, Illinois, as the fourth child of Elias Disney and Flora Call Disney. He was named after the family's pastor. Two years later his little sister, Ruth, was born. Elias and Flora were not happy about the raucous, saloon-centered nature of their neighborhood so they decided a move was needed.
The Disney family moved to Marceline, Missouri in April of 1906. When they arrived, Walt could smell the perfume of the apple blossoms from the small orchard behind the house. That fall the same trees hung heavy with crispy red Wolf river apples, "so big that people came from miles around to see them," Walt recalled. For the rest of his life he remembered the community spirit that infused this corner of the world -- particularly at harvest time, when friends and neighbors worked together like one big family
As Walt grew older, he became friendly with a variety of characters like Erastus Taylor, a Civil War veteran who told dramatic tales of battles long past. Aunt Margaret, Uncle Robert's wife, "would bring me big tablets -- Crayola things -- and I'd always draw Aunt Margaret pictures and she'd always rave over them," Walt later recalled.
In the summer of 1911, the Disney family moved to Kansas City after Walt's father slowly recoverd from a case of typhoid. In Kansas City, Elias bought a newspaper route. Walt rose at 3:30 a.m. and was required to place every paper behind the customer's storm door -- not out on the lawn like other newsboys. In the winter, crawling up icy steps with heavy bags of papers more than once drove Walt to cold tears. Walt often had trouble staying awake in school because of this work. Occasionally, though, he'd surprise his teachers. In fifth grade he memorized the Gettysburg Address, came to school dressed as Lincoln, and performed for every class in the school. A talent for art emerged during these years, and Walt drew his own versions of Maggie and Jiggs, a popular comic strip.
When Walt's folks left for Chicago, he chose to stay behind for the summer. He lived in the family house with Roy and his oldest brother, Herbert, who by now was married and had a two-year-old daughter, Dorothy.
Walt didn't mind at all when he lost money on a job selling newspaper, candy, fruit and soda on the railroad. He loved the chance to see the country. He never did anything for the money. At summer's end, he joined his family in Chicago, where he attended McKinley High School. But his mind was thousands of miles away, on the battlefields of Europe. Walt wanted to be part of the War to End All Wars. In the meantime, he attended the Chicago Institute of Art, worked at the O'Zell Company, and drew patriotic sketches for the school paper. When school let out for the summer, he began to work at the post office, where he narrowly escaped an untimely end when the building was bombed.
In the summer of 1918, Walt was 16, he lied about his age and joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps. For the next year, Walt drove an ambulance, chauffeured officers, played poker, started smoking, and wrote letters from France.
Walt returned home from France in the fall of 1919, determined to become an artist. He and another laid-off artist, Ub Iwerks, decided to start a commercial-art business together, called Iwerks-Disney after they were laid off from their jobs. Unfortunately, business did not boom so Walt took a $40 a week job at the Kansas City Slide Company making animated commercials. After studying animation, Walt started making his own cartoons.
Walt stayed up late into the night working on animation. At the time, Kansas City theaters rented cartoons from East Coast animators. Walt decided he could compete with them by creating his own with a local twist. He successfully sold the idea to the Newman Theater and began making his own Newman Laugh-O-grams. Typically, he priced them too low and made no money. But he was in the cartoon business. His family soon left Kansas City and Walt was left alone and moved to a rooming house.
After some very rough financial times, Walt received $500 for a dental hygiene film and poured it into a new effort called "Alice's Wonderland." But before it could be completed, he had to declare bankruptcy. With the unfinished film in hand, he took his remaining few dollars and purchased a train ticket to California.
He turned to his one real skill -- animation -- and set up a tiny studio in his Uncle Robert's garage. He wrote to M. J. Winkler, a film distributor, announcing that he was "establishing a studio in Los Angeles for the purpose of producing a new and novel series of cartoons." The new and novel series was his half-finished "Alice's Wonderland" cartoon, a combination of a real little girl and a menagerie of animated characters. Winkler bought half a dozen Alice cartoons from Walt for $1,500 apiece, and Walt was off and running.
Walt knew that he was not good at finances so he convinced Roy to join him in California as a partner in his new business. That may have been the best single decision of Walt's career. In 1923 they launched the Disney Brothers Studio. Part of the money for this came from Walt's parents who had to mortgage their house in Portland. They bought a used camera, rented a tiny studio in the back of a real-estate office, moved into a one-room apartment together, hired a couple of assistants, and according to Walt began the process of making "the name Disney famous around the world."
On June 13, 1925, Walt married Lily Bounds who had grown up as one of the 10 children of a blacksmith. However, Walt had refused to meet her family until he could save enough money to buy a suit.
Walt came up with Oswald the Rabbit and the rabbit's stardom grew but what he didn't know was that Universal Studios actually owned Oswald and when he tried to renew his contract, it didn't go as he had planned. On the way back to California, Mickey was born. He was originally going to name him Mortimer but Lily didn't like that name and suggested Mickey.
Steamboat Willie, starring none other than Mickey Mouse, was the first cartoon with sound and made Mickey an instant star. His popularity grew by leaps and bounds.
Walt loved children but it wasn't until the third pregnancy that Diane Marie Disney was successfully carried to full term and born on December 18, 1933. After another miscarriage, Sharon Mae was adopted in January of 1937.
Disney's first full length animated film, Snow White was released on December 21, 1937, in the Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. Of course, it was a huge success.
World War II and the loss of foreign markets plus Walt's tendency to go over budget soon had the company in debt in a large way. Pinocchio hadn't done as well as expected and neither had Fantasia.
When Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States was drawn into the Second World War, the nation was in a state of near panic. That night, Walt's phone rang. It was his studio manager. "Walt," he said, "The army is moving in on us. I said I'd have to call you. And they said 'Call him. But we're moving in anyway.'" Hours later, some 700 soldiers had, in fact, seized the Disney Studio. Their purpose was to help protect the nearby Lockheed aircraft plant -- an installation that was vital to the nation's security. The next day President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared war. And for the next eight months, until other provisions could be made, soldiers ate, trained, and lived in Walt's studio.
During fiscal year 1942-43, Disney turned out 204,000 feet of film, 95% of it for government contracts." Walt made animated training films and a variety of other civic projects.
The idea of an amusement park consumed Walt. Lack of funds did not deter him. He borrowed on his life insurance, sold his vacation home, borrowed from his employees and founded Walt Disney, Inc. This still left him short on funds for the project. He and Roy struck a deal to create a television show for ABC. In exchange, ABC would put up $500,000 in cash, guarantee $4.5 million in loans, and receive one-third ownership in the park (which it later sold back to Walt). The show, "Disneyland," would make Walt's face as famous as his name.
Walt saw the realization of Disneyland in 1960. The park used all his time and grew by leaps and bounds for the next year. He stated it would never be complete.
Of course the Florida Project would include a theme park like Disneyland, but that's not really what fascinated Walt. No, he had decided that he could apply his lifetime of experiences to a brand-new kind of city; a city whose residents would utilize the best thinking about transportation, communication, and sanitation. Walt called his dream EPCOT, for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. Although EPCOT exists today, it's not the place Walt envisioned. He simply didn't live long enough to see this dream to reality.
Late 1966, Walt was diagnosed with lung cancer. Years of smoking had caught up with him. Walt told his family that they shouldn't be concerned, that he'd have the cancer removed and quickly recover. But on Monday, November 7, the surgeon told Lilly, Diane, and Sharon that the cancer had spread and that Walt had between six months and two years to live. There were a few more visits to the studio -- which was working on "The Jungle Book" and "The Happiest Millionaire" -- and to WED. But Walt spent most of the next few weeks with his family, making plans for the future: "I'm going to concentrate on the parks and building EPCOT," he told son-in-law Ron. On November 30, he went back to the hospital. And on December 15, he died. The flag at Disneyland flew at half mast. And as commentator Eric Severeid said, "We'll never see his like again."