Few people have had the kind of impact on American pop culture that Walt Disney had. After making his mark on the world of animated film, Disney turned to live-action films and, ultimately, the theme parks that remain major tourist destinations to this day.
Although born in Chicago, Disney considered Marceline, Missouri, to be his hometown and spent much of his life trying to recapture its small-town sensibilities. Main Street U.S.A. in the Disney parks is based on a fanciful recreation of his memories of this community.
World War I
Disney tried to enlist in the U.S. Army during WWI, but was rejected because of his age (16). He managed to join the Red Cross, which sent him to France to drive an ambulance.
Disney's first major foray into filmmaking resulted in "The Alice Comedies" of the 1920s, a series of films in which a live girl interacted with cartoon characters and an animated environment. Disney would eventually branch out into fully animated films, leading to his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. Disney himself provided the voice of the character from 1928 to 1947. After a string of animated films, Disney would return to live-action films, incorporating animated elements into movies such as "Mary Poppins."
Walt Disney's studios created the first multiplane camera, used to achieve the effect of depth in animated films. It was invented by long-time Disney collaborator Ub Iwerks in 1933. The use of the camera in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" was considered groundbreaking.
Disney began branching out beyond movies, and in 1955, opened his first theme park: Disneyland. He chose Anaheim as the location for the theme park because he believed that the population in Los Angeles would rapidly grow over the years.
Walt Disney World
Disney's biggest regret over Disneyland was space. He wanted to expand the theme park and buffer his theme park from the outside world so guests would be truly immersed in the Disney experience. After secretly buying huge parcels of seemingly worthless land in central Florida, Disney announced his next big project: Disney World. He died five years before it opened in 1971, but played a major role in its early design.
Walt Disney is credited as "Retlaw Yensid" in the film "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." That's "Walter Disney" spelled backwards. The name of the family company was Retlaw Enterprises, and the wizard character in 1940's "Fantasia" was named Yen Sid.
Disney's favorite song was "Feed the Birds," from the film "Mary Poppins." He would often ask the song's composer, Robert Sherman, to play it for him on a piano in the studio. Sherman would say in interviews that Disney liked the song because of its subtle message about human kindness.
Death From Cancer
After months of poor health, Walt Disney was diagnosed with cancer in late 1966, and underwent surgery to remove his left lung. Disney had been a chain smoker for much of his life. Disney died on December 15, 1966.
The Cryonic Myth
An often-repeated myth is that Walt Disney was frozen after his death, theoretically preserved so that he could one day be brought back to life. Some versions of this legend have Disney's body resting under a Disneyland attraction. Disney was in fact cremated shortly after his death, and his ashes were interred at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
- Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination; Neal Gabler; 2006
Edward Drummond has been writing for newspapers, magazines and the Web since 1992. He has written about some of the world's most remote and unique places, from Asia to Antarctica, for a variety of publications around the world. Drummond has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and political science from SUNY New Paltz.