The Boundless Imagination of Walt Disney

How Walt Disney Created an Entertainment Empire

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Walt Disney

Walt Disney

Walt Disney needs no intro.

He’s a legend. An American Icon. A world-builder.

I’ve wanted to write about him since I started Just Go Grind, but the task always seemed too daunting to do in a week.

It was.

In the last 3 weeks, I read two books about him for my research, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination by Neal Gabler and Disney's Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World by Richard Snow.

They were great.

After reading over 1,000 pages about Walt and cutting this piece from more than 21,000 words to around 10,000, it’s time to share his remarkable story.

Let’s get to it.

Early Days

Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901.

After spending the first few years of his life in Chicago, he moved to Marceline, Missouri in 1906.

This was a highly influential experience, as his wife later mentioned:

Marceline was the most important part of Walt's life. He didn't live there very long. He lived in Chicago and Kansas City much longer. But there was something about the farm that was very important to him.

Lillian Disney

Marceline was a place Walt’s brother, Roy, described as “heaven for city kids.”

Their Father, Elias Disney, worked hard, lived modestly, and worshiped devoutly, but also had an impulsive temper—opposite from Walt in nearly every regard.

In 1911, Walt and his family moved again, this time to Kansas City.

It was in Kansas City that Walt was forced to develop a strong work ethic, brought upon him by the crazy schedule of his paper route:

Only nine years old, Walt was nevertheless tethered to the route. On weekdays he would rise early, in the darkness, to get his allotment of fifty papers and deliver them-the first year by foot, the second by bicycle.

He returned home at five-thirty or six, took a short nap, and then woke and ate his breakfast.

Since he received virtually no compensation, for pocket money he delivered medicine for a pharmacy along his route and eventually talked his father into letting him take fifty additional papers to sell for himself at a trolley stop and, when other newsboys evicted him from his curb, on the trolley itself.

After he finished on the trolley, he headed for school, though he never completed the school day. He had to leave a half-hour early to pick up the papers for the afternoon run. At three-thirty the next morning the routine would begin again.

Neal Gabler

Walt later admitted it had a profound effect on him.

That work ethic was soon applied to drawing and two people encouraged Walt and gave him the confidence in his drawing to take it seriously—his Aunt Maggie, and his elderly neighbor, Doc Sherwood—but Doc’s words lasted Walt a lifetime:

"Don't be afraid to admit your ignorance," Doc Sherwood told him, a philosophy that Walt, who was always inquisitive, said "lasted me a lifetime."

But what Walt remembered most about Doc Sherwood—what he would recount throughout the rest of his life—was the time the doctor asked him to fetch his crayons and tablet and sketch Rupert. The horse was skittish that day. Doc Sherwood had to hold the reins, and Walt had difficulty capturing him.

"The result was pretty terrible," he recalled, "but both the doctor and his wife praised the drawing highly, to my great delight."

The drawing became, in his brother Roy's hyperbolic words, "the highlight of Walt's life."

Neal Gabler

That encouragement fueled Walt’s obsession:

He had never stopped drawing. In school he propped up his books as a blind so he could draw. He spent hours decorating the margins of his textbooks with pictures and then entertaining his classmates by riffling them to make them move.

One classmate recalled him going to the blackboard and drawing a perfect likeness of Teddy Roosevelt in chalk, while one teacher remembered him drawing flowers during an art assignment and animating them.

Neal Gabler

Similarly, many years later, a young Patrick Collison, the co-founder of Stripe, would hide his obsessive reading habit from teachers in class.

In 1918, at only 16, Walt attempted to join the army, but, being too young, he was rejected. Instead, he joined the Red Cross after forging the date on his birth certificate.

He spent almost a year in France, arriving after the armistice, serving as an ambulance driver.

After returning to Kansas City in October 1919, he was ready to jumpstart his creative career.

Early Career Adventures

In Kanas City, Walt illustrated advertisements and catalogs for the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio.

It was his first job as a commercial artist and he was overjoyed.

But it didn’t last long.

After the Christmas advertising rush was over, Walt was let go.

However, even with little professional experience, Walt was confident in his abilities.

Shortly after being fired, he pitched his prior co-worker, Ubbe “Ub” Iwerks, who was also fired, on going into business together.

They started Iwerks-Disney early in 1920, but the partnership was short-lived.

Walt left to join the Kansas City Slide Co.

It was a sign of the partners' wavering commitment that when Iwerks spotted a want ad in the Star late in January seeking an artist for the Kansas City Slide Co., he recommended that Walt pursue the job.

Walt thought the Slide Co., which produced promotional slides shown in movie theaters before the feature, might hire Iwerks-Disney as a sub-contractor, but when he brought his samples and made the suggestion, he was told that they wanted a full-time employee.

Ubbe then advised Walt to take the position, which paid thirty-five dollars a week, since the ad called for a cartoonist. They agreed that Ubbe would continue to run their shop.

Neal Gabler

At this point in Walt’s life, his attention shifted completely to animation.

It’s important to understand early animation as well.

At the time, there wasn’t much narrative refinement or real attempt at creating a story. The animation just included a series of gags.

There was an opportunity to stand out, to create something better:

But to the go-getter in Walt, and to the Disney in him, animation had another appeal. It was a way to make his mark since, unlike newspaper cartooning, animation was something that Walt thought he might do better than anyone else because so few people at the time were doing it and so few people had any expertise in it, and the idea of being the best, the most noted, clearly appealed to him.

Neal Gabler

While working at the Slide Co., Walt refined his talents in the garage his father built after they moved back to Kansas City from Chicago.

It was Walt’s first studio and he worked in it nonstop:

When he'd come home and long after everybody else was in bed, Walt was out there still, puttering away, working away, experimenting, trying this and that, drawing, and so on.

Roy Disney

He also immersed himself in the only book at the Kansas City Library on animation, Animated Cartoons: How They Are Made, Their Origin and Development, by Edwin G. Lutz.

Walt was constantly looking to improve the quality of animation and throughout much of his career stayed on the bleeding edge of the technology that allowed this to happen.

One technology, cel animation, wasn’t being adopted by the company he was working at, now called the Kansas City Film Ad Co., so he decided to use it himself, teaming up with Fred Harman, the older brother of one of his co-workers.

On March 20, 1921, his sample reel premiered at the Newman Theater.

For all their obviousness and crudeness, the Laugh-O-Grams, playing as they did at Kansas City's largest and most opulent theater, got noticed, and though Walt did not make any profit on them, he gained something he seemed to relish more than money. He got attention. "I got to be a little celebrity in the thing," he said.

Neal Gabler

This was just the start of something much bigger:

Harman and Disney even had a name for their little enterprise: Kay Cee Studios.

Though the idea of his own studio was wishful thinking, it was not entirely frivolous, any more than the idea of his own commercial art studio had been.

With the popularity of the Laugh-O-Grams, which were only a minute or two in duration, he began to think of animating longer cartoons of six or seven minutes.

Neal Gabler

Walt wanted his own company and he took the first few steps toward making that a reality:

Still as much an opportunist as an artist, he was beginning to think of branching out into business for himself, using his Film Ad job to subsidize his scheme.

In the fall, with three hundred dollars in savings, he purchased a Universal camera and a tripod and began advertising again for prospective animators whom he would pay, as he paid Ising, in experience, promising that if the project were a success, he would give them jobs in his new studio.

Several began stopping by the house at night and joining in the drawing. Meanwhile, to make additional money, Walt and Fred Harman, who now worked with his brother Hugh and Walt at the Film Ad Co., bought a secondhand Model T and trolled for jobs shooting news footage with the Universal camera. "Our sights," Harman said, "were set for long-range money and fame."

Neal Gabler

Soon, he’d make it official.

Walt’s First Studio

In 1921, after incorporating the name Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc., Walt Disney became the head of his very own animation studio.

He was 19 at the time.

To fund the business, he convinced a Kansas City doctor, John V. Cowles, to invest an initial $2,500.

Walt, who was never great at managing money, needed another $2,500 loan from Cowles the next month.

Money would be a strain on Walt for most of his career.

He was soon $2,000 in debt and losing $4,000 more each week, but he was still driven to succeed:

Though the financial situation was never less than dire almost from the company's inception, Walt maintained his peculiar confidence and persistence.

"He had the drive and ambition of ten million men," claimed a secretary who was dating a photographer across the hall and did some of Walt's clerical work at the time.

Neal Gabler

The early financial struggles, however, continued.

By 1923, Laugh-O-Gram had gone bankrupt:

Though Walt normally did possess a kind of intrepid faith, a child's faith that things would turn out right, which explains his doggedness and his myopia, at the time of the Laugh-O-Gram bankruptcy, at the age of twenty-one, he was less unaffected than he may have seemed or wanted others to think.

He was, he later admitted, "crushed and heartbroken"—crushed at having failed and heartbroken at having disappointed so many who had trusted in him and had lost money for their trust: "That first big setback got me right down and out."

He swore he would make good and pay the creditors back. At the same time he said that the Laugh-O-Gram bankruptcy had left him tougher, more determined, and inured to failure.

Neal Gabler

Many people in Walt’s position would have quit and given up on their dreams.

Can you imagine if Walt would have?

Of course, we know he didn’t quit, but he did need a change.

The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio

The change Walt was looking for took him to Los Angeles in July 1923, where his brother, Roy, was recuperating from tuberculosis.

Walt spent the first couple of months in Los Angeles trying to get someone to hire him while he simultaneously looked for a distributor for Alice’s Wonderland.

At the time, Walt wanted to get a job in a studio and wasn’t optimistic about his prospects in animation:

He now felt he had gotten into the business too late, that it was too insular, that he would not really be able to break into the big time of animation, which was, in any case, centered in New York.

"I had put my drawing board away," he told an interviewer years later. "What I wanted to do was get a job in a studio—any studio, doing anything," though in truth his aspirations were larger and more fanciful. He now hoped to get a job as a live-action director somewhere.

Neal Gabler

However, by October 1923 Walt signed a distribution deal with Margaret Winkler for two series of six films that would pay him $1,500 each for the first six and $1,800 each for the second six.

To fund the production of those films, Walt’s uncle, Robert, loaned him a total of $500, split between four loans, from November till mid-December.

Roy, who helped Walt raise funding for the company, moved into an apartment with him, and officially joined the company, forming the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio.

It didn’t get off to a great start.

The first film he finished, Alice’s Day at Sea, was far from his best work, and Margaret Winkler made her displeasure known.

But Walt worked tirelessly to make the films better.

He also hired some help, including his first animator, Rollin “Ham” Hamilton.

It all paid off in the product improvements:

He sincerely wanted to make good animations, sincerely wanted to be counted among the best at his craft. As it was, Winkler seemed mollified by the next Alice, Alice's Spooky Adventure, calling it the "best you have turned out" and telling Walt that on the strength of it she was able to make deals for the series from southern New Jersey to the District of Columbia.

But Walt, continuing to apologize for the quality of his cartoons, insisted he could make them better, saying that he had invited professional critics to his previews and that he was trying to be a "little different from the usual run of slap stick and hold them (the films) more to a dignified line of comedy."

On receipt of his fourth film, Alice's Wild West Show, Winkler wired: "if none of the future ones are any worse we will have the leading single reel of the film market."

Neal Gabler

However, even with the improved product, the company struggled financially, with the Disney brothers having to borrow money from their Uncle Robert throughout 1924 continually.

The brothers didn’t even draw a salary until December 1924.

But the company slowly grew and in 1926 they had a new studio home.

Walt Disney Studios

In early 1926, the Disneys moved their company into a 1,600-square-foot studio on Hyperion Avenue.

They also made a slight name change:

One evening when Walt and I were discussing our move, Walt said to me, “Roy, when we move to Hyperion, I'm going to have a large neon sign erected, reading “Walt Disney Studios.”

He looked at me as if expecting an argument.

I said, 'If that's the way you want it.'

And Walt said, “That's the way I want it and that's the way it will be!”

And that's the way it was.

Roy Disney

But guess what?

There were more money problems.

Walt had to create a dental hygiene film in the summer of 1926 to help pay the bills, a nice lesson on doing what it takes to survive, and it reminds me of the Airbnb team selling cereal to fund their company in the early days.

But money wasn’t the only problem.

Cracks were forming in Walt’s team due to his leadership style and some employees even conspired to start a rival studio.

Nonetheless, Walt pressed on.

He also shifted his focus toward an all-animation format after the Alice series, which ran until July 1927.

Charles Mintz, a film producer and distributor who married Margaret Winkler in 1924 and assumed control of Winkler Pictures, which was working with Walt, heard from Universal Pictures that they were looking to get into the cartoon business.

At the time, with the success of Felix the Cat and the subsequent copies, he needed something different.

Walt needed a new character.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was born.

After Walt’s chief animator, Ub Iwerks, animated Poor Papa, the first Oswald cartoon that wasn’t of the greatest production quality, they reworked it, and the second cartoon, Trolley Troubles, which was released on September 5, 1927, was much improved.

The series was a big success and by the end of 1927, The Walt Disney Studio had a staff of twenty-two.

Iwerks, whose work was gaining recognition, also got a salary bump from $70 a week to $120 a week, proving just how important he was to Walt’s company.

But, just as Walt was riding high from the success of the Oswalds, something terrible happened: He had Oswald ripped away from him.

Charles Mintz contracted many of Walt’s staff behind his back and, because he hadn’t granted Walt rights to the Oswald character he created, Walt lost it as well.

It’s worth reading the Walt Disney book by Neal Gabler for more of the juicy details, but all that to say, Walt was crushed.

He lost his character and was betrayed by his own employees.

On the way back to Los Angeles, defeated after he met with Charles Mintz in New York to try and renegotiate his contract, Walt was furious.

He never wanted to work for someone else again.

Thankfully for Walt, Mickey Mouse saved him.

Mickey Mouse

After the fateful meeting with Charles Mintz in New York, here’s how Mickey Mouse was born:

When he was not venting about Mintz and his own treasonous crew, he spent most of his time on the trip sketching on the train stationery.

Somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles, he later said, he wrote the scenario for a cartoon he called Plane Crazy, about a mouse who, inspired by Charles Lindbergh's 1927 solo flight over the Atlantic Ocean, builds himself a plane to impress a lady mouse.

Walt read the story to Lillian, but she said she couldn't focus because she was upset by the name Walt had bestowed upon his character: Mortimer.

"The only thing that got through to me," she told an interviewer, "was that horrible name, Mortimer... I'm afraid I made quite a scene about it."

"Too sissy," she said. When she calmed down, Walt asked her what she thought of the name Mickey, an Irish name, an outsider's name. "I said it sounded better than Mortimer, and that's how Mickey was born.”

Neal Gabler

But Walt was still under contract to finish the last Oswald cartoon and his employees, the ones who had jumped ship to join Mintz’s studio, were still working out of Walt’s studio until Oswald was finished.

So Mickey Mouse was created in secret, largely in Walt’s garage, and at a rapid pace so he could find a distributor.

Working off of Walt’s original sketch, Ub Iwerk drew a refined version of Mickey Mouse.

Mickey’s first appearance was in the short, Plane Crazy, in 1928, but it wasn’t until Steamboat Willie, that Mickey had his breakout.


Because it was synchronized with sound, a revolution at the time, and another example of Walt pursuing the latest technology to create the best films possible.

Synchronizing cartoons with sound was no easy task though.

It was a tremendous technical challenge, but it motivated Walt and his staff.

The reaction to the debut of Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928, was remarkable.

Variety said of it, “Not the first animated cartoon to be synchronized with sound effects, but the first to attract favorable attention. This one represents a high order of cartoon ingenuity, cleverly combined with sound effects.”

The New York Times called Willie “An ingenious piece of work with a good deal of fun. It growls, whines, squeaks and makes various other sounds that add to its mirthful quality.”

In much of the same way that Steve Jobs integrated hardware and software years later at Apple, Walt’s integration of sound with the cartoon stood out:

But what made it different from its animation forebears and competitors was the extent to which Walt had imagined it fully as a sound cartoon in which the music and effects were inextricable from the action—truly a musical cartoon rather than a cartoon with music.

Neal Gabler

Steamboat Willie showed the value of innovation, differentiation, and building a cohesive product.

And it wasn’t just Steamboat Willie that was different, it was the culture of excellence Walt had created at his studio:

The biggest difference, however, between the Disney studio and the animation studios in New York was not in preparation or specialization; it was in expectation.

Walt Disney had to be the best.

As he had with the Alices and the Oswalds, though with indifferent results, Walt insisted upon excellence, and Sharpsteen admitted that he soon had some misgivings about joining the studio when he came to realize how high Walt's standards were.

Assigned what he believed was a run-of-the-mill scene in one of the early Mickeys, he saw that Walt did not regard it or any scene that way. "In Walt's estimation, everything that was done had to be executed with a great deal of thought toward finesse in order to make it better."

Neal Gabler

After the release of Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse’s popularity skyrocketed.

Walt hustled to make sure it kept growing:

At the beginning no effort to catapult Mickey into stardom was too small. Walt would even have friends call theaters asking what time the Mickey Mouse cartoon would show, and if they were told that there was no Mickey, he instructed them to ask why.

More aggressively, Walt arranged with one downtown theater to make a cartoon of Mickey leading the theater's live orchestra and then being pelted by the musicians.

In exchange the theater booked another Mickey cartoon and put the title on the marquee, where Walt could have it photographed for publicity.

By August he was taking out full-page ads in the motion picture trade papers declaring Mickey Mouse "Amazingly Clever—Screamingly Funny—Perfectly Synchronized Sound Cartoons."

Neal Gabler

Mickey Mouse also got a massive boost from Harry Woodin:

But the biggest boost to Mickey Mouse, aside from sound itself, occurred not through Walt's promotions, which were scattershot, but through those of Harry Woodin, the young manager of the Fox Dome Theater in Ocean Park, a Los Angeles suburb.

On his own initiative late that summer, Woodin had organized a Mickey Mouse Club, filling his theater on Saturday afternoons with children who took a Mickey Mouse pledge, performed in an impromptu Mickey Mouse band, and then watched Mickey Mouse cartoons.

Woodin had invited Walt to one of the matinees, and Walt said he got "quite a kick to see about one thousand kids cheering for Mickey Mouse."

But Woodin himself, not unlike Walt Disney, had larger aspirations. He convinced Walt that what he was doing locally he could also do nationally.

Neal Gabler

The year after Steamboat Willie debuted, Walt developed the Silly Symphony series, releasing The Skeleton Dance in 1929. He hired Carl Stalling, a professional composer, to improve the quality of the music, once again doing whatever it took to make the best pictures.

On January 13, 1931, Mickey Mouse made his comic strip debut, and that summer Mickey was syndicated in 40 newspapers in 22 countries by the summer of 1931.

However, in October 1931, Walt had a breakdown.

It came shortly after losing his top animator, Ub Iwerks, and his distributor, Pat Powers.

Powers had lured Iwerks away after a dispute with Walt and Roy over the share of profits they were receiving.

The Disney brothers eventually settled with Powers and made a deal with Columbia Pictures.

But Walt’s obsessive work habits were too much.

Here is a glimpse into his schedule around that time:

The constant strain focused Walt, but even without the financial pressures he would have been a man obsessed. He had always lived for his studio.

Bill Cottrell, who often worked at night at the studio on the camera, said that Walt never left at five or five-thirty when most of the rest of the staff did. He stayed until six or seven and then returned, often with Lillian. Walt himself admitted that he liked to wander the studio at night.

"There wasn't a night we didn't end up at the studio," Lillian recalled. So she would curl up on the davenport in his office and sleep while Walt worked, waking up at intervals to ask how late it was, to which, regardless of the time, Walt would answer, "Oh, it's not late."

Walt admitted years later that he would turn back his office clock while Lillian slept so that she never knew how late he had worked. Even in bed, Lillian said, he would usually toss and turn, thinking of studio problems, then rise early and declare, "I think I've got it licked."

Neal Gabler

Just in case you missed that…


That, my friend, is obsession.

But yes, he might have taken it too far.

After his breakdown, Walt took a much-needed vacation.

He also changed his habits:

The breakdown, he said, "woke me up to the fact that life is sweet and work is not everything."

So he took up sports, for which he had never had time even as a child—ice skating, swimming, horseback riding, and boxing.

He even joined the Hollywood Athletic Club and wrestled there two or three times a week, though he admitted he didn't like having to "get down there in somebody's crotch and sweaty old sweatshirt."

For a while he took up golf, rising at four each morning so he could be on the course by five-thirty without intruding on studio time, playing five holes, then eating a hearty breakfast and heading for the studio, as he put it, "full of pep."

Neal Gabler

Of course, none of this meant the quality of the Walt Disney Studios films decreased.

Walt made sure of that by investing in his animators, something he’d similarly do when opening Disneyland decades later:

As early as 1929 Walt would drive several of his animators to downtown Los Angeles to attend Friday night classes at the Chouinard Art Institute, then go to the studio to work, and then return to pick them up.

Sometime in 1931 he contracted with Chouinard to train a dozen or so of his artists one night a week.

One of them, Art Babbitt, decided that it would be more efficient for the artists to gather at his house near the Hollywood Bowl for informal drawing sessions with live models, and in the late summer or early fall of 1932 he began hosting these get-togethers.

The first week he invited eight artists, and fourteen arrived. The next week he invited the fourteen, and twenty-two appeared. Several weeks later Walt called Babbitt to his office. "Suppose it got in the newspapers that a bunch of Disney artists were drawing naked women in a private home," he said. "It wouldn't sit very well." Instead, obviously hoping to attract even more of the staff, he offered them the studio soundstage and free materials.

After Walt's proposal another young animator who had been attending the sessions at Babbitt's house, Hardie Gramatky, suggested they formalize the instruction by inviting the man who had conducted the Chouinard classes, Donald Graham, to serve as the teacher. Babbitt contacted Graham, and on November 15 the "great Disney Art School," as Graham called it, held its first class.

Neal Gabler

Talk about committing to quality, right?

That commitment paid off big time as Walt entered the golden age of animation for his studio.

Growing Up

Walt’s obsession with quality led him to color animation which then led him to Technicolor, a company focused on color film.

After seeing the results of Technicolor’s three-color film process, Walt had to have it and, in 1932, secured the rights to exclusive access for two years.

The following year, he released The Three Little Pigs, which was an astronomical success:

It brought us honors and recognition all over the world and turned the attention of young artists and distinguished older artists to our medium as a worthwhile outlet for their talents.

Walt Disney

Walt had a staff of almost 200 by the end of 1933 and the studio had an estimated $600,000 net profit the following year on the back of The Three Little Pigs’ success.

The Hyperion studio was a far cry from where Walt and Roy were a decade earlier and it was time to make some upgrades.

One of those upgrades was in running the studio itself:

Walt said, not disapprovingly, that Hyperion was coming to resemble a "Ford factory," with the difference that "our moving parts were more complex than cogs-human beings, each with his own temperament and values who must be weighted and fitted into his proper place."

Walt had always been as concerned with the process of making cartoons as with the cartoons themselves, and in comparing his studio to a factory production line, he was acknowledging the new pressure on him to streamline that process.

Neal Gabler

Another key upgrade?


After seeing abysmal results and terrible quality control from the licensing of Mickey Mouse products the first few years after his creation, Walt and Roy signed a contract with Herman “Kay” Kamen in July 1932.

Kamen was a godsend.

He secured forty licensees for Mickey Mouse products within a year and, wanting Disney to only be associated with the best manufacturers, canceled many contracts with less prestigious companies.

The results were not only phenomenal, but they set the standard in the entertainment industry:

A year after that, in 1934, Kamen, with a staff numbering fifteen in New York alone, had helped orchestrate $35 million of sales in Disney merchandise in the United States and an equal amount overseas, and he had opened branches across Europe and even in Australia. Thanks largely to Kamen's efforts, the image of Mickey Mouse was ubiquitous and unavoidable.

The mouse as merchandiser had roughly the same effect on his own studio. In his first four years Kamen had increased the licensing 10,000 percent to just under $200,000 in royalties a year, and as early as 1934 Walt was claiming that he made more money from the ancillary rights to Mickey than from Mickey's cartoons.

Thus Disney became the first studio to recognize what would become a standard business practice in Hollywood forty years later—that one could harvest enormous profits from film-related toys, games, clothing, and other products.

Neal Gabler

Those results, on their own, are remarkable.

But let’s not forget, this was AT THE HEIGHT OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION.

That shows the type of star power Mickey Mouse had and how good Herman Kamen was at his job as a salesman.

As Roy would later say:

The first decade was crawling— just bacon and eggs without the bacon. Then the second decade when the country was in the doldrums—we were relatively prosperous, and while we were in small time... small money, we could pay all our bills, pay all our salaries. Up to that time we never drew a regular salary.

Roy Disney

This wasn’t the last upgrade around this time though.

The final important upgrade?

It stemmed from Walt’s dissatisfaction with shorts:

The short subject was just a filler on any program and so I just felt I had to diversify my business and get into these other things, and it would give me a better chance.

Walt Disney

What were those “other things” Walt mentioned?

Full-length animated movies.

Snow White

After the success of The Three Little Pigs, Walt started thinking bigger regarding the future of his studio.

The first full-length animated film he started with was Snow White.

It had to be perfect and it was one helluva undertaking.

To make that dream a reality, he needed a lot more staff.

After all, the studio was still contracted to produce Mickey Mouse cartoons and the Silly Symphonies.

Walt launched a recruiting drive for talent to produce Snow White in June 1934.

He was hiring them to train for the herculean task that lay ahead of in-betweening and assisting on Snow White.

Walt still griped that when he hired veteran animators, he had to put up with their "goddamn poor working habits from doing cheap pictures."

It was easier, he believed, to start from scratch with young art students and inculcate in them the Disney system.

Neal Gabler

The Disney system involved an intense training program, but it wasn’t just for the new trainees:

The trainees spent all morning and then, after a lunch break, the rest of the afternoon in life classes taught by Don Graham— eight hours each day in all.

After several weeks they were assigned to animators as in-betweeners at eighteen dollars per week. Even then, however, they would be excused to attend classes for a third or half a day, and beginning in February 1935, they were expected to attend an evening class every Wednesday night on the studio soundstage.

Graham described his course as "Intensive lectures on character construction, animation, layout, background, mechanics and direction [that] extended studio knowledge to the youngest neophyte."

But it wasn't only the trainees who were now attending classes. By the fall, with the Snow White script being fine-tuned and the film nearing the animation stage, Walt reinstituted mandatory classes for the entire studio art staff on Tuesday nights after having suspended them in the face of the heavy workload.

Neal Gabler

Even with his hiring spree, by Spring 1935 Walt still hadn’t even named the dwarfs for Snow White or finalized the script.

However, in February 1936, the animation of Snow White finally began.

And Walt’s obsession with making the film perfect extended to every aspect.

Here were the lengths he went to get the best color possible:

Walt had worked for years to improve the colors on his cartoons. Though after much trial and error he used water opaque paints manufactured by the F. R. Miller Paint Company, inkers and painters complained of mildew, streaking, tackiness, lack of intensity, lumpiness, limited range, and staining. Walt sought to devise a solution.

Eventually the studio developed its own binder, which held the paint together, with a gum arabic base that was even rewettable so that painters could correct mistakes.

The studio also ground all of its own paint with a set of disk mills that had once been used to grind food, and it installed a spectraphotometer, one of only twenty in the world at the time, to measure colors exactly.

By one count the Disney painting department had twelve hundred distinct pigments. Knowing that Technicolor couldn't reproduce them exactly, Walt had a large chart on the wall, some six or seven feet high, showing how the colors would register on the screen.

Neal Gabler

To finish making the film ahead of its debut, Walt and his staff were working like madmen:

As they headed into the fall, the staff was working twenty-four hours a day in eight-hour shifts, and many of them worked on Saturdays and Sundays as well, for which, as further proof of their commitment to the cult, they received no overtime pay.

The animation lightboards would grow so hot that the artists could burn their arms and hands. So many cels remained to be photographed that the camera department worked in two twelve-hour shifts-from eight o'clock to eight o'clock.

Neal Gabler

All of that hard work paid off with the premiere of Snow White on December 21, 1937.

Snow White crushed it, grossing $3.5 million in the U.S. and Canada alone and returning more than $1 million to Walt’s studio.

By May 1939 it was the highest-grossing American film, making $6.7 million, and it played in 49 countries by the time it finished its run that year.

It became one of the most popular animated films of all time.

The film’s success was much needed, as the cost to produce it was $1 million, and the added staff also forced Walt to borrow $2.3 million from Bank of America from May 1936 to May 1938.

The debt was paid off within five months of the film’s release and Walt paid out $750,000 in bonuses to his staff in June, telling one columnist “They deserve it. They made the picture possible, didn’t they?”

With Herman Kamen leading the way on licensing, 2,183 different Snow White products were created, $2 million worth of Snow White toys alone had been sold by May 1938, and they even sold $2 million worth of Snow White handkerchiefs.

Walt, 36 years old by the time the film debuted, was an icon, but he didn’t care much for being a celebrity:

As far as I can remember, being a celebrity has never helped me make a good picture, or a good shot in a polo game, or command the obedience of my daughter, or impress my wife. It doesn't even keep the fleas off our dogs.

Walt Disney

He also didn’t care to spend his money frivolously, which he expanded on when asked how he’d spend his riches after Snow White:

I could buy a big place in Florida and fill it with expensive paintings and other junk, but what for? That's for people who are bored or want to impress the neighbors.

Walt Disney

Off of the success of Snow White, Walt started planning a new studio in Burbank in the fall of 1938.

This studio would be massive, built on 50 acres of land, and predicted to cost $2 million. The animation building alone would be 152,000 square feet, more than three times the size of the animation building at the Hyperion Avenue studio.

It also kept Walt insanely busy:

That December as he was tinkering with Bambi, Walt Disney had yet one more imposing task before him: he was supervising the move from Hyperion to the new studio in Burbank.

All the time that he was working on Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi, through the dozens upon dozens of meetings and sweatbox sessions, he had also been engaged in the planning and construction at Burbank, typically consulting with the engineers and architects three times a week and advancing the project in a trial-and-error manner not unlike that on Bambi.

"All was nebulous then," Frank Crowhurst, the general contractor, said of the various ideas they considered. "We hoped it would work."

They had broken ground on the Animation Building in late February 1939, with the intention of finishing everything but the Administration Building by October.

Neal Gabler

During the years after Snow White, Walt released Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942), but, with the start of World War II in 1939, the studio would struggle.


What effect can a world war have on a film?

Here’s how it affected Pinnochio:

Walt himself, though bristling at any suggestion that Pinocchio had not done well, had a simpler explanation.

He blamed the competition from Gone with the Wind, the movie blockbuster that had been released just a few weeks earlier, and the war itself, which significantly cut profits.

Because of the war, the film was translated into only two languages, Spanish and Portuguese, and received only 45 percent of its gross from outside the United States and Canada, significantly less than Snow White.

In England alone, where Snow White had grossed $2 million, Pinocchio grossed only $200,000. When all was said and done, it took in roughly $2 million, out of which the studio received $1.2 million on a total investment of $2.7 million. Even so, many would regard Pinocchio as Walt Disney's masterpiece, the pinnacle of animation art.

Neal Gabler

That wasn’t the end of Walt’s problems.

Fantasia didn’t perform well financially either and by early 1941 Walt’s studio was deep in debt.

What came next was a labor strike by many Disney Animators from May to September.

Cruel summer.

In the aftermath, the number of employees on the payroll went from 1,200 before the strike to 694 when work continued.

The strike, as you can imagine, also destroyed morale.

After once again struggling with financial problems, and Roy complaining that the pictures Walt produced cost too much money, Walt made it clear how the operation ran:

Roy, we’ll make the pictures, you get the money.

Walt Disney

What kept Walt’s studio financially going during the war was creating films for the government.

The night after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Walt received a call from the navy to produce twenty films for them, and by the end of 1942, Walt became the leader in government movie production.

By 1943, 94% of the studio’s output went to the government.

Walt later described having lost four years of production because of the war and 1946 was one of the unhappiest at the studio.

Tragically, a few years later, in October 1949, Herman “Kay” Kamen died in a plane crash, bringing the end of an incredibly fruitful 17-year partnership.

In 1950, Walt’s studio finally found financial success again with the release of Treasure Island and Cinderella.

But the biggest accomplishment of Walt’s career?

That would happen in 1955, after years of preparation.

Thinking Bigger

Throughout Walt’s career, he was fueled by doing something that hadn’t been done before.

With animation, he broke barriers, both in the public perception of animation and in the art of the medium itself.

As with anything he did, Walt became obsessed.

So it comes as no surprise that on August 31, 1948, Walt sent a detailed memo to one of his studio artists with his vision for an amusement park, after his dissatisfaction with others he had seen.

It was one of his earliest descriptions of his amusement park concept and, after becoming obsessed with trains in 1947, even gifting himself one for Christmas that year, the memo included plans for a railroad station.

This was just an idea.

Walt had lots of ideas.

However, this was one he couldn’t let go of, even after being dismayed by other attractions he had seen, as he told his wife, Lillian:

I'm almost ready to give up the idea of an amusement park after seeing Coney Island. The whole place is so run-down and ugly. The people who run it are so unpleasant. The whole thing is almost enough to destroy your faith in human nature.

Walt Disney

Lillian didn’t understand why Walt would get involved in an amusement park at all, having experienced their pitfalls firsthand.

To Walt, this was an opportunity:

That's exactly the point. Mine isn't going to be that way. Mine's going to be a place that's clean, where the whole family can do things together.

Walt Disney

Walt’s idea for an amusement park became much more real on March 27, 1952, when plans for his park appeared in the Burbank Daily Review and he described his amusement park:

Disneyland will be something of a fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts and a showplace of beauty and magic.

Walt Disney

To develop the park, Walt and Roy formed a separate company, WED Enterprises (which would later become Walt Disney Imagineering), with which they licensed Walt Disney’s name to Walt Disney Products and secured Walt a personal services contract.

Although one of the original plans was to create a 10 to 15-acre park in Burbank, near Walt Disney Studios, the city ultimately didn’t want what they described as “kiddieland” in Burbank.

Their loss.

Walt looked elsewhere.

But he didn’t have the team he needed to take on the task of designing and finding a site as large as his growing ambitions needed.

So he hired the architects Charles Luckman and William Pereira for $3,000 in April 1952 to take on the task.

They couldn’t handle it either.

The project was too large and too complex.

But their time working together wasn’t wasted:

At a party that summer Charles Luckman introduced Walt to Harrison "Buzz" Price of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), who had done surveys for Luckman on a stadium project in Hawaii, and suggested that Walt hire Price to examine sites for Disneyland.

Neal Gabler

Walt met Price in July 1953.

Price was up for the task, but even he wasn’t immediately convinced of the idea:

It sounded strange, unlike anything you would expect in an amusement park. At a time when most parks were planned as a grid with four-side access, [Disney) outlined a design concept of a single park entrance passing through a turn-of-the-century main street, which would end in a circular plaza or town square. This area would feed off radially into four thematic activity areas, the World of Tomorrow, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Adventureland.

Whereas most amusement parks wanted all the street visibility they could get, Walt's entire park would be hidden from the outside world by a high landscaped berm... He was talking about customized rides, exhibits, and attractions instead of the standard off-the-shelf Ferris wheel and tunnel of love. ... Rides would be subordinate to story and setting. Most shocking, there were no thrill rides.

Harrison "Buzz" Price

Walt, as always, was taking a different approach.

Furthermore, he was operating on an ambitious deadline - two years to open the park.

So Price got to work finding a location, one which fit Walt’s mandates:

The land must be flat, relatively unpopulated but easily accessible to automobiles, and nowhere near the water.

Disney did not like the idea of sand-encrusted vacationers slopping through his park in beach dress; nor did he want to compete with the Pacific Ocean: Disneyland was to be its own attraction.

Beyond this, he offered few specifics: just that he needed about 150 acres somewhere in Southern California.

Neal Gabler

The location that had the most appeal?

Orange County.

It’s easy to see why:

Orange County also seemed to have the least rainfall, the least humidity, and the least extreme temperatures of the areas under consideration, and perhaps best of all, it was well situated for transportation.

After eliminating more than forty sites in and around Orange County (for reasons ranging from sporting unsightly oil wells to housing a labor camp for Mexican nationals), SRI settled on a 160-acre parcel in Anaheim called the Ball Road subdivision, which was basically a large grove of orange trees, four thousand of them, in an area that was the country's largest provider of Valencia oranges.

Neal Gabler

The problem?

Keeping the location secret so they could secure the land without others buying it.

When someone bought twenty acres of the proposed 160-acre site in Anaheim, Walt, frustrated, was ready to look elsewhere.

But Keith Murdoch, the Anaheim City Manager, wasn’t going to let that happen.

He knew how important it was for the city of Anaheim to become the location of Disneyland.

The solution?

Closing a public road and buying land on the southern boundary of the original site to get Walt the acreage he needed.


For $879,000 Walt had 160 acres of orange trees and farmhouses.

Now he needed to build the park and find a way to fund its ballooning costs.

Building Disneyland

While originally estimated to cost $1.5 million, Disneyland, with Walt’s ever-expanding ambition, ended up costing more than 10x that amount.

This prompts the question: How did he fund it?

In the early days, Walt funded Disneyland himself:

He'd hocked his life insurance, sold his summer home, and borrowed every dollar he could to build what was a three-dimensional tribute not so much to himself as to how he would like to see the world, and persuade others to see it.

Richard Snow

But he needed help as his costs rose.

Television saved him.

More specifically, ABC, which Walt later joked about:

ABC needed the television show so damned bad, they bought the amusement park.

Walt Disney

And when he said “bought the amusement park” he meant it.

In a massive deal to bring Disney programming to ABC, at a time when the estimated cost of the park rose from $1.5 million to $5.25 million, ABC invested $500,000 directly into the park and guaranteed a $4.5 million bank loan, receiving 34.48 percent of Disneyland, Inc.

After securing long-term leases with several vendors at Disneyland, Walt had his funding. For now.

The programming Walt provided for ABC was not only incredibly popular, but it served as a weekly advertisement for the Disneyland park.

One of the biggest wins was Davy Crockett, which debuted on December 4, 1954, and which was soon a sensation, selling $300 million of merchandise in the months that followed, including ten million Davy Crockett coonskin caps.

But when it came to Disneyland Park, which broke ground on July 12, 1954, Walt would have to overcome a mountain of problems with only a year till opening.

This time, he wouldn’t compromise:

This time Walt did not want to cut corners, did not want to compromise his vision. When an employee suggested that he use cut glass instead of stained glass in an attraction called Storybook Land, Walt objected.

"Look, the thing that's going to make Disneyland unique and different," he insisted, "is the detail. If we lose the detail, we lose it all."

Neal Gabler

If we lose the detail, we lose it all.

I love that.

One aspect of that detail was Disneyland’s scale:

To achieve cinematic effects, he had manipulated the park's proportions. It would often be said that Walt had built the entire park in five-eighths scale. In truth, the railroad was five-eighths scale, which allowed Walt to use narrow-gauge rails and refurbished narrow-gauge trains.

Main Street was a function of clever foreshortening. The lower floors of the shops were nine-tenths scale, the second floors eight-tenths, and the third seven-tenths.

As for the rest of the park, Walt wrote an old acquaintance that the "scale of objects varies according to what and where they are"—what he called a "matter of choosing the scale that would be practical and still look right."

The Mark Twain, he said, was built on a three-quarters scale. The reason, Walt averred, was psychological—a lesson learned, no doubt, from his miniatures at Disneylandia. For one thing, the altered size "made the street a toy," he felt, and provided the subliminal fun that toys did. For another, it underscored the sense of nostalgia because it associated the past and the fantastic with the small and quaint.

Neal Gabler

Another example of the level of detail Disneyland had was the stagecoaches:

He cared about the stagecoaches. They were faithful reproductions of the famous Wells Fargo Concord Coaches that were everywhere in the American West for half a century, but built on a scale small enough for the miniature horses to pull them.

They were among the first of the park's attractions to be finished, but the pressure of time was already weighing on everyone.

One day John Hench stopped by to check the progress on the coaches and had an idea, which he brought to his boss. "Why don't we just leave the leather straps off, Walt? The people are never going to appreciate all the close-up detail."

The same scrupulousness that had recently made Disney refuse to license a Davy Crockett Colt revolver because the firearm hadn't existed in Davy's day treated Hench to a tart little lecture: "You're being a poor communicator. People are okay, don't you ever forget that. They will respond to it. They will appreciate it." '

Hench didn't argue. "We put the best darn leather straps on that stagecoach you've ever seen.”

Neal Gabler

Finally, the staff was trained through “Disney University” to stand out from the common amusement park workers.

All of the details made Disneyland special, but, leading up to the July 17th, 1955 opening, there were constant problems.

The Orange County plumbers and asphalt layers went on strike, Walt had to choose between installing toilets or water fountains for opening day, and the asphalt hadn’t completely cooled by opening day.

In the months leading up to the opening, Anaheim experienced one of its wettest years in a decade causing construction delays.

Richard Snow describes many more of the problems and details of Disneyland’s opening in Disney’s Land, which is worth reading.

Regardless of all the issues, Walt wasn’t going to push back opening day.

He didn’t have much of a choice - it was going to be broadcast live on TV.

Opening Disneyland

The complete live broadcast of Disneyland opening day is available for free on YouTube which I find amazing.

The July 17th opening was a spectacle, to say the least, and it was only supposed to be open to the press and special guests who had free tickets, 15,000 in total.

The attendance was more than 28,000.

People created counterfeit tickets and even used a ladder to climb over one of the fences to sneak in.

So crazy.

Since full-page newspaper advertisements had been taken out by ABC for the live telecast of the park’s opening and, with Walt promoting the park’s opening with Disneyland programming for the previous nine months, a record number of people tuned in:

The United States contained 169 million citizens on July 17, 1955, and 90 million of them watched it. That was 54.2 percent of the population—a larger proportion than would see the final episode of M*A*S*H, or any Super Bowl, or even the moon landing.

Richard Snow

The Disneyland park itself on opening day was a disaster.

There was a gas leak in one section of the park, some concessions ran out of food by noon, the temperature was over 100 degrees, restroom lines were as long as lines to the attractions, and on and on.

Problems occurred the moment people arrived:

Trouble started at the gate. The newly laid asphalt was still so soft that Dick Nunis remembered seeing it suck women's high-heeled shoes off their feet, with Frank Sinatra’s wife being one of the victims;

Richard Snow

And yet, despite all the problems, and after a year of construction by 3,000 workers, Disneyland was open.

The real test came the next day.

Sure, people showed up for free, but would they pay?

Yes, yes they would.

26,007 of them.

Having paying customers was the ultimate vindication for Walt.

Roy was relieved as well, responding to a parking attendant who told him about children peeing in the parking lot because traffic had stalled on the freeway with “God bless ‘em, let ‘em pee.”

Amazing lol.

Disneyland, from the beginning, was a massive success.

161,657 visitors in the first week.

500,000+ visitors in the first four weeks.

3.6 million in the first year.

4 million in the second year.

Walt’s company went from $11 million in gross revenue in 1954 to $24.5 million in 1955.

The true impact could be measured by an experience Jack Lindquist, an early Disneyland advertising manager, had at the park:

As he strolled past the quiet, glowing buildings, "a family caught my attention, and as the mother, father, and their ten-year-old son and younger daughter walked down Main Street, I followed them. They were dressed neatly but not stylish; the father and son wore overalls. The mother wore a cotton dress and coat. They all held hands."

When the family paused at the Christmas tree in Town Square, Jack saw the girl tug her mother's arm and heard her say, "Mom, this really was better than having Santa Claus."

Lindquist realized "that Santa wasn't bringing them presents. The parents must have told their children that if they went to Disneyland, Santa couldn't bring presents."

For the new advertising manager, "this one brief moment proved to be my most meaningful memory of the park because it symbolized what we mean to people: We are not a cure for cancer, we are not going to save the world, but if we can make people that happy for a few hours a day, then we are doing something worthwhile."

Richard Snow

Of course, Disneyland still needed lots of improvements after opening day.

Walt was heavily involved in upgrades and new attractions like the Matterhorn and the Monorail for years to come, but he also had plans for something much bigger.

Disney World & Beyond

Disneyland changed Walt:

With the success of Disneyland, he saw himself not just as an entertainer or even an amusement park operator but as a visionary planner who could impose his will on the environment as he had imposed it on the screen. Disneyland was just a prototype for what he felt he could do all over the country.

Neal Gabler

Once again, he was thinking bigger.

Walt wasn’t simply going to copy what he did at Disneyland, he was going to do something new:

The truth was that Walt wasn't especially interested in building another amusement park in Disney World, as the new complex was to be called, and when Roy formed a central committee to set general strategy for the park, Walt was not even a member.

Walt had already built a park, and as Roy told one journalist, "Walt instinctively resists doing the same thing twice. He likes to try something fresh." What he had not done—what he had long hoped and dreamed of doing since at least the City of the Arts—was create an entire urban environment from scratch: a perfect city…

He called it an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT, and as Marvin Davis said, "It was the real wienie" of Disney World.

Neal Gabler

The Walt Disney Company began scouting locations for Walt’s new project as early as 1959.

After deciding Central Florida was the best location, Walt started flying over potential parcels of land in November 1963, secretly purchasing the first one in October 1964.

He wanted 5,000 to 10,000 acres, an enormous amount, especially compared to the 160 acres of Disneyland.

On November 15, 1965, a formal announcement was made about Disney World by Walt as well as Florida Governor Haydon Burns.

Sadly, Walt would never see Disney World come to life.

On December 15, 1966, at 65 years old, Walt Disney died of lung cancer after smoking constantly for much of his life.

His brother, in a statement issued after his death, said of Walt:

The death of Walt Disney is a loss to all the people of the world. There is no way to replace Walt Disney. He was an extraordinary man. Perhaps there will never be another like him.

Roy Disney

Walt was a masterful storyteller, an imaginative world-builder, and an inspiration to millions.

Researching him over the past few weeks has been an absolute joy for me and I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about him.

Walt Disney’s Wisdom

In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.

On ambition:

I was ambitious and wanted to make better pictures, but the length of my foresight is measured by this admission: Even as late as 1930, my ambition was to be able to make cartoons as good as the Aesop's Fables series.

Walt Disney

On Walt’s obsessive drive:

In Walt's eyes, his studio was not to be subject to the pressures of the world; it was his refuge from them—a sacred place. And his animations could not be compromised; they had to be better than anyone else's or he would not survive in the business; nor would he want to survive.

Excellence was not only Walt's business strategy, it was the reason he ran the studio and the force that kept his personal world intact. "If you want to know the real secret of Walt's success," longtime animator Ward Kimball would say, "it's that he never tried to make money. He was always trying to make something that he could have fun with or be proud of."

Neal Gabler

Thanks for reading!



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