Good Afternoon students, this is Dr. Cooper. Like the majority of you, I too am snowed in at my residence and bored out of my mind. So while cleaning out my flash drive to pass the time, I found this essay on Walt Disney I had written for History class in tenth grade. The assignment had been to write 1,000 words on an American icon; I wrote 1,800 because of my feverish passion for Disney history. So here, for anyone interested in reading, is my essay...
One chilly December day in Chicago, Illinois, circa 1901, a man was born who would change American entertainment forever. Once he came onto the spotlight, movies were no longer movies; they were works of art and beauty. When he came, children were no longer scolded for using their imaginations; they were encouraged to chase after their dreams. His influence came to change every form of media imaginable; movies, TV, music, animation, amusement parks, all were completely redefined by this man. He was an innovator; he changed animation and introduced revolutionary theme park designs. He affected American culture in such a way, that decades after his death, people still remember him through the dreams he envisioned, the characters he created, and the masterpieces he brought to life. His name was Walter Elias Disney.
Walt was born in 1901 to Elias and Flora Disney, who were of Irish-Canadian and German-English descent respectively. They later moved to the small town of Marceline, Missouri, where they lived for several years. Walt enjoyed drawing sketches of all the farm animals, and the picturesque small town setting gave him inspiration for many of his greatest works. At 16, Walt dropped out of school to join the Red Cross and became an ambulance driver in Europe during WWI. Afterwards he sought to become a cartoonist, with little success. But his luck changed when he developed an interest in animation, and, with a couple fellow cartoonists, Walt formed a small company and began producing cartoons, which he dubbed Laugh-O-Grams, for the Kansas City area. The Laugh-O-Grams series proved highly successful, yet Walt knew little concerning how to manage money, and the small company soon went bankrupt. Undeterred, he moved to Hollywood and set up a new studio there with his brother Roy, called Disney Brother’s Studios. There, Walt produced a new series of successful cartoons titled the Alice Comedies, which starred a live action child in a world of cartoon characters. It was also at this time that Walt met and married his wife, Lillian Bounds, an amateur cartoon painter.
By 1927, Universal Studios had hired Walt’s studio to create a new series of cartoons. The result was Walt’s first main cartoon character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, a precursor to today’s Mickey Mouse. The Oswald shorts enjoyed major popularity in the beginning, and was on his way to becoming a major cartoon star in America. However his golden days ended when Walt was forced to leave Universal over a contract dispute, which cost him both the rights to Oswald and many of his best workers. By this time, Walt had gone through what many would have gone through in an entire lifetime. His successes always became fated to end in failures. Many people at this point would have given up and moved on to an easier occupation. But Walt Disney was determined not to give up his dream. It was only just the beginning for him.
After losing ownership of Oswald, Walt desperately needed to create a new cartoon character in order to save his business. It is said that he was taking a train ride when he developed the idea for a mouse similar to Oswald, named Mortimer. His wife Lillian later persuaded him to change his name to Mickey. Disney’s first two Mickey shorts, Plane Crazy and the Galloping Gaucho, were silent films and met with lukewarm reception. But that all changed upon the arrival of Steamboat Willie, Mickey’s first cartoon with sound, in 1928. Mickey’s popularity immediately skyrocketed and he remained popular throughout the 1930’s. People even went to cinemas just so they could see the Mickey shorts air before the main movie! Around the same time, Walt also created the first cartoons in color, Silly Symphonies, which won an Academy Award in 1932. Walt was rapidly rising to fame as one of the industry’s most successful cartoonists. But Walt wanted to go bigger.
Walt’s next project was his most ambitious and risky gamble: he wanted to make a full-length animated movie. Such a thing was unheard of in the 1930’s. The majority of people believed that cartoons would be perpetually relegated to being comical shorts, not being capable of mimicking the action and seriousness of a live-action movie. People even dubbed Walt’s idea as “Disney’s Folly”. But Walt pressed on with his plans, even taking three years to make and bringing his studio to the brink of bankruptcy once again. When Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in 1938, all of Disney’s hopes were pinned on its success. He was not to be disappointed. Snow White was met with critical acclaim and standing ovations, easily earning the company $8 million and an Oscar award, the first of seven Walt would eventually win. The movie solidly cemented Walt’s place in history as one of America’s greatest animators and movie makers, and it brought his studio into the movie business.
Within a few years of Snow White’s success the Disney Studio moved into the movie business permanently. Throughout the 40’s and 50’s, Disney produced some of their greatest masterpieces. Films such as Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella are recognizable by almost everyone today, and are widely regarded as animation classics. Soon he even ventured into TV shows and live action movies, such as 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. Walt, affectionately known as “Uncle Walt” by the children of America, became a household name. Throughout the country, children were pretending to be like Davy Crocket, dressing up as Cinderella, or singing the Mickey Mouse Club Song. Everyone was transfixed by the seemingly endless surprises this man had up his sleeve. People everywhere saw him as a kindly warm man who only sought to entertain people and improve on his greatest art, animation. Walt never spared any expense when it came to producing quality films; he often brought his studio near bankruptcy simply to ensure that his movies were good enough. While movies and cartoons were far more than enough to solidify Walt’s career forever, his ambitions only continued to grow. He never stopped imagining, and it was imagining that gave him his biggest idea to date. An idea so absurd, that even his most loyal employees and followers were positive that it would fail.
Walt Disney had always painted his dreams onto the big screen, but he wondered, could he make them a reality? Could he bring his creations to life? Could he make a place where the credits never rolled, and where the magic never ended? It was in 1954 that he initiated construction on Disneyland, the most magical place on earth. It would be an amusement park unlike any other. It would be always kept clean, and the employees always friendly. People could not just ride rides; they could take a leisurely stroll down a recreation of classic small town America, ride a train around the park, and interact with all of Disney’s magical characters. You could travel to the future in one section, and explore the wild frontier in the other. It would always be perfect and happy in Disneyland. Parades would be marching every day, and the celebrations would never end. Everyone thought that Walt would finally meet his demise with this seemingly impossible project. Yet he marched on. Walt began buying up land in Anaheim, CA, and construction commenced unheeded. When the Disneyland grand opening came a year later in 1955, it was attended by thousands of people, and broadcasted live to millions more. In his opening speech Walt said “…Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America ... with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world…” Over 50,000 people attended the first day, and Disneyland became an instant hit with the American people. It was an experience that no one had ever been able to comprehend. Today people still come to visit this extraordinary land, the only park ever personally created under Walt’s supervision. But the best was yet to come.
As Walt Disney and his company soared through the 60’s, Walt began to slow down. The studio was still producing spectacular hit movies and shows. Disneyland continued to fascinate all. But he was no longer the creative young man he once was. His years of addiction to smoking were catching up with him. However, he still had a lot of fight in him, and a vast imagination. Walt Disney had one final card in his hand, one last conception laying in his mind. When it became public that the Disney Company was buying massive amounts of property in rural Florida, everybody assumed that Walt was building a second Disneyland. But he had something better in mind. He wanted to create an entire Disney world. Not just a single little amusement park, but a whole world, all under his jurisdiction. In the center of it would be his biggest ambition ever: the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, or E.P.C.O.T. It would be an entire real city inhabited by 20,000 people. It would have all the safety and friendliness as small town America, but with all the technologies of the future. Here people would live in an idealistic utopian society where they could experiment with new home technologies, and live with the Disney spirit. There would be no cars, no criminals, and no slums. It would be the one place, the one place, in the world that would be absolutely perfect. A community free of all imperfections. It would be his greatest achievement ever, his final lasting legacy for mankind, the one thing people would remember most about him. But sadly, and almost fittingly, Walt’s last dream was the only one he could never realize.
Walt Disney’s smoking habits finally did catch up to him at the worst possible moment, and he died unexpectedly of lung cancer in 1966. And with his death, his final dream of a city of the future died with him. The company decided that they were not interested in managing an entire city, so they scrapped the idea. Instead they recycled the conception of Disney World into a series of amusement parks. His last legacy, ironically, was one that wasn’t how he intended it to be.
Walt Disney had a long, successful, and enduring career. His story is perhaps one of the best examples of the American dream. From humble beginnings on a farm in Kansas, to becoming the nation’s great entertainer, Walt never gave up in his pursuits. He knew what he wanted to do and he accomplished what many thought were impossible. He broke the barriers of our human limitations, he thought outside of the box. No idea was too big or too ambitious for him. As long as he could dream it up, Walt could make it. The motivations, inspirations, and philosophies of Walt Disney are similar to that of our own American values; that you can be whatever you want to be if you set your mind to it, and that nothing is impossible. It is stories like Walt’s that remind us that America is still a land of endless opportunities.