Synonymous with Mickey Mouse, cartoon animation and theme parks, Disney is easily one of the world’s most iconic brands, but how did it all start for this humble kid, Walt Disney, from Chicago?
How it all began
Born in 1901, Walter Disney began drawing and painting from an early age. His entrepreneurial side was evident as a youngster, when he sold his artwork creations to friends and neighbours.
Thanks to his brother Roy, Walt landed his first proper job working as a newspaper artist in 1919. He then went on to create adverts using cut-out animation.
Buoyed by his passion for art and photography, Walt set up his own animation business. Despite his cartoon Laugh-O-Grams and Alice in Cartoonland series enjoying success, the company suffered financial ruin and eventually folded.
Birth of the Disney brand
Not one to be dogged by failure, in 1923 Walt upped sticks to Hollywood, alongside his brother Roy and cartoonist pal, Ub Iwerks. The trio established the Walt Disney Studios, where they went on to release a plethora of cartoon animations. Success came easy for the Disney brand, with the 1932 cartoon, Flowers and Trees, earning an Oscar. It was the first of its kind to be made in colour.
Think of Walt Disney, and Mickey Mouse will spring to mind, but it actually wasn’t the first character creation for Disney. In fact, this was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. However, undoubtedly, it’s the iconic mouse that has enjoyed such enduring popularity.
Although the initial silent movies featuring Mickey Mouse didn’t take off, once sound came on board, things changed. In 1928, Disney’s Steamboat Willie animation short premiered in New York, featuring Mickey Mouse, voiced by Walt himself. It was an instant success, spurring the brand to go on and create new characters such as Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Pluto.
Success continued for Walt Disney when he branched into film production. His first movie in 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, earned him a staggering eight Oscars. The movie was a massive money-spinner, bringing in an income of nearly $1.5 million, despite being in the throes of the Great Depression.
Other hit movies followed for Disney, including Pinocchio, Dumbo, Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, 101 Dalmatians and Mary Poppins. Merchandise connected to characters from these films became bestsellers.
Walt Disney also became the first film producer to bring entertainment to television screens, with The Mickey Mouse Club show and The Zorro and Davy Crockett series.
Walt’s ambition was to revolutionise the entertainment industry, and he certainly fulfilled this goal. He made animation more lifelike, added sound to cartoons and, despite the cost, made cartoons in colour. Disney also broke new ground by mixing animated characters with real life stars in the Mary Poppins film.
No mention of Walt Disney would be complete without giving a nod to his theme parks. California’s Disneyland began life back in 1955, and its immense popularity spurred on the creation of Orlando’s Walt Disney World and another 12 international Disney theme parks.
Despite Disney’s global success, Walt continued to push the boundaries in entertainment, always dreaming bigger and better. Sadly, he didn’t get to see the completion of his final project, EPCOT, before he died in 1966.
It’s over 50 years since Walt Disney passed away, but his legacy lives on. His funded arts school has spawned some of today’s most prominent film directors, such as Tim Burton. A bevy of musical talent has also emerged from the Walt Disney Concert Hall.
By installing an ethos based on technical innovation, Walt’s company that designs theme parks has brought rides and entertainment to a new level.
Importantly, Walt touched the lives of countless generations of people, inspiring them through his creativity and passion for making dreams come true. Through his film, theme parks and storytelling, he spread messages of joy and optimism, and encouraged everyone to try their best, while relishing past experiences and looking forward to new ones.
Today, the Disney brand continues to be one of the biggest media players on the planet, with an estimated worth of $130 billion.
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