How Walt Disney Built the Greatest Entertainment Empire

The Walt Disney story

In 1919, a young cartoonist was fired from the newspaper he worked for, because, according to his boss, “he lacked imagination and had no good ideas . ” Four years later, this young man founded the company that would become the largest empire in the entertainment industry globally … How did he do it?


The entrepreneur in this story is Walter Elias Disney, who was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901. At the age of 5, his family moved to a farm in Missouri. As he was too young to help with the farm work, he spent most of his time playing with his younger sister. There he discovered his great passion for drawing, a hobby that his father, Elias Disney, did not understand. That was the happiest stage of his life, although it only lasted 3 years; for his father contracted typhoid fever and, unable to continue working on the farm, was forced to sell it to move into a rental house in Kansas City.


Due to his illness and little education, Elias Disney only managed to get a job as a newspaper boy, and required the help of his two sons, Walter and Roy. This job required that they get up every day at midnight, a situation that affected Walt’s school performance since in class it was difficult for him to concentrate and he fell asleep.


At the age of 15, he sold newspapers on the trains of the Santa Fe Railroad in Chicago, and, in his spare time, he was the cartoonist for the institute newspaper where he portrayed nationalist themes of the First World War. In 1918, seeing that his brother had enlisted in the navy, he dropped out of high school to enlist in the army but was rejected because of his young age. It was then that he learned that the Red Cross ambulance corps was admitting 17-year-olds, so he falsified his birth certificate to meet the necessary age.


He was admitted but was never in combat. At the end of the training, he was sent to Europe when the war was over. During that period the Red Cross was in France, transferring officers. The ambulance he was driving ended up full of drawings of Walt. At that time, he began to smoke, a habit that would have serious repercussions in the future.


His first steps in the animation industry

Upon returning to the United States, he moved to Kansas City, where his brother lived and worked. There, he got a job as a cartoonist at the Kansas City Star newspaper but was soon fired for lack of creativity. Thanks to the influences of his brother, he managed to get a new job at Pesemen-Rubin Art Studio, helping in the creation of advertisements for newspapers and magazines. In this company, he met his great friend and future partner, Ubbe Iwerks


In January 1920 both were fired, so they decided to start a company called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists, which went bankrupt a few months later for not getting customers. After this failure, they were forced to go to work in the company Kansas City Film Ad, where ads were developed for local cinemas with primitive animation techniques.


Walter was amazed at the potential of animation, so he spent several days at the Kansas CityPublic Library learning mechanics, anatomy, and animation. During the two years that he worked on Film Ad, he devoted himself to experimenting with new cinematographic and animation techniques.

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Thanks to the experience gained in those two years, he thought it was time to start a new business of his own; So in 1922, he founded Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc . which was dedicated to making animated short films of famous fairy tales, such as “Cinderella . ” His shorts became famous in the area, but the production costs were very high and were not offset by the income they generated.


In 1923 he made a novel short that mixed animation with real images based on Alice in Wonderland. The production was quite promising and filled its creators with enthusiasm. However, despite the success of the short films, his company failed to be profitable and went bankrupt.


Far from giving up, he decided to move to Hollywood. He sold his only camera and got enough money for a one-way train ticket to California. Under his arm he carried a copy of the movie “Alice’s Wonderland” and in his pocket, he was accompanied by 40 dollars of the time. His purpose was to put animation aside and become a film director. He knocked on the doors of all the studios looking for work, but he did not achieve his goal.


Frustrated that the film industry had turned its back on him, he decided to return to what he did best… In the garage of his uncle’s house, he set up a small animation studio. He sent the “Alice in Wonderland” recording to multiple distributors, and only New York distributor Margaret Winkler showed interest. Thus, Walter Disney obtained a contract to produce more films that mixed animation and real images.


The excited young man did not hesitate to tell his brother Roy, who, at that time, was recovering from tuberculosis. He asked him to take charge of the financial management of the study. His brother accepted and so on October 16, 1923, they founded the Disney Brothers’ Studio company; a company to which his former partner, Ubbe Iwwerks , would later join.


They worked together with Margaret Winkler for 4 years making films that were quite successful. However, in 1927 the distributor passed into the hands of Charles Mintz, who had married Margaret. He asked Disney for a new series of films, this time only animation, that would be distributed by Universal Pictures. Thus was born “Oswald, the lucky rabbit”, a character created by Iwwerks , which was a resounding success. This success allowed the accelerated growth of the study.


It seemed that fortune was finally smiling at Walt Disney, but he would face a new challenge in his life as an entrepreneur …


In February 1928, he received the news that he would get a lower payment for each short film he produced and that the best animators in his studio were going to be part of another company if he did not accept the offer. The rights to “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” belonged to Universal and they could produce more movies without him.


Considering that it was an unfair offer, he decided to reject it, losing a large part of his studio workers and the opportunity to continue reaping success with his star character.

The birth of Mickey Mouse

Full of determination, Walt stood up again to carry on with his dreams and projects. Together with their star cartoonist, Iwwerks, they took the next step in their career by creating one of the most iconic and important characters of the 20th century: the friendly mouse “Mickey Mouse”, who, at the time, was very similar to “Oswald the lucky rabbit “, but with round ears instead of elongated ones.

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They quickly began to work on two silent animated shorts (as all the studio’s films had been up to now), but unfortunately, these did not have a great impact. It was there that Walt would bring all his ingenuity to create a technical innovation in the world of animation.


Until then, most animation shorts were silent or had a synchronized audio track that contained orchestral accompaniment; And although another company had tried to synchronize audio and sound effects in their short films, they could not keep them completely in sync.


Disney created the animated short “Steamboat Willie”, in which both the music and the sound effects were perfectly synchronized. A feat that he achieved using the Click track technique, which consisted of putting visual marks on films that served as a metronome. The perfect and funny animation, as well as the sound effects that gave life and personality to his cartoons, captured the attention of the public and the short became a tremendous success. From there, all Walt Disney animations had sound.


Mickey Mouse became very popular. In 1930, comics were launched in newspapers that featured the script written by Walt and drawings by Iwwerks. This brought the character to the masses and, during that year, a large number of products of the character could be found: from toys to wristwatches.


In 1932 Disney created its first completely color short film, called Trees and Flowers, which allowed it to win the Oscar for the best animated short film. 

That same year, he was recognized with an honorary Oscar for the creation of Mickey Mouse. Throughout his life, he received 59Oscar nominations and won a total of 22 Oscars, plus another 4 that were honored.


In 1934, the studio was generating very good income, but not enough, Disney thought. So, he became obsessed with the idea of ​​creating the first animated feature film. Everyone in the industry believed that he was crazy and that this decision would bankrupt his company.


His brother and wife tried to persuade him, but the stubborn Walt Disney invested his time and resources in experimentation with realistic animation of human beings, special effects, and the use of specialized production processes and never-before-created equipment, such as the multiplane camera, which gave a sense of depth in three dimensions to simple drawings in two dimensions.


For two years he worked tirelessly to produce “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, the first English-language animated feature film, which was released in theaters in 1938. It was the most successful film at the box office that year and earned an estimated $ 98 million today. The resounding success of Snow White allowed Disney to build new studios in Burbank, which, by 1940, would have been commissioned to develop two other animated feature films: “Pinocchio” and “Fantasy”, which, unfortunately, were not as successful as Blanca snows.


At the same time, he continued to develop animated shorts of his star characters: Mickey, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy. In 1941 they launched “Dumbo”, which would achieve great success and generate excellent income for the company.


In December of that same year, the Second World War began, where the company would play a very important role, developing educational animation shorts and military training in conjunction with the United States government. Also, to release “Bambi” in August 1942.

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At the end of the war, the market for animated shorts ended, and Disney was forced to diversify its catalog by working on live-action feature films. It took almost 10 years to release his next animated feature film: “Cinderella”, which was his favorite movie. Then in 1951, is released “Alice in Wonderland” and in 1953“Peter Pan”, films that were heavily criticized for eliminating disturbing elements of the original works.


Disney World, a dream come true

During the 1940s, an idea had been around his head: to build an amusement park so that company employees and their families could be distracted in their free time. Over time, the idea matured into “Disneyland,” which was planned to be built close to the studios in Burbank, but ended up being built close to Los Angeles. Disney financed the project with its own money. He supervised the design and construction of the park, which was inaugurated on July 17, 1955, and was visited by 160,000 people in its first week of opening. Today, the park has been listed as a tourist mecca. Its design, divided into thematic areas, was a novel concept in its time.


Seeing the resounding success of Disneyland, a new idea arose in his head: to create a second theme park on the east coast of the United States. 


This is how Disney World was born, located in Orlando Florida. The park became Walt’s most ambitious dream. Inside it, there would be a futuristic royal city with a capacity for 22,000 people that had shops, community buildings, schools, and residential buildings; an integrated transport system based on monorails and traffic would be below the city.


In addition, within the park called Magic Kingdom, there would be some new animatronic figures that were initially used in Disneyland.


In 1965 the construction of Disney World was announced but it was not inaugurated until 1971. It is as big as the city of San Francisco today, making it the largest amusement park complex in the world. The complex has 34 hotels and 4 theme parks. It receives more than 18 million annual visitors and is the dream place of the vast majority of travelers in the world.

The legacy of Walt Disney

Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65 from lung cancer. He could not see his Disney World dream come true in life, but he would leave a business empire that would transcend to our time.

The legacy of Walt Disney

Today, The Walt Disney Company is the world’s largest media and entertainment business group. It manages 18 amusement parks, 39 hotels, 8 film studios, 11 cable television channels, and 1 terrestrial. The total value of his shares, according to Forbes, is more than $ 500 billion. Several of its productions hold the title of being the highest-grossing in history and its theme parks are a complete success. The company recently purchased 20th Century Fox and plans to launch its own streaming service called Disney +.


Without a doubt, Walt Disney was a visionary genius, someone who knew how to recover after each fall and who never gave up, thus becoming one of the greatest references in the film and animation industry.


In the words of Walt Disney himself: “All the adversity I have had in my life, all my problems and obstacles, have strengthened me .