Profiles in Greatness: Walt Disney

One Man's Will and a "Wonderful World"
January 16, 2012

The Walt Disney Company, which reported more than $38 billion in revenue in 2010, was started by a high-school dropout who loved to draw and had a passion for learning. Walt Disney founded an empire on fantasy and risk taking. While he was at it, he built fantastical amusement parks, developed a brand recognized by children and adults all over the world, and created an educational foundation for future entertainment innovators.

Not a bad legacy for a man who, after his first studio went belly up, placed his career in the hands of a cartoon mouse. So for this month’s sit-down with a legend, we “heard from” the founder himself.

Q: You like to draw. Lots of kids like to draw. How did you go from being a kid who likes to draw to a man who revolutionized an industry?

A: “Somehow I can’t believe there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secret of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four Cs. They are curiosity, confidence, courage and constancy, and the greatest of these is confidence. When you believe a thing, believe it all the way, implicitly and unquestionably.”

Disney was born in Chicago, Dec. 5, 1901, and grew up on a farm in Marceline, Mo. He was fully engaged with the four Cs that would become his professional philosophy well before he went to high school. In 1911, Disney spent his Saturdays taking courses at the Kansas City Arts Institute, and after the family returned to Chicago, he took courses at the Chicago Institute of Art.

At 19, he and a friend founded Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Not long after opening the commercial art business, Disney needed money. So he started working full time at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, and Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists folded.

Then, when he was 20, he founded his own studio, Laugh-O-gram Films. Despite a talented staff, the studio’s high overhead and minimal profits forced him to close. In 1923, He moved to Los Angeles, where he and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Studio.

Q: Your career was saved by a mouse. When you were facing bankruptcy, how did you decide to put your faith in one little idea?

A: “Mickey Mouse is, to me, a symbol of independence. He was a means to an end. He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad… on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb and disaster seemed right around the corner. Born of necessity, the little fellow literally freed us of immediate worry. He provided the means for expanding our organization to its present dimensions and for extending the medium of cartoon animation toward new entertainment levels. He spelled production liberation for us….

“All we ever intended for him or expected of him was that he should continue to make people everywhere chuckle with him and at him. We didn’t burden him with any social symbolism; we made him no mouthpiece for frustrations or harsh satire. Mickey was simply a little personality assigned to the purposes of laughter.”

Before the mouse hit the big screen, Disney and his brother Roy were creating cartoons for Universal Pictures, including the increasingly popular Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. But when Disney asked for more money from Universal and didn’t get it, he parted ways with the studio and was forced to leave Oswald and most of his animators behind.

Disney transformed his beloved black-and-white-faced Oswald character into Mickey Mouse and made three cartoons before finding a distributor. Steamboat Willie was released in 1928. Not only was it one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound, it made Disney a household name and is still recognized as one of the best cartoons ever made.

And in 2006, after a long life under various owners, Oswald returned home. The Walt Disney Company purchased the rights to the character.

Q: In Disneyland, you created a living, breathing fantasy world. How did you do it?

A: “When we consider a project, we really study it—not just the surface idea, but everything about it. And when we go into that new project, we believe in it all the way. We have confidence in our ability to do it right. And we work hard to do the best possible job.”

Disney gathered inspiration from everything and nothing escaped his eye. By the time he was ready to bring his ideas to fruition, they’d been perfected. Disneyland is a prime example. The roots of the theme park lay in Electric Park, an amusement park in Missouri that was 15 blocks from the Disney family home. The train that ran behind his home lived in Disney’s imagination for years, along with the sense of comfort and freedom it brought. When he was finally ready to realize Disneyland, Disney reached into his childhood memories and brought forth the idea of a train, which circles the park.

From a design standpoint, Disney started working on his fantasyland when he was a kid. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that he got serious about it. After visiting an Oakland, Calif., amusement park, Children’s Fairyland, Disney decided he wanted to build something similar where his employees could play with their children.

While Disney knew what he wanted and several employees volunteered to work on the project, financing was a major issue. Confident in his idea, Disney mortgaged everything he had, including his personal insurance, to procure the $17 million needed to build the park. Five years later, in 1955, the characters, places and designs Disney had been dreaming about since he was a child were realized in the grand opening of Disneyland.

Q: Out of all your accomplishments, what would you say has been your greatest reward?

A: “Well, my greatest reward, I think, is that I’ve been able to build this wonderful organization. I’ve been able to enjoy good health…and also, to have the public appreciate and accept what I’ve done all these years. That…that is a great reward.... Happiness is a state of mind. You can be happy or you can be unhappy. It’s just according to the way you look at things, you know.”

Disney wasn’t one to listen to naysayers. In fact, one of his greatest successes—the creation of full-length Disney movies—was resisted by two of his most trusted confidants, his wife, Lillian, and his brother Roy.

By 1934, Popeye the Sailor had surpassed Mickey Mouse in popularity. Disney knew the studio needed to develop something else to engage its audience. Though his wife and brother were against it and industry experts predicted that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would mark the demise of the Disney Studio, Disney pushed ahead with its production.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the first animated film in English and Technicolor. The movie went on to earn more than $8 million in 1938, making it the most successful moving picture produced that year.

The success of Snow White allowed Disney to build a new Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif. Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan soon followed in an era now known as the “Golden Age of Animation.”

Q: Looking back, is there anything you’d do differently?

A: “I do not like to repeat successes. I like to go on to other things.”

Disney collected ideas like many people collect excuses, waiting for the perfect opportunity in which to use them. He had plenty of competitors and setbacks, but regardless of his failures or letdowns, he never stopped believing he could make things bigger, better and more enjoyable for children of all ages.

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