Generations of children have grown up anticipating the newest Disney animated feature with excitement usually reserved for Christmas morning. From Cinderella and The Little Mermaid to Frozen and Encanto, Disney films have enchanted viewers with magical adventures populated by characters destined to become lifelong friends. Today, the Walt Disney Company is a multinational, publicly traded conglomerate that includes film production, television and theme parks, and has a net worth near $100 billion.
The man who started it all, Walter Elias Disney, spent his boyhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri — where he learned to draw animals — and never graduated high school. Too young to enlist during WWI, Walt drove an ambulance in Europe decorated with his own cartoons.
In the 1920s, Walt moved to California, began an animation studio with his brother Roy and dreamed up a mouse to compete with Felix the Cat. Steamboat Willie, a cartoon short with sound, starred Mickey Mouse and was a crowd-pleaser from the day it opened in 1928. “I’m not in business to make unhappy pictures,” Walt said of the secret of his success. “I’m an optimist.”
In public, Walt cultivated a gentle, good-natured fatherly image. English actress Hayley Mills, who starred in Disney’s 1961 hit The Parent Trap, thought of him as a surrogate father. “He had a lovely sense of humor. He was really easy to talk to because he listened and he genuinely loved children,” Hayley, who recently released the memoir Forever Young, tells Closer. She recalls that Walt “walked everywhere” around Disneyland and even went on the spinning teacup ride with her. “Most adults hate it because it makes them feel sick,” she notes.
Walt began visiting children’s amusement parks when his daughters, Diane and Sharon, were small. “Saturday was Daddy’s Day,” Scott Zone, director of Our Grandpa, Walt Disney, tells Closer. “In his home movies, you see Walt at the Griffith Park carousel and all these other kiddie-land amusement parks.”
Walt loved to spoil his daughters. “He had a difficult relationship with his own father and grew up impoverished. As a result, he was a very attentive father,” Dr. Jeffrey A. Barnes, author of The Wisdom of Walt series, tells Closer. “He made sure they had the best of everything.” That included family cruises and flights to Europe, gifts galore at Christmas, a playhouse and a working miniature locomotive behind their Holmby Hills, Calif., home.
Truthfully, the train was more for Walt than the girls. “It was a big thing for Walt when he got into model railroading,” says Barnes. “Eventually, his wife said, ‘Your railroad is taking over the rose garden. You really need to find some other place for it.’ That other place became Disneyland.”
When friends came over, Walt invited them on a ride, but he didn’t socialize easily. He was shy and introverted in his personal life. “He didn’t have a ton of friends,” says Barnes. “His brother Roy said that he never saw Walt when he wasn’t working.”
Walt was also not as clean-cut as his public image — which is why he protected his home life so zealously. “He smoked three packs of cigarettes a day. He also drank every night, almost to excess,” says Barnes, who adds that staffers devised a nickname for Walt based on his forest fire odor. “Employees would call out, ‘Man of the forest!’ to alert everyone that Walt was around.”
Disney workers had reason to be on their toes around the boss. The last of the old-time studio executives, Walt demanded complete control and could be harsh in his criticism. “He could make you feel one inch tall, and he wouldn’t let anyone else do it,” a longtime staffer said. “That was his privilege.” Walt was also stingy with his praise. “That’ll work,” was the best any worker ever heard.
Walt passed away at age 65 in 1966. He had grown a small animation studio into one of the world’s entertainment juggernauts.
That empire has recently been threatened due to the company’s opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “I doubt the backlash will be severe enough to really make a dent in the bottom line for Disney,” media expert Danielle Grossman tells Closer. As long as Disney continues to harness the special magic of childhood dreams, they are likely to persevere. “Adults are only kids grown up,” Walt said. “That’s the real trouble with the world. Too many people grow up. They forget.”
—Reporting by Katie Bruno
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