Walt Disney Rediscovered | Disney World

  • What you might already know about Walt Disney’s life: When he died, his body was frozen. Cryogenics.

    He ended up at Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World in Orlando…or was it at Pirates of the Caribbean in California?...to be revived sometime in the future.

    No, of course not.

    Who would really believe that common rumor? No one, of course.

    But just how much do you know about Walt himself?

    His real life might be described as a mass of contradictions. With a very unexpected but highly successful outcome. And while he was widely seen as a genius, he had his own rough spots.

    Walt DisneyDid you know this?

    Though he’s famous as perhaps the greatest provider ever of G-rated entertainment, Walt’s own family was so dysfunctional that his four brothers ran away from home?

    When he got around to going to Hollywood (where else?), his worldly possessions were limited to not much more than the clothing he had on. Oh yes, also one camera. He promptly sold it.

    Disney was never wealthy until the end of his life.

    His education was extremely limited.

    He was officially only a high school student for one single year.

    He never graduated from high school. He started school at the age of 7 and left at the age of 16.

    You also might not think of the aging twinkly-eyed Walt you saw on TV as a solider. But he was involved in two world wars. And though he never fired a gun, he was a sort of semi-war hero.

    Indeed, his role in one war is a footnote in history.

    He also had what we would today call a nervous breakdown.

    No wonder.

    He went bankrupt

    And while he is famous for his cartooning, he apparently thought little of his own artistic talents.

    He had another ambition.

    He would be an actor.

    And how about the animation that he was famed for?

    Walt never set out to get into animation; He was only introduced to it at age 20 in Kansas City. When he was hired by an advertising company.

    And he later walked away from animation after his little film studio in Kansas City went bankrupt.

    Disney bankrupt?

    We have to repeat it because it does seem unlikely, no?

    Much of this you could find out by reading biographies about Walt Disney. And there are many.

    But here we will not get into a formal recital of his entire life….

    Just the unusual and at times unlikely parts of it that you might want to know about…

    Keeping this in mind: this is no way to denigrate what he accomplished but to show he did not do it all without effort.

    A lot of effort.

    His limited education

    He started school at the age of 7 and dropped out at 16. He also attended McKinley High School in Chicago where he learned to draw. He took photography classes there. Walt was said to never have developed a love of studying. But he did love drawing and spent long hours on it.

    Early menial jobs

    Anyone who has worked at Disney or a lot of other places like fast food restaurants can identify with some of Walt’s own early jobs. Walt spent the summer of 1917 washing jars in his dad's jelly factory for seven dollars a week. He also worked as a conductor at one of the elevated rail lines for 40 cents an hour and later at the post office for 12 to 14 hours a day. His job was to pick up mail room mailboxes around Chicago in a horse-drawn wagon. Walt worked for his father’s newspaper delivery service for several years, starting when he was just ten years old. When he left military service and came back home from France, his father suggested the jelly factory. Again. Walt was not interested. Like his brothers, who left home because they viewed their father as dictatorial, Walt did not want to obey any more orders. He began to pursue his artistic career. But when he took his samples to Chicago and Kansas City newspapers, he was repeatedly rejected.

    His fascination with trains

    This should be no surprise. As a child, Walter Elias “Walt” Disney moved from his native Missouri small town to Kansas City. His uncle, Mike Martin, was a train engineer. Walt worked a summer job with the railroad. He sold snacks and newspapers to travelers. (see early menial jobs).

    Disney’s folly

    That is what they called a remaking of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Walt had wanted to do it ever since he was a 15-year-old newsboy who saw a silent film version. Why the predictions of failure? It was the Walt Disney Company’s first feature-length film. And it was the first full length animated film ever in color. And then there was the budget: over $2 million or a lot of money at the time or four times its original budget.

    Walt almost dies

    While training for the military at a base near Chicago, Walt came down with the flu during the worldwide influenza pandemic. An ambulance driver became an unsung hero by taking Walt to his home. Had he gone to a hospital he surely would have died, according to several accounts. His mother nursed him back to health and she, too, got the flu. Both recovered.

    About that nervous breakdown

    Walt was widely known for taking risks. He is said to have no fear of them. Adding sound and color to cartoons were only two of his ideas. But then there was profit to worry about. In his early innovative work, Walt became anxious that his cartoon shorts would really make money. He became irritable to employees. He had trouble sleeping. Employees said he became unfocused and was unable to concentrate or contribute. He even had crying spells at a moment’s notice. All of this today might be called a nervous breakdown. Employees suggested he take a vacation with wife Lillian. It was advice he followed. He came back refreshed with a vision to create a full-length animated film. It was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” And it was a hit.

    The good soldier

    No, Walt Disney was not a decorated soldier. He was unsuccessful in his first attempt to join his brother Roy in fighting during World War I. But he was only 16 at the time. He attempted to join the Navy anyway but was rejected. Too young. He tried to become a member of the Canadian national forces instead. But he couldn’t pass the eye exam. He eventually joined the Red Cross Ambulance Corps in France during the last year of the war. He said later he learned self-reliance. But brother Roy said what Walt liked most about the military were the costumes. During World War II, Mickey Mouse was now famous. So Walt at the US government’s request made 68 hours of propaganda movies. And that footnote to Walt’s soldierly history: Disney’s works were so influential that the password at Allied Supreme Headquarters in Europe on D-Day was Mickey Mouse.

    Becoming famous

    He had $40 in cash.

    His imitation-leather suitcase (not even fashionable in those days) had just one shirt. Two pairs of socks.

    But also some drawing materials.

    Walt never really expected to use them. He believed others did animation better.

    Walt would be an actor.

    But after that bankruptcy and move to California with hardly any money in 1927, Walt’s character, “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” caught on. Became a star. Walt’s own creation. Word got out of the Disney company’s expertise in animation. But then adversity came again. A backer hired Disney employees to cut him out of the deal and steal the character. That’s when he came up with Mickey.

    How he created Mickey Mouse

    While riding back on a train from an unsuccessful business meeting (rarely an uncommon occurrence at that time for Walt) with his wife Lily in 1928, he began sketching a cartoon mouse. He called the sketch “Mortimer Mouse.” He showed it to his wife. She said who said the name Mortimer was too pompous. Walt accepted her idea: Mickey. While Walt did sketch the original plans for the Mickey Mouse’s character, the final design for Mickey was done by friend Ub Iwerks.

    Walt goes bankrupt

    Young Walt and cartoonist Ubbe Eert Iwwerks, better known as Ub and fated to be a close friend, made a deal with a local Kansas City theatre to screen cartoons. They called it “Laugh-O-Grams.” They were popular. They were mostly seven-minute fairy tales that combined live action and animation. But the studio was burdened with debt and some shady backers. The distributor was said to have cheated Walt. The company went bankrupt.

    Walt and animation

    Walt never intended to get into animation. Or so we think. He was only introduced to it at age 20 in Kansas City by being hired by a film ad company which used animation. And he later walked away from animation after his little film studio in Kansas City was forced into bankruptcy, a clear embarrassment.

    Death of Walt

    Walt Disney passed away on December 15th, 1966. The cause: lung cancer. He had asked to be cremated. He got his wish. There’s a burial plot with his ashes under his name at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California. As for cryogenics, even if you take the rumors seriously…The first known experiment with human cryogenic freezing didn’t happen until January 1967, a month after Disney’s death. The long told story of his freezing is not really a mystery, but a common myth.

    Mystery of last words

    As Walt Disney laid on his deathbed, he was said by some reports to scribble on a piece of paper “Kurt Russell.” The actor was asked years later what he could have meant. He said in 2007 that he no idea why his name was cited.

    At the time, Russell was a child actor.

    He had just signed a ten-year contract with the Disney Studio.

    One story has it that the note was actually found on Walt’s desk, not at the hospital. It may have been on Walt’s mind before he went into the hospital.

    So it may not even have been on his mind at the time of his death.

    Who knows?

    No life is without mystery. And that’s just one more for Walt. ###