Identification: Entertainment industry entrepreneur
Born: December 5, 1901; Chicago, Illinois
Died: December 15, 1966; Burbank, California
Significance: A commercial artist and cartoonist, Disney founded the Walt Disney Company, which would become one of the most influential media and entertainment corporations in the world.
Walt Disney was an influential force in the entertainment industry in the twentieth century. At the beginning of his entrepreneurial days, during the early 1920’s, Disney collaborated with another talented artist, Ub Iwerk, in creating a small cartoon production company. Although their first business ventures failed, the two artists acquired enough knowledge and expertise in the industry to convince Disney that success was possible. He moved to Hollywood, California, and recruited his brother Roy O. Disney to assist him. Together, Walt and Roy founded the Disney Brothers Studio. This company survived, creating such cartoon series as Alice in Cartoon land and Oswald the Rabbit. Disney’s first major success, in 1928, was the cartoon character Mickey Mouse.
By this point in his career, with a staff of animators in place, Disney was no longer sketching his characters himself. Instead, he devoted his attentions to finding innovative ways to enhance his productions. In his third Mickey Mouse production, Steamboat Willie (1928), Disney used music and his own voice to create the first sound cartoon. Over the next few years, Disney’s cast of characters expanded to include Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. His keen imagination, groundbreaking use of color and other technologies, creation of full-length animated films, and production of live-action films made him a leader in the industry. He also exploited merchandising opportunities, marketing toys and souvenirs based on his characters.
Business was not always rosy: During the 1940’s, Disney created several works, including Fantasia (1940), that were fiscal failures in their initial releases. During this difficult period, Disney stayed in production by creating training and educational films for the federal government, including the armed forces. Business improved during the 1950’s, and Disney branched out into other forms of entertainment, including television. Television shows such as The Mickey Mouse Club and Disneyland (later known as The Wonderful World of Disney) became popular, particularly the episodes of the latter show featuring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett.
For his next venture, Disney planned a theme park that would outshine all other existing amusement parks. This park would capitalize on his other financial interests, using Disney themes and characters already familiar to the public and placing them in a clean and magical land for family entertainment. Disneyland opened in 1955.
Disney’s empire was particularly influential in that it integrated various media, using the same core characters as a bridge. Disney produced films, television programs, books, comic books, theme parks, and merchandise. Each success also served to promote the success of related ventures, and each failure was mitigated by diversification. As a result, Walt Disney was a twentieth century pioneer in the entertainment industry, demonstrating the power of integration and the ability of a strong brand, character, or icon to drive entertainment revenues.
Cynthia J. W. Svoboda
- Barrier, Michael. The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.
- Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007.
- Peri, Don. Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008.