Disney, Walt (Walter Elias Disney) [key], 1901–66, American movie producer and pioneer in animated cartoons, b. Chicago. He grew up in Missouri, in the small town of Marceline and in Kansas City. He moved to Chicago in 1917, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts and began (1920) his career as a cartoonist making animated film advertisements. In 1928 Disney created the character Mickey Mouse in the silent film Plane Crazy. That same year Mickey also appeared in Steamboat Willie, a short that initiated the concept of making a separate cartoon for each animated movement. Instantly famous, the film was also Disney's first attempt to use sound (his own voice for Mickey), and it was followed by many other shorts starring Mickey and his animal sidekicks. An international success, by 1935 Mickey Mouse cartoons had been viewed by some 500 million moviegoers. Disney also experimented with the use of music (The Skeleton Dance), the portrayal of speed (The Tortoise and the Hare), three-dimensional effects (The Old Mill), and the use of color (one of the earliest color shorts was 1933's Three Little Pigs).
Disney produced the first feature-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938), which took three years to complete. Additional features included Pinocchio (1939), Fantasia (1940), Dumbo (1941), and Bambi (1942). In Song of the South (1946), he merged live actors and animated figures. During World War II, Disney's studio produced cartoons for the armed services as training tools and morale builders.
Beginning with Treasure Island in 1951, Disney added live-action movies to his output, while still producing such animated classics as Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953). Thereafter, his studio produced several animal stories (e.g., Greyfriars Bobby, 1960), musical fantasies (e.g., Mary Poppins, 1964), and television programs, beginning in the early 1950s with the weekly Disneyland and its famous Mouseketeers. Disney and his productions received numerous Academy and other awards during his lifetime. After his death, the Disney studios remained active, diversified, and ultimately became enormously successful. In the early 1980s, they began producing films for adults, and in the 1990s they greatly expanded into television with the acquisition of the ABC network and related television assets. The acquisition of 20th Century Fox (later 20th Century Studios) in 2019 further increased the Walt Disney Co.'s film and television business.
Disneyland, a huge theme park in Anaheim, Calif., which in part celebrates America's hometowns and small-town values, was opened by Disney in 1955. Disney's California Adventure, a second, smaller theme park in Anaheim, opened adjacent to Disneyland in 2001. An even bigger park, Walt Disney World, opened near Orlando, Fla., in 1971 as a theme park and resort, and Epcot Center, Disney-MGM Studios, and Animal Kingdom have since been added there. Disneyland parks have also opened near Tokyo (1983), in Marne-la-Vallée, near Paris (1992), in Hong Kong (2005), and in Shanghai (2016).
See biographies by D. D. Miller and P. Martin (1956), B. Thomas (1958), M. Eliot (1993), S. Watts (1998), and N. Gabler (2006); R. Schickel, The Disney Version (1968); C. Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (1973); R. Merritt and J. B. Kaufman, Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney (1994); H. A. Giroux, The Mouse That Roared: Disney and the End of Innocence (1999); D. Smith and S. Clark, Disney: The First 100 Years (1999); R. Snow, Disney's Land (2019).
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