The History of Walt Disney for Kids

So as a family one of our favorite activities is watching movies together. Often because they are so many of us we skip the theater and just pop popcorn and cuddle up together on the couch and watch our favorite movies from home. Movies are sort of like going on a little journey together. We laugh together; they are happy parts and sad parts, scary parts and fun parts, we feel many of the same emotions as the characters in the movie. I have great memories watching my favorite movies growing up like Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Sometimes I imagined going on adventures like my movie heroes. I liked to make up scripts for my own movies and cast my little brothers and sisters as parts and sometimes we even filmed them. 

Some of my other favorites movies growing up were Disney movies. Have you heard of Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Pinnochio? What about Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and Lion King? Have you heard of Walt Disney before? If not you’ve surely heard of Disney movies or Disneyland. Did you know they all started with the imagination of a man named Walt Disney? 

Many years ago Walt Disney was a child just like you. Walt was born on December 5, 1901, a little over one hundred years ago in Chicago. His parents names were Elias and Flora Disney. They were very different in many ways. His father, Elias was a hard worker, a perfectionist and could be very stern at times. But their mother Flora was known to laugh a lot and be very warm and kind. 

A few years after Walt was born his family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri. Walt loved living in the countryside. There were woods and lots of animals and many of Walt’s best memories were growing up in Marceline. There was a downtown in Marceline and Walt loved watching the trains chugging into town to stop to drop off and pick up passengers. Much of his inspiration for Main Street U.S.A in Disneyland came from his fond memories of Marceline. 

Around this time Walt started drawing. He often practiced by copying the comics in the newspaper and once the local doctor even paid him to draw a picture of his horse. 

In 1911 the Disney family moved to Kansas City, Missouri where his father owned a newspaper route. A newspaper route meant that every morning Walt and his brothers woke up very early every morning to take newspapers to everyone in town. It was very hard work and often Walt didn’t want to do it, but he helped the best he could to take care of the family. Many days he fell asleep in class because he was so tired from the morning newspaper route. 

For fun little Walt liked to act and makeup plays with his friends and family members. He even tried out for a play at school and played Peter Pan. He and his brother even made a contraption using a wire so it would look like he was flying! But when they tried to use it the wire broke and he flew into the crowd!  

Walt continued to practice drawing and told his father he wanted to be an artist for a living. In high school he drew cartoons for the school newspaper and at night he took classes from the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He knew to be a great artist he’d need lots and lots of practice! 

During this time Europe was at war in what is known as World War I. Walt wanted to join the army but was too young at the time. He heard many young people were joining the Red Cross. The Red Cross helps take of soldiers who were injured during the war and others in need. But Walt was also too young to be in the Red Cross. So when he went to turn in his papers to join, he changed his birthdate so they would think he was older! 

By the time Walt made it to Europe the war was over, but he helped drive an ambulance and used his drawing skills to paint cartoons on the side of his ambulance and others. He also had some of his drawings published in the Stars and Stripes army magazine. 

After returning home to the United States, Walt got a job drawing advertisements for a magazine. An advertisement is used to try and sell something. At this job he met another young artist named Ub Iwerks. Before long, Walt and Ub were out of a job and started their own company doing advertisements. Walt also became very interested in animation. Animation is pictures that move. Most of the cartoons that you see are animation — basically many pictures switching quickly to make it look like they are moving. Walt bought a camera and started tinkering with animation at home. He spent many hours drawing and taking pictures, trying to figure out how to make good looking animations.

Before long, Walt and Ub’s animations were good enough to be sold as short movies. They called them Laugh-o-Grams and many of their animations were shown before real movies at the theater. Eventually they moved to Hollywood which was where all of the newest movies were being made. In Hollywood he and his brother Roy started Disney Brothers Studios. There Walt also met his wife, Lillian. For a few years Walt continued to make his animated movies but had trouble staying in business. There are many times when he could have given up, but he loved animation and kept on trying even when they failed. At one time someone stole his favorite character, a cartoon rabbit, which he had named Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. 

After Walt found out he could no longer use his Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for his movies, he was on a long train ride with his wife from New York back to his home in Hollywood. He decided his newest cartoon character would be a mouse and he would name him … Mortimer Mouse. His wife, Lillian, thought that wasn’t a very good name and he should name him Mickey Mouse instead. And this was the beginning of the world famous cartoon character, Mickey Mouse!

Back in Hollywood, and together with Ubb Iwerks, they began animated their new cartoon, Mickey Mouse. And for their first movies, Walt even did the voice for Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse’s first big movie was called Steamboat Willie. Be sure to look it up on the Internet when you get a chance. It’s black and white, but it’s Mickey Mouse riding a steamboat and whistling a fun tune. Steamboat Willie showed before real moves in the theater, but was a hit. Disney Brothers Studio did other animated movies like The Skeleton Dance and eventually Flowers and Trees, which was one of the first animated movies to use Technicolor — which means it was in color, no longer black and white. 

For many years Walt and Lillian wanted to be parents, but had trouble having children. Finally in 1933, Lillian gave birth to a daughter who they named Diane. Walt was so excited to be a dad and spent a lot of time having fun with his daughter. Often she would spend time at the animation studio watching as her father and others created their cartoons.

With the success of all of their animated movies, Disney Brothers Studio began to grow and grow and soon hundreds of animators worked for Walt Disney. Because there was so much to do Walt no longer drew the pictures, he worked on the stories and music — and his brother Roy helped with the business, taking care of the money and paying all of the animators who worked for them. 

But Walt was always wanting to do something new and exciting. He was also driven to create the biggest and best animations, so his next big project would be a full animated movie. Before this time all of the cartoons were just short movies, but Walt wanted to do a longer one. At the time no one thought anyone would want to watch a full cartoon movie, but Walt didn’t agree. His brother, Roy, wasn’t sure if they could pay for it, and many others thought for sure this would be the end of Disney Brother’s Studios. But Walt didn’t care, he believed in what they were doing and moved forward anyway.

One of Walt’s favorite fairy tales growing up was Snow White, which told the story of a young girl named Snow White, who was being hunted by a wicked witch. During her adventures she meets a band of dwarves who help save her from the witch. Walt had decided this would be his first animated movie and held a meeting with all of his animators. There he told them the story of Snow White and acted out all of the parts — then they got to work! Drawing all of the animations for Snow White took many hundred animators, 4 years of hard work and $1.5 million dollars to create. It took a lot longer and cost a lot more than they had planned, but when it was finally released all of the popular actors and actresses in Hollywood all showed up to the Carthay Theater to watch Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. To Walt’s delight, the movie was a huge hit! People all over the world loved the movie and they ended up earning all their money back within a few months. Audiences were amazed by what they saw. The animation and color were beautiful. The sound and music was well done. Walt Disney had proved them wrong! 

Walt Disney and his animators continued to make animated movies — next Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi during a time period which came to be known as the Golden Age of Animation. Other classics included Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan. Disney Animation Studios also made live action movies, which means movies with real people and sets. Such movies included Treasure Island, The Ballad of Davy Crockett, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and Mary Poppins. 

By this time, Walt Disney and his studio had become very profitable, which means they had a lot of extra money to try new things. For many years, Walt had been toying with the idea of doing something, very big and very different! 

In our next episode we’re excited to tell you the story of Walt Disney’s next big dream, the making of a theme park that parents and kids could enjoy alike — the one and only Disneyland! 

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