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Walt Disney - Uncle Walt of Disneyland

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Walt Disney - Earth's Most Famous Showman
Man and Mouse | War and Withdrawal | Uncle Walt of Disneyland

By 1950, Walt Disney had all but withdrawn from public life. He had lost interest in his film projects, consumed instead by a private miniature railway hobby and dedicated to spending time with his family. Yet by the end of the decade, he had become one of the best-known faces on television, having adopted an 'Uncle Walt' persona and created the family theme park.


Having made his own perfect worlds within his animations, his own replica railway and his own ideal house, Walt decided to make his own ideal world. It was inspired by his happiest moments in childhood, the Chicago Railroad Fair and shared times he had spent with his own daughters. One thing he had noticed in the fairgrounds he had taken his children to, such as Griffith Park's merry-go-round, La Cienega and Beverly amusement parks was that the children got to go on rides while the parents watched. Nowhere seemed to allow parents and children to enjoy time together in the way he had hoped he could spend with his father, but never had.

Walt's first idea was to build a series of miniature model tableaux of America he would name Disneylandia. These tableaux would be lit and animated, creating realistic worlds. In 1951 he hired dancer Buddy Ebsen to do a tap dance in front of a grid, which Walt filmed, and tried to create a mechanical figure that would recreate that dance. His team came to the conclusion that they could not convincingly replicate the actions on anything less than a full-sized figure. By 1952 his plans had transformed into building an amusement park. This was to be modest at first, merely a railway around the studio, which later developed into a village green, small town and a railway station. The project soon began to encompass all of Walt's interests, with early plans including:

  • A section based on his beloved home town of Marceline. This became Main Street USA.
  • An area inspired by his nostalgic view of America's frontier history. This became Frontierland.
  • An area inspired by his love of fantasy and fairytale. This became Fantasyland.
  • An area dedicated to his love of animals, complete with a jungle cruise featuring real animals. This became Adventureland.
  • An area dedicated to celebrating the future. This became Tomorrowland.
  • And a railway all around it all.

All of these elements would end up in Disneyland except for the animals on the jungle cruise; despite his hopes, the wild animals he most wanted to appear in the cruise could not be trained1, and he was forced to resort to animatronic animals instead. Disneyland and the other Disney Parks still use these ideas and their names for each land.

In 1952 Walt launched a new company, named WED Enterprises after his initials, one which, unlike the studio, he fully controlled. He began hiring talented members of his studio staff to work with him on designing a theme park. As animation work in the 1950s was slowing down, this meant he was able to retain some of his most talented employees who might otherwise have been made redundant. He coined the name Imagineers to describe his design team, as their role involved a mixture of imagination and engineering.

Walt began studying other theme parks worldwide, measuring the widths of walkways and timing traffic flow. He also believed in keeping the same philosophy of making a film and applying it to the theme park, designing rides with storyboards. In 1953 160 acres in California were bought. Walt mortgaged his house and sold his holiday home out of town, yet he still needed to raise more money.

Easy as ABC

One way he planned to raise the money and provide publicity was by working closely with an American television channel. In 1954, ABC, the American Broadcasting Company, agreed to broadcast a television series that included excerpts from Disney films, promotional material for upcoming films, a progress report on Disneyland, features on the 'World of Tomorrow' and the True Life nature programme, as well as a short Mickey Mouse Club. At the time, television was already very popular, with two thirds of American households owning a set. ABC was the youngest television network, and most people watched the more established CBS and NBC. ABC wished to catch up with its rivals and, inspired by the prospect, invested heavily in the theme park, as did many other sponsors.

Disney became the first film studio to make programmes for television, considered to be film's natural enemy by many Hollywood studios. The series, named Disneyland, was first broadcast on 27 October, 1954, and was often hosted by Walt. The idea was that the programme would also include shows related to the park's themes, beginning with a Frontierland-themed series about Davy Crockett. This quickly became an international hit, and the television episodes were edited and released as a cinematic film. The Disneyland television series, though popular, failed to break even, but served as the greatest possible publicity for the park.

The park opened on 17 July, 1955. Although not fully built when it opened, live to a television audience of over 70 million, it quickly became a success. The park expanded so that when three new attractions, the Matterhorn bobsled attraction, a 20,000 Leagues Submarine ride and a monorail opened in 1959, the 90-minute television special was hosted by Richard Nixon.

Walt Disney Productions and Disneyland merged in 1960. With the new theme park to occupy him, filmmaking began to lose its appeal. The studio stopped making animated shorts in 1957. Walt also seriously considered stopping making animated films altogether following 101 Dalmatians (1961), but instead relented and allowed animated film production to continue, though at a much reduced budget. Yet having made a success out of Disneyland, Walt was planning something larger, with a dry-run to play out on the world stage.

All the World's a Fair

In 1960 Walt was contacted by Robert Moses, co-ordinator of the 1964 New York World's Fair, with a view to creating exhibits. Walt began contacting sponsors in order to interest them in investing. He wished to see how popular these exhibits would be in New York as a test to see whether he could successfully open a second theme park on the eastern side of America.

Walt had very specific rides in mind, a car ride sponsored by Ford, a Hall of Presidents starring a life-sized robot Abraham Lincoln, and a Carousel of Progress sponsored by GE, General Electric. He had tried to inspire Coca-Cola to sponsor an exhibit featuring animatronic birds that evolved into the Enchanted Tiki Room. For the lifelike models of Lincoln and others, Disney used a system developed for the Polaris nuclear submarine that included programming used to control the figure. As this was based on a tape with electric pulses timed to coincide with the sounds also on the tape to give perfectly synchronised sound and movement, the system was called audio-animatronics. A last-minute exhibit for the fair was made for Pepsi and the United Nations International Children's Fund, entitled 'It's A Small World', this would become one of the world's most famous rides.


As he approached the end of his life, Walt became increasingly pre-occupied with leaving a legacy. When Mrs Chouinard who ran the Chouinard Art Institute had a stroke in the early 1950s, he donated vast sums of money to save the school which had taught his artists how to draw. With Mrs Chouinard's consent, he transformed the school, merged it with the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in 1962 and named the result the California Institute of the Arts, or CalArts for short.

Thanks to his television exposure, Walt became the quintessential epitome of America. He was appointed Chairman of the United States Olympic Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Olympics. This experience inspired him to plan a skiing centre at Mineral King, Sequoia National Forest, although this project was in development and abandoned when he died.

In 1960 Walt signed a deal in which he would host a Sunday night television programme on NBC, entitled Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, one of the very first colour television programmes broadcast.

Mary Poppins

The last film made in his studio that he felt truly passionate about was Mary Poppins. He had tried to secure the rights to the book from author PL Travers in 1943, yet the strong-willed Travers was a difficult author to woo, and it took almost two decades before she allowed Disney to make the film2. Even then she was a force to be reckoned with, wanting to cast Julie Harris as Mary Poppins, while Walt had already chosen an unknown English Broadway actress named Julie Andrews. Dick van Dyke was the fourth choice for Bert, with Cary Grant Walt's preferred actor. The film combined live action, animation and even included an audio-animatronic bird. The financial success of the year, it was nominated for 13 Oscars and won five.

Disney World and EPCOT

After Disneyland opened, Walt planned a sequel. In 1963 work on finding a large site in Florida began, and ended up with buying a site twice the size of Manhattan. This was not only to contain a new theme park, but also the ultimate in new worlds to create; a Utopian city he planned himself. It would be called EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, and would be a city that combined the best of rural traditions with city living, with futuristic and clean means of transport. Each house would be self-sufficient, generating its own electricity and recycling its own waste in a car-free, noiseless and pollution-free city centre. But even Walt could not afford to build a whole city on his own, and without commercial sponsors the project stalled. EPCOT instead would be used as the name of an educational theme park built in the 1980s.

Yet his vision was not forgotten. Long after his death the city of Celebration was formed on the south side of the Interstate Highway below Disney World in Florida. Although not built on the grand scale of the vision of EPCOT, Celebration is a functional community with its own school, hospital and downtown district, a real town with full-time residents.

The End

By this time of his life, Walt drank a scotch every day at 5pm, followed by cocktails at home in the evening, and drank heavily at weekends. He suffered from kidney stones and he was still feeling the effects of an old polo injury which affected his leg and neck. Noticeably ageing, when he appeared to host Disney's Wonderful World of Color, he was filmed using a diffusion filter to hide his ever-increasing wrinkles. On 11 November, 1966, Walt was scheduled for a routine operation to relieve the pressure of the polo injury. Yet during a preparatory diagnosis an x-ray revealed that Walt had severely advanced lung cancer caused by his constant smoking.

Walt stayed in hospital undergoing cobalt treatment, but checked himself out on 21 November. He told everyone that he was recovering from a health scare, but the truth was that he was dying. He drew up a will donating 45% of his estate to his wife and daughters in trust, 45% to a charitable trust called the Disney Foundation (95% of this money to be dedicated to CalArts), and 10% to go to his sister, nieces and nephews. By his 65th birthday on 5 December he was back in hospital. His condition grew worse, and he died on 15 December, 1966.

Walt was cremated and later interred at the Freedom Mausoleum at Forest Lawn, Glendale. Yet despite this, many choose to believe that Walt Disney is not dead. The myth persists that, like his characters Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or King Arthur, he still lives, frozen in a perfect sleep, ready to awaken with a kiss from a beautiful princess when America needs him the most or the technology to restore his youth has been created.

So Who Was Walt Disney Really?

Walt Disney was one of the first celebrities of the television generation, appearing in homes nationwide across America. He was someone many felt they knew, without realising that his 'Uncle Walt' persona was the image that he worked hard to project. So who was he really?

Walt always projected an image of being a common man uninterested in money, and that was largely true. When he started his studio, he paid many of his animators a greater wage than he himself received, and the profits the studio made were re-invested into the studio, rather than his own bank account. Yet because he was not interested in money, it does not mean that he was not greedy, only that the greed was not monetary in nature.

Walt more than anything desired the power to rule and make his own decisions. He hated to delegate and feared sharing power; if anyone ever gained too strong a position in the company, he was either removed or re-assigned. The only people he trusted in powerful positions for any real length of time were his brother Roy and friends Ub Iwerks and Hermen Kamen. Any attempt to control him was met with anger and hatred, particularly towards unions and banks.

Walt needed creative freedom to design his own houses, railway and theme parks. Yet his artistic expression always led him to need to do more than he had already done – he was a man driven to always excel and beat his previous achievements.

Family Man

Although there is no doubt that Walt was a workaholic frequently completely obsessed with the projects he was developing at the time, he remained at heart a family man. He ensured that Sundays were spent with his children, determined to be a better father than his own had been and desperate not to make the same mistakes.

Walt's marriage to Lillian was one full of affection and arguments. Lillian hated having to share Walt with his studio, Disneyland or the public, and was often jealous of anything that took him away from her. She frequently criticised his endeavours, was uninterested in his films and his railway, and even chose not to attend the opening of Disneyland. Walt, in buying her anniversary presents of, for instance, a necklace adorned with miniature replica gold Oscars to celebrate his success, was not exactly tactful. Yet Lillian and Walt often spent their time arm in arm, and he took dancing lessons just so that he and his wife could dance together.

He was also very fond of his dogs, considering them intimate members of his family.

Was Walt Disney Anti-Semitic?

The big recurring question hovering over Walt's life is whether or not he was racist, in particular prejudiced against Jews. There are four main facts that have been used to suggest that Walt was anti-Semitic. First is the cartoon Der Fuehrer's Face, in which Donald wears a Nazi uniform, although this film was government-appointed propaganda. Secondly, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Walt was a member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals. This anti-Communist organisation had many anti-Semitic members, yet though Walt freely associated with people with known racial prejudices, it does not prove he was prejudiced himself.

An earlier faux pas was made in 1933, when one scene of The Three Little Pigs showed the Big Bad Wolf disguised as a stereotyped Jewish peddler. This film was one that Walt was keenly involved in making and had complete control over, yet at the time racial insensitivity was common throughout Hollywood. On later releases, this scene was replaced.

The most serious lapse in judgement occurred in December 1938. Walt gave German propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl3 a tour of the Disney Studios, at a time when the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League was publicly calling for her visit to be universally boycotted. Walt was politically naïve, uninterested in world politics. He did not read newspapers; he had no real political leanings other than a profound hatred of Communism. His publicly expressed opinion about the Second World War was that '[America] should let 'em [Europeans] fight their own wars'. Although he had visited Germany on his European tour of 1935, he largely felt that world affairs were not his concern, other than the loss of revenues the closure of the European markets represented.

So was Walt racist? In his defence, he employed several Jews at the studio and some were given positions of authority. These included Joe Grant, head of the model department, production manager Harry Tytle and Herman 'Kay' Kamen, one of Walt's closest friends who handled all Disney merchandise from 1933, the principal source of income for the studio. Walt is also known to have donated money to numerous charities, including the Hebrew Orphan Asylum of the City of New York, Yeshiva College, the Jewish Home for the Aged and the American League for a Free Palestine, although some have argued that these donations were attempts to clear his name.

What Recurring Themes Occur in Walt Disney Productions Made in his Lifetime?

Although Walt did not animate, direct or write the stories that he released as films, he contributed massively to the scripts and storyboards, and chose and oversaw the projects from start to finish. So what recurring values and themes appear in his films and theme parks, and what do they tell us about Walt Disney?

Extremely evident is his fascination with railways, not only at his home and around his theme parks but also in films, such as Casey Junior in Dumbo or the railway in So Dear to my Heart. From his earliest projects, Walt was fascinated by Fantasy, and spent much of his life attempting to create his own fantasy world, whether in animation or theme park form. Similarly his nostalgic love of American history recurs. Yet there are themes that mean more even than that.

The first is the theme of wishing. Those who have a pure, unsullied wish that they believe in with all their hearts see these wishes granted. This reflects Walt's own positive can-do attitude, rewarded with international recognition and success.

Hard work is another common theme. Characters like Snow White and Cinderella are imprisoned by their families, forced to work hard in their youth before finally finding success, freedom and appreciation, and a happy ending, when they leave their families and go off to a happily ever after. This is a reflection of Walt's own life, where he did indeed work hard for a living before being able to escape and enjoy his just rewards.

Yet for all his attempts to be a loving father, his films rarely feature fathers. Where are the main characters' fathers in Snow White, Dumbo, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland or The Jungle Book? Even when the fathers appear, they are often distant or ineffectual figures in Pinocchio, Bambi, Song of the South, Lady and the Tramp, The Parent Trap or The Sword in the Stone. The last film Walt put his whole soul into making, Mary Poppins, is the story of two children reconnecting with their father in exactly the way Walt was never able to.

1The Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida, opening long after his death, was inspired by his vision, with a ride featuring real animals and visitors in safari cars instead of boats.2This later formed the basis of a film entitled Saving Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt Disney and Emma Thompson as PL Travers.3Leni Riefenstahl is widely regarded as the greatest propaganda filmmaker ever. The talent evident in her films, most famously Triumph of the Will, was exceeded only by the unpalatability of her message.

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