Walt Before Disney

Sixty years after Disneyland’s opening, we set out to understand the experiences and forces that shaped the man who so profoundly shaped Orange County.

Almost 50 years after his death, Walt Disney remains instantly identifiable, with that 1930s moustache and those twinkly eyes, the rumpled coat and tie, and folksy Midwestern demeanor. We can hear his slight nasal twang and imagine him standing in front of us, describing his excitement about an upcoming movie or TV episode. He reminds us of a beloved neighbor or favorite uncle; some called him “Uncle Walt,” or at his insistence, just plain Walt. Never Mr. Disney. The only mister at Disneyland, he used to quip, was Mr. Toad.


But when Walter Elias Disney died in December 1966 (from conditions related to lung cancer), he left an entertainment empire that was bringing in $100 million a year, according to The New York Times. Not bad for a fellow who claimed to earn, at age 8, “a shiny quarter” for the very first piece of art he sold, a drawing of “a magnificent chestnut stallion.” A visionary whose impact on popular culture is inescapable, he was creating right up to the end; from his hospital bed he spoke of the Disneyland spin-off park he planned to open in Florida.

“He was clearly a genius, but he’s also very hard to characterize and try to nail down,” says Charles Solomon, the author of 17 books about animation and related topics, including Disney. “I’ve written thousands of words about the man and am still discovering new things.”

Filmmaker Sarah Colt also made many discoveries in her ambitious new documentary for “American Experience,” the flagship PBS history series. “He’s much more layered and complex than the man who appeared on television, selling a specific image,” says the producer-director of the four-hour “Walt Disney,” which airs in two parts on Sept. 14 and 15.

To tell the Disney story, Colt and her crew gathered more than 4,000 still images and screened more than 300 hours of footage, including original Disney releases, TV shows, and behind-the-scenes material. Fifty-plus hours of on-camera interviews were shot, with key people such as 105-year-old Ruthie Tompson, an ink and paint artist, and animator Don Lusk, now 101, both of whom worked with him on his first feature-length animated film, “Snow White.”  Colt also spoke with Disney biographers, scholars, and historians, and was granted access to family and company archives.

As the documentary makes clear, Disney was much more complicated than his avuncular image. With all that in mind, we decided to focus on six places, passions, and incidents that profoundly shaped the man.

Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty's Castle under construction, and the Disneyland Railroad
Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty’s Castle under construction, and the Disneyland Railroad


Marceline, Mo.

Marceline, Mo., is more than 1,700 miles from Disneyland—yet the two locations are inextricably linked. The Chicago-born Disney was 5 when his family moved to a farm in Marceline (population 2,233) in the northern central part of Missouri. The town straddles two counties and has a rich railroad heritage. When the Disneys lived there, it was a stop on the Santa Fe line between Kansas City and Chicago. Disney played with and observed barnyard animals, which figured prominently in his early cartoons. And it was there that a favorite aunt gave him paper, pencils, and crayons and encouraged his artistic side.

Disney’s father eventually lost the farm and moved the family to Kansas City, where young Walt had to go to work. But Disney would forever think of his years in Marceline—from 1906 to 1911—with such affection that he used those memories as the model for Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A.

“Marceline is critical to the story of Walt Disney,” says Carmenita Higginbotham, an associate professor at the University of Virginia who teaches classes on Disney and Disneyland. “Marceline becomes the place Walt can return to. It’s also this idea of home that threads through Disneyland. … Marceline is the foundation of Disneyland.”

“Marceline represented the only time in his life he really got to be a child,” says Kaye Malins, director of Marceline’s Walt Disney Hometown Museum, which last year attracted 13,000 Disney loyalists to the former Santa Fe depot building.

Disney even had a replica of his family’s Marceline barn built at his Holmby Hills house. And in 2001, Marceline built a replica where the original stood to commemorate Disney’s 100th birthday.


The Disneyland Railroad originally was known as the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Today it provides an 18-minute, 1.2-mile scenic look at the park via vintage steam-powered locomotives. One of the park’s original 20 attractions, the train is more than a means to get around easily. It’s the chug-chug-chugging heartbeat of the park.
Disney’s passion for trains also can be traced back to Marceline.

“The Santa Fe line ran through the middle of town every 20 minutes,” says Michael Broggie, author of a comprehensive coffee-table book about Disney and railroading. “Walt is laying there in his bed, listening to the train huffing through town, and envisioning going on an adventure, riding on that train. He and his buddies used to go down to the switchyard, outside of town, and dare each other to climb up on the cab, pull the handle to blow the whistle, ring the bell.”

By the 1940s, Disney had built a one-eighth scale train at his Walt Disney Studios. He eventually moved it to his home on North Carolwood Street, named it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, and spent hours riding it around his backyard.

The New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther visited Disney and wrote that he was “wholly, almost weirdly, concerned with the building of a miniature railroad engine and a string of cars.” Feeling that Disney was squandering his inventiveness, Crowther added, “I came away feeling sad.”

Filmmaker Colt sees it in another light. It was the beginning of an extraordinary creative journey. “Disney is figuring out Disneyland in his backyard, with his train,” she says.

Disney’s hobby also was inspired by several of his studio animators who had their own trains, including animator Ward Kimball. Broggie, who was the son of a Disney Imagineer (the Disney word that merges imagination and engineering), was 8 years old when he joined his older brother and father as train crewmembers at Disney’s home on weekends. The boys filled buckets with the coal Disney had shipped in from Scranton, Pa., in 100-pound sacks. “All of this readiness was for people who’d show up to ride the train. In those days, there was no gate at Carolwood. Anybody could walk in. Friends of friends of friends would hear about this incredible railroad in Walt Disney’s backyard.”

When it opened in July 1955, the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad ride was hailed as “one of the most breathtaking of Disneyland’s many wonders,” and its 306-foot-long Grand Canyon diorama was the longest painting in the world. The diorama was expanded in 1966 to include Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs (the robotic animation that makes figures move), including baby triceratops emerging from their eggs.

Tivoli Gardens

Accounts vary regarding the exact inspiration for Disneyland, but what’s clear is its creator was enchanted with “playlands” even as an adult. In interviews, Disney recalled how he used to watch his daughters riding the merry-go-round at Griffith Park, and think, what if  there was a place where parents and kids could have fun, together…
Walt’s eldest daughter, the late Diane Disney Miller, remembered her father taking her to Beverly Park, a kiddieland located where the Beverly Center is now. “He’d see families there and say, ‘There’s nothing for the parents to do.’ ” The owner, David Bradley, wound up consulting on Disneyland, even traveling to Europe at Disney’s request to photograph various park rides. He also was involved in building the park’s signature King Arthur Carrousel.

Disney took his animator and fellow train enthusiast Ward Kimball to the 1948 Chicago Railroad Fair. The two men then traveled to Dearborn, Mich., to see the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which includes a collection of historical buildings from around the country. As filmmaker Colt notes, “Ford was doing something similar to what Disneyland became, with his idealized version of 19th-century America in Dearborn.”

Disney also visited the L.A. County Fair, the Pike in Long Beach, and the Santa Monica Pier, looking at attractions and quizzing attendants. At Buena Park’s Knott’s Berry Farm, he would measure walkway width and study the flow of the visitors. Then there was a pivotal 1951 trip to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens.

Disney and wife Lillian had traveled to Europe so he could host the London premiere of his studio animated feature “Alice in Wonderland.” En route, Walt bumped into an old associate, congenial radio host Art Linkletter. The two men and their wives went to Denmark and toured Tivoli together.

Built in 1843, the landmark amusement park is known for its lush gardens, illuminated fountains, fireworks, and family atmosphere. Linkletter later said  Disney took copious notes. When he asked Disney what he was doing, Disney replied that he was contemplating “a great, great playground for the children and families of America.”

Disney signing with business agent Kay Karmen (top) and with animators.
Disney signing with business agent Kay Karmen (top) and with animators.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

The iconic Mouse wouldn’t have existed were it not for this early Disney character. Disney founded Walt Disney Studios in 1926, but he and animator Ub Iwerks created the spunky, floppy-eared character while on assignment for Universal Pictures in 1927. In time, Oswald was successfully competing with established animated stars, including Felix the Cat. When Disney and Universal had a tiff over a contract, he had to abandon Oswald because he didn’t own the character. It marked a turning point for Disney, who realized the importance of retaining ownership of future creations.

Enter Mickey Mouse. After an official debut in 1928’s “Steamboat Willie,” both mouse and cartoon were instant sensations. Directed by Disney and Iwerks, the eight-minute short also was a technological triumph as the first synchronized sound cartoon.

Mickey’s fan base grew, thanks in part to a clever Los Angeles-area theater manager who initiated a Mickey Mouse Club for his pint-size moviegoers. The club went national, and eventurally grew to more than 800 “chapters” (theaters).

But the game-changer was a licensing agreement with a  shrewd business agent named Herman “Kay” Kamen. By 1935, the Mickey imprint was bedecking products from more than 100 companies, ranging from 5-cent balloons to thousand-dollar-plus diamond bracelets. Within seven years of Mickey’s public debut, five of which were Depression years, the mouse products grossed a staggering $140 million.

More than a moneymaker, Mickey was Disney’s persistent sidekick. “Disney felt closer to Mickey Mouse than he did to most people,” says Colt. Animation author Solomon sees Mickey as an alter ego: “There was a lot of Walt in Mickey, and vice versa. Mickey’s sense of optimism and decency are shared by Walt.” Referring to story notes of Disney’s meetings with staffers, Solomon adds, “You find Disney saying, ‘Mickey wouldn’t do this,’ or ‘Mickey wouldn’t talk this way.’ Walt was the only one who knew what Mickey could do.” Disney even supplied Mickey’s voice—until around the end of World War II, when his decades-long smoking habit made him sound too raspy.
“Steamboat Willie” is one of the cartoons that plays continuously at Disneyland’s Main Street Cinema.

The Animators’ Strike of 1941

In the early years, Disney was on a first-name basis with staff and liked to think of his animators as family. But by 1941 his studio’s hundreds of cartoonists were disaffected, upset with salary inequities, and angry that bonuses expected in the wake of “Snow White’s” success had not been paid.

Archival footage included in the PBS documentary captures Disney driving onto the studio lot amid chanting, sign-carrying picketers—some with unflattering caricature images of their boss. Though it’s not shown in the film, Disney was so upset that he bolted from his car and angrily confronted Art Babbitt, a Disney animator since the early 1930s and a strong union supporter.

At that time production was underway on the feature “Dumbo.” It’s no coincidence that the film includes a gaggle of garish clowns who creepily hit up their boss for a raise, after a successful show under the big top. Mediators had to settle the strike, which lasted five weeks. But the damage was done.

“It changed how (Disney) interacted with his animators,” Colt says. “He became kind of disillusioned with them.”

Adds Solomon: “It was a trying time for him. He was bitter.”

This was evident in 1947 when he testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, blaming his earlier studio woes on Communist infiltration. Much has been written about the strike, from both Disney’s and the animators’ points of view. Disney had thought of his company as a utopian place, and that idealistic vision disappeared.

The ABC Deal

Walt Disney was such a pioneering force that it’s easy to forget he struggled artistically and financially. “This is a guy who had a lot of loss, which makes his story even more intricate. But still, he took huge risks and he hung on,” says associate professor and Disney scholar Higginbotham.

He made things happen through determination and a never-say-die philosophy that’s so evident in the early cartoons featuring the plucky Mickey Mouse. When the studio was first working with Audio-Animatronic technology, Disney snapped at someone who told him the process couldn’t be done: “If you can visualize it, if you can dream it, there’s some way to do it.”

Disney’s risk-taking foray into TV is another example. He had an agenda. He needed money, a lot of money, to build his hoped-for theme park. So he cut a deal with ABC, which loaned him the construction money in exchange for partial ownership of the park and the promise of a regular TV series.

Titled “Disneyland,” the show debuted on Oct. 27, 1954, with Disney as genial host. While the series was predominantly a showcase for Disney animated shorts, edited versions of the studio’s feature films (which sometimes aired over multiple weeks), and productions such as “Davy Crockett,” which made a star of lanky Texan Fess Parker and coonskin caps the rage of wide-eyed kids, it also was a powerful platform for marketing the idea that eventually would become Disneyland.

Each week Disney came into living rooms, to talk about the merits of the forthcoming park—often proudly displaying scale models of the future attractions. It was an audacious plan years ahead of its time, the equivalent of a weekly infomercial. Disney had embraced the still-new medium of television at a time when other movie studio heads turned their backs on it. With his influence reaching from film to television, from products to a theme park for America, Uncle Walt had become Disney—the brand.


Memorabilia is spread near and far

Walt Disney Hometown Museum contains more than 3,000 items, including personal letters, a Midget Autopia car, and Disney’s desk from grade school. waltdisneymuseum.org

The Walt Disney Family Museum, founded by daughter Diane Disney Miller,
is located in the Presidio. The 40,000-square-foot complex includes a 13-foot model of Disneyland. waltdisney.org

Walt’s Barn—which sat on Disney’s property in the Holmby Hills—is in Griffith Park and is open the third Sunday of each month. Operated by the Carolwood Society, it contains Disney’s trains and other artifacts. carolwood.org/barn.html

A small redwood garage—which the 22-year-old Disney used as his first animation studio—is at the Stanley Ranch Museum . It was relocated from Los Feliz, reassembled, and now houses Disney ephemera. ci.garden-grove.ca.us/HistoricalSociety

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