Upon a Mouse, He Built an Empire


Walter Elias Disney was to fantasy what J.P. Morgan was to finance or John D. Rockefeller to oil.

But instead of building the foundation of his legacy on an derrick or a bank, Disney’s empire “started with a mouse,” as he often put it.

Today, Disney’s best-known legacy is the company that still bears his name, now a $20-billion media colossus with a TV network, a film studio, a publishing house, Internet operation and hundreds of stores worldwide. The world’s best-known theme parks--in Anaheim; Orlando, Fla.; Japan; and France--bear his name, with more to come, including one possibly in China.


When Disneyland opened in Anaheim in 1955, it was such a unique entertainment experience, compared to the carny-like atmosphere of previous amusement parks, that it became an instant magnet for visitors and helped trigger Southern California’s post-war tourist boom.

But Disney’s principal contribution was probably inventing an entire film genre in the feature-length animated movie. His “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was the first ever, released in 1937 to a world weary from the Great Depression and anxious from the tensions that would eventually explode into World War II.

When he died in 1966 of cancer at age 65, headlines called him the modern-day Aesop, a teller of traditional folk and fairy tales using the celluloid techniques he perfected and refined.


The youngest of five children, Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago. His family moved to a farm outside Kansas City, where he spent his early youth and first became enamored with drawing. Disney liked to draw animals, later the inspiration for many of the characters in his animated films.

After serving as a Red Cross ambulance driver in World War I, Disney worked briefly as a commercial artist before moving to Southern California in 1923. He formed a partnership with his brother, Roy, to try to build an animation business with such characters as Oswald the Rabbit.

Barely surviving financially, Disney developed, with collaborator Ub Iwerks, the first talking cartoon character in Mickey Mouse, who would be featured in the hit short film “Steamboat Willie.”

Disney would later claim that the idea for the early Mickey Mouse came to Disney on a train ride from New York to Hollywood after a depressing business setback in which he lost rights to the Oswald character. According to various accounts, it was inspired by a mouse that used to scamper around his drawing board or was simply an outgrowth of the Oswald character.

Disney recognized the need to make the look of his cartoons more sophisticated, and to blend music with his films to enhance the storytelling.

His “Silly Symphony” cartoons in the early 1930s used Technicolor for the first time in animation. “Three Little Pigs” featured a popular song in “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” Classic songs to emerge from Disney films included “Whistle While You Work” from “Snow White,” “When You Wish Upon a Star” from “Pinocchio” and “Chim Chim Cheree” from “Mary Poppins.”

Disney’s masterpiece “Snow White” cost at the time an unheard-of $1.5 million. Prior to release, skeptics dubbed it “Disney’s Folly” and predicted it would sink the ambitious animator.

Instead, it became one of the most profitable films of any genre ever released. During the next five years, Disney was prolific in turning out animated classics, including “Bambi,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo” and his landmark “Fantasia,” which combined classical music and animation. A new “Fantasia 2000,” featuring some scenes from the original along with new segments, is scheduled for release in December, a project personally overseen by Disney’s nephew, company Vice Chairman Roy E. Disney.


“Snow White,” along with other animated films Disney made, such as “101 Dalmatians” and “Pinocchio,” remain among the most profitable movies of all time, ones that generate a huge batch of fresh profits each time a new technology brings a new way to showcase it. In his recently settled breach-of-contract lawsuit against Disney, former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg claimed that the video release of “Snow White” in 1994 generated an additional $600 million in profits for the company. Hundreds of millions of additional profits could potentially be generated when the film is released on digital videodisc, or when the day comes when it can be accessed on demand at home by viewers using new technologies.

After World War II, Disney recognized the potential of television as the technology was spreading into American homes, producing such popular shows as “The Mickey Mouse Club” and “Zorro.”

Disney himself became a television personality when, from his desk in Burbank, he hosted “The Wonderful World of Disney,” later “Wonderful World of Color,” the first full-color program. Long before entertainment moguls became enamored with the concept of synergy, Disney used the show to promote the company’s products, especially Disneyland.

A heavy smoker, Disney suffered from lung cancer, dying before one of his biggest projects, Disney World in Florida, was finished. His brother, Roy, oversaw its completion.

In subsequent years, the Disney studio became an also-ran in Hollywood, to the point where it came within a shade of being bought and carved up by corporate raiders in the early 1980s.

It took a push from nephew Roy, major investors such as the Bass family in Texas and fresh management blood such as Chief Executive Michael Eisner, former studio chief Katzenberg and the late Disney President Frank Wells, to revive the studio.

One of the key decisions was to rebuild the Disney animation legacy, which resulted in a string of hits such as the classic tales “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” as well as new stories such as “The Lion King.” Those films, which spawned lucrative merchandising and video sequel projects, are among the most profitable projects ever developed by a studio.