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Today in History: Walt Disney Studios is Born

On February 8, 1926, “Disney Brothers Studio” was renamed “Walt Disney Studio”, becoming the entertainment company we know and love today. The Disney brother’s history is one of emotional and financial difficulty. This article summarizes the company’s history including Disney cartoons and theme parks.

Roy and Walt Disney began their animation careers when they joined with their friend and fellow animator Ub Iwerks to create a company they called “Iwerks – Disney Commercial Artists” in 1920, but the company was dissolved after only two months. The Disney brothers, Roy and Walt Disney, started working together as animators in February 1924. They hired another animator and moved into a small store. They named their company “Disney Brothers Studio” and had the name painted onto the front window of the store.

Once the company became “Walt Disney Studio” as we know it today, the company began to grow. It was large enough that the brothers hired more animators and Walt Disney stopped doing animations himself. Walt ended up becoming the more creative of the two brothers; Roy preferred to stay out of the spotlight. In 1928, Walt Disney came up with the idea for Mickey Mouse while on a train ride. By November 1928, the first three Mickey Mouse animated cartoons had been created. The first two were silent cartoons as sound motion pictures were a very new creation. However, the third cartoon titled “Steamboat Willie”, was the first to have its own soundtrack. It opened at the Colon Theater in New York and was an instant hit.

Just as the company was growing, the Great Depression hit the United States. The company found a way to stay profitable during these tough times. In 1930, Roy Disney signed the company’s first merchandising contract with Lionel trains, the electric toy train maker. Lionel was struggling due to the Depression and was looking for a way to stay in business. In 1932, 253,000 trains with Mickey and Minnie Mouse on them sold in four months and the company was saved from bankruptcy!

Walt Disney Studio had 187 employees in 1937 when its first movie – length film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, was released. It was shown at Radio City Music Hall in New York for three weeks. The company made $8 million, won an Academy Award, and allowed the Disney brothers to pay off all their bank loans within six months!

Walt Disney Studio created three more movie – length cartoons by 1940: “Bambi”, “Pinocchio”, and “Fantasia”. The films were not profitable because they cost so much to create and loss of European revenue due to political tensions and economic trouble. The company was very large by this time (there were 1,000 Disney workers), so the Disney brothers decided to take their company public by selling 600,000 shares of stock to pay off debt, which worked in the short term. World War II began soon after and 1/3 of Disney’s artists were drafted into the armed forces.

Walt continued to dream big and in 1954, the company announced plans for both a TV show and an amusement park called “Disneyland”. Walt said that the park would have different sections for its visitors, each with its own “theme”. We get the modern term “theme park” from this Disney idea. The park opened as planned in July 1955 in Anaheim, California. The TV show also began airing - as Walt had promised – in October 1954. Both of these would be huge hits for the company! In December 1955, six months after opening, Disneyland had its 1 millionth visitor! The Disneyland Hotel opened on 60 acres of land next to the park in October 1956, which led to its becoming the number one vacation destination in the world soon after.

In September 1964, President Lyndon Johnson awarded Walt Disney the United States’ highest civilian honor: the Medal of Freedom. Meanwhile, Disney himself was busy planning his next big idea. He began talking with his brother Roy about building an amusement park with a “Community of Tomorrow” theme. Roy went to Florida to buy land for the new park. Walt announced plans for the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” (EPCOT Center) in 1966.

Unfortunately, Walt Disney’s health began to decline quickly as 1966 was ending. Walt was hospitalized in late 1966. He passed away from cancer in December 1966, before he could see the results of his “tomorrow land” ideas. His brother, Roy O. Disney, used Walt’s original ideas and plans and carried on building the theme park, called the “Magic Kingdom”, in Florida. The park opened on October 1, 1971 and truly fit Walt’s vision, which was to create a fantasy world “where families could come and leave the world behind”. Tragically, Roy Disney passed away due to a seizure on December 20, 1971.

On October 14, 1982, Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center opened (his vision for this park was to have a place “where you can touch the future and travel the world”). Disney executives who had known and been trained by the Disney brothers themselves used Roy and Walt’s original plans to build this park near Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

There is a statue of Roy O. Disney sitting on a park bench at Walt Disney World near the confection shop. He is seen sitting next to Minnie Mouse, holding her hand, and smiling. The artist who created it, Blaine Gibson, included Minnie to show Roy’s role in making Walt’s dream come true. He had always insisted the park be named after his brother in remembrance of him and his big dreams.

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