Within Disney’s kingdom of fandom, there are various types of Disney fans.
Some are simply sold out for Disney’s theme parks, while others are enamored most by classic Disney films and animated features. Others are fans of Disney’s films and other projects, but only through the 1960s. Others share a fandom that simply knows no bounds, and if it’s Disney-related, they love it.
And then there are fans who are completely taken away by the very visage of Walter Elias Disney. For them, Walt was far more than a mere theme park tycoon and savvy businessman with a knack for hob-knobbing with celebrities, striking up partnerships, and befriending U.S. Presidents.
Theirs is a love for the very person of Walt Disney, despite having never known him–and having never walked on the earth at the same time as Walt. Just hearing Walt’s voice in episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney from the 1950s and 1960s or other recordings fills them with joy and a sense of optimism, serving as fuel for their imaginations.
For those fans of Walter Elias Disney and his greatness–as a man, as an inventor, as a visionary, as a genius, and as an Imagineer’s Imagineer, lazy Saturday mornings and long airplane rides provide the perfect opportunity to get to know Walt even better, and they often find themselves reading, researching, and learning new things about him, simply for the love of Walt and his creative process.
But because his unexpected and untimely death took place nearly 60 years ago, forever changing the way Disney produces its films, most of Walt Disney’s biggest fans today will only ever know him through archived images, stories about him that have been shared over the years, and recordings of interviews, Disney specials on ABC, home movies, and the like.
But all is not lost. Thanks to The Walt Disney Company’s dedication to archiving, preserving, and protecting photos, scripts, notes, fixtures from Disneyland, film props, and other memorabilia, Walt Disney’s fanbase will continue to grow for generations to come.
Irreplaceable photos of Walt Disney serve to tell many different stories about his life, his family, his efforts, his interests, his achievements, and his associations, and if you look closely, they can also give fans a glimpse into the very heart and soul of the man behind the mouse–and the admiration of those who knew him best seems to be captured in many of those photos as well.
Let me show you what I mean . . .
Walt Disney Loved His Children
Walt and Lillian Disney had two daughters, Diane Disney, born in December 1933, and Sharon Mae Disney, born in November 1936 and adopted by the Disneys in December of that year.
The very idea of Disneyland was born from the Saturdays Walt spent with his little girls. He called them “Daddy’s Days” and often took them on outings to various locations and venues. But over time, Walt grew weary of venues that seemed only to allow parents to participate as spectators rather than being in the moment with their children.
As such, Walt decided there must be a place where parents and their children could share experiences together. So he decided to build such a place. Years later, in 1955, that very place opened to the public as Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
Surely Walt Disney loved children–even if they weren’t his own. His very enterprise existed to bring joy to children and ignite their imaginations–and to bring back fond memories of the child in all of us.
Walt Disney Was a Deep Thinker and an Inventor
Walt had a gift for creativity, but there was more to his creativity than some might realize. Walt never followed a prescribed step-by-step plan for embracing creativity. Rather, he developed his own creative process–one that served him and his purposes well, and then he navigated that process throughout the entirety of his life, making changes and adapting it along the way.
He was driven and intentional, and his motivation knew no bounds. Walt carefully thought through the initiatives he’d have to take to achieve his goals, create new tools, and develop new technologies. The result was a legacy of new ideas and new ways of doing things, a revolutionized approach to animation, and a lifetime of achievements and success.
When it came to Disney’s feature animated films, he worked closely with his teams at the Burbank Studios to create the look and feel he envisioned for the project. He knew what it would take for his studio to become known for its integrity and quality of content, and that meant that corner-cutting was never an option.
When the idea for a new film, a new project, or a new undertaking began to take hold in Walt’s mind, he thought in depth about what would have to transpire before that endeavor could be realized. He trusted his team, and they trusted him–most of them sharing his vision as well.
Together, they built an empire brick by brick, never attempting to save time and money by taking shortcuts or sacrificing quality, and it’s evident as The Walt Disney Company just celebrated its 100th anniversary.
Thank goodness Walt had his brother Roy O. Disney by his side to handle the financial matters associated with his many projects. It was Roy’s fiscal prowess that served to finance Walt’s dreams along the way.
As Walt built his company, he often created the tools he would need to achieve his goals, especially when those tools were not readily available or when they didn’t serve the purposes for which he needed them. From the multi-plane camera to Audio-Animatronic beings, Walt and his team of brilliant Imagineers worked tirelessly, developing new ways of doing things–and the tools with which to do them.
Walt Was a Gifted Visionary
Some of Walt Disney’s most obvious talents were those associated with his ability to visualize the future. He was a dreamer, but he didn’t stop there. Walt believed in following dreams with the hard work to bring them to fruition.
It was Walt’s visionary genius that allowed him to build Disneyland in his mind’s eye before a single blueprint was ever drawn. Years later, it allowed Walt to do the same thing in preparation for the construction of Disney World atop thousands of acres of Central Florida swampland.
Shortly after Walt and Roy Disney announced plans to bring a Disney park to the state of Florida, it was Walt’s visionary prowess that eventually brought about the creation of plans for EPCOT, Walt’s “experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” even before his team broke ground in Florida in the first phase of the construction of Disney World.
Walt Embraced Opportunities to Enjoy Life and Have Fun
Though there has long been talk about the expectations Walt had for his employees, he wasn’t all work and no play. His media empire was built on the creation of family films, and his theme park business began as a means of fostering opportunities for families to enjoy activities together.
Walt enjoyed spending time with his family, whether at home, on vacations, or at Disneyland.
He was a welcoming and warm presence to be around, and he often threw away his cares and took time to be in the moment when opportunities for lightheartedness presented themselves.
His bright eyes and warm smile welcomed others to step into the “moment” with him, and he found humor in everyday situations and occurrences.
Walt Had Friends and Fans Everywhere, and Even the President Respected Him
Walt Disney was unafraid when it came to inviting others to be a part of the magic and festivities at Disneyland and in his films, and there was nothing intimidating to him about requesting the presence of celebrities at various events along the way.
Then-actor (and not yet President) Ronald Reagan took part in the televised Opening Day ceremony at Disneyland on July 17, 1955, and nearly four years later, Walt invited then-Vice President Richard Nixon to attend the dedication festivities for the Disneyland Monorail–a request that ended in the accidental kidnapping of Mr. Nixon via monorail by a young Imagineer named Bob Gurr.
(You can read that hilarious story by clicking here.)
Later in life, Walt Disney received multiple honors, each bestowed upon him by a U.S. President.
In 1963, Walt received the George Washington Honor Medal of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge from former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The honor is bestowed upon Americans whose lives and efforts reflect their patriotism and good citizenship.
Then, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented Walt Disney with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The award read–with respect to Walt–“Artist and impresario, in the course of entertaining an age, he has created an American folklore.”
And in February 1980, more than 13 years after Walt’s death, President Jimmy Carter made a presidential proclamation–requested by a joint resolution of the U.S. House of Representatives, transcending party lines–honoring the memory of Walt Disney and his work, which brought to the world “laughter and love, joy and gladness.”
Walt Was the Image of Class and Had a Heart of Gold
Walt Disney started his life with very little, growing up on a farm in Missouri. But as his films and his new park captured the hearts of Americans, Walt, understandably, made his fortune. But you might never have known it.
He was the very image of class, and he handled himself and others with kindness, poise, and grace.
From his creations like Mickey Mouse, Steamboat Willie, Donald Duck, and Minnie Mouse to his ability to capture the magic of others’ stories, like Peter Pan (1953), Sleeping Beauty (1959), Mary Poppins (1964), and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Walt was a fantastic storyteller, creating new stories for a new generation, while making older stories once again accessible, and in a format that reached millions.
Walt’s work spurred on the American imagination, inspiring millions to dream, too.
Surely he looked back upon his life once or twice over the years–whether anyone else was aware or not–and smiled. I hope he felt accomplished and proud of all the imaginative approaches he brought to reality.
As he watched families–parents with their children–taking in the wonder and the magic of Disneyland from his apartment over the firehouse, I hope he had moments when he realized that he had accomplished that which he initially set out to do–to bring families together by creating a place that fostered those opportunities. They still keep the light on in the window for him today, reminding us that his imaginative spirit never ends.
I hope he realized, at least once, how much joy he brought to children and to the child hidden within every adult who walked through the gates at Disneyland or stepped into a theater to see a Disney feature film. In all the world over, has there ever been anyone who brought more joy and wonder, more reasons for smiling, more causes for celebration than Walter Elias Disney?
Walt was truly one in a million, perhaps one in several billion, and there has yet to be another come along with the same heart, mind, and determination to bring goodness and joy to others.
Happy birthday to the great visionary, and may his legacy live on in those of us who carry a little piece of Walt with us everywhere we go!