Walt Disney’s Untimely Death Sparked a Massive Company Cover-Up & Stiff Restrictions For Disney Films

Walt Disney
Credit: Walt Disney Archives / Canva

In all of recorded history, there’s perhaps no greater visionary, creative genius, entrepreneur, or dreamer than the incomparable Walter Elias Disney. Walt had a magic all his own–and the vision with which to bring that magic to dazzling life (with a little help from his financial genius of a brother, Roy).

But even legends can have secrets, bad habits, and even addictions that lead them down a less-than-magical path. Sadly, this was true of Walt Disney too, and his bad habit and addiction ultimately led to a massive cover-up within The Walt Disney Company decades ago–a cover-up that’s still being carried out to this day.¬†

Related: So Walt Disney Was Cryogenically Frozen After All? Here’s How That Would Have Played Out

man with overcoat and hat walking over a bridge with a cigarette in his right hand

Credit: Walt Disney Archives

It’s common knowledge that the genius animator responsible for Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, and a myriad of other beloved Disney characters, as well as Disney’s animated classics and Disney Parks, was a heavy smoker. Those who knew him best say that Walt Disney smoked as many as three packs of cigarettes a day.¬†His favorite brand was Lucky Strike.

And now, because The Walt Disney Company has long regarded Walt’s smoking habits as one of the company’s darkest secrets, lots of thought, effort, and “reimagining” has gone into striking that secret from history and keeping Walt’s affinity for tobacco hidden, as evidenced by the plethora of photos online that show Walt with a strange “two-finger point,” though he wasn’t actually pointing after all.

Walt’s “two-finger point” originated from the Disney Company’s efforts to hide Walt’s three-packs-a-day habit from the public. The company spent considerable time and money on having cigarettes in photos of Walt magically and painstakingly removed. In short, many photos of Walt have his cigarette¬†Photoshopped out of the image.

walt disney no cigarette

Credit: Disney Archives

Related: Timeless Photos of Walt Disney Capture the Very Heart and Soul of the Legendary Visionary

The practice began years ago as the company wanted to keep Walt’s habit a secret from children who visited the Disneyland Resort. Fans who search online for photos of Walt Disney can be entertained for hours as there are thousands of photos online of the gifted animator and visionary.

But more importantly, many of those photos feature a similar element: Walt’s Lucky Strike cigarettes are nowhere to be found, as they’ve been digitally removed, leaving behind only images that seem to depict Walt Disney pointing with two fingers. But the cover-up that followed Walt’s untimely death was only beginning, as his disappearing smoking habit was only part of the story.

Part of what makes the “doctored” images of Walt a bit strange is that the photos with Walt’s “two-finger point” look somewhat unnatural and out of place.

But, being experts in storytelling, The Walt Disney Company dreamed up a story to explain the unnatural way Walt appeared to point to things. That’s when Disney Parks allegedly began training cast members to also point with two fingers.

A touching tribute–or a rewriting of history?

The Walt Disney Company and its vast empire are so large and their influence so far-reaching that it’s no surprise that Walt Disney and the Disney Parks have found their way into many an urban legend over the years. That’s why training cast members to point with two fingers so that no one found out about Walt’s habit seemed to fit the description of such a legend. But in 2015, The Huffington Post published an article in which an anonymous cast member confirmed the urban legend was no legend at all.

According to the Huffington Post:

The action is seemingly innocuous at first, but it’s apparently a murky tribute to Walt Disney‘s smoking habits, with the company side-stepping around the reason as to why the icon pointed that way.

Though it’s been long speculated about, [an] anonymous employee was informed by a “lead” that the strange gesture seen from “cast members” at Disney Parks is actually based on Walt’s old smoking habit. This is along with it being considered less rude of a gesture by the company, and that it avoids the stigma pointing receives in other cultures.

Despite the absence of a confirmation of the practice from The Walt Disney Company itself, the truth about the odd practice of airbrushing out Walt’s cigarettes becomes undeniably evident as fans see photos in which the nicotine is missing, but the smoke remains. (Possibly incomplete Photoshopping?)

The practice was brought to life when Tom Hanks played the role of Walt Disney in the film Saving Mr. Banks (2013). During an interview with Ellen DeGeneres on The Ellen Show, Hanks confirmed the strange scenario as well.

tom hanks saving mr. banks

Credit: Disney

Walt Disney long suffered from a dry, hacking cough. Then, in November 1966, Walt Disney underwent preparations for neck surgery, according to Biography. The procedure was scheduled to take place to address an old polo injury Walt had. But during the pre-procedure x-rays, doctors discovered a tumor on Walt’s lung. Only a month later, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer at just 65 years old. The world was devastated.

newspaper walt disney dies

Credit: Facebook

It’s largely understood that Walt’s lung cancer was the terribly unfortunate result of his long history of smoking, making it also understandable that the company would want to keep stoic reminders of this sad truth out of the spotlight, especially in light of the fact that during his lifetime, Walt was reportedly very careful not to smoke around children.


Credit: Disney Archives

Still, the practice of what some see as “Photoshopping history” has been met with criticism–criticism that ultimately led to a significant change in Disney’s policies regarding films created by the entertainment giant.¬†In 2014, Joe Rogan posted a photo on Instagram that depicts Walt Disney minus his cigarette. The caption reads as follows:

“Another shot of Walt Disney with his cigarette Photoshopped out. They’ve recently discontinued this policy at Disneyland, acknowledging the importance of being honest about cigarettes being the reason he died young.”

View this post on Instagram

A post shared by Joe Rogan (@joerogan)

In 2007, The Walt Disney Company put into effect a ban on smoking in its films. In a statement, then-Chairman and CEO Bob Iger said, “We expect that depictions of cigarette smoking in future Disney-branded films will be non-existent.”

genie aladdin disney

Credit: Walt Disney Animation

At a shareholder’s meeting in 2015, Iger announced that Walt Disney Studios would “prohibit smoking in movies across the board: Marvel, Lucas, Pixar, and Disney films,” saying the policy “was the right thing for [Disney] to do.”

Saving Mr. Banks only features a singular unlit cigarette in one scene of the film, but it never depicts Walt Disney smoking. The scene only shows Tom Hanks as Disney stubbing out a cigarette as Ms. Travers, played by Emma Thompson, steps into his office. Even so, the scene does not show a cigarette or the smoke from a cigarette.

The Disney+ streaming platform has incorporated content warnings since its inception in 2019, one of which is related to tobacco use. The content warning that reads, “contains tobacco depiction” carries through The Walt Disney Company‘s commitment to “helping parents raise healthy, happy children.”

As such, Disney content that features characters smoking cigarettes, cigars, or pipes–and in the case of the caterpillar in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, a hookah–also features a tobacco warning before the streaming content begins.

tobacco warning disney plus

Credit: YouTube screenshot

It reads as follows:

Contains tobacco depiction.

Disney is committed to limiting depictions of tobacco and smoking, particularly in youth-rated content. However, tobacco use is sometimes portrayed, primarily in older films that were produced when the impacts of smoking were not well-known. We strive to label any feature-length films with tobacco depictions so that parents and caregivers are aware.

Disney’s commitment to helping parents raise healthy, happy children includes our understanding that some families may struggle with tobacco use. As such, we recommend families seek the advice of experts, including the American Association of Pediatrics. For resources on how to talk to kids about smoking, please visit Common Sense Media.

So, while Walt’s death will always remain a tragedy in the hearts and minds of Disney fans of all ages, perhaps all is not in vain, as the company used the tragedy as motivation to keep the depiction of tobacco as far removed from its youngest fans as possible.

walt disney and laugh o gram studios

Credit: Disney Archives/Canva

And this writer thinks Walt would be very pleased with that decision, indeed.

What are your thoughts about the Walt Disney Company’s decision to cover up Walt’s smoking habit? Let us know in the comments.¬†

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!

One comment

  1. The reason is that Disney parks get visitors from all over the world every single day. Some of these visitors come from countries where pointing with one finger is considered pretty much as rude as flicking the middle finger, so to keep everyone happy, two fingers are used instead.

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