Walt Disney was an innovator in animation, theme park design and one of the most iconic Americans of all time. Alongside his brother Roy, he co-founded Walt Disney Productions and later went on to found the Disneyland and Disney World theme parks.
Here’s some interesting facts about Walt Disney you may not have known:
1. Disney’s French family name was originally D’Isigny before being Anglicized to Disney.
2. Walt Disney began developing his skills as a cartoonist as a young kid. Stuck on a farm in Missouri, he didn’t have many subjects, but delighted in drawing cartoon pictures of his neighbor’s horses.
3. Walt Disney sketched the design for Mickey Mouse, but he relied on Ub Iwerks and other talented artists to design the final character. He never drew him for any of his films, and in reality, he likely only drew Mickey when requested to for autographs.
4. Walt Disney’s first animation studio was called “Laugh-o-Gram” and told modernized versions of fairy tales based on Aesop’s Fables. The venture quickly went bankrupt.
5. When Disney wanted to produce an animated feature-length Snow White film, many people in Hollywood doubted him and some even called it “Disney’s Folly.” The film earned $184.9 million worldwide in 1938, and is still one of the highest-grossing animated films of all time.
6. Disney was completely opposed to the spread of communism, and accused many of his animator colleagues of being secret communists. He was also convinced the Screen Actors Guild was full of commies, and when his workers tried to unionize, he accused the union of being a communist front.
7. At age 16, Disney dropped out of high school. World War I had broken out, and he was eager to join the fight. But he was too young to enlist, so he forged a birth certificate claiming he was 18 years old. Disney joined the Red Cross American Ambulance Corps and got shipped off to France, where he drove ambulances for a wartime hospital.
8. While stationed at a military training base in South Beach, Connecticut, Disney befriended a 15-year-old corpsman named Ray Kroc. Kroc would go on to purchase McDonald’s from its original founders and turn it into a global empire. Like Walt, Kroc had also lied about his age to enlist.
9. Mickey Mouse wasn’t Disney’s first iconic character–Mickey’s predecessor, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, was created while Disney was under contract with Universal Pictures. When he left, Oswald was barred from joining him, leading Disney to make a new companion–everyone’s favorite mouse.
10. From 1928 (the birth of Mickey Mouse) until 1947, Disney himself did the voice of Mickey.
11. For two years, Walt Disney held the patent for technicolor, making him the only animator who could make color animated films.
12. Disney received more Academy Awards and nominations than has anyone else. Between 1932 and 1969, he won 22 Academy Awards and was nominated 59 times.
13. Disney was a train fanatic. His fascination began as a child, when he would watch the trains pass by near his house. His uncle, a train conductor, would blow the whistle as a greeting. Later, as an adult, Disney built a miniature steam railroad in the backyard of his L.A. home. Seeing the joy it brought his daughters, he became determined to incorporate a monorail into Disneyland.
14. Disney employees have only their first name listed on their name tags because Disney despised being called Mr. Disney.
15. Walt Disney loved spending time at Disneyland. He would visit the park a few times a week, and even had an apartment there. The apartment is still there above the fire station, but typically isn’t open to the public. A lamp in the window that’s visible to outside is always kept on, and signifies that Walt Disney is always in the park.
16. Shortly before his death, Disney had plans to build a ski resort. The Walt Disney Company ended up deciding to move forward with Disney World instead.
17. When Lyudmila Karachkina, a Soviet astronomer, discovered a new planet in 1980, he dubbed it 4017-Disneya, in honor of Disney himself.
18. Every year for Christmas, Disney would give his long-time housekeeper Thelma Howard shares in the company. She died a multi-millionaire, but never cashed in her shares; she willed them to various charities instead.
19. When Walt Disney was young, he played the part of Peter Pan in a school play, nearly four decades before the beloved animated classic would make its big screen debut.
20. Walt Disney smoked three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and never made any effort to quit. In 1966, Disney died of complications from lung cancer.
21. His last words may have been “Kurt Russell.” They are at least among the last words Walt ever wrote. We may never know why. According to Russell, best known for his performance in The Thing and Escape from New York, the reasons are mystery to him as well. At the time of Disney’s death, Russell was a child actor working for the studio and had yet to achieve widespread fame.
22. Disney is not cryogenically frozen, despite the persistent rumors. He was cremated, and his ashes were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.