Few people can lay claim to the same level of fame Walt Disney still has. He was always more than just a person: he was and remains to this day a worldwide brand. But as to who the real Walt was… well, that’s a question that’s still being hashed out. Was he a kindly old uncle figure or an unpleasant bigot and racist? These 20 little-known facts may adjust your view of him, whatever it is.
20. He probably wasn’t an anti-Semite
Generally, whenever the media delve deep into the life of Walt Disney, the phrase “anti-Semitic” comes up. Yet, there’s no evidence to prove Disney was prejudiced towards Jewish people, and he even donated to Jewish charities. However, one accusation leveled against him is true – he did do business with anti-Semites.
19. He had many failures before he achieved success
Disney wasn’t always, well, Disney. After his first studio, Laugh-O-Gram, went bankrupt in 1923 he was forced into poverty so immense that he supposedly ate dog food to survive. Even once he made it to happier times, people still criticized his work. Indeed, no one believed Mickey Mouse was a good idea.
18. He forged his age to join the Red Cross
Forging a date of birth in order to join the forces wasn’t an uncommon thing during World War I. In fact, this was just what a young Walt Disney did. He changed the date on his birth certificate to 1900 and was permitted to join the Red Cross as an ambulance driver.
17. He mortgaged his house to fund his first movie
When Disney announced his plans for a feature-length animation, everyone laughed at him. The project was nicknamed “Disney’s Folly” and no one offered him help in making it, forcing him to mortgage his home to get it funded. But the eventual result? The still popular Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
16. He used racial slurs
Disney biographer Neal Gabler writes in his book Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination that the famous animator certainly wasn’t adverse to using racial slurs in everyday conversation. However, it’s true that most white men did the exact same during the era. But, it still didn’t reflect well on Disney.
15. He designed Disneyland from the perspective of a child
Disney paid intense attention to detail when it came to the creation of his theme park. While designing the place, he would often kneel down on the ground in order to see what it would look like from a child’s perspective.
14. His wife Lillian came up with Mickey Mouse’s name
After losing the rights to his first cartoon character, Oswald the Rabbit, Disney needed to find something to replace him. He came up with an adorable little mouse called… Mortimer. Lillian Disney thought the name was too pretentious and suggested Walt change it to Mickey. The rest is history.
13. His housekeeper died a millionaire
A woman called Thelma Howard went to work for Walt Disney in 1951, serving as his housekeeper. Disney nicknamed her “the real-life Mary Poppins” and rewarded her in Disney stock that eventually ended up being worth millions. Howard left half to her son and half to children’s charities.
12. He built a train in his back garden
Walt Disney adored trains. So much, in fact, that he built one of his own in 1950. For three years, a little railroad called the Carolwood Pacific ran around Disney’s home in Beverly Hills, entertaining friends and neighbors. A replica of the train can still be seen at Disneyland!
11. He drove his daughters to school himself
Disney could’ve easily hired a driver to take his children to school, but he didn’t. “He would drive us every morning and then he’d go on to the studio and I think people are very surprised when they hear that,” his daughter Diane told NBC in 2012.
10. The author of Mary Poppins hated what he did with her work
In 2013 Disney released the film Saving Mr. Banks, a drama about Walt Disney and P.L. Travers, author of Mary Poppins. It showed Travers to be delighted about Disney’s adaptation of her work, but in reality, she wasn’t. Apparently, the real Travers hated the film and resented Disney tremendously.
9. His mother died in an accident he blamed himself for
After the success of Snow White, in 1938 Disney gifted his mother a new house in North Hollywood. But this act of generosity had horrible consequences. The house’s furnace wasn’t installed properly, and his mother died of carbon monoxide poisoning mere weeks after moving in. Disney never forgave himself.
8. He was firmly anti-communist
During the second anti-communist Red Scare in 1947, Disney swore before the House Committee on Un-American Activities and denounced some of his animators as communists. In disgust and revenge they, in turn, spread the rumor that Disney was an anti-Semite.
7. He didn’t trust “women or cats”
Disney and his company wouldn’t hire women for creative work in 1938. Granted, it would have been unusual if they had, considering the time period, but Disney biographers have claimed Disney had a misogynistic streak. One associate was quoted as saying, “He didn’t trust women or cats,” in Neal Gabler’s The Triumph of the American Imagination.
6. He made wartime propaganda films
During World War II every American was expected to do their part, and Walt Disney was no exception. And so the animator turned his studio over to creating morale-boosting propaganda films featuring characters such as the much-loved Donald Duck. Disney, however, opted not to actually call them “propaganda.” Instead, he preferred the term “psychological productions.”
5. He skipped his father’s funeral
Disney’s had a difficult relationship with his father, Elias, and it was one that deteriorated as time went on. Elias was a strict and bad-tempered man, and he didn’t see Walt’s chosen career as a viable one. By the time he died, this difficult father-son relationship had completely crumbled. In fact, Walt even chose not to attend his dad’s funeral.
4. His Disneyland employees had to shave
Disney may have had a mustache himself, but he wasn’t about to grant his Disneyland employees the same privilege. Male Disney staff were not allowed to turn up at work with beards or long locks either. That’s because, back in the ’50s, facial hair was associated with hippies, and Disney had no tolerance for that sort of thing. In fact, it took until 2000 for the rule to be relaxed!
3. He was Head of Pageantry at the 1960 Winter Olympics
When the uninspiring Squaw Valley in California was chosen to host the 1960 Winter Olympics, panicked organizers turned to Disney to help them out. The producer was made the Head of Pageantry, and thanks to his efforts the opening ceremony was an unexpected success.
2. He invited a Nazi filmmaker to his studio
Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, and despite her role as a Nazi propagandist Disney was happy to have her tour his studios in 1938. A few months later, however, he insisted he had had no knowledge of her Nazi connections and sent no more invites her way.
1. He won more Oscars than anyone before or since
Disney is still to this day the most awarded person in the history of the Academy Awards. Between the years of 1932 and 1969, he was nominated 59 times, picked up 22 awards, and had three special Oscars awarded to recognize his contributions to cinema.