In 1923, a MidWest small town boy graded ‘second dumbest in the class’ landed in Hollywood with $40, a home-made cartoon film and conjured up the mightiest media empire on the planet with his magic pencil. As the Walt Disney Company kicks off a year of centennial celebrations around the globe this month, essential checks out the true story behind the fairytale House of Mouse.


In 1923, a MidWest small town boy graded ‘second dumbest in the class’ landed in Hollywood with $40, a home-made cartoon film and conjured up the mightiest media empire on the planet with his magic pencil. As the Walt Disney Company kicks off a year of centennial celebrations around the globe this month, essential checks out the true story behind the fairytale House of Mouse.


“If you can dream it, you can do it. Always remember, this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse.”

Walt Disney Whether you grew up with Mary Poppins, Spongebob or The Lion King, a family trip to the cinema to see a Disney film has become a rite of passage to a happy, well-rounded childhood. Which was just how Uncle Walt (never Mr Disney) dreamed it should be. The alchemist animator brought magic to the cinema with his hand-drawn world of make-believe, where elephants can fly and orphaned cartoon fawns can bring a tear to grown-up eyes. Once asked why all his films have happy endings, he said: “I hate to see a downbeat picture, it makes me feel everything’s dirty around me. I know it isn’t that way and I don’t want anybody telling me it is.” Disney Studios was born 100 years ago in a garage equipped with a bed sheet for a projection screen. Cinema was still in its silent days and cartoons were merely warm-up acts for the main movie. Disney took them to the top of the bill. In its fifth year, the studio had its first cartoon ‘talkie’ hit: Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey and Minnie in synchronised sound, was less than eight minutes long but it became more popular than the feature film it supported. Nine years later, serious movie buffs were joining the queues for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The world’s first animated feature film enthralled audiences for 83 minutes, took 200 years in ‘man hours’ to make and was the world’s highest-grossing film until Gone with the Wind.

Colour, 3D, famous actor voices and catchy songs added to the Disney wonder, thanks to Walt’s boundless imagination and ferocious perfectionism. He sacked himself as an artist for not being good enough, and his greatest compliment was ‘That’ll do it’. He set up a Disney retraining course to sharpen his animators’ skills and even brought live animals into the studio… squeaking Mickeys, clucking Donalds, barking Goofies and Plutos… It was how young Walt had learned to draw them, down on the family farm in Missouri. Walt, who died in 1966, wouldn’t believe what ‘this whole thing’ amounts to today: an empire ranked 53 in the Fortune 500 list of America’s richest companies with interests in TV, streaming, theme parks, consumer products, music publishing, resort hotels and cruise ships. Through its acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, Disney owns the rights to 14 of the world’s top franchises including Starwars, Spider-Man and Indiana Jones. Walt would be astounded by modern CGI techniques and appalled by last year’s LGBT+ kiss in Lightyear and Disney’s first gay hero in Strange World. An ultra-conservative Republican who fancied himself as the guardian of childhood innocence, he reckoned, “That’s the real trouble with the world. Too many people grow up.” He hid his own adult shortcomings behind Uncle Walt, a jollier, cleaned-up version of himself who didn’t drink alcohol or chain-smoke Chesterfields. “I am not Walt Disney,” he insisted. “I do a lot of things Walt Disney wouldn’t do.”

Today his Princess films are called sexist and his Peter Pan ‘redskins’ racist but there’s no arguing with Disney’s current 141 Oscar tally or Walt’s personal count of 32, an Oscar record. And he made a lot of people happy, including his long-time housekeeper who received company shares from Walt every Christmas, even when they were worth dimes. When she died in 1994, they fetched over $9 million.


Few people have heard of Roy O. Disney whose bronze likeness shares a park bench with Minnie Mouse in Florida’s Magic Kingdom. But without him the world might never have heard of his little brother Walt.
Walt dreamed of castles; Roy, his CEO and life-long business partner, got them built. “My job was to help Walt do the things he wants to do,” he said Roy the financial wizard who turned ‘Walt’s screwy ideas’ into bankable propositions. “If it hadn’t been for my big brother, I swear I’d have been in jail several times for check bouncing”, Walt admitted.
It was Roy who raised funds for the studio’s beginnings, kept it afloat and carried out Walt’s hair-brained plans for a second theme park in Florida twice the size of Manhattan after his brother’s death, joking: “When I meet Walt again, if I hadn’t even tried to build that thing, I would really catch hell.”

Their spats were as legendary as their synergy. Walt resented Roy’s ‘tight-fisted mule headedness’; Roy complained that ‘Junior always had his hand in the cookie jar’. “To the bankers who financed us, I’m sure Walt seemed like a wild man, hell-bent for bankruptcy,” Roy reminisced. “To me, he was my amazing kid brother, full of impractical dreams that he made come true.”


He turns 95 this year but Mickey is not drawing his pension yet. The mouse who built the house of Disney heads up the world’s second biggest franchise after Pokémon. Walt originally called him Mortimer until his mother suggested Mickey was snappier, and he was the mouse’s falsetto voice for over two decades.

The first Mickey had circles for ears and tubes for limbs to make him easier to animate. In maturity the mischievous rodent has lost his tail, developed leadership skills, and learned greater respect for his girlfriend Minnie. He still has a missing finger. “Five digits looked like a bunch of bananas,” explained Walt. “And financially, not having an extra finger in each of the 45,000 drawings saved the studio millions.”

Mickey has shaken hands with eight U.S. Presidents, he was the first non-human to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he is the only cartoon mouse to win an Oscar, become a comic strip hero, and star in his own TV show. The Mickey Mouse Club aired from 1955 – 1996 and made Mouseketeer ears as famous as Playboy Bunnies.


Before Mickey there was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit who wasn’t that lucky for Walt. Signed up to invent a character for Universal Pictures, his funny bunny became a hit. But two years and 26 films later, Universal dropped the contract and Walt lost Oswald as he’d forgotten to sew up the rights. Mickey, Walt’s second big idea, was iron-clad in copyright and bears a striking family resemblance to Oswald…


It was the nickname everyone at the studio gave Walt’s plans to spend millions making the world’s first animated feature film. He had to mortgage the family home as well but Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs rewarded him handsomely – almost $2 billion in today’s money – enough to build the Burbank studios that’s still Disney HQ today.

A masterpiece of its time, it received a standing ovation in Hollywood, made the cover of Time magazine, and garnered an honorary Oscar and seven dwarf-sized statuettes, presented to Walt by a 10-year-old Shirley Temple. Snow White is still earning her keep, franchised out as merchandise, theme park attractions, video games, a Broadway musical, and a live-action film due out in 2024.


Mary Poppins was the Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious sensation of 1964. Blending humans with cartoons and jaw-dropping special effects. The Chim-chiminey rooftop routine and Julie Andrews’ duet with a robotic robin were scene-stealers and everyone knew the words to the songs.

The movie paid for Walt Disney World in Florida, well-worth the 20 years of trans-Atlantic phone calls and flights to London it took to acquire the film rights from Australian-British author P.L. Travers. Despite its five Oscar wins, she hated it, especially Mary Poppins who was a spoonful of sugar too sweet for her liking. Disney turned the backstory into another great movie, Saving Mr Banks, starring Tom Hanks as Walt and Emma Thompson as the reluctant author.


Walt wanted Disneyland California to be ‘the happiest place on earth’ but history remembers 1955’s grand opening as Black Sunday.
Gate-crashed by thousands of counterfeit ticket holders, the scorching weather added to the meltdown as stiletto heels and pushchair wheels sank into the newly-laid tarmac. The day was saved by Disney’s new ABC’s TV show when half of America watched co-host Ronald Reagan hobnobbing with Davy Crockett, after which ticket sales and orders for coonskin hats went viral.

Inspired by the boredom of ‘Daddy’s Day’ Saturdays in the park, watching his two daughters on the chidlren’s roundabout, Disneyland was a place parents could enjoy too. The American Dream on steroids, Fantasyland celebrated the pursuit of happiness, Frontierland respresented the pioneering spirit, Tomorrowland characterised the relentless drive for progress, and Smellitizers sweetened the air with popcorn aromas.

Disneyland’s success is replicated at five other resorts in Florida, Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai which between them welcome 157 million visitors yearly. Walt only lived to christen the first but the train-mad kid who wanted to be an engine driver when he grew up was never prouder than when he opened the Disneyland Monorail in 1959. It was the first daily operating system in the Western Hemisphere.

Walt wouldn’t recognise Disneyland today. As he predicted, it will never stop growing ‘as long as there’s imagination left in the world’.


Although Walt cultivated a lip rug, Cast Members (as theme park staff are called) were forbidden facial hair for decades. Rules were relaxed to permit moustaches in 2000, beards in 2012 and tattoos and body piercings in 2021.


Keep an eye out for Disney 100 centennial events in Spain at