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US Marks Walt Disney's 100th Anniversary - 2001-12-03

December 5 marks the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth. The American animator who created Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck also established the Disneyland and Disney World amusement parks.

Walt Disney was born in Chicago and at the age of 14, he enrolled at the Kansas City Art Institute. Two years later, at the height of World War I, he served as a volunteer ambulance driver for the Red Cross in France. After coming home, he headed for Hollywood.

Dave Smith, the archive director for the Walt Disney Company, says that there he perfected his skills as a cartoon animator. Mr. Smith said, "Walt Disney started his company in 1923, and at first, for about five years, did a couple of different series of silent cartoons. This was before sound had come into the industry. But in 1928, he created a new character, which was Mickey Mouse."

The cartoon mouse was first known as Steamboat Willie, but Walt Disney, prompted by his wife, changed the character's name to the now-familiar Mickey.

Soon, a menagerie of other animals appeared in Disney cartoons. First, says Mr. Smith, came Mickey's girlfriend, Minnie. "Pluto and Goofy came along in a very short time, and then in 1934, Donald Duck," he said. "And Donald Duck became a very popular character among theater audiences. He had a more interesting personality than Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse became the good guy, the Boy Scout figure. If he did anything wrong in a cartoon, the studio would get all sorts of complaints in the mail. So very often they would turn to Donald Duck to lead a cartoon. He could throw a temper tantrum, he could get mad, and nobody cared. That was part of his outlook."

Beginning in the late 1930s, Walt Disney produced a series of successful animated feature films. The first, made with an enormous $1.5 million investment, was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1938. Other animated features followed, including Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi.

In the 1950s, the company started producing live-action feature films, beginning with Treasure Island. In 1954, Walt Disney moved into television, with the popular series Davy Crockett, based on a 19th century American frontiersman.

In 1955, the Disneyland theme park opened in Anaheim, California, just south of Los Angeles.

Dave Smith says Walt Disney found himself pulled in several directions in a growing company. He said, "It really bothered him a bit as the company started growing, and he had to spread himself out thinner. I mean, people within the company started noticing this too, the animators in the mid-1950s were not getting the decisions from him that they were expecting because he was busy playing around with Disneyland."

Walt Disney kept busy with production of television shows like the Mickey Mouse Club, and planned an East Coast theme park near Orlando, Florida. Later, Disney theme parks were built in Tokyo and Paris. Walt Disney died in 1966, five years before Florida's Disney World would open.

Archivist Dave Smith says Walt Disney had a genius for knowing what the American public wanted. "He had grown up in the American Midwest," Mr. Smith said, "and his cultural values were very similar to those of most Americans. And when he knew that someone would like sound cartoons or color cartoons or animated features or theme parks, when all of his critics tried to tell him that these things wouldn't work, Walt Disney had an innate knowledge that these things would work."

Today, other theme parks are expanding Disney holdings. The newly opened park called Tokyo Disney Sea, next to Tokyo Disneyland, has a nautical theme, and Disney Studios Europe, next door to Disneyland Paris, will next year bring a little bit of Hollywood to France.

With annual revenues of $25 billion, the Disney Company has become a corporate empire with interests ranging from sports teams to television. In 1995, Disney bought the Capitol Cities-ABC media company, and this year bought a collection of international cable channels called Fox Family.

Business writer Jesse Hiestand of the Hollywood Reporter newspaper says with growth, have come some problems. "One area where Disney has really stumbled is the Internet, and they've had some heavy losses there. But of course they're not the only ones."

Mr. Hiestand says revenues are also down at Disney theme parks, following September's terrorist attacks and a decline in leisure travel. But the industry analyst says the company's long-term prospects are good. Mr. Hiestand continued, "Disney hopes to keep growing through acquisitions, repackaging its famous brands and characters, and of course developing new ones. And in a lot of ways, the challenge for Disney continues to be balancing the demands of being a global corporation and its own history of being a family entertainer founded on Walt's love of art."

The Disney Company is still in the business of cartoon animation. Its latest movie hit is a collaboration with the Pixar company called Monsters Incorporated. And Disney's traditional characters, Mickey, Goofy and Donald, are still entertaining new generations of youngsters.