As Walt Disney Studios turn 100, we explore the magical world its founder created, from groundbreaking animated films in colour to cryogenic freezing myths
1. A century-old media empire
Disney turned 100 last year, and it looks a lot different from the tiny animation studio it once was.
Americans Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy originally launched the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio with a series of short films about a girl and her cat.
Today, the Walt Disney Company is, after Apple, the world’s second-largest multinational mass-media and entertainment conglomerate.
In the century that it’s been making films, Disney has earned 135 Oscars. Walt Disney himself holds the record for the most Academy Awards earned by an individual (22).
2. Mickey Mouse's fame
Mickey Mouse, created in 1928, was not the first Disney character (that distinction belongs to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit), but he is certainly the most popular.
Mickey was the first animated character to earn a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, in 1978 (his 50th birthday), and according to market researchers, he is more famous among children globally than Santa Claus.
The iconic “mouse ears” remain Disney’s most popular piece of merchandise, with annual sales of US$3 million.
3. A meeting of mice
In a case of life imitating art, the voice actors behind Mickey and Minnie met and fell in love while on the job.
Wayne Allwine voiced Mickey from 1977 to 2009—a record 32 years in the role. He met Russi Taylor, the voice behind Minnie, in 1988, and the two were married from 1991 until Allwine’s death in 2009.
4. Disney's Folly
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which hit theatres in 1937, was Disney’s first full-length film and the first ever animated feature made in full colour and with sound.
It took three years to produce and was three times over budget, for a total cost of US$1.5 million. Insiders even nicknamed the project “Disney’s Folly.” But it paid off: the film earned more than US$8 million during its initial release.
5. The "dead mother" trope
Fresh off this success at age 37, Walt purchased a new home for his parents in 1938, but tragically, faulty wiring led to the death of his mother, Flora, from carbon monoxide poisoning.
One popular fan theory is that this intense loss is the reason for the “dead mother phenomenon” in films such as Bambi, The Jungle Book, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and many others.
6. A cryogenic tomb
According to lore, the body of Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen following his death in 1966 at the age of 65.
The rumour, first reported in a tabloid, even spawned a related conspiracy theory that the 2013 hit Frozen was so named to redirect internet searches about Disney’s final resting place.
Plenty of people, including Disney’s daughter, have confirmed that Walt was cremated, but the internet just won’t “Let It Go.”
7. Marvel's money shot
The Marvel Universe is one of Disney’s highest-profile acquisitions, purchased in 2009 for US$4 billion and now worth more than US$59 billion.
Surprisingly, movies account for just 11 per cent of Disney’s total revenue. Television and media networks are the biggest money-makers at 35 percent, followed by theme parks and merchandise at 33 percent. Streaming services (Disney+) account for 21 percent.
8. The happiest place on Earth
The idea for a theme park was conceived as “Mickey Mouse Park” on a 3.2 hectare lot, but when Disneyland opened in 1955 it stretched over 64 hectares.
Within the first 10 weeks, the California park had welcomed one million visitors. Collectively, Disney theme parks—with international locations in Tokyo, Paris, Hong Kong and Shanghai—welcome more than 115 million visitors each year.
9. Behind the curtain
Beneath many Disney parks is a network of interconnected tunnels for the transportation of staff and merchandise. The idea came from Walt, who was irked after spotting costumed characters in the wrong themed areas while making their way to their intended location.
The largest system of these tunnels exists at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Florida, extending across 3.6 hectares and costing more to build than the theme park itself.
10. The science of dreams
Disneyland’s Space Mountain in California, which was constructed in 1975, was designed in consultation with a NASA astronaut and cost US$18 million to build.
And if you were among the first visitors to ride Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967, those skeletons and skulls weren’t just props but real human remains acquired from the medical centre at a nearby university.
Once fake skeleton technology improved, the remains were replaced (and given a proper burial).
11. An incubator of celebrity
Working at Disneyland in California has been a launching pad for many celebrities. Steve Martin honed his sleight-of-hand skills at Merlin’s Magic Shop in Fantasyland, Kevin Costner worked as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise and Robin Williams performed as a mime on Main Street.
12. When life imitates art
The success of 2003’s Finding Nemo produced a less than picture-perfect side effect when kids started “freeing” their pet fish by flushing them down the toilet. In the US, this led to an increase in emergency plumbing calls.
Other unwelcome trends? There was amphibian kissing—and a spike in child salmonella cases—following 2009’s The Princess and the Frog.
And then there was the Guardians of the Galaxy TikTok challenge that encouraged riders of the Mission: Breakout ride in California to improperly adjust their seatbelts to increase airtime.
13. The real faces of Disney
Disney characters have often been inspired by real people: Jessica Rabbit was a tribute to Sixties pin-up Rita Hayworth.
Illustrators looked at photos of then-teenaged actress Alyssa Milano to create Ariel in The Little Mermaid.
The vultures in The Jungle Book were inspired by another fab four: the Beatles.
Aladdin’s toothy grin comes direct from Tom Cruise.
And the titular trash compactor in Wall-E is rumoured to be named in honour of Walter Elias Disney himself.
Banner credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons
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