Artist, producer, entrepreneur, and all-around game-changer Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901. More than a century later, it’s easy to forget that Disney was a real person, not just a caricature or company figurehead. In honor of the man, not the corporation, here are 15 facts about his life.
1. Walt Disney played Peter Pan in a school play.
The story Peter Pan surely held a special place in Walt Disney’s heart: not only was it a hit movie for him in 1953, it also took him back to his childhood. After seeing Peter Pan on stage, young Walt was given the opportunity to play the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in a school performance. Walt later recalled that his brother Roy was in charge of the rope used to hoist him over the stage to simulate flying; it was just one of their many creative collaborations.
2. Walt Disney was a high school dropout.
Walt was just 16 when he left school to join the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, wanting to do his part in World War I. But because he was just shy of the minimum age requirement of 17, he forged a different date on his birth certificate. Disney didn’t see much action, however. He was sent to France in late 1918, not long after the armistice was signed that ended the fighting. He still helped where he could, driving Red Cross officials and performing other tasks, before he was discharged in 1919.
3. Walt Disney almost sold vacuum cleaners for a living.
In 1923, Walt joined his older brother Roy in L.A. to pursue a career in animation. Roy had been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door to make ends meet and encouraged Walt do the same. Walt considered it, but before he could get sucked in by a Kirbyesque scheme, he got a call from a company in New York that wanted him to make shorts for them.
4. Mickey Mouse wasn’t Walt Disney's first big creation.
In 1927, Universal asked Walt and his chief animator Ub Iwerks to create a cartoon character for them; the result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Oswald was a huge hit, complete with robust merchandising. With this success under his belt, in 1928, Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract with producer Charles Mintz. Mintz, however, countered with a different deal: He wanted to cut the budget. And to add salt to the wound, Mintz had been working backdoor deals to hire Disney’s animators out from under him. In the end, Universal ended up with the rights to Oswald, and Disney left New York feeling as if he had lost almost everything. But it all worked out in the end—on the train ride back to California, Disney sketched a character that would eclipse Oswald in popularity: Mickey Mouse.
The company regained control of the obscure character in 2006, almost eight decades after losing him. The rights were part of a trade between Disney and NBC/Universal: They agreed to let Disney have Oswald back, and Disney, the owner of ABC and ESPN, agreed to let NBC use sportscaster Al Michaels for Sunday Night Football.
5. Walt Disney didn’t draw Mickey Mouse.
He did at first, but it didn't last long—after 1928, Walt was no longer animating, focusing instead on story development and direction. He relied on Iwerks and other superior artists to do the drawing dirty work. He never drew Mickey in any of his theatrical releases, and in fact, probably only really drew Mickey when autograph seekers requested it.
6. But Walt Disney did voice Mickey Mouse.
From 1928 to 1947, Walt was the man behind the mouse—literally. Even after the voice work was officially turned over to Jimmy MacDonald in 1947, Walt continued to do Mickey’s voice for shorts on The Mickey Mouse Club.
7. Walt Disney drove his daughters to school every day.
Despite the fact that he had drivers, a live-in housekeeper, and a number of other staff members at his disposal, Disney took great pleasure in driving his two daughters to school every day. He also spoiled them unabashedly, which historian Steve Watts believed was a reaction to Walt’s own stern upbringing.
8. Walt Disney had a secret apartment at Disneyland.
It’s still there, in fact, above the fire station. Walt’s private apartment isn’t typically open to the public, but VIPs are occasionally offered tours. The furnishings remain virtually unchanged from when Walt used to spend time there, including a lamp in the window visible from outside. It’s always kept on to signify that Walt is always in the park.
9. Walt Disney's favorite song was “Feed the Birds.”
There have been a lot of toe-tapping hits in Disney movies over the years, but Walt’s personal favorite was a ballad: “Feed the Birds,” the song about the pigeon lady in Mary Poppins. According to songwriter Richard Sherman, Walt often stopped by the Sherman brothers’ office at Disney on Friday afternoons and requested a personal performance of “Feed the Birds.” "He loved that song, and knew it was the heartbeat of the whole movie,” Sherman said.
10. Walt Disney found golf anything but relaxing.
Though many people play golf to relax, Disney couldn't deal with it. After giving up polo at his doctor's behest, Walt took up golf, getting up at 4:30 a.m. to squeeze in nine holes before work. He found the game so frustrating that he quit and took up a more chill sport—lawn bowling.
11. Walt Disney felt responsible for his mother’s death.
Once he became successful, Walt bought his parents a rather extravagant present: a new house. And when his parents needed something fixed, tweaked, or repaired, he sent his own repairmen from the studio over to take care of it. Such was the case when they discovered a problem with their furnace in 1938. Tragically, his team didn’t take care of the issue properly, and Flora Call Disney died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 70. His father, Elias, also fell very ill from the gas leak, but survived. Walt’s daughter, Sharon, said that even years later, Walt found the subject nearly impossible to talk about.
12. Walt Disney's housekeeper was a very wealthy woman.
Thelma Howard was the Disney family’s live-in housekeeper and cook for three decades. She was hired in 1951 and quickly became part of the family, even making sure the fridge was well-stocked with hot dogs—Walt liked to eat them cold as a snack when he got home from work. As part of her annual Christmas gift, the Disneys gave her stock in the company. She never did anything with her shares, and by the time she died in 1994, the woman was a multimillionaire because of them. She left nearly $4.5 million to poor and disabled children, and roughly the same amount to her disabled son.
13. Walt Disney was obsessed with trains.
Walt always had an interest in trains, even building an elaborate model in his office, which he enjoyed running for his guests. In 1948, his hobby grew to new heights when he constructed a 1/8 scale model in his backyard, with track spanning half a mile. He deemed it the Carolwood Pacific Railroad.
14. One of Walt Disney's last written communications was rather mysterious—and involved Kurt Russell.
Shortly before his death, Disney wrote “Kurt Russell” on a piece of paper. It was later found on his desk, and, according to Disney historian Dave Smith, the notes were among Disney's last few written words. At the time of Disney’s death, Russell was a largely unknown child actor working for the studio. No one has any idea what Disney was referring to with his note—not even Kurt Russell.
15. Walt Disney is not cryogenically frozen.
Bob Nelson, the former president of the Cryonics Society of California, makes a good point: if Disney was the first cryogenically frozen man, it would have been a pretty big deal for cryonics, and they would have publicized the heck out of the Mickey Mouse-cicle. No, Walt was cremated and buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. His gravesite is in a public area for people who want to see it for themselves.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2021.