Walt Disney’s Rocky Road to Success

Despite being one of the most influential people of the 20th century, Disney endured many failures before creating 'the Happiest Place on Earth.'

Walt Disney's known as an extraordinarily successful creative whose visions as an animator, filmmaker and theme park developer changed entertainment in the 20th century and beyond. Yet, dig a little deeper into Disney's background, and you'll discover that his road to success was paved by an unhappy childhood along with countless business failures and setbacks.

Disney had a strained relationship with his father

Born in Chicago in 1901 and raised in Missouri, Disney was the fourth son among five siblings. His father, Elias, was a domineering figure who was allegedly abusive as he tried, unsuccessfully, to make ends meet for the family. To escape from his stressful circumstances, Young Disney found solace in drawing. Still, he'd watch his older brothers, one by one, runoff from home to escape their father, and soon he'd follow suit by lying about his age to become an ambulance driver during World War I. (Years later when his father died, Disney reportedly refused to cut a business trip short and therefore missed his dad's funeral.)

Walt Disney as a child

Walt Disney in 1902

Photo: Apic/Getty Images

His first cartoon business went bankrupt When he returned home from war, Disney became an apprentice at a Kansas City commercial art studio. Itching to set off on his own, he and his older brother Roy launched their own cartoon business, Laugh-O-Gram Studios, in 1920, but the company went bankrupt a couple years later.

With the loss of his first business, Disney packed his bags, and with just $40 to his name, took off to Los Angeles to try his hand at acting. But he failed at that, too. Still, there was a silver lining to his move. Noticing there weren't any animations studios in California, Disney convinced Roy to join him out West so they could set up shop. Not so long after, Disney found his first major success with the creation of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Disney's character Oswald was plenty lucky, becoming a huge star in one-reel animation, but Disney himself would find his luck had run out. Traveling to New York to renegotiate his contract, he discovered that his producer had taken his team of animators from under him and that he no longer had any legal rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

But instead of fighting the loss or plotting his revenge, Disney decided to walk away and start over again. It was on the train ride back to California that he created Mickey Mouse.
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

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Disney had a nervous breakdown after creating Mickey Mouse

After years of eating beans and driving up his debts, Disney finally brought Mickey Mouse to life on film starting in the late 1920s and earned his way back to the top of his industry. But it wasn't easy. Bankers rejected the concept of his famous mouse over 300 times before one said yes.

Even with the success of Mickey Mouse, Disney still faced challenges in keeping his business afloat. Not only was he overworked, but tensions with his employer — who eventually stole his longtime and best animator from him — led to Disney having a nervous breakdown.

After taking some time off with his wife to recuperate, Disney returned with a bold new idea: He would develop a full-length animation feature, which he'd call Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It would become a huge success at the box office, yet the films that followed — Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Bambi (1942) — would end up being duds.

SOURCE https://www.biography.com/news/walt-disney-failures
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