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Animating America

The name "Disney" can be seen today plastered on everything from toys to movies to

snacks. He may have died nearly fifty years ago, but make no mistake: Disney lives on, and he is

everywhere. Walter Elias Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in a neighborhood called

Hermosa on the northwest side of Chicago. After being relocated to Marceline, Missouri to

escape the corruption of the city, Walt fell in love with two things: drawing and trains, the latter

the only one to really play a role in him becoming an American icon. Later, in Kansas City, he

found another passion: movies. With these two passions in his heart, Walt played a massive role

in shaping the 20th century and beyond. Walt Disney continues to be the most influential

American in our history, made clear by his achievements of the past— changing the game in

animation and leisure— that still affect Americans of the present.

The first major achievements pioneered by Disney were, predictably, in the field that

made him famous: animation. His first milestone in becoming an animation mogul was

Steamboat Willie. While this cartoon short-served as Mickey Mouse's film debut, even more

significant is the fact that it was also the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound (The

Museum of Modern Art 7). The cartoon is today considered one of the most popular black-and-

white animations, and is even given a nod in the opening credits of many "new renaissance"

Disney films. In its day, it served as the catalyst for the evolution of animation from simply-silly

shorts played before the feature to the feature itself. By beginning to change the public's idea of

cartoons, he readied thousands of consumers for more animated works to come, those works to

become a huge facet to his legacy. But Walt was an innovative man, and as successful as his

traditional cartoons were, he still longed for a new way to advance them and revolutionarily

revise their production. Luckily for him, he found a means to do so in 1936, when he invented
the multiplane camera (Society for Science & the Public 321). This new camera shot with the

lens turned towards the ground, in order to capture painted panes of glass meant to come together

into one frame when photographed. It gave frames more dimension, similar to modern three-

dimensional films. The camera proved invaluable and was utilized by the studio up until 1989,

ceasing after the release of The Little Mermaid. It gave hand-drawn animation pictures new life,

earning them praise for their attention to detail. With the technology in hand, Disney Animation

produced such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Bambi, and Peter Pan. Movies like

this are what turned Disney into a household name, and what continue to garner him acclaim.

One of Disney's most well-known movies, the aforementioned Snow White and the Seven

Dwarfs, also serves as his greatest achievement in animation. The film utilized new camera

technology, but was (more importantly) the first full-length animated feature. It was also the first

film to have an official soundtrack, as well as the first to release an album of said soundtrack

(Dirks 1). As the first movie of its kind, it completely rocked the box office, holding today the

Guinness World Record for "Highest box office film gross for an animation— inflation adjusted"

(Guinness World Records 1). This completed the threefold metamorphosis; Walt turned

animations into big-ticket blockbusters and proved there was money to be made there. With the

$184.9 million Snow White made at the box office, Disney set out to create even more of the

movie magic he's famous for. Walt Disney's influence may have begun with animation and

innovation, but that is not where it ends. He soon saw something wrong with how American

families spent their free time, and worked to remedy the problem in the years leading up to 1955.

One Sunday, in the middle of watching his young daughters delight in a carousel ride,

Walt noticed that he and the parents around him were not having much fun. He saw something

very wrong with this and began envisioning a place where both children and their parents could
have family friendly fun together. After all, adults are just children grown up. A few years later,

in 1955, Walt brought his vision to life. The world’s first theme park opened in Anaheim,

California on July 17, 1955 (“Disneyland Opens” 1). This Disneyland featured five themed lands

of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy, with 18 attractions spread throughout them. At the center of

the park lies its focal point: a grand castle fit for Princess Aurora herself. In its first year of

operation alone, Disneyland hosted 3.75 million guests (Birger 9). That is nearly the present-day

population of Los Angeles. Walt had now expanded his business (and thus, his influence) into an

entirely new field, new to him and to the rest of the world. He changed the way people spent free

time on a grand scale, the scale growing year by year as more guests poured into the park. While

the scale continued to grow on its own, it was kicked into hyperdrive when Walt’s new dream,

Disney World, opened on October 1, 1971. It was described as a “dramatic extension of the

amusement and fantasy theme park of Disneyland” (Cross 1), but with two advantages: greater

land area and distance from cities and highways. With greater isolation from outside attractions

and greater property area to spread the magic, Walt’s new dream became an even bigger

destination. It now draws nearly 47,000 guests daily and the four theme parks see about 50.125

million guests a year. Though Walt did not live to see his parks become this immense of a global

tourist destination, his vision is what the parks were built on; his vision can be accredited for

growing his sphere of influence nearly the size of the Earth itself. Following his success as an

animator, Walt built himself a kingdom (literally and metaphorically). He may not be alive to

lead it anymore, but still it thrives.

Today, the Walt Disney Company encompasses Disney Media Impacts, Disney Parks and

Resorts, The Walt Disney Studios, Disney Consumer Products, and Disney Interactive. His name

is now plastered on much more than just theme park tickets; and even when it was, that alone
had a massive economic impact. In the fiscal year of 1986, a few months short of 20 years after

Walt’s death, attendance to the Disney World FL resort soared to a record-breaking 23.9 million

visitors (Vaughan 1). At $26 per ticket per day (Linshi 1), that amounts to $621.4 million.

Though finding fiscal statistics for the Company other than ticket prices is mostly impossible,

ticket prices are all that is needed to prove the point. In that field, the company generated

hundreds of millions of dollars, proving that even 20 years after his death, Walt was a thriving

business. And now, almost 50 years later, the business has only grown. Disneyland CA reached 1

million guests in less than a year of being open. By 1986, that number had inflated to 12 million.

More recently, in 2009, Disney CA reported 15.9 million guests. And a study conducted by

Disney Public Relations in 2009 determined “that the resort generates $4.7 billion annually for

the Southern California economy” (Disneyland Public Affairs 1). Not only does Disneyland CA

generate capital for the well-being of the company, it also contributes capital for the well being

of the general economy. The same study showed that the Resort provides 21,000 jobs through

the two parks, three hotels, and Downtown Disney. And through a combination of hotel, sales,

property, and income taxes, Disneyland CA also generates $225 million in taxes, revenue that

goes to surrounding counties, cities, and the state. On all fronts, Disney’s economic influence

continues to grow. And that is just Disneyland. Disney World FL has become an even bigger

economic powerhouse than its older sister; $1.6 billion bigger, in fact (Garcia 1). Not only does

Disney World produce more in capital, it also produces more jobs. In 2009, Disney FL had paid

its approximate 59,000 workers an average yearly salary of $30,508. The company also purchase

$2.3 billion worth of goods and services, $900 million of that from within Florida. And guests to

the resort spent a total of $1.7 million at off-site businesses. Again, Disney’s wealth goes not

only to itself, but also to its employees and independent businesses. Though Walt died of lung
cancer years before Disney World FL and Disneyland CA became international tourist

attractions and domestic revenue powerhouses, his presence in the American economy is


With Walt’s contributions to animation and his complete revitalization of leisure culture

in America, he left a legacy that continues to impact the country long after his death. He turned

animation into not just a business, but an industry that others could build off of. From an

emotional standpoint, he also produced films that are now classics. In addition, he brought about

themed amusement, a completely new idea at the time. And the numbers do not lie; his theme

parks alone, with their multi-million yearly attendance, continue to make mass contributions to

the economy, locally and nationally, from the jobs they create to the money they generate and

expend. With his influence extending in every direction, it is easy to argue that Disney is the

most influential American to have ever lived.

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Birger, Larry. "Disneyland [sic] Opens January '71." The Miami News 9 Oct. 1967: 1+. Print.

Society for Science & the Public. "Multiplane Camera Developed to Give Depth Illusion." The

Science Newsletter 33.22 (1938): 321. Print.

The Museum of Modern Art. "The Founding of the Film Library." The Bulletin of the Museum of

Modern Art 3.2 (1935): 7. Print.

Vaughan, Vicki. "23.9 Million Visitors Disney World Official Reveals Attendance Figure For

1986." The Orlando Sentinel 23 Feb. 1987: n. pag. Tribunedigital-orlandosentinel. Web.

22 Apr. 2015.

Secondary Sources

Cross, Gary. "Walt Disney World." Encyclopedia of Recreation and Leisure in America. Ed.

Gary S. Cross. Vol. 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2004. 405-409. Student

Resources in Context. Web. 19 Apr. 2015.

Dirks, Tim. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)." AMC Filmsite. American Movie

Classics Company, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

"Disneyland Opens." A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

"Disneyland® Resort Generates $4.7 Billion in Economic Impact." Disneyland Resort Public

Affairs. Disneyland Public Affairs, 30 Nov. 2011. Web. 03 May 2015.

Garcia, Jason. "Disney Says It Generates $18.2 Billion Annual Ripple Effect in Florida."

Orlando Sentinel. N.p., 13 Apr. 2011. Web. 03 May 2015.

Guinness World Records. "Highest Box Office Film Gross for an Animation - Inflation

Adjusted." Guinness World Records. Guinness World Records, n.d. Web. 18 Apr. 2015.

Linshi, Jack. "2 Charts That Show The Least Fun Part of Disney's Magic Kingdom." Time.

Time, 25 Feb. 2015. Web. 23 Apr. 2015.