I’d like to kick off a new semi-regular feature here at the Angry Men, a celebration of Americans of all different stripes and backgrounds who have all, in their way, made America and the world a better place. They will be politicians, generals, entrepreneurs, scientists, and inventors; famous, and obscure; figures of history and thoroughly modern folks. But together they will remind us of the diversity and unity of the United States, of our greatest principles and of the great promise of America: you are free to pursue your dreams as best you can.
Without further ado, let’s raise a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday to our inaugural Great American: Walter Elias Disney:
The first few decades of Walt Disney’s life reads like an almost stereotypical American success story: born the son of an immigrant, growing up across the Midwest in big cities and small towns, sneaking off to World War I as an ambulance driver with the Red Cross, hustling to get started in his chosen career, getting breaks from his brother and returning the favor, and making and losing businesses and fortunes. All by the age of 33.
But in 1934, Disney did something destined to change American entertainment forever, and catapult him to new heights: he produced a full-length animated film featuring both realistic human characters and fantastic cartoon characters. This doesn’t sound like much these days, but back then it was “Disney’s Folly” because it had never been done, and conventional wisdom said it couldn’t be done. Disney bet the farm that conventional wisdom was wrong, and his competitors bet that he’d lose that farm.
Of course, as we know, Disney was right, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was wildly successful, playing to standing ovations and winning an Oscar (well, actually one large and seven small Oscars, in fact). More than a personal triumph, it ushered in the golden age of American animation, and set the stage for the staggering industry of animated features around the world. It also launched Walt Disney Studios in Burbank and bankrolled a skilled studio of master animators. Disney would go on to produce a whole cavalcade of classic animated films: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad (which brought the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and the Wind in the Willows to many for the first time), Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and many, many more. Many did not make much money, some were quite successful, but all have endured the test of time surprisingly well and stand as a tribute to Walt Disney’s vision that rich, complex stories could be told through animation.
After the Second World War, Disney brought his vision for a child’s fantasy amusement park to life in Disneyland, setting it on a huge lot and surrounding it by one of his favorite things in the world: a train. Throughout the 1950s Disney Studios worked on Disneyland and released major live-action and animated features. Disney also turned his eyes towards the stars and worked with NASA (and Werner von Braun) to promote space travel through films.
The 1960s saw Disney at the peak of his success, with Mary Poppins sweeping box offices and Disney debuting his vision of the future at the 1964 Worlds Fair. Not content with a one-time display of that vision, he laid the plans for an expanded and enhanced Disneyland known in development as “Disney World” and sited on 27,000 acres in Florida. Although plans included an expanded amusement park (to be known as the “Magic Kingdom”), resorts, and hotels, the centerpiece was to be Disney’s vision of the perfect future community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). In Disney’s expansive vision, EPCOT was to be a working future city, whose residents would focus on innovative science and advanced technology.
Sadly, Walt Disney would never live to see the fulfillment of this vision, as he died from lung cancer in 1966, just two years after beginning the new project. His brother Roy came out of retirement to manage the project (and company) and open the first stage of the new park, now formally called “Walt Disney World Resort” in October 1971. By December of that year, Roy too was dead.
EPCOT as envisioned by Disney never came to be, though the modern Epcot park does provide a showcase for future technologies, and embodies the spirit of international cooperation in its World Showcase. And Disney’s Celebration community, built by Disney Imagineering as a model planned community, comes closer to the original goal of EPCOT (though in a suburban rather than urban mode).
Of course, as we remember the man and his legacy we should not overlook the darker side. Walt Disney never trusted organized labor, and his prejudice led him to make unsubstantiated allegations during the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s. He spied on union activity for the FBI for years and may well have illegally intimidated union activists. He was, as many visionaries are, a notoriously difficult man to work with. In short, he was a man, with a full share of faults and limitations.
But he was also a visionary in the best American mode, with an optimistic and enthusiastic take on society, technology, science, and the future. He built places devoted to bringing joy to children and inspiring them to dream deeply. He gave the world the vast legacy of his dreams in film and concrete and has inspired millions around the world with a vision of pluralism, tolerance, kindness, optimism and joy. For all of these reasons, whatever his human faults and foibles, Walter Elias Disney is, indeed, one of the Best of Us.
UPDATE: Welcome Fark.com! After you read this, feel free to have a look around. You’ve probably already seen this and this, but check out this fine piece about the One Laptop per Child program, this one about that nutcase Chavez, and, of course, this classic challenge.