How Did Walt Disney Start His Business?

Walt Disney’s love for trains began with his childhood job selling newspapers and snacks on the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad. He also developed his interest in animation during this time.

After dropping out of high school at sixteen, he worked at an art studio and an advertising company. He later started his own cartoon company, Laugh-O-Grams with Ub Iwerks.

The Disneys’ Farm

Amid the vast expanses of Disney’s empire, there is a place that has long held a special place in Walt Disney’s heart — the family farm he grew up on in Marceline, Missouri. Walt often spoke of Marceline as a model for Disneyland, with the idea that the park’s Main Street would be an exact replica. Indeed, one of the buildings that sits in Marceline today is a replica of an old Coke building that was once on the property.

When Walt returned to his boyhood home in 1956 for the dedication of the Marceline Swimming Pool, he expressed interest in buying his childhood farmhouse and developing a rural experience around it. He even formed a corporation, RETLAW (Walter spelled backward) for the purpose. Eventually, Rush and Inez Johnson bought the house and some land from RETLAW for safekeeping.

Despite his busy schedule and the fast pace of his career, Disney often returned to Marceline as an adult and donated items to the town. He also filmed several movies that highlighted his time there. He even named a movie about growing up on a small farm in Missouri after the town where he lived.

The relationship between the museum and the Disney company hasn’t always been steady, however. The current relationship is largely fueled by personal efforts of those in Marceline and the Disney family, Peter says.

As the company has grown, so too have its four key business segments, according to Forbes: media networks, parks and resorts, studio entertainment, and consumer products and interactive media. It is unclear whether the company’s current worth — a whopping $44 billion as of this writing — will continue to grow at this pace.

The Disneys’ Move to Kansas City

Walt and his family moved to Kansas City, where he continued to pursue his interest in drawing, taking classes at the McKinley High School art studio and contributing cartoons to the student paper. He also worked as a draftsman and inker at commercial art studios, where he met Ub Iwerks, who helped him later become one of the most famous animators in history.

When the Disneys purchased a house on Bellefontaine Avenue, they began tinkering with animation in their garage. In the early days, they would animate the letterhead of their business, the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio, and design ads for local businesses and theaters. They also made films with Iwerks using crude stop-motion.

While the duo struggled to establish themselves in the business, their Alice Comedies proved popular with local audiences. In fact, they received so many orders for more of these films that they were forced to move to Hollywood to make them all.

Despite the failure of the company, Disney and Iwerks were not ready to give up on their dream. The pair re-established their company in California, which they named Laugh-O-Gram Films.

Even though the company did not make money, it allowed Walt to hone his skills and experiment with other types of animation. He also learned how to work with a team of employees, which would prove important for his future success in the entertainment industry.

The Laugh-O-Gram Films studio was located near 31st Street and Troost Avenue, which is still in use today as the Thank You Walt Disney Museum, a nonprofit organization. The former Laugh-O-Gram building was on the list to be demolished in 2000, but the nonprofit group was able to save it, beginning a decades-long project to preserve and convert the building into a cultural center.

The Disneys’ Meeting with Walter Pfeiffer

Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901, in Hermosa, a suburb of Chicago. He was the fourth of Elias and Flora’s five children. Walt’s interest in drawing started as a child, and he took art classes from the local Art Institute. At age 14, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, and he worked on a paper route with his brother Roy. This experience was an important one for young Walt, as it taught him how to work and the importance of a steady income.

After a short stint with the Pesmen-Rubin Studio, where he drew commercial artwork for theater programs and catalogs, he landed a job at the Kansas City Film Ad Company. Here, he learned the basics of animation. Eventually, he and his colleague Ubbe Iwerks created their first studio called Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. However, the business didn’t last long and they were laid off in January of 1920.

The pair soon re-opened their studio as Laugh-O-Gram Films in May of 1922. They started to make animated commercials for local theaters. The films became successful and they even branched out into satirical cartoons of fairy tales. However, the studio was going bankrupt, so Walt and Iwerks came up with an ingenious idea. They placed a real girl inside a cartoon world and called the film Alice’s Wonderland.

The film was a hit and saved Laugh-O-Gram from bankruptcy. By 1928, Walt had enough money to start his own Hollywood studio on Hyperion Avenue. It was here that he developed Mickey Mouse and the world’s first synchronized sound cartoon, Steamboat Willie. In addition to creating popular cartoons, Disney also began planning his dream of a theme park, which would eventually become Disneyland in 1955.

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The Disneys’ Meeting with Ub Iwerks

In 1919 Ub and Walt met at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio in Kansas City where they were both working. They became friends and began to collaborate. Ub was a fast animator, able to turn out drawings at a staggering rate — as many as 700 a day!

As the Disney Studios grew and the animation style changed, Iwerks was given more responsibility. In 1930 he was offered the opportunity to run his own studio with full artistic freedom. He jumped at the chance. Unfortunately for Ub his new studio never got off the ground and it went bankrupt after six years.

After that, he worked on a series of Alice Comedies and a character called Oswald the Lucky Rabbit which was eventually banned due to legal issues. The Oswald character was reworked and Ub started work on what we all know as Mickey Mouse.

RIGBY: Iwerks was a quiet man but a true genius and the studio couldn’t have survived without him. Luckily for Walt, Iwerks decided to return. He wasn’t interested in directing or starring in cartoons and preferred to work on technical innovations. Walt was more than happy to accommodate him.

Ub was responsible for a number of innovations including labor saving tricks that made the process much faster. For example, he used to make a series of drawings that were butted together one on top of the other. When he wanted to repeat the sequence he just had to flip the first drawing over.

Iwerks was also a master of creating sound effects that would add a lot to the cartoons. He was involved with the design and development of several theme park attractions like It’s a Small World, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and The Hall of Presidents.

The Disneys’ Move to Los Angeles

Walt Disney moved his family and business to Los Angeles in 1923, after the demise of his Laugh-O-Gram Studio. He and his brother founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, a company that would one day produce animated classics that won Oscars and had a huge impact on the entertainment industry.

Walt’s first short film was Alice’s Wonderland, which told the story of a girl (voiced by Virginia Davis) entering an animated world. The film was a success, but Disney couldn’t make enough money from it to keep his company afloat. He hoped to produce six more films in the same style, and persuaded Ub Iwerks and Alice’s co-star, Ham Hamilton, to move from Kansas City to Los Angeles with him.

Once in California, the Disney brothers found a building they could afford on Hyperion Avenue, and began to expand. The studio was based on a model that was popular at the time, and was designed to be an efficient workspace for animators. It was built with custom buildings that incorporated windows that captured sunlight and tunnels for transporting animation cels.

The Disneys were able to buy a larger property across the street, and eventually outgrew their old studio. With the profits from their first full-length animation feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt bought a property that was to become the headquarters of the company.

The new property was built with custom buildings that were streamlined for animation and equipped with university-like amenities to inspire creativity among the staff. It was a major departure from the typical industrial barns that were commonly used for animation at the time, and helped to create an environment where employees felt like part of a team and were able to work together to achieve their goals.

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