How the Childhood of Walt Disney Shaped the Whole Disney Brand

Most fans know Walt Disney for the man he became, for the result of his life’s work. Few know about the impressionable, artistic boy born into a strict home, which was run by a stern father. Few know about the Disney family moving to a farm when Walt was still a boy.

The man Disney became was equal parts savvy businessperson, positive thinker, and controlling visionary. Depending on how people interacted with Walt, they saw him as wily, compassionate or dominating.

In truth, he was all these things.

The character he became as an adult was a result of Disney’s childhood and younger years. Those influences would come to shape the universe of movies and theme parks Walt constructed as an adult.

It all started in Chicago, Illinois…

Baby Walt

Walt and Ruth | PBS

Life for baby Walt started on December 5, 1901, in Hermosa, Illinois, a neighborhood of Chicago.

Born to Elias and Flora Disney, Walt was the fourth child in the Disney family, but there would be five before the Disney’s stopped having children.

There were four brothers including baby Walt (in order), Herbert, Raymond, and Roy. The fifth sibling, sister Ruth was the youngest, born two years after Walt.

Their father, Elias Disney was a building contractor at the time Walt came into the world. He was also a religious and principled man. In 1901, being a principled father was as common as being a unique flower in today’s world.

Without principles, one simply couldn’t make it in this world. Some historians characterize Elias as abusive, mostly because he reportedly abused his kids, but in 1951 abuse was a form of discipline.

It was a matter of sparing the rod, especially for a man of Christian faith.

Boy Walt

Shortly after Walt came into the world, Elias Disney bought a farm in Marceline, Missouri. It would be the place where young Walt would spend most of his childhood.

As the baby grew into a boy, Walt developed an adoration for two things: the animals in the country and trying to draw them. His interests in art and early aspirations of business manifested in young Walt selling his artwork to neighbors.

When Walt became old enough to go to high school, he attended McKinley High back in the family’s old haunt, Chicago. There we studied art and photography.

The Disney’s were not wealthy people, barely getting by most accounts, but Flora Disney and Walt’s siblings encouraged him to pursue his passions.

When Walt was only sixteen, Disney dropped out of school to serve his country in the Great War.

Young Walt

Disney’s attempt to enlist failed due to his age. He wanted to do his part, though, so he connected with the Red Cross in Europe. They sent him to France where he drove an ambulance during the war.

Legend has it that Disney’s ambulance reflected his interests, covered in his artwork.

When the war ended, Walt returned home to start his own business. He started a small company, Laugh-O-Grams, leveraging his artistic skills. The company failed, going bankrupt before Walt could get it going.

He could only see one path out. Walt decided to move to Hollywood where there were more production opportunities. If there was any place in the world he could make it as an animator, it was there.

Everything from his life, the farm, art, the war, funneled into a man who loved animals, loved drawing them, and who loved people. Disney only had to find his business side to make it Hollywood.

Of course, he did make it. He produced a series of shorts called “Alice Comedies” and met his future wife, Lillian Bounds. The pair had two children, and Walt built his empire piece by piece.

Everyone knows what followed: high priced tickets to Disney theme parks.