Many of us have heard stories or have read about the creation of Disneyland. Walt Disney came up with the idea for a theme park, “a family park where parents and children could have fun – together,” while sitting on a park bench in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park and watching his young daughters ride the carousel. Walt Disney was the creative visionary and the driving force behind much of the Disney Company’s success in it’s early days. What many people haven’t heard, however, is that Walt’s older brother, Roy O. Disney, was just as instrumental (or even more so) in getting things done than Walt. When Walt Disney would come up with some outlandish new idea, it was Roy who (after telling his brother it was impossible) was taxed with coming up with the money for the new project. Snow White & the Seven Dwarfs, Disneyland, and certainly Walt Disney World never would have been created if not for Walt’s less-famous sibling. Let’s take a look at Roy O. Disney, The Guy Behind The Guy.
Roy O. Disney was born on June 24, 1893 in Chicago, Illinois. As a child, he and his younger brother Walt learned about hard work and dedication from their father, Elias Disney, who purchased a newspaper route in Kansas City, Missouri (where the family then lived) in 1911. Elias put his sons to work each and every day. They’d deliver more than 700 newspapers in the morning before school, then another 600 in the evening (and I complained when my parents made me get a job bagging groceries at 16!) Elias was a tough customer who in this day and age wouldn’t be looked kindly upon as a father, often handing out physical punishment when his sons disobeyed orders. It was because of Elias’s actions and parenting that Roy told Walt one evening in 1912 that he was leaving and never coming back. The next morning when Walt woke up, Roy was gone.
Roy O. Disney took a job as a bank teller in 1912 and then later joined the Navy in 1917 when he learned that the United States was about to enter World War I. After a few years in the Navy, Roy wound up in a Veteran’s Hospital in 1923 battling a case of tuberculosis. Walt came to his bedside with an offer from cartoon producer Margaret J.Winkler (along with $40 in his pocket). The brothers signed a deal with Winkler for six episodes of a combination of animation and live action called The Alice Comedies, and the Disney Brothers Studio was born.
In the early 1930’s, Walt Disney came to his older brother Roy with a crazy new idea. Mickey Mouse had become a money-making machine for the Disney brothers and their studio, and Walt wanted to take advantage of that. He believed that due to the popularity of animation and Mickey Mouse, he could create and produce a full-length animated feature film. Roy originally wanted no part of the idea and constantly tried to talk Walt out of even trying to get the finances together, but finally broke down and agreed thanks to the enthusiasm and confidence of his younger brother. Walt convinced Roy that he could produce Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for about $250,000. It was Roy’s job to constantly travel to and from New York City to visit the offices of the Bank of America to ask for more and more money to help complete the film. Although Roy was successful in raising the majority of the cash, in the end Walt Disney even had to mortgage his own Los Angeles home in order to finance the film which ended up costing $1,488,422.74! Roy’s trust in his brother paid off in the end, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which was being called “Disney’s Folly” by the press, ended up becoming one of the most commercially successful films of all time.
In the early 1950’s when Walt again came to Roy and told him about his ideas for Disneyland, Roy told Walt he was crazy. Even Lillian Disney, Walt’s wife, backed Roy and said the idea would never work. Walt Disney was as determined as ever and eventually talked his brother into yet another project that was way over their heads and WAY more expensive than they could afford. It was again Roy who had to go to New York City to explain to investors exactly what his younger brother was trying to accomplish with his new “theme park.” He eventually signed a contract with ABC where the Disney company would produce a weekly television show titled “Disneyland” and ABC would help finance the park. When Disneyland eventually opened with great success, Roy O. Disney bought out all of the other shareholders who had helped finance the park and by 1960 the Disney Company became the sole owner of Disneyland.
After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Roy decided to march forward with the Florida Project, which was then being called “Disneyworld.” Roy came out of retirement to head up the project and ultimately decided to rename the Vacation Capital of the World “Walt Disney World” to honor the vision and dream of his late brother. Roy O. Disney gave the dedication speech at the Magic Kingdom on October 25, 1971 with Walt’s greatest creation, Mickey Mouse, by his side.
“Walt Disney World is tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney … and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place … a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn – together.”
Roy O. Disney, maybe with the understanding that he and his brother’s work would go on to live forever, passed away on December 20, 1971, only a couple of months after the successful opening of Walt Disney World. Although he remains the lesser-known of the founders of the old Disney Brothers Studio, Roy will always be remembered as the man behind one of the most influential men of a generation. Without Roy, Walt Disney would never have been able to achieve all of his dreams and we may not have had all of the wonderful worlds of the Disney company that we do today.
Roy O. Disney’s legacy lives on in Walt Disney World, and he is honored in two very special tributes in the Magic Kingdom. In town square sits a bench with a sculpture of Roy and Minnie Mouse, and along Main Street, USA is a window featuring the Dreamers & Doers Development Co. that reads “If we can dream it – We Can Do It!” Roy O. Disney.
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