Walt Disney is probably one of the most influential Americans who ever lived. Though he passed away 48 years ago this month (probably– unless those cryogenic rumors are true), his legacy is pretty much immortal. We’re all familiar with his characters and theme parks, but here are 17 facts you may not be familiar with.
1. He found creative ways to help the war effort. Walt tried to sign up for the army during WWI, but was rejected for being too young. Instead, he drew patriotic cartoons for his school newspaper and later joined the Red Cross. He was sent to France to drive ambulances for a year, though it was after the war had ended.
2. Disneyland was the product of his own boredom. He came up with the idea for a new kind of amusement park as he sat on a bench and watched his children ride a merry-go-round in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, wishing there were a place children and adults could enjoy equally, together. That park bench is currently on display in Disneyland’s Opera House.
3. Mickey Mouse was named by Walt’s wife. Walt originally named the character Mortimer Mouse, but his wife Lily said that name was “pompous.” She suggested the cuter “Mickey.”
4. But before Mickey, there was Oswald. Walt’s first big hit hit was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but he sold the character to Universal in 1927. 79 years later, NBC (which is owned by Universal) wanted to hire sportscaster Al Michaels for their newly acquired Sunday Night Football. Michaels, though, was under contract with ESPN, which is owned by– you guessed it– Disney. Luckily, the two were able to come to a fair trade: a sportscaster for a rabbit.
5. Walt kept an apartment on Disneyland’s Main Street. He would spend the night (and days, as he loved people watching) above the firehouse. The apartment still exists just as it was (save for some replaced furniture), complete with Walt’s papers as he left them on his desk.
6. His employees had a special codename for him. Disney animators would use the code ‘man is in the forest’ as a warning to get back to work when Walt was approaching.
7. He didn’t allow women to be animators. Not that this was an unusual practice in 1938, but as was stated in no uncertain terms to a woman applying for a spot in the animation training school “women do not do creative work.”
8. He measured distance in hotdogs. He was notorious for his attention to detail. Trash cans at Disney World were placed 25 steps away from hot dog stands, since that was how long it took him to eat a hot dog.
9. Hot dogs played other important roles in his life as well. Mickey’ Mouse’s first words were in The Karnival Kid in 1929. In fact, those were the first words ever to be spoken by an animated character. Those words? “Hot dog!”
10. Walt had a strict no facial hair policy. Employees couldn’t grow facial hair until 2012 (and even now it must kept shorter than 1/4 inch), but the policy used to extend even to guests. Until 1970, beards, mustaches, and long hair on men (and halter tops on women) would get them kicked out of the park. In fact, Jim McGuinn, future founder of the band The Byrds was refused entry simply for having a Beatles-style mop top. What makes this especially odd is that Walt himself had a mustache from the age of 25 on.
11. He got extra Oscars. In 1938, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, he was presented one regular (honorary) Academy Award, and seven miniature statues.
12. He was the inspiration for Wall-E. Well, at least in name. The robot’s moniker in a reference to Walter Elias Disney.
13. In fact, most of Disney’s California Adventure is an homage to the man himself. The park’s Buena Vista street (sort of the DCA equivalent of Disneyland’s Main Street) is modeled after Los Angeles in 1923, the year Walt arrived in the city.
14. He did what no one else could. Legally speaking. For a few years in the 1930s Disney held the exclusive contract for Technicolor, making him the only animator allowed to make colour films.
15. Walt’s signature was not his signature. His famous signature was not made by him, and bore no resemblance to his actual signed name.
18. He changed the lives of so many people. Though maybe none more than his own housekeeper. His live-in housekeeper, Thelma Howard, served his family for 30 years, and he would give her Disney shares as holiday bonuses. When she died in 1994, her estate was found to be worth more than $9 million. Half of that went to her son, and the rest, having herself grown up in extreme poverty, went to help homeless and disadvantaged children.
17. His last words may have been “Kurt Russell.” They are at least among the last words Walt ever wrote. We may never know why, but no one can stop us from assuming it was the opening to an effusive fan letter.