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Walt Disney and His Influence
on the Mass Media

Paul Johnson
University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, Chicago

"In saloons, in graduate seminars, in barber shops across the land, whenever particular people ask, who truly, are the giants of the twentieth century who defied reality as we know it—three names loom: Freud, Einstein, Walt Disney." These are the words of David Borland, a student of popular culture.

Walt Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, and lived there for a while. He moved from the city but was drawn back to Chicago while he studied art. Walt Disney was a man who made unique contributions to mass media. He used mass media to make hundreds of millions of people happy. Beginning in 1920 Disney used early film technology to make animated film shorts, which he followed with more sophisticated full-length films, and then he creatively used television programming to promote his last and greatest success, theme parks.

Disney first made short cartoons. Then he branched out into full-length animated movies, and later he made films with actors. He was not the first to make short animated films, but the characters he created and the audience he appealed to were different from other animators. With his full-length animated films, he reached out to a new family market. The high quality of his films stands out even now, and this quality made the early films very popular with viewers. His first full-length film, Snow White, was released in 1937. He planned to finish it in eighteen months at a cost of $250,000; it took five years and $1.7 million. By the mid-1960s, it had earned $22 million. It also established the excellent reputation of the Disney corporation. Disney's films are timeless because they appeal to everyone from children to adults. Even now the releases of the earliest Disney movies like Snow White and Fantasia (1940) are popular and profitable. Disney's nature films and live-action films also appealed to the family market.

Television, a mass media vehicle, encouraged Disney to extend his message into individual homes.

Walt Disney


The primary reason that Disney went into television was because his brother, Roy, would not allow him to take money from the company to build his theme parks. NBC and CBS did not want the shows because they were too different from their regular fare, but ABC was third in the ratings and was eager for programs that would increase ABC's share of the audience. Disney produced weekly one-hour shows that were incredibly successful, and each promoted Disneyland or a Disney movie. He used this money for the development of his next idea, theme parks.

What did Disney do that was so different from other amusement parks? He created a fantasy land that incorporated Disney characters, nice restaurants, and new and different rides. Just the idea of going to an amusement park for a week was completely different from anything else at the time. Disney World emphasized cleanliness and demanded respectable workers to meet the public. The staff scraped up the gum and hosed down the streets. Another difference is the size of the Disney theme parks. At Great America outside of Chicago, one can go on all of the rides in a day, but the acreage that Walt Disney World occupies is equivalent in size to San Francisco. Disney World contains the Magic Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon (water park), Pleasure Island (nightly entertainment), Epcot, MGM studios, and a nature preserve. Disney envisioned Epcot as an experimental city of the future, but after Disney died, Epcot was developed into a year-round world's fair. The MGM studios in California have been replicated on the grounds of Disney World in Florida. Some shows are now taped in Florida, and some animated films are drawn there. There are so many different rides and shows to see in Disney World that one has to rush just to do everything in a week. Now even more people can go to the unique theme parks because a wildly successful Disney park was built in Japan, and last summer a park opened just outside Paris, France.

The films that Disney made appealed to many people, but he most wanted to make movies for the family market. Two hundred-forty million people have seen a Disney movie, and 800 million people have read a Disney comic book or magazine. Those figures clearly demonstrate his impact. Walt Disney, a Chicago boy who took Hollywood by storm, changed family entertainment. Not only was he the first to make full-length animated films, but he did so with critical acclaim and financial success. Few other films that are thirty to forty years old can still 'play nationwide in movie theaters or sell hundreds of thousands of video copies. The work of Walt Disney continues sixty years later with Beauty and the Beast, which was nominated for an Oscar award last year, and Aladdin, the Disney Studio's latest animated film.

Walt Disney has had an enduring impact on family entertainment and the vacation industry. Disney made changes that began in 1920 when he first used the newest mass media vehicle—moving pictures—for short animated films, and ended with television programs, high-tech, full-length animated films and amusement parks where families can be entertained for a week.—[Richard R. Beard, Walt Disney's Epcot; David I. Borland, "Disney and Freud: Walt Meets the Id," Journal of Popular Culture, 1981; Christopher Finch, Walt Disney's America; Stephen M. Fjellman, Vinyl Leaves Walt Disney World and America; Van Arsdale France, Window on Main Street; Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley, The Disney Studio Story; Margaret King, "Disneyland and Walt Disney World: Traditional Values in Futuristic Form," Journal of Popular CuIture, 1981; Leonard Maltin, The Disney Films; Richard Schickel, The Disney Version; and John Schultz, "The Fabulous Presumption of Disney World: Magic Kingdom in the Wilderness," The Georgia Review, 1988.]


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