Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901, at 1249 Tripp Avenue, in Chicago's Hermosa neighborhood.
In mid-1918, Disney attempted to join the United States Army to fight against the Germans, but he was rejected for being too young. After forging the date of birth on his birth certificate, he joined the Red Cross in September 1918 as an ambulance driver. He was shipped to France but arrived in November, after the armistice.
Disney returned to Kansas City in October 1919, where he worked as an apprentice artist at the Pesmen-Rubin Commercial Art Studio. There, he drew commercial illustrations for advertising, theater programs and catalogs. He also befriended fellow artist Ub Iwerks.
In January 1920, as Pesmen-Rubin's revenue declined after Christmas, Disney and Iwerks were laid off. They started their own business, the short-lived Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists. Failing to attract many customers, Disney and Iwerks agreed that Disney should leave temporarily to earn money at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, run by A. V. Cauger; the following month Iwerks, who was not able to run their business alone, also joined.
In May 1921, the success of the "Laugh-O-Grams" led to the establishment of Laugh-O-Gram Studio, for which he hired more animators, including Fred Harman's brother Hugh, Rudolf Ising and Iwerks. The Laugh-O-Grams cartoons did not provide enough income to keep the company solvent, so Disney started production of Alice's Wonderland—based on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland—which combined live-action with animation; he cast Virginia Davis in the title role. The result, a 12-and-a-half-minute, one-reel film, was completed too late to save Laugh-O-Gram Studio, which went into bankruptcy in 1923.
Disney moved to Hollywood in July 1923. Although New York was the center of the cartoon industry, he was attracted to Los Angeles because his brother Roy was convalescing from tuberculosis there, and he hoped to become a live-action film director.
Disney and his brother Roy formed the Disney Brothers Studio—which later became The Walt Disney Company—to produce the films; they persuaded Davis and her family to relocate to Hollywood to continue production, with Davis on contract at $100 a month.In July 1924, Disney also hired Iwerks, persuading him to relocate to Hollywood from Kansas City.
Disney married Lillian Bounds in July 1925, at her brother's house in her hometown of Lewiston, Idaho. The marriage was generally happy, according to Lillian, although according to Disney's biographer Neal Gabler she did not "accept Walt's decisions meekly or his status unquestionably, and she admitted that he was always telling people 'how henpecked he is'." Lillian had little interest in films or the Hollywood social scene and she was, in the words of the historian Steven Watts, "content with household management and providing support for her husband".
Mickey Mouse first appeared in May 1928 as a single test screening of the short Plane Crazy, but it, and the second feature, The Gallopin' Gaucho, failed to find a distributor. Following the 1927 sensation The Jazz Singer, Disney used synchronized sound on the third short, Steamboat Willie, to create the first post-produced sound cartoon. After the animation was complete, Disney signed a contract with the former executive of Universal Pictures, Pat Powers, to use the "Powers Cinephone" recording system; Cinephone became the new distributor for Disney's early sound cartoons, which soon became popular.
Disney, always keen to embrace new technology, filmed Flowers and Trees (1932) in full-color three-strip Technicolor; he was also able to negotiate a deal giving him the sole right to use the three-strip process until August 31, 1935. All subsequent Silly Symphony cartoons were in color. Flowers and Trees was popular with audiences and won the Academy Award for best Short Subject (Cartoon) at the 1932 ceremony.
By 1934, Disney had become dissatisfied with producing formulaic cartoon shorts, and believed a feature-length cartoon would be more profitable. The studio began the four-year production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the fairy tale. Snow White premiered in December 1937 to high praise from critics and audiences. The film became the most successful motion picture of 1938 and by May 1939 its total gross of $6.5 million made it the most successful sound film made to that date. Disney won another Honorary Academy Award, which consisted of one full-sized and seven miniature Oscar statuettes. The success of Snow White heralded one of the most productive eras for the studio; the Walt Disney Family Museum calls the following years "the 'Golden Age of Animation' ".
In early 1950, Disney produced Cinderella, his studio's first animated feature in eight years. It was popular with critics and theater audiences. Costing $2.2 million to produce, it earned nearly $8 million in its first year.
For several years Disney had been considering building a theme park. When he visited Griffith Park in Los Angeles with his daughters, he wanted to be in a clean, unspoiled park, where both children and their parents could have fun. He visited the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, and was heavily influenced by the cleanliness and layout of the park.= In March 1952 he received zoning permission to build a theme park in Burbank, near the Disney studios. This site proved too small, and a larger plot in Anaheim, 35 miles (56 km) south of the studio, was purchased. To distance the project from the studio—which might attract the criticism of shareholders—Disney formed WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering) and used his own money to fund a group of designers and animators to work on the plans.Construction work started in July 1954, and Disneyland opened in July 1955; the opening ceremony was broadcast on ABC, which reached 70 million viewers. Although there were early minor problems with the park, it was a success, and after a month's operation, Disneyland was receiving over 20,000 visitors a day; by the end of its first year, it attracted 3.6 million guests.
Disney had been a heavy smoker since World War I. He did not use cigarettes with filters and had smoked a pipe as a young man. In November 1966, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was treated with cobalt therapy. On November 30 he felt unwell and was taken to St. Joseph Hospital where, on December 15, ten days after his 65th birthday, he died of circulatory collapse caused by lung cancer.