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September 22, 2017

The Chronicle of Walt Disney and his famous sidekick Mickey Mouse

Winner of the Fall 2017 StMU History Media Award for

Best Article in the Category of “Cultural History”

Best Use of a Featured Image

Mickey Mouse is a symbol of laughter and joy to many, but to Walt Disney, the character was a symbol of perseverance and hard work. Mickey Mouse is one of the most popular cartoon character known across the globe. He is the face of one of the biggest companies that exist today, The Walt Disney Company. A well-known quote from Walt Disney himself is “If you can dream it, you can do it. Remember that this whole thing started with a dream and a mouse.”1

Walter “Walt” Disney had a dream of what he wanted to accomplish in his life, and he did not let anything or anyone stop him from achieving that goal. Walt Disney was a self-taught cartoonist. When he was sixteen years old, he joined the Red Cross during World War I.2 At first he wanted to join the navy, but was denied due to his young age. Disney joined the Red Cross and was stationed in France to be an ambulance driver, but by the time he arrived in France, the war was coming to an end. When he finally arrived, he worked as a driver serving doughnuts and ice cream to the patients of various hospitals. It was here where he started to develop his artistic skills. He would draw cartoons for the vehicles, cartoons for the posters, and cartoons for Life Magazine. Disney drew when and where he could. Drawing cartoons was a great way for him to enter into a whole new world. He served for about one year before he returned to the States on September 22, 1919.3 Being overseas had really changed Disney’s life forever, and he did cherish those memories in France.

Walt Disney in his uniform as an ambulance driver | 1917 | Courtesy of Pinterest

The next several years of Walt Disney’s life were harsh, but through it all, he developed a true passion for animation. He began working at a commercial art studio as an apprentice. He was laid off from his apprenticeship about a month later. Though he had a setback, Disney claimed: “I was 18 years old when I actually started out on my career.”4 He decided to create his own business with a colleague named Ubbe “Ub” Iwerks. The company’s name was Iwerks–Disney. They needed a space to work, but had little income to put together to get a proper space. The only space that they could afford was in an unused bathroom in the headquarters of the National Restaurant Association in Kansas City. The secretary that worked at the headquarters made a deal with Disney that the company would allow them the office space and an allowance of $10 a week if Walt and Ub would agree do the artwork for Restaurant News, the publication that was linked to the National Restaurant Association. They agreed, and Ub and Walt began working on ideas on top of their “office desks,” which was the toilet and some sinks. Disney and Iwerks were able to get a few extra jobs to save up for a proper office space. It was hard for the two to keep the office space, so Disney and Ub were forced to move on from the business.5 A job soon became available at the Kansas City Film Ad Company, so Disney decided to take the opportunity to work there. Here Disney realized his desire to do animation. He began to develop advertisements for different local movie theaters. Disney borrowed a book on animation from the local library and became fascinated by what he was reading. He became an expert and ended up suggesting improvements to the company that he was working for. Disney’s boss was impressed by his new skills and allowed him to borrow an old camera. Iwerk came to work for the company after Disney recommended him, so the dynamite duo was back together. They were both nineteen years old at the time. Disney created his first film called Laugh-O-gram, which was named after a local theater. While still working his daytime job at the advertisement company, Disney worked on and produced one Laugh-O-Gram film per week. With the money that he was making from his day job, he rented a studio where he bought new equipment for the films, but he ended up going bankrupt. The bankruptcy ended up motivating Disney to pack his bags and, at the age of twenty-one, move to Los Angeles with a dream and $40 in his wallet.6

Walter Elias Disney | 1946 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With a vision, hard work, and time, Walt Disney was starting to get his feet wet in the animation world, but little did he know that something major was about to happen. A New York distributor from Universal Pictures decided to invest in one of Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams. While doing short movies, he started to create a new character that he hoped would be a hit. The character’s name was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This character became popular, and Universal Pictures started to receive major profits from it. One day, Disney was asked to go to a meeting at the company headquarters in New York. In that one meeting Disney lost everything. The sketches, designs, workers, and movies all belonged to Universal, and they wanted to start paying Disney a lower salary than before. Disney knew that he was worth more, so he refused the offer and was fired along with his longtime friend Ub Iwerks. Now at the age of twenty-seven, Disney was again forced to start over.  The heartbroken Disney and Iwerks sat on the train ride back from New York full of pain and hurt. But out of this train ride came the face of the future Disney empire, Mickey Mouse. Both Disney and Iwerks started designing Mickey Mouse on the train ride together, and after several long nights, they finally completed the new character. They used Oswald the Lucky Rabbit as the foundation and added improvements to the character. For example, they made the ears of Mickey more circular and rounder and less like rabbit ears. They wanted Mickey Mouse to be shorter and chubbier like a mouse. At first, they named the character Mortimer, but after a suggestion from Disney’s wife, the character’s name became Mickey Mouse. While the initial design of Mickey Mouse was intimidating, it was not until a new animator, Fred Moore, gave Mickey Mouse a cuter appearance that the signature look most people know as Mickey Mouse came about. He added white gloves, a smaller nose, pupils, and other features. In 1935, Mickey Mouse was designed with color and the company began to use Technicolor for the Mickey Mouse movies.7 This was very advanced for the time, and many critics claimed that it was beautifully constructed. Mickey Mouse became an instant hit. With Disney being the voice of the character, audiences grew to love the cute mouse and his wild adventures.

An ad showing the new Mickey Mouse | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

With the major success of Mickey Mouse, the Disney empire began to grow. Disney started to produce movies, as many as twelve per year. One of Disney’s first major hits was his first feature film of 1937, Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs. It took four years of production and it cost a little over $2 million. But that was money well spent, because it brought in about $7 million.8 The combination of this and other blockbusters led to Disney having enough money to open a theme park called Disneyland. In 1955, Disneyland was opened in Anaheim, California, and was one of Disney’s last visions for the company. Throughout the theme park, the signature ears of Mickey Mouse could be found, which also became an iconic headband sold throughout the world. In addition to the theme park, Disney started the Mickey Mouse Club, which was a television variety show, starting in 1955, starring a number of young Mousekateers, including the future movie star Annette Funicello. In addition to the Mickey Mouse Club, Disney began airing The Wonderful World of Disney, which ran for decades on ABC. Disney was fifty-four years old at that time. A few years later, Disney had a new idea to create an even better and larger theme park in Florida. Unfortunately, Walt Disney died at the age of sixty-five before he could see the final product of his Disneyworld. He died of lung cancer, probably due to the amount of smoking he had done since he was a teen. His brother was the one who continued Disney’s plans, and the new theme park was opened in 1971. The park was named Walt Disney World after the late Walt Disney.9

The story of the creation of Mickey Mouse is a story that everyone can learn from. Disney worked many years to reach his dreams, and he did not let anything or anyone stop him. Through all the up and downs, Disney knew that he was onto something great and pushed for that greatness to come true. That is why Mickey Mouse is not only a symbol of laughter but also a symbol of endurance.

  1. Walt Disney Company Quotable Quotes, Good Reads.
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica, February 2017, s.v. “The Walt Disney Company.”
  3. Nicholas Lemesh, “From the Archives- Walt Disney, World War 1 Driver,” American Red Cross (September 2015): 1.
  4. Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 3.
  5. Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 8-11.
  6. Timothy S. Susanin, Walt before Mickey Disney’s Early Years, 1919-1928 (Mississippi: The Association of American University Presses, 2011), 79.
  7. Clarie Suddath, “Mickey Mouse,” Time (November 2008): 1.
  8. Neal Gabler, “Walt Disney, a Visionary Who Was Crazy Like A Mouse,” The New York Times, (September 2015): 1.
  9. “Walt Disney,”, (August 2017).

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Christine Sackey

Author Portfolio Page

Recent Comments


  • Lyle Ballesteros

    A really good article about Walt Disney and how he started the company Disney that is one of the biggest in the world today and will be known throughout our history. I never knew about his backstory at all so this was very enlightening for me, and I learned a lot from reading this article. I never knew for example that he served in the military and was deployed into France for a brief moment of time which definitely shaped his view and career moving forward.

  • Guiliana Devora

    I believe the story of Walt Disney will forever be inspirational and the author did an amazing job of telling his story. It is insane to me to think that Mickey Mouse was designed on a train ride right after Walt Disney literally got fired from his job. Honestly though that just goes to show that no matter what you go through in life there will always be a way out of it, and if something happens it is not the end of the world. After Walt Disney got fired he literally went on to become one of the most successful men in the world.

  • Iris Reyna

    Congrats Christine on winning the Fall 2017 award for Best Article in Cultural History and best image in your categories. Your article was very impressive and well-written. I’ve always believed in the saying that things happen for a reason. That’s exactly what Walt Disney experienced. It’s sad that he lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to Universal Pictures but if he did not experience this set back we would not have the famous Mickey Mouse or the theme parks that Walt and Roy Disney created and finished. It was truly an amazing article that showed what setbacks in life can give you if you just open the next door and never give up.

  • Alexandra Ballard

    Congratulations on your award! I didn’t know Walt Disney served in World War 1, if I’m being honest, I didn’t piece together he was even that old! Watching Snow White now, I think it’s a cool movie, but to have a 250% profit margin is excellent! Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the quality of something without having a thorough idea of the time it was created.

  • Jacob Anthony Ayala

    I really enjoyed the tone and the writing of this article. I’ve always liked reading articles about Disney and how these characters got their start. Reading this article was eye-opening I had no clue that Mickey was not the original sidekick. But I really liked the ending of the article. Mickey is not just a funny character but he represented Walt’s work ethic and grit.

  • Rosalyn Ledesma

    Wonderful article! I had known that Mickey Mouse wasn’t Walt Disney’s first cartoon but I never knew that he had been a creation after Disney lost Oswald. I wonder if Disney had been grateful that he lost Oswald, because had he not, Mickey and the empire that has become of Disney would have never existed. Which makes me wonder if Disney would be proud of the power and influence his dream has become even after his passing.

  • Victoria Castillo

    Great article and congratulations on your award Christine! Growing up watching most of Walt Disney’s creations it was really interesting to learn just how the man started off his career. To learn about the struggles he had to go through just to get to a certain point in his life where he was able to make a true breakthrough for himself with Mickey Mouse was just amazing. I never once knew that he had a friend like Ubbe Iwerks for most of his journey. I wonder where he went after the creation of Mickey Mouse.

  • Hunter Stiles

    First of all, Congratulations on not only the publication of an article but the publication of an award winning article! Huge congrats! It was a pleasure to read this article! My love and admiration for Walt Disney began when I was a young adolescent. I always wanted to be as inspiring and wonderful as the Walt Disney Company considered him to be. I love that he came up with the idea of parks that create a sense of imagination and curiosity for everyone who visits them! My knowledge of Walt’s life has improved significantly as a result of the article’s writing style and usage of graphics.
    What a great read!

  • Danielle Rangel

    This is a great article that depicts Walt Disney’s life and his creation of his lovable characters! I think it is interesting how Walt Disney was able to take his bad experiences and create something as amazing and influential as his cartoons. It is definitely inspiring to see how his dream turned into a huge franchise that revolutionized cartoons today. Overall it is amazing to see how he started out and how he fought for his dreams!

  • Maria Luevano

    Congratulations on your award for Best Article in the Category of “Cultural History” and Best Use of a Featured Image! The article is very well deserving of these awards. Disney movies and shows were a big part of my life during my childhood and bring so many memories watching them now. It was super interesting to learn about the man who started it all. I had no idea about his life hardships, but I am glad I read this article and learn more about Walt Disney and his life.

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