Walt Disney's Childhood

Walt Disney as a child
The State Historical Society of Missouri

Elias and Flora Disney
Elias and Flora Disney
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago on December 5, 1901, the year in which the occupancy of the White House passed to ‘that damned cowboy’ the exuberant, ebullient Teddy Roosevelt.[1] On the surface, his early years presented little that was particularly noteworthy. The events of his youth were fairly typical for a midwestern boy in the 1900s, and seemingly they could have happened to anyone.[2] Named in honor of his father and the local Congregational minister who baptized him, Walt was the fourth son of Elias and Flora [Call] Disney.[3] He had three older brothers — Herbert (born December 8, 1893), Raymond (born December 30, 1890), and Roy (born June 24, 1893) — and a younger sister, Ruth (born December 6, 1903).[4] But as so often is the case, Disney seems to have learned his behavior from his father.[5]

Disney’s father was an itinerant ne’er-do-well.[6] The impassively stern and excessively frugal Elias purchased a farm in Marceline, [Missouri],…[in] 1906,…when Walt was five years old.[7] [Elias’] brother, Robert, owned several hundred acres near Marceline, and several other relatives lived nearby.[8] Within a few months the two older brothers, Herbert and Raymond, ran off back to Chicago and by all accounts never were brought back into Walt’s life or any of his business ventures. Meanwhile, the young Walt was enchanted by the farm, especially its animals, both wild and domesticated, by the local railroad, and by the town of Marceline.[9]

It has been assumed that Disney embraced the animals around the farm because of lack of companionship in his family. The forbidding Elias was an active advocate of corporal punishment who never allowed his sons an allowance or any type of plaything.[i] Roy was much older and too busy working on the farm, while mother Flora, exhausted by chores and broken in spirit by her despotic husband,[ii] had no time for her young son [See especially Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1968), pp. 48-54; and Leonard Mosley, Disney’s World (New York: Stein & Day, 1985), pp. 27-32]. Walt never learned to play the games of a boy; instead he anthropomorphized pigs…and other creatures into his personal friends. His best “friend” was probably Porker, the sow he would jump astride and ride.[10] Walt later said:

I guess I really loved that pig. . . . She had an acute sense of fun and mischief. . . . Do you remember the Foolish Pig in Three Little Pigs? Porker was the model for him [Leonard Mosley, Disney’s World (Lanham, MD: Scarborough House, 1990), p. 30].[11]

Although Walt would later romanticize this period,…the times were actually brutally hard for the family.… Because of his endless chores, Disney may have viewed the raw, natural earth as a challenge that drove him to tame, transform, and order the land to create something productive and useful.

In the summer of 1910, with Walt on the threshold of his impressionable teens, the family moved to Kansas City. Psychologically immured within his successive failures, father Elias became even more tyrannical, resulting in his two sons contributing most of the work toward running his extensive newspaper route. Though Roy and Walt were dragged out of their beds at 3:30 in the morning all year round to deliver newspapers, they received no wages or allowances.[12] [Walt] finally began ordering papers for himself, without his father’s knowledge, in order to retain such small earnings as he could make. He also got a job in a candy store during the noon recess from school — and apparently kept it, too, secret from his father.[13]

Roy Disney recalled a story that his father once told him about his boyhood love for fiddle-playing. Because Elias’s parents didn’t approve, he had gone off into the woods and practiced and then sneaked into the local dance hall to play with other local musicians. At some point his parents got wind of this, however, and went to the dance hall themselves. “They found their son playing the fiddle, and Grandma went up and grabbed it away from him and busted it to hell over his head, took him by the ear, and marched him home,” Roy related. “The devil was in the fiddle, was their notion. Dancing was just evil.” However mortified Elias must have been by this incident, he nonetheless carried many of the same attitudes into his own adulthood [Roy Disney, interview by Richard Hubler, 17 Nov 1967, 2. See Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original (New York, 1976), p. 32; and Walt Disney, interview by Peter Martin and Diane Disney Miller (1956) for the facts of Elias Disney’s life].[14]

Walt Disney’s adolescent years were ruled by a repressive, increasingly cruel father who was incapable of love and affection.[15] He thought nothing of taking a switch to his boys to administer the “corrective” beatings that became a part of their daily routine. At the slightest provocation, Elias Disney would march them to the woodshed and dispense his brutal punishments.[16] Elias’s rigid self-righteousness, extreme conservatism, and suppression of emotion was mirrored in the strict moral climate of Kansas City during the years the Disneys lived there, 1910-17.… Recreation Superintendent Fred McClure and Board of Public Welfare investigator Fred R. Johnson diligently regulated all types of amusement to dispel any transgressions from a puritanical, sexually repressive policy of social control.[17]

In the fluid world of the early twentieth century, where social institutions and moral values were in a state of transition, however, Elias’s worldview was becoming increasingly antiquated. It even encouraged certain self-destructive tendencies. Walt came to believe that his father was deceived in his various business ventures, for instance, because “he thought everyone was as honest as he was.” Elias’s hidebound moralism led him to refuse to use fertilizer on his crops, since “putting fertilizer on plants was like putting whiskey in a man — he felt better for a little while, but then he was worse than before.” Such attitudes produced a kind of naiveté about the world, a characteristic that stayed with Elias until late in life [Don Taylor, interview by David R. Smith, 6 Aug 1971, 2].

Disney broken wand

Not surprisingly, Elias’s severe attitudes gave rise to a child-rearing philosophy of “spare the rod and spoil the child.”[18]

What the law regards as child abuse, some parents consider discipline.[19] Their dictum, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” may start out with good intentions; but often, that philosophy gets out of hand, and they spank to an extreme. Children who have been treated harshly cannot help being affected by the hostile actions of their parents, and when they grow up and have their own children, they find it difficult to be tolerant; so they respond by being aggressive. Studies by Dr. Shervert Frazier, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, found some years ago that repeated brutalization as a small child by parents or parent substitutes turned up in the backgrounds of some people who later killed a relative or family member.[iii] Dr. Frazier also found out several other things. One was that the murderers experienced long periods of loneliness during childhood. Another was that they lacked the ability to play games. Moreover, the murderers had low feelings of their worth and experienced a good deal of humiliation as children.

Other factors besides being abused as a child play a part, too. One is poor marital adjustment. According to social-work specialists at the University of Texas at Austin, child abusers tend to be young parents with marital problems who are psychologically immature [News release, University of Texas at Austin, 3 March 1980].… Alcohol or drug abuse is another consideration [Ibid.].[20]

Verbal abuse, rejection, or neglect can be just as devastating to a child as a blow. Dr. El Newberger, director of the Family Development Clinic at the Children’s Hospital Medical Center in Boston,[21]…[stated]: “Parents should never resort to physical force.[iv] There are positive, loving ways to teach acceptable behavior. Sparing the rod does not mean spoiling the child. We as a society can help prevent child abuse by rejecting violence as a method for resolving human conflict. We have everything to gain by raising the next generation in peace” [News release, Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Boston, 20 April 1983].[22]

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He ran his household with an iron fist and did not shrink from imposing his authority by physical punishment. Old-fashioned to the core, he disciplined all his children, particularly his youngest son.[23] As a cousin said, “Elias was very strict with Walt, and he administered frequent beatings” [Martin/Miller interview, Reel 5, 41; and Alice Disney Allen, interview by David R. Smith, 5 Oct 1972, notes].

Walt’s encounter with his father’s rigid moral and political principles triggered a highly ambivalent response. Full of love and resentment in equal proportions, eager both to please and to escape Elias, the sensitive boy developed a deep-seated tension over paternal authority. In almost a literal sense, it haunted him. In his recurring nightmare of forgetting to deliver some of the newspapers on his Kansas City route, his dad would “be waiting up at that corner” to punish him for laxness. Ward Kimball, a Disney Studio animator and close friend, felt that his boss never got over his father’s strictness, which in Kimball’s view negatively “influenced Walt’s relation to other people.” Yet Diane Miller recalled that her father talked of Elias “constantly” and often with great affection. He “loved his dad. He thought he was tough . . . But he loved that old man” [Diane Disney Miller, interview by Richard Hubler, 11 June 1968, Reel 11, 22; and Ward Kimball, interview by Richard Hubler, 4 June 1968, 5].[24][v]

This complex confrontation with Elias and his world surfaced again and again in Walt’s psyche. Throughout his life he was eager to discuss his father. On the one hand, his comments were filled with affection and admiration for the old man’s virtues — the commitment to his family’s welfare, the gritty work ethic, the respect for education and good citizenship. On the other hand, however, resentment of the elder Disney’s authoritarianism would bubble out with little prompting. Walt often told how Elias tried to force him to learn the fiddle so he would always be able to earn some money as a musician. The boy had no talent for it; he had trouble with holding his right arm in the correct position for bowing. But his father insisted, and “he used to slap the hell out of me to get that elbow down.” When Walt helped with the carpentry as the family added space to their house, Elias frequently exploded. Walt recalled this episode some forty years later: “My dad was an impatient person. But he knew what he wanted to do and expected you to know just what he wanted to do . . . [and if I faltered] he’d get mad, you see. And he’d start after me. And my dad was the kind of guy who’d pick up anything near him . . . He’d pick up a saw and try to hit you with the broad side of the saw. He’d pick up a hammer, you know, and hit you with the handle.” The boy finally had enough of such treatment and walked off the construction job in anger [Martin/Miller interview, Reel 3, 61-62, 57].

Elias’s physical intimidation seems to have left deep scars on his son’s emotional makeup.[25] Walt Disney… was a bundle of contradictions.[26] His personality is an enigma to anyone forced to rely on reminiscences and published accounts. At times, Walt almost seems to have been a human Rorschach test: everyone who worked with him saw something different in him.[27] The personal Disney will always be difficult to define (he was ‘a very complicated man’, in his collaborators unanimous opinion). Some accused him of being a harsh speculator, or just a manager unable to draw. With his employees, he was often impenetrable, distant and brusque, and considered those who left or who opposed his will to be traitors.[28]

Like any farm boy, he had learned about sex at an early age.[29] Disney openly admitted that during his adolescent years girls were of no interest; in fact they were simply a “nuisance.” He is reported to have commented, “I was normal, but girls bored me. They still do. Their interests are just different” [“Father Goose,” Time, 27 Dec 1954, 64, p. 44]. This attitude may well have been formed by the nearly total lack of affection in his family. Only with his brother Roy is there any evidence of companionship and attachment.[30]

Roy Disney, eight years his senior, was his confidant and mentor.[31] Often Walt would fall asleep huddled close to his older brother, wondering aloud if the man who beat them could really be their father and why their mother never stepped in to stop the abuse.[32] “When we were kids,” Disney told one of his associates many years later, “Roy and I slept in the same bed. I used to wet the bed and I’ve been pissing up Roy’s leg ever since.”[33]

Other times, during the day, to see if [Walt] bore any resemblance to his mother, he would sneak into her bedroom, put on her clothes and make up his face and then stand in front of the mirror.[34] There was no time for frivolous attention to girls.[35]

Walt experienced genuine disillusionment during his Red Cross duty. When they disembarked in France, the contingent of young ambulance drivers was indoctrinated about the danger of picking up venereal disease. “Those horrible slides” made a strong impact on Disney, and prompted him to say even forty years later, “That’s when you begin to hate women” [Martin/Miller interview, Reel 4, 11, Reel 5, 31].[36]

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[i] [Often] parents were less interested in looking after children than in getting cheap labor to help them with their vast tracts of land. In some cases children were exploited as badly in houses on the prairie as in the mills of the industrial East.
— Evelyn Toynton, Growing Up in America: 1830-1860 (Connecticut: Millbrook Press, 1995), p. 45.

[ii] Mothers may be unable to protect children because they themselves are abused and intimidated by tyrannical and domineering men.
— David Finkelhor, Sexual Interactions (Free Press, 1988), p. 59.

[iii] Children will rise against parents and have them put to death.
— Matthew 10.21-22 & Mark 13.12-13, The Bible

[iv] Violence in America has hit children hard: In 1995, a child died of neglect or abuse every seven hours.[*]
— Marian Wright Edelman (Children’s Defense Fund), in Michael Ryan, "How to stand for children," The Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 9 Feb 1997, Parade Magazine, p. 8.

[*] According to the 1995 Report of The United States Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect, at least 2,000 children each year, more than five per day, die at the hands of parents or caretakers. And of those who do not die from abuse and neglect each year, 18,000 children are left permanently disabled and 142,000 are seriously injured.
— Jan Collins Stucker and Jan L. Warner, "Child-abuse statistics are astounding," Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, 28 Aug 1995.

[v] Why can a period of our life be felt as very sad, and yet be sweet and beautiful in remembrance?
— Frederik van Eeden, “A Study of Dreams,” in Proceedings from Social Psychology Research, 1913, 26, in Charles T. Tart, ed., Altered States of Consciousness, 3rd ed. (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1969, 1972, 1990), p. 181.

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Article References

[1] Adrian Bailey, Walt Disney’s World of Fantasy (New York: Everest House, 1982), p. 16.

[2] Steven Watts, The Magic Kingdom: Walt Disney and the American Way of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1997), p. 11.

[3] Judith A. Adams, The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills (Boston: Twayne Publ., 1991), p. 88.

[4] Kathy Merlock Jackson, Walt Disney: A Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993), p. 1.

[5] Perucci Ferraiuolo, Disney and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Magic Kingdom (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 1996), p. 15.

[6] Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, Revised ed. (New York: Plume, 1980, 1987), p. 30.

[7] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 88.

[8] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 7.

[9] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 88.

[10] Ibidem, pp. 88-89.

[11] Michael D. Cole, People to Know: Walt Disney: Creator of Mickey Mouse (Springfield, NJ: Enslow Publ., Inc., 1996), p. 14.

[12] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 89.

[13] Richard Schickel, The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, 3rd ed. (Chicago: Elephant Paperbacks, 1968, 1985, 1997), p. 56.

[14] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 17.

[15] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 89.

[16] Marc Eliot, "The dark side of Uncle Walt: Walt Disney," Los Angeles Magazine, May 1993, 38(5), p. 48(8); based on Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince.

[17] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 89.

[18] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 19.

[19] John Barry, "Some parents may not recognize child abuse; Here are some examples," Knight-Ridder/Tribune News Service, 11 July 1995.

[20] John Langone, Violence! Our Fastest-Growing Public Health Problem (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1984), pp. 138-139.

[21] Ibidem, p. 141.

[22] Ibidem, p. 142.

[23] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 19.

[24] Ibidem, pp. 19-20

[25] Ibidem, p. 20.

[26] Ibidem, p. 272.

[27] Charles Solomon, Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation, Revised ed. (New York: Wings Books, 1989, 1994), p. 56.

[28] Giannalberto Bendzai, Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), p. 69.

[29] Bob Thomas, Walt Disney: An American Original (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1976), p. 230.

[30] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, pp. 89-90.

[31] Schickel, Disney Version, p. 56.

[32] Eliot, "Uncle Walt," p. 48(8).

[33] Schickel, Disney Version, pp. 56-57.

[34] Eliot, "Uncle Walt," p. 48(8).

[35] Adams, Amusement Park Industry, p. 90.

[36] Watts, Magic Kingdom, p. 15.

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