The Man Who Made Walt Disney’s Dreams Come True
On this day in 1893, Walt Disney’s older brother, Roy Oliver Disney, was born in Chicago, Illinois. For more than four decades, the brothers worked side-by-side to create an entertainment empire. While Walt was the dreamer and face of the company, it was Roy who developed the business and financing plans that enabled those dreams to become a reality. There would not be a Walt Disney Company without Roy.
Roy was the first member of the Disney family to settle in southern California. After serving two years in the Navy during World War I, Roy was diagnosed with tuberculosis. After brief stints at military hospitals in Santa Fe, New Mexico, then Tucson, Arizona, Roy headed to southern California. In the summer of 1923, Walt joined up with Roy in the area. Later that year Roy urged Walt to get back in the cartoon business despite some previous setbacks he encountered while living in Kansas City.
To finance their new venture, Roy took $200 from the disability pensions he’d been receiving from the military along with funding from other family members, including their uncle Robert Disney and money from a mortgage the brothers’ parents took out on their home. As Roy said later “In our family we all helped each other out.” Roy’s interest in helping Walt weren’t entirely selfless, he was eager to marry his longtime girlfriend, Edna, and would have a hard time finding employment due to the stigma associated with his tuberculosis diagnosis.
When the Disney brothers acquired and moved into what would become the Hyperion studio, the company became known as the Walt Disney Studio. Asked about the name by Disney Archivist Dave Smith many years later, Roy noted “It was my idea. Walt was the creative member of the team. His name deserved to be on the pictures.”
After ten years of making cartoon shorts, Walt was interested in making a feature-length animated film – something that had never been done before at the time. Roy, and others, questioned the viability of Walt’s idea, particularly the high cost that would need to be born before any revenue was realized. Reservations aside, Roy began to approach banks about financing the feature film. Before long, Roy secured the resources that would allow Walt and the studio to make Snow White and Seven Dwarfs. As costs grew, Roy would need to perform the delicate task of reassuring the bank that production was going well, while simultaneously asking for more money. Roy wrote to his parents around this time and while expressing confidence in Walt, he also acknowledged “Anyways, that is life, you just have to keep on working and gambling. It is all a gamble.” Thankfully for the Disney brothers, Snow White was a gamble that paid off.
Years later, Walt would be eager to take another, bigger gamble. Roy had a saying for the semi-regular occurrences where Walt pursued a potentially costly endeavor without consulting him about the funding: “Junior’s got his hand in the cookie jar again.” When Walt increasingly discussed his ideas for building an amusement park in the early 1950s, Roy was less than enthusiastic. The company was just starting to regain its footing after the World War II slowdown and still in significant debt to Bank of America. Over time, Roy recognized Walt’s desire to build a park wasn’t waning and he warmed to the concept as he learned more about what his brother envisioned.
Roy believed Walt’s initial plans to build an amusement park on land adjacent to the Disney Studios in Burbank was too limited in scale. The challenge was obvious – how to pay for the full vision of Walt’s idea for Disneyland. Walt proposed an innovative solution. He believed they could strike an agreement with a television company to air Disney cartoons and new, original programming. In addition, the arrangement could include promotional content related to Disneyland. Roy’s task was to sell the proposal and get one of the networks to buy off. At the time, it was unheard of for movie studios and television networks to work together. Roy had his work cut out for him.
After the infamous “lost weekend” in September of 1953 where Walt and Disney artist Herb Ryman drew up a Disneyland concept map and other artwork to accompany a written prospectus explaining the project, Roy was armed and ready to travel to New York to make the pitch. The first meeting was with CBS, who declined. Next, NBC took a pass. ABC, who was trailing in the television ratings at the time, was Roy’s last hope so he called up executive Leonard Goldenson. Desperate for new content that could change his network’s fortunes, Goldenson was eager to form an alliance with Disney. Roy struck a deal whereby Disney created a weekly television program for ABC and, in exchange, ABC would guarantee the bank loans (originally estimated to be $4.5 million) necessary to build Disneyland. According to Goldenson, Roy “bargained for the last cent.”
With the ABC deal in place, Roy moved to establish an ownership arrangement for Disneyland. Accordingly, ABC would possess a 34.5 stake, as would Walt Disney Productions. Walt provided $250,000 in personal money to receive a 17.25 ownership stake, while Western Printing and Lithographing, which printed Disney books, put forward $200,000 for a 13.8 percent stake.
After the ABC deal was in place, Roy was intimately involved with Disneyland’s planning. He urged Walt to get help in selecting the optimal location and an analysis was completed by the Stanford Research Institute. Based on their recommendations, the city of Anaheim was selected and the brothers worked to acquire the necessary land. As construction began, costs continued to rise. Roy found himself frequently asking to increase the loan limits, while doing his best to keep costs down. Cost estimates rose from $4.5 million in July of 1954 to $7 million in September and then $11 million in November. Roy worked to raise funds by leasing stores and restaurants inside the park, and using various Disney Studios assets as collateral for more financing. As Disney biographer Bob Thomas aptly put it “neither ABC, nor Roy, nor a force of nature could deter Walt from fulfilling his vision of the park, no matter what the cost.” In the end, the construction of Disneyland cost approximately $17 million.
On more than one occasion during the building of Disneyland, Roy explained to Walt or Joe Fowler, who oversaw the park’s construction, that the funds just weren’t there for this component or that. However, in nearly every instance Roy found a way to pay for it.
In Bob Thomas’ biography of Roy, he describes Roy’s experience on Disneyland’s opening day in 1955. He and Edna has encountered significant traffic on their drive to Anaheim from Los Angeles, which Roy naturally assumed was a positive sign. After arriving in their reserved parking spot, the couple sat – drinking coffee from a thermos and eating cake packed by Edna – and watched excited children and families headed towards the park entrance. At one point a Disney employee ran up to Roy and nervously exclaimed “Mr. Disney, I’m glad I found you. A lot of these people have been stuck in traffic for hours, and the kids need to go to the bathroom. Now they’re peeing all over the lot.” Roy replied with a smile: “God bless ‘em. Let ‘em pee.” Nothing was going to dampen that day for the Disney brothers.
Years later Roy would work closely with Walt on the development of Walt Disney World in Orlando. After Walt tragically died during the construction, Roy would lead the planning, design and construction of the Magic Kingdom park. According to Disney Legend Marty Sklar: “The person who made that happen was Roy, who insisted on the name change to Walt Disney World.”
Walt didn’t share much publicly about his relationship with Roy. In one rare account from a Big Brothers of America charity event in 1957, Walt said:
“I was fortunate. I had a big brother. And he’s still with me. And I still love him. I argue with him. Sometimes I think he’s the stubbornest so-and-so I ever met in my life. But I don’t know what the hell I’d do without him him.”
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