Walt Disney made the magic, but it was his brother Roy who did the rest—from finding money for Walt's latest wild dream, to balancing the books, it was Roy who kept the Disney ship afloat. His story is seldom told, but without it, there would be no Disney story to tell.
In this extensively researched biography of Roy O. Disney, the first since Bob Thomas' acclaimed Building a Company, Scott Madden traces the influence of Walt's big brother on the company they founded together.
From Roy's early years spent "looking out" for Walt, to his decision to build Walt Disney World after his brother's death, the life of the "forgotten" Disney is presented in rich detail.
You don't know the story of Disney until you know the story of Roy O. Disney.
Part 1: Young Roy
Part 2: The Collaboration
Part 3: Life After Walt
October 25, 1971
The center of Town Square was clear, save for a small gathering of people standing at a podium positioned just in front of the flag pole. The melodious notes of a 1500-voice choir singing “When You Wish Upon a Star” reverberated off the façades and arcades encircling the square. There was City Hall, the Town Square Café, the fire engine and horse-drawn carriages, all interspersed with a handful of shops and business fronts one might have seen in a quiet, turn-of-the-twentieth-century town. Guests had entered through arched vestibules beneath the elevated train station opposite the podium, and they now filled the sidewalks surrounding the central area, keeping respectfully off the paved roadway lined with street-car tracks. Behind the podium, Main Street led off to the central hub, the sidewalks packed with guests who had been privy to a spectacular performance by a 1,076 piece marching band directed by composer Meredith Wilson. At the end of the street, dominating the central hub, was Cinderella Castle. Like Mickey before it, the fantastic fairy-tale structure would come to symbolize the magic of Walt Disney to generations of kids.
The crowd was a sight that visitors and employees of Walt Disney World would grow accustomed to very quickly. Attendance had been less than spectacular since the official opening on October 1, 1971, an alarming trend considering the project had cost $400 million to complete. However, by month’s end more than 400,000 visitors would pass through the gates of the Magic Kingdom—over ten million in its first year—paving the way for Walt Disney World to expand with three more theme parks, an eventual twenty-eight resorts, two water parks, five golf courses, and a thriving downtown district over the next several decades. This day was the final leg of a three-day grand opening, and the man responsible for overseeing the transformation of 2500 acres of untenable swampland into a theme park with its accompanying resorts, man-made lagoon, and twin-rail monorail system was about to have his say. The castle provided a fitting backdrop.
Roy Oliver Disney stood at the podium wearing a white shirt with a blue-gray suit. He was a little shorter, and by the age of 78 somewhat rounder than Walt had been, and most of the hair he still possessed was above and behind the ears that propped up his black, horn-rimmed glasses. One of his employees once remarked that “he looked like a country guy that somehow got into town and did ok.” His eyes still radiated that Disney twinkle, the hallmark of a proud man who enjoyed his work, his life, and the people with whom he shared it. The weight of a world had burdened his aging shoulders for the previous five years, yet there was no evidence of the struggle now. He stood tall, studying the words he was about to read. This was a position he had purposely and successfully avoided since he and Walt had started their animation studio nearly fifty years before, happy to watch his younger brother accept all the honors and give the obligatory speeches that came with them. But he had little choice on this occasion.
To his left was a costumed Mickey Mouse, whom Roy had insisted stand beside him in the absence of Walt. The mouse stood respectfully, dignified, one wrist crossed over the other in front of him—a far cry from the mischievous scamp that, once upon a time, had launched the international popularity of the Walt Disney Studios. Behind Roy to his right was his wife, Edna. Behind him to his left was Walt’s widow, Lillian. They knew how difficult the last year had been for Roy.
Much like what happened with Disneyland in 1955, the months leading up to the opening of Walt Disney World were chaotic and stressful. A handful of strikes by unions stalled construction. The two resorts intended to open along with the park, the Contemporary Hotel and the Polynesian Village Resort, were being rushed to completion to meet the opening weekend deadline. The logistics of hiring 5500 employees, costuming them, training them, and finding some of them places to live was a monumental task all its own. When all was said and done, it took more than 9000 workers over two years to complete the project. Though it was his top priority, building Walt Disney World was not Roy’s only responsibility. He was still serving as CEO of Walt Disney Productions and as chairman of the board, overseeing day to day business as well as other sizeable projects set in motion by Walt before his death.
The Florida climate was harsher than the more temperate California weather he had grown accustomed to over the years. The constant heat, humidity, and proliferation of insects were a great discomfort to a man nearing eighty. Edna, three-and-a-half years older, accompanied him on every trip, and subjecting his wife to this uncomfortable climate—not to mention the headaches of frequent travel—could not have weighed lightly on Roy’s conscience.
In his personal life, Roy was experiencing more difficulties. Those close to him would say that when Walt passed away, a piece of Roy died, too. Earlier in 1971, on July 7, Ub Iwerks had passed away. Walt’s first business partner and one of the creators of Mickey Mouse, Roy and Ub had known each other for fifty years. For all but ten of those, when Ub left in the 1930s to run his own studio, the two men had worked together. They remained on friendly terms into old age, socializing often, and his death was not easy for Roy. Edward Milbourn Francis, or “Mitch,” Roy’s best friend of sixty years, succumbed to pancreatic cancer on October 2, 1971, just a day after the Magic Kingdom officially opened to the public. Roy’s daughter-in-law, Patty, said, “When Mitch died, it took all the starch out of Roy O.”
William Legg, grandson of Mitch Francis, recalls the gathering that Roy and Edna hosted at their home in Toluca Lake after the funeral services for Mitch, which Roy had arranged. “Roy was shaking his drink (he had some sort of palsy) and said, ‘Mitch was my best friend and we’ve had a good time together all these years.’” Though he sought a diagnosis from multiple doctors, none could tell Roy what caused the tremor in his right hand. He was always careful to conceal it, even refraining from signing contracts in public. In the comfort of his family and close friends, however, feeling the grief of another long-time companion departed, he did not try to hide it on this occasion.
Despite his personal grief, Roy continued to work, seeing more and more to the exigencies of Walt Disney World and other studio matters while getting what little rest he could. Legg remembers a night out with Roy and Edna in June of ’71, just months before the planned opening of the park in Florida. After Legg visited his ailing grandfather, the Disneys took him to a revival of the 1938 musical Knickerbocker Holiday starring Burt Lancaster and playing at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the Los Angeles Music Center. Roy was a man who loved a good show, but shortly after the curtain opened, he fell asleep at the table. He was exhausted.
Yet here he was at the podium, his task complete. On this day, Roy O. Disney was many things to many people. To Edna he was a devoted husband of over forty-five years, with whom she’d raised a successful son. He was a best friend whom she had taken care of every bit as much as he did of her.
To Lillian Disney Truyens (Walt’s widow had gotten remarried, to John Truyens) Roy was the man that helped make Walt’s dreams come true, who had looked after him and kept him out of trouble since their earliest days together in Chicago. Like Edna, she and Roy were confidants and travel companions, and they shared the distinction of being the two people most responsible for providing Walt Disney with the love and support without which he could never have attained such heights.
To his son, Roy Edward, who sat on top of the train station opposite the flag pole, he was a wonderful father that had raised him with values Roy E. would adhere to in the future while doing his best to steer later Disney leadership in the right direction. To the grandkids seated with Roy E. and Patty, he was a doting grandfather who liked nothing more than to sit on his back porch many a weekend watching them play in the yard.
To the Disney employees gathered around, many of whom had been hand-picked by Roy to come to Florida and lend their experience to opening Walt Disney World, Roy was a respected boss and a gentleman. Where Walt was a leader whose word was always final, Roy was better described as a manager. He sought input from his employees about matters that would impact the company, and after considering all of this information he would make his decision. This style of management, as much as anything else, prepared the company’s new leaders to carry on without him and Walt.
These family members and employees all watched as Roy prepared to speak, knowing full well that he was uncomfortable behind the microphone and self-conscious about the tremor in his hand. They knew he’d rather be sitting on a bench in the park, smoking one of his nickel cigars and enjoying the sight of so many families caught up in Walt’s dream.
Roy’s voice was soft, more nasally than Walt’s, but with the same laid-back, Midwest lilt. He read the dedication plaque:
Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney … and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney’s dream come true. May Walt Disney World bring joy and inspiration and new knowledge to all who come to this happy place … a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn—together. Dedicated this 25th day of October, 1971.
—Roy O. Disney
There was the rest of the day to enjoy, and then on Friday, NBC would air a special with footage recorded over the course of the three-day grand opening. The special mentioned Walt Disney several times over, yet not once—almost certainly at Roy’s bidding—did the broadcast mention the name Roy O. Disney. Among the many festivities to wrap up the weekend was a performance by comedian Bob Hope, who handled the dedication for the Contemporary Hotel. Roy was presented with an American flag that had once flown over the White House, and which he promised would soon be given a place over Main Street. Yet with the delivery of this plaque oration, Roy’s odyssey in bringing Walt’s dream to life was more or less complete. A long vacation to Australia was on the calendar for the following February, his first opportunity to get a taste of the retirement that he had put off for five years.
Apart from his utter exhaustion, it is impossible to know what Roy was thinking as he pushed away from the podium and took a breath. We can be certain of one thing he was not thinking about: credit. Though Roy Edward would later admit that he thought his father, “in his heart of hearts,” would have liked to get more credit, he wouldn’t want it at the expense of Walt’s own achievements.
We can be fairly certain of a few things that probably did pass through Roy’s mind. Above all, he was relieved—not just at having completed the grand project that had once seemed so impossible, but because he had finished something that Walt had wanted done. When asked by reporters earlier at the dedication why he’d been so determined to complete the Magic Kingdom at such an advanced age, he responded, “I didn’t want to have to explain to Walt when I saw him again why the dream didn’t come true.”
Roy was proud. He had always been proud of Walt and his vast achievements, of the Disney brand, and of the quality of the studio’s pictures and attractions. Here was the grandest achievement of all. Walt Disney World was a project over a decade in the making that required intrigue, politicking, planning, and the cooperation of Disney’s creative and business arms—both with each other and with often stubborn outside sources. To the best of his ability, Roy had built the Magic Kingdom the Disney way, and he knew Walt would be proud, too. Later that day, between puffs of a cigar, he told a reporter:
I imagine if Walt were here his bottom lip would be trembling. There was nothing my brother enjoyed more than seeing people laugh and enjoy themselves at something he had created. Yes, this place would have brought tears to his eyes.
Finally, did Roy take a moment to gaze about with a sense of wonder, to take in the scope of exactly what he and Walt had done? It had not been uncommon when Walt was alive for the brothers to reminisce—often after an argument—about the early days of their brotherhood and their business. Once, in 1940, Roy gave Walt the dire news that the studio was in debt to the bank for $4.5 million. Instead of expressing the horror that Roy surely felt about such a sizable debt, Walt began to laugh. When Roy demanded to know what could be so funny about the situation, Walt replied that he had just been thinking back to earlier times.
“Do you remember when we couldn’t borrow a thousand dollars?” he asked, and Roy, too, saw the humor in the situation. The Disney brothers had certainly come a long way.
Now 78, Roy had worked with Walt to create beloved films, industry-altering innovations, and new worlds. It is not foolish to think that after reading the dedication plaque, Roy took a moment to consider all the things the collaboration had achieved, and to think about where and when it all began, once upon a time.
Scott lives in the suburbs of Chicago with his wife and their nine-year-old black Lab. A medieval knight by trade, Scott is a skilled horseman and avid sportsman. He is the author of the novel Thunder Island, the first volume in a series of swashbuckling tales of pirates and dinosaurs. You can learn more about his work and his upcoming projects at ScottMMadden.com.
Despite the popular image of "Uncle Walt", it was Roy who was by far the more avuncular of the two—though his easy-going nature wasn't always enough to save him from fierce squabbles with Walt, especially in later years.
In Roy’s mind, the right individual for the job was not always the most qualified. Work hard, be honest, and stay loyal, and you were the type of person Roy wanted on his team. These are the same values he exuded in his efforts on Walt’s behalf.
If not always fatherly, Roy genuinely cared about all of his employees, even those he saw rarely, such as the Disney representatives in Europe. When they visited, Roy showed them around town, sometimes taking them to the studio’s Golden Oak Ranch. On Sundays, Roy and Edna had them over for an old-fashioned fried-chicken and potatoes dinner.
There was Horst Koblischek, eventually the head of merchandising in Germany, who recalled that Roy insisted upon meeting his family. It was Roy’s way of getting to know his employees on a personal level, ingratiating himself to them to such a degree that their loyalty to Roy was every bit as fervent as that of the animators to Walt.
Armand Bigle, whom Roy promoted to oversee merchandising in Europe, was astounded when Roy told him he would be paid 50% of every dollar his efforts produced. Paul Winkler, a French journalist, had begun publishing Le Journal de Mickey, a French Mickey Mouse comics magazine, on October 21, 1934, without a solid contract with the Disneys. It wasn’t until the summer of 1935, while the brothers and their wives were on their European trip, that Roy came to an agreement with Winkler and Hachette, a Disney-licensed publisher in France. While Bigle would go on to serve Disney in Europe for over forty years, Le Journal de Mickey is still being published more than eighty years later.
Gunnar Mansson, who rose to be Disney’s representative in Scandinavia, was repeatedly reminded of Roy’s commitment to family values. Known for having multiple beautiful girlfriends, Mansson rarely met Roy without being asked if he had gotten married yet. It was easier to keep tabs on married men, Roy quipped. All jokes aside, however, he preferred his salesmen project the same wholesome, family-oriented attitude promoted by Walt Disney Productions.
More than that, Roy knew that the right wife could not only be the source of his salesmen’s happiness, but they could be invaluable partners as well. Roy had his own proof in Edna. Though not an employee of Walt Disney Productions, Edna supported Roy like nobody else could, and this was never truer than when on business trips. Edna helped to entertain Roy’s associates and their wives at receptions and dinners. While in the Disneys’ suite or at one of the employee’s homes, she bounced the children on her lap and put those that might be intimidated by Roy’s stature at ease. She also did her utmost to protect her husband’s integrity, as proven by an anecdote related by Disney animator Marc Davis about one of the couple’s trips to France:
Edna would go along with Roy for meetings at the various foreign offices. She got upset with the Frenchmen, because they would talk French between themselves before they would speak in English. This really got to Edna, so when she came home she took a course in French. After she and Roy returned to Paris for meetings, there were a lot fewer Frenchmen working in the office.
As the 1950s drew to a close, Roy had a great deal to be thankful for. Disneyland was adding new attractions and performing well, and the Disneyland television show—renamed Walt Disney Presents and moved to a different time slot in 1959—continued to acquaint the American public with the studio’s upcoming releases and classic subjects. In the 1960 Annual Report for Walt Disney Productions, Walt lauded the new association with NBC, which beginning in 1961 would air the newest iteration of the Disneyland television show, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
Shareholders had reason to be optimistic, too, and sometimes sought perks from the flourishing company. At annual meetings, Roy was almost always confronted by one of the stockholders suggesting they get free tickets to the park. He would tell them:
We’re not in the business of giving things away. If we gave away everything, you people wouldn’t want our stock.
Most important to Roy, Walt was happy. Roy later wrote:
Like a kid with a new toy—the biggest, shiniest toy in the world—Walt used to wander through the park, gawking as happily as any tourist.
Though Disneyland had outwardly been his attempt to entertain the public, Walt had wanted this playground for himself as well. With an apartment built especially for him over the fire station on Main Street, he could spend all the time he wanted there, breakfasting at Aunt Jemima’s Pancake House and grabbing dinner at the Disneyland Hotel. He wandered the park to inspect the cleanliness and ensure the attractions were running smoothly. He began signing slips of paper ahead of time and handing them out to those appreciative fans who recognized him and wanted an autograph. And he was always on the lookout for ways to improve his magic kingdom.
Since the strike and the war had forever changed the way in which the studio must operate, Roy had watched Walt move from one pursuit to another over the years, losing interest in each almost as quickly as it had sprung up. Walt always had an eye on the future, and even as Disneyland continued to captivate its millions of visitors per year, fresh ideas were working in the back of his mind. But for now, he was content to enjoy his park, and Roy was more than happy to let him.
Not everything was perfect between the brothers, however, and this was mostly due to an ever-noticeable line that had been drawn within the studio walls. On one side were Walt’s Boys, the creative employees who answered to Walt. On the other were Roy’s Boys, the employees that handled business and legal matters, whom Walt wanted nowhere near his creative team. This separation was exemplified in one instance when Roy invited Dick Irvine to have lunch with him. They sat at Roy’s table in the Coral Room—the studio commissary for executives—and discussed a legal matter. By now, the brothers regularly ate separately, and Walt watched angrily from his own table as Roy and Irvine spoke. When Roy returned to his office after lunch, his phone was ringing. On the other line was an angry Walt, who told Roy, “You leave my men alone.”
There was a rift between the brothers that had never existed before, and it was evident to those who worked with them at the studio. Some employees, such as Irvine and David Iwerks, would attest fact that they rarely saw the brothers together.
There was something else troubling Roy—an issue that had to do with Walt’s own personal company, WED. He had always believed that down the line, shareholders would consider WED a conflict of interest. Roy was stuck between a rock and a hard place, loyal to his brother on one side and responsible to those that held stock in the company on the other. He knew that it was only a matter of time before the situation came to a head. Sadly for Roy, who had always found a way to navigate the waters and wade a bit closer to Walt’s shore when trouble arose, it was time to stand resolutely on the other bank.
Continued in "The Sorcerer's Brother"!
Although he didn't know it, Roy's final project, his final faithful realization of one of Walt's dreams, was the Magic Kingdom in Florida, a herculean effort for which Roy put aside his long-awaited retirement.
As the sun dipped down over the tree-tops lining the far side of Lake Tibet, Roy nursed a scotch and kicked back. Edna was there, too, entertaining the grandchildren and tending to the comforts of the Disney employees enjoying the waning moments of the barbecue. It was Roy’s way of showing his appreciation for those working hard on the site a few miles to the southwest, and he made sure his men “ate good and drank good.” The company owned five cottages on Bay Hill, which protruded like a slightly bent finger between the lake to the south and a smaller inlet to the north. The middle dwelling had a large dock on the inlet, and served as the site for these relaxing weekend barbecues. It was also a home away from home for Roy and Edna.
The couple traveled frequently between the studio in Burbank and the site in Florida, and at first they had lodged at a brand-new Hilton Inn located in Orlando. The Hilton still served as a residence for Disney employees, but Roy preferred the tranquility of the cottage. When time permitted on week nights after a long day of work, he would take Edna out to local stores where he stood at the tool counters and questioned the attendant on duty. It was not unlike the days when Walt first began haunting the machine shop at WED to discuss trains with his engineers. Now beyond his mid-seventies, Roy was not in search of a new hobby. He was merely taking in things that had always interested him, but which he’d had little time to pursue with his hectic studio schedule. Perhaps he was taking the same advice he had given to Elias in a 1933 letter:
If life’s varied experiences teach us anything, it should teach a man when he gets to be your age to know how to enjoy life, and to avoid worrying over the countless number of things that are really unimportant, but instead to make the most out of life as we find it.
Employees and construction workers often saw him roaming the site, sometimes bouncing around the uncultivated land in the passenger seat of a jeep, or walking through the weeds and brambles without a care for what might be lurking beneath. Sometimes he toured the site in an old vessel dubbed “Admiral Fowler’s Yacht” to get a view of the area from Bay Lake.
As building progressed, Roy continued to exhibit the same warm, friendly manner that had inspired Charlie Wadsworth, a journalist who covered the Disney project in central Florida, to say of Roy: “Five minutes after meeting him you had the feeling you had known this man most of your life.” One day, while walking down Main Street of the yet-unopened Magic Kingdom, Roy remarked playfully to Bill Sullivan, “Boy, you can sure lose respect for a million dollars here, huh?”
As late as mid-summer of 1969, the site was still barren, save for machinery and helium balloons marking off boundaries and attractions. There were times when Roy was frustrated, such as when he lamented to one of his top guys, after getting a birds-eye view of the undeveloped site, “We’ve got $90 million in this project, and we don’t have a single thing above ground.” On another occasion, Roy showed up at the Contemporary Hotel unexpectedly. There were an inordinate number of workers lounging around as though it were break time, and none of them seemed to realize—or worse, they didn’t care—that the boss was strolling through. In fact, Marvin Davis, who accompanied Roy on the walk-through, recalled, “We had to ask them to get out of the way so we could get through.” Roy’s first order of business after the visit was to see that the lazy workers were fired.
That was not the only problem with the laborers hired to build the park. In an April 1969 press conference, Roy lauded three building blocks that he believed made the Disney endeavor in central Florida so successful. Specifically, he mentioned a no-strike deal with the labor force that was supposedly good through June of 1972. Deal or not, strikes became a large headache for Roy as building progressed. The millwrights of Local 1510 set up picket lines for a day in December 1970. A “minor” work stoppage occurred at the Contemporary Hotel in June of 1971, but with both the Contemporary and the Polynesian Village Resorts being hurried toward completion, no stoppage of work was truly minor. On any given day a jurisdictional dispute between two different unions could bring work to an aggravating halt.
Roy was also aware of criticisms of the park. Some predicted it would not work with a more-sophisticated east-coast audience, despite Walt having proved otherwise with the Disney attractions that had been so popular at the 1964-1965 World’s Fair in New York. Even an article in the May 1, 1971, edition of Forbes magazine—an article that was otherwise complimentary to Roy—pointed out that some felt that “Cinderella’s Castle is out of date, too gooey good for today’s America.” Walt Disney World would open on the heels of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and it was not far-fetched to think that the American public might not be receptive to a new attraction conceived by the often “corny” Walt Disney.
Despite all this, Roy remained optimistic, and this stemmed partly from his having done it before while building Disneyland. The lessons he’d learned while financing Walt’s first park—which many also predicted would fail for various reasons—could be applied to the Magic Kingdom, and he spoke confidently when questioned about the funding required to finish the project. After pointing out to a reporter that he believed his company was still a good investment, he explained, “We hold title to thousands of acres of some of the finest land in the nation and we have a backlog of films Walt made in our vaults that continually appreciate in value.” At any time these assets could bring needed revenue into the studio. He continued:
I think the best indication of the faith the financial community has in us came just recently. Over the last fifteen months, we offered two issues of convertible bonds totaling $90 million. They were sold out to investors quite rapidly for this kind of offering.
In addition, Roy pointed out that the company—already with a $20 million a year cash flow and a top credit rating—had entered into a five-year credit agreement, starting May 1, 1968, with the Bank of America and seven other participating banks located in Florida. This deal provided Disney with a credit line up to $50 million.
Continued in "The Sorcerer's Brother"!