ROY O. DISNEY: June 24, 1893 – December 20, 1971
Originally published June 24, 2015.
Near the end of their lives, my grandmother shared a number of stories about the early years of her marriage to my grandfather. Despite leaving school in the ninth grade, my grandfather’s tireless work ethic and indefatigable belief in himself had led to numerous successes as a small businessman, and he and my grandmother had amassed a healthy retirement savings. My grandmother had more than a few stories of my grandfather believing in family and friends who had regularly proven themselves undependable. Yet my grandfather was always willing to support the people he cared about. In a number of cases, my grandfather lost his entire investment, but over the years my grandmother had learned not to hold a grudge against my grandfather’s support of oft-losing causes. When I asked her why, she answered confidently that she came to know that my grandfather would just work hard enough to make everything right again. It was a rare set of skills which my grandfather displayed over and over throughout his life – the ability to bet on people, but also hedge the bets with his own hard work and ingenuity. It’s not a tactic for the faint of heart, and most people would quickly grow frustrated and filled with contempt, but not my grandfather. Throughout his life, he supported the dreams and goals of the people he card about – however misguided they may have been – without asking for recompense or to share in the spoils. There are few people with that kind of attitude, but some have gone on to support some of the world’s greatest visionaries, including Roy Disney, the older brother of Walt.
The pattern continued for years. When Walt decided a finished cartoon should be scrapped and started over to create the first color cartoon, it was Roy who had to figure out how to pay for it and how to create entire new departments to accommodate color painting and inking and film processing. And Roy was not on stage when Walt accepted the first Academy Award for a cartoon. When Walt decided to make the first feature-length cartoon with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, Roy had to convince numerous bankers of the financial viability of that sizable investment. When Walt continued to throw out large sections of the film and go back to the storyboard (inflating the budget from $500K to $1.5MM), Roy was responsible for finding more money. When Walt decided to create a multi-plane camera, Roy found the financing. When Walt decided to move into television, Roy arranged the financing. With each step forward that Walt’s vision took them, Roy was leveraging themselves to the brink of bankruptcy to pay for it. Everything they owned and everything they could borrow was gathered by Roy with the belief that his brother’s vision was worth the risk. When Walt decided to create an amusement park, despite unimaginable wealth, Roy once again leveraged everything the families had or could borrow on the idea of Disneyland. Where Walt would wander the grounds of the former Anaheim orange grove and see castles and rockets and western saloons and main streets and mountains, Roy oversaw the day to day operations and made sure the bills were paid. When Disneyland opened in 1955, it cemented Walt Disney’s legacy as one of the world’s greatest innovators. But few people at that time even knew that Disney had a brother.
Two stories come to mind when I think of Roy Disney. In one story, Roy walked into Walt’s office one day and saw Walt practicing his signature on his drawing board. He and Roy talked, and as Roy exited the room, Walt off-handedly commented, “By the way, I’m changing the name of the company from ‘Disney Brothers Studio’ to ‘The Walt Disney Company’.” And then he went back to practicing his autograph. When Roy was asked why he didn’t object, he simply responded, “It didn’t matter to me. And it’s what he wanted.” In the other story, Walt died in the middle of the creation of Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Roy was nearing retirement and had hoped to retire before the construction of the park. But since the brothers had leveraged their life savings to build the park, Roy postponed his retirement to ensure two things: that the park would be built to Walt’s visionary standard, and that the park be renamed Walt Disney World, in honor of his brother. When the park was finished and Roy was satisfied, Roy Disney retired from Walt Disney Studios and within a few months, died peacefully in his sleep. It was years before a statue of Roy was finally erected in Walt Disney World.