The history of the Walt Disney Company is full of technical and creative feats and a true love for storytelling.
Of course, with such a major enterprise as Walt Disney Studios and the Disney theme parks, Walt Disney had his secrets. There are MANY things about Disney’s past that we’ll never know — but there are some secrets that Disney hasn’t been able to keep. Here are four secrets Disney tried to keep but couldn’t!
1. Walt Disney’s Smoking Habit
It’s a pretty widely-known fact that Walt Disney had a habit of smoking cigarettes. Walt became a heavy smoker after World War I and can be seen in many pictures with a cigarette in hand. And, as many know, Disney passed away from lung cancer.
Interestingly, The Walt Disney Company seems to be trying to keep this habit under wraps — to little avail.
The modern Disney company has implemented a Studio-wide smoking ban in Disney films, according to the New York Times. And this stance sometimes has the effect of erasing an uncomfortable and significant piece of Walt’s history. For instance, per the Independent, Walt was not allowed to be seen smoking in Saving Mr. Banks. (Though he did stub out a cigarette in his office in one scene.)
Some reports indicate that Disneyland digitally removed cigarettes from pictures of Walt in the park. We’ve investigated and will say that it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to find a photo of Walt with a cigarette in the Walt Disney Presents attraction in Hollywood Studios.
Disney has received criticism for this, noting that it helps to erase the unpleasant fact that cigarettes may have contributed to Walt’s early passing.
Whatever the case, Walt’s smoking habit is kept on the down-low in official Disney content — but that doesn’t hide Walt’s very real history with smoking.
2. Use of Shell Companies to Buy Land for Disney World
Possibly the biggest cracked secret of the Disney company was actually one that Walt engineered himself. The undertaking of speculating an entirely new resort was a huge one, and Disney World was set to be a property like no other. One thing that Disney needed to make this dream a reality? Land. And Walt didn’t want others to know that he was acquiring it.
If huge land purchases in Orlando were made in Disney’s name, nearby property values would skyrocket. In turn, Disney would have to pay more for the land he needed, and other companies might buy up the needed land to take advantage of the Disney-adjacent real estate. After seeing this happen around Disneyland, Walt was looking for a solution.
As a way to mitigate these possibilities, Walt used shell companies to purchase the land such as Latin-American Development and Management Corp., Tomahawk Properties, and the very Disney-esque M.T. Lott Co. according to the L.A. Times. The false companies weren’t the only measure taken either. Disney’s attorney Bob Foster used a false name when scouting land and even flew through St. Louis instead of straight from California so as to keep Disney out of the guesswork around who the mystery buyer was.
Of course, this all changed when Journalist Emily Bavar uncovered the story. According to the Orlando Sentinel, at a press event celebrating Disneyland’s 10th Anniversary, Bavar asked Disney upfront if he was the one who was buying the land. In her words, “He looked like I had thrown a bucket of water in his face. I have never seen anyone look so stunned. He was too surprised, but then he recovered and said ‘no.'”
While in California, though, Bavar was able to speak to enough sources that she was convinced it was true. Bavar predicted on Oct. 21st, 1965 that Disney was buying the land to build a new theme park in Florida, and she was right. This is perhaps the most on-the-nose example of a secret Disney tried to keep but couldn’t!
3. Walt Disney Acted as an FBI Informant
Did you know that Walt Disney served as an FBI informant for over 25 years? Yeah, it’s pretty crazy! Technically, this was kept a very tight secret for a very long time. It wasn’t until the Freedom of Information Act in 1993 that documents confirming Disney’s involvement with the Federal Bureau of Investigation came to light, per The New York Times.
Disney passed on names to the federal government of those who may be considered subversive in Hollywood, although the released document has a significant amount of information redacted for national security purposes; and just who Walt Disney informed about remains a bit of a mystery. Disney provided so much information to the bureau that he was made a “full Special Agent in Charge Contact” or a very trusted informer.
The relationship between Disney and J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Bureau, was an intricate one. For Disney’s work, Hoover let Disney film in the FBI Headquarters and Disney even changed some character portrayals of FBI agents to appease the bureau.
It’s surprising to learn of such political and national motivations just under the surface but as the New York Times puts it, “The Disney dossier is a historic reminder of the cold war years when Hollywood’s writers, actors, directors and producers, and their organizations clashed about political beliefs.”
Ultimately, this secret was kept for over fifty years until the Disney documents were released. But with the Freedom of Information Act, Disney’s tenure as an informant couldn’t be kept a secret forever.
4. Disney Couldn’t Keep Oswald from Universal
This last one is less of a secret that Disney couldn’t keep and more of a CHARACTER that Disney couldn’t keep. We’ll explain. When Walt Disney and partner Ub Iwerks first decided to develop a major animated star, you might think his mind leaped to Mickey Mouse. But Mickey actually had a predecessor — Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
According to the BBC, Oswald could have been Disney’s biggest character had it not been for a bit of trouble with the rights of the rabbit. Walt Disney Studios was initially commissioned by Universal Pictures in 1927 to produce a series of animated shorts starring the brand-new Oswald character. Oswald quickly became popular due to the fact that he was possibly the earliest animated character to have a full-fledged personality.
As you’ve probably guessed though, everything did not go as Walt Disney had imagined. The contract between Walt and Universal ultimately meant that the rights to Oswald the Rabbit belonged in the hands of Universal Pictures. Due to the success of Oswald, backdoor deals were made between Universal producers and Walt’s own animators to produce Oswald shorts without involvement from Walt.
Sure enough, Universal got the rights (and many of Walt’s team) away from Disney for some time. It was one of Walt’s larger defeats at this time in his career and he left the negotiations with Universal in low spirits, per the BBC article. It wasn’t all bad though. The story goes that Walt came up with the idea for a certain Mouse on the way home.
Forty years after Walt’s death, the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit were returned to the Disney company in a trade with Universal in 2006 to send sports commentator Al Michaels to NBC, and the company continues to use Oswald in content, on merchandise, and in the parks to this day.
Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, a secret just won’t stay under wraps. It certainly is interesting taking a look back at Walt Disney’s life and the past of the Disney Company. If you liked hearing about Disney’s history, let us know! And stay tuned, maybe we’ll dive into Disney’s past again soon. 😉
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