In celebration of Father’s Day, we remember Walt in one of his favorite roles: that of an involved and dutiful dad.
Walt became a father on December 18, 1933 when Diane Marie Disney was born to Walt and Lillian. (Appropriately, Walt was presented on that very day with the Parents Magazine Award for Three Little Pigs!) Diane has long been active in supporting and perpetuating the ideals and legacy of her father, most recently with the founding of The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.
In 1936, Sharon Mae Disney was adopted by Walt and Lilly (Lillian had several miscarriages before and after Diane’s birth, so they decided to adopt). Sharon died of lung cancer on February 16, 1993. After her death, a gift from her Foundation endowed the Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance at California Institute of the Arts.
Scurrilous reporting aside, Walt Disney was, quite simply, a doting and devoted father. The eyewitness accounts of his wife, daughters, family, and friends reveal a man of enormous parental patience, paternal responsibility, fatherly pride, and inspiring fun. Home movies show a delighted Walt presenting his girls with a Snow White-inspired playhouse, Diane and Sharon in carefree bicycle rides around the Burbank Studio lot, and sharing laughter on family vacations. Photos show Walt and his daughters together at all ages and stages of life, in all manner of locales, and in all kinds of activities—and because his professional life was so present in his daily identity, his girls naturally became a lifelong component of his business life.
There is a frequently-told story, for instance, that Walt’s girls sometimes provided the inspiration to adapt certain stories for the screen. Press notes for Mary Poppins at the time of its initial release related, “One evening in 1939, Walt Disney came home to find his daughter chuckling over a book. It was Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers, and this was his first introduction to one of literature’s most beloved and delightful heroines.” Diane recalls the incident exactly, but with one differing detail — the book she was “chuckling over” was a Winnie-the-Pooh volume by A.A. Milne!
Walt thought highly of Diane’s abilities and opinions, even as a child. He recalled to writer Pete Martin in 1957, “A little thing that happened in Bambi. My daughter, Diane, was quite a reader when she was very young, I think she was under 12. She’d read Shakespeare and Voltaire and all of that— she did! She’s a fast reader, a very fast reader. And I forget how old she was when I was making Bambi, she was about 10 or 11 and had read the book. When I finished the picture, I brought it home and ran it—and she cried. She cried when Bambi’s mother was killed. And afterwards she said to me, ‘Daddy, why did you have to kill Bambi’s mother?’ And I said, ‘Well, it was in the book, dear.’ She said, ‘There were plenty of things in the book that you changed, why couldn’t you have changed that?’ She had me.”
As the girls grew up, he frequently brought them on his business trips — they visited the British sets of films such as Treasure Island and The Sword and the Rose, and Sharon even accompanied Walt to Alaska in 1947 as he checked in on the progress of the nature photography being done there that would result in the first True-Life Adventure, Seal Island (1948). (1948).
Both daughters intersected with their father’s work. Diane “wrote” a Saturday Evening Post article series, “My Dad, Walt Disney” in 1957 and 1958, and a corresponding book titled The Story of Walt Disney, which was published in 1957. (“First, I must announce that I did not write this book,” Diane wrote in a preface to a 2005 reprinting. “Though it bears my name before the ‘as told to Pete Martin,’ the book was wholly written by Mr. Martin, based on hours of taped interviews with my dad, Walt Disney.”)
During one of those interviews, Walt confessed to Martin that he used his elder daughter for a bit of on-the-spot “market research” regarding his plans for Disneyland.
Walt said, “I was sitting trying to figure out how I could broaden the appeal … so I was thinking of the teenagers and things. We were out here sitting around the pool. I had my plans out. This was Diane. I turned to her and said, ‘Diane, what can I put in this park that will interest girls of your age?’ She said, ‘That’s simple, Dad — boys!'”
Sharon briefly pursued a modeling and acting career in the late 1950’s, and even had a small, uncredited role in Johnny Tremain (1957) as Dorcas, a young friend of Johnny and Priscilla Lapham.
Although Diane was hurtled into an awareness of her father’s career and identity by a schoolmate at the age of six, she’s maintained a deep understanding and appreciation of his professional achievements throughout her life, and sees Walt Disney, first and foremost, as her father.
“No one understands that he was really a dad,” Diane told Jordan Zakarian of Huffington Post. “He drove my sister and me to school every morning. Every weekend, either Saturday or Sunday, he’d say it was Daddy’s Day, and he’d take us all day to the local park where they had a beautiful carousel or take us to the Studio— we’d run around the Studio on weekends when no one was there, we’d go into every animation room and prowl around the lot. He was really a dad. He went to every school function, every Father’s Night.”
By Jeff Kurtti
Jeff Kurtti is one of the leading authorities on The Walt Disney Company and its history. The author of more than 25 books, Kurtti worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, the theme park design division of The Walt Disney Company, and then for the Corporate Special Projects department of Disney. Most recently he was creative director, content consultant, and media producer for the cornerstone exhibit at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco, California.
Now, Jeff brings his passion and expertise to Disney Insider through a unique online presence called “The Wonderful World of WALT.”