Wednesday, June 1, 2016

A Heartfelt Tribute to Roy O. Disney Including 24 Rarely Seen Photos

By Keith Mahne

There is no doubting the fact that Walt Disney was a gifted and extremely creative man, but the same can be said of his brother Roy. People unfamiliar with the Walt Disney Company's history probably never even heard of Roy, and that was just fine by him. But, Roy O. Disney was so vitally important to the company that without him in the equation, there wouldn't be a Disneyland, and certainly not a Walt Disney World. Join us as we pay tribute to the keeper of the kingdom, the dream builder himself, Roy O. Disney in today's new article including 24 rarely seen photos...

A young Roy and Walt Disney picking fruit

A young Walt and Roy with their father Elias on his birthday

The basic difference between Walt and Roy seemed to be Walt's readiness and willingness to jump off and follow his dreams, while Roy preferred a grounded approach to things that were a bit more solid. Since the two brothers were children of a working class family who had to count every penny to get by, Roy's somewhat conservative attitude is easy to understand, but Walt's seemingly boundless enthusiasm and confidence is not. Both were extremely talented and creative men, and both had great heads for business. Roy's somewhat cautious nature served as a perfect counterpoint to Walt's flamboyance, and that one characteristic strengthened the company.

Roy, Walt and their staff at the Studio

Roy, Walt and the Disney animation staff with an early Mickey Mouse toy and an Oscar

Walt holds an Oscar and shares a smile with his brother Roy

To try and cover all of Roy Disney's accomplishments over his tenure at Walt Disney Productions would literally take up an entire book. Roy was the quintessential businessman. He was constantly being looked upon by Walt to solve the company's financial problems, regardless of how difficult he made them. The truly amazing thing is that Roy almost always succeeded.

Roy O. Disney sits at the head of the table for a meeting of the Board of Directors for Walt Disney Productions. L to R Card Walker, S. Clark Beise, Goron Youngman, Roy, William Anderson, George Bagnall

Roy O. Disney with Card Walker, board member and former president of the company

Roy sits for a formal company portrait

In the book Window On Main Street by Van France, France tells a seldom-heard story about Roy Disney, a man he really respected and admired. It allows us to see the kindhearted, down-to-earth guy Roy really was. Roy was speaking at a Club 55 (which consists of cast members who worked with Walt Disney when he was launching his dream of Disneyland) reunion back in 1968, when he ended his speech with this...
"Well, on that day (Disneyland's opening day), I left the Studio and headed down the Santa Ana Freeway. I was worried. After getting out of Los Angeles, the traffic began to get heavy. It could have been people going to the beach. Because the freeway was not completed, it was stop and go most of the way. It must have taken an hour to finally get to the Disneyland parking lot, which was jammed. A young man working there recognized me and came up in a bit of panic. He wasn't familiar with our first name policy. 'Mr. Disney,' he said, 'People have been stalled on the freeway and getting into our parking lot. Children are peeing all over the lot.' I looked around at all these people who were coming here to pay to get in. With a great sense of relief, I said, 'GOD BLESS 'EM... LET 'EM PEE!"

Roy Disney carefully walking the Florida property

Roy Disney grins as he walks the Florida property. One can only assume he felt the spirit of his little brother Walt near by and was overcome with happiness knowing he was completing Walt's final dream

Roy Disney looks over blueprints during a Florida property planning session

Walt paid what many consider to be the ultimate tribute to his brother Roy when they were together with Governor Haydon Burns in Florida announcing the creation of what was to eventually become Walt Disney World, then known as simply Disney World before Roy renamed it after Walt's passing in tribute to his baby brother. At this late point in their lifelong and very close relationship, Walt was moved to say that...

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Walt Disney, who always had difficulty praising people directly, meant this as the most sincere tribute to his lifelong partner that he could muster. Roy seemed delighted to hear this from all accounts of those in attendance.

Roy Disney looks over the land that will soon become Walt Disney World

Roy Disney inspects the horses that will soon fill Florida's Prince Charming Regal Carousel

Soon after the Florida press conference, Roy began to seriously consider retirement. Walt wouldn't hear of it, especially at this time. Even though his brother was eight years older, Walt really couldn't comprehend attacking the Florida project without Roy by his side. Walt even went so far as to call Roy's wife Edna and ask her if she really wanted Roy "hanging around the house all the time." Convinced once more by Walt's unending persistence, Roy decided to stay on and support his brother yet another time. It's fortunate for all of us that he did, for as fate would declare, it was left to Roy O. Disney to build Walt Disney World. It could not have been placed in better hands.

A rare photo of Roy and his wife Edna Disney with Mickey Mouse at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

Roy Disney stepping in Walt's shoes and surveying what needs to be done at the Florida property Walt selected personally

A rare photo of Roy Disney inspecting the new PeopleMover

When Walt passed away on December 15, 1966 at 9:35 am of an acute circulatory collapse caused by cancer, the last person he spent any time with was Roy the previous evening. It almost seemed fitting that the last discussions Walt would have regarding business were with his lifelong partner. Walt looked at the ceiling tiles and imagined an outline of the Florida project and E.P.C.O.T. the city on it. Roy was encouraged by Walt's appearance that night, but the end came early the next morning. At that point, after paying an emotional, sincere and heartfelt tribute to his younger brother, and obviously extremely anguished by his passing, Roy O. Disney assumed full command of Walt Disney Productions. As previously mentioned, he soon renamed the Florida project, calling it Walt Disney World instead of Disney World, a name that had been dictated by Walt. Almost dramatically, he spent the last five years of his own life vigorously building what he considered to be a tribute to Walt's legacy for all the world to see, and what a great job he did. Many people who knew him well felt that Roy never really recovered from the sadness he felt when Walt died, although he did everything he could to hide it from everyone.

A visibly happy Roy Disney inspects the Walt Disney World Resort just days before opening

Roy and Mickey sitting on a bench in the Magic Kingdom - 1971

Roy O. Disney was not just a businessman, he was also an excellent showman. He certainly proved that by the manner in which he constructed and opened Walt Disney World and the Magic Kingdom. He did so entirely as a tribute to the memory of his brother Walt, and what a Grand Opening it was! Walt's widow Lillian and the entire Disney family were Roy's very special guests for the grand event. His wife Edna, son Roy E. Disney and his family, as well as the families of Walt's daughters, the Ron Millers and the Lunds, everyone was there for the gala opening.

A rare photo of a magical moment when Roy introduced Lillian Disney at the opening of WDW

Take a good look at the photo above. This was one very special and tender moment that was orchestrated by Roy himself. When the beginning of "When You Wish Upon A Star" started playing, Lillian Disney walked down a ramp with Mickey to join Roy on the platform at the castle for the opening ceremonies. There were tears in many eyes at that moment. Afterwards, Roy asked Lillian if she thought Walt would be pleased with the way things turned out, and she answered that she felt Walt would certainly have approved. Those who were in attendance swear they could actually see the relief and delight on Roy's face. There is little doubt in anyone's mind that the Grand Opening of Walt Disney World was a smashing success, as was the Park that Roy built. Today, it remains one of Roy's enduring legacies to Disney fans all over the world.

After the Grand Opening ceremonies at Walt Disney World on October 23, 1971, Roy felt he could finally relax a bit. At the same time, he was also looking forward to the next year when he would mark a fifty year association with the film industry. But sadly, he never made it to that landmark. Roy Oliver Disney passed away on December 20, 1971, of a cerebral hemorrhage some two months after he had officially opened the new resort in Florida at the age of seventy eight. The world had lost yet another brilliant and kind man named Disney, just as it had the morning his brother Walt passed on in 1966.

This article is offered as a heartfelt tribute to one man, Roy O. Disney. Roy was a man for whom far too few accolades have ever been offered, or even stories told or articles written about. It is true that he and Walt were virtually inseparable in times of trouble, but, it's also true that many times, it was Roy alone who solved the massive problems that sometimes confronted them. I ask you to never forget one thing. As great a team as they were together, they were equally superb as individuals. Roy Oliver Disney greatly deserves our love, admiration and respect. I for one will never forget the way he conducted himself during his lifetime, nor will I ever forget his remarkable accomplishments. When we talk about Disneyland, Walt Disney World, or just Disney in general, there would be no such thing without the immense contributions of Roy O. Disney.

Roy Disney, with Mickey Mouse by his side in place of Walt, opens Florida's Magic Kingdom


Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day. 


  1. Love the article! Just thought you should note there is a typo though - "When Walt passed away on December 15, 1955 at 9:35 am of an..." Thanks again for a great article.

    1. Thank you Jenny, I hit two 5's instead of two 6's. I appreciate you letting me know and for the kind words.

  2. Fully agree with the sentiments... Disney wouldn't have been such a success without both brothers providing a balance... Walt would have been bust very quickly without his big brother...
    .... (Oh and the picture of Roy with the PeopleMover is the Disneyland version.. not the Magic Kingdom one)

    1. The original caption for Roy and the PeopleMover said Magic Kingdom but after reading your comment and looking at the photo again I see you are correct. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

    2. Well written Keith! The Disney Brothers brought out the best in their workers! I am so lucky to have grown up when I did. They may be gone but there is a warm spot in my heat for them and what they created.

  3. This will make my next visit to WDW even more meaningful. Such a tribute.

  4. I'm crying my eyes out right now as I type this. Roy was such a special man and I thank you for bringing attention to him in this heartfelt article. One more reason why I love this website so dearly.

  5. I'm crying! Omg. These two brothers were inseparable from the start. Walt wanted to build his own business and build a place for families to create memories that will last a lifetime. He made his dreams happen. He made his dreams come true. With help of course. Walt sadly passed but his brother wanted to keep Walt's memory alive. WDW is my home and is the most magical place on earth. If Roy didn't see these plans through, Walt's legacy and Roy's legacy would not be known. Thanks to the Disney brothers, we can cherish all the memories and laughs that will last a lifetime and revel in the greatness these 2 made happen. All from a simple dream and a great team :)

  6. This is lovely, thanks for sharing this story and these pictures,