In Walt Disney’s own words, Disney as we know it was all started by a mouse. But when did the mouse himself start? More accurately, when was Mickey Mouse born? The answer is a bit trickier than you might first expect.
When is Mickey Mouse’s Birthday?
November 18th is the date the Walt Disney Company celebrates Mickey Mouse’s birthday every year, the date that Steamboat Willie premiered in theaters way back in 1928. As of 2019, Mickey is a whopping 90 years old. I don’t know about you, but I think he’s aged rather well!
Steamboat Willie was not only the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, it was also the first cartoon synchronized to music, allowing for great musical and comedic effects to be played out on screen. Due to this new technology, as well as Mickey’s undeniable charm, the short was an instant success, and Mickey Mouse Clubs were forming around the country as soon as the following year.
So there you have it. That’s the official answer, though the story of Mickey is a bit more complicated than that, and actually starts several years earlier. In fact, November 18th hasn’t always been his official birthday. It turns out that the rabbit hole – or mouse hole, in this case – goes a lot deeper, and is a very interesting story…
The Full Story of Mickey Mouse’s Birthday
Mickey’s birthday has fallen on many different days over the years, mainly to coincide with special events or promotions that The Walt Disney Company. Surprisingly, the first person to move Mickey’s birthday was Walt Disney himself! As he said in 1933:
“Mickey Mouse will be five years old on Sunday. He was born on October 1, 1928. That was the date on which his first picture was started, so we have allowed him to claim this day as his birthday.”
That answer makes a good deal of sense, though in later years it was apparently contradicted by others in the company, and Mickey’s birthday wandered around somewhere in the September-December range for a good long while. In the end, as with all great historical events, it took a historian to set the record straight. In 1978, Dave Smith – the founder of the Disney Archives – determined that November 18th would be Mickey’s official birth date from then on in order to coincide with his first public appearance. Thus, Mickey’s true birthday was set just in time for his 50th birthday celebrations, and it’s been that way ever since. I’m sure Mickey appreciates the consistency – sending out invitations must no longer be the headache it once was.
As it turns out, however, that’s not the end of the story. Mickey’s origins go even further back in Disney history, though exactly how far back depends on what story you choose to believe.
Origin #1: Walt Created Him on a Train
One of the most popular stories about Mickey’s origin comes, once again, from Walt himself:
“He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad 20 years ago on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when the business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at lowest ebb, and disaster seemed right around the corner,”
According to this story, Mickey appeared to Walt in 1928 and immediately went on to save the company after the loss of Disney’s previous cartoon star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to Universal Studios. Walt’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, backs up his account:
“It was on that long train ride that dad conceived of a new cartoon subject, a mouse who was then refined and further developed by Ub Iwerks, and given his name by my mother.”
While this account is largely accepted, especially in the popular eye, Disney Miller’s quote points to another of Mickey’s possible origins, as well as a potential creator: Ub Iwerks.
Origin #2: Ub Iwerks Created Him in the California Studio
Walt and Ub had worked together since they first met in Kansas City, and together, they were a powerhouse of animation. The story goes that Ub was one of Walt’s best animators – if not the best – and when Walt needed a new character to replace Oswald, he turned to Ub in the hopes that he would be able to come up with a character that could save the studio.
After several misfires that included cows, horses, dogs, and even frogs, Ub eventually came up with Mickey Mouse and the rest was history. There’s a fair amount of evidence for this story, too, so it’s unclear which animator can lay true claim to the title of Mickey’s creator. Both men deserve credit for bringing Mickey to life in Steamboat Willie – Ub Iwerks was responsible for his animation, while Walt Disney supplied his voice.
Unfortunately, as the studio grew more successful Walt and Ub fought over the art direction and how the company’s cartoons should look going forward. This eventually led to Ub leaving and forming Iwerks Studios as a rival to Disney. The new studio was never quite as successful, and Ub did eventually return to the Disney fold – this time in special effects. As luck would have it, Ub would use this technical know-how to work on rides at Disneyland, where he’d be able to revisit his old pal Mickey.
The Mouse That Started It All
Though there is some debate about whether Walt or Ub is Mickey’s true creator, there is one story regarding Mickey that all accounts agree on. Back in 1922, Walt Disney opened his own animation studio, known as Laugh-O-Gram Films, in Kansas City. While there, Walt took to feeding mice that lived in the walls of his office, and one eventually proved itself brave enough to venture out to Walt’s desk. Soon, Walt and the mouse became good friends, with Walt feeding and taking care of it. He even released his pet back into the wild when he left the building so that cats living downstairs wouldn’t get a chance to eat it. Animators at the company drew pictures of the mouse at the time, and it seems that both Walt and Ub took inspiration from these drawings in creating Mickey.
It seems that no matter when Mickey first appeared in the animators’ heads, Walt is right – it was all started by a mouse – a tiny field mouse in Kansas City, that is!
Where Can I Celebrate Mickey Mouse’s Birthday?
If you really want to go all out in celebrating Mickey’s birthday, there’s no better place to do so than Disneyland. Though the park doesn’t have major festivities every year to celebrate the mouse, there is still plenty to do, from visiting Mickey’s house to eating Mickey-shaped ice cream to telling the big guy “Happy Birthday!” in person. While not guaranteed, Disneyland often features special merchandise surrounding the event as they recently did for Mickey’s 90th birthday, so keep an eye out! I think it’s safe to say that park celebrations surrounding Mickey’s birthday are only going to get bigger as he approaches the big 1-0-0. Note that other Disney parks also celebrate the mouse, including Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World and even Disneyland Paris.
Where Did Mickey Get His Name From?
Walt Disney famously wanted to go with “Mortimer Mouse” as the original name for Mickey. However, his wife Lillian found this name to be much too old-fashioned and stuffy, and it was she who suggested that the cartoon mouse instead go by the name “Mickey”. Personally, I’m glad she did! While the “Mickey” mantle clearly stuck, Disney wasn’t done with the “Mortimer” name just yet. Mortimer Mouse appeared as a rival to Mickey for Minnie’s affections in the aptly named cartoon short Mickey’s Rival.
What Was the First Mickey Mouse Cartoon?
While Steamboat Willie was the first Mickey Mouse cartoon to be released, it was not the first Mickey Mouse cartoon made by the studio. Two Mickey Mouse cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho, had been largely completed before work on Willie had even started. Plane Crazy was even test screened for audiences on May 15, 1928, though it apparently failed to impress. Both shorts were eventually released after Steamboat Willie had turned Mickey into a bonafide Hollywood star. Due to this unorthodox situation, Plane Crazy is sometimes considered to be the first Mickey Mouse cartoon. If you’re in the mood to watch any of these early cartoons, you can head on over to YouTube and watch them all for free!
When is Minnie Mouse’s Birthday?
Since Minnie Mouse also appears in Steamboat Willie, she also celebrates her birthday on November 18th alongside Mickey. Don’t forget to wish her a happy birthday as well! While Minnie’s origins are less clear than those of the main mouse himself, it is clear that she has also played a major role in Disney history, and should not be overlooked. Minnie was often at the side of her hero throughout his early cartoons, including in Plane Crazy, the unofficial first Mickey cartoon. It seems as though Mickey and his gal are practically inseparable.