Walt Disney and the Olympic Games

Walt Disney’s impact is still felt everyday at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland.  His impact can still be felt at the World’s Fair.  Another place where his impact is still lasting is the Winter and Summer Olympics.  From the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 to the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, the Opening and Closing Ceremonies were events without a lot of fanfare.  Walt’s impact was first felt in the 1960 Winter Olympics held in Squaw Valley, California.  The tiny town was awarded the games in 1955 in a time when it had no mayor, a small lodge, and only three ski lifts (one chair and two tow lifts).  Walt also had an interest in the area for his potential ski resort but at Squaw Valley itself.  As a result, Walt was approached to be the Chair of the Pageantry Committee for the 1960 Winter Games.

Walt went through his contacts in the Los Angeles entertainment industry to fill out the committee.  Art Linkletter was named the Vice President of Entertainment.  Walt’s, son-in-law, Ron Miller was named the Pageantry Coordinator and, lastly, Card Walker was named the Director of Publicity.  These three people and their committees started to put their stamp on the Olympics.

Walt was the first person to bring corporate sponsorship into the games.  In Olympic Village, there were thirty flagpoles.  One for each nation participating in the games.  Companies sponsored these flagpoles for $500 to $600.  At the end of the Games, the companies received the flagpole.  The flagpole which Walt Disney sponsored can now be seen at the Disney Studios Commissary.

photo courtesy of D23
photo courtesy of D23

Walt also sent imagineers up to Squaw Valley to design the 32 snow sculptures that would be on display during the 10-day Olympic Games.  These sculptures were placed along the Avenue of the Athletes and were 16-feet tall.  Since the town was a blank slate, the Olympic organizers kept everything within walking of the “center of town/Olympic Village/Housing for Athletes”  So people passed by these sculptures on a daily basis while at the games.

Compare that to the 1980 Winter Olympic Athlete housing which is current Adirondack Correctional Facility.  Yes, we housed the athletes in a prison for the 1980 Winter Games.

The last two sculptures were even bigger and placed next to the Tower of Nations display.


photo courtesy of California Parks Department
photo courtesy of California Parks Department

Leading up to the games, Olympic organizers were starting to complain about the cost of the games.  Disney had also planned the first torch relay, fireworks, and a release of pigeons and balloons during the Opening Ceremonies.  This was on top of the cost of the statues and flagpoles.  Disney also worked with Art Linkletter to bring top Hollywood talent to entertain the visitors and athletes.  A film festival was also planned and ran concurrent to the games.  When Disney was confronted about the increased costs, Disney said, “Either we’re going to do it the right way or Disney will pull out.”

Altogether, the 1960 Winter Olympics cost $80,000,000.  This covered cost of infrastructure construction both in the town and getting to and from the town.  Construction costs for hotels, Olympic venues, restaurants, an Olympic Village.  Basically, the 1960 Winter Olympics created a town which is now a ski resort for the cost of just $80 million dollars.

After the Games, Disney was hailed by everyone involved in the games for putting on the most remarkable Opening and Closing Ceremonies in the history of the Olympic Games.  By the 1964, Disney’s impact could be felt at Disneyland, the 1960 Winter Olympics, and the 1964 World’s Fair.  Three of the biggest entities in pagentry and pomp and circumstance.  Just another notch in the belt of the, “Showman of the World.”


1) Walt Disney and the 1960 Olympic Games; Jim Korkis June 13, 2004

2) New Heights: Walt and the Winter Olympics; Michael Crawford and the Walt Disney Family Museum January 18, 2012

Thanks for reading!

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