How Steamboat Willie Made Mickey Mouse An Icon

Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie was privately screened ninety-three years ago today and not only launched Disney’s career but made Mickey Mouse a global icon.

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One of the most beloved cartoons in American history is Mickey Mouse. His first public appearance was Walt Disney’s black and white animated feature called Steamboat Willie. The cartoon is noted to be the first of its kind with synchronized sound and a post-produced soundtrack. Does anyone remember those classic whistles?

While Steamboat Willie premiered to the public on November 18th (otherwise known as Mickey Mouse’s birthday), the cartoon had a pre-screening for animators on July 29th. Today, we look back at the cartoon that made one mouse an absolute legend.

At the time of its soft-opening premiere, Steamboat Willie didn’t have the sound that makes it so iconic today. In fact, it was only partly finished. While the premiere played in a room next to Walt’s office, he and his pals created the sound along with the animation to gauge how much the audience may enjoy the cartoon. To his surprise, his test audience absolutely loved it. This catapulted Mickey and Minnie Mouse to the forefront of Disney animation.

But how did Mickey Mouse come to be? He was created as a replacement to Walt’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, whose animation was stolen by another creator. When Walt couldn’t gain direct control of the character, he backtracked and created an entirely new one in secret.


The character began as Mortimer Mouse before Walt’s wife, Lillian, convinced him to change the character’s name. Soon enough, Walt decided on the name Mickey Mouse, and he would premiere the character in a test-screening of a short animation called Plane Crazy. But the test audience wasn’t impressed, so Walt created a follow-up cartoon called The Gallopin’ Gaucho, which was never released because no one wanted to distribute it.



A couple of months later, Steamboat Willie passed the test audience of animators and officially premiered in a New York theater in November 1928. Audiences had never seen an animation like it, and it got people questioning, “Who the heck is this mouse character?” Steamboat Willie not only catapulted Walt Disney to international fame but also the beloved mouse. In the following years, Mickey Mouse was the star of most Disney cartoons, with his most famous appearances being The Band Concert (1935) and Fantasia (1940). When Disneyland opened in 1955, a physical manifestation of the mouse made its debut on opening day.


Today, Mickey Mouse appears in comics, on merchandise, in his own television show called Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, and in his own Runaway Railway ride at Magic Kindom in Florida. He is not only one of the most recognizable characters in animation, his head is also one of the most recognizable shapes. Guests to any Disneyland park can spot hidden Mickeys throughout rides and on walkways, proving that Mickey Mouse has literally left his mark on the world.

While Mickey Mouse will turn 93 this year, the character will without a doubt live on for generations to come. Children all over the world will continue to grow up learning his name and adults will continue to write in his name as a candidate for president. What began as a last-ditch effort for Walt to make his name in the animation world became a global icon, even past Walt’s death. So if you ever find yourself down the rabbit hole of how powerful The Disney Company actually is, just remember that it really all did simply start with a mouse.