Walt Disney & the U.S. Military: A Century of Support for Veterans

The Walt Disney Company is widely recognized for its tradition of storytelling, innovative cinematic experiences and beloved characters. One aspect of Disney’s history is its longstanding commitment to those who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.

Disney’s dedication to military service members and veterans goes back more than a century. From the ambitions of a patriotic young Walt Disney to the establishment of life-changing programs and institutions, Disney’s steadfast support of veterans and the military community continues to evolve and have a meaningful impact on those who have bravely served our country.

Walt Disney and the First World War

When World War I was underway, Walt Disney felt a responsibility to contribute, but he was too young to join the military. However, the relatively new Red Cross was recruiting 17-year-olds for extra help on the battlefield, and Walt knew this was his chance to give back.

Determined to serve his country alongside his brother, Roy O. Disney, who was enlisted in the U.S. Navy during World War I, Walt was able to officially join the Red Cross and ventured overseas at the tail end of hostilities. When Germany ultimately surrendered in 1918, Red Cross Ambulance Corps drivers helped carry supplies, escort officers and help injured soldiers in a then post-war France.

Walt soon arrived in France and worked with the Red Cross Ambulance Corps, serving as a driver until 1919. Walt Disney’s experiences with the Red Cross during that time instilled in him a deep respect for military members and their sacrifices, laying the foundation for his lifelong dedication to supporting veterans.

A photo compilation of Walt Disney in the Red Cross during World War I and Roy O. Disney in the U.S. Navy during World War I

World War II and The Walt Disney Studios

When World War II began, Walt Disney Studios had already captured the country’s imagination with iconic animated characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. Soon, those same characters would be recruited to join the war effort, so to speak.

Disney-themed military insignias

Throughout World War II, The Walt Disney Company made significant contributions to improve the morale of U.S. forces with specially designed insignias. As the war raged on, Disney created more than 1,200 of these insignias, which were proudly displayed on aircraft, medical units, uniforms and other military equipment.

One of the most popular designs was Donald Duck, a character whose toughness and grit embodied the attitude of service members. Donald eventually became the unofficial mascot of troops fighting for their country.

While the Allied forces were equipped with decorative insignias overseas, Walt Disney Studio characters also played a role in raising the spirits of those back home. The studio produced a number of cartoons that promoted nationwide patriotism and featured caricatures of opposing forces.

Disney, veterans and the post-war era

By the end of World War II, Disney had solidified his place as a beloved icon of American culture. He had more opportunities than ever to give back to those who had or were still serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Marine Toys for Tots

For more than 75 years, Disney has supported the Marine Corps Reserve Toys for Tots Program that brings holiday cheer to millions of families.

The tradition began in 1947 when Walt Disney and his team of studio animators produced the first Toys for Tots logo, which is still in use today. In the 75 years since, Marine Toys for Tots has upheld its legacy of bringing joy to those in need. U.S. Marines and volunteers have distributed 652 million toys to more than 291 million children. In 2022, Toys for Tots distributed more than 24 million toys to nearly 10 million children, a record-breaking year for the organization.

Disney’s Submarine Voyage

Opened to the public in 1959, Disney’s Submarine Voyage honored the U.S. Armed Forces with a fleet of submarines named after real-life U.S. Navy vessels. The attraction debuted with a dedication ceremony led by Navy Admiral Charles C. Kirkpatrick, and crowds gathered for a glimpse of what lay beneath the sea.

Guests at Disneyland have also enjoyed daily flag ceremonies since this iconic park first opened in 1955. The tradition continues today with a daily Flag Retreat Ceremony. This patriotic ceremony features the lowering of the flag, a color guard, and the singing of the national anthem. Veterans and military service members often participate in the event, which takes place at Disneyland’s Town Square every sunset. A special daily flag retreat has also been conducted at Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World every day since the park first opened in 1971. A veteran or service member is selected daily from the day’s visitors to be the official “Veteran of the Day” and participate in the nightly ceremony.

How Disney supports veteran employment

Disney supports veteran employment through various initiatives and programs, each dedicated to the betterment of military personnel and their families. From on-the-job training to employment for military spouses, Disney is committed to offering support along the post-military service journey to successful civilian careers.

Disney’s Heroes Work Here program

heroes work here pin and pamphlets on a table

The Heroes Work Here program promotes the hiring of veterans at Disney. By assisting veterans with their transition to civilian life, Heroes Work Here recognizes the valuable expertise that military personnel bring to the workplace and helps them pursue careers within The Walt Disney Company.

To date, the initiative has helped 15,000 veterans find employment within The Walt Disney Company since its launch in 2012, underscoring Disney’s unwavering dedication to the military community. In addition to providing employment opportunities for U.S. military members, Heroes Work Here remains committed to facilitating the professional success of veterans and their families.

Launch of the Veterans Institute

A woman speaks from the stage at the Veterans Institute, presented by Disney

Carving the path forward to expanding access to employment and career training for military members, veterans and their families, The Walt Disney Company launched the Veterans Institute in 2013 to inspire organizations by utilizing actionable insights from The Walt Disney Company’s Heroes Work Here initiative.

The Veterans Institute involves several coordinated events designed to educate organizations on how to improve their methods of outreach, recruitment and training of U.S. military veterans. These summits guide businesses to collaborate and share best practices for transitioning new employees out of military life. The Veterans Institute also plays a critical role in the hiring and training of military spouses.

Promoting diversity and inclusion through SALUTE BERG

In addition to facilitating military service members into civilian life and professional roles, The Walt Disney Company has established the Disney SALUTE Business Employee Resource Group (BERG) for veterans, as well as their friends and family.

Disney SALUTE BERG members

The Disney SALUTE BERG places emphasis on social and peer support for those coming to Disney from the military community, providing a sense of belonging for veterans working at the company. The group also provides community service opportunities for its members, enabling them to do what veterans do best: offer service to their country and community.

Disney SALUTE BERG members in from of Cinderella Castle

DOD SkillBridge

Navigating career changes is often challenging, but transitioning out of military life can be a particularly daunting experience. That’s why The Walt Disney Company participates in training programs like the DoD SkillBridge by providing fellowships and career development opportunities for military service members during their last days on active duty.

SkillBridge offers military service members the chance to gain valuable civilian work experience at participating organizations who offer them internships where they can play a contributing role as they prepare to transition from military to civilian life. At Disney, these veterans are placed in fellowships that align with their existing professional experience. These opportunities also encourage participating service members to enhance their skill sets and broaden their career horizons.

Disney’s current veteran support initiatives

Disney’s support for veterans has never faltered. New and innovative programs designed to elevate the education and career opportunities for military personnel and their families continue to be developed today.

Shades of Green

Shades of Green is a U.S. Armed Forces Recreation Center, located on Walt Disney World Resort property. As part of Disney’s salute to service, the company leased the Department of Defense the land for 100 years so that military members and their families would be closest to the magic. It offers accommodations and amenities designed to provide an affordable vacation option with the promise of a Disney adventure.

In addition to easy access to Walt Disney World, Shades of Green features delicious dining options, wellness centers and kid-friendly activities. Guests can also receive exclusive military discounts on theme park tickets, expanding access for more military families to take part in the remarkable world of Disney.

Department of Defense Warrior Games

The Department of Defense Warrior Games is an action-packed celebration that invites wounded service members to showcase their resilience in a series of athletic competitions. Athletes in the DoD Warrior Games put their physicality to the test while cheering on their teammates in a series of adaptive sports events, such as wheelchair basketball, cycling and powerlifting.

Walt Disney World has had the honor of hosting the DoD Warrior Games at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in previous years. The resort will host again in June 2024, providing the ideal venue for the camaraderie and teamwork that the games represent.

Disney’s Military Salute Program

Disney’s Military Salute Program was established by The Walt Disney Company to offer and other exclusive benefits to eligible members of the U.S. military. This veteran discount is designed to show appreciation for the service and sacrifices of military personnel and their families by offering easier access to resorts like Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Student Veterans of America

An image of the audience at the Student Veterans of America

Disney was honored to donate $1 million to Student Veterans of America (SVA) in November 2023 as part of the company’s commitment to helping veterans find meaningful careers following their military service. With this donation, Disney became the founding sponsor of the upcoming SVA Career Center, a transformative initiative that will empower veterans with the tools and guidance they need to successfully transition into the civilian workforce and unlock their full potential like never before.

Disney has enjoyed an enduring relationship with Student Veterans of America dating back to 2012 following the launch of our Heroes Work Here initiative. This collaboration not only facilitates a smooth transition to civilian life for student veterans but also reflects a shared dedication of leveraging the unique skills of those who have served in the Armed Forces.

Donations to Fisher House and other nonprofit organizations

An image of the exterior of the Fisher House

Another reflection of its steadfast support for military veterans, The Walt Disney Company has made substantial financial contributions to vital nonprofit organizations like Fisher House Foundation. Fisher House has established comfort homes in the United States and around the world where active service members, military veterans and their families can stay at no cost while loved ones receive medical treatment. Since 2012, Disney has donated more than $20 million to veteran-focused organizations.

Celebrating service for more than a century

Disney’s commitment to veterans and military families spans across a century, from its founder’s early experiences in the Red Cross to the company’s modern-day employment initiatives. The legacy of respect and gratitude continues to better the lives of veterans returning to civilian life and honors those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep our country safe.