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Hidden Disney Magic: Lawnmowers, Nature Films, and Animal Kingdom’s Anniversary

Molly Engquist, WDW Radio Team Writer

Every year on April 22, Earth Day celebrates the world we live in and how we can protect it. Walt Disney always celebrated nature with the characters he created and stories that he told. Walt Disney World still honors this ideal at Animal Kingdom every day, but even more so on April 22 with special events, merchandise, and of course food!

Just recently, I was researching something completely void of anything Disney and it still connected back to Disney and Walt’s love of nature. Who would have thought researching small engines would magically bring me to a Disney connection?

Ok, I’ll get on with it, or as Lou and Tim would say, “just go with me here.” 

It started when I was looking at buying a new lawn mower. The Briggs and Statton engine is used on many lawn mowers and I wondered if that is the same Briggs that the library at my Alma Mater, South Dakota State University, is named after. (Yes, that is totally how my mind works, again, just go with me.) I started looking into it and found that, no, the library is not named after Stephen Foster Briggs of Briggs and Stratton. It was named after one of the university presidents, Hilton M, Briggs, no relation.

Stephen Foster Briggs with his 2 Cycle two-stroke engine he built his senior year at South Dakota State College, 1906.
Image from wikicommons

But, Stephen Foster Briggs did go to SDSU for engineering and he was friends with Walt Disney. Like Walt, S.F. Briggs had successful businesses from the 1920s through the 1960s: Briggs and Stratton and Outboard Marine which included Evinrude and later Johnson Motor Company. In 1934, he injured his hand in a laboratory explosion. He had just purchased property in Naples, FL, and during his recovery he picked up photography as a hobby. As his hobby grew, he started specializing in bird photography. This led him to work closely with the Audubon Society.

Briggs produced a movie on flamingos that he filmed during two trips to the Bahamas in 1951 and 1952. Travel was a bit different at that time and the location was hard to get to with no roads. They had to use swamp boats to carry the equipment, which worked great in water but then had to be dragged six miles through the terrain. Cameras were also a bit different in the 1950s and couldn’t do all that Briggs wanted them to do. So he designed and built a 16mm camera that had a twin reflex with a matched 6” cine ektar lens — one lens for the picture and the other attached to a ground glass for focusing and composing.

SF Briggs with his camera during filming of a movie in Florida. Image from The Tampa Tribune Sun Dec.6, 1953

The footage was used in Disney’s A True-Life Adventure: Waterbirds in 1952. The film went on to win an Oscar for Best Short Subject Documentary at the 25th Academy Awards in 1953. This is probably why Walt and S.F. were friends — both had a love for nature and film making. Briggs went on to make films for Florida, the Audubon Society, and his outboard company.

Screenshot from the Water Birds film on Disney+
Screenshot from the Water Birds film on Disney+

Between 1948 and 1960, Walt Disney released seven documentary short films under the True-Life Adventure series. They were so successful that he made the next seven into full-length feature films. The feature films were a risk because according to RKO Pictures, “nobody would want to come to the theater to just watch nature films.” That led Walt and Roy O. Disney to establish Buena Vista Film Distribution Company. The first film, The Living Desert, went on to win at the 26th Academy Awards. 

Have you seen any of these on Disney+ or even in the theater?

Seal Island 1948 

In Beaver Valley 1950 (on Disney+)

Nature’s Half Acre 1951 (on Disney+)

The Olympic Elk 1952 (on Disney+)

Water Birds 1952 (on Disney+)

Bear Country 1953 

Prowlers of the Everglades 1953 (on Disney+)

The Living Desert 1953 (on Disney+)

The Vanishing Prairie 1954 (on Disney+)

The African Lion 1955 (on Disney+)

Secrets of Life 1956 (on Disney+)

Perri 1957 (on Disney+)

White Wilderness 1958 

Jungle Cat 1960 (on Disney+)

Here’s a fun challenge… watch one then watch one of the DisneyNature films on Disney+ to see how far they have come! I can’t wait for the new one coming out on April 22, 2022 about Polar Bears!

While it’s not quite time to mow here in the midwest, the next time I do, I’ll look down at the Briggs and Stratton logo and think of Disney. Will you? Thanks for going with me on my latest history tangent!

My name is Molly and I live in South Dakota. With my art and design training and love for history, I have helped develop over 80 local history exhibits through the years as a Curator. Disney has been in my blood since I was born. Visiting my Grandparents in California also meant my parents taking us to Disneyland. Since the late 1970s, I have taken many trips to DL and WDW but sometimes it’s too long in between trips. I have always tried to stay connected to Disney from watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday night, to movies, books and blogs. Once I found Lou on WDW Radio, it became even easier to dream of Disney in between visits!