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“The Happiest Place on Earth”

A History of Disney

The story of the Disney Company is a story of the man, Walt Elias Disney. It is also a story of Disney theme parks, Disney merchandising, Disney characters, and Disney films and media. The multitude of Disney products all over the world speaks to the company’s phenomenal appeal and its tendency to be accepted with unqualified approval, even reverence, by the public. Rife with tension between devotion to imagination and crass consumerism, the Disney Company survived its early days as an independent company in the midst of studio giants to become the dominant marketing of children and family entertainment, even as it expands into other lines of business. Both heralded as a place where dreams really do come true and, alternatively, an example of commercialism run amok, Disney in all of its manifestations and tensions remains a ubiquitous and enduring part of our media and cultural landscape.

Once Upon a Time . . .

In the many histories of Walt Disney, the themes of fierce personal independence and idealized rural life remain consistent. Born in Chicago in 1901 of Irish, English, and Canadian descent on his father’s side and German on his mother’s, Walt was one of five kids who grew up in the strict, poor Disney family. His father, Elias Disney, moved the family from Chicago to a farm in Missouri (1906), to Kansas City (1910), and then back to Chicago (1917) as he worked variously in construction, farming, and even delivering newspapers. Walt’s mother, Flora, was a school teacher who taught him to read and was devoted to both her children and her husband (Maltin 2000). While Walt retained a love/hate relationship with his father, he always loved his mother and his older brother Roy, who would later become his business partner (Wasko 2001).

When Walt was just 16, he falsified his age to follow his brother Roy into military service as a Red Cross Ambulance Driver in the last year of WWI. When he returned in 1919, he skipped high school to work at a commercial art studio. While there, he met Ub Iwerks, with whom he would form a lifelong collaboration. In 1922, the two young artists formed their own company, Laugh-O-Grams, where he produced Alice’s Wonderland series which combined animation and live action. After being turned down by several distribution companies, a New York company agreed to distribute the Alice cartoons. Walt asked Roy to be his business manager, and the Disney Company officially formed on October 16, 1923 (Allan 1999). Although the company was first called The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studios, it soon become the Walt Disney Studio, reflecting Walt’s role as the “creative” force while Roy worked behind the scenes (Wasko 2001).

In 1927, Disney created the highly successful Oswald the Lucky Rabbit for Universal Pictures. After asking for a raise from his distributors, Charles Mintz and Mintz’s brother-in-law George Winkler, they not only refused him but also told him they were going to cut his pay and hire away his staff ( a move they had already started), and that the rights to Oswald belonged to them. Disney, refusing to accept less money, went home without a staff, money, or Oswald (Wasko 2001).

On the train ride home, Walt, as the story goes, was inspired to create a new cartoon mouse, first named Mortimer and later named Mickey. In early 1928, the first Mickey cartoon appeared: Plane Crazy. The third Mickey cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928), was the first cartoon to use synchronized sound and was hugely popular. With the success of Steamboat Willie, the studio worked on the popular “Silly Symphonies,” a series of short films (75 total) that experimented with sound and images to create moods and emotions. Disney was also one of the first companies to use Technicolor’s color process to create the first full-color cartoon, Flowers and Trees, which won an Academy Award in 1932 for Best Cartoon (Maltin 2000).

1930s: A Period of Expansion

The studio expanded rapidly during the 1930s, especially with the rising popularity of Mickey’s hilarious sidekick Donald Duck and the famous Silly Symphony The Three Little Pigs and its catchy tune, “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” which many said symbolized the American people’s spirit during the darkest days of the Depression (Allan 1999). Walt also hired staff from art schools and held drawing classes, which gave his studio more sophistication and a more realistic style. Proving his earlier skeptics wrong in 1937, Walt’s first full-length cartoon Snow White and Seven Dwarves (which might be said to have fully established the Classic Disney formula) was the highest grossing film of all time, a record held until it was surpassed by Gone with the Wind. After the success of Snow White, Walt moved the studio into a new $3 million complex in Burbank with separate buildings for the different stages of the animation process, representing not only the growing company but also the growing rationalization of the animation process. Disney began using the multi-plane camera and Leica reel (Wasko 2001). Known as the “fun factory,” Disney was also rapidly gaining interest in selling related merchandise (Telotte 2008).

Perhaps due to the 1938 accidental asphyxiation death of his mother by a faulty furnace in a home Walt bought for her, his next movie, Pinocchio, was more complex and dark than Snow White (Wasko 2001). Audiences responded uneasily to its darkness, the loneliness of the puppet, and the grotesqueness and Dickensian characters, and both Pinocchio and his next film, Fantasia, lost money (though they would eventually earn phenomenal profits later). Unfortunately, Walt’s problems were just beginning.

1940s: Experimentation and War

A nine-week strike in 1941 in the Disney studio soon after the failure of his two feature films changed both Disney the man and Disney the studio. Employees, already somber due to the industrial-wide unrest that had proliferated through Hollywood since 1937, felt that the success of Snow White had led to company overexpansion without adequate managerial structure and that the move to the new Burbank studio was marred by divisions and bureaucracies. In addition, salary uncertainties led to jealousies while overseas income had fallen due to the war (Allan 1999).

Convinced that the strike at his studio was organized by communists, Walt became more withdrawn and vehemently anti-communist. A fact unknown to many is that Walt played an important role in the formation of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals (MPA), which was the inspiration for the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Walt shelved many of his ideas at this time, such as Wind in the Willows, a subsequent Fantasia, Don Quixote, and other European stories that he had earlier bought the rights to (Wasko 2001).

In 1941, the US government asked Walt to make a goodwill tour of Latin America to counter possible Nazi influences, where he made several Latin American films (Maltin 2000). The government also asked Disney to make propaganda and military training films, which initially Walt balked at doing because he thought it would curtail his creative output and compromise his control. Working for the military, however, actually saved Disney by providing Walt with income, forcing him to diversify filmmaking activities and forcing him—ever the perfectionist—to work on shorter schedules (Wasko 2001). By 1942, over 93% of the studio’s production was devoted to government projects, highlighting just how complex Walt was that he could turn the studio almost overnight into a propaganda factory (Telotte 2008). The Disney decade of the 1940s was one of great creative and artistic interests, though today it is often ignored, even by the Walt Disney Company, because it was not “Disney” enough.

1950s: The Golden Age of Disney

After the war, Disney returned to classical animated feature films such as Cinderella (1950), the first animated feature film with a continuous narrative since Bambi eight years earlier. Cinderella, based loosely on Grimm’s rendering of the tale, led to great economic success, exceeding that of Snow White (Maltin 2001). Its success gave Walt increased confidence and led to his creation of the Disneyland theme park, which opened in California in 1955 and has consistently attracted hundreds of millions of visitors from around world. It also gave Walt confidence to use new technology, such as TV, to promote his movies while many in Hollywood were still afraid of new technology. Walt Disney’s reputation continued to grow with the success of his Disneyland television series (Telotte 2008). Walt and Roy also started their own distribution company, Buena Vista Home Entertainment, which was retired in 2007.

1960s: The Disney Empire

In the 60s, the market for cartoons had diminished and, consequently, the company moved aggressively into live-action films such as The Shaggy Dog (1959), The Absent Minded Professor (1961), and Swiss Family Robinson (1960). Disney also pioneered the use of Audio Animatronics, which it used in the highly successful Mary Poppins (1964). Two years later, Walt Disney died, at 65 following surgery for lung cancer. Prior to his death, Walt, using several assumed names, had bought 28,000 acres in Florida to build another theme park and an ideal community (Wasko 2001). After Walt’s death, Roy took over the company and saw the completion of Walt Disney World on October 1, 1971, which would eventually include EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) in 1982. Roy passed away in December 1971.

1970s: After Walt’s Death

After Walt’s and Roy’s deaths, the company lost direction and spontaneity. Artists seemed to rely on what they thought Walt would like rather than their own judgment (Wasko 2001). In addition, the company was sluggish in developing newly distribution technologies such as cable and home video or in producing a wider range of media products (Telotte 2008). For example, Disney management turned down proposals for Raiders of the Lost Arkand ET: The Extra Terrestrial. Illustrator Ken Anderson wept when he saw how his character concepts had been processed into stereotypes for the animation on Robin Hood. By mid 1970, the company had become largely reliant on park revenues (Allan 1999).

1980s: The New Disney

In the 1980s, the company became more involved with recreation and real estate than entertainment. In fact, by the early 1980s, Disney box office shares were less than four percent. Trouble began to brew when, in 1983, Roy Disney, Jr., resigned from the board. The company appeared ripe for takeover. The billionaire Bass brothers of Texas saved the possible breakup of Disney by buying 25 percent of the Disney stock, enough to control the company and appoint their own managers. They promptly installed a new management team, creating “Team Disney,” which included Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenburg from Paramount and former Warner Brother’s vice-chairman Frank Wells.

Team Disney initially worked (Wasko 2001). From 1983 to 1987, annual revenues more than doubled, profits nearly quintupled, and the value of Disney stock went from $2 billion to $23 billion. Its expansion depended largely on a wide array of business activities in which the new management team aggressively exploited the Disney brand name. In addition, because movie-making changed in the 1980s toward attracting a huge teenage and adult market, the company also established Touchstone Pictures with the release of Splash in 1984 (Telotte 2008).

1990: The Disney Decade

Team Disney declared the 1990s as “The Disney Decade” in which it raked in $10 billion in revenue. Disney also purchased Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion in 1996 which, in addition to ABC, also brought to Disney 10 other TV stations, 21 radio stations, and ownership in other networks such as ESPN. In addition, Disney’s adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale, The Little Mermaid (1989), led to a revival of the company’s film fortunes (Allan 1999) which would continue with Beauty and the Beast (1991), which was influenced by German expressionism, and The Lion King (1994), a skillful retelling of Hamlet with Biblical overtones and the most successful animated feature ever produced (Maltin 2000).

The Twenty-first Century: The Fall of Eisner and Continued Growth

Though Eisner helped Disney become a media giant in the late 80s and 90s, sinking ratings for ABC, theme park missteps, limited success at the box office, and a billion-dollar loss on Go.com, as well as claims that Eisner was a soulless capitalist in the late 1990s, led to his vote of no confidence and, subsequently, he stepped down from the Disney board (Wasko 2001). Robert Iger stepped in and created a faster moving, savvy Disney that created blockbuster hits such as Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) and Finding Nemo (2003), making Disney the first studio in history to surpass $3 billion in the global box office. Disney also bought Pixar in 2006, which has been immensely successful and ensured the continuation of Disney’s future. Disney experiences continued success with TV hits such as Desperate Housewives, Lost, Greys’ Anatomy, High School Musical, and Hannah Montana. In a symbolic move, Disney also bought the rights to Walt’s original creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 2006 (Waslo 2001).

While aesthetic, cultural, socio-political, and feminist attacks on Disney are not uncommon today, Disney in all its forms still continues to be popular—perhaps because it is tied directly to powerful notions of fantasy and archetypes that delight children and adults alike. Whether Disney’s self-proclaimed images of innocence are indeed “innocent” remains debatable. But what is known is that for many viewers around the world, Disney films and characters continue to hold their most treasured memories from childhood while at the same time pushing forward the boundaries of both film and imagination.

-- Posted September 23, 2008


Allan, Robin. 1999. Walt Disney and Europe: European Influences on the Animated Feature Films of Walt Disney. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Maltin, Leonard. 2000. The Disney Films. 4th Ed. New York, NY: JessieFilm, Ltd.

Telotte, J.P. 2008. The Mouse Machine: Disney and Technology. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Wasko, Janet. 2001. Understanding Disney: The Manufacture of Fantasy. Cambridge, UK: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd.