A Look Inside Walt Disney's Multi-Billion Dollar Entertainment Empire

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Barry King/WireImage/Getty Images

Valued at $164 billion, The Walt Disney Company is one of the biggest and most powerful companies in the world. Not bad for a company that began with the humble vision of a man who simply wanted to entertain.

Disney's entertainment empire now includes not only the famed amusement parks and classic animated films, but also movie studios, television networks, music labels, countless merchandise and an upcoming streaming service. Let's take a look inside Walt Disney’s multi-billion dollar entertainment empire to see what else we find.

Humble Beginnings

Walter Elias (Walt) Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1901, although he spent the majority of his childhood on a farm in Marceline, Missouri. He had a fascination with drawing as a child and often drew pictures of the animals on his farm and around town. In fact, he made his first nickel by drawing a picture of Rupert, the horse owned by the town doctor, Doc Sherwood.

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Photo Courtesy: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1920, Disney go his first real job in animation as an apprentice with the Kansas City Film Ad Company in Missouri. He earned $50 a month while he worked on honing his craft and learning more about the business.

Laugh-O-Gram Studio

A few years later, Disney and his friend Ub Iwerks founded Laugh-O-gram Films, a film company that produced short animated snippets that were shown in the local theater. The cartoon clips were based on popular fables and fairy tales. Various prominent animators, including Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising and Isadore "Friz" Freleng, worked alongside Disney and Iwerks on the business venture.

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Photo Courtesy: William Grimes/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The animated snippets did well in theaters. In 1923, Disney produced Alice in Cartoonland, which combined both live action and animation. It was intended to be the pilot film in a series. However, a few weeks after it was completed, Disney filed for bankruptcy and left Kansas City.

Hollywood Dreams

Disney left for Hollywood in hopes of establishing a career there as a respected cinematographer and animator. Even after the failure of Laugh-O-gram Films, Alice in Cartoonland actually became a big hit, and distributors wanted Disney to create more Alice films for kids.

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Photo Courtesy: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

With the huge interest in related films, Disney teamed up with his brother Roy to create Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, which was later renamed Walt Disney Studios. Disney promptly asked the animators, including Iwerks, from his Kansas City venture to join his team in California. Together, they produced mostly Alice films for the first four years of the company's life.

A Man and a Mouse

In 1927, Disney started his first series of fully animated films featuring the character Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The black and white bunny became pretty popular with children. Unfortunately, the future mogul eventually lost the rights to the character when a business deal with his distributor went wrong.

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Photo Courtesy: Imagno/Getty Images

After the major loss, Disney came up with the idea of a new character traveling by train from New York to Hollywood. He decided to use Oswald for inspiration but change his appearance to create a new character: Mortimer Mouse. His wife insisted the character needed a better name and suggested he call the mouse "Mickey." With the help of Iwerks, the legendary mouse was born.

Steamboat Willie

Mickey Mouse was first seen in the silent cartoon Plane Crazy (1928). However, after a test screening with audiences, the film failed to attract a distributor. The animators began working on another silent short film with Mickey called The Gallopin' Gaucho. However, the studio didn't release it before starting work on a new short film.

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Photo Courtesy: Victor Chavez/Getty Images

Steamboat Willie (1928) was the first sound cartoon produced by Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, and it featured the official debut of both Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Disney provided all the voices in the film, and the film received wide critical acclaim. This earned recognition for the studio that solidified the Walt Disney name in the animation world.

Expanding the Business

The company was renamed Walt Disney Productions in 1929 and continued to produce cartoons with Mickey Mouse as well as his friends: Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto. In addition to the Mickey Mouse cartoons, the company began producing the Silly Symphonies series, which featured animation set to classical music or the music of beloved musician Carl Stalling.

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Photo Courtesy: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Silly Symphonies cartoon Flowers and Trees (1932) was the first cartoon produced using the three-color Technicolor process, and it became the first animated short to win an Academy Award. The most popular of the Silly Symphonies cartoons was The Three Little Pigs (1933), which earned another Oscar.

Getting into Merchandising

In the 1930s, Walt Disney Productions expanded into merchandising its characters for an additional source of revenue. A man in New York offered Disney $300 for the right to put Mickey Mouse on some pencil tablets he was making, and Disney agreed. That request made Disney realize the serious potential of Disney’s characters on merchandise in the future.

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Photo Courtesy: John M. Heller/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Soon after that, the company created Mickey Mouse dolls, dishes, toothbrushes, radios and more, and items flew off the shelves as parents bought them for their children. At the start of the decade, fans of the mouse saw the first publishing of Mickey Mouse books and newspaper comic strips.

Animated Feature Films

In 1934, Disney approached his animators about making a full-length animated film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He also wanted to take a more realistic approach to the look of the film, making it more like a live-action film than surreal animation. A few were skeptical of the idea at first, but as time went on, everyone grew to love the concept.

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Photo Courtesy: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images

Disney knew in his heart that feature films were the future for the studio, and he was right. After years of work, Snow White was released in 1937 and became an instant hit at the box office. In fact, it became the highest grossing film of all time, a record it held until the release of Gone with the Wind.

Financial Setbacks

After the incredible success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the studio began working on more feature films. The next two films, Pinocchio and Fantasia, were released in 1940 and were wonderful masterpieces that are still treasured in the Disney animated canon.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter Stackpole/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

However, the films were released in the middle of World War II, and the cost of making them resulted in a financial loss, due to the loss of most of Disney’s foreign markets during the war. As a result, the film Dumbo was made in 1941 on a very limited budget. In 1942, Bambi was another expensive film that pushed the studio further back financially.

Losing Its Footing

During World War II, Disney created two films in South America, Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros, at the request of the State Department. The studio turned its attention from animation and focused on making promotion and training films for the military.

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After the war, Walt Disney Productions began creating "package" features with films like Make Mine Music and Melody Time. These films had several groups of short cartoons put together for viewers. Disney also shifted into the production of live-action films, although some also included animated segments. The 1940s had created a financial setback for the studio, but it would bounce back during the next decade.

The Golden Age

Much like the rest of the country, Walt Disney Productions saw a surge in films and revenue in the 1950s. The studio released its first completely live-action film, Treasure Island, at the start of the decade as well as the animated classic Cinderella. Other animated releases that decade included Alice in Wonderland (1951), Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955).

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Photo Courtesy: Walt Disney Television/Getty Images Photo Archives/Getty Images

The studio had two Christmas specials on television and also released the Disneyland anthology series, which remained on the air for 29 years. Also for TV, the company premiered the children's series The Mickey Mouse Club for talented "Mouseketeers" who could act, sing and dance.

Fun for the Whole Family

As Disney films and television programs were taking off once again, Disney had another big idea. He wanted to branch out into the world of amusement parks. His young daughters loved zoos, carnivals and the like, but he always found himself sitting on the sidelines since the attractions were mostly for kids. He wanted to create a park where the entire family could have fun together.

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This sparked the idea for Disneyland. After years of planning and construction, the new park officially opened on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California. It instantly became a huge success, attracting families from all over the country.

Welcome to the Sixties

For the rest of the 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the company continued to thrive. The production branch put out several animated films, including 101 Dalmatians (1961) and Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree (1965). It also continued to create live-action movies, including The Absent-Minded Professor (1961) and The Incredible Journey (1963).

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Photo Courtesy: Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

One of Disney's greatest live-action films was Mary Poppins (1964), starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke. The film went on to win five Oscars, including one for Best Actress for Andrews, as well as nominations in seven other categories. It was praised as the studio's greatest achievement in more than 20 years.

Losing a Legend

Sadly, the 1960s also saw the end of an era. Walt Disney passed away on December 15, 1966, at first tumbling the company into financial disarray. However, he had made plans for the company before his death to ensure its future.

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Photo Courtesy: Allan Grant/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

In 1965, the entertainment mogul had purchased 43 acres of land in Florida for the Walt Disney World Resort. Disney's brother, Roy, oversaw the construction, and the park opened in 1971. In 1982, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT Center, opened near the Magic Kingdom and became another huge attraction. It was Disney's last creative idea for the company during his lifetime.

Going International

WED Enterprises (later renamed Walt Disney Imagineering) directed the design and development of Disneyland, Walt Disney World Resort and EPCOT in the early 1980s. The company also initiated plans for designing a Tokyo Disneyland to be the first foreign Disney park, which would open the door for more international locations in the future.

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Tokyo Disneyland officially opened on April 15, 1983, and was an immediate success. The Japanese had always loved everything created by Disney. Once they had their own Disney park, they flocked to the attraction in mass numbers.

Changing Times

In the 1980s, the company noticed a shift in moviemaking, as audiences became less interested in the family films that served as the foundation for the company. Teenage movies were all the rage, and executives needed to come up with innovative ways to compete. New management came in with the hiring of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, who served as chairman and president, respectively.

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Photo Courtesy: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival

The Walt Disney Company created a new label, Touchstone Pictures, and released Splash in 1984. It also launched its own cable network, The Disney Channel. The following year, the television division created the highly successful show Golden Girls and returned to Sunday night television with the Disney Sunday Movie (later renamed The Wonderful World of Disney).

Capitalizing on Success

In order to maximize its assets in the late 1980s, films from the Disney library were selected for syndication, and some classic animated films were released on video cassette. With this technique, Disney classics became all-time bestsellers.

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During the rest of the decade, the theme parks continued to grow as well by creating new attractions for guests. The company forged deals with filmmakers George Lucas and Francis Coppola to bring Caption EO and Star Tours to Disneyland, and the popular Splash Mountain opened in 1989. Walt Disney World opened more resorts and attractions in Florida, including the Caribbean Beach Resorts and the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park.

Leading Hollywood Studios

In 1988, the company became the leading Hollywood studio in terms of box-office gross. Films that went over the $100 million milestone — huge at the time — included Who Framed Roger Rabbit; Good Morning, Vietnam; Pretty Woman; Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Sister Act. These films were all released under Touchstone Pictures.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Allied

Disney continued to expand in filmmaking with the inception of Hollywood Pictures, which produced films for teenagers and young adults. The company also acquired the Wrather Corporation and television station KHJ-TV in Los Angeles. Following the purchase of Childcraft, the company opened a chain of Disney Stores to sell merchandise from popular movies and cartoons.

A Resurgence in Animation

The late 1980s and the 1990s saw a return to prominence in animation for The Walt Disney Company. The classic film The Little Mermaid was a huge box office hit and returned the company to its golden formula: cartoons with catchy tunes. More animated hits followed, including Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), The Lion King (1994), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Fantasia 2000 (1999).

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Photo Courtesy: Jesse Grant/Getty Images for Disney

The company had previously dabbled in computerized animation with the live-action feature film Tron (1982), and that same technology was used to make Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999). These two films were created and produced in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios.

Heading to Broadway

With Disney finding its footing again in animation, the company created new animated programs for television as well as direct-to-video sequels of some of its most popular animated features. However, another huge move was taking a few of its newest hits to the stage.

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Photo Courtesy: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

In 1994, the company tried its hand on Broadway and opened a critically-acclaimed stage production of Beauty and the Beast. A few years later, a stage play was created for The Lion King, which still runs on Broadway and in other prominent theaters around the country today. The company also restored the historic New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City, which sparked an interest in recreating the entire Times Square area.

More Disney Attractions

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, The Walt Disney Company added even more attractions to its theme parks. One of the highlights was the launch of Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World in 1998. Parked on 500 acres of land, the park was Disney's largest to date and featured the iconic Tree of Life and Kilimanjaro Safaris, where guests could view live animals in a protected sanctuary.

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Photo Courtesy: David Roark/Disney Resorts/Getty Images

An Asian-themed area was added to Animal Kingdom a year later. Other Disney theme parks opened in Paris, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Disney also launched DisneyQuest, which were indoor theme parks with virtual-reality arcades, in Orlando and Chicago.

Cruising the High Seas

Disney set out on a great new adventure with the start of Disney Cruise Line. The first ship, Disney Magic, set sail on July 30, 1998. The cruise line was developed to provide the magic of Disney to families while at sea. It incorporates many Disney characters into cruises, including Mickey Mouse and his gang and the Disney Princesses.

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Disney Cruise Line currently operates four ships: Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. Current routes travel from ports in the U.S. to Alaska, the Bahamas, the Caribbean and Europe, depending on the ship. Three new ships are set to join the fleet between 2022 and 2023.

100 Years of Magic

By the turn of the millennium, Walt Disney had been gone for more than 30 years. However, his spirit and the legacy he left behind was still going strong. In 2001, The Walt Disney Company celebrated the 100th anniversary of Walt Disney's birth, paying homage to the founder who had started it all.

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The huge event — appropriately titled "100 Years of Magic" — was held at Disney-MGM Studios theme park in Florida. The celebration included several parades, an exhibit of Disney memorabilia and the installation of a huge Mickey's sorcerer cap in the Chinese Theater plaza.

Continued Partnership with Pixar

Disney continued to create innovative and compelling films in partnership with Pixar. In May 2006, the company purchased Pixar Animation Studios outright. The animators continued to push the boundaries in computer animation and achieved great results.

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Photo Courtesy: Joshua Sudock/Disney Parks/Getty Images

Several of the companies’ collaborative films, including Finding Nemo (2003), Ratatouille (2007), WALL∙E (2008), Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010), Inside Out (2015) and Coco (2017), have won Academy Awards for Best Animated Film. Disney also added new attractions based on its work with Pixar to the parks: Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage at Disneyland, The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT and Finding Nemo — The Musical at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

Buying Marvel Entertainment

One of the most significant moves The Walt Disney Company made throughout its history was acquiring Marvel Entertainment in 2009. The purchase of the company — famous for superhero comic books and movies — came at a hefty price of $4 billion, but executives recognized the great potential in working with Marvel.

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Photo Courtesy: Gabe Ginsberg/WireImage/Getty Images

Marvel Entertainment had just started to push out films based on its popular comic book characters at the time of the purchase. Since the acquisition, the company has produced a long list of blockbuster box office hits, including The Avengers (2012), Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), Black Panther (2018) and Captain Marvel (2019).

More Acquisitions

In 2012, Disney continued building its empire with the acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. from filmmaker George Lucas for approximately $4 billion. The purchase folded the entire Star Wars franchise under the Disney umbrella. In 2015, the company released the seventh installment in the series, Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A year later, a stand-alone film in the Star Wars universe hit the big screen: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016).

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Photo Courtesy: CHRIS DELMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Additionally, the company went ahead with purchasing most of the holdings of 21st Century Fox, including the film studio 20th Century Fox. The deal officially closed in 2019 and was valued at about $71 billion. Wow!

Disney Remakes

Disney had previously produced a few live-action remakes of its animated films, but this remake trend really took off in the 2010s. Some of the key movies reimagined included Alice in Wonderland (2010), Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016).

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Disney received critical acclaim for its remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017), starring Emma Watson and Dan Stephens and featuring many of the film's original songs. The most recent remakes include beloved Disney classics Aladdin and The Lion King, both released in 2019. Upcoming remakes on the list include Lady and the Tramp, Mulan, The Little Mermaid and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Disney Parks Gone Mobile

In 2018, the company launched its new Play Disney Parks mobile app for use at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Guests can use the app to enjoy all-new interactive experiences and activities created for select attraction queues, including Playset Party at Toy Story Mania! in Disney California Adventure park and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Off to Neverland at Peter Pan’s Flight at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.

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Photo Courtesy: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Guests who are signed into their Disney accounts can also earn, collect and share uniquely themed achievements by playing games, answering trivia, completing challenges and experiencing select attractions across the two resorts. The interactive app is free to download from the Apple App Store and Google Play.

90 Years of Mickey

It was a major party in 2018 when Mickey Mouse celebrated his 90th birthday. The mouse that started it all was celebrated with a huge extravaganza. In honor of Mickey, Disney parks stocked commemorative merchandise, sold limited edition desserts and hosted a variety of events as part of the "World’s Biggest Mouse Party."

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Photo Courtesy: Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort/Getty Images

The company also ran a two-hour special on ABC called "Mickey’s 90th Spectacular." The special featured performances by Josh Groban, Meghan Trainor and the K-pop group NCT 127. Presenters included Robert A. Iger, Disney’s chief executive officer, who personally oversees the Mickey brand. The celebration was so big that Disney theme parks continued hosting events into the next year.

Streaming with Disney+

The latest venture for The Walt Disney Company will put it in direct competition with Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services. In keeping with these modern times, the company announced in 2018 that it would launch its own streaming platform called Disney+.

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The service will feature content straight from Walt Disney Studios and Walt Disney Television, including classic films, shorts and television shows that fans already know and love. Original films and television series are also being planned, including content from Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, National Geographic and 20th Century Fox. The streaming service is set to launch on November 12, 2019, in the United States.