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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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."
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+.