Walt Disney once said he hoped “we never lose sight of one thing — that it was all started by a mouse.”
One hundred years ago, the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio opened for business in the back half of a real estate office in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles. Walt Disney had come to Hollywood that summer after the bankruptcy of his first venture, Laugh-O-gram Films, in Kansas City, Mo. He joined his older brother, Roy O. Disney, who was already living in California and willing to risk $250 on his sibling’s dreams.
The duo signed a deal — on Oct. 16, 1923 — to produce short films for a New York distributor. The nascent shop was renamed Walt Disney Studio three years later at Roy’s urging.
Over the past century, the influence of the Burbank giant on entertainment and pop culture — not just in the U.S. but also globally — has been profound. The company has shaped the very nature of entertainment through its movies, theme parks that have become vacation destinations, merchandising strategies and television networks.
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Early on, Walt Disney learned a harsh but critical lesson. He poured his heart into creating “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.” The cartoon character was a breakout hit when it debuted in September 1927, and Walt and his team of artists spent months creating an additional 25 cartoons featuring the black-and-white big-eared bunny.
But Disney didn’t own the rights to Oswald. Instead, the brothers discovered that the distributor had them and was trying to poach their animators to crank out more Oswald cartoons — without Disney. Forced to pivot, Walt invented the mischievous mouse.
Success in Hollywood comes from owning intellectual property, and Disney has since maintained a tight grip on its IP. Through those creations and rights, the Disney company became a $150 billion colossus.
“Disney was the most consequential figure in the history of American culture,” historian and author Garry Apgar said. “What Walt Disney, inadvertently, and the current company have done is to blow leisure time and entertainment to a whole new level — it’s vast and it’s infinite. They have set the trends in many ways.”
To mark the company’s 100th anniversary, we take a look at seven touchstones of Disney’s influence on the business of entertainment.
“Heigh-ho, heigh-ho. It’s home from work we go.”
Disney’s eight-minute film “Steamboat Willie” was groundbreaking. Mickey made his debut with the 1928 animated short, which also introduced synchronized sound to what had been a silent medium.
Disney pioneered sound film technology, synchronizing on-screen action with recorded speech, music and sound effects, Apgar said. The Disney studio also was the first to use a Technicolor process, and its “Flowers and Trees,” which won the 1932 Academy Award for animated short subject, was the first to bring full color to animation.
“The Disney company, under Walt, elevated animation to an art form,” art historian Heather Holian said.
When the landmark “Snow White and the Seven Dwafs” premiered at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood on Dec. 21, 1937, L.A. Times reviewer Edwin Schallert hailed the movie as an achievement in fine art. “True poetry has been achieved in this first super production,” Schallert wrote, calling it an “evocation of magic.”
The full-length animated fantasy movie adapted from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale was a big gamble for Walt Disney and his brother, Roy, who had specialized in animated shorts around the iconic Mickey Mouse and other characters. Walt took out a mortgage on his house to finance the $1.4 million picture, which was deemed by skeptics as “Disney’s Folly” during production.
But Walt had the last laugh. The landmark film went on to receive a special Academy Award in 1939 (one regular-size Oscar along with seven dwarf Oscars) and would become one of the highest-grossing movies of its time.
“It was a stunning film that completely changed the history of animation,” Holian said. “’Snow White’ was the first cel-animated feature-length film. It was a pivotal moment. After that, the Disney studio started to rapidly grow … and other studios had to play catch-up.”
“Snow White” ushered in a golden era of classic animated feature films, including such titles as “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Bambi,” “Sleeping Beauty” and “Peter Pan.” Disney completed the move of its headquarters to Burbank in 1940.
After stumbling in the 1970s and ‘80s with some high-profile flops, Disney in the Michael Eisner era enjoyed another animation renaissance with such hits as “The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast” and the enormously successful “The Lion King,” which also inspired a popular and long-running Broadway show.
While Disney became a trailblazer in the world of animated feature films, it also faced fresh challenges from rivals that specialized in the new medium of computer-generated animation, led by Pixar Animation Studios, which transformed the industry with “Toy Story” in 1995, and DreamWorks Animation, which was led by former Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and scored a massive hit with “Shrek.”
Pixar’s then-creative guru John Lasseter was a former Disney animator who was inspired by Disney’s innovative use of CGI in the sci-fi movie “Tron.” And Disney, which distributed Pixar films, recognized the power of those franchises, leading to its $7.4-billion deal in 2006 to acquire the Emeryville, Calif., studio.
“It was the mark of a new era,” said Holian, who teaches a class called Art of Disney and Pixar at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “They saw these films were resonating with the same audience groups that Disney was after.”
Disney’s original theme park sprang from Walt Disney’s imagination and a $17-million investment. Walt famously borrowed on his life insurance and sold his vacation home to finance construction of the park on 160 acres he purchased in Anaheim (he considered a site in Burbank, but it was deemed too small).
Walt wanted to build a place where parents like himself could bring their kids for a clean and wholesome experience, a departure from the traveling carnivals and amusement parks of that era, as the late Disney archivist Dave Smith recounted in his book “Disney A to Z.”
“Disneyland was built when the interstate highway system was just getting started, and California was building the freeways,” Apgar said, noting that American families began taking road trips — a luxury that previous generations could not afford.
“America was richer after the war. People had more money.”
The park opened on July 17, 1955, with a live TV special (future president Ronald Reagan was one of the emcees), and Disneyland would soon become one of the most famous tourist destinations in the world. Until then, the term “theme park” wasn’t widely used, said Robert Neuman, author of the book “From Hollywood to Disneyland: Walt Disney’s Dream Park and the Influence of American Movies,” and an art history professor at Florida State University.
“The impact of Disneyland is so broad,” Neuman added. “The notion of creating environments through architecture, decor, costuming, music and food. The experiential nature has become so pervasive in America and globally through the other Disney theme parks.”
Disneyland led to the opening of the Walt Disney World resort near Orlando, Fla., in October 1971 (it debuted nearly five years after Walt’s death in December 1966) and other parks in Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Disneyland itself would later expand with a second park, Disney California Adventure, which initially struggled from low attendance and criticism that it was a far cry from Disneyland when it first opened in 2001 (the company would later spend $1.1 billion on a makeover to give it a more distinctive identity).
“It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of themed attractions … from restaurants and hotels to stores and even museums and historic sites,” Neuman said. “For better or worse, we live in a themed world.”
Beyond building a hugely lucrative tourism business — one that eventually spawned Disney’s foray into cruise lines — that could be used to promote Disney’s animated movies and characters, Disneyland ushered in a unique and quintessentially American form of family entertainment. As Walt said: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”
Disney was not the first company to dabble in merchandising, but it perfected the art to a science.
By the early 1930s, as the cartoons were enchanting moviegoers, Disney found that merchandising the characters could be an additional lucrative source of revenue that could sustain the company during the long process of making films.
When a New York agent offered Walt $300 to license Mickey Mouse’s image on some pencil tablets, he agreed. The business took off with Mickey Mouse dolls, dishes, lunchboxes, toothbrushes, radios and figurines popping up almost everywhere.
In 1930, the first Mickey Mouse book and newspaper comic strip were published.
“Even in the early days, millions of dollars were made from merchandising with Mickey Mouse and Snow White,” Neuman said.
The company also acquired rights to author A.A. Milne’s characters in the early 1960s. Disney plastered Winnie the Pooh and his forest friends in movies, on DVDs and the ABC network. There were Tigger telephones, Piglet cookie jars and Pooh Beanie Babies dressed in satiny feng shui robes and leather-like black biker jackets.
By the late 1990s, Winnie the Pooh was among the company’s biggest revenue generators. For years, it seemed that almost every mall in America had its own Disney Store (the first was opened at the Glendale Galleria in 1987) with products stacked floor to ceiling. In 2021, Disney closed 60 Disney Stores as part of a move to online shopping platforms.
Disney also is famous for its “vault” strategy, a long-held policy of regularly removing its animated feature films from circulation for a period of years in order to drive interest when the film is re-released.
Not surprisingly, Disney has introduced a line of merchandise to mark its 100th anniversary, including a gold Mickey Mouse Citizen watch and a Lego set depicting the Pixar film “Up.”
Kids and family entertainment
Disney is synonymous with children’s and family entertainment.
“Disney strikes a deeper chord in American consciousness than any of the other studios,” Neuman said. “There’s this deep nostalgia. You experience these films as a child, and then you are watching your own children see them.”
In the 1950s, Walt recognized the influence television would have on American culture, and he moved into television with the anthology series “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color”; it would remain on the air for 29 years in various incarnations. The show introduced Disney culture, entertainment and educational experiences to family living rooms.
The “Mickey Mouse Club” debuted in 1955, capitalizing on the popularity of such series as “Davy Crockett” and classic live action movies including “Treasure Island” and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
One of the most important was “Mary Poppins,” a departure from the plot of a princess who pines for her prince charming. The 1964 film, which starred Julie Andrews, who won an Oscar for her performance, depicts a sensible and self-reliant British nanny with magical powers.
Disney showed that family entertainment was hugely lucrative — and highly influential in popular culture.
The Disney Channel, which launched in 1983, carved out a lucrative niche in cable television for decades, with shows like “Welcome to Pooh Corner”; the re-booted “The Mickey Mouse Club,” which also raised the profiles of a galaxy of contemporary stars, including Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Ryan Gosling; and “High School Musical.”
The channel also helped launch such stars as Zendaya (“Shake It Up”), Miley Cyrus (“Hannah Montana”), Selena Gomez (“Wizards of Waverly Place”) and Zac Efron (“High School Musical”).
Disney also pioneered the practice of synergy — a stroke of marketing brilliance to turn characters and films into the commercial sale of toys, videos and experiences. Movies were turned into theme park attractions and vice versa, including “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
The cross-platform strategy was in full swing in 1994 when Disney debuted a stage production of “Beauty and the Beast” on Broadway. Three years later, “The Lion King” opened.
Other media companies have tried to replicate cross-platform promotions, with limited success.
“Disney really understood how to sell a product, sell a movie,” Neuman said. “He tied together the different units of the company and then used television to publicize his movies and the theme parks.”
Sports programming wasn’t a cornerstone of the original company, but by the 1990s, Disney had recognized that sports had become the pastime for millions of American TV viewers.
In 1993, the company introduced the Mighty Ducks hockey team in Anaheim; an ode to the Disney movie. (It sold the team in 2005.)
In 1996, Disney acquired a stake in the California Angels baseball team and later took full control. Under Disney, the Anaheim team in 2002 won its first and only World Series title. (It sold the team the following year.)
Also in 1996, Disney completed its landmark purchase of the Capital Cities/ABC television company. With the $19 billion transaction, Disney assumed ownership of the ABC broadcast network and the cable sports channel ESPN, among other outlets.
Increasingly, Disney recognized it could score high profits, not from owning teams, but rather by distributing their games as part of the pay-TV bundle. ESPN was known as “The Worldwide Leader in Sports,” and its ubiquitous news show, “Sports Center,” was a hot ticket for decades, enabling fans at home to see game highlights from across the country before smartphones. Disney moved “Monday Night Football” to ESPN from ABC in 2006.
At its peak more than a decade ago, ESPN was part of the lineup in 100 million homes. It remains the most expensive cable channel to pay-TV providers, and some analysts say that ESPN and other sports channels remain the glue that is holding the pay-TV bundle together. (The channel is now in about 73 million homes).
Even as the cable bundle frays, Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger has made it clear that Disney intends to hold on to the TV sports empire but that it may bring on a strategic partner.
Superheroes and blockbusters
Disney didn’t invent edgy superheroes like Marvel’s “Spiderman,” “Captain America” and DC Comics’ “Batman.” Walt’s characters were more whimsical and drawn from nature — pigs, deer and skunks — or pulled from fairy tales and imaginations.
But for the last two decades, Hollywood has been mesmerized by the earnings power of superheroes and blockbuster franchises.
Under Iger, the company spent billions of dollars bulking up its IP by buying established studios with hundreds of characters.
The first was Pixar in 2006, followed by Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and LucasFilm — with the “Star Wars” movies — in 2012.
Marvel movies also shifted to become more inclusive. “Black Panther” wasn’t the first Black superhero film ever made, but it was a landmark achievement that spelled change for the genre.
Ryan Coogler’s 2018 movie was a global blockbuster featuring a nearly all Black cast and mostly Black crew. Its $1.34 billion in global box office sales shattered expectations and myths about the international appeal of Black-focused stories on film. (Its star, Chadwick Boseman, died of cancer in 2020).
And “Black Panther” was just one of the signature accomplishments of the comic book movie juggernaut Marvel Studios, which Disney took control of as part of the $4-billion acquisition of publisher Marvel Entertainment, considered a wild over-pay at the time.
Under the leadership of Kevin Feige, Marvel Studios created an interconnected web of superhero stories that for a time seemed as if it couldn’t fail, particularly after the obscure heroes of “Guardians of the Galaxy” became megawatt box office stars. In total, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has collected nearly $30 billion in global ticket sales, topped by “Avengers: Endgame” ($2.8 billion).
The series hasn’t sailed so smoothly as of late, however. But there’s little doubt about how dramatically Marvel has influenced the industry. Many a studio has tried to mimic its multipronged approach to franchise moviemaking.