The Walt Disney Company is celebrating its 100th anniversary. Although Walt Disney was originally a cartoonist, it’s his business vision that defined his lasting – and often magical – legacy.
Disney movies have been an iconic mainstay in popular culture for the past century, with millions – if not billions – of people having seen at least one of the company’s world-famous animated films.
The adventure began in Hollywood on 16 October 1923, when Walt Disney signed a contract for a series of silent half-live, half-animated shorts: Alice’s Wonderland. The date marks the beginning of Walt Disney’s success –and of his eponymous company.
Animator and entrepreneur
Walter Elias Disney, born in Chicago in 1901, developed a taste for drawing in his childhood.
Originally called the Disney Brothers Studio, then the Walt Disney Studio, Walt and his brother Roy Disney worked tirelessly to build the company we still know and love 100 years later.
Another central figure in Walt Disney’s early career was cartoonist and animator Ub Iwerks. His most iconic work is none other than Mickey Mouse.
Disney’s most famous mascot was ironically not drawn by Walt Disney himself, although he’s the one behind the concept, and lent him his voice.
Mickey Mouse also showed Walt Disney how there was a great deal of money to be made around a flagship character. He sold licences for commercials and launched the production of merchandising.
Although drawing and animation are how he entered the business, Walt soon understood that his talent lay elsewhere.
“He eventually realised his greatest skill was not being the animator himself, but in pulling together a crew that could help him realise his stories and visions,” explains Louis Louise Krasniewicz, an anthropology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Walt Disney: A Biography.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a crew of nine core animators emerged – the Nine Old Men, as Disney himself would call them.
Walt surrounded himself with highly skilled animators, demanding the best from them and all of his employees.
“I don’t want to say he was bad to work for, but he demanded excellence,” said Aaron H Goldberg, author of several books on the Disney enterprise.
According to Goldberg, Disney was known for putting people in challenging positions and pushing them out of their comfort zone to bring the best out of them – like tasking animators with writing a song for a film when they had never previously done it.
“He was very intense,” said Goldberg, “and he was not very forthcoming with credit. If you did a great job, you weren’t necessarily going to hear ‘you did a great job’. But the phrase that he used to love was, ‘that’ll do’.”
Walt Disney prided himself on his staff coming together as one big family, with himself as the father figure.
He considered that only the core of outstanding workers, like the Nine Old Men, should get privileges and high salaries, while the rest had to prove they were worthy of more than the bare minimum.
He didn’t see the 1941 strike coming. Why, after all, would such a big and united family be unhappy?
But the artists working at the studio felt otherwise, in part because they had yet to get their share of the massive revenues generated by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full-length animated film produced by the studio in 1937.
The strikers demanded better benefits and higher salaries, as they were earning below the national average.
Refusing to admit that his management style was the problem, Walt Disney added fuel to the fire during a speech he made while meeting with the strikers:
“I have always felt, and will always feel that the men that contribute the most to the organisation should enjoy some privileges,” he said. “My first recommendation to a lot of you is this: put your own house in order, you can’t accomplish a damn thing by sitting around and waiting to be told everything.”
The eccentric idea of Disneyland
After the strike was resolved by the creation of a union, the studio went back to its usual business. However, the Second World War forced Disney into producing propaganda films.
Even on US soil, which was almost entirely spared by combat, people deserted theatres. Although today considered Disney classics, movies such as Dumbo (1941) or Bambi (1942) were a commercial failure at the time of their release.
Success came back after the war, while at the same time a somewhat extravagant idea emerged in Walt Disney’s unconventional mind: a theme park.
Although commonplace across the world nowadays, amusement parks were not widespread back in the 1940s.
Walt Disney imagined a place where children and adults could meet their favourite Disney characters, while enjoying a whole day of fun activities in a place where everything reminded them of their childhood.
Beyond the decor replicating his studio’s biggest hits, Walt Disney’s ambition was to recreate the place he most cherished: Marceline, a small Missouri town where he spent five years as a child.
The memories he created from that time, filled with farm animals and typical daily activities of an early 20th century mid-western American town, inspired his parks’ Main Street.
Over the years, rumours have claimed that Walt Disney’s unconventional idea was rejected by over 300 investors – but that he persevered and pushed for his $17 million family-friendly dream theme park to be born.
The first Disneyland Park opened in 1955 in California. Back then, a ticket cost $1 (roughly $11 or €10 today) for adults and $0.50 for children, but that only entailed the park’s entrance. Each of the 35 rides cost an additional $0.25 for adults, $0.10 for kids.
It was an immediate success, with the one million visitors threshold reached not even two months after the park’s opening.
The one and a half hour opening ceremony was broadcast live on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the United States, which at the time was the longest live programme to ever have aired.
Four decades later, The Walt Disney Company would acquire ABC, adding it to the impressive list of entities owned.
From a family-owned animated films studio to a massive international conglomerate
Walt Disney died from lung cancer in 1966, meaning The Walt Disney Company has spent more years without than with him during its 100 years of existence.
His brother Roy Disney, who had been Walt’s business partner since the early hours of the company, took over. Like his brother, Roy was a businessman – but he didn’t share Walt’s creative mind.
Roy Disney continued his late brother’s work, including plans to open the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. However, Walt’s absence was soon felt in the creative department.
Roy Disney took on a different approach, wishing to increase the production of live-action movies, such as The Million Dollar Duck or Scandalous John, whose legacy speaks for itself.
Roy Disney died in 1971, just two months after the opening of Florida’s Disney World. Since then, The Walt Disney Company has never again been led by a member of the Disney family.
The entertainment giant it has since grown into was worth $203.63 billion in 2022 (€191.6 million). Disney theme parks have opened in four additional locations: Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
The Walt Disney Company has bought several well-known studios, meaning a diverse set of previously separate iconic series and household names now fall under the Disney banner.
It purchased Lucasfilm, known for the Star Wars saga; Marvel Studios, renowned for its superhero films; and Twentieth Century Home Entertainment (formerly Twentieth Century Fox), the home of the US’s most famous family: The Simpsons.
It also acquired many other companies from the news and entertainment industry, such as the American sports cable channel ESPN and National Geographic.
The company owns cruise lines, real estate companies, holiday resorts and many more. In short, The Walt Disney Company has grown into a gigantic international conglomerate, a far-cry from the tight-knit firm that the father of Mickey, Donald and Goofy first envisaged a century ago.
What would he think of it if he could see it today?
“When you look back at those years before his death in 1966, it was very much a family company, a family business. Nowadays, it’s so big and it’s so vast. But I think overall, he would probably be happy,” said Aaron H Goldberg.
According to Louise Krasniewicz, while Disney may have exploded in size compared to when Walt was at the reins, places such as the Disneyland parks still carry that family-oriented spirit from the early years of the company. And it’s not all:
“The main thing that Walt introduced to media productions was the idea of marketing-related merchandise,” she said. “So I think he would be very pleased about that aspect of the company today.”