Disney: How a Mouse Built a Media Empire

The early years of The Walt Disney Company
May 12, 2014

Mickey Mouse and the gang, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Disneyland, Davy Crockett, Annette Funicello, Tinker Bell, Mary Poppins, one name comes to mind whenever all of these topics are brought up… Walt Disney. He was a beloved visionary who transformed a single animated cartoon studio into the global media empire it is today. What was once the home of lovable cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy, has now expanded into a multimedia giant, owning a large family of eight movie studios, four vacation resorts, nine theme parks, several video game publishers and developers, two book publishers, six music and record labels, several comic book franchises, eleven television networks, and one broadcast network. For over 90 years, The Walt Disney Company has been associated with a name people can trust, from the wholesome family-oriented animated movies by both Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios to the high-octane action and thrills from Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm Ltd., to the magic of their wide variety of theme parks and resorts in locations around the world.
The company’s stock is a favorite for investors, appearing in the Fortune 500 almost every single year. As times have changed, and trends come and go, Disney has always outweighed them all. Retailers Blockbuster Video and Borders Books and Music, and photography companies like Kodak have faded into obscurity over the years, while Disney was able to change with media consumption trends and was left unscathed. The question is how did a tiny little cartoon studio founded by two brothers become the household name that everybody in the world knows today? How was what is now the world’s largest media and entertainment empire able to survive as trends changed to reflect the changing time?
When we talk about Disney, it’s very important about the events and businesses that made the company what it is today, from Theme Parks and Movies, to Television and Music. However, perhaps the most important topic to learn about is the company’s never-ending legacy, and its impact on the world… not to mention the fantastic history it has, dates back to the humble beginnings of Walt Disney himself.

Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 5, 1901. His mother, Flora Call Disney, was of English descent, while his father, Elias Disney, was of Irish-Canadian descent. When Walt was a little boy, he and his family moved to Marceline, Missouri, where he would spend most of his early childhood. In 1911, the Disney family moved to Kansas City, where he and his younger sister Ruth would attend the Benton Grammar School. In 1921, a 22-year-old Walt moved back to Kansas City to start up the Laugh-O-Gram Studio as a result of a contract by a man named Milton Feld to animate 12 cartoon shorts he called “Laugh-O-Grams”. Walt incorporated the studio using remaining assets of a previous company he folded earlier that year, Disney-Iwerks, which he co-founded and co-owned with his friend, fellow artist and animator Ub Iwerks. The studio became well know for producing the Alice Comedies, a series of silent films that used a live-action child actress in an animated setting. However, that success didn’t last. In July 1923, the Laugh-O-Gram studio filed for bankruptcy after only two years in operation.

After the bankruptcy of the Laugh-O-Gram studio, Disney decided to move to Hollywood to join his brother Roy. Together, they formed what would later be called Walt Disney Productions. The new studio later formed a contract with film producer Margaret J. Winkler and Universal Studios to continue producing the Alice Comedies, and would later move on to create their very first successful animated character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. This character would later serve as the basis of other rabbit-like cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny of the popular Warner Bros. cartoon series, Looney Tunes. However, the success of Oswald didn’t last. In February 1928, the Disney studio lost its contract with Universal, and Oswald along with it. Devastated, Disney had no choice but to start from scratch.

Nine months later, a screen legend was born, Mickey Mouse. Many people think the first cartoon starring that character was Steamboat Willie, which drove Mickey to stardom. However, that’s not the case. His first cartoon was actually Plane Crazy, a silent film that was first seen in a test screening. After the success of Steamboat Willie, Mickey Mouse became the most popular cartoon character in the United States, at the time beating the popularity of Paramount’s Felix the Cat. The character starred in over 200 short subjects until 1953, and later spawned other memorable characters, including Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto.

In 1937, 9 years after the debut of Mickey Mouse, Walt Disney premiered what would later become a company milestone (and one of my favorite Disney movies of all time) at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It is a milestone for many reasons. Two examples are the fact that it’s the first full-length animated feature to be produced in the United States, and the fact that it took full advantage of a new technology Disney developed for animation called the Multiplane camera, which used multiple planes to make a realistic background for animated features. This technology was first tested in a 1937 Silly Symphony called The Old Mill.

After the success of Snow White, Disney decided to do other ambitious animated projects to push the envelope on what the art form can do, and separate them from the cartoon shorts that were in production at the time. Pinocchio and Fantasia both premiered in 1940. Pinocchio’s budget was double to that of its predecessor, but unfortunately didn’t grab as many movie tickets as Snow White did in 1937. Fantasia ended up becoming a much bigger flop from the studio, mainly due to the fact that nobody thought there was an actual story being told in the film. Not to mention the fact that World War II was taking place in Europe, and the Great Depression was still affecting all of the United States. In 1941, Dumbo was released, and became the most financially successful Disney film of its time. In fact, it became so popular that the titular character was set to be on the cover of TIME magazine. However, one event stopped all of that from happening… the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese. As a result, the US joined in World War II. America’s involvement in WWII also caused the Disney Studios’ 4th feature film, Bambi, fail during its release in 1942.
It was from then on that the studio was taken over by the US Army, and as a result, they had to make Propaganda shorts to get the armed forces ready to fight the war, and compilation movies featuring short form stories; all of which have bombed at the box office when they were released (i.e. Saludos Amigos, The Three Caballeros, Fun & Fancy Free, Melody Time, etc.). Some of these so-called compilation films, case in point Make Mine Music and The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad, featured big name music stars at the time, including Bing Crosby and clarinetist Benny Goodman. In 1945, World War II ended, and it started an era where Disney Animation would be able to break free from US military rule, and make the next big box-office smash.

In 1950, Cinderella was released as Disney’s first full-length movie in 9 years that wasn’t a compilation of shorts; and was also its first film based on a fairy tale since Snow White. It was an instant success, officially bringing Disney Animation back in full force. Other hits would follow, such as Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp. The 1950’s would also mark an era where Disney would get into other businesses, the first business they would get into was television with the anthology series Disneyland, and later the Mickey Mouse Club children’s program, which would launch the career of many child stars, including the late Annette Funicello. However, their biggest achievement in the 50’s would perhaps be one of their most well known non-movie ventures yet.

It all started when Walt took her two daughters Diane and Sharon to Griffith Park in Los Angeles. In a 1963 interview, Walt recounted this particular event and how it got him the idea of creating a theme park where both kids and families could have fun together. On August 31, 1948, development began on what is now called Disneyland, named after the anthology series. The project was a joint venture between Walt Disney Productions and the ABC Television Network (ABC was the first network to air the Disney anthology show, and would later be part of the Disney media empire in 1995). In 1955, Disneyland officially opened to the public with 20 attractions and rides to choose from. However, the opening didn’t go as planned. The number of guests that came to the park on its opening day exceeded the anticipated number Disney was expecting. Indeed, opening day was a disaster, but that didn’t stop Disneyland from being a big success.

In the 1960’s, Walt Disney introduced another ambitious project; a second amusement property in Orlando, Florida simply called the Florida project, which would later be called Disney World. This project included what he called the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Unfortunately, he wouldn’t be able to live long enough to see this dream get realized, because on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away as a result of suffering from lung cancer at the age of 65. The last ever project he was involved in was the 1967 animated adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Roy O. Disney continued with the Disney World project, which was completed in 1971. However, Roy decided to change the name of this new Florida facility to Walt Disney World in memoriam of his brother.

Today, The Walt Disney Company is a media powerhouse, and continues to follow the legacy of its namesake. However, Disney doesn’t just do theme parks, movies, and TV anymore. They own a slew of video game developers, websites, and yes, even magazines. More recently, they acquired some of the biggest names in modern entertainment, including Pixar Animation Studios in 2006 (perhaps best known for creating the CG-animated Toy Story series), Marvel Comics in 2009, and Star Wars creator Lucasfilm Ltd. in 2012. They’re big, and growing, and their legacy in both entertainment and amusements lives on. Walt Disney’s dream has definitely made an impact on American culture, and will live on with future generations of Disney fans.[/align]
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