How the Disney Corporation Came to be

There are no strings on the people behind the Mouse

The Disney Corporation, with everything they own, it’s practically impossible to escape them. Practically everyone recognizes the faces of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, along with the various companies they own ranging from ABC to ESPN and most recently a majority of Fox. The question is, how did they get to this point? Surprisingly, it wasn’t until Michael Eisner took over the company in 1984 that the company really took off. Until that point, while many knew of “the mouse house”, they had been all but written off, as companies competed in hostile takeovers for shares of its media library and returns on their investments. As soon as Eisner stepped in, however, the company exploded in popularity and success. Sure, there were still missteps along the way, but overall, he was a large part of how the company came to be the massive almost Star Wars like empire it is today.

A Brief History of Disney

Disney Brothers (Google)

 

When Walt began the company in 1923, it was called Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and they were selling “Alice Comedies” to MJ Winkler, a New York-based distributor. Shortly thereafter, Roy convinced his brother to rename the company to what we recognize it as today, the Walt Disney Studio, with Roy as an equal partner. For all the success they are now known for, during the first few years, things were extremely rocky for this fledgling company. It started with Walt losing the rights to his character Oswalt the Lucky Rabbit and evolved into MJ Winkler essentially stealing all of Walt’s animators in order to “cut out the middleman” and make the cartoons for cheaper.

Disney Brothers Alice Comedies

After coming to terms with the loss of Oswalt, Disney created the mouse we all know and love today, Mickey. From there on out, Walt also ensured that he owned the rights to any and all characters he created. For all the love of Mickey, Walt had a difficult time selling him, as the emerging entertainment business was making the switch from silent to sound films. In order to keep up with the competition, Walt created Steamboat Willie (that little black and white whistling mouse seen as part of some Disney logos), which premiered on November 18, 1928, to rave reviews.

Steamboat Willie and Mickey Merch

From there, the Disney company continued to grow in popularity with Mickey Mouse showing up on everything from pencils and pencil cases to dolls, figurines and just about anything else Walt could stick the mouse’s face on. With the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the company’s first feature-length animated film, and the company now raking in the money, it seemed like the sky was the limit.

The Downfall of the Company

Disneyland Opening Day 1955 Expectation

Then came time for the creation of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. On the surface, one would think that it would be an immediate success, as Walt had planned it to be a place where children and adults alike could go and forget their responsibilities even for anywhere from a few hours or an entire day. Here, everyone would be smiling and all wishes could come true. Sounds too fantastic to be real, right? For workers constructing the park, it almost was. Even as opening day drew ever nearer, they could not help the feeling of alarm that overcame them. On top of everything else, there was the knowledge that only a fraction of the planned rides and attractions would be open on time, despite their working in around the clock shifts. With television cameras set to capture the momentous day, workers rushed to finish what they could.

As the morning of opening day (July 17, 1955) rolled around, crews were still pouring asphalt as of 6:30. This, in turn, meant that as time went on and morning gave way to afternoon and the temperatures soared ever higher, the ground literally began to melt under guests’ feet. It was reportedly so bad at one point, that women were even coming out of their spiked heels and being forced to walk right out of them. Even with as bad as that sounded, it was not even the worst problem of the day. For those “lucky” enough to attend opening day, they also had to deal with restaurants such as the Red Wagon Inn, and refreshment stands running out of food and drinks and forcing them to eat off flimsy paper plates. It was so bad at one point, that Anaheim City Manager Keith Murdock went home to watch the travesty unfold on TV.

Disneyland Opening Day 1955 Reality

What a travesty it was. With cameras rolling and airing the entire day to thousands back home, it seemed nothing short of a three-ring circus in the worst possible way. This is not to say the entire day was bad, as guests did manage to have some fun throughout the day,  simply that the park opened prematurely.

While other rides and attractions did continue to open and operate following this day, Disney never quite recovered from this opening day disaster. While this new theme park did try everything they could, even going so far as to host their own literal circus, nothing quite worked.

The Eisner Years

golden-parachute---eisner_lmgib8

Fast forward a few decades and a man named Michael Eisner stepped in to save Disney from being either taken over or broken up by other companies. Now, with Disney having recently bought most of Fox, that idea of anyone even being able to think about buying Disney seemed laughable. Prior to this man stepping in, in 1984, the possibility was high, very high.

Immediately upon starting in his new position, Eisner saw ways in which to get the company not just growing again, but flourishing as well. In the year previous, Disney had just stepped out of the network television market in order to launch their own cable network, The Disney Channel. By doing this, it allowed every family who owned a TV the ability to watch the new channel rather than restricting it to only those who could pay for it.

While this may sound like a crazy move to most, giving free something that once one had to pay for, it was actually quite ingenious. Back in this time before social media, or even the internet, many things spread via word of mouth or newspapers, that is people talking about them. The more people that see a given product, the more that can relate and talk about them, thus increasing audience interest. As a result, Eisner had the idea to launch the Golden Girls series under their Touchstone Television branch in 1985.

Following the success of that, in 1986 the company brought back their Sunday night television by airing Disney Sunday Movie (which was later called The Magical World of Disney, then The Wonderful World of Disney). It was during this slot that they picked specific movies from their archive to air on TV and introduce to a new audience. With video cassettes increasing in popularity around this time, Eisner’s Disney took advantage of this by offering select movies in this format, so families could watch them at their leisure as well as on TV. In this way, these classics managed to reach the top of the all-time best seller list.

Eisner’s Disney Successes

Michael Eisner, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola

As the company once again began growing in popularity, new opportunities began opening up for them. Just a few of these opportunities included working with the creators of Star Wars and The Godfather George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. By doing this, it allowed them to bring to life both Star Tours and Captain EO. While the latter may not be around anymore or as well known as the former, it was still a big step for Eisner’s Disney. It signaled to many companies that they were slowly getting back on the road to success.

When this is combined with the success of their feature film department (with hits such as Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Good Morning Vietnam, and later Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), one can begin to see the stones that made up their path to overwhelming success. With this success, Disney was able to not only start their own film studio (Hollywood Pictures) but also take over the Wrather Corporation, who at that point owned that station that is now known as KCAL. It was also during this time that Disney opened their first retail store simply called The Disney Store.

From here, everything was on the rise for Disney as both their film/TV and theme park branches continued to thrive for many years. In 1996, Disney had already grown so massive, that they were able to buy yet another company, Capital Cities/ABC, which by this time brought their total number of companies owned to thirty-eight (thirty-one combined TV and radio stations, seven newspapers and ownership stakes in four cable networks). By this point, Disney was on everyone’s minds and on their lips as an ever-growing number of people saw the company on TV and spoke about it to their friends and family.

In recent years, the number of properties or companies that Disney owns has reached an almost unimaginable number. Rather than asking the question of what does Disney own, the easier and shorter question to ask and answer would be, what doesn’t Disney own? Chances are if you watch TV or any sort of streaming service, you’re likely watching something owned by Disney. Gives more credence to the whole ‘from cradle to grave’ saying. From Star Wars to Marvel and most recently Fox, it seems like Disney pretty much owns the market and can tell companies such as movie theaters what they can and can’t do with their branded movies.

Final Thoughts:

From corporations competing in hostile takeovers of Disney, to now being able to buy those same corporations out, Walt’s company has come a long way. While the Disney brand has always been iconic, if not for one man, Michael Eisner, who took it over years later, it would be nigh on impossible to say what this quintessential establishment would look like today. This is especially true in the modern world of smartphones, electronic tablets, and notebooks. Due to this, the company is all but inescapable thanks in part to everything they own (ABC, ESPN, Fox, Marvel and Star Wars) and the recognition of their characters ranging from Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. Shockingly, it wasn’t until Michael Eisner took over the corporation in 1984 that it really became the Star Wars like empire it is today.

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Megan Rickards

I am a major "Star Wars" fan who currently writes for Future of the Force and is absolutely loving it! Until my writing career really takes off, I am now writing for Future of the Force full time, having just graduated with my Bachelor's Degree in English Literature. My other interests include ABC's "The Good Doctor", CW's "Arrow" and "The Flash", CBS's "Scorpion" and DC's "Batman". Of all the iterations of Batman, my favorite would definitely​ have to be 1992's "Batman: The Animated Series". If you want to stop by and talk, please feel free to send me a tweet. I promise to get back to you as soon as I can.

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