A Brief History of the Walt Disney Company

The ups and downs of the beloved entertainment giant

With multiple international theme parks, a world-class animation studio, dozens of business franchises, and one of the biggest movie studios in the world, Disney has become one of the most massive media brands of all time. This brief Disney retrospective covers the origin and evolution of the entertainment industry titan.

The Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio

The Walt Disney Company began as a joint venture between Walt Disney and his brother, Roy. The company, then called the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, started on October 16, 1923. Within three years, the company had produced two movies and purchased a studio in Hollywood, but pitfalls in distribution rights nearly sank the company.

The creation of Mickey Mouse in 1928 changed everything.​ Around that time, Disney launched many other famous characters, such as Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck, which together became the foundation of a company that has now branched out well beyond animation. Today, many big studios, TV stations, and intellectual properties, including Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, ABC, Pixar Animation Studios, and ESPN, fall under the Disney umbrella.

1930s Disney

By 1932, the Disney Company won its first Academy Award for Best Cartoon, thanks to "Silly Symphony," a series of animated short films. In 1934, Disney started production on its first full-length feature film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves." It was released in 1937 and became the highest-grossing film of its time. However, the massive production expenses created difficulties for Disney's next few animated films. World War II halted the production of Disney movies altogether as the company contributed its skills to the war effort by producing propaganda films for the U.S. government.

Post-World War II Disney

portrait of cast members of The Micky Mouse Club' television show, c. 1957
 

After the war, the company found it difficult to pick up where it had left off, but 1950 proved to be a turning point, thanks to the production of Disney's first live-action film, "Treasure Island," and another animated film, "Cinderella." Disney also launched several television series during this decade. In 1955, "The Mickey Mouse Club" made its debut to a national TV audience.

That same year marked another landmark moment for Disney: the opening of the first Disney theme park, Disneyland, in California. The company continued to rise in popularity and survived the death of its iconic founder, Walt Disney, in 1966. Following Walt's passing, Roy Disney took over the supervision of the company and was succeeded by an executive team in 1971.

In the following decades, the company took advantage of merchandising opportunities, continued producing feature films, and constructed additional theme parks around the globe, including Disney's first international theme park, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. During this time, the company endured takeover attempts, but it eventually recovered and got back on a successful path when Michael D. Eisner became its chairman in 1984.

Cable TV and Media Acquisitions

Since the 1980s, Disney has expanded its influence over a wider market, beginning with the debut of the Disney Channel on cable TV. The company established several subdivisions and studios, such as Touchstone Pictures, to produce films outside its standard family-oriented fare and gain an even broader footing in the entertainment industry. Eisner and executive partner Frank Wells proved to be a successful team to lead Disney into the new century.

In 2005, Bob Iger took over the CEO role from Eisner. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar as it began to focus on digital animation. Pixar had previously produced film hits such as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles." Under the Disney umbrella, Pixar Animation Studios has continued earning prestigious awards for movies like "Moana" and "Coco."

After becoming chairman in 2009, Iger steered the company's focus back to more family-oriented products as it sold Miramax Studios and downsized Touchstone Pictures. Roy Disney, the last member of the Disney family active in the company, died on December 16, 2009.

Also in 2009, the company acquired Marvel Entertainment, which gave Disney the rights to dozens of superhero franchises such as "Iron Man" and "Deadpool." In late 2012, Disney began its acquisition of Lucasfilm, which included rights to the "Star Wars" franchise.

Disney in the Digital Age

Disney continued its digital expansion in 2014 by acquiring YouTube content producer Maker Studios, which became the Disney Digital Network in 2017. Disney plans to launch its own digital streaming network in late 2019. The network will enable subscribers to watch movies and shows whenever they want, similar to Netflix and Hulu.

Don't feel like waiting for Disney's streaming service to launch? See our guide to getting free Disney movies you can start watching right now.