A Brief History of the Walt Disney Company

American animator and director Walt Disney, 1952.
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The Walt Disney Company was founded as a cartoon studio in 1923 by Walter Elias Disney. Disney became a pioneer in the development of animation.

An entertainment industry titan

Disney is one of the most famous names in the animation industry, known for providing entertainment directed to adults and children alike. With international theme parks, a world-class animation studio, business franchises, and one of the biggest movie studios in the world, the company nearly dominates the industry.

Famous names such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck began with Disney and were the foundation of a company that has now branched out beyond animation. Many well-known studios, cable and TV stations, and intellectual properties fall under the Disney umbrella, including Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm, ABC, Pixar Animation Studios, and ESPN.

Pre-World War II Disney

The Walt Disney company has made an indelible mark in entertainment industry history. The company began on October 16, 1923, as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, a joint venture of Walt Disney and his brother, Roy. Three years later the company had produced two movies and purchased a studio in Hollywood, California. Pitfalls in distribution rights nearly sank Walt and his company, but the creation of Mickey Mouse changed everything.​

By 1932, the Disney Company won its first Academy Award for Best Cartoon for the "Silly Symphony." 1934 marked the start of production on Disney's first full-length feature film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which was released in 1937 and became the highest grossing film of its time. Expenses of production, however, caused difficulties for the next few animated films. The advent of World War II halted the production of its films as the Walt Disney company contributed its skills to the war effort by producing propaganda films for the U.S. government to bolster support for the war.

Disney expands after 1950

After the war, it was difficult for the company to pick up where it had left off, but 1950 proved a turning point with the production of its first live-action film, "Treasure Island," and another animated film, "Cinderella." Disney also launched several television series, and in 1955 "The Mickey Mouse Club" made its debut.

1955 saw another landmark moment for Disney: the opening of the first Disney theme park, Disneyland in California. The company continued its rise in popularity and survived even the death of its iconic founder, Walt Disney, in 1966. Roy Disney took over supervision and then was succeeded by an executive team in 1971.

Several more projects, including merchandising, continued production of animated and live-action films, and the construction of additional theme parks filled the next decade and a half. In 1983, Disney went international with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland. The company endured takeover attempts during this time as well, but eventually recovered and was put back on a successful path with the recruitment of Michael D. Eisner as chairman.

Cable and digital expansion

Disney has continued to expand its influence into a wider market since the 1980s, beginning with The Disney Channel on cable. It established subdivisions and studios, such as Touchstone Pictures, to produce films outside its standard family-oriented fare, and gain an even broader footing in the industry. Eisner and executive partner Frank Wells proved to be a successful team for many years, leading Disney into the new century.

In 2005, Bob Iger was tapped to take over the role of CEO from Eisner. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar as it turned its focus toward developing its digital animation studios. Pixar has produced huge film hits such as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles" among others. Iger became chairman in 2009 and put the company on a course back to more family-oriented products. The company sold Miramax Studios and downsized Touchstone Pictures. Roy Disney died on December 16, 2009, and was the last member of the Disney family that remained active in the company.

Two significant properties were acquired during this time by Disney. In 2009, the company acquired Marvel Entertainment and announced plans in late 2012 to acquire Lucasfilm, which included the Star Wars franchise.

It continued its digital expansion in 2014 by acquiring YouTube content producer Maker Studios, eventually turning this network into Disney Digital Network in 2017.