A Brief History of the Walt Disney Company

From Mickey Mouse to Moana

American animator and director Walt Disney, 1952.
Walt Disney. Hulton Archive/Stringer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

When Was Disney Created?

The Walt Disney Company was founded as a cartoon studio in 1923 by Walter Elias Disney. The company began on October 16 as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, a joint venture of Walt Disney and his brother, Roy. Within three years, the company had produced two movies and purchased a studio in Hollywood, but pitfalls in distribution rights nearly sank Walt and his 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 became the foundation of a company that has now branched out beyond animation. Today, many well-known studios, 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

By 1932, the Disney Company won its first Academy Award for Best Cartoon, thanks to "Silly Symphony." In 1934, Disney started production on the first full-length feature film, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The film was released in 1937, and it became the highest-grossing film of its time. The massive expenses of production, however, caused 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.

Disney in the 1950s

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

After the war, it was difficult for the company 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 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 even survived the death of its iconic founder, Walt Disney, in 1966. After Walt's passing, Roy Disney took over supervision of the company and was later succeeded by an executive team in 1971.

The following decades saw more merchandising opportunities, continued production of feature films, and the construction of additional theme parks around the globe. In 1983, Disney went international with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland. The company endured takeover attempts during this time as well, but it eventually recovered and was put back on a successful path with the recruitment of Michael D. Eisner as chairman in 1984.

Cable TV and Media Acquisitions

Disney has expanded its influence over a wider market since the 1980s, 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 was tapped to take over the role of CEO from Eisner. In 2006, Disney purchased Pixar as it turned its focus toward developing digital animation. Pixar had previously produced film hits such as "Toy Story," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles," among others. 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 the company 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.

Two more significant properties were acquired by Disney during this time period. In 2009, the company acquired Marvel Entertainment for $4.24 billion, 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. In late 2019, Disney plans to launch its own digital streaming network, where subscribers can watch movies and shows whenever they want, in a similar fashion as Netflix and Hulu.

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