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How Disney Made It to Its 100th Year

A look at the playbook created by Walt Disney and refined over a century of theme-park rides becoming movies, movies becoming Broadway shows, and merch coming out of it all, from such indelible IP as 'Snow White,' Marvel and 'The Lion King': "There’s a psychological response to Disney that other studios don’t have."

Walt Disney Co. Archives director Becky Cline has spent the past several months shuttling between the studio’s Burbank lot and Philadelphia, where a sprawling exhibit is debuting in February as part of the conglomerate’s yearlong 100th anniversary celebration in 2023. After Philly’s famed Franklin Institute, Disney100: The Exhibition will embark on a global five-year tour. The 15,000-square-foot spectacle will showcase more than 250 items, including Mickey Mouse sketches through the years, the storybook seen in 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and the snow globe from 1964’s Mary Poppins, not to mention Marvel, Star Wars, Avatar and Pixar paraphernalia.

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None is more important than the contract signed by Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney on Oct. 16, 1923, to make a series of six Alice in Wonderland-themed cartoons for distributor M.J. Winkler, who booked animated shorts to play before silent movies. The pact marked the founding of the Disney Brothers Studio, which would go through several name and company changes, beginning with Walt Disney Studio in 1926, before resting at its current Walt Disney Co. conglomeration in 1986. “It’s just a contract from the 1920s, but historically and culturally, it is probably the company’s most precious asset,” says Cline. “That’s why we are celebrating its signing as the 100th anniversary.”

The October 1923 contract establishing the Disney Brothers Studio, the first iteration of what would become The Walt Disney Co.
Courtesy of Disney

Walt and Roy Disney’s studio struck gold when Mickey Mouse in the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie became an overnight sensation. Mickey, who was first sketched by Walt and then refined by animator Ub Iwerks, spawned merchandise, Mickey Mouse clubs and a comic strip, allowing an ambitious and restless Walt Disney to focus on storytelling and creating lasting kid-friendly characters that would become part of the public consciousness. He revolutionized the theme park business by creating Disneyland, another passion project born from making model trains in his backyard when the by-then entertainment visionary was ordered by his doctor in the early 1950s to find a hobby.

At the 2003 ABC upfronts, Bob Iger (left), then president of Disney, with his boss, chairman and CEO Eisner
Mark peterson/Corbis via Getty Images

A century later, The Walt Disney Co. is Hollywood’s leading entertainment corporation and among the world’s best-known companies with a portfolio that includes a marquee film stable, television, stage plays, theme parks, cruise ships and a streaming service, among other ventures. Its brand is part public consciousness; many remember a Disney memory from their childhood. That includes Disney movie studios chief Alan Bergman. As a kid, he could see the fireworks show at Disneyland from his family’s home in Orange County. Today, Bergman oversees all of the various film labels as chairman of Disney Studios Content, as well as theatrical stage productions. “We always aim to deliver great stories that resonate with people around the world and that stand the test of time. Every new film or series is a chance to create a connection that audiences can carry with them for a lifetime,” he says.

Filmmaker Justin Simien, who directed the upcoming live-action film Haunted Mansion, was obsessed with Disney cartoons that he watched as a kid on his favorite toy, a Fisher-Price Movie viewer. “When I started school, education become significant only when a teacher reached into a stack of those giant Disney clamshells for a ‘movie day.’ By the time I was taking a first-grade field trip to see The Little Mermaid for a music class, I was thoroughly indoctrinated,” says Simien. And he was 8 when he went to Disney World, where he was “traumatized for life by two events: 1) Riding Space Mountain with my mother while she screamed to God to save us; 2) The part at the end of Haunted Mansion where a ghost in a mirror appeared to be riding with me out the exit. I wasn’t ever sure that was just a trick.”

Disney has endured its own fair share of ups and downs through the decades, including a long, bleak period after Walt Disney’s death in December 1966 (the era known as the Disney Renaissance began when Michael Eisner was named CEO in 1984). There’s also has been plenty of C-suite drama, including the recent, unexpected return of Bob Iger as chairman and CEO after the Disney board ousted Bob Chapek in November. The company suffered its worst stock decline in years in 2022 as it grappled with changing CEOs, the high cost of streaming and most recently, a lower-than-expected Avatar: The Way of Water global opening weekend in mid-December (the sequel made up ground over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays).

Animation historian Don Hahn, who produced such Disney hits as Beauty and the Beast, believes Walt Disney would be pleased that Iger is back at the helm in time for the 100th anniversary. “Bob Iger is an unusual mix of creativity toward the artistic side and responsibility toward the board. He has been a great steward of the company. It’s hard to replace that,” he says. After succeeding Eisner in 2005, Iger engineered the acquisitions of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. The movie studio’s standing began to soar: In 2019, Disney made history after a record $13.2 billion in global ticket sales. “We are incredibly grateful to the generations of people all over the world who have invited our stories and characters into their lives over the past 100 years,” Iger said in a statement to THR. “Creativity has always been the essence of who we are as a company, and Walt Disney’s boundless imagination and his relentless pursuit of excellence continue to propel the company forward today. We are honored to reach this historic milestone.”

The stage adaptation of the movie Beauty and the Beast was among several Broadway hits for Disney
The stage adaptation of the movie Beauty and the Beast was among several Broadway hits for Disney Disney

Such milestones include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hollywood’s first animated feature with sound. The film became a cultural sensation and profit monster after premiering in 1937. Walt was vastly ahead of his time, not only in selling Snow White merchandise a year before the movie even hit theaters, but in using the characters for comic strips and other ventures. He even considered a stage play but dropped the idea out of concern that theater owners would consider it direct competition. Still, he created a road map for exploiting his movies, as well as how to market a title.

He used the profits to build a studio on Burbank’s Buena Vista Avenue — where the company remains today — and to hire more animators to work on Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi, all released between 1940 and 1942. “Snow White did something not only for the company but also for the motion picture industry. It’s part of that idea that they had to diversify,” says Hahn. “Walt Disney and his brother saw that doing six- or eight-minute shorts for the rest of their lives would be not too challenging.”

The burst of energy took its toll. By the end of 1941, a year after relocating from Hyperion Avenue to the Valley, the company was facing a financial crisis. The golden age was over. “They did so much between 1937 and 1941, when the war broke out, and then it just stopped completely for a variety of reasons. They ran out of money, and, more importantly, the animators went on strike,” says Hahn. By all accounts, the strike left Walt Disney embittered and fiercely anti-communist.

He ignored concerns that Song of the South had racist overtones. The live-action/animated movie, upon which the ride Splash Mountain was later based, met with protesters and picket lines upon its 1946 release for its distorted, positive view of the lives of enslaved people; it has never been released on home video.

Shortly after its release, Walt diversified again, turning his attention to making the first of many nature documentaries, Seal Island. The 1948 film is among the features, docs and shorts earning Walt Disney 26 Oscars, a record for an individual. (That includes honorary Oscars. His first was an honorary statuette awarded in 1932 for the creation of Mickey Mouse.) Walt also decided to partner on British live-action films, including Treasure Island, after he was unable to extract Snow White earnings from England because of World War II. Later, the studio would pivot into live action, including Mary Poppins.

From left: Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jay Rasulo attended the opening of Walt Disney Studios in Marne-La-Vallee, France.
From left: Roy Disney, Michael Eisner and Jay Rasulo attended the opening of Walt Disney Studios in Marne-La-Vallee, France. Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The studio reestablished itself in animation with Cinderella and Peter Pan, which opened in 1950 and 1953, respectively. The two films provided a treasure trove of new characters to exploit across various divisions — including Disneyland, which was an instant success when it opened in 1955. (Walt Disney funded the theme park with money from the TV networks in exchange for programming.)

Yet Walt couldn’t shake the reputation in the post-War era that he had become a corporate suit only interested in making a dollar, particularly after the creation of Disneyland. Whereas once intellectuals had praised him for his creativity and revolutionizing animation — he was even compared to such creative forces as Charlie Chaplin — now they took aim, saying he had become a mass artist, according to biographer Neal Gabler’s definitive book, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.

“That’s not at all what he was after. This is a company that has made its entire career out of bringing you into the fold in your childhood,” says Hahn. “We have all these memories of cartoons and Disneyland. There’s a psychological and emotional response to Disney that others, Warner Bros. or Apple, don’t have. You grow up with it, so you’re going to have strong opinions about it, much more than any other company.”

Snow White’s Road Map of Success

Walt’s first animated feature with sound made history after premiering in December 1937.

SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS, 1937
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) WALT DISNEY PICTURES/ EVERETT COLLECTION

The premiere for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was as star-studded as any red carpet for a live-action film. Walt Disney knew the event, staged on Dec. 21, 1937, at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles, had to be big. Lore has it that Clark Gable and Carole Lombard wept during the movie, which marked Disney’s first animated feature with sound, as well as Disney’s first feature-length movie. Charlie Chaplin and Judy Garland also were among the notable names who attended.

“It was a turning point. Before that, animation was just a novelty and a parlor trick,” says Hahn. “There had been concern among some studios and audience members that you couldn’t sit and watch a cartoon that long.”

The worry was for naught. The musical fantasy — which earned an Oscar nomination for its score — would go on to garner more than $6.7 million in North America, a huge sum that made it the highest-grossing sound film at that time, a record it handed over to Gone With the Wind two years later. (It earned another $7 million-plus overseas.) Including rereleases, Snow White is one of the top 10 highest-performing films of all time when adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale, was the first in a long line of Disney animated titles that keep on giving across various divisions of the company (another example is The Lion King‘s release in 1994, which led to a Broadway version in 1997 and a live-action update in 2019). In March 2024, the studio will release a live-action iteration of the 1937 Snow White film that’s to be directed by Marc Webb, starring Rachel Zegler in the titular role and Gal Gadot as the Evil Queen.

Merchandise for 1937’s groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs minted millions, including bath powder (pictured above) as well as a balloon pump.
Merchandise for 1937’s groundbreaking Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs minted millions, including bath powder (pictured above) as well as a balloon pump. Manufactured by Lander COURTESY OF DISNEY

“Walt found stories that were timeless. Then he applied the best technology and the best talent, as well as working to make them relevant and thrilling and entertaining for the time,” says Sean Bailey, president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, home of the many live-action reimaginings of classic films and theme park attractions; in May, Bailey’s live-action division will release The Little Mermaid.

Bailey says he and his team discuss the idea of making films relevant for modern-day audiences on a daily basis. Both Snow White and Cinderella are more empowered in the live-action versions, as was Jasmine in Aladdin, says Bailey. Angelina Jolie as Maleficent is another strong female character.

Bailey recalls how Walt Disney seemed to bristle during a radio interview when asked why he would make the 1954 live-action movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea when his specialty was producing animated movies for kids.

“He got seemingly semi-offended and said, ‘I don’t make films primarily for children. I make them for the child in all of us, whether we be 6 or 60,’ ” says Bailey, who adds that he can relate. “That is our biggest North Star when we’re going to make a Little Mermaid or a Jungle Book. We’re making big movies. We want kids to love them, but we don’t ever think we’re making them for kids.”

Another Movie From Haunted Mansion Attraction

Walt Disney directed his Imagineers to begin designing the popular attraction in the early 1950s, but it didn’t open until 1969, three years after the studio founder died.

Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, still one of the most popular attractions at the park decades later.
Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, still one of the most popular attractions at the park decades later. Courtesy of Disney

There is nothing more precious to a Hollywood studio than IP — of which Disney has plenty.

Just as characters from Disney movies are featured at the company’s theme parks, so do the attractions cross-pollinate and become movies. Many were dubious when the studio announced plans to make a movie based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The Johnny Depp-led franchise transformed into a giant box office success following the first movie’s release in summer 2003.

Later that year, The Haunted Mansion, starring Eddie Murphy, also hit theaters. The film earned a so-so $182 million at the global box office against a $90 million budget (the film has since become something of a home entertainment Halloween classic). Disney will have another go this summer, when Simien’s star-packed Haunted Mansion opens. Rosario Dawson plays a mother who discovers her new home is haunted and stars opposite Jamie Lee Curtis, Jared Leto and Owen Wilson.

Simien worked closely with Walt Disney Imagineering, which is responsible for creating, designing and building all theme park attractions. The creative division, founded by Walt Disney in 1952 to assist with Disneyland, also is responsible for keeping an eye on cruise ships, merchandise product development, games and publishing.

“Our whole focus is putting [park] guests in the middle of a story,” says Mark LaVine, a writer and executive of story development at Imagineering.

Early story sketches of the attraction drawn by Ken Anderson in 1967.
Courtesy of Disney

The Imagineers also assisted filmmakers on the Pirates of the Caribbean film series and the 2021 Jungle Cruise movie. Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, Jungle Cruise stars Dwayne Johnson as a riverboat captain who takes a scientist, played by Emily Blunt, in search of the Tree of Life. LaVine says it’s important for films to have Easter eggs and props people will recognize from the ride.

“Some of the jokes that Dwayne Johnson tells are jokes that you’ll hear our skippers say in the parks,” says LaVine. “There are a lot of park original stories that have this kind of potential, which is exciting.”

Encanto: Another Step Forward in Storytelling

The Oscar-nominated feature broke records with its “Bruno” hit and has drawn praise for its cultural representation.

Mirabel’s visual development by Lorelay Bove in Encanto. Says chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, Telling stories from around the world is a privilege.
Mirabel’s visual development by Lorelay Bové in Encanto. Says chief creative officer Jennifer Lee, “Telling stories from around the world is a privilege.” Disney

Like many others, Jennifer Lee remembers watching reruns of The Wonderful World of Disney as a kid growing up in the 1970s and feeling inspired by “Uncle Walt,” as he was known on the show. She dreamed of becoming an animator at the company — which she eventually did. Lee, who joined Walt Disney Animation as a writer in 2011, was named chief creative officer of the storied studio in 2018.

“It felt like home. We have a portrait of Walt by the front entrance, and every time I pass it, I think of his legacy, innovative spirit, dedication to artistry and his commitment to ever-evolving storytelling. It drives everything we do,” says Lee, the first female director of a Walt Disney Animation film (Frozen).

Walt Disney Animation’s Oscar-nominated Encanto, which is praised for representing Latinos and Colombian culture, is an example of how the studio is continuing the legacy, as part of a progression that has included Mulan, The Princess and the Frog, Coco and Raya and the Last Dragon. “Telling stories from around the world is a privilege. The care, respect and love that went into making Encanto inspires us as a studio and propels us forward,” says Lee. Encanto‘s soundtrack, which included eight original songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda, went viral after the film was released in theaters over Thanksgiving 2021 and on Disney+ a month later. In particular, Miranda’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” was a massive hit and became the biggest Disney song of all time, a record once held by songs like Frozen‘s “Let It Go.”

Says Lee, “Walt had a deep respect for music and for those who created it, including the great Sherman Brothers,” who wrote such iconic tunes as “It’s a Small World (After All)” for Disneyland.

On Nov. 22, Walt Disney Animation will release Wish, an original story with new music from Julia Michaels. The movie, which opens amid the company’s yearlong 100th anniversary celebration, explores the story of the star that many Disney characters wish upon. Lee and her fellow Frozen director Chris Buck wrote the script. Buck is directing Wish with Fawn Veerasunthorn, a storyboard artist who likewise worked on Frozen.

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.