Today the name “Disney” is world-renowned throughout the entertainment and hospitality industry as the exemplary brand that all others strive to emulate but never can entirely live up to.
The Walt Disney Company has existed for a century now, but its long and storied past goes back even further. From its humble origins as one man’s dream to its globally massive presence in the world today, here at Inside the Magic, we’re taking a look into Disney history, significant Disney facts (and facts about Walt Disney himself), and showcasing various other milestones and developments 100 years in the making.
Disney’s professional success may have “all started with a mouse,” but the actual start was with Walt Disney himself. Walter Elias Disney was born in 1901 in Chicago, Illinois, but spent most of his growing-up years in Missouri (first Marceline, MO, then Kansas City, MO). With a lifelong interest in illustration, Walt got into cartooning early on, even setting up shop with his own small studio in 1922. His works included animated advertisements, cartoon sketches called “Laugh-O-Grams,” and even his Alice in Cartoonland series of cartoon/live-action combined shorts.
Move to California
Sadly, Walt was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1923, eventually leading him to California. His first business matter was to sell his already-completed “Alice’s Wonderland” reel from his Laugh-O-Gram stint to New York distributor, M.J. Winkler. Winkler agreed to a $1,500 per reel distribution and even contracted more “Alice Comedies” to be made. This is what officially established the Disney Company, which included Walt and his brother Roy as equal partners.
To produce more “Alice Comedies,” Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio was formed in October 1923. It was renamed “Walt Disney Studio” by 1926 after moving from its former location on Kingswell Avenue in Hollywood to its more extensive Hyperion Avenue setup in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles.
After four years of making “Alice Comedies,” Disney decided to pursue an all-toon series. This led to the development of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. In 1927 alone, Disney produced 26 Oswald cartoons. Soon after, however, Walt Disney discovered that his distributor went behind his back, snagged most of his animators, and had ideas for continuing the Oswald cartoons without him. After rereading the contract, Walt discovered that he did not own the rights to Oswald. It was both a learning experience and an opportunity to start over and create an all-new protagonist—one who would go on to be the official face of the Walt Disney Company.
Birth of Mickey Mouse
After learning he did not own the rights to Oswald, Walt and his chief animator (and longtime friend), Ub Iwerks, created the one and only Mickey Mouse (originally named “Mortimer Mouse” but changed at the suggestion of Walt’s wife Lillian). The first two Mickey Mouse cartoons were done as silent films and therefore did not sell. The third one, “Steamboat Willie” was fully synchronized with sound when it debuted at the Colony Theater in New York on November 18, 1928. It was an absolute success!
Mickey Mouse paved the way in solidifying Walt Disney Animation. Soon several other successful followings emerged, including “Silly Symphonies” and the establishment of Mickey’s classic friends. And it was in 1937 that Disney produced its first-ever full-length animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was the highest-grossing film of all time up until the release of Gone with the Wind two years later.
Disney Merchandising Growth
The growing success of Walt Disney Animation led to even more expansions. The merchandising sector, for instance, really started to take off by the 1930s—right at a time when Character popularity was high and additional revenue initiatives were on everyone’s mind. The industry continued growing throughout the decades, eventually leading to the first official Disney Store, which opened in March 1987 in Glendale, California. Disney Character-themed products and merchandise continue to be big sellers even today.
The 1930s decade was also when the Walt Disney Company got into the business of publishing works. Bibo and Lang published the first Mickey Mouse Book then. Additionally, Mickey Mouse comic strips started appearing in newspapers. Disney-themed comics eventually led to the emergence of Disney magazines and other works, including the popular entertainment magazine for kids, Disney Adventures, which ran from 1990 through 2007. Book publishing for children came in 1991 with the formation of Hyperion Books and Disney Press.
While animation continued to be a significant player, Disney also started to move into live-action feature films. Treasure Island premiered in 1950 as Disney’s first entirely live-action movie that did not contain any animation components.
Disney’s Television Legacy
Christmas 1950 marked the first time a Disney production ever appeared on television with the airing of An Hour in Wonderland. In 1955, The Mickey Mouse Club debuted. Many other Disney titles continued to air on networks like ABC and NBC over the decades before the Disney Channel was formed in 1983. The Disney XD Channel launched in 2009, followed by Disney Junior in 2010. Disney+ streaming services emerged in 2019.
Walt’s never-ending dreams and limitless creativity eventually inspired him to envision a new theme park initiative. The first-ever Disney Park, the original Disneyland, opened on July 17, 1955. It was a remarkable, revolutionary new operation with both original rides and those based on beloved Disney Entertainment. Disney Cosplay was also integral to the in-Park experience, with costumed Characters walking around and even meeting and greeting Guests personally!
Walt Disney undoubtedly surpassed all those predecessor amusement parks that initially inspired him! But it wasn’t too long before he dreamed up a second theme park—a much larger operation based in Orlando, Florida—Walt Disney World Resort (1971). Sadly, Walt died before getting to see Disney World completed.
Worldwide Disney Park developments continue even today. In all, there are now 12 Disney Parks around the globe.
The Passing of the Torch
Walt Disney died on December 15, 1966, with so many irons in the fire and many unfinished plans and ambitions. His brother Roy O. Disney only lived for a short time longer to oversee the building, financing of, and grand opening of Walt Disney World Resort. He died on December 20, 1971. The decade following saw the Walt Disney Company run by a team of individuals who had all personally trained with the Disney Brothers. That team included Card Walker, Donn Tatum, and Ron Miller. The team succeeded in keeping the Disney dream and legacy alive, even continuing tentative Disney traditions Walt had been unable to carry out while still living, including his second Disney World Park—the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).
The emergence of Disney Resorts initially started with the first Disney Parks. After all, Guests were traveling from far and wide and needed corresponding and convenient accommodations. So naturally, more and more Disney-owned hotels came into being. And like everything under the Disney brand, these options offer extra special perks, privileges, and intricate theming that tells a story. It’s that Disney difference we all know and love!
By the 1990s, Disney Resort developments expanded even more, with the premier of the Disney Vacation Club and the opening of two Disney Vacation Club Resorts at Walt Disney World. Disney Vacation Club popularity continued to expand, and by the mid-1990s, such offerings were no longer limited to Disney Park property. Disney’s Vero Beach in Florida opened in October 1995, followed by Disney’s Hilton Head Island in South Carolina in March 1996. Aulani, A Disney Resort in Hawaii, debuted in August 2011.
Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund
Walt Disney always had a lifelong love for nature and for making life on this planet better for all. So, when Disney’s Worldwide Conservation Fund was founded in 1995, it was perfectly compatible in keeping with Walt’s original philanthropic initiatives.
Some of the greatest earworms of all time are, in fact, the products of Disney original songs, first presented in film and television. And the overall popularity of such, including that ever-present urge to sing along to all your favorites, initially led to the launch of Radio Disney in 1996.
Disney Cruise Line Formation
Disney vacationing concepts eventually moved beyond the Parks and Resorts, with the Disney Cruise Line in 1996, founded as the Magical Cruise Company Limited in Celebration, Florida. Before this, Walt Disney World had charted Premier Cruise Line, a subsidiary of Premier Cruises, and its “Big Red Boat” from 1985 and 1993 previously.
Adventures By Disney
The idea of Disney adventuring expanded even further with the launch of Adventures By Disney in 2005. As a Disney-led travel service initiative, explorers looking to cover new grounds regionally and internationally now can do so, but with that Disney difference that other travel services can’t boast. As of 2015, Adventures by Disney has expanded its destination offerings to include six continents.
Disney developments continue to expand throughout the world. And we haven’t even touched on everything! As far as the Walt Disney Company is concerned, work is never completed and there’s always room for more growth.
Are there any Disney developments or milestones we missed or any that you’d like to know more about in particular?
This post originally appeared on Inside the Magic.