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Companies Of A Century: Walt Disney’s Enduring Legacy Of Entertainment And Inspiration

Though the company faltered following the founder's death, new leadership brought it back from the brink, and into the new century.

Editor’s Note: Chief Executive is kicking off a new annual tradition this year by celebrating every sizable (over $100 million in annual revenues) standalone company turning 100 in 2023. Check out the rest of this year’s class for tips, insights and, above all else, the inspiration you need to keep going….and going.




HQ: Burbank, California
Revenues: $82.7 billion
Employees: ~171,000 

Few companies are as big or as well-known as the Walt Disney Company, named for its eponymous founder, who studied cartooning at a correspondence school as a teenager. Young Walt’s creation of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Donald Duck in a series of pioneering animated films in the 1920s belied his business chops, given an entrepreneurial career that included the development of major animated and live-action film and TV production studios and world-renowned theme parks. 

Walt and his brother Roy launched the company on October 16, 1923, as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. The studio was a a small store rented on Kingswell Avenue in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, today the home of a skateboarding shop. In 1926, a larger studio was built less than a mile away on Hyperion Avenue, where Mickey Mouse, the company’s longtime mascot, made his debut in the 1928 cartoon Steamboat Willie, one of the first cartoons with synchronized sound. The big-eared rodent later starred in his own series of Mickey Mouse cartoons, becoming so popular his face soon adorned tens of thousands of watches. 

The Art of Expansion 

The cartoons were successful, but Walt had bigger ambitions. Against his brother’s wishes, he produced the company’s first full-length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937 to critical and commercial success. The profits (more than $8 million on a budget of $1.5 million) funded Disney’s new 51-acre studio complex in Burbank, California. But as with all century-old businesses, there were bumps along the way. 

Disney’s feature-length animated films in the 1940s, including the classic Bambi, fared poorly at the box office. Several years passed until the successful release of Cinderella in 1950. Four years later, Walt was the first major film producer to venture into TV, with the anthology series The Wonderful World of Disney that continues to be broadcast today. 

The biggest bump, however, emerged after Walt’s death in 1966. Without his visionary leadership, the movie and TV divisions lost their footing; the theme parks in Anaheim, California, and Orlando, Florida, fell into debt; and profits were nonexistent. By the early 1980s, the era’s corporate raiders had Disney in their crosshairs. Business prospects and reputation for quality work were so abysmal the Los Angeles Times called it “a pitiless, helpless giant.” 

Leading a Comeback 

Then along came Michael Eisner. The former president of Paramount took the reins in 1984 and made a series of bold decisions. He revived the moribund live-action film studio, which produced hits like Pretty Woman, and restored the animated film division, which reached its zenith with blockbusters like The Little Mermaid, The Lion King, Mulan and Beauty and the Beast. The two theme parks were enlarged, and new ones opened in Paris and Hong Kong. 

The Disney Renaissance was underway. In just 10 years, Eisner and Disney Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg catapulted its market share from $2 billion to $22 billion. Although later criticized for overspending and micromanagement, the company he handed over to his successor Robert Iger, former president of ABC Entertainment, was financially sound and stable. 

With Disney’s ample war chest, Iger plotted a series of acquisitions that stunned the industry: Pixar, Marvel Entertainment and Lucasfilm. The deals added a galaxy of content and brands to Disney’s roster, from the Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises to every Marvel Universe character. In 2014, Chief Executive named Iger CEO of the Year. 

Before his retirement in 2021, Iger also achieved his hard-won dream of opening a fifth theme park, Shanghai Disneyland in China. In November 2022, displeased with the direction of the company, which reported $1.5 billion in losses from its nascent streaming business, Disney’s board entreated Iger to return and lead the global entertainment giant for the next two years, until a successor was found. 

Iger’s rehiring came in the midst of Disney’s squabbles with the state of Florida, home to Disney World. When Disney opposed the legislature’s Parental Rights in Education bill, (aka the Don’t Say Gay bill), Gov. Ron DeSantis revoked Disney World’s special tax status. Iger recently fired back, calling the actions “anti-business” and “anti-Florida.” Obviously, he is not about to rest on his laurels. As Iger once said, “The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” 

In this regard, he remains true to the founder’s vision to entertain and inspire, despite the grit, tenacity and perseverance that entails. “All our dreams can come true,” Walt predicted, “if we have the courage to pursue them.”


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