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Walt Disney Productions (previously known as Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and Walt Disney Studio) was an entertainment company and animation studio founded by Walt and Roy Disney.

Walt Disney Productions served as the top governance for all Disney-related operations until the mid-1980s, when a number of decisions were made that resulted in a massive restructure of the company. Disney's top governance became The Walt Disney Company while its feature animation studio became Walt Disney Feature Animation (later Walt Disney Animation Studios).[1]


The Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit[]

In early 1923, Kansas City, Missouri animator Walt Disney created a short film entitled Alice's Wonderland, which featured child actress Virginia Davis interacting with animated characters. Film distributor Margaret J. Winkler contacted Disney with plans to distribute a whole series of Alice Comedies based upon Alice's Wonderland. The contract signed, Walt and his brother Roy Disney moved to Los Angeles. On October 16, 1923, they officially set up shop in their uncle Robert Disney's garage, marking the beginning of the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio (currently Walt Disney Animation Studios). Within a few months, the company moved into the back of a realty office in downtown Los Angeles, where production continued on the Alice Comedies. In January 1926, the studio moved to a newly constructed studio facility on Hyperion Avenue in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles. At the same time, Walt renamed the company Walt Disney Studio.

After the end of the Alice Comedies, Disney developed an all-cartoon series for Winkler and Universal Pictures - Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in 1927. Universal owned the rights to the titular character while Winkler Pictures served as the "middleman" between Disney and Universal. Disney only completed 27 Oswald shorts before losing the contract in March 1928, when Winkler's husband Charles Mintz hired away all of Disney's animators to start his own animation studio. Notable animators that left Disney include Hugh Harman, Rudolf Ising, Robert McKimson, and Rollin Hamilton. Ub Iwerks was one of the few animators who stayed with Disney.

Mickey Mouse and Silly Symphonies[]

Disney Studios 1930

The Disney Studios building in the 1930s.

Following the loss of several animators, Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Mickey Mouse. Disney's first sound film, Steamboat Willie, a cartoon starring Mickey, was released on November 18, 1928. It was the third Mickey Mouse cartoon, behind Plane Crazy and The Gallopin' Gaucho. It was also the first cartoon to feature synchronized sound. Disney used Pat Powers' Cinephone system, created by Powers using Lee De Forest's Phonofilm system. Steamboat Willie premiered at B. S. Moss's Colony Theater in New York City, now The Broadway Theatre.

A second Disney series of sound cartoons, the Silly Symphonies, debuted in 1929 with The Skeleton Dance. Each Silly Symphony was a one-shot cartoon centered around music or a particular theme.

On December 16, 1929, Walt Disney Studio's name was changed to Walt Disney Productions, Ltd. and a few subsidiaries were established: Walt Disney Enterprises (for merchandising), Disney Film Recording Company, Ltd. (for music), and Liled Realty and Investment Company (for real estate).

In 1930, disputes over finances between Disney and Powers led to Walt Disney Productions signing a new distribution contract with Columbia Pictures, and Powers signing away Ub Iwerks, who began producing cartoons at his own studio.

In 1932, Disney signed an exclusive contract with Technicolor (through the end of 1935) to produce cartoons in color, beginning with Flowers and Trees (1932). At the same time, Disney released future cartoons through United Artists until 1937, when United Artists attempted to attain future television rights to the Disney shorts. From 1937 to 1956, most of Disney's films would be distributed through RKO Radio Pictures.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and World War II[]

Snow White Poster

Despite being a financial disappointment upon its initial release, Pinocchio is widely regarded as the pinnacle of Disney animation.

Deciding to push the boundaries of animation even further, Disney began production of his first feature-length animated film in 1934. Considerable training and development went into the production of Snow White, with Silly Symphonies such as The Goddess of Spring (1934) and The Old Mill serving as experimentation grounds for new techniques, including the animation of realistic human figures, special effects animation, and the use of multiplane camera, an invention which split animation artwork layers into several planes, allowing the camera to appear to move dimensionally through an animated scene. Snow White cost Disney a then-expensive sum of $1.4 million to complete.

Taking three years to complete, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, based upon the Grimm Brothers's fairy tale, premiered in December 1937 and became the highest-grossing film of that time by 1939.

On September 29, 1938, the company and subsidiaries were combined to create a single company titled Walt Disney Productions.

Using the profits from Snow White, Disney financed the construction of a new studio complex in Burbank, California. The new Walt Disney Studios, in which the company is headquartered to this day, was completed and open for business by the end of 1939. The following year, Walt Disney Productions had its initial public offering.

The studio continued releasing animated shorts and features, such as Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940). Much of the character animation on these productions and all subsequent ones until the late 1970s was supervised by a brain trust of animators Walt Disney dubbed the "Nine Old Men", many of whom also served as directors on the Disney features Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Ward Kimball, Eric Larson, John Lounsbery, Milt Kahl, and Marc Davis.

The development of the feature animation department created a caste system at the Disney studio: lesser animators (and feature animators in-between assignments) were assigned to work on the short subjects, while animators higher in status at the studio working on the features.

A bitter union strike in mid-1941 resulted in an exodus of several animation professionals from the studio, from top-level animators such as Art Babbitt and Bill Tylta to artists more known for later works such as Frank Tashlin, John Hubley, Maurice Noble, and Walt Kelly. The inexpensive Dumbo was released just before the United States' entry into World War II in 1941 and became a box office success, while Bambi did not see release until mid-1942.

After World War II began, box-office profits declined. When the United States entered the war after the attack on Pearl Harbor, many of Disney's animators were drafted into the armed forces. The U.S. and Canadian governments commissioned the studio to produce training and propaganda films. By 1942, 90% of its 550 employees were working on war-related films. Films such as the feature, Victory Through Air Power and the short, Education for Death (both 1943) were meant to increase public support for the war effort. Even the studio's characters joined the effort, as Donald Duck appeared in a number of comical propaganda shorts, including the Academy Award-winning Der Fuehrer's Face (1943).

Post-war and television[]

With limited staff and little operating capital during and after the war, Disney's feature films during much of the 1940s were "package films," or collections of shorts, such as The Three Caballeros (1945) and Melody Time (1948), which performed poorly at the box-office. At the same time, the studio began producing live-action films and documentaries. Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948) featured animated segments, while the True-Life Adventures series, which included such films as Seal Island (1948) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), were also popular and won numerous awards.

The release of Cinderella in 1950 proved that feature-length animation could still succeed in the marketplace. Other releases of the period included Alice in Wonderland (1951) and Peter Pan (1953), both in production before the war began, and Disney's first all-live-action feature, Treasure Island (1950). Other early all-live-action Disney films included The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men (1952), The Sword and the Rose (1953), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Disney ended its distribution contract with RKO in 1953, forming its own distribution arm, Buena Vista Film Distribution (now Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

In December 1950, Walt Disney Productions and The Coca-Cola Company teamed up for Disney's first venture into television, the NBC television network special An Hour in Wonderland. In October 1954, the ABC network launched Disney's first regular television series, Disneyland, which would go on to become one of the longest-running primetime series of all time. Disneyland allowed Disney a platform to introduce new projects and broadcast older ones, and ABC became Disney's partner in the financing and development of Disney's next venture, located in the middle of an orange grove near Anaheim, California.


In 1954, Walt Disney used his Disneyland series to unveil what would become Disneyland, an idea conceived out of a desire for a place where parents and children could both have fun at the same time. Development took place at WED Enterprises. On July 17, 1955, Disneyland was previewed with a live television broadcast hosted by Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan. On July 18, 1955, Walt Disney opened Disneyland to the general public. After a shaky start, Disneyland continued to grow and attract visitors from across the country and around the world. A major expansion in 1959 included the addition of America's first monorail system.

Disney continued to focus its talents on television throughout the 1950s. Its weekday afternoon children's television program The Mickey Mouse Club, featuring its roster of young "Mouseketeers", premiered in 1955 to great success, as did the Davy Crockett miniseries, starring Fess Parker and broadcast on the Disneyland anthology show. Two years later, the Zorro series would prove just as popular, running for two seasons on ABC, as well as separate episodes on the Disneyland series. Despite such success, Walt Disney Productions invested little into television ventures in the 1960s, with the exception of the long-running anthology series, later known as The Wonderful World of Disney.

Disney's film studios stayed busy as well, averaging five or six releases per year during this period. While the production of shorts slowed significantly during the 1950s and 1960s, the studio released a number of popular animated features, like Lady and the Tramp (1955), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), which introduced a new xerography process to transfer the drawings to animation cels. Disney's live-action releases were spread across a number of genres, including historical fiction (Johnny Tremain, 1957), modern-day comedies (The Shaggy Dog, 1959), and adaptations of children's books (Pollyanna, 1960). Disney's most successful film of the 1960s was a live-action/animated musical adaptation of Mary Poppins, which received five Academy Awards, including Best Actress Julie Andrews.

For the 1964 New York World's Fair, Disney prepared four separate attractions for various sponsors, each of which would find its way to Disneyland in one form or another. During this time, Walt Disney was also secretly scouting out new sites for a second Disney theme park. In November 1965, "Disney World" was announced, with plans for theme parks, hotels, and even a model city on thousands of acres of land purchased outside of Orlando, Florida.

The deaths of Walt and Roy Disney and the opening of Walt Disney World[]

On December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer, and Roy Disney took over as chairman, CEO, and president of the company. One of his first acts was to rename Disney World as "Walt Disney World," in honor of his brother and his vision.

In 1967, the last two films Walt actively followed were released: the animated feature, The Jungle Book and the musical, The Happiest Millionaire. The studio released a number of comedies in the late 1960s, including The Love Bug (1968) and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969), which starred another young Disney discovery, Kurt Russell. The 1970s opened with the release of Disney's first "post-Walt" animated feature, The Aristocats, followed by a return to fantasy musicals in 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

On October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World opened to the public, with Roy Disney dedicating the facility in person later that month. Two months later, on December 20, 1971, Roy Disney died of a stroke, leaving the company under control of Donn Tatum, Card Walker, and Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller, each trained by Walt and Roy.

With The Wonderful World of Disney remaining a prime-time staple, Disney returned to television in the 1970s with syndicated programming such as the anthology series The Mouse Factory and a brief revival of the Mickey Mouse Club.

1972–1984: Theatrical malaise and new leadership[]

While Walt Disney Productions continued releasing family-friendly films throughout the 1970s, such as Escape to Witch Mountain (1975) and Freaky Friday (1976), the films did not fare as well at the box office as earlier material. However, the animation studio saw success with Robin Hood (1973), The Rescuers (1977). During the production of Robin Hood and The Rescuers, the aging members of the Nine Old Men began training replacements in anticipation of retirement. Led by Eric Larson, the training program would bring artists such as Don Bluth, Glen Keane, John Musker, and Ron Clements to the forefront of the studio's talent roster.

Its film library was valuable but offered few current successes, and its leadership team was unable to keep up with other studios. One example is Don Bluth, who defected from Disney along with 11 other animators following the release of Pete's Dragon (1977). In 1978, plans were announced for a second theme park at Walt Disney World.

Inspired by the popularity of Star Wars, the Disney studio produced the science-fiction adventure The Black Hole in 1979. The Black Hole was one of the first Disney releases to carry a PG rating, the first being Take Down, also released in 1979. In 1980, Disney launched Walt Disney Home Video to take advantage of the newly emerging videocassette market. The company has also joined venture with Paramount Pictures on the production of the 1980 film adaptation of Popeye, which was a critical failure, yet a moderate box office success, Disney joined with Paramount again in the 1981 fantasy epic Dragonslayer, which was more mature than anything Disney was ever involved with at the time, though it was a box office failure, while The Fox and the Hound did not see release until 1981. The releases of these and other PG-rated Disney films such as the boldly innovative Tron (1982) led Disney CEO Ron Miller to create a new brand for Disney to release more adult-oriented material.

Walt Disney World received much of the company's attention throughout the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. In October 1, 1982, EPCOT Center, opened to the public. Inspired by Walt Disney's dream of a futuristic model city, EPCOT Center was built as a "permanent World's Fair", complete with exhibits sponsored by major American corporations, as well as pavilions based on the cultures of other nations.

On April 1, 1983, Disney's live-action film studio was split off into Walt Disney Pictures.

In Japan, the Oriental Land Company partnered with Walt Disney Productions to build the first Disney theme park outside of the United States, Tokyo Disneyland, which opened on April 15, 1983.

On April 18, 1983, The Disney Channel debuted as a subscription-level channel on cable systems nationwide, featuring its large library of classic films and TV series, along with original programming and family-friendly third-party offerings.

Despite the success of the Disney Channel and its new theme park creations, Walt Disney Productions was financially vulnerable. The remaining old guard Disney animators retired after the production of the film, and the new animators - including newer recruits such as John Lasseter (who joined Pixar Animation Studios after being fired from Disney in 1983) and Andreas Deja - forged ahead on their own.

1984-1986: Restructuring[]

In 1984, financier Saul Steinberg launched a hostile takeover bid for Walt Disney Productions, with the intent of selling off its various assets.[2] Disney successfully fought off the bid with the help of friendly investors, and Sid Bass and Roy Disney's son Roy Edward Disney brought in Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg from Paramount Pictures and Frank Wells from Warner Bros. to head up the company and replace Ron W. Miller, who created Touchstone Pictures which premiered with its first comedy film Splash (1984). Additionally, going against a thirty-year studio policy, the company founded a TV animation division on December 5.

At this time, the company considered shuttering its legacy animation studio to save money but in the interest of saving what he believed to be the studio's core business, Roy E. Disney persuaded Eisner to let him supervise the animation department in the hopes of improving its fortunes. Eisner agreed, making Roy E. Disney chairman of the newly reorganized Walt Disney Feature Animation. Peter Schneider became the first president of Feature Animation at the studio.

On February 1, 1985, the entire animation staff was moved out of the Animation building on the Disney studio lot in Burbank, which was instead occupied by management and television production staff. The animation staff relocated to the Air Way complex, a former air hanger 20 miles away in Glendale. The last film released by the old feature animation studio would be The Black Cauldron, while the newly-formed Walt Disney Feature Animation's first film would be The Great Mouse Detective.

On February 6, 1986, Walt Disney Productions would rename itself The Walt Disney Company.[3]

Executive management[]


Chief Executive Officers[]

Chairmen of the Board[]

From 1945 to 1960 Walt and Roy Disney shared the role of Chairman of the Board. Walt dropped the Chairman title in 1960 so he could focus more on the creative aspects of the company. Roy O. Disney kept the Chairman and CEO's role.

Vice Chairman of the Board[]

Chief Operating Officers[]

Further reading[]

  • Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire, Bob Thomas, 1998
  • Building a Dream; The Art of Disney Architecture, Beth Dunlop, 1996, ISBN 0-8109-3142-7
  • Cult of the Mouse: Can We Stop Corporate Greed from Killing Innovation in America?, Henry M. Caroselli, 2004, Ten Speed Press
  • Disney: The Mouse Betrayed, Peter Schweizer
  • The Disney Touch: How a Daring Management Team Revived an Entertainment Empire, by Ron Grover (Richard D. Irwin, Inc., 1991), ISBN 1-55623-385-X
  • The Disney Version: The Life, Times, Art and Commerce of Walt Disney, Richard Schickel, 1968, revised 1997
  • Disneyana: Walt Disney Collectibles, Cecil Munsey, 1974
  • Disneyization of Society: Alan Bryman, 2004
  • DisneyWar, James B. Stewart, Simon & Schuster, 2005, ISBN 0-684-80993-1
  • Donald Duck Joins Up; the Walt Disney Studio During World War II, Richard Shale, 1982
  • How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic ISBN 0-88477-023-0 (Marxist Critique) Ariel Dorfman, Armand Mattelart, David Kunzle (translator).
  • Inside the Dream: The Personal Story of Walt Disney, Katherine Greene & Richard Greene, 2001
  • The Keys to the Kingdom: How Michael Eisner Lost His Grip, Kim Masters (Morrow, 2000)
  • The Man Behind the Magic; the Story of Walt Disney, Katherine & Richard Greene, 1991, revised 1998, ISBN 0-7868-5350-6
  • Married to the Mouse, Richard E. Foglesorg, Yale University Press.
  • Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland, David Koenig, 1994, revised 2005, ISBN 0-9640605-4-X
  • Mouse Tracks: The Story of Walt Disney Records, Tim Hollis, and Greg Ehrbar, 2006, ISBN 1-57806-849-5
  • Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the raiders, and the battle for Disney, John Taylor, 1987 New York Times
  • The Story of Walt Disney, Diane Disney Miller & Pete Martin, 1957
  • Team Rodent, Carl Hiassen.
  • Walt Disney: An American Original, Bob Thomas, 1976, revised 1994, ISBN 0671223321
  • Work in Progress by Michael Eisner with Tony Schwartz (Random House, 1998), ISBN 978-0375500718

See also[]


v - e - d
The Walt Disney Studios logo
Motion Pictures Production
Walt Disney PicturesWalt Disney Animation StudiosPixarMarvel StudiosLucasfilmDisneynature20th Century Studios20th Century AnimationSearchlight PicturesStar Studios (Indian Independence films) • Blue Sky StudiosFox 2000 Pictures20th Digital Studio Walt Disney Animation FranceWalt Disney Animation CanadaWalt Disney Animation JapanWalt Disney Animation FloridaWalt Disney Animation AustraliaTouchstone PicturesDisneytoon StudiosDIC Entertainment L.P. (Limited Partnership)Dimension FilmsCircle 7 AnimationImageMovers Digital Hollywood Pictures Miramax FilmsPixar CanadaWalt Disney Productions
Distribution Labels
Walt Disney Studios Motion PicturesSearchlight Pictures (United States only) • Buena Vista International (European Independence films) • Star Distribution (Latin American Independence films)
Studio Lots
Walt Disney Studios Burbank Studio Lot • Golden Oak Ranch • The Prospect Studios • Disney Studios Australia
Former Studios
Skellington ProductionsCaravan PicturesSIP Animation (Minority Stake)
Former Distribution Brands
Buena Vista Pictures Distribution (1956-2007) • UTV Motion Pictures (2013-2017, India) • Miramax Films (1993-2010) • 20th Century Fox (2019-2020)
Current Figures
Bob IgerJennifer LeePete DocterKevin FeigeKathleen KennedyChristine McCarthy
Former Figures
Michael EisnerJeffrey KatzenbergJohn LasseterEd CatmullBob ChapekSean Bailey