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Decades of Disney: 100 Years of Magic

Figure 1: Disney's Centenary Logo

This blog post is a compilation of a series of social media posts written by the editors of the International Journal of Disney Studies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of The Walt Disney Company. We counted down the days to Disney's 100th by exploring what text, character, Park, or acquisition was most important to Disney in each of Disney's ten decades. Here's what we decided:

First Decade (1923-1932): Mickey Mouse and Steamboat Willie (1928)

Fig. 2: Poster for Steamboat Willie (1928)

While the first decade of Disney contains many firsts, none is perhaps as pivotal to the company as Steamboat Willie and the introduction of Mickey Mouse. Steamboat Willie was one of the first animated shorts with synchronized sound, representing the studio’s animation innovation both then and now. Also, Disney’s desire to protect this short has led them to lobby the US for longer and longer copyright laws (a battle they only recently lost). And of course, Mickey gave the studio an identity as it started up and continues to be one of the most recognized licensed characters in the world. After all, as Walt himself claimed, “It all started with a mouse.” -Rebecca Rowe

Second Decade (1933-1942): Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Fig. 3: Poster for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

While it all may have "started with a mouse," Disney’s greatest ‘folly’, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), aided in solidifying Disney as the purveyor of fairy tale films. This version of the “Snow White” fairy tale was based on the Brothers Grimm’s “Sneewittchen” and took inspiration from Winthrop Ames’s 1916 film, Snow White. Through the tale of Snow White versus the wicked Stepmother (later known as Queen Grimhilde), this animated fairy tale film (the first major feature-length animated film) won Disney their first Oscar, began the Disney Princess franchise, and provided the basis of fairy tale fantasy and magic which the corporation still relies on to this day. Disney's folly became an unmitigated success, and the start of their legacy. -Bee Eldridge

Third Decade (1943-1952): The Duck Family and Duckburg: Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (1942) and Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man (1952)

Fig. 4: Cover of Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold (1942)

These are the foundational comics of Carl Barks, “The Good Duck Artist”: his first work on Donald Duck (with Jack Hannah) bookended by the start of Uncle Scrooge having a solo comic. In between, there is the development of Huey, Dewey, and Louie, the creation of the Junior

Fig. 5: Cover of Uncle Scrooge: Only A Poor Old Man (1952)

Woodchucks, the first appearances of Gladstone Gander and the Beagle Boys, and a myriad of classic stories in the midst. This coincided with the comics growing popularity in post-war Europe, with Guido Martina’s work in Italy (including 1949’s Mickey’s Inferno) and Erika Fuchs’s translations in Germany opening the door for Disney’s growing cultural dominance in the mid-century. -Peter Cullen Bryan

Fourth Decade (1953-1962): Disneyland (1955)

Fig. 6: Disneyland front gate on opening day

Though the 1950s were crucial for Disney (their first forays into television, the studio’s return to profitability), much of what Disney’s activities centered around – or at least connected back to – was the opening of Disneyland on 17 July 1955. Though initially seen as an incredibly risky undertaking, Disneyland quickly became the company’s touchstone. It even played a major role in moving Disney from being a “studio” to a fully-fledged company! Disneyland’s castle became a symbol for Disney, encompassing as it does the intersection between fantasy and reality, and the park became the model for Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom (1971) and Magic Kingdoms in Tokyo (1983), Paris (1992), Hong Kong (2005), and Shanghai (2016), as well as the impetus for other theme parks around the world. -Amy M. Davis

Fifth Decade (1963-1972): Walt Disney World (1971)

Fig. 7: Opening day of Disney World

Following the success of Disneyland in California, Walt Disney World Resort opened its doors to the public on 01 October 1971. Known as “The Florida Project,” this magical place was surrounded with plenty of land to expand in ways that Disneyland could not. Unfortunately, Walt Disney never saw the completion of the project as he died on 15 December in 1966. His brother Roy oversaw the project until its completion. Roy named the park “Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom” (changed to Walt Disney World in 1994) in honor of his brother. When the park opened, this included Main Street, U.S.A., Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. The park expanded throughout the years to include the EPCOT Center (1982), Disney's Hollywood Studios (1989), and Disney's Animal Kingdom (1998). -Bee Eldridge

Sixth Decade (1973-1982): EPCOT Center (1982)

Fig. 8: Opening day of EPCOT

The period 1973 to 1982 was one of decline. Disney’s leadership’s guiding mantra, “What would Walt do?”, was the opposite of what Walt would have done: take a risk, try something new, and see how the audience responded. This is exemplified by E.P.C.O.T. Center. When first conceived/proposed by Walt Disney, EPCOT was to be literally an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where new approaches to urban life would be found. But Walt’s death in 1966 and the company’s subsequent struggles meant that Walt’s city was shelved, then altered into a familiar form: a theme park. Opening 1 October 1982, Epcot struggled initially to find its way. Since then, it has evolved into something better integrated into Disney. In short, it serves as an illustration of how Disney as a whole lost its edge, fell back on ideas that felt familiar and “safe”, struggled to reach its audience, but would – eventually – get out of its own way and find success. -Amy M. Davis

Seventh Decade (1982-1992): The Little Mermaid (1989) and the beginning of the Disney Renaissance

Fig. 9: Poster for The Little Mermaid

In 1989, Disney released The Little Mermaid, their first fairy-tale film since Sleeping Beauty did poorly in theaters thirty years earlier. Little Mermaid was almost immediately a smash hit. This movie represents the beginning of many things that would shape Disney moving forward: it was the first movie of what is commonly called the Disney Renaissance–the decade between 1989 and 1999 during which Disney released nine major animated box office hits, a feat never achieved before or since by any studio. It was also the first Disney movie to have music written by Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman, beginning Disney’s long relationship with Broadway. Moreover, this film marked a shift in how Disney approached audiences; to their great surprise, adult couples saw the movie on date nights, and Disney realized that they could capture audiences from womb to tomb, even those adults without children. Even with these new beginnings, The Little Mermaid also represented a turning back to the style prominent during Walt’s direction. Roy E. Disney even called it the “kind of movie Walt would have made.” This movie revitalized the Disney style and brought Disney back to the forefront of children’s media while also expanding their reach to adult audiences. -Rebecca Rowe

Eighth Decade (1993-2002): Disney Princess Franchise is Born

Fig. 10: Visual representation of Disney Princess line

After The Little Mermaid, Disney continued to release Princess films, introducing audiences to Belle in Beauty and the Beast (1991), Jasmine in Aladdin (1992), Pocahontas in Pocahontas (1995), Mulan in Mulan (1998), and Kida in Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001). It was Andy Mooney, chairman of Disney Consumer Products who noticed princess culture being engaged with by audiences when seeing girls dressing up as princesses at a Disney on Ice show, using their own handmade costumes. And thus, the now billion dollar Disney Princess Franchise was born. Now, consumers can engage with princess films, merchandise, marketing and even meet the princesses at Disney Parks. Presently, the Disney Princess Franchise includes 15 princesses who are being featured in campaigns such as ‘Dream Big Princess’ and Disney’s Ultimate Princess Celebration, reminding audiences that ‘For every girl who dreams big, there’s a princess to show her it’s possible’. -Robyn Muir

Ninth Decade (2003-2012): Purchase of Marvel (2009) and LucasFilm (2012)

Fig. 11: Marvel logo

In 2009, the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel, and went on to acquire LucasFilm in 2012. Both franchises proved a huge success. Not only are Marvel and LucasFilm regularly releasing films to expand their respective cinematic universes, but the transmedia storytelling has grown further through merchandise, theme park experiences and television shows. Avengers Campus has debuted in Disneyland Resort and Disneyland Paris, with themed food, attractions and character experiences. Galaxy’s Edge features at both Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney

Fig. 12: Lucasfilm logo

World, providing consumers with an immersive experience of Batuu, complete with themed rides, food and roaming characters. In addition, both cinematic universes have been expanded further thanks to Disney+ shows such as Loki and Ahsoka, showing how far these studios have expanded under the Disney banner. -Robyn Muir

Tenth Decade (2013-2023): Disney+ (2019)

Fig. 13: Disney+ logo with studio logos

As Disney has continued to expand their holdings over the most recent decade, they developed a streaming service to hold all things Disney: Disney+. Launched November 12, 2019, Disney+ was perfectly timed: as people all over the world began sheltering in place due to COVID-19, they needed new access to media content, and Disney+ became an important outlet, especially for parents working from home with children. Disney+ is unique among streaming platforms in many ways: it foregrounds child users, requiring all users to opt into adult content rather than requiring users to turn on parental controls to opt out of adult content. Disney+ organizes itself by company, with portals to Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars, and National Geographic at the top of the home page. It was also the first streaming service to create thematic collections (e.g., “Shorts”, “Disney 100”, or “Princesses”) in their search area, an organization strategy that other streaming services have now adopted. -Rebecca Rowe


So, now that you've seen our top picks for the various decades of Disney, what do you think? What would you pick as the top moments of Disney's history?



Fig. 1: Disney. "D100 Castle Logo." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 2: IMDb. "Steamboat Willie." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 3: Disney. "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 4: Wikipedia. "Donald Duck Finds Pirate Gold." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 5: Wikipedia. "Only a Poor Old Man." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 6: McCormack, Molly. "Black Sunday: 6 Things You Didn’t Know About Disneyland’s Darkest Day." AllEars, Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 7: Franko, Rachel. "From Opening Day to Now, How Do These Disney World Rides Hold Up?" AllEars, Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 8: "Official Grand Opening Ceremonies for EPCOT Center at Walt Disney World." D23, Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 9: IMDb. "The Little Mermaid." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 10: "Disney Princess." Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 11: Wagmeister, Elizabeth. "Marvel ‘X-Men’ Series from Matt Nix, Bryan Singer Lands Put Pilot Commitment at Fox (EXCLUSIVE)." Variety, Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 12: "Lucasfilm." CineMasComics, Accessed 12 October 2023.

Fig. 13: Godwin, Jeremy. "Disney+ on us: Verizon to give customers 12 months of Disney+." Verizon, Accessed 12 October 2023.

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