Walt Disney likely would never have imagined the Walt Disney Company as it exists today: theme parks across the world, corporate acquisitions of companies that have little to do with the entertainment industry and perhaps most importantly, the shuttering of Walt’s beloved Feature Animation (now recently rectified with the acquisition of Pixar). Thanks to global branding, Mickey Mouse is now one of the most recognized images on the planet.
Walt Disney was a storyteller. He was not particularly a businessman, preferring instead to become the driving creative force behind his company while leaving the practical bookwork to his brother Roy. Walt’s entire point behind creating Disneyland was to develop a place where families could have fun together. He wanted to give parents and children alike the chance to forget their troubles for a day by entering the world of make believe. By the time the Florida Project rolled around, all Walt wanted was a place that was big enough to hold all the dreams that he could ever dream. Walt retained a childlike spirit and enthusiasm until the very end.
Walt’s death left a palpable hole in the fabric of the Walt Disney Company. Some feared that the company could never go on without its founder, especially with such ambitious projects as the still-nebulous Progress City (which would later become EPCOT Center, now known simply as Epcot). Walt’s brother Roy, the businessman, had been planning to retire. Roy agreed to postpone retirement and take the reins following his brother’s untimely death. Roy may have been a businessman heavily invested in the bottom line, but he was still Walt’s brother. It was important to Roy to follow his late brother’s plans for the company. Roy’s capable leadership lasted through the opening of the flagship Magic Kingdom park at the new Walt Disney World in Florida. Sadly, Roy Disney passed away only two months later from a brain hemorrhage.
After Roy’s death, the Walt Disney Company was again thrown into a state of turmoil. The corporate uncertainty lasted until 1984, when the team of Michael Eisner and Stanley gold was put in charge. At the time it seemed that Eisner, a former children’s programming director and Paramount executive, was ideally suited to change the Walt Disney Company’s fortunes.
Eisner’s reign began a new chapter in the company’s life. As a marketing genius, Eisner began to aggressively promote the Disney brand. During the Eisner era bold marketing strategies including Disney Stores and Disney Quest indoor interactive “theme parks” were attempted around the country. While the Disney Quest idea failed miserably and the Disney Stores limped along slowly for years before being sold to an outside company, much of Eisner’s branding was pure genius. Gradually, the American public and eventually the world made Walt Disney World one the top rated vacation destinations on Earth.
Eisner was also a ruthless businessman. Without a guiding creative visionary by his side, Eisner instead went after the bottom line. He simply could not understand why what worked on paper in a standard business model would not work for a company as unique and special as Disney. Changes were being made throughout the parks, at first so subtly and imperceptibly that guests really didn’t notice. Perhaps a favorite menu item was no longer available at a certain restaurant as Eisner made strides toward standardization. Or a mostly hidden flowerbed no longer contained brightly blooming exotic flowers. A bit of wear showed on a building façade as the re-painting schedule was reduced from every night to three times a week.
Meanwhile, Eisner built liberally. First Disney-MGM Studios then later Animal Kingdom opened to mixed reviews. Both parks were opened in a half-finished state, each showcasing a few worthwhile attractions supplemented by cheap off the shelf rides or temporary shows. Although fans questioned the opening of each of these parks in an obviously uncompleted state, it was the overarching changes that reached the existing parks that had the fans most up in arms.
Subtlety gave way to the juggernaut of “progress,” as Eisner became emboldened. The “New Tomorrowland” came first and was probably the least controversial of the in-park changes. Ever since Epcot opened, the company had struggled with how to keep Tomorrowland from becoming dated. The decision was finally made to let it be dated, but handle this in a kitschy, fun way. This change had a cohesive theme and worked well, though in more recent years Tomorrowland has again lost its way, becoming little more than a cheap-ride showcase for newer characters such as Buzz Lightyear and Stitch.
Following the reasonably positive public reaction to the New Tomorrowland, Eisner then spearheaded a campaign designed to cut the pork out of Disney’s budget, offering maximum return on minimum investment. Expensive or low capacity rides were slashed no matter how much guests protested, indeed some beloved rides were shuttered for reasons still unknown to anyone outside the Eisner clan. Rides that had been personally designed or overseen by Walt himself were replaced with children’s play areas or water features or even nothing at all. Prices rocketed out of control, food quality went down, and maintenance was cut to the point that Disney experienced a string of negative publicity due to deaths and injuries on rides. It is hard to believe that Walt, who built his parks as the antithesis of the dirty and dangerous amusement parks available when his daughters were small, would ever have consented to Eisner’s methods.
There were some successes. The dark and dismal Eisner years also played host to the birth of Disney’s entrants into the thrill ride category. Previous management had been unsure how the public would react to thrill rides in Disney. Eisner saw the competitive market created by the opening of two Universal thrill parks and decided to take the plunge. Some of Disney’s most enduring shows, such as Festival of the Lion King, were also born during this time.
Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO of the Walt Disney Company on September 30, 2005 following a Save Disney campaign spearheaded by Roy E Disney, son of Roy O and nephew of Walt, which had led to a shocking 43.5% vote of no confidence at the March 3, 2004 shareholders meeting.
The Eisner years have at last come to an end. Eisner’s replacement, Bob Iger, has pledged to return to Disney’s roots. Fortunately, Eisner made relatively few permanent changes to the parks, and Iger is already working to repair the damage. Iger also has a strong plan for the future and a desire to see the company move forward while retaining the ideals that were so important to Walt. Of course, time will tell whether Iger is able to succeed in his plans but for now, this is an exciting time in Disney history.