Fifty years ago this December, the world lost an entertainment icon who defined much of pop culture and Americana during the 20th century. The passing of Walt Disney, unexpected to many who were unaware of his lung cancer struggles, reverberated across the globe. Many seemed to wonder if the company that bore its founder’s name would continue in the same manner as it had for decades. Thankfully, the company has only grown and improved over the past 50 years.
This special three-part edition of Disney In Depth (the first released now in September; with the following two to debut in October and November, respectively) recognizes 50 defining moments in The Walt Disney Company’s history over these past 50 years (1967 – 2016). Let the (chronological) countdown begin!
1. Pirates Of The Caribbean Opens At Disneyland (1967)
As part of New Orleans Square, the newest space in The Happiest Place on Earth, Pirates opened a mere three months after Walt’s death. The apex of Disney Imagineering, especially during its infancy, Pirates features more than 100 Audio-Animatronics and a most memorable tune by Xavier Atencio and George Bruns. The 15-minute ride was one that Walt still had a major influence in, and it shows in its attention to storytelling and artistry at its best.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Influenced numerous versions at other Magic Kingdom-style parks and the successful live-action film franchise; raised the bar of theme park attractions.
2. Walt Disney World Opens (1971)
Four years later, Walt’s vision for an entire vacation destination became a reality in the form of the Magic Kingdom, several resorts, and multiple recreational activities. The premiere of the park is a testament to Walt’s vision for making an enhanced version of Disneyland through having the benefit of space in Florida. The resort also represents the persistence of his brother Roy and the thousands of men and women who worked tirelessly for some five years to construct what is one the world’s most visited vacation spots.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Set the gold standard of vacation resorts across the globe, inspiring the formation of many copycats.
Take a look at how Walt Disney World celebrated the unveiling of the Magic Kingdom in this video from the DisneyParks YouTube channel.
3. Space Mountain Launches Guests For First Time At Magic Kingdom (1975)
Disney’s wheelhouse during this era was certainly not in its film division, but rather in the theme parks. Consequently, the rise of Space Mountain, the first roller coaster in the dark, reflected Walt’s desire for a futuristic thrill ride. Its alluring majesty is seen from several vantage points around the Magic Kingdom and certainly around the Seven Seas Lagoon. The attraction is a symbol of optimism, much like Walt himself.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Paved the way for numerous other Disney mountains and coasters.
4. River Country, Disney’s First Water Park, Opens (1976)
Not until this time had Disney entered the water park business, and what a statement this was. Designed akin to an old watering hole, River Country brought out guests from their rooms (or tents) around Bay Lake for a leisurely dip in Disney’s themed pools and slides. Sadly, in light of competition and cost-cutting measures after 9/11, River Country closed at the end of 2001.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Established Disney’s role in water parks, allowing for the creation of Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.
5. Disney Debuts Its Home Video Line With VHS and LaserDisc Entries (1978)
Consider a time when the only opportunity to watch a Disney film was during its original release or through a re-release. That was it. Come the advent of home video, especially with VHS and then LaserDisc, a select number of Disney features could be purchased – for a very sizable amount – or rented in newfangled video stores. What a concept! Compilation features were among the first, followed by films like The Love Bug and Pete’s Dragon.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Allowed individuals to watch Disney movies from the comfort of their homes for the first time. Walt was always for innovation, so indeed he would have seen the value of this entertainment medium.
6. The Black Hole Marks Disney’s First PG Release (1979)
During a period when Disney was churning out pictures like The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again, the studio was more or less suffering. Much of the 1980s also saw its share of flops, but Disney aimed for experimentation. One example existed in the form of The Black Hole, a more adult sci-fi flick that opened in light of popular hits like Star Wars. While Disney’s movie was somewhat of a commercial failure, it gained cult hit status and a rumored remake may bring about new interest in revisiting the classic.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: The studio’s new effort to produce more mature features would later inspire the advent of Touchstone Pictures and the Walt Disney Pictures banner even expand into PG-13 territory.
7. A Slew Of Now-Notable Artists, Including Tim Burton and John Lasseter, Join Disney (1979)
As mentioned, Disney was beginning to restructure its vision in the studio arena, and it needed a ton of new artists to enter the picture to take the places of retiring folks. During this transition, some of Walt’s “nine old men” helped up-and-comers like Burton and Lasseter, as well as others, such as Mike Gabriel, Chris Buck, Mark Henn, and many more.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: The reconstruction of Disney animation – even more so during the 1980s – would allow for the renaissance that would characterize the studio’s history in a most positive light.
8. The Illusion Of Life: Disney Animation, The Pinnacle Of Art Books, Debuts (1981)
A handbook for all aspiring animators, in addition to others who appreciate the craft, the title by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, two of Walt’s “old men,” is a gift that keeps on giving for decades to follow. Sharing their techniques and tons of illustrations that depict the formation of animated sequences, many thousands of their successors who have worked for Disney and other companies, too, have relied on this book as a staple for furthering their professional capabilities.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: This book would also provide the push for other Disney animators to publish similar entries that have helped their contemporaries learn about animation.
9. EPCOT Center Opens After Nearly Two Decades In Development (1982)
Envisioned as a futuristic community, almost a utopia of sorts, Walt’s ideal city never came to be. However, that did not stop Disney Imagineers from trying to assimilate many of those themes into a theme park setting. EPCOT Center, as it was called for its first decade, united technology-centric expositions with areas celebrating various nationalities. Describing EPCOT Center’s cost as monumental would be an understatement, and the company would be coping with those financial strains for years to follow. But due to following through with some of Walt’s hopes and translating it to such a fantastic park environment, it has entertained tens of millions of guests for nearly 35 years.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: In addition to continuing an idea that Walt was responsible for, EPCOT Center’s attractions and innovations would be replicated in other Disney theme park spaces.
The construction of the iconic Spaceship Earth unfolds in this clip from the DisneyParks YouTube channel:
10. TRON Establishes The Possibilities Of CGI In Film (1982)
Computer-generated imagery. It’s a technology we take for granted today, and sometimes want to see less of in our films. More than three decades ago, its presence in a movie was both infrequent, novel, and thus very rudimentary. TRON, A daring venture that other studios passed on, would be accepted by Disney as a groundbreaking feature film. It was not won over by general audiences, but did earn an Academy Award for Best Sound and obtained the notice of many figures who would later incorporate CGI into their own films.
How it’s a defining Disney moment:TRON created an entire film set within the computer, a device once unfamiliar to everyday individuals, through utilizing CGI. John Lasseter credits that Toy Story would not have come to light without TRON‘s influence.
11. Tokyo Disneyland Greets Guests As First International Park (1983)
Disney’s decision to leave North America to build a new theme park demonstrated the company’s dedication to bringing global guests to experience the Disney park magic in person. Japan was selected as the site. Owned by the Oriental Land Company, a shift for Disney, the Magic Kingdom park would be only the beginning for the resort.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: The resort would later include Tokyo DisneySea, widely received as Disney’s most immersive and best park, as well as set Disney up for chartering more theme parks in other countries.
12. The Disney Channel Launches (1983)
Children and families were no longer limited to seeing Disney entertainment in person in the parks, on screen, or occasionally on television. Now they had a station entirely for them for most hours of the day. The Disney Channel, a huge measure for the company, produced original programming – remember Mousercise, a very dated exercise show with Mickey in his gym outfit? – as well as films and cartoons from its vast catalogue. While the current network today does not resemble its original state, it must pay thanks to the Disney executives who saw the promise of television for extending its presence.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: The Disney Channel has created film, television and music stars, as well as has offered wholesome family entertainment in a wide range of genres (live music events, animated series, live-action dramas, and more).
13. Michael Eisner Enters CEO Role (1984)
Though some now reflect back on how Eisner left the company in bad taste, for two decades he revitalized what was a floundering version of its former self. The parks and films divisions had been seeing major losses during a period of regrowth, and thanks to Eisner’s leadership – in addition to many of his contemporaries – Disney once again flourished. During his tenure, we saw an innumerable count of positive contributions, many of which are listed as defining Disney moments.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Bringing someone in from outside the Disney fold – recall that Eisner was critical to Paramount’s growth during this era – was a strong move for the company that had rested on its laurels and experienced turbulence. Seeing the company from a more objective lens benefited Disney, and Eisner’s career for that matter.
14. Disney Has Its First Line Of Films For Adults In Touchstone Pictures (1984)
Although Disney was already headed in this direction, Eisner’s assistance in forming a new banner of films for Disney was quite a boon. Disney had ventured outside family territory through releasing Never Cry Wolf, The Watcher in the Woods, and other movies during the early 1980s that were clearly not intended for children. Now Disney had no reason not to develop movies with more mature themes. Splash started it all and, as we know, it helped out Tom Hanks’ career pretty well.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Dozens of Touchstone films, ranging from Three Men and a Baby to Flightplan, including many others, would be great commercial successes for the company.
15. Disney Releases Its First R-Rated Film With Down and Out In Beverly Hills (1986)
Continuing to push the envelope during the 1980s, Touchstone Pictures featured films with such stars as Bette Midler and Nick Nolte. Perhaps the studio’s most mature film came in the form of this Hollywood-set flick that snatched the first “R” rating released under the Disney umbrella.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Individuals would now reconsider what constituted a Disney movie, as many more PG-13 and R films have followed, continuing to expand the reach of Disney’s influence.
16. The Disney Store Debuts (1987)
I would be negligent if I failed to cover Disney’s merchandise presence. Until 1987, Disney products had always been on store shelves, but never entirely in one place all dedicated to Disney – save for the theme parks. The establishment of The Disney Store redefined everything. Hundreds of stores now appear around the world, allowing guests to get a touch of Disney while passing through their local malls or shopping centers.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Disney Consumer Products would take flight as a result of The Disney Store, further enhancing Disney’s reach in individuals’ homes.
17. Who Framed Roger Rabbit Reinvents Blending Animation With Live-Action (1988)
Blending traditional animation with live-action imagery was nothing new for Disney, which was perhaps best known for films like Song of the South and Mary Poppins. However, never had Disney dared to incorporate characters and properties from other studios. Thanks to Robert Zemeckis, Steven Spielberg, and others, the Touchstone film reinvented the wheel. Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a mighty feat for the studio, in both critical acclaim and revenue.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: It earned three Academy Awards, a number Disney had not attained in decades, influenced countless directors, and has remained a shining example of innovation during Disney’s film reemergence in the late 1980s.
18. Disney Animation Experiences A Renaissance With The Little Mermaid (1989)
Similarly, any discussion without mentioning this film would be ridiculous. The Little Mermaid, much more so than precedents The Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company, is credited for all of the fantastic animated featured that followed. Very rightfully. Its reliance on enrapturing storytelling, emotive music, and resonant characters touched millions globally. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman could not have done a more brilliant job in shaping the songs that we all know by heart.
How it’s a defining Disney moment: Without even taking into account its fantastic reviews, box office earnings, and awards, Mermaid is a defining Disney moment for many of its main players (Menken, Ashman, directors John Musker and Ron Clements, and numerous other folks) also influencing movies like Aladdin.
19. Beauty and The Beast Garners Oscar Nomination For Best Picture, A First For An Animated Film (1992)
The film itself is a Disney treasure, one whose live-action adaptation is among the most anticipated films of all of 2017. Regardless, its ability to transcend its medium was a rarity for Disney. That an animated film could be nominated for the most prized accolade in all of film was an exceptional accomplishment for the studio. No other studio had ever created an entirely-animated movie recognized for the honor. It eliminated the stigma some had of what an animated film represented.
How it’s a defining Disney moment:Up and Toy Story 3 were nominated for Best Picture nearly two decades later, in part thanks to the precedent that Beauty and the Beast made.
While Beauty may not have won Best Picture, it earned a few Academy Awards, including Best Original Song, as seen in this video from the Oscars YouTube channel:
The next set of defining Disney moments after Walt’s depth will be revealed in an October 2016 edition of Disney In Depth.
This is Brett Nachman, signing off. Follow me on Twitter for alerts of new editions of Disney In Depth, released on the first and third Thursdays of each month on Geeks of Doom.