The success of the Walt Disney Company, founded in 1923, has long been based in creating family-friendly intellectual properties, such as Mickey Mouse, and producing innovative animated films that appealed to as large an audience as possible (Voight et al., 2017). The initial success Disney was able to establish in animation soon led to the development of theme parks, an extensive merchandise selection, and the acquisition of other notable intellectual properties, so it currently relies on a wide portfolio of popular films, television networks, theme parks and other properties that have diversified its portfolio over the years. As an entertainment and media conglomerate, Disney’s main strategy has therefore been to create characters that are recognizable by the public, or acquire other properties that are already well-known by mass audiences worldwide.
Following a period of somewhat stagnant growth in the 1970s, Michael Eisner was able to rejuvenate the company in the 1980s by focusing on producing films outside of the family-friendly market under its Touchstone Pictures label, as well as moving into the expanding cable television market. This led to films such as Pretty Woman and the acquisition of cable networks such as A&E and ESPN (Wasko, 2013). Disney also began to regularly produce new animated films that enjoyed immense popularity, such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Disney formalized a distribution deal with Pixar at this time, which was a studio that used digital animation to produce award-winning films such as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. The Eisner era can best be described as one of expanding its roster of intellectual properties and entering new markets; aside from its ownership of ESPN, Disney also moved into the sports market by purchasing the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, which was named after a team from one of its films (Wasko, 2013). The company also expanded its theme park presence with new parks in Europe and Asia; although the parks underperformed at launch, they soon become profitable for the company.

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The Robert Iger era, beginning in 2005, saw the company begin to focus on acquiring more notable properties as well as selling off properties that were underperforming, beginning with the outright acquisition of Pixar and the Jim Henson company, which was famous for creating the popular Muppets characters. The most notable acquisitions, however, can be seen in Disney’s purchase of Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. Marvel Entertainment was a comic book company notable for its properties such as Spiderman and the Avengers. After being purchased by Disney, Marvel Entertainment shifted its main emphasis away from publishing and began to develop films highlighting its comic book characters, which paid off significantly for the company due to the immense popularity of films such as Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy. In its largest acquisition to date, Disney then purchased Lucasfilm, the production company that created Star Wars. The Star Wars franchise continues to generate immense revenues to this day, with a presence in films, television and video games.

Disney’s success can therefore be seen to come from its roster of identifiable franchises and intellectual properties, as well as expanding into various markets outside of film. Although the company began with its own characters, such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, Disney soon expanded into redefining characters that already existed in the public domain, such as Snow White, and in later years purchasing other properties that had already become established in their own right, as seen in their acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm. This has kept the company relevant for generations, with no signs of slowing down. Although the company has seen its share of disappointments, its diverse portfolio has ensured its success.

  • Voigt, K. I., Buliga, O., & Michl, K. (2017). Making People Happy: The Case of the Walt Disney Company. In Business Model Pioneers (pp. 113-126). Springer International Publishing.
  • Wasko, J. (2013). Understanding Disney: The manufacture of fantasy. John Wiley & Sons.