: Histories of Disney
Cultural companies are subject to a process of continuous development which constantly constitutes corporate practices. To better understand Disney’s production of Shanghai Disneyland, this chapter examines the company’s histories. 1 will first review how Disney evolved from Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio to The Walt Disney Company, followed by how The Walt Disney Company in China was transformed to “The Chinese Walt Disney Company.” 1 will also introduce the making of Hong Kong Disneyland, which started construction in January 2003 and opened on September 12, 2005, and that of Shanghai Disneyland, which broke ground in April 2011 and opened on June 16, 2016.
Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio and Walt Disney Studios
In 1923, Walt and Roy Disney formed the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in the back half of a real estate office on Kingswell Avenue in Hollywood, California. It was renamed to Walt Disney Studios in 1926 and moved to Hyperion Avenue when the company signed a contract with a New York distributor, M.J. Winkler, on October 16th to distribute Alice Comedies, based on a cartoon Walt Disney had made before he moved to California from Kansas City (Lee & Madej, 2012). In 1927, Walt Disney Studios created a new character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. After making the first year of 26 Oswald cartoons, Walt realized that it was the distributor, not him, who owned the rights. From then on, the company has been extremely cautious about the copyright protection of its intellectual properties. When the business fortunes of the Disney brothers were at their lowest ebb after the Oswald incident, the birth of Mickey Mouse on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood freed the brothers of immediate worry,
Histories of Disney 9 resulting in Walt’s famous quote, “It was all started by a mouse” (Smith, 2001:41).
The early days of Disney were mainly about animated films. On November 18, 1928, the first Mickey Mouse sound film, Steamboat Willie, premiered at the Colony Theater in New York. Disney’s first full-color animated short, The Silly Symphony Flowers and Trees, which premiered at Hollywood Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, won Disney’s first Academy Award for Best Cartoon in 1932, the first year the Academy started this category. For the rest of that decade, Disney won the Academy’s Best Cartoon every year and gained a reputation for quality storytelling and technological advancement. Disney’s animations gained popularity in the movie industry, and Walt realized that merchandising the animated characters was an additional source of revenue for the Studios after a New York businessman offered him US$300 for the license to put Mickey Mouse on pencil tablets. Since then, consumer products have been one of the company’s priorities.
In 1933, Disney published the first issue of Mickey Mouse Magazine. In the same year, the animated short The Three Little Pigs was a success, as it arrived at the right national psychological moment, when people were talking about keeping the wolf (the Depression) from the door. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Snow White), Disney’s first feature-length animated film, premiered in Hollywood. This movie was the biggest hit in the year 1938. For a brief time, Snow White stood as the highest-grossing film in Hollywood history until it was surpassed by the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. Walt believed that short cartoons paid the bills, but after the success of Snow White, he felt that future profits were in feature films. Consequently, Disney invested a large amount of time and budget in animated features.
Not long after the initial golden age highlighted by the unexpected financial success of Snow White, Walt Disney Studios was surprisingly on the edge of extinction from investing too much money into two animated features, Pinocchio and Fantasia. Both movies were released in 1940, but neither performed well enough to cover their costs. Disney learned the risks of big investment and made Dumbo in 1941 with a limited budget. However, Bambi, in 1942, was another expensive film due to Walt’s obsession with perfection. In 1941 and 1942, the company lost a total of one million dollars and started to retrench. A bitter strike, which Walt Disney considered a communist plot to sabotage the country (Wallace, 1985), broke out in 1941 when Disney’s young employees were not given full credits. The company was completely shut down for a few months due to this strike.
To some extent. World War II saved the Walt Disney Studios. The U.S. government needed an ambassador of good will, and Disney offered an adored name with the company’s achievement in animation. During the war, the U.S. government offered Disney substantial precious access to chemicals for filmmaking when it contracted film projects to Disney, such as Saludos Amigos (1942) and The Three Caballeros (1944) under the government’s South American “Good Neighbor” policy (Harrington, 2015). At that time, Disney serviced the departments of Treasury, Agriculture and State, and Army and Navy to produce films for training and propaganda. By the end of the War, Disney had cut its debt to less than three hundred thousand dollars. However, Disney had difficulty regaining its pre-war status as the entertainment market was changing. Unlike the pre-war high-budget films, post-war Disney productions were low-cost package feature films that contained groups of short cartoons, as well as live-action films, such as Song of the South (1946) and So Dear to My Heart (1948), that were blended with animated segments. In this period, the storytelling conveyed the conventional Disney narrative of the triumph of the weak over the strong, but the subordinated portrayal of African Americans turned controversial (Watts, 2001). Meanwhile, Disney started a low-budget but award-winning, high-return True-Life Adventure series featuring nature photography to revitalize the company.
In 1950, Disney’s first completely live-action film Treasure Island and animated feature Cinderella created another golden era for Disney. Walt Disney believed that entertainment in its broadest sense had become a necessity rather than a luxury. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans’ per capita incomes were higher, and leisure time was increased. The first Disneyland, built in 1955, soon became the star cash machine for the company. It transformed the company from a simple niche moviemaker to a corporate giant who plays a core role in American popular culture.
Taking advantage of cross-platform efficacy, Disneyland’s establishment was largely promoted by television, “an open sesame to many things” to Walt Disney (Smith, 2001: 221), who fully exploited the new medium. On Christmas day in 1950, Walt Disney had his television debut in a National Broadcasting Company (NBC) special One Hour in Wonderland, which featured a fusion of animation and live-action. Two years later in 1952, Walt established Disneyland Incorporated to secure investment. One-third of its shares were from ABC-Paramount in return for a weekly one-hour television program featuring Disney films and television productions. In 1954, the weekly Disneyland television show, hosted by Walt Disney, premiered on the American
Broadcasting Company (ABC) television network to warm up for the opening of Disneyland. By 1961, this series had moved to NBC and was renamed to Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. The Disneyland series eventually ran on all three networks of ABC, NBC, and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) under six title changes, but it remained on the air for 29 years. Another popular children’s television series, The Mickey Mouse Club, debuted in 1955. This variety show transformed girls and boys next-door to young Mouseketeer celebrities, such as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.
By making television and film spatial. Disneyland inaugurated a new form of cultural experiential product which created a new opportunity to recycle and cross-promote the company’s entire collection of imagery products (Davis, 1996). The first Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955. in Anaheim, California. A 90-minute ABC TV special, featuring celebrities guided by Walt Disney at the park, was broadcast on the day. On Disney’s company website, the genesis of Disneyland is described as Walt Disney’s intention to build a park “where parents and children could have fun together, unlike the carnivals that he could only see his two young daughters play.”
Walt Disney is perceived as a man good at filling conduits with Disneyness and hyper-cleanliness to exclude competition (Gitlin, 2001). When being asked why he wanted to build another amusement park, Walt said that amusement parks were so dirty, but that “mine wouldn't be (Smith, 2001: 47)... 1 don’t want the public to see the real world they live in while they are in the park... I want them to feel they are in another world” (Smith, 2001: 59). Disneyland was promoted as “the first to use visually compatible elements working as a coordinating theme avoiding the contradictory ‘hodgepodge’ of World's Fairs and amusement parks” (Gottdiner, 1982: 154). In sum, Walt Disney’s idea of Disneyland featured a harmonious and happy-past image from the carnivals Walt remembered from his youth. For example. Main Street USA was said to be fashioned out of Walt’s embodied remembrances of his childhood in Marceline, Missouri, a small town about a hundred miles northeast of Kansas City, to bring back memories of the carefree times.
In 1965, Walt Disney began to plan a second theme park with the purchase of 27.400 acres of reclaimed swampland in Florida. One year later, on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney died of lung cancer at age 65 without getting to see the opening of his treasured Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort, which opened on October 1, 1971 in Orlando, Florida. After Walt passed away, the position of chairman was assigned to his brother Roy Disney to lead the 4,000 employees in the way Walt Disney has established and guided. From 1966, when Roy
Disney took over the chairman position, to 1971, when he passed away on December 20 at age 78, the Studio’s profits soared from US$12.4 million to USS26.7 million (Bryman, 1995).