Disney toasts a century as business and political challenges mount
By Brooks Barnes
Walt Disney has been dead for nearly 57 years. In the coming weeks, however, he will begin greeting museum visitors on two continents.
As part of its 100th anniversary marketing-palooza, the Walt Disney Co. used archival video and artificial intelligence tools to create a lifelike hologram of its founder — a full-size digital avatar that speaks in Walt Disney’s voice and appears as part of interactive exhibitions of Disney artwork, props and costumes that will tour the world until at least 2028.
“I get goose bumps every time I see it,” said Becky Cline, director of the Disney Archives.
Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to buy tickets — and Disney, more than any time in recent memory, needs them to leave with a similar emotion: Ah, yes, the magical entertainment brand that marries nostalgia with how-did-they-do-that technical wizardry. Let’s go see a Disney movie, buy some Disney bedsheets and book a vacation at a Disney theme park.
For decades, the public has been saying exactly that. But in a twist that would have seemed far-fetched just a couple of years ago, Disney’s centenary celebration arrives at a moment when the company’s formidable standing in the culture has started to show a few cracks.
Five years ago, when Cline started to think about the “Disney100” museum shows, Disney was hitting new heights at the box office and basking in its $71.3 billion purchase of 21st Century Fox assets. Now, Disney is cutting $5.5 billion in costs and eliminating 7,000 jobs as it scrambles to contend with losses in streaming, the eroding profitability of traditional TV and debt from the pandemic and Fox acquisition.
Disney remains a box office superpower — “Avatar: The Way of Water” has collected $2.2 billion worldwide — but its last two animated movies, “Strange World” and “Lightyear,” badly underperformed. In November, Disney fired its CEO and brought Robert Iger out of retirement to retake the reins.
Disney has also become a political piñata among conservative pundits, partly because it has added openly gay, lesbian and queer characters to its animated movies. Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who has attacked the company as “woke Disney,” on Friday gained control of the board that oversees development at Walt Disney World, a move that strips Disney of autonomy it has enjoyed for 56 years.
The upshot: For Disney, a little brand polish (or a lot) cannot come soon enough.
“It’s a unique opportunity for Disney to remind people about the breadth and depth of what it does, while reinforcing emotional connections to its characters and products,” said John Wentworth, an adjunct professor of entertainment marketing at Emerson College. “This all seems especially important right now.”
Disney began to celebrate its 100th birthday in September at D23 Expo, a fan convention in Anaheim, California. Bob Chapek, the company’s CEO at the time, paid homage to Walt and Roy Disney, the brothers who founded the company in 1923, and declared that “10 decades of creativity, innovation and determination” had resulted in “the most enduring and beloved name in entertainment.” Centennial merchandise — Minnie ears dipped in platinum, limited-edition pins, products showcasing Disney films from the 1930s and ’40s — went on sale.
The campaign kicked into high gear last month, when Disneyland draped itself in purple and platinum bunting and opened a new ride focused on Mickey and Minnie. On Sunday, Disney had a 90-second spot during the Super Bowl; the commercial highlighted the company’s history of “storytelling and innovation” and showed heartstring-tugging footage of children dressed as Disney princesses and playing with “Star Wars” lightsabers. It also incorporated Walt Disney’s voice, thanking artists, workers and fans. (A wave of Disney adoration immediately washed through Twitter, although some people pointed out the awkward timing, an ad arriving in near-lockstep with layoffs. A Disney spokesperson said the company used advertising credits owed by Fox to cover the commercial’s placement cost.)
There are two “Disney100” museum exhibitions. One version opens at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia on Saturday and runs through Aug. 27. It will then go on tour to Chicago, Kansas City and other cities in North America. A second “Disney100” exhibition, identical in overall design, will open in Munich on April 18 and move to London in the fall before heading “elsewhere in the world,” Cline said.
Tickets at the Franklin Institute run from $25 to $45, depending on time of day, one’s age and whether visitors want to see the entire museum or just the Disney portion.
Each of the 15,000-square-foot exhibitions will have 250 items on display, with classic Disney as a focus. The tour in North America includes part of the prop storybook that opens “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937), a model for Cinderella’s castle at Disney World and the “Feed the Birds” snow globe from “Mary Poppins” (1964), which Cline called “very, very dear to my heart.”
Marvel movies, the “Star Wars” franchise and Pixar hits are also incorporated, along with nods to Disney divisions like National Geographic and ABC. “We want to make sure that everybody has the opportunity to enjoy the entire exhibition, not just their era,” Cline said, noting that the show is organized by theme (the importance of music to Disney’s content, sources of inspiration) and not chronologically.
Visitors enter through a dark tunnel and emerge in what Cline described as the “prologue room.” This is where a digital Walt Disney materializes to offer a greeting and provide a taste of his creative philosophies.
“Frankly, there are people in this world who don’t realize that Walt was a real person,” Cline said. “We want to make sure that everyone knows that our company was founded by real people — creative storytellers. Because that is so important to everything we do at Disney.”