Disney’s Visionaries: Which CEO Had The Greatest Impact On The Entertainment Giant?

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Bob Iger (left) and Bob Chapek (right) at 'Star Wars': Galaxy's Edge

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Since taking over as Chief Executive Officer in 2020, it has been no secret that many fans of the Walt Disney Company are frustrated with Bob Chapek. This got us wondering, is Disney’s Chief Mouseketeer the worst CEO in the company’s history? Which CEO has been the most innovative throughout Disney’s tenure? We will give you our take on how each Walt Disney Company CEO impacted the company.

bob chapek onstage
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Is Bob Chapek The Worst CEO In Disney History?

It’s no secret that Bob Chapek has taken tons of criticism over the many controversial strategic directions he has made during his tenure thus far. Taking the reigns from former CEO Bob Iger in early 2020, folks could’ve settled and given Chapek the benefit of the doubt; after all, running one of the largest corporations in the world with a pandemic breaking out is no easy task.

Everyone has questioned his every move: Disney enthusiasts, pundits, journalists, public officials, and even here at Inside the Magic. A day doesn’t seem to go by without Mr. Chapek being questioned publicly for a decision or comment and the backlash that follows his moves. Maybe it’s just me and my age, or perhaps I was oblivious, but I don’t ever remember this vitriol with Bob Iger or Michael Eisner. A publicly listed company’s only more controversial CEO is the world’s richest man, Elon Musk.

A large crowd of people standing in front of a building
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Is every complaint that is made genuinely fair? I will let you, the audience, determine that one for yourselves. However, it is appropriate to point out that Bob Chapek has made some controversial decisions that have frustrated Disney Park goers and Disney Plus subscribers over the past two and a half years.

For example, Bob Chapek hasn’t veered away from deciding to squeeze more dollars out of his most loyal customers, which has upset Disney Park’s most frequent Guests. Just recently, Walt Disney World announced that annual passes would see an increase when sales resume: Incredi-Pass: $1399 (was $1299) Sorcerer: $969 (was $899) Pirate: $749 (was $699) Pixie: $399 (no change). Annual Passes are not the only items we have seen incur a price hike. A few weeks ago, Disney announced that Genie+ prices would increase in Disneyland in Anaheim.

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Guests understand that The Walt Disney Company is in business to make profits for shareholders, but some of these increases are starting to cross the line, according to fans. As one family discovered on their latest trip to Walt Disney World, they described to Inside the Magic how a $600 day at The Most Magical Place On Earth led to him revoking his Disney World fan status and vowing never to go back. For Disney Park Guests, there are questions about whether their loyalty to the company is being taken advantage of.

Outside of his strategic, operational decisions, the public and Disney employee base questions whether Bob Chapek is the right captain for the ship. The response to Chapek’s initial position on Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation from earlier this year, which was not to take a position, added to the growing unease within Disney’s employees, the creative community, and Disney customers about Chapek’s leadership. According to employees, he is known as a top-down manager, more of a talker than a listener. “It’s funny how many people have said to me, ‘It’s such a giant mess, but I’m not surprised,’” said a longtime Disney insider.

Walt Disney in front of disneyland castle
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Despite the controversy earlier this year, Disney’s board of directors decided to extend the term of Bob Chapek’s employment agreement with the company to another three years, beginning from July 1, 2022.

The Walt Disney Company’s 100-year History?

In 1923, Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Now known as the Walt Disney Company, the tiny film studio is now one of the largest media companies in the world. Disney began his animation career by creating an animated series called Alice’s Wonderland‍. The 2-and-a-half-minute, one-reel film was based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland‍, combining live action with animation.

After the success of the Alice Comedies and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Disney began work on his most famous creation, Mickey Mouse. With the 1928 release of Steamboat Willie, the world was introduced to Mickey. Of course, Mickey Mouse would become one of, if not the most recognizable cartoons in history. Following the success of Mickey, Walt Disney soon produced another series—the Silly Symphonies.  Silly Symphonies would eventually win the Academy Award® for Best Cartoon for 1932, the first year that the Academy offered such a category. For the rest of that decade, a Disney cartoon won the Oscar® every year.

While the cartoons gained popularity, the Disney staff found that merchandising characters was an additional source of revenue. Soon there were Mickey Mouse dolls, dishes, toothbrushes, radios, figurines—almost everything you could think of bore Mickey’s likeness.

roy and minnie statue
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After a successful series of animations, Disney decided that it was time to embark on an animated featured film called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The film debuted in 1937 and became an instant hit. Snow White soon became the highest-grossing film of all time. Now Walt Disney’s studio had a firmer footing. The short cartoons paid the bills, but Walt knew future profits would come from feature films.

Walt Disney was always intrigued by amusement parks. He felt there should be Park parents and children could go and have a good time. This was the genesis of Disneyland. After several years of planning and construction, the new Park opened in 1955.

After the success of Disneyland, Walt began to consider another Park on the East Coast. Before his death, Disney purchased land in Florida, and the Walt Disney World project, located near Orlando, was announced. It opened in 1971.

Walt Disney hosting 1960s Wonderful World of Disney on TV
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The Walt Disney Company would go on to create thousands of famous cartons and open new Disney Parks across the globe. Walt Disney’s legacy and creations affect everyone’s lives in one way or another.

The List Of Disney CEOs After Walt’s Death.

ROY O. DISNEY – Roy became CEO following Walt’s death. When Walt died before Disney World could be completed, Roy postponed his retirement to finish the Park, which he named Walt Disney World as a tribute to his brother. After Walt Disney World opened in October 1971, Roy finally retired. He died of a seizure two months later, on December 20, 1971.

Roy O. Disney with Mickey Mouse, WDW Opening
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DONN TATUM – Tatum was instrumental in helping Roy with Walt Disney World Resort, EPCOT Center, and Tokyo Disneyland. After being CEO, he remained an integral part of the Disney Company serving as Director until his retirement in 1992 and then as director emeritus until his death.

E. CARDON WALKER – Walker was President from 1972 to 1977, which overlapped with his CEO duties from 1976 to 1983. Although he officially ended his CEO duties in February, he remained on the board until May to oversee the completion of Tokyo Disney. Even though his time was relatively short, Walker made some significant contributions to Disney. Besides establishing an international presence in Tokyo Disneyland, he helped develop Walt Disney World and EPCOT Center. He also founded Disney Channel in 1982.

Eisner posing with Mickey
Credit: Entrepreneur

RON MILLER – Miller was Walt’s son-in-law and wasn’t a popular choice as CEO. He held the position from 1983 to 1984.  During his time, he created the Touchstone Label, which allowed Disney to make films for adults without ruining the family-friendly brand Disney had created. He also established Disney Channel as a brand and made the first attempts at computer animation. In many ways, Miller set the stage for Disney’s future success.

MICHAEL EISNER – Eisner took over as CEO in 1984 and set the Walt Disney Company on a new trajectory.  The 90s were set to be The Disney Decade, and Disney started to make a comeback with successful films, including the Who Framed Roger Rabbit series and The Little Mermaid. Disney also acquired ABC and ESPN during this time. Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened in 1989, Disneyland Paris opened in 1992, joined ten years later by Walt Disney Studios Park, and Disney’s California Adventure opened in 2001.

BOB IGER – Iger was a valuable asset for Disney, and one of his early moves as CEO was facilitating the acquisition of Pixar in 2006 for $7.4 billion. He also acquired Marvel Entertainment in 2009 for $4 billion and Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4.1 billion. He opened Hong Kong Disneyland, Adventures by Disney, Aulani, and the newest member of the Disney Parks family, Shanghai Disneyland. Iger also oversaw the launch of Disney Plus as Disney entered the streaming universe.

Bob Iger wearing a suit and tie
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BOB CHAPEK – Chapek has overseen Disney as it closed the theme parks, shuttered the cruise line operations, and laid off thousands of employees due to the pandemic. He also helped to navigate the company’s reopening, as well as the growth with Disney Plus.  Bob Chapek’s legacy is still being written as he continues his tenure.

Each Disney CEO has dealt with unique challenges.  Although Bob Chapek receives a ton of criticism from the public, there is a debate that he hasn’t been the worst CEO in Disney’s history.

Who is your favorite Walt Disney Company CEO?

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