Coming Soon to Video: A History of Walt Disney Home Video and the Disney Vault

in Disney, Entertainment, Movies

Background image of the Walt Disney vault with an image of Mickey Mouse next to it

If you grew up in the 1990s to early 2000s, there’s a good chance you owned at least one Walt Disney Home Video, either on a VHS tape or a DVD. Before Netflix started the online streaming boom, kids had DVDs and Blu-Rays, and before that there was VHS, all of which saw their own popularity and success over the years. However, The Walt Disney Company was originally very reluctant to join the home video craze and it took them years before deciding to offer classic Disney films for home entertainment.

Mickey Mouse
Credit: Disney

Before the creation of home videos, Disney utilized theatrical releases in order to connect with younger audiences and continue to share their animated stories with generations of viewers. As home videos and VHS grew, Disney fought against the rise in home entertainment before eventually deciding if they couldn’t beat them, they would join them.

 

What are Walt Disney Home Videos?

The first version of the VHS and VCR was released in 1972, to much consumer popularity. For the first time, people could watch films in the comfort of their own homes and even record televised broadcasts. Many studios started offering home videos, but Disney initially refused, thinking that the money was in theatrical releases and worried about the possibility of pirating with the recording feature.

Disney vhs tapes

As VHS grew in popularity and more studios bought into it, Disney created the Disney Channel and Touchstone Pictures, which allowed them to create movies that were shown on TV and released to videos, without releasing their “untouchable” animated classics. Eventually, Universal joined the entertainment sector with its own home video studio, DiscoVision. In a strange collaboration, Disney decided to license a few features to DiscoVision, mostly a collection of animated shorts.

Although DiscoVision lasted only a short time, it did convince Disney to take a step forward, and they officially created Walt Disney Home Video. They only offered a select few films at first, deciding to release Robin Hood (1973) and Pinocchio (1940), still holding onto the thought that theatrical re-releases should be the focus. This led to the dizzying cycle of the Disney Vault Collections.

robin hood
Credit: Disney

The Disney Vault

Originally Disney priced the VHS cassettes so high that it was nearly impractical for the everyday person to buy them, instead relying on video rental stores to purchase the rights to them. The reason for this was two-fold. On the one hand, this allowed the company to sell the tapes at a higher price, earning them more money from sales to stores that were likely to buy multiple copies to rent out. The second reason is that it was an effort to prevent people from trying to copy or pirate the tape.

However, as consumers bought the tapes even at the higher price point, Disney decided to see how their sales would do at a lower price. For the holiday season of 1985, the company slashed its prices for a selection of films, informing the public that the movie would be taken off the shelves after Christmas and unavailable for purchase for another several years. Films released during this time were marketed as the “Classics Collection,” signifying a group of films that had technically been around for decades, truly earning the moniker of a classic.

Disney's Pinocchio
Credit: Disney

The Walt Disney Home Video Collections

The Disney Vault and the Walt Disney Home Video Collection was a marketing gimmick Disney created in an effort to continue to drive sales for both their theatrical and home video releases. With their initial home video run, they first offered the film as a re-release in theaters, earning more money at the box office. Then, they would provide the film on home video but inform buyers that it was for a limited time only, creating a sense of urgency. After a few months to a year on the market, the films would be place “in the vault” for five to seven years, making it almost impossible for buyers to find copies of the films in the meantime.

Disney operated on this schedule of re-releasing older films into theaters and then offering them as home videos for years. As newer films were released in theaters, they would immediately be placed into the vault, forcing viewers to see the film in theaters if they wanted to see it at all. The film wouldn’t be released on VHS for years after its initial theatrical release.

Ariel The Little Mermaid Part of Your World
Credit: Disney

This all changed in 1989 when The Little Mermaid was released on VHS just months after its theatrical run. While also released as part of the “Classics Collection,” the film hadn’t yet earned the right to call itself a classic, which led to the start of essentially any new movie being released to VHS to earn the title of whatever the collection was called at the time. The Disney Vault was still going strong, except now the marketing had changed, encouraging fans to see the films in theaters then buy them on home video before they went into the Vault for 10 years.

In 1994, Snow White (1937) was released to home video for the first time, kicking off the “Walt Disney Masterpiece Collection.” Like The Little Mermaideach film released during this time was labeled “Masterpiece,” essentially destroying any semblance of hierarchy or importance for Disney’s long-untouchable animated features. In 1999, the very short-lived “Limited Issue” series came out, marking the first films available on both VHS and DVD. This included a short collection of movies that were released as is, just in the new format, proving that buyers would purchase the same film more than once.

snow white and seven dwarfs dancing in cottage
Credit: Disney

Just six months after the first Disney DVDs were made available, the “Gold Classics Collection” was released, which included not only a remastered VHS, but also DVDs which now included a selection of bonus features. These included anything from behind the scenes, to trivia, to interviews with the cast and crew. In 2000, the “Platinum Collection” debuted, featuring the same films but now with an all-new set of bonus features.

Between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, Disney would continue to try and make theatrical re-re-re-releases work, offering a few films remastered for IMAX and later 3D. Both attempts failed, effectively ending the practice of a theatrical return to further promote a film’s release from the Vault. In 2006, Disney stopped offering VHS tapes, and switched to offering DVD and Bluray versions of the films.

Belle (Paige O'Hara) from Disney's 'Beauty and the Beast'
Credit: Disney

The “Diamond Collection” was released in 2010 and started the full switch to Bluray, with the “Signature Collection” in 2015 signaling the start of digital releases. This would also mark the start of Disney completely moving away from physical releases, and would be the last significant collection released from the Disney Vault. Disney+ debuted in 2019, starting a new version of “straight to home video” films, with titles exclusively released to the streaming platform, and continuing the tradition of movies being available just a few months after a theatrical release.  Unfortunately, with the films being available on a streaming service, there’s no current way to signify any of the films and there aren’t any bonus features available like the DVDs offered.

As technology and the platform of films changes, Disney is sure to keep up. Although the Disney Vault no longer exists, anyone who grew up during the era is sure to never forget the panic of begging your parents to buy the movie while they could. Disney used the Vault and their various collections as an incredible marketing strategy, proving that people would continue to buy physical copies of their favorite films, no matter the circumstance. Only time will tell how Disney will continue to shift along with technology.

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