For 100 years, this Mickey Mouse operation has thrived. Is Disney now losing its magic?


The Sunday Magazine22:54For 100 years, this Mickey Mouse operation has thrived. Is Disney now losing its magic?

You might describe Marlene Morris as a Disney lifer.

As a child, she grew up watching Disney movies on weekends and listening to her father read Disney’s Bedtime storybooks at night. She first visited Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in 1986; now she visits regularly with her own family, and says each time has been magical in its own way.

“Watching my children enjoy Disney movies and characters brings back the memories that I had from my childhood,” said Morris, who is from Ridgetown, Ont. “It’s indeed a full circle — and it’s priceless.”

Morris is one of the many devoted Disney fans in Canada and around the world. But with the multinational entertainment conglomerate marking 100 years since its founding, some say the company faces an uncertain future.

“The Disney brand is at a more precarious place than it has been, certainly in memory, maybe ever,” said Brooks Barnes, the Hollywood reporter for The New York Times.

People visit the Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., in April 2022. The company, founded as an animation studio in 1923, is celebrating 100 years of business. (John Raoux/The Associated Press)

Challenges faced by The House of the Mouse include declining revenue for new films, an evolving media landscape that leans on in-home streaming, and ideological skirmishes that threaten to tarnish its reputation as family-friendly and politically neutral.

Disney’s latest animated film Wish — itself a commemoration of the company’s 100 years — faltered at the box office when it was released in November, debuting in third place, according to Variety magazine.

That follows a string of underperforming releases in 2023, including The Marvels, also released in November, and June’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.

In contrast, The Super Mario Bros. Movie, released in April, was one of the top grossing movies of 2023, reigniting debates about whether the Nintendo mascot is more recognizable to today’s kids than Mickey Mouse.

“Disney is struggling, to be candid,” said Barnes. “It’s sort of struggling to figure out where the future of entertainment is going, how to bridge the divide between the cable television era and the streaming era.” 

Two adults, two older adults and two young children stand for a photo with Mickey Mouse.
Marlene Morris of Ridgetown, Ont., second from upper left, joins her family for a group photo with Mickey Mouse during a 2013 visit. (Submitted by Marlene Morris)

However, Barnes note that conversations about the company often overlook another key pillar of its holdings: theme parks, which continue to earn the company tens of billions of dollars every year.

“When you’re a little kid and you go to Disneyland, like, it blows the sprockets off your brain,” he said.

“What that does is create this generational machine, where children who visited in the ’50s brought back their families when they grew up … and that’s continued on.”

Ideological battles

Disney’s largest attraction — Disney World in Orlando — has also been the setting for an ideological battleground in recent years, primarily with Florida governor and presidential aspirant Ron DeSantis.

In 2022, Disney spoke out against the governor’s educational bill colloquially known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Since then, the two sides have been in a back-and-forth public power struggle over control of Disney World and the semi-autonomous district granted to it by the state more than 50 years ago.

A man with a rainbow-coloured face mask and flag worn as a cape stands in front of a sign with Mickey Mouse on it, holding a sign that reads: Trans rights are human rights, Disney do better.
A Disney cast member protests his company’s stance on LGBT issues during an employee walk-out at Walt Disney World in March 2022. Later that year, Disney spoke out against what came to be known as Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill. (Phelan M. Ebenhack/The Associated Press)

Barnes said LGBT issues, like any cultural topic that could factor in its films or other creative works, are extensively researched and focus tested. Younger audiences today, he said, don’t consider a same-sex couple in a movie as being controversial.

Recent film and streaming shows have featured LGBT characters, but few have featured gay main characters or storylines.

But that minor shift still doesn’t sit well with political conservatives, who have typically seen Disney as a haven for traditional values.

“In the United States in particular, you know, a lot of conservatives have said, ‘Wait, this isn’t the Disney I knew.’ They feel betrayed,” Barnes said. “And Disney has said, ‘Well, you know, this is how it is going to be. Sorry, you don’t like it.'”

WATCH | Ron DeSantis takes aim at Disney in April 2023:

DeSantis promises ‘more to come’ in fight with Disney

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, took another swing at one of the biggest businesses in his state, Walt Disney World, as he makes campaign-like stops around the U.S. ahead of an expected run for president.

Henry Giroux, a renowned Canadian professor, cultural critic and author of The Mouse that Roared, said Disney is “very hip around accommodating to changing social political formations,” but cautioned this should be viewed in the interest of its own profits rather than becoming a standard of social justice.

“In the end, it’s a commercial machine,” he said. “In the end, the ultimate message is, ‘Buy’. The ultimate message is one of commodification.”

Identity crisis

Indeed, it’s become more difficult to engage with mainstream pop culture without running into something owned, or co-produced, by Disney.

The Walt Disney Company counts Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, ESPN, Hulu and 20th Century Studios among its corporate subsidiaries.

As a result, the Disney brand — as understood by consumers or fans — is being diluted, says Barry Levitt, a freelance entertainment writer who is based in London. 

“Twenty years ago, you asked someone what Disney’s known for, (they’d) say animated movies or the theme parks, which are based on the animated movies,” Levitt said.

“Now, you know, it’s comic books. It’s sci-fi. It’s Marvel, it’s Star Wars,” he said.

“It’s everything. And everything isn’t really an identity.”

Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson) in Lucasfilm's STAR WARS: AHSOKA, exclusively on Disney+. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Rosario Dawson as Ahsoka Tano in Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: Ashoka, available on the Disney+ streaming service. (Lucasfilm Ltd.)

Mike Minotti, managing editor of the video games site GamesBeat and co-host of a ’90s Disney podcast, said concerns about brand identity likely take a back seat to investors’ demands for more revenue streams.

“Maybe ESPN doesn’t really make a lot of sense with Disney’s overall vision, but ESPN brings in so-and-so money every year. You can’t just throw that away,” he said.

At the New York Times’ DealBook Summit, Disney CEO Bob Iger said “we need to get more realistic” about what a successful movie looks like at a time dominated by streaming, according to The Verge.

An adult man in a tshirt and shorts stands next to people dressed as Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck.
Mike Minotti, GamesBeat managing editor and ’90s Disney podcast co-host, poses with Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in November 2023. (Mike Minotti/X)

Levitt said Disney’s recent releases were not given much marketing for their theatre releases, in favour of a quick turnaround onto Disney+.

“There’s become an expectation now that if you don’t see a Disney movie in theatres in a matter of weeks, it’ll be out there on Disney+ for free. So why go to the cinema and spend?” he said.

“Most people don’t even know Strange World exists, which I think is a shame.”

And yet, the magic endures

Despite the multiple challenges the Walt Disney company currently faces, experts don’t anticipate seeing the Magic Kingdom crumble into a fallen empire.

Public recognition of the brand and its characters remains strong as ever, said Levitt — and the lasting effects of Walt Disney’s films as far back as 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs can be felt to this day.

“What it’s done for animation as an art form can’t be denied,” he said.

People gather around a lagoon as they watch a brilliant fireworks display in bright blue and yellow colours.
Fireworks launch over Epcot’s lagoon during a performance of Walt Disney World’s nighttime finale in December 2023. (Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel via The Associated Press)

Its overflowing back catalogue of enduring works make it hard for fans like Minotti to completely turn their back on the brand.

“It’s kind of hard to imagine that I kind of get off the train at this point, right? I jumped on as a kid, and it’s going pretty fast now,” he said. 

“I can’t imagine ever going to Walt Disney World and coming out of it thinking I’m over it. So much more is going to have to go wrong before that happens.”

Similarly, Marlene Morris believes the magic hasn’t run its course yet. 

“I truly hope that my own children will continue to carry the love of Disney to the next generation,” she said.

“Maybe I’ll be there as a grandma someday — but not for quite a few years.” 

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