Multinational media corporation, headquarters in Burbank, California, founded in 1923 by Walt Disney (1901-1966) and Roy O. Disney (1893-1971) and owner of the Muppets since 2004. The Walt Disney Company also owns the ABC television network and Pixar.
In 1933, the Sue Hastings’ Marionettes (see Sue Hastings) began to use an authorized version of Disney’s Mickey Mouse as part of their stage show. When the Disney studio created its first full-length animated cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), marionette (string puppet) shows in Los Angeles department stores were part of the marketing effort. In 1937, the company hired puppeteer, Bob Jones (1912-1990) to work in the model shop. Bob Jones created a Pinocchio marionette as part of the development of the animated film Pinocchio (1940). Bob Baker (1924-2014) served as a puppetry advisor to Disney. When Disneyland opened in 1955, the Bob Baker collection of Disney Character Marionettes were on sale to the public. Disneyland has featured puppet and ventriloquist attractions (see Ventriloquism).
In 1961, Walt Disney and his brother, Roy O. Disney, founded the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). CalArts established the Cotsen Center for Puppetry and the Arts in 1998.
For the New York 1964 World’s Fair the Disney Company premiered its three-dimensional speaking figure of Abraham Lincoln, which is generally considered to be the first “animatronic” puppet. The UNICEF pavilion featured Disney’s animatronic It’s a Small World.
The Walt Disney Resort opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971. The Epcot theme park opened in 1982 and its World Showcase Promenade hosted a travelling marionette stage with shows and puppets by Bill Lorenzen. Also in 1982, Steve Hansen (1946-2011) performed Punch and Judy at the United Kingdom pavilion. From 1989 to 2008, the Adventurer’s Club on Disney’s Pleasure Island used puppetry illusions and a ventriloquist act as part of the entertainment. In 1991, the Disney Crew created a pre-recorded hand (glove) and rod puppet show to teach children to stay healthy, to eat right, exercise, and avoid drugs. The show toured in central Florida to schools and community centres for about ten years.
In 1989, the Disney Company was negotiating to buy The Jim Henson Company. The Jim Henson Company began developing a programme for Disney Channel called The Little Mermaid’s Island. The agreement was cancelled with the death of Jim Henson in 1990. One of the last projects developed by Jim Henson was Muppet*Vision 3D which opened at Walt Disney World in 1991. In 1992, Voyage of the Little Mermaid began as a live show attraction at Disney Orlando, featuring a gigantic 12-foot by 10 foot (4 metre by 3 metre) puppet of the character, Ursula, as well as black light puppets and rod puppets. After that time, Disney began actively recruiting and training puppeteers. Jeff Conover began working at Disney in 1989 and became Disney’s “Master Puppeteer” in 1994.
After the release of the film Beauty and the Beast (1991), a 20-minute stage version was created which evolved into Walt Disney Theatrical Productions founded in 1993. Disney chose Julie Taymor to direct The Lion King, which opened on Broadway in 1997. Michael Curry, the co-designer of puppets for The Lion King, went on to design and build more than twenty-four projects for the Disney Company including stage shows, touring shows, ice shows, and parades seen in Florida, California, France and Japan.
Other live show attractions featuring puppets rather than pre-programmed animatronics include the Magic Kingdom’s Legend of the Lion King (1994-2002) and Festival of the Lion King at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (running since 1998). Puppets were used more frequently in Disney theme park parades, including marionettes, “walkabouts” (see Costume Puppet), and giant puppets made by Michael Curry for the Epcot Tapestry of Nations Millennium Parade (1999-2001) and for Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade (2001). Finding Nemo – The Musical with puppets by Michael Curry opened in Orlando in 2006. Diverse Disney projects with puppetry include Bear in the Big Blue House (1997), produced for the Playhouse Disney Channel by Mitchell Kriegman and The Jim Henson Company. The interactive stage show version of Bear in the Big Blue House (1999-2008) was presented at the Disney Studio attraction in Orlando. Johnny and the Sprites (2005), with John Tartaglia as performer and producer, was shown on the Disney Channel.
In 2004, The Walt Disney Company purchased the Muppet Studio and the Muppet name. (The Jim Henson Company continues with Lisa Henson as chief operating officer but the Henson Company may no longer use the term “Muppet”.) The films The Muppets (director, James Bobin, 2011) and Muppets Most Wanted (director, James Bobin, 2014) were produced by The Walt Disney Company.
(See United States of America.)