Arguably the most influential and important entertainment business to ever exist, the Walt Disney Company has grown into an absolute behemoth. Able to create too many classic characters to list here, they’ve also expanded by purchasing Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar, and The Muppets. Of course, that doesn’t even take into account how colossal they will become assuming the Fox purchase goes through. With all of this in mind, it is easy to think that not only is their status cemented now but their existence and dominance has never been in question. A little bit like the Wizard of Oz in that most of us don’t see how the magic happens, in actuality, the company is run by perfectly fallible people who’ve made massive mistakes. Realizing this is what inspired us to put together this list of twenty controversies that almost took Disney down.
In order for a situation to be up for consideration on this list, it first and foremost needs to be directly linked to the Walt Disney Company in some tangible way. Also, it needs to have been something that received such negative attention or hurt Disney’s bottom line enough that it could have been disastrous. Don’t get us wrong, we know full well how immense the Disney Company is and that it would take something truly calamitous for it to close up shop. That said, we believe wholeheartedly that all of the incidences touched on in this list had the potential to take Disney down….several pegs at least.
20 Frozen” Short” Way Too Long and Hated
We can just picture the meetings now, the heads of Walt Disney Animation Studios all agreeing about how genius it is to pair a Frozen short with the latest Pixar film. Something that absolutely should have worked, in theory, as it kept Olaf, Elsa, Anna, and the rest of them in the public eye. On top of that, it meant that the advertising team behind Coco could sell that movie by letting the public know that you can only see the latest Frozen adventure by seeing it in theatres.
However, for all the good intentions fans had no idea going in they would be forced to watch a “short film” that was over twenty minutes prior to seeing the movie they paid for.
Worse yet, many viewers detested the “short” and it made them want to stay away from Coco and also hurt the already successful Frozen franchise.
19 Former Disney Channel Star Threatens
A company that has always built its reputation on being reliably family-friendly, they absolutely stayed true to that when it came to the content they broadcast on the Disney Channel. In fact, it is so important to Disney that they keep their innocent image intact that they create other companies to release more mature entertainment. That is why it was such a big deal for them when one of the young actors they’d plastered all over their channel in the past suddenly became the focus of intense controversy. One of the mains stars of the Disney Channel show That's So Raven from beginning to end, Orlando Brown appeared in every episode that aired. In the years since then, sadly, he has been arrested several times for things like substance possession and public intoxication as well as threatening to harm soneone.
18 Lowballing Stars
From one entry centered on the Disney Channel to another, this time around we are looking at when the company foolishly allowed a cash cow to die on the vine. Without a doubt one of the most successful series the channel ever had, Lizzie McGuire aired sixty-five episodes and had a large fan base. Beloved enough that it was spun off into an animated series and even a movie, the original series won Favorite TV Show at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards two years in a row.
As such, it seems like it should have been a total no-brainer that the company would pay its star Hilary Duff to keep playing the character but they stupidly gave up the franchise.
Cutting off salary negotiations with the star out of nowhere, Hilary’s mom said the company “thought they’d be able to bully us into accepting whatever offer they wanted”.
17 Diminishing the Brand
Throughout this list, we are going to be touching on the many ways in which Disney has come to define entertainment for the masses. However, no matter how they branch out, many people still think of the many animated movies the company has made over the years. Understandable as they released a huge percentage of the best-animated movies ever made, for many years they put out a series of direct-to-video animated sequels and prequels to those films.
It was a quick and easy way to cash in on the many beloved characters the company had created.
At first it seemed like a good move but over time as these movies began to be terrible, more things changed. Ultimately becoming a move that greatly damaged the prestige of what a Disney animated movie was, if they’d continued on this track they easily could have decimated their brand.
16 Battlefront II Enrages Fans
Disney is good at a lot of things, including being masters at merchandising whatever brands they own. After all, if you’ve ever made your way through a toy department, you’ll know how many Disney items they are likely to have on sale. Now the proud owners of the rights to Star Wars, they’ve created new avenues to make money off of that while also taking advantage of what Lucasfilm already had going. For instance, they released a couple of new entries to the game Star Wars Battlefront that had made a fortune for the brand’s previous owners.
Unfortunately, EA handled the game and they bogged down the second one with so many microtransactions that it became a joke.
A move that enraged fans and caused a backlash, it forced them to change the game in response. Had the game gouged fans for every penny Star Wars and Disney would not have come out unscathed.
15 Blacklisting Critics
In 2017, the LA Times published a two-part series looking at Disney’s problematic business dealings with Anaheim, California. To say the company was mad was an understatement as they banned that paper’s critics from pre-release screenings of their films.
Something they are well within their rights to do, despite that we have no idea how they thought this was a good plan.
Resulting in the paper writing about the ban instead, other publications were so angered by the treatment of the LA Times that they refused to attend some of their screenings too. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed and Disney backtracked. That said, had this ball kept rolling, the bad publicity would have been huge. Making the move even more foolisgh, even if they hadn’t received the backlash they were still ensuring readers of the LA Times wouldn’t read good things in that paper about their movies pre-release.
14 Bad Connection
A huge figure in the movie industry for many years, film producer Harvey Weinstein worked with the biggest stars in the business and several major studio heads as well. The co-founder and part owner of Miramax Films up until that production company was sold, Harvey and his brother Bob then worked for Disney after the company bought them out. At the time a move that seemed like a great one, Miramax had a great track record of choosing awesome films to release. Of course, in recent years the public learned that he was also a serial abuser of women and an abomination of a human being. The type of person no company would ever want a connection to, the only thing that has kept Disney free of the controversy is a presumption they were unaware of what Harvey had done.
13 Alligator Attack
The owner of a series of theme parks all over the world, Disney not only produces content, but they also create destinations for the whole family to create memories in. Horrifically, in 2016, the Graves family found their Disney trip interrupted by one of the worst tragedies that can befall anyone. We’re not going to touch on the horrendous details that led to the demise of a two-year-old boy but they are liable to induce nightmares in any parent that makes the mistake of reading them.
Something that took place at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa, it wouldn’t have taken place had a confluence of events not made it possible.
Still, when the masses found out it easily could have made a permanent impact on how safe families felt visiting Disney parks which is a major profits earner for the company.
12 Disney California Adventure Park Initial Failure
People don’t really think about it now but when Walt Disney opened his first theme park, it was a colossal risk. Already successful at making movies, he then put much of the capital he’d earned into a business he had no way of knowing would be a success. Since then, the company named after him has made the choice to open several more parks and each time they were taking a leap of faith. Fortunately, they have done it enough to limit liability and maximize potential.
That said, there have been times where these destinations weren’t embraced as planned, including Disney California Adventure Park.
Opened in 2001, it wildly underperformed at first due to things like bad word of mouth, a lack of rides for kids and many other issues before they finally were able to turn things around.
11 Aladdin’s “Brown-Face”
A movie that was a major part of an entire generation’s childhood, many people truly love Aladdin and were excited when it was announced that it would get the live-action adaptation treatment. That said, once word broke, the main concern became the casting process and the worry of possible whitewashing taking place. Sadly, despite casting several culturally appropriate actors, Disney made decisions that upset people and then went even further during the filming process. A large production that involved a wide array of people, the movie is chocked full of extras. That is absolutely no excuse for someone deciding to paint the skin of some white performers brown so they can appear in the background. A shocking case of brown-face, Disney tried to excuse this happening by claiming they needed people with specialized talents, as if there are skills that only white people have.
10 ABC Channel Purchase Goes Awry
A mainstay of the entertainment industry ever since its debut, there are only a select few other networks that can boast of ever competing with ABC. Due to that fact, Disney’s decision to pay $19 billion to bring it under its umbrella was a huge move. When a company is willing to put out that kind of money they’d better have a pretty bullet-proof plan to make the most return on their investment.
It did eventually pay off but for a long time, it looked as though this move was a total misfire as ABC’s ratings across the board tumbled for several years after the deal went through.
If you’re wondering how badly this affected things, then look at Robert Iger, the Disney president at the time, who said that turning things around was the company’s “No. 1 issue right now”.
9 Fox-Family Worldwide 2001 Purchase
Over the last year, probably the biggest story in the world of entertainment was the announcement that Disney planned to purchase a huge part of Fox. However, despite all of the attention, a lot of people still don’t know that it wasn’t the first time Disney acquired a significant chunk of Fox’s holdings. For those that don’t know what we’re referring to, in 2001 Disney decided to buy Fox Family Worldwide which meant they took over the Fox Kids channel, as well as Saban Entertainment.
Unfortunately, the House of Mouse is a big company and the powers that be didn’t ensure that the various branches communicated when this deal went through.
As such the whole reason they made the deal, in order to air ABC reruns on their new property, wasn’t even a possibility as they didn’t actually own most of their own syndication rights. That is an insane oversight.
8 Monorail at Epcot Erupts in Flame
The kind of nightmare scenario anyone that runs a theme park should pray never happens, in 1985 things went terribly wrong in Epcot. An area of Walt Disney World that contains a monorail, in June of that year the rear car suddenly became engulfed in flame.
Bad enough on the face of things, this was made far worse by the fact that the monorail did not contain any kind of fire detection system, emergency exits, or evacuation plan.
This left those onboard forced to smash out the windows, climb across the side of the train and then make their way on top of the car. Eventually rescued by the fire department, by that time seven passengers had already suffered smoke inhalation while escaping with their lives. Resulting in the type of publicity that could ruin a park, Disney is lucky this incident is mostly forgotten.
7 Unfairness to Women
Something we should all want to no longer happen, it is still a sad reality that women are far too often overlooked for jobs based on their gender. Despite the changes that still need to take place, there is still no doubt that things have at least improved. If you are looking for proof this is the case, then you need look no further than what Disney did to Mary Ford in 1938.
Someone that applied to be trained as an animator for the company, Mary was rejected in a disgusting letter.
Sent a paper that said “girls are not considered for the training school”, someone at Disney actually put that on paper. Don’t get us wrong, we know that times were different but Disney also has an image of being inclusive and if more people knew this took place that would be totally undermined.
6 Animation Head’s Accusations
A film studio that has one of the most impressive win-loss track record in the business, Pixar has had some misses but they are far outweighed by their successes. Many people had a major hand in that but everyone knows that John Lasseter, who oversaw all of their projects up until recently, was of paramount importance. So good at his job that in 2007 Disney put him in charge of Walt Disney Animation Studios as well, he is largely responsible for them having another animation renaissance.
Then word broke that he was not the golden boy he seemed to be in 2017 as he was accused of taking advantage of his position with his female employees.
No longer a part of the process after he took a leave of absence, now that it seems that John is not returning, the company’s animated wing has a big hurdle to jump.
5 Disneyland Paris’ Continued Losses
The final entry directly related to parks we’ve included on this list, followers of this company likely anticipated Disneyland Paris was going to pop up. That’s because the park is just an all-around failure. In fact, the business has such a long history of turning off fans that we’re sure that even when things improve, Disney expects the park to hit the skids at any moment.
Celebrating its twenty-fifth birthday in 2017, of that period the park actually lost money over eighteen years.
A truly stunning piece of information, if any other business was dealing with a drain on profits like that they would probably go belly up. Able to survive that failure because of successes elsewhere, we’d still argue Disneyland Paris probably should have ruined them so it clearly belongs on a list like this one.
4 Almost Dropping the Pixar Ball
The company that defined the animation world in the twentieth century, Disney has produced animated masterpieces. Still, since 1999, they’ve have been involved in beloved films because of a deal they made in 1991 that led to Pixar making three films Disney released with both companies sharing profits. Something Disney surely should have wished to continue after their first contract came to an end, the whole thing almost fell apart because Disney had all sequel rights to their movies. Coming to an impasse after Disney decided to make a direct-to-video Toy Story 2, when that film became a Pixar project, the two companies angrily debated if it should be one of the three owed films. Also at odds over how profits from the films were shared between the two entities, the only thing that stopped Disney from losing their cash cow was buying Pixar after Disney changed CEOs.
3 Overt Racism
Sadly the second “ism” included on this list, in the past Disney played into offensive stereotypes far too often. Visible in many of the company’s movies, their animated films like The Jungle Book, Dumbo, Peter Pan, Fantasia, The Aristocats, The Little Mermaid, and Aladdin all contain stereotypical elements. At least in those cases, the problems aren’t so ingrained which allows Disney to release them after removing, changing, or downplaying aspects. However, in the case of their 1946 movie Song of the South, the whole thing is the offensive story of black characters that act subservient to a white family. Seen by many viewers as glorifying slavery because it portrays people as being happy to serve, this movie is not commercially available. An entry in their history Disney has largely been able to ignore, if they ever tried to make a buck off of it their whole business could be undone.
2 Animation Left them Behind
Disney has become a multipronged beast, but at the end of the day, they are most famous for running theme parks and releasing movies. Of course, it was their animated branch that many people thought of with the most affection, at least until things changed for them in the 2000s.
Over that decade the company that was helped along by Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Cinderella, and Peter Pan was putting out Treasure Planet and Chicken Little.
For longtime fans that had come to believe that Disney had the Midas touch because of films like Aladdin or The Lion King, it was a real shock to see how far they’d fallen with Home on the Range. Not only a major problem because they no longer had people lining up at theaters, we can only imagine how much more quality films would have made them in merchandise.
1 Poor Management
The person that was in charge of Disney when many of the mistakes we’ve already touched on were made, it is safe to say that Michael Eisner could have screwed up a lot less. In fact, the decisions he made as Chairman and CEO of Disney were so controversial that Roy E. Disney, the son and nephew of the company’s founders, resigned as an executive.
In charge when Disney bought Fox Family Worldwide, angered Pixar, and broke off negotiations with Hilary Duff, many were baffled by the things Eisner did.
Not limited to that either, we haven’t touched on him making enemies out of other industry titans, his failed hostile takeover of Comcast and too many other things to list here. Of course, he also made decisions that were good for Disney but almost any other company wouldn't have been able to survive so many errors.
Which of these surprised you most? Let us know in the comments!