In 1923, Walt Disney and his brother Roy traveled from Kansas City, Missouri, to Los Angeles, California, with little to their names and a dream of creating an animation studio. Little did they imagine that the inception of their little studio would become the global phenomenon the Walt Disney Studios has become.
For the last 100 years, The Walt Disney Company has created some of the world's most beloved and well-known characters, movies, and theme parks. We all have our favorites and lesser-known secret gems close to our hearts. And there are many programs or films that even the biggest self-proclaimed Disney fan still needs to learn of. Including everything is impossible, so many favorites, including many recent films like Frozen and Encanto, will be left off. This list celebrates the company's history and everything that made Disney the embodiment of wonder, creativity, innovation, and heart. Let's explore chronologically everything the Disney enthusiast should watch.
1. Mickey Mouse and More Cartoon Shorts (1928 and Beyond)
Although the Mickey Mouse shorts were not the first creations from Walt Disney, they cemented the company into the creative powerhouse it would become. “Plane Crazy” was first produced, but “Steamboat Willie” was the first released, and it dazzled audiences because it was the first animated creation with synchronized sound. It may seem rudimentary, but at the time, it was revolutionary.
After Mickey, they created more cartoon shorts for characters like Donald Duck and Goofy and the Silly Symphonies, many of which are funny, beautiful, and touching. The standouts to check out include Mickey's “The Band Concert” and “The Brave Little Tailor,” Goofy's “How to” and Sports cartoons, Donald's “Trick or Treat,” “Mr. Duck Steps Out” and “Donald's Snow Fight,” as well as “Lonesome Ghosts” and “Hawaiian Holiday” which features all three characters. The most notable Silly Symphonies are “Flowers and Trees,” “The Old Mill,” and “The Ugly Duckling.”
Many of these can be seen on Disney+ and YouTube and are available on DVD in the Walt Disney Treasures series.
2. Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs (1937)
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first full-length animated movie. It was nicknamed “Disney's folly” by naysayers in Hollywood, but it dazzled and captivated audiences of all ages upon release. While the story may seem simplistic and sentimental to some modern audiences, the film has inherent charm and beauty. Audiences laughed and wept at the film's premiere, including actors Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, proving that animation is more than just “silly cartoons for children.” This film demonstrates that moving drawings can tap into human emotions and move people.
Walt Disney said, “I hope that we never lose sight of one thing. That it was all started by a mouse.” While that is undeniably true, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the first “film” that was a true beginning that took the company to a new level as far as success and innovation. The film was awarded a special achievement Academy Award, and when adjusted for inflation, Snow White and Seven Dwarfs remains the 10th highest-grossing film of all time.
3. Pinocchio (1940)
After the immense success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the pressure was on to create another successful animated film. Story and technology-wise, Pinocchio lived up to those expectations. The profound story demonstrates how animation can convey complex characters and emotions. The animation is also stunning, with the multi-plane camera developing leaps and bounds.
Upon initial release, Pinocchio was considered a financial disappointment, but re-releases more than earned back its expensive budget. Despite these economic woes, the film earned much-deserved praise. The movie won two Oscars for Best Original Score and Best Song, the first feature-length animated film to do so. Notably, that award-winning song, “When You Wish Upon a Star,” became the theme for the entire company.
4. The Magical World of Disney/The Wonderful World of Color (1954-1997)
The Magical World of Disney series was the first of its kind, representing another revolutionary milestone for the Walt Disney Company. Created to help fund the building of Disneyland, this series featured a mix of episodes on that park, movies, serials, and behind-the-scenes looks at the movie-making process. I fondly remember this series, which I call “Walt Disney Presents.” I watched on The Disney Channel, which aired the original episodes from the 1950s through the 1960s and current ones on ABC in the late 1980s and 1990s.
There are many seminal standouts among the vast sea of 737 episodes. Several are available to watch on Disney+. “The Pre-Opening Report from Disneyland” (1954) is an interesting look at the final touches before the park opened. “The Story of the Animated Drawing” (1955) is also a fascinating and fun look at the intense labor and creativity it takes to create animated shorts and films.
Likewise, “The Plausible Impossible” (1956) had the added bonus of Donald Duck hosting a fascinating look at the magic of the films they made. “Disneyland Around the Seasons” (1966) is a wholesome and beautiful step back in time, showcasing Disneyland throughout the year, including a wild parade and the lovely “Candlelight Processional.”
Available to watch on YouTube is the fantastic “Disneyland After Dark” (1962), which is a lively 1960s time capsule. Not only is it unique footage but the musical performances from each land are such fun. These include an incredible Polynesian show with fire and hula dancing, Louis Armstrong performing on the Mark Twain Riverboat, and original Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeer Annette Funicello singing at the Tomorrowland stage. Lastly, “From the Pirates of the Caribbean to the World of Tomorrow” (1968) looks at the opening of this iconic attraction and the newly re-imagined land. It's of its era but essential viewing for any Disneyland fan.
5. Dateline: Disneyland (1955)
Much like Snow Whiteand the Seven Dwarfs, many naysayers questioned the building of Disneyland and doubted its success, with the park being called “Walt's folly.” But just like with that film, those doubters were incredibly wrong.
However, Disneyland's opening day did not go off without a hitch, many of which are seen in this special broadcast. Cues are missed, and microphones are missing, amongst other things. But one cannot help but laugh at these mishaps. The rest is just pure delight from seeing celebrities like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. driving Autopia cars to funny antics and quiet wisdom from hosts Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. It's an incredible look at the beginning of The Happiest Place on Earth. You can watch this unique piece of Disney history on YouTube.
6. People & Places: Disneyland, U.S.A. (1956)
One of the most beautiful and remarkable films ever produced about Disneyland is this 40-minute film that depicts The Happiest Place on Earth one year into its creation. Unlike the opening day footage and some Wonderful World of Color episodes, People and Places is extensive and gorgeously shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope. The film is not only stunning but a wonderful time capsule for this particular moment in time. It's available on YouTube and on the Walt Disney Treasures DVD “Disneyland: Secrets, Stories, and Magic.”
7. Sleeping Beauty (1959)
Although the story is simple and sweet without the gravitas of other Disney animated films, Sleeping Beauty's place in Disney history should not be denied. It technologically pushed the boundaries of how animation was filmed as the second shot in widescreen 2:55:1 aspect ratio, the first in 70mm Technirama, and one of the first to use stereophonic sound. These advances may seem ordinary or foreign to modern audiences, but they were significant achievements.
Moreover, many (including myself) consider Sleeping Beauty to be Walt Disney's artistic masterpiece. From the George Bruns adapted score of Peter Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty ballet to the French-inspired stylized, meticulous, and breathtaking backgrounds from artist Eyvind Earle, everything about Sleeping Beauty is grand and sumptuous in its artistry. (Available to watch on Disney+)
8. Swiss Family Robinson (1960)
Although this was not the first live-action adventure film Disney produced, it is the finest. The story about a family that shipwrecks on a deserted island and creates an incredible tree house to live in is a beautiful and captivating story about family, love, overcoming adversity, and the strength and ingenuity of the human condition.
Many filmmakers, including George Lucas, have cited this film as inspiration for their movies, and without it, we may never have seen Pirates of the Caribbean. Filmed on location on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, every Disney fan should treat themselves to this heartfelt adventure. (Available to watch on Disney+)
9. The Parent Trap (1961)
The original (and superior) version of The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills, Brian Keith, and Maureen O'Hara, is a delightful and heartwarming comedy. And it's essential viewing for myriad reasons. One reason is that Hayley Mills was the Disney darling of the 1960s, appearing in six Disney movies. And while all of the films are fantastic and could also be included on this list, especially Pollyanna and Summer Magic, there is something special about the creation of The Parent Trap.
In the film, Hayley Mills portrays identical twins. While a double for Mills was visible from the back, much of the film has her on-screen as both twins in multiple scenes. The special effects utilized to achieve this were so impressive that audiences believed that Mills was twins. It's a fantastic feat that solidifies this film as a groundbreaking part of the company's history. (Available to watch on Disney+)
10. 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962)
Of every film on this list, this comedy starring Tony Curtis, Suzanne Pleshette, and Phil Silvers is probably the most obscure. Beyond being a heartwarming and funny film filled with unique 1960s style and flair, 40 Pounds of Trouble holds a unique distinction. This movie is the first non-Disney-produced movie filmed in Disneyland.
In the movie, Curtis plays casino manager Steve McCluskey who looks after a five-year-old girl after her father, who left to obtain money to settle his debt, fails to return. All she wants to do is go to Disneyland, and after some devastating news, he decides to take her. And thus, we are treated to a sequence that showcases 1962 Disneyland in all its glory. We see attractions in their earliest incarnations, such as Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, the Matterhorn, and the Mad Tea Party, and many that no longer exist, such as the Skyway and the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland.
Although one cannot help but laugh at some of the inaccuracies, especially looking down onto Main Street from the Monorail station, this footage is incredible on its own and in the context of the film. It took a lot of convincing for Walt to agree for the Universal-produced movie to be filmed there, and it was highly disruptive to the park guests. The scenes also depict Steve running around the park in a laughably unrealistic way. But that is part of the fun, and fans of vintage Disneyland are the better for it. The sequence is 18 minutes of delightful fun. 40 Pounds of Trouble is only available on DVD and Blu-Ray but is worth every penny for Disney and classic film fans.
11. Mary Poppins (1964)
My favorite Disney film is what many consider to be Walt Disney's crowning achievement. This musical fantasy follows the magical nanny Mary Poppins who brings whimsy into the lives of the Banks children, takes them on adventures into chalk drawings and over the rooftops of London with her chimney sweep friend Bert, and helps Mr. Banks remember what matters most is his family.
The performances from Andrews and Van Dyke are iconic. The visuals are stunning, including the gorgeous use of matte paintings by Peter Ellenshaw and a remarkable development in the depiction of live actors in animated sequences. The fantastic songs from the Sherman Brothers are arguably their finest work, ranging from toe-tapping to lyrically creative to beautifully moving.
The movie was nominated for 13 Oscars, including Best Picture, and won five for Best Actress, Score, Original Song (“Chim-Chim-Cher-ee”), Film Editing, and Visual Effects, making it the most awarded film for Walt Disney Studios. Mary Poppins also represents something special for Walt Disney himself. It took many years to finally realize the promise he made to his daughters to make it. And the song “Feed the Birds” was his favorite song that he often requested the Sherman Brothers to play for him on Friday afternoons in his office. This song and the film demonstrate that the simplest of gestures can be impactful, which Walt immensely believed.
Every piece of the puzzle created a masterpiece with Mary Poppins, making it one of the most successful films in the company's history. (Available to watch on Disney+)
12. The Little Mermaid (1989)
The tale of the mermaid who longs to be part of the human world is more than just a beautifully animated, often hilarious movie. The film began what is known as Disney's “Renaissance Era” and kicked off a long line of widely successful films.
For many years leading up to it, the Disney Company had been struggling. They needed their next film to succeed, or they were at risk of losing their animation studios. Bringing in the Broadway songwriting team Howard Ashman and Alan Menken proved to be a stroke of genius, infusing magic into the company again with the Broadway style of songs that reflect the characters' feelings and drive the plot forward.
The Little Mermaid won two Oscars for Original Score and Song (“Under the Sea”) and ushered in a new era of breathtaking animated films that captured a generation's hearts and minds in a way that not only continues today but also paved the way for what was to come. It's not hyperbole to call The Little Mermaid Disney's saving grace. (Available to watch on Disney+)
13. Beauty and The Beast (1991)
The Little Mermaid swan, so Beauty and the Beast could walk. But this film did more than walk. It soared into the stratosphere as a beautiful film that was beloved and enormously praised by audiences and critics alike. An unfinished version of the film was screened at the New York Film Festival, and the audience gave the movie a lengthy standing ovation.
Like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast features songs written by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, whose music is the cornerstone of Disney animation in the modern era. The songs are lively, lovely, transcendent, and complimentary to the film's whimsy and profound message.
The film indeed took Disney's success to a new level, winning Oscars for Original Score and Song and being nominated for Best Picture. This was the first time an animated film had been nominated for that award, adding another reason for the importance of Beauty and the Beast in Disney's first 100 years. (Available to watch on Disney+)
14. The Lion King (1994)
The Walt Disney Animation Studios in the 1990s, known as the “Renaissance Era,” was a special moment for the company. The Lion King was much different from the era's previous two films but just as excellent.
The Lion King is an excellent achievement on multiple levels. The story, which is loosely based on William Shakespeare's Hamlet, is both profound and hilarious. The music by Sir Elton John is also gorgeous and was awarded 2 Oscars. It became the movie to see in the summer of 1994, the highest-grossing film of the year, and a global phenomenon. At the time, it became the second highest-grossing movie ever. And even today, when adjusted for inflation, The Lion King remains at number 20 on that list and the third highest-grossing Disney film behind Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. (Available to watch on Disney+)
15. Toy Story (1995)
The first film from Pixar Animation Studios, made in conjunction with Disney, represents many milestones. Toy Story was the first full-length computer-animated feature film, a remarkable technological achievement on the same level as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. These films may be commonplace now, but this was truly amazing to see at the time.
The story (which presents toys as real objects with feelings) is also entirely different, cementing Pixar as a powerhouse studio in terms of what animation can depict. While most previous Disney films were adaptations of fairy tales and other stories, Toy Story is an original concept. It also perfectly represents what Pixar would become known for: funny, creative, and profound tales. (Available to watch on Disney+)
16. Frank & Ollie (1995)
In the early days of Disney animation, there was a group of animators deemed the “Nine Old Men.” These were some of the best in the business, two of them being Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. This documentary tells the story of these men, whose shared history is so heartwarming you may doubt its truth.
Both men were friends since a young age, went to school together, developed their art skills, and got jobs at the Walt Disney Studios simultaneously. Throughout their careers at Disney, they employed their unique styles of animating characters in films like Bambi, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book. Seeing how they work is fun, fascinating, and inspiring. The heartwarming part is seeing their lives with their wives and their lifelong friendship, resulting in them living next door to each other for many years. This documentary is a must for any early Disney animation fan. (Available to watch on Disney+)
17. The Boys (2009)
Brothers Richard and Robert Sherman were a successful and talented songwriting team that primarily worked for Disney in the 1960s and 1970s. They wrote songs for Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, Summer Magic, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, The Monkey's Uncle, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which is not a Disney film but feels like one). They also wrote the iconic Disney Parks songs “It's A Small World” and “There's A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.”
The documentary is a fascinating and touching look at their lives from their childhoods, experiences during WWII, how they became songwriters, working for Disney, and much more. Their relationship with Walt Disney was special, and their story is essential viewing. It will surely make you shed some tears. (Available to watch on Disney+)
18. Waking Sleeping Beauty (2009)
The films of the “Renaissance Era” are the focus of this rich and moving documentary narrated by the incredible Disney producer Don Hahn. It recounts the dark and lean times of the 1970s and 1980s when their films were poorly received and made little money.
The title Waking Sleeping Beauty is appropriate and symbolic. It was like the studio had been in a deep sleep, waiting for the magic that Disney was known for to reawaken them from their slumber. Showcasing hard-working and talented animators like Glen Keane and Eric Goldberg, song masters Ashman and Menken, CEO Michael Eisner, and the tumultuous relationship with Jeffrey Katzenberg, this isn't a saccharine or cookie-cutter look at these days. It's real, deep, and captivating. (Available to watch on Disney+)
19. The Imagineering Story (2019)
This six-part documentary series, directed by Leslie Iwerks (granddaughter of Disney legend Ub Iwerks) and narrated by Angela Bassett, is a dream for anyone who loves Disney Parks and its history. Each episode goes chronologically through the years, showcasing the inception of W.E.D. Enterprises and a term they coined, “Imagineer.” This is the term for all the ingenious and talented inventors, engineers, and artists who help create, build, and shape the parks and attractions into what they are.
Much like Waking Sleeping Beauty, The Imagineering Story is thoughtful and honest and doesn't shy away from the dark and challenging times the company faces. But it also focuses on the vast creativity and positive nature of what Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and other parks bring to all who enter their gates. It's a very moving and inspiring series that many will revisit time and time again. (Available to watch on Disney+)
20. Adventure Thru The Walt Disney Archives (2020)
To call the Walt Disney Archives, founded by Dave Smith, spectacular would be an understatement. The collection (which now includes acquisitions from 20th Century Fox) feels endless. From costumes, props, scripts, and more, one could spend days there and still not even scratch the surface.
The general public rarely gets to explore the archives, so this documentary, hosted by Don Hahn, is a fun and lighthearted peak into all the behind-the-scenes magic. Some highlights include visiting Walt Disney's office and his home, seeing the original carousel horses from Mary Poppins, and the original sculptures from Pinocchio. Any lover of Disney history will find this show enchanting. (Available to watch on Disney+).
21. Howard (2020)
Anyone who grew up in the 1990s most likely grew up singing the lyrics of Howard Ashman. He and his songwriting partner Alan Menken created the music for Disney's The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin. This thoughtful, truthful, and heartbreaking documentary tells the story of Ashman's life, career, and untimely death from AIDS.
From a Disney fan's perspective, this film is paramount. From a human perspective, Howard will enthrall and grip you, especially regarding Ashman's tragically short life. The credits of Beauty and the Beast dedicate the movie to Ashman and say, “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice, and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” In Howard, we bear witness to these profound words. (Available to watch on Disney+).
22. Behind The Attraction (2021)
This ten-episode series is a funny, informative, and often captivating look at Disney Parks attractions' behind-the-scenes development and creation. Thus far, there have been episodes on The Jungle Cruise, Haunted Mansion, Star Tours, Tower of Terror, Disney Castles, The Disneyland Hotel, Park Transportation, Space Mountain, It's A Small World, and The Hall of Presidents.
If someone wants a more lighthearted look at Disney Parks' creativity and ingenuity, Behind the Attraction, is ideal viewing. (Available to watch on Disney+).
23. Mickey Mouse: The Story of a Mouse (2022)
The famous Walt Disney quote, “it was all started by a Mouse,” is the focal point of this sweet and illuminating documentary about the creation and evolution of the world's most well-known and arguably beloved character.
Examining his earliest development and shorts up to the most recent incarnations, we see how Mickey has evolved and grown into more than three simple circles.
If you consider yourself a Disney fan, watch the story about the lovable character that started it all. (Available to watch on Disney+).
– The Alice Comedies (1923-1926)
While many think Walt Disney's career began with Mickey Mouse, the true beginnings were these cute and innovative short films that combined animated cartoons with a live-action little girl- young Lois Hardwick. They may be simple stories, but the creation process was anything but. Many of these can be seen on YouTube.
– Fantasia (1940)
The breathtaking and revolutionary film that combined animation and classical music may not be everyone's taste. But it's a beautiful and pristine demonstration of Disney's innovative thinking and willingness to break convention. (Available to watch on Disney+).
– Bambi (1942)
The gorgeous and moving look at animals and nature is equally sweet, heartbreaking, and hopeful. It's also a subtle environmental commentary about protecting and respecting the natural world. (Available to watch on Disney+).
– Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
While technically a Touchstone and not Walt Disney Pictures film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is still a seminal part of Disney's history in its technological achievements alone. The seamless blend of animated and live-action characters is a wonder to behold. And the story is an endlessly entertaining comedic take on the classic noir film. (Available to watch on Disney+).
– Fantasmic (1992)
The only entry in this list that is not a film or series, Fantasmic is a spectacular live show that can be seen at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The music, colors, and performers are fantastic.
This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.