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Disneyland Celebrates 50th Anniversary as Empire Grows


This year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Disneyland. The creation of the theme park near Los Angeles was a turning point for the Disney Studio, which has since expanded its interests to nearly every branch of the entertainment industry.

The man was Walt Disney, and long before business strategists had dreamed up the concept of "synergy," he told potential investors that his California theme park would promote his movies and television shows, and vice versa.

Christina Aguilera performing at Disneyland
Singer Christina Aguilera helped celebrate the start of the 50-year celebration at California Disneyland, which opened in July of 1955. Events commemorating the anniversary are planned through the summer.

The world's first theme park, Disneyland is based on characters and settings inspired by Disney films. The park was divided into domains that included Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland and Fantasyland.

Paul Bond of the industry publication the The Hollywood Reporter says it was promoted intensively by Walt Disney on television in a show seen by viewers around the country.

"When Disneyland did have its grand opening, it was broadcast on the 'Disneyland' TV show, and it was really unprecedented," said Paul Bond.

Ninety million people tuned in, virtually everyone with a television set in America, to watch celebrities enjoying the new theme park.

Over the years, other Disney parks opened, first in Florida, then Japan and later France. Today there are 10 Disney theme Parks on three continents, with another under construction in Hong Kong. The company operates 35 hotels and two cruise ships, the ABC and ESPN television networks, and hundreds of stores that sell merchandise based on its characters. With music and publishing subsidiaries, Disney also produces live-action and animated films and television shows.

It all began in 1923, with the founding of what would become the Walt Disney Company. In 1928, it created its first star, the animated figure Mickey Mouse. From its first cartoon feature with sound, called Steamboat Willie, to the popular Mickey Mouse Club show on television, Disney characters have entertained generations of youngsters.

Not all has been smooth sailing for the media giant. The past two years, Disney has faced dissension on its board of directors, raising concern among shareholders. A battle between longtime Disney chairman Michael Eisner and two dissident former board members, Walt's nephew Roy Disney and his ally Stanley Gold, resulted in Michael Eisner stepping down as company chairman and promising not to seek a new term as chief executive.

Mr. Bond says the company also had problems with its ABC broadcast network, whose stock was underperforming. But he says Disney management under Mr. Eisner has turned that around. The analyst says Disney's Internet unit is also doing well.

"The ABC television network is on the mend," he said. "Disney Online has been flourishing. The theme parks have also been flourishing, and the film studio."

Despite the occasional flop among its movie releases, Disney has produced a string of animated hits, from The Little Mermaid to Tarzan and The Lion King.

In addition to its new films, Disney has a library of classics, which are being digitally re-mastered and, says Mr. Bond, continue to sell.

"Of course, every few years they come out with a new library title from their classic library - Snow White and Sleeping Beauty and Pinocchio and all this stuff is just being gobbled up by consumers who want to have these movies on DVD, with everything DVD offers," Mr. Bond said.

One of the challenges facing incoming Disney CEO Robert Iger, who will take over later this year, will be repairing relations with the computer animation company Pixar, whose joint projects with Disney have included the highly profitable film The Incredibles.

Disney had revenues of more than $30 billion last year, making it the world's second largest media company, after Time Warner. Analyst Paul Bond says the company is an entertainment icon, and that despite its recent troubles, it is likely to remain an industry giant.

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