Like many entertainment enterprises, sometimes the events taking place backstage are more interesting than what the audience was meant to see. That was certainly the case at Walt Disney Productions. By 1984, long time cracks below the surface started to rise and threatened to tear the company apart.

Historically, the Disney studio was managed by two kingdoms. As the story goes, on one side was Walt Disney, considered the creative genius of the duo. The other team was led by Roy O. Disney, Walt’s older brother and the one who found the money to finance his younger brother’s dreams. Of course, the relationship was far more complex than my brief description and the differences had ripple effects down the management chain. Generally, you were either a Walt or a Roy person. Only a handful could claim allegiance to both.


When Walt passed away in December 1966 his brother Roy dedicated his life to finishing two of his younger brothers most important projects. His priorities became the completion of phase one of the Walt Disney World resort and to help see CalArts become a reality.

When Roy passed away in December 1971, the baton was passed to Donn Tatum and for the first time the company did not have a strong sense of direction. Over the years, filmmaking took a back seat as the Company saw itself more as a theme park operator than a film studio or a real estate heavyweight. By 1983, theme park revenues represented three-fourths of the company’s total revenue and they were flattening out. Walt Disney Productions was in serious trouble.

Serving on the Disney corporate board was Roy E. Disney, Roy’s son. He was not happy with the lack of inertia and he felt the problems stemmed from a lack of leadership. He felt the movie division was at the heart of the company and fed all of the other company activities.


Specifically, Roy E. Disney was not a fan of E. Cardon “Card” Walker, Disney’s CEO from 1976 to 1983. Disney did not like Card Walker and felt that he was a tyrant that did not listen to anybody. It seemed that every decision Walker made followed the question, “What would Walt do?”


Disney was also not fond of Ron W. Miller, who would succeed Walker. Miller was married to Diane Disney, Walt’s oldest daughter. This firmly placed him on that side of the family battles. Walker ignored Roy while spending time grooming Miller for the top job. Disney felt that Miller was okay but he needed someone seasoned to assist him, like Disney board member Raymond Watson.

When it became obvious to Disney that Miller was going to be the next leader, he left the Studio in 1977 to start Shamrock Holdings, a broadcasting and investment company. Roy E. Disney’s partner in Shamrock Holdings was his lawyer Stanley Gold. Gold joined the Disney corporate board. By early 1984, Disney and Gold had enough and felt it was time for a management shakeup.

In February 1984, they went to Frank Wells, vice chairman at Warner Bros. to see if he would be interested in becoming Disney’s next CEO. Wells said yes and suggested they talk with Michael Eisner, president at Paramount Pictures to see if he would join the team.

When Eisner agreed, Roy and Gold resigned from the Disney board on March 9, 1984 so that they would not be privy to information that would compromise their strategy to remove the current management. Gold knew taking such a dramatic move “would hang a For Sale sign over the company.” He said, “You always have to judge whether your opponent is better at managing chaos or you are.” Their actions set off a six-month chain reaction that did not stop until the keys to the kingdom were handed over to a new team.

Struggles within the Disney boardroom made the company ripe for a takeover. At one point takeover specialist Saul Steinberg had acquired twelve percent of the stock until Morgan Stanley and lawyers Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom diluted his shares by issuing more shares.

Another way the Studio protected itself was to make itself more expensive by buying Arvida, a land development company owned by the Bass Brothers. The deal closed on June 6, 1984 for $200 million in stock. Disney also bought Gibson Greeting Cards for $315 million in cash and stock the same day.

It did not matter. Steinberg would not go away. Instead, he brought together a group of investors and offered to buy forty-nine percent of Disney for $325 million. He already had Kirk Kerkorian of MGM lined up to buy Disney’s film production business for $447.5 million. Disney refused and offered him $70.825 per share on June 11 to go away. Roy Disney opposed the pay off and proposed a leveraged buyout of the company and reserving a role for current management. He sued the board to rescind the greenmail payment.

Steinberg was not the only one interested in Disney. Another person kicking the tires was Lew Wasserman. Wasserman was always looking for ways to diversify the business and would occasionally acquire a company that helped to achieve that goal. For example, in 1968 MCA purchased Spencer Gifts, a mail-order gift company based in Atlantic City, New Jersey. He could not help but notice the turmoil in the Walt Disney Productions boardroom.

At the time, Disney was a relatively small entertainment company compared to MCA. Wasserman met with Disney’s top management and it seemed like a deal was very close. The only thing left was deciding who would be president of the new company. The Disney family insisted that Ron Miller get the job. Wasserman preferred his right hand man, Sidney Sheinberg. Sheinberg, realizing that this point could be a deal breaker, declined the job in favor of Miller. However, Wasserman would not be deterred and continued to insist that Sheinberg should get the job. The deal fell apart. Barry Diller learned of the details of this transaction from one of the principals and he said, “Felix [Rohatyn, the investment banker advising MCA] said to Lew, ‘Do it. A year from now you’ll get rid of Miller and make Sid president.'” Wasserman did not take his advice. Diller said of his friend, “It was Lew’s inflexibility that caused him to blow deals he should not have blown. He and Jules [Stein] had built the best company they should have owned the world. And had they made this deal with Disney, everything would have been different.”


Instead of making a deal with MCA, the Disney board decided to pay Steinberg $59 million to go away, allowed Roy Disney and Gold to rejoin the board while removing Card Walker and Donn Tatum. With the addition of Peter H. Dailey, Roy’s brother-in-law, the balance of power shifted toward Roy E. Disney.

Disney and Gold found an ally with investor and Disney corporate board member Sid Bass. Bass was not a fan of Raymond Watson or Ron Miller and was also anxious for change. The three men wanted to hire Frank Wells. Bass Gold said, “I knew it was going to be a natural alliance.”

But it was not over. Investor investor Irwin L. Jacobs starting buying up Disney stock and in mid-July and had become the company’s biggest shareholder. Jacobs opposed the Gibson Greeting Card acquisition and by mid-August that initiative was dead. Not happy with the latest acquisition effort, they took a close look at Ron Miller and decided he should go. On September 7, Ron Miller resigned.

To replace Miller, Roy E. Disney and Stanley Gold fought for Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. At first the board wanted only Eisner. Then board member Philip Hawley of Carter Hawley Hale suggested Dennis Stanfill from 20th Century Fox. The impasse was unexpected. Although Eisner thought he was a shoo-in for the job and told his bosses at Paramount that he was about to leave, things were not so easy. In the end, he had to lobby for the position.

On September 22, the Disney board voted unanimously for Wells and Eisner. Eisner negotiated a six year contract. Gold resigned to make room Sharon Disney Lund, Walt’s youngest daughter, so that both sides of the family could be represented on the board.

One of the first things the politically savvy Eisner did was asked Roy E. Disney what his priorities were. Disney suggested he wanted to focus on bringing back the heart if the company; feature animation. Eisner was relieved and decided he would focus on his strengths, ramping up live movie and television production.

There was only one problem. Eisner quickly realized forty-four acre Walt Disney Productions studio in Burbank was too small and originally designed to produce animated films. He needed more studio space.


Within days of starting at Disney, Eisner and Wells met with Sid Bass and investor Richard Rainwater to discuss options to monetize the Florida property. They discussed how a third theme park might keep guests on property longer. Wells said, “The idea was to encourage them to increase their length of stay. It was two to two and a half days and we wanted to get it up to three or four days.” All eyes started to turn toward Florida.

The rest, as they say, is Disney History.


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  • LoveStallion

    Ah, the fine tale of corporate intrigue in 1984. Pity that Eisner slowly stripped away at the soul of the company. He had smart business ideas initially.

  • Dan Heaton

    I’ve read this story before, yet it still fascinates me to think of where Disney would have gone if things had happened differently in 1984. Eisner and Wells changed the movie division of the company, and the rapid expansion in Florida changed WDW forever. Such an important time in Disney’s history. I feel like they’re heading towards a crossroads again, not in terms of ownership but overall creative direction. We’ll see what happens…

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  • DisneySam

    This story summarizes the events that can be better read in book titled “Disney War”. I too am concerned at where the company currently resides in terms of quality of production. At first I was very much in favor of the moves that Bob Iger was making and he was a welcome change from Eisner’s megalomania. Now I feel as though Iger has just become another form of Eisner in his later years. I wonder where the next leader will take the company when Iger steps down.

  • DuckyDelite

    It always amazes me how easily Disney Corp could have been sold for parts back in the 80s. We’re lucky there were some people in the organization willing to take a chance to save the company.

  • hockeyland

    I’m a huge fan of Sam’s column but I think this article tried to address too many things and is weak on the financial accuracy. For example “At one point takeover specialist Saul Steinberg had acquired twelve percent of the stock until Morgan Stanley and lawyers Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom diluted his shares by issuing more shares.” This isn’t accurate. Morgan Stanley may have been the underwriter, but only Disney can issue more shares of Disney.

    “Disney War” is a great read, but if you want the blow by blow story of the early 80’s takeover battles, find a used copy of “Storming the Magic Kingdom” by John Taylor.

    • TodAZ1

      I have “Storming the Magic Kingdom.” Great read.

    • Country Bear

      I too have read Storming the Magic Kingdom and it was an amazing read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in how Disney Corporation changed course in the 80’s.

      Thanks for rekindling this memory Sam.

  • OprylandUSA

    A what-if scenario of Disney in the 80’s actually took place with Gaylord Entertainment in the 1990’s. Gaylord Entertainment was a medium-sized media company, owner of the Opryland USA Themepark (they used it as one compound word) and owner of Gaylord Palms in Orlando.

    In 1997, the company owned the Opryland USA park, the Opryland Hotel resort (the largest hotel under one roof at the time), the Grand Ole Opry, the TNN network, the CMT network, Gaylord Films, WSM-AM, WSM-FM, the Wildhorse Saloon restaurant/nightclub (in Nashville & Pleasure Island), the General Jackson Showboat, Opryland River Taxis, interest in the Nashville Predators NHL franchise, and more. With cable networks, radio stations, films, parks, and hotels, they were a miniature Disney.

    Gaylord Entertainment was the second largest private employer in Tennessee in 1997. And, by 2012 they employed less than 100. Instead of being bought by another company, they sold themselves off, piece by piece – one failed venture, right after another, until ultimately they sold the majority of themselves to Marriott.

  • Algernon

    If only Frank G. Wells had not died. I think Disneyland would be a much better place if he were still around.

  • jedited

    I think Ron Miller got the shaft. He was the right guy at the wrong time and was constantly being hampered by Card Walker. A LOT of what Eisner took credit for were Ron’s ideas (Touchstone pictures, Roger Rabbit, Star Tours, reinvesting in the parks, etc) I hope that someday (before Ron dies) the Disney company will honor Ron and give him a Disney Legend.

    • Klutch

      I wasn’t aware of this. I always associated Ron Miller with films like “Super Dad”, the Kurt Russel movies like “The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes” and other low-budget flicks.

    • DisWedWay

      I remember I went to the Disney Studio premiere of Never Cry Wolf which Ron Miller was responsible for and would lead to establishing his Touchstone Pictures concept and would win much acclaim later. He was on his way out, but the whole audience stood up and clapped as his name appeared on the credits. I thought it was a shame Michael Eisner changed WED Imagineering to WDI Imagineering after he came on board.

  • Klutch

    This article is indeed confusing. Perhaps I’m not following it correctly. But the article appears to jump from Eisner joining the Walt Disney Company to the idea of building a studio themed park in Florida. As I recall, Eisner first kicked off building EPCOT Center and the Disney/MGM Studios park opened much later; around 1989. And it was Eisner who also kicked off the new animated musicals with “The Little Mermaid”.

    I know most people loathe Eisner these days. But he was the driving force in making the Walt Disney Company what it is today; major film producer, gargantuan theme parks company and owner of ABC and ESPN television.

    • psa928

      Look at the dates above — EPCOT opened in 1982, but Eisner didn’t come on board until 1984.

      • DisWedWay

        That was the year he changed WED to WDI, after Epcot and Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983.

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  • wendygirl1979

    “He was not happy with the lack of inertia”
    If you were meaning that the company was stagnant, then it was in a state of inertia. Maybe you were meaning lack of momentum?
    Sorry to nitpick. I always enjoy your articles, because they make me think! I’ve read so many books about Disney in the Eisner era, and I’m fascinated by the players and their decisions.

    • DisWedWay

      1983 was another of those unlucky years for Disney ending in a 3 when big projects have opened and the musical chairs start at Imagineering, as Michael was coming on board. Lack of inertia would be a side affect of that.