It’s impossible to mistake the Disney animated logo for anything else. The enchanted castle on a blue background, a shooting star and the opening notes of “When You Wish Upon a Star” can only mean you’re about to watch a Disney production. In use since 1985, the logo also serves as a way to show off Disney’s technical and animation skills. Here’s how the world’s most famous entertainment company developed its unforgettable logo.
Walt Disney’s Early Work
The Disney Corporation is an entertainment juggernaut that brings in over $60 billion a year through movies, publishing conglomerates, Touchstone Pictures, Pixar, Marvel, theme parks around the world and more. Its beginnings were humble, however, and almost derailed by young Walt’s failure to trademark his work.
Walt Disney’s first business was Laugh-O-Gram Studios, a Kansas City studio which went bankrupt just a few years after its founding. The studio had produced one successful short, Alice’s Wonderland, which combined live action and animation. In 1923, a Hollywood studio invited him to produce a series of Alice movies.
A Painful Lesson
During those years, he also developed a series of cartoons starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Over the years, the studio released 27 Oswald animations. Both the Alice and Oswald series were huge hits, but Disney neglected to copyright his illustrations. In 1928, his contract with the studio ended–and so did his rights to the characters.
A devastated Walt Disney took this as a life lesson. He told his brother Roy he would fight to regain the rights to Oswald, but he never did. For the rest of his life, he was vigilant about protecting everything he created.
Mickey Makes the Scene
After this hard knock, Walt and Roy founded their own studio in Hollywood. Walt wanted to recapture the success he enjoyed with Oswald, and he soon came up with a mischievous mouse named Mickey. The first movie starring Mickey, Steamboat Willie, was released to huge acclaim in 1929. Several other Mickey movies followed.
Mickey became a beloved character, but the studio was still struggling for money. At that point, a retailer approached Walt to ask about creating Mickey-themed merchandise. He wanted to put Mickey’s picture on school tablets he was selling. Walt agreed, and Disney’s first licensing deal was born.
Disney followed the Mickey cartoons with another series called the Silly Symphonies. One of the Silly Symphony movies was the first to win an Academy Award for Best Cartoon, and a Disney cartoon won the Oscar in that category every year until 1939.
Snow White Sets the Stage
Disney’s first full-length animation was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. It took three years to make, but it set the direction for Disney’s future. It was the highest-grossing movie of all time until its record was smashed by Gone with the Wind. Over the next decades, the studio released both live action and animated movies that met with box office success and critical acclaim.
Mickey Mouse’s fame made him the natural choice for the official Disney logo. From 1929 on, the company’s official logo prominently featured Mickey in a variety of poses. The most famous one showed him with his arms wide open. This was a logo the staff dubbed “Ta Dah Mickey.” The official logo combines Mickey Mouse with the Disney name in its well-known font, which is actually Walt Disney’s signature.
Read more on trademarking a logo
The Enchanted Castle
Disney didn’t use an opening logo in its early movies. The audience simply saw an opener that read, “Walt Disney Presents.” Later, the studio used an animated Mickey profile to open television shows.
This changed in 1985. In that year, Disney debuted the first castle logo in the movie The Black Cauldron. This was a modern, stylized version of an enchanted castle on a light blue background.
The logo featured Walt Disney’s signature in white font and the word “Pictures” on the bottom. As viewers watched, a shooting star raced across the screen. As a final touch, the opening line from the song “When You Wish Upon a Star” played. The song was from the 1940 animated hit Pinocchio.
From 1994 to 1999, the Disney Company used a slightly different version for Disney’s TV productions. This version included the character Tinker Bell, who appeared with a magic wand to sprinkle pixie dust on the scene.
The Castle Gets a Renovation
In 2006, the simple castle design went through a total transformation. This is the one the studio uses today.
The logo is now a full-color animated painting that looks like a miniature movie scene. It shows a pink sunset, lights glowing in the castle, bridges leading over the moat, water shimmering under the lights and people on the bridges and turrets. The opening music and shooting star are still there, but Tinker Bell is gone.
It’s impressive as a logo and serves several purposes. It shows off Disney’s technical prowess, introduces the idea of fantasy and recalls the “real life” castles of Disney’s theme parks.
In 2006, the Disney Company welcomed back Oswald the Lucky Rabbit after an 80-year absence. When ABC sports commentator Al Michaels wanted to make a deal with NBC, he had to go through ABC’s parent, which was Disney. Bob Iger, who was then Disney’s CEO, agreed to the deal in exchange for the return of all the rights to Oswald, which NBC owned.
As the blog OhMyDisney described it, “In a trade described by film historian Leonard Maltin as something that has ‘never happened before and never will again,’ ABC sports commentator Al Michaels, actual human, was traded from ESPN to NBC for a black-and-white cartoon character–Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.”
Iger reportedly said, “I wanted to complete Walt’s mission. I knew there was an empty spot in his heart since Oswald left. There was something about bringing Oswald back that seemed right.”
A Sparkling Future
Walt Disney almost lost everything when he lost his rights to an illustrated rabbit. His persistence in the face of failure led to the creation of another beloved character and a global entertainment giant. The logo, the enchanted castle and the shooting star are likely to be Disney’s unique symbols for many years.