To many Disney fans, Michael Eisner is the devil. The former CEO of The Walt Disney Company is perceived to have run the company into the ground. The situation degraded so much that Eisner had Walt Disney’s nephew, Roy E. Disney, removed from the board. Later, the same man would lead the charge for the termination of Eisner as leader of the company.
This story is one that most Disney followers know. Since Roy E. Disney was treated so poorly, people picked his side over Eisner's, which was easy enough since The Walt Disney Company was underachieving at the time. Since then, theme park analysts have eviscerated Eisner's legacy due to their dislike of him on several levels. Is that a reasonable perspective, though? Eisner's tenure certainly had its fair share of failures, but it had some breathtaking successes as well. Here are the best seven things that happened to Disney under Michael Eisner.
1. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
I’m ordering this list a bit differently. I want to start with the strongest aspects of Eisner’s tenure. If I went the other way, I’d lose you pretty fast. Some of the items discussed here were once deemed disappointments. Over time, opinions have evolved on the subjects, though. And I should state in advance that theme parks are heavily factored into this list. It matters because, for all of Robert Iger’s triumphs as CEO of Disney, he has spearheaded only one new park opening in 15 years, Shanghai Disneyland.
When you think of the situation in these terms, the greatest triumph of Michael Eisner is Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Yes, critics have ripped him for failing to bring Beastly Kingdom into reality. In doing so, they’ve ignored the majestic achievement that is Animal Kingdom. Walt Disney himself had once wanted live animals on Disneyland’s opening day. His Imagineers were apoplectic at the thought and finally talked him down.
For more than 40 years, the idea of hosting several different species of animals at a Disney theme park seemed impossible. During Eisner’s vaunted Disney Decade, however, Imagineers proved once again the truth of one of Walt Disney’s favorite quotes. “It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.”
For more than 20 years, Animal Kingdom has combined the thrilling attractions of a theme park with zoological habitats. Many species live at the park full-time, yet there's never been a major incident between an animal and a guest. From day one, Disney has done a remarkable job in controlling the pungent smells of its residents. And the park's continually improved with attractions like Expedition Everest and the introduction of Pandora – The World of Avatar. Animal Kingdom is an unqualified success in every facet.
2. Stock Price/Company Valuation
One of the fascinating parts of Eisner’s Disney legacy is the breakdown of proponents/detractors. Disney theme park fans and movie lovers generally loathe him. Financial gurus discuss his tenure, especially the first 15 years, in awed tones. In fact, even Roy E. Disney’s daughter, Abigail, once stated that her family didn’t become uber-wealthy until Eisner took over.
In the months prior to Eisner’s becoming CEO of The Walt Disney Company, the company’s stock had hovered around $1, sometimes falling under that amount. Yes, a share of Disney stock cost less than the price of a Quarter Pounder at the time.
In less than five years, Eisner quintupled the value of Disney shares. By 1990, he’d raised them by a factor of 12. The explosive growth would occur later that decade when the CEO organized the purchase of Capital Cities/ABC. While framed as a merger, Disney acquired all of the significant assets, most importantly the ABC Network and 80 percent ownership of ESPN.
Disney stock reached $40 after that, meaning that Eisner had overseen an improvement in the corporation's value by a factor of 40, not counting stock splits. He did this in 11 years. To put that number into perspective, someone who bought $5,000 worth of Disney stock on the day Eisner was hired would have earned $200,000 in 11 years without lifting a finger.
During the early 2000s, Eisner’s frugal nature set back the company in several ways, one of which we’ll discuss at the end of this article. It was only then when the knives came out, and several loyalists to the Disney family called for Eisner’s ouster. Even when this happened, Disney stock was still at $26.40. For all of his struggles and missteps, Eisner still steadied Disney, preventing it from being purchased from a larger conglomerate, one that would have ruined the brand.