Throughout the impeccable history of The Walt Disney Company, only six individuals have been in charge. These men – and only men thus far – led the company as Chief Executive Officer (CEO).
Believe it or not, Walt Disney isn’t even on this list! He shares an odd historical footnote with the late Frank Wells in that both men served as President of Disney but never CEO. With the clear choice as best and most famous leader off the board, let’s rank the six CEOs who have run The Walt Disney Company!
6. Donn Tatum
In a way, ranking Donn Tatum as Disney CEO is brutally unfair. Walt and Roy O. Disney hired him from an outside company in 1956, and Tatum rarely had say over the direction of the company until after their deaths. Before 1967, he worked with the brothers to maximize profits at Disney.
When Uncle Walt died in 1966, Roy took over the business officially, although we’ll discuss that in a bit. So, for another five years, Tatum worked for one of the company’s founders. When he finally received the promotion to CEO, he mainly got the gig because both Disney brothers were dead. Otherwise, Roy would have kept it for several more years despite his age.
Tatum oversaw some expansion of the brand with achievements like Space Mountain. Overall, he didn’t hold the gig long enough to make much of an impact, though. At the age of 67, he happily passed the title to another individual.
5. E. Cardon Walker
Card Walker became President of Disney at the same time that Tatum earned the title of CEO. Both of them enjoyed the full confidence of Roy and Walt Disney, making them ideal candidates to fill the void after the Disneys died.
Walker’s resume as a Disney employee is extraordinary. He joined the company in 1938 but then briefly left to become a decorated naval officer during World War II. When he returned to Disney, Walker earned Uncle Walt's trust to the point that he received a spot on the Board of Directors.
In 1976, Tatum ceded the title of CEO to Walker, who proceeded to helm the company for seven mediocre years. The most significant achievements of Walker’s tenure were the construction of Tokyo Disneyland, which the Oriental Land Company oversaw, and the debut of the Disney Channel. And Walker only receives partial credit for that one. The rest goes to…
4. Ron W. Miller
This gentleman passed away during 2019, at which point many people suddenly realized his remarkable life story. Miller excelled at football to the point that he played for the Los Angeles Rams…the 1956 version. Yes, the Rams played in Los Angeles before they moved to St. Louis before returning to LA.
Miller had 11 career receptions for 129 yards as a professional football player. Alas, he also got knocked out a couple of times while his new father-in-law watched.
That man, Walt Disney, lamented that he was too old to raise his grandchildren and begged Miller to retire to join his company. Diane Disney Miller, the only biological daughter of Lillian and Walt Disney, appreciated the gesture, and the couple went on to have seven healthy children during their 59 years of marriage.
Miller proved to be a natural as a Disney executive. He quickly moved up through the ranks, employing his Army training to improve efficiency in the film division. He produced memorable titles like Freaky Friday, Pete’s Dragon, The Rescuers, and Tron during his tenure.
Eventually, Miller convinced his boss, Card Walker, to form the Disney Channel. And Walt Disney’s son-in-law also modernized the movie studio. He created Touchstone Pictures, a live-action division that would quickly pay dividends when the first movie, Splash, became a blockbuster.
Sadly, many business analysts incorrectly viewed Miller as a nepotism hire. Outsiders lusted after Disney and weighed potential corporate takeover scenarios. The Board of Directors eventually reacted by pushing out Miller in favor of…