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Ranking the 6 Disney CEOs From Worst to Best

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…

3. Michael Eisner

When you try more things, you fail at more things. I preface any discussion of Michael Eisner as Disney CEO with this statement. While many theme park tourists hiss at the very mention of his name, the former head of Paramount undeniably saved Disney from a grim fate.

Under Eisner and his President, Frank Wells, Disney stock spiked an unconscionable amount. In fact, over a 30-year period, its value increased by 8,943 percent. Eisner doesn’t get credit for the last decade of that, but it does reflect how well he positioned the company.

When Eisner and Wells arrived, they prioritized the monetization of existing assets. The strategy worked so well that it surprised the two outsiders who suddenly sat atop the Disney food chain. Wells famously stated, “Every time I open a door at this company, there’s money behind it.”

Tragically, the situation changed when Wells died in a helicopter crash. One moment, he was skiing with Clint Eastwood. The next week, Eisner shed waves of tears while eulogizing Wells. At that time, Disney’s fortunes took a turn, as the President of Disney grounded Eisner, the CEO.

Still, the achievements under Eisner include Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris, Hong Kong Disneyland, and the reinvigoration of the company’s movie industry. Oh, and Disney bought ABC/ESPN, too. Eisner did a lot of good, enough to overlook the early struggles at Disneyland Paris and the abject failure of Disney California Adventure.

2. Robert Iger

Confession: When I started this article, I had every intention of listing Iger first. His resume absolutely merits that sort of recognition. He took over from Michael Eisner at a time of tremendous turmoil. Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, had revolted and thrown the company into a civil war.

Iger has stated that he was acutely aware of his awkward situation when he ascended to CEO. He didn’t waste time in putting his stamp on his Disney tenure. Iger quickly befriended Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple and an enemy of Eisner. At the time, Disney had irritated Jobs so much that the Pixar deal had ended.

Somehow, the new CEO of Disney persuaded Jobs to sell his pride and joy, the computer animation movie studio. For a modest $7.1 billion, Pixar became a Disney property.

Not long afterward, Iger added Marvel into the fold for $4.24 billion, one of the most significant business acquisitions of the 21st century. Later, George Lucas would ask for the Pixar deal before settling for the Marvel total of $4 billion.

For a little more than $15 billion, Iger completely reinvigorated the entire company. He added a robust set of new intellectual properties for the theme parks, movies, and television.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Iger purchased almost the entirety of Fox media assets. Yes, he paid a lot — $71 billion – for the acquisition. However, he boosted the market cap of his company by nearly $100 billion in the process.

Finally, Iger turned around to use all of these assets to populate the fledgling Disney+ streaming service, which looks like another flawless triumph on his resume. Realistically, Iger’s tenure as CEO seems so remarkably successful that nobody could best it. And yet…

1. Roy O. Disney

Query: What’s a fair way to rank Roy Disney without his brother, Walt? The latter gentleman possessed the creative vision that drove the company to historic heights. But older brother, Roy, anchored Walt’s ideas with financial wisdom vast enough to sustain the business.

Many of Roy’s triumphs happened before the era of theme parks. He helped produce and finance Mickey Mouse cartoons and, later, the first full-length animated movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney’s entire film and television divisions only exist due to Roy Disney.

For that matter, the elder brother aided greatly in the construction of the Happiest Place on Earth. Then, after Walt died, Roy spearheaded the creation of Walt Disney World. Two men are most responsible for your love of The Walt Disney Company. Since only one of them ever held the title of CEO, Roy’s the clear choice as the best ever for the company.