Today, we look back on the accomplishments of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, one of The Walt Disney Company’s most transformative leaders.
Michael Eisner was born in Mount Kisco, New York, and went on to study English lit and theater in college. Learn about his meteoric climb to the top at The Walt Disney Company, and hear about some of his biggest lasting contributions to the company. We’ve got all the details below.
Childhood in New York
Michael Eisner was born to an affluent New York family, with his father working in the US Department of Housing and Urban Development as a lawyer and administrator and his mother serving as one of the co-founders of the American Safety Razor Company.
While his family already had roots in the business world, and Eisner grew up in a 5th Avenue apartment in New York City that most children would probably only dream of, many biographies of the eventual Disney CEO do not describe his early life as a luxurious one.
His parents, Lester and Margaret Eisner, were said to monitor his TV viewing as a child, and the family had a system in place where for every hour of television watched Michael would have to read for 2 hours.
Despite watching some television as a child, Disney movies were not a part of Eisner’s childhood, and he later recalled that he had not seen a Disney film until he had children of his own and he watched Pinocchio (1940) for the first time with his son.
As for other influences during Eisner’s childhood, he was passionate about the value of education and teachers. He valued his own education, from the time he spent reading as a child to make up for watching TV, and through his years attending a private boarding school and eventually Denison University.
Later, in his role as CEO of The Walt Disney Company, Eisner first initiated Disney’s American Teacher Awards as a way of recognizing teachers for their contributions and positive influences in their students’ lives.
College & Early Career
Following his attendance at a private boarding school for high school, Eisner continued on to attend Denison University in Granville, Ohio. He began his college career with the intent of going into medicine, but he later changed his major ultimately earning himself degrees in English Literature and Theater instead.
While attending college, Eisner gained experience in writing plays for his coursework. He had his first experience working for an entertainment production company during an undergraduate internship he completed at NBC, which led him to focus his future career endeavors in television.
Upon graduation from Denison University, Eisner began to work at NBC as a logging clerk, which quickly led him to additional roles in selecting ads for children’s programming at CBS.
Eisner continued to gain experience and leave an impact on much of the television and entertainment industry as he worked his way up through different roles at different networks. Following his stint as NBC, Eisner was hired by ABC first as an assistant, but eventually, he would end up as the network’s Senior Vice President through a series of promotions.
In 1971, when the Walt Disney Company was working on new animated classics like Disney’s Robin Hood (1973), and in the process of opening the Walt Disney World Resort, Eisner had become Vice President for Daytime Programming at ABC.
Soon after this promotion, he became the Senior Vice President for Production and Development at the company, where he was credited as a major factor in how ABC moved into the top spot in network ratings over both NBC and CBS.
Paramount Pictures hired Michael Eisner in 1976 as President of the company, a role which afforded him credits on films like Saturday Night Fever (1977), Grease (1978), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), to name a few.
Michael Eisner: Disney CEO
In 1984, Eisner became CEO of the Walt Disney Company, replacing Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, who had assumed the position briefly following Card Walker’s years as CEO.
Eisner’s time at The Walt Disney Company brought on many of the changes and classic Disney stories fans still love today. Alongside President of the company Frank Wells, Eisner’s time as CEO brought numerous changes to Disney Parks, resorts, and entertainment offerings around the world.
Michel Eisner’s Influence on Disney Parks
At Walt Disney World, Eisner oversaw the opening of two new theme parks: Disney-MGM Studios in 1989 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 1998. He also oversaw the opening of two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon (1989) and Blizzard Beach (1995) and the Pleasure Island district at what was then known as the Disney Village Marketplace (1989).
It was not only major parks and destinations that opened during the Eisner years but a number of new programs and initiatives were added to the Walt Disney World Resort, too. Among these were the introduction of the Disney Dining Plan in 1990, and “Disney’s best-kept secret,” the Disney Vacation Club in 1991.
The first version of Disney’s FastPass system was launched under Eisner’s leadership in 1999, and while it launched after Eisner stepped down from the CEO position, Disney’s Magical Express was developed prior to its 2005 launch.
As for parks and experiences around the world, Disney California Adventure opened at the Disneyland Resort in 2001, and Disney Cruise Line first set sail in 1998 with the launch of the Disney Magic and Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay.
It was during Eisner’s time with The Walt Disney Company that work was completed on overseas Disney theme parks, too, with the opening of Disneyland Paris in 1992, Tokyo DisneySea in 2001, and Hong Kong Disneyland in the development stages under Eisner’s lead with the park opening in 2005.
Of course, like any business, there were some challenges during Eisner’s time with the Walt Disney Company. Budget constraints and tourism, in general, being down substantially after the events of 9/11 impacted coming attractions to Disney theme parks.
This is most notably seen with the Legendary Years addition to Disney’s Pop Century Resort that was under construction prior to the attacks and set for a 2002 opening; however, construction was paused (and never finished until the area became Disney’s Art of Animation Resort in 2012.)
Disneyland Paris was met with some opposition from locals, causing a number of difficulties in the park’s early years and certainly some level of stress on the company’s CEO. And stateside, Disney California Adventure was met with lackluster reviews upon its opening in 2001 (though many fans today would agree that this park has had quite the glow-up!)
Lastly, while Eisner was particularly skilled in investment decisions, the acquisition of the Infoseek search engine in 1998 was perhaps one of the least valuable investments made by the Walt Disney Company in some time (though it may be worth giving Eisner and company the benefit of the doubt here; there were simply so many unknowns with the internet at this time!)
Michel Eisner’s Influence on Disney Films
In his 21 years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Eisner also helped to launch the “Disney Renaissance,” leading to many of the fan-favorite animated films released in the ‘’90s that are still cherished today.
And, the company saw some of its largest financial growth during the Eisner years, with its value jumping from about $1.8 billion to $80 billion.
Michael Eisner stepped down as CEO of the Walt Disney Company in 2005, when the position was filled by Bob Iger. Following his years with Disney, Eisner founded the Tornante Company, which operates as a media and entertainment investment firm.
The Tornante Company has since acquired Topps, known for its production of sports cards. Under Eisner’s leadership, Topps has also become an innovative sports media brand in its own right. The company has also allowed Eisner to become an owner of the Portsmouth Football Club, which he reportedly bought into in 2017 for a price of £5.67 million.
In addition to his business roles under the Tornante umbrella, Eisner has spent much of his time supporting the Eisner Foundation (which he founded in 1996) as a way to provide increased accessibility and opportunity for children and aging adults in the Los Angeles area.