Disney princesses retain their power: A look at the company’s mega franchise

DPC_LetItGo 3_(Kacy Meinecke)
The Walt Disney Co.'s princess franchise is both beloved and lucrative, with a complex origin story.

Grown women in full Belle gold ballgowns and little girls in the inevitable Elsa dresses packed the audience for a one-night only show in downtown Orlando.

The crowd was here for Disney Princess: The Concert at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. For the next 90 minutes, a trio of Disney Broadway performers in sparkly gowns belted out the most famous songs from films, ending with a rousing finale of “Let It Go.”

Behold the power of the Disney princesses, which have evolved into a multibillion-dollar business.

“It’s honestly hard not to stress what a cash cow this franchise has become,” entertainment journalist Jim Hill said.

With Frozen 3 and 4 in the works, it seems probable that the entertainment company will keep tapping into the fan-favorite princess themes as the company builds new rides and attractions in the next decade at its parks, Hill said.

Already Disney is opening Frozen and Tangled attractions this summer at Tokyo Disney Resort. Disney debuted the first Frozen land last year in Hong Kong, with CEO Bob Iger calling the guests’ response “tremendous.”

Iger previously disclosed that the company plans to spend $60 billion over the next decade at Disney’s parks and cruise line, although he hasn’t revealed details what’s coming and where nor disclosed if fans will see more Frozen attractions at Disneyland or Disney World.

“With such a deep well of untapped IP and buildable land, there are so many experiences that have yet to be brought to our parks around the world, and we plan to turbocharge growth in the sector with a robust amount of strategic investment,” Iger said at the company’s recent shareholder meeting.

Perhaps Disney princesses resonate deeply with some fans because the franchise is more than just tiaras and pretty dresses. The franchise’s staying power comes because Disney-goers are flooded with memories of their youth, said performer Syndee Winters.

Millennials can name the first Disney movie they ever saw in a movie theater, and can recall going to rent “Aladdin” or “The Little Mermaid” on VHS at Blockbuster on a Friday night as a child.

“Disney princesses is not just about the princesses. It’s about this nostalgia that young people at that time had with the films,” said Winters, who is touring with the Disney Princess: The Concert and has played Nala in The Lion King on Broadway.

“Having a show like this to sort of keep the nostalgia of the VHS era and how that impacted our lives … it’s so much fun to be able to relive those moments with the guests that come to the show. It’s joyful.” 

Disney’s relationship with its princesses has been complicated, according to Hill, who covers Disney’s past and present-day on his website and as co-host of the Disney Dish podcast

Walt Disney, the man himself, was hesitant to make “Cinderella” after 1937’s “Snow White and Seven Dwarfs” hit because he didn’t want to repeat himself and do another fairy tale, Hill said.

“Walt wasn’t even sure he wanted to be in that business,” Hill said. “Walt was really reluctant.”

Disney had to be talked into making the movie, which, if he hadn’t, might have meant missing out on the future multibillion-dollar business, Hill said.

Disney’s follow-up — “Sleeping Beauty,” another princess movie that Walt Disney was not eager to make — was a failure at the time in the box office, Hill said.

“They convinced Walt it’s going to be so much different than ‘Cinderella.’ It’s going to be a moving tapestry. It’s going to be that beautiful and, we’ll base it on the music of Tchaikovsky,” Hill said. “And as a direct result, it was a bomb. What’s interesting is when ‘Sleeping Beauty’ came out, it lost so much money that for the first time since Disneyland opened, the company had to take a write-down.”

Disney gave up fairy tales until 1989’s “The Little Mermaid.”

“When ‘Little Mermaid’ came out, it was such a big hit,” Hill said. “It flabbergasted (then CEO Michael) Eisner.”

The hits kept coming.

Flash forward to 2000 when Andrew Mooney, the new head of Disney Consumer Products, noticed that children dressed in Disney princess gowns when walking into a Disney on Ice show. He stopped a mom, who said she made the outfit because the company didn’t sell any.

Mooney’s breakthrough idea: Break out the princesses as characters for the first time and sell merchandise.

“In the first year, $300 million came pouring into the company. Five years in, it was a $3 billion business,” Hill said. He also warned parents as Disney sets to release two more Frozen films and sell more Elsa dresses: get your pocket books ready.

Gabrielle Russon

Gabrielle Russon is an award-winning journalist based in Orlando. She covered the business of theme parks for the Orlando Sentinel. Her previous newspaper stops include the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Toledo Blade, Kalamazoo Gazette and Elkhart Truth as well as an internship covering the nation’s capital for the Chicago Tribune. For fun, she runs marathons. She gets her training from chasing a toddler around. Contact her at [email protected] or on Twitter @GabrielleRusson .

One comment

  • Earl Pitts "THE NEW MAYOR OF REALVILLE" American

    April 10, 2024 at 6:24 am

    Good Mornting America,
    Just a quick “Sage Reminder”:
    July 1, 2024 is coming at you a lot faster than you think. Thats the day Ron & Earl release “The Epstine Client List”.
    Yeah some things are happening at “The Big D” but its not nearly enough to stop the “Who’s Who” release of the above mentioned “Naughty List”.
    Thank you America,
    Earl Pitts “Disney Used To Be Way Cool And Wholesome” American

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