All the ways Bob Iger transformed Disney as CEO

Acquisitions like Pixar and Marvel, and revamping the Disney theme parks, are Iger's legacy as he steps down.

Corinne Reichert Senior Editor
Corinne Reichert (she/her) grew up in Sydney, Australia and moved to California in 2019. She holds degrees in law and communications, and currently writes news, analysis and features for CNET across the topics of electric vehicles, broadband networks, mobile devices, big tech, artificial intelligence, home technology and entertainment. In her spare time, she watches soccer games and F1 races, and goes to Disneyland as often as possible.
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Corinne Reichert
4 min read
Bob Iger George Lucas

Bob Iger with George Lucas. As CEO, Iger both acquired Lucasfilm and launched Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

When Bob Iger was given the keys to the Disney kingdom in 2005, he felt a "sense of urgency" to overhaul the origins of the entertainment company -- its animation studio.

"What would happen if we failed to make great animation?" he remembers thinking at the time.

So Iger kicked off his 15 years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company by focusing on repairing both Disney movies and theme parks under the three strategies of international expansion, fresh content and new technology. These were his biggest moves.

Disney animation

Iger "inherited a Disney animation studio in disarray," according to Disney Plus original series The Imagineering Story. Flops like Treasure Planet and Home on the Range led him to an immediate spending spree to save the animation arm of the company -- Iger spent $7.4 billion to acquire Pixar from Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2006, $4 billion to acquire Marvel in 2009, $4 billion to purchase Star Wars studio Lucasfilm in 2012 and $71.3 billion for 21st Century Fox in 2019.

According to Iger, the purchase of Pixar turned Disney Animation's fortunes around. "Disney will be saved by Pixar and we'll all live happily ever after," Iger told Jobs at the time, as revealed in his 2019 memoir, The Ride of A Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company.

With his Marvel buyout, Iger secured Disney's superhero payday. Last year, Avengers: Endgame became the highest-grossing movie of all time with a box office total of just under $2.8 billion, in addition to the previous success of its Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Captain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Ant-Man and Avengers installments.

The former ABC president, who stepped down as Disney CEO in a sudden announcement Tuesday, also oversaw the successful launch of streaming service Disney Plus at the end of last year. Disney Plus signed up 28.6 million subscribers in less than three months, and gave rise to hugely popular content like Star Wars series The Mandalorian -- which spawned the pop culture phenomenon of Baby Yoda -- as well as paving the way for future Marvel content like Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki and WandaVision.

Watch this: Is Disney Plus one of the biggest launches of all time?

Disney theme parks

When taking the reins of Disney, Iger also inherited several theme park flops: California Adventure at Disneyland in Anaheim, the second park at Disneyland Paris and Hong Kong Disneyland. All three missed the mark, seeing limited success after being designed under a strict budget mandated by previous CEO Michael Eisner.

"You can't fool people," Kim Irvine, Disneyland's art director, said in the Imagineering series. "They can tell when things are being short changed or you're not paying attention to the details and putting quality into something. Walt used to say if you do a good job, they'll pay for it, and I think they started seeing that we weren't doing that good of a job anymore."

Under Iger, big spending came back to the Imagineering department. First up was looking into how to fix California Adventure, which he said "didn't live up to the expectation of a Disney theme park." Calling it "fundamentally broken ... and right in our own backyard," Iger kicked off a five-year renovation of the theme park, including the popular Cars Land and the addition of the Toy Story Midway Mania attraction.

Iger, who was named Time's business person of the year for 2019, then expanded the oft-criticized Hong Kong Disneyland by 25%, adding an exclusive attraction that saw attendance rise. In 2012, the theme park was finally profitable.

Walt Disney Studios Paris was then improved by adding the Ratatouille attraction, which successfully picked up attendance to the second, smaller Paris theme park.

As part of his plan for international expansion, Iger then treated the launch of Shanghai Disneyland as "the biggest priority" for Disney in 2016. He'd spent 18 years negotiating with the Chinese government to get the theme park off the ground -- starting the groundwork long before he was CEO.

Other theme park wins under Iger included securing the theme park rights to hit movie Avatar, which saw Disney build out its Pandora-themed area of Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida.

More recently, Iger oversaw the launch of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge areas in Disneyland and Walt Disney World last year. And the company isn't stopping -- three Avengers Campus areas will be added to theme parks across the globe. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)-themed areas will include a Spider-Man attraction at California Adventure by summer this year; a roller coaster featuring Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Black Panther and Captain America at Disneyland Paris in 2020; and an Ant-man and The Wasp: Nano Battle attraction at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Darker days at Disney

But it wasn't all sunshine at Disney under Iger. The tragic death of an 8-year-old boy in 2015 on the property of Disney's Coronado Springs Resort at Walt Disney World saw the company slammed for its lack of safety.

Iger called it his darkest day as CEO, describing in the opening of his 2019 memoir crying so hard that his contact lens fell out.

"Not every day is easy. Not every day is fun," he said during an interview with PBS in 2019. He spoke with the family, a phone call he said was the most difficult conversation of his life. "It was an unbelievably gut-wrenching experience."

Disney's next CEO was named Tuesday, with previous chair of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products Bob Chapek to be Iger's successor.

See inside the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride at Disney World

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