Mickey Mouse’s birthday is quickly approaching, and while his 95th birthday should be cause for celebration, this year’s observance of Mickey’s big day has a long shadow cast over it for fans who realize it will be his last.
Long before Walt Disney released his first feature-length animated film (a first for the world of entertainment as well), he produced numerous animated shorts and had spent years of his life experimenting with trick photography and other special effects, leading up to his first years at Disney Bros. Studios, which he opened with the help of his brother Roy O. Disney in 1923.
Walt’s Beginnings: Long Before ‘Snow White’
While some think of Walt’s career in animation as having begun in 1937 with the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the famed visionary got his start long before Doc, Sneezy, Bashful, Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, and Grumpy ever graced the silver screen. And by the time Walt was finally headed down the red carpet at the Carthay Circle Theater in December 1937 to show the world what he could do with 83 minutes, his life’s savings, and some of the best darn animators anywhere around, he had also been through some of the toughest days of his young life.
In the mid-1920s, Charles Mintz, a producer at Universal, contracted with Walt Disney to create an animated character. The result was Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, and in 1927, Walt’s fortunate little bunny made his debut in an animated short called Trolley Troubles, but Walt was in for a world of troubles all his own.
Feeling better about himself and his business following the success of Oswald, Walt took his wife Lillian on a trip by train in 1928, but on the return, Walt discovered he’d been swindled.
A Snake Gets the Rabbit
Thanks to a contract that wasn’t so air-tight and a crooked producer named Charles Mintz, Universal had been able to take Oswald the Lucky Rabbit from Walt. The situation also cost Walt all of his animators, as Mintz had been poaching them behind Walt’s back–all except one–Ub Iwerks–who had been with Walt for years and remained loyal to him, even in the face of mounting pressure he no doubt received from Universal and his fellow bailing animators.
But Walt had faced adversity before, and this time, he was going to punch it square in the face and come out the other side the victor.
Mickey Mouse is Born From Adversity
Though the loss of Oswald and his animators was a blow to Walt, he was determined to rise above it, and he wasted very little time amassing his next big win–and it would be a big one. He began thinking, imagining, and creating. No cats; Felix the Cat was already overdone, and Walt gave it a go with Julius the Cat, though the character didn’t resonate with audiences. The thought of another rabbit surely gave Walt hives, so it was that a mouse was created–a mouse named Mortimer.
That is, until Walt’s wife, Lillian, got involved.
Walt showed his wife the first drawings of the mouse, but when he said he was going to call him Mortimer, Lillian felt that the name was “too depressing,” and she suggested Walt call him Mickey instead.
“He popped out of my mind onto a drawing pad on a train ride from Manhattan to Hollywood at a time when the business fortunes of my brother Roy and myself were at the lowest ebb,” Walt said of Mickey in his 1948 essay titled What Mickey Means to Me, “and disaster seemed right around the corner.”
But Walt couldn’t have been more mistaken.
Mickey Makes His Official Debut, But Not as Mickey
Walt wasted no time bringing Mickey to life. In 1928, two animated shorts were released, each featuring the new character. Disney’s Plane Crazy debuted in front of a test audience on May 15, 1928, though it had no sound.
Three months later, the character appeared again in a short called Gallopin’ Gaucho (1928), Walt’s second animated short to feature the mouse, but failed to feature sound. But instead of releasing the short, Ub Iwerks and Walt immersed themselves in a third short, this time with sound, and on November 18, 1928, Steamboat Willie, starring Mickey Mouse, was released.
Steamboat Willie not only resonated with audiences, but it was a revolution in the animation industry, all on its own–simply because it was the first animated short to have sound. Because of its landmark debut status in the fall of 1928, November 18 was adopted as Mickey’s birthday.
Mickey’s Birthday Celebrations
Over the years, Disney has celebrated Mickey’s birthday in various ways, and milestone birthdays have been cause for extravagant, over-the-top celebrations that permeate the parks and pop culture in every way in dozens of ways, and the festivities have always been centered around the date of November 18–which corresponds to the release of Steamboat Willie (1928).
Over the years, Disney has celebrated Mickey’s special day with exciting events in the parks, at now-defunct Disney Store locations across the country, and with specials on television.
Mickey’s Birthdayland, which opened on June 18, 1988, was part of a yearlong celebration of the famous mouse’s 60th birthday at the Walt Disney World Resort and was perhaps one of Disney’s most over-the-top commemorations of Mickey’s birthday. The themed three-acre area allowed guests to visit Mickey’s house, as well as Minnie’s house (and others), and was a huge success with visitors to the Central Florida Disney resort.
The themed land was intended to be a temporary spot at Magic Kingdom, but its popularity ultimately afforded it a more long-standing tenure, as it was later transformed into Mickey’s Starland in 1990, Mickey’s Toyland in late 1995, and finally as Mickey’s Toontown Fair for the summer of 1996. But it’s Mickey’s Birthdayland that remains the most memorable of the lands and one of the most memorable celebrations of Mickey’s big day in the 100-year history of the Disney Company.
The Most Profitable Varmint in the World
For a mouse, Mickey has amassed an unbelievable fortune. For any kind of creature, Mickey has amassed an unbelievable fortune. In 2019 alone, Mickey Mouse garnered $3 billion for The Walt Disney Company–and that was just in one year. When it comes to Mickey’s worth, different outlets give varying estimates.
But according to the U.K.’s Blue Whale Media, Mickey is far more than just an animated character that takes on various iterations throughout Disney’s theme parks and in films and on television shows and series. In fact, by many accounts, Mickey and The Walt Disney Company are synonymous, meaning Mickey’s value could be close to, or the same as, the value of the company itself.
On November 1, 2023, Disney’s market cap hovered around $154 billion, meaning Mickey is technically the most valuable and profitable character in history.
According to Fast Company, Mickey is recognized by 97% of the population, making him more recognizable than even Santa Claus.
Mickey Mouse has brought Disney fame and fortune, profits and posterity, magic and memories over his 95 years, but as with many wonderful things, he can’t last forever–at least not under Disney’s protection.
Coming Full Circle: Disney is Set to Lose Its Iconic Character Yet Again
It’s funny sometimes how things come full circle–seemingly repeating themselves–and not as part of a tragedy or a misstep, but simply as part of circumstances beyond control.
Currently, in news reminiscent of that from early 1928, Disney is set to lose its rights to Mickey Mouse on January 1, 2024–specifically the copyrights to Disney’s Steamboat Willie iteration of Mickey Mouse. Once the clock strikes midnight on January 1, 2024, Disney’s rights will fade, as if vapors, and the Steamboat Willie iteration of Walt’s little mouse will be cast into the public domain for anyone and any entity to do with him as they please.
The only hope for a stay of copyright, if you will, is Disney’s ability to pull a fast one, just like the company did in the 1980s–the last time Mickey’s rights were on the chopping block.
Facing a copyright expiration as they are now, Disney began to lobby Congress before Mickey’s copyright was extinguished in the 1980s in an effort to extend those rights. Whether it was Disney’s powerhouse persona or a Congress full of Mickey’s most devoted fans, we can’t say. But Congress graciously extended Disney’s ownership of Steamboat Willie.
The result was the Copyright Term Extension Act, or, as it is most endearingly known, the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act.” But even a law named after Mickey couldn’t extend the rights forever, and the Mickey Mouse Act states that the protection will end on January 1, 2024. Even if Disney attempted to lobby for an additional extension–something the company has not done this time around–it’s likely that the request would be denied.
It’s not clear what will become of Steamboat Willie once he enters the depths of the public domain, but the onset and prevalence of the use of AI at the same time could be the proverbial perfect storm for all sorts of outcomes–good, bad, and otherwise.
Mickey’s Final Birthday Celebration
Because Mickey Mouse’s birthday is based on the date of the debut of the Steamboat Willie iteration of Walt’s favorite mouse, his birthday this month could be his last.
The expiration of Disney’s rights to Steamboat Willie means that the variation of the “mouse that started it all” will no longer be Disney’s property, and the date that set his birthday celebrations into motion will no longer carry significance within the Disney universe, theoretically.
And if such a mindset about Mickey’s birthday is adopted, one of two things must happen: Disney must choose another date on which to celebrate the beginning of Mickey’s life, or Disney can scrap the celebrations tied to Mickey’s birthday altogether. In either case, November 18 will no longer be cause for celebration, making Mickey’s birthday this year his very last.
It’s not clear at this time how Disney will approach the idea of Mickey’s birthday once Steamboat Willie sails away one final time on the evening of December 31, 2023. Regardless, true Disney fans will always honor the memory of the actual mouse who started it all–a little mouse named Mickey, who went by the name Willie and managed a little black and white steamboat 95 years ago, way back in 1928.