For the past century, Walt Disney and the company he created have been at the cutting edge of some of the most important innovations in entertainment—from film and television to theme parks, hotels and live attractions. Today, the company reportedly holds more than 4,000 active patents worldwide. Even so, many of its greatest successes have come from being an early adopter—and significant improver—of the inventions of others. Here are nine technological innovations that helped Disney become Disney.

1. Mixing Live Action and Animation

Walt Disney first came to public attention in 1924, with a series of silent shorts loosely based on the title character from Alice in Wonderland. The Alice Comedies used a process that allowed a real actress playing Alice to interact with animated characters, particularly a Felix-like cat named Julius. Although the technique wasn’t entirely new, using it to put a human character into a cartoon world was.

It's possible Disney used more than one technique to achieve this goal. But basically, the process involved shooting Alice against a white background, drawing animated characters to fill the blank area and then combining the two sets of images by running two strips of film through the camera at the same time.

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While Walt Disney was credited as the films’ creator, the special effects were largely the work of Ub Iwerks, a fellow animator and off-and-on Disney collaborator, says Jeff Ryan, author of A Mouse Divided: How Ub Iwerks Became Forgotten, and Walt Disney Became Uncle Walt.

Iwerks’ and Disney’s innovation is considered a forerunner of the chroma key and green screen processes that are widely used in film and television today.

2. Synchronized Sound

Disney’s Steamboat Willie (1928) is often cited as the first cartoon with synchronized sound. While there were, in fact, some earlier ones by Disney’s competitors, his proved far more advanced, particularly in the precision with which it integrated music and sound effects with the images, using a new technology called "Cinephone" that recorded the audio optically, directly onto the strip of film itself.

In a November 1928 review, the show business newspaper Variety lauded it as “a peach of a synchronization job all the way, bright, snappy and fitting the situation perfectly.”

Neal Gabler, in his 2006 biography Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination, calls Steamboat Willie a “cinematic milestone” and “truly a musical cartoon rather than a cartoon with music.” It was a milestone in another way, too—giving the public its first glimpse of Mickey Mouse.

3. Technicolor

The Technicolor process for making movies in color dates back to the 1910s. But Walt Disney was among the first animators to embrace it.

In 1932, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation introduced a new and much improved process known as “three-strip” Technicolor and wanted the big movie studios’ cartoon departments to give it a trial run. (In simple terms, the three-step process uses prisms inside the camera to split the light that comes in through the lens into green, red and blue, recording each on a separate strip of black-and-white film. Those images are then treated with dyes and combined to create what appears to be a single, full-color image.)

Unfortunately, “no cartoonist would have it,” H.T. Kalmus, the company’s co-founder, recalled in 1938. “We were told cartoons were good enough in black and white, and that of all departments of production, cartoons could least afford the added expense. Finally, Walt Disney tried it as an experiment on one of his ‘Silly Symphonies.’”

Recognizing the superiority of the new process, Disney was willing to bear the added cost of new cameras and specialized technicians to operate them. His Disney’s Flowers and Trees (1932) became not only the first three-strip Technicolor cartoon—but the first cartoon to win an Academy Award.

Walt Disney bought exclusive rights to use three-strip Technicolor in his cartoons from 1932 to 1935. That meant that other studios were stuck with inferior color processes, contributing to Disney’s growing reputation for technical excellence. Disney’s first full-length animated feature,  Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, used the process to spectacular effect, although the film’s staggering production costs earned it the nickname “Disney’s Folly”—until its equally staggering box-office receipts began to roll in.

4. The Multiplane Camera

This innovative camera set-up allowed animators to photograph multiple levels of animation cels at one time to give their cartoons the illusion of three-dimensional depth. Disney wasn't the first filmmaker to experiment with the concept, but his team took it to far greater heights and is credited with functionally inventing the technology. Their camera was 11 feet tall and six feet square and required multiple operators.

“The Multiplane camera created an effect that’s hard to describe,” Ryan says, “but when you see it, you get incredibly immersed in the cartoon.”

Disney first used its Multiplane camera for a 1937 short, The Old Mill, part of its “Silly Symphony” series, which won an Academy Award for best animated short subject. It was instrumental in the making of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and was still in use as late as The Little Mermaid (1989) before it was made obsolete by computer-aided animation. 

Disney’s version of the Multiplane camera even won its own Academy Award for technical achievement in 1937.

5. Audio-Animatronics

Invented and patented by Disney, these sound-synchronized robotic figures made their debut at Disneyland in 1963, in the form of singing birds and flowers. In 1964, Disney’s animatronic Abraham Lincoln became a star attraction at the New York World’s Fair, performing five times a day at the Illinois Pavilion. According to fair guidebooks, the figure would rise from his chair to deliver excepts from the president’s speeches, and was “capable of more than 250,000 combinations of action, including smiles, frowns and gestures.” When the fair ended, animatronic Abe took his act to Disneyland.

Today, Animatronics figures, including a more advanced Lincoln and characters from numerous Disney films, are doing their stuff at the company’s attractions worldwide. At the Hall of Presidents at Walt Disney World, Lincoln is joined by all of his fellow presidents, from George Washington to Joe Biden.

6. Smellitizers

More formally referred to as a "scent-emitting system," this relatively simple technology uses concealed fans to pump out an assortment of fragrances at Disney theme parks and resort hotels to enhance the visitor’s experience (and possibly their appetite), whether they realize it or not. Supposedly, Walt Disney arranged for the smell of vanilla to come wafting out of the candy store on Main Street U.S.A., starting in 1955, the very year that Disneyland opened for business.

Today, parkgoers strolling along Main Street U.S.A. may notice the scent of popcorn in the air, while the Pirates of the Caribbean ride has become legendary for its unique water odors, often described as “damp and musty” but nevertheless beloved. Scented candles that attempt to replicate it are widely available online. 

7. Stuntronics

A great leap forward from Audio-Animatronics, Stuntronics, introduced 2018, allows untethered robotic stuntmen to perform daredevil feats at Disney theme parks. As the company explains, “Onboard sensing equips the figure to perform a variety of combinations of flips, twists and poses with repeatability and precision. Quintuple backward somersault with a tucked landing? No problem.”

On the Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure Park, a robotic stunt double dressed as Spider-Man briefly replaces a live actor and flies 65 feet into the air, doing a somersault along the way. Usually, stuntronic Spidey lands safely, except for one unfortunate 2022 incident when he bounced off a wall.

8. Droids in Training

Likely to be coming soon to a Disney attraction near you, Droids in Training are toddler-size robots that can waddle around freely and interact with visitors, aided by artificial intelligence. Drawing both on Disney’s engineering expertise and its artists’ gift for bestowing loveable personalities on just about anything, the company previewed a trio of them at Disneyland in the fall of 2023 to universal oohs and aahs.

If there’s a common thread here, it’s that no matter how razzle-dazzle the technology, Disney never let it stand in the way of telling a good story.

“All of the innovations they came up with were secondary to the characters,” Ryan says. “That was one Walt’s great innovations. He knew that people cared more about the characters than the technology behind them.”