Disney is celebrating 100 years of magic today — and while the entertainment brand has made its mark worldwide, Hell’s Kitchen has more claim to the Mouse House than most.

Sandwiched between Midtown — where Disney’s most famous character made his debut and Disneyfication became a phenomenon — and the piers where its cruise ships dock, Hell’s Kitchen is also home to many of the people who bring America’s most enduring brand to life.

The Walt Disney Company is starting its 100-year celebrations today (January 27, 2023) — although it was actually founded on October 16 1923 by Walt and Roy as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio. Its centennial will be a year-long series of celebrations, new attractions and parades at its parks and cruise lines, with plenty of Hell’s Kitchen residents celebrating too.

Disney store Times Square
The Disney store in Times Square. Photo: Naty Caez

“Disney has a presence in Times Square and a presence with all the tourists coming through Hell’s Kitchen to get on a cruise boat,” said Clayton Howe, a professional actor, podcast producer and Hell’s Kitchen local who along with his wife, Lexi Carter, has worked for Disney Cruises. “They bring a lot of energy to the area,” he said of the Disney Cruise ships that dock at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal 88 at W47th Street and 12th Avenue. 

For many Hell’s Kitchen actors pursuing a career in show business, Disney Cruises are more than a ship dropping off tourists: they provide jobs which offer rigorous theatrical experience and enticingly well-budgeted production values. Hell’s Kitchen resident and professional actor Conor DeVoe, who has worked on four Disney cruise ships, said the “big, beautiful Broadway-esque” quality of the shows made working for the Mouse an easy draw. 

Conor DeVoe in a Disney Cruise production. Photo courtesy of Conor DeVoe

“Disney has such a high budget that they can pull out all the stops,” said DeVoe, who learned as many as 36 roles over his cruise ship contracts. The shows, where actors can expect to be hooked up to high-tech stage flight systems and don $30,000 custom costumes, give many actors a job akin to the Broadway experience “The quality is phenomenal,” he said. 

And Disney’s ties to Hell’s Kitchen maintain far beyond cruise contracts, said DeVoe. “I have met some of my best friends for the rest of my life on these contracts. We come back to New York and we see each other every day. And where are we? We’re in Hell’s Kitchen going to Rise Bar or Arriba Arriba.”  

Howe and Carter agreed: “We’ll walk down the street and see an alum from Disney Cruise Line and they’re hanging out with a friend who’s on their break from Little Shop [of Horrors, another musical by Disney alums Alan Menken and Howards Ashman back Off-Broadway in Hell’s Kitchen at the Westside Theatre].”

Lexi and Clayton
Married Hell’s Kitchen actors Lexi Carter and Clayton Howe on a Disney Cruise ship at Manhattan’s Terminal 88 in Hell’s Kitchen. Photo: Clayton Howe

DeVoe said Disney’s reputation for employing New York actors was as strong as ever. He recently got the chance to support a friend from one of his cruise contracts at their Broadway debut in the title role in Aladdin, playing at Disney’s first renovated theatre, the New Amsterdam, at 214 W42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. 

There’s the economic impact from Disney too, including collaborations with theatrical shoe designers like Hell’s Kitchen’s LaDuca Shoes — founder Phil LaDuca told W42ST: “Congratulations and a very Happy Birthday to Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and the entire Disney family from LaDuca Shoes. It has been my great privilege to be a part of your incredible family and unbelievable journey. We all join you in celebrating such an historic event! To the next 100 years!”. The brand has also bolstered the bars and restaurants frequented by actors and theater patrons. But the biggest economic impact is how Disney transformed Times Square, starting 30 years ago, in a rebirth known as Disneyfication.

“Disney believed in Times Square at a time when others did not,” Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance said. “The magic they have brought to the Crossroads of the World — entertaining millions at the New Amsterdam and other Broadway theaters and delighting visitors at their flagship store — is immeasurable,” he added. “They have been a fantastic advocate in helping us make Times Square clean, safe and desirable.” 

Times Square — known until the 1904 New York Times rebrand as “Satan’s Circus”, Longacre Square — bore a reputation for showcasing New York’s unseemly underground for decades before Disney came to town. At the end of the 19th century, it was the Northern section of what was called The Tenderloin, an area brimming with brothels, theaters, saloons and nightclubs. The 20th century initially brought “respectable” venues like the Ziegfield Follies and big-box movie houses.

In 1928 at The Colony, one of said big-box movie houses, the five-year-old Disney Company put on its latest animation: Steamboat Willie. The two-week run introduced the world to Mickey Mouse and the runaway success of Disney was born. Mickey’s status as an honorary New Yorker, however, seemed to fade into history with the advent of X-rated theaters, naked burlesques and brothels. Times Square moved away from family-friendly cartoons, inspired books like The Devil’s Playground and the film Midnight Cowboy, and cemented its reputation as the seedy “Deuce.” 

Then there was a homecoming twist worthy of a Disney movie. In 1993, just as W42nd Street had become a worldwide byword for “urban decay and failed renewal plans,” the Walt Disney Company pledged $8 million dollars to renovate the decrepit New Amsterdam Theater, at 214 W42nd Street between Broadway and 8th Avenue. Critics called it grave risk to the company, refusing to believe that they could really transform the area.

Lion King Broadway theatre
The Lion King on Broadway, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary year. Photo: Naty Caez

“But that commitment, which city and state officials jumped through hoops to secure, was a catalyst more powerful than anyone expected,” the New York Times concluded in 1998. “It opened the floodgates, just as a confluence of other forces — the reviving economy, the return of retailers to inner cities and the rise of entertainment and communications giants — readily supplied the flood.” 

The bet paid off handsomely for Disney, as they opened a massively popular retail store smack in the middle of Times Square, drawing tourists and their money, by the millions. After the revival of the New Amsterdam, dozens of other theaters were renovated and landmarked. Disney opened a stage version of the smash-hit Beauty and the Beast at The Palace Theatre in 1994 to sold-out crowds. Productions of The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Newsies, Frozen and Tarzan followed, with The Lion King still running after 25 years. 

Disney Aladdin W42nd Street Times Square
Aladdin on W42nd Street, the second of Disney’s current Broadway line-up, A production of Coco is coming soon. Photo: Naty Caez

Disney’s commercial success in Times Square was part of a larger expansion for the company. In 1996, it scooped up ABC Television, whose flagship show Good Morning America is now broadcast from Times Square, opened theme parks abroad and vastly expanded its catalog, buying the Muppets, Lucasfilm, Pixar and most recently, 21st Century Fox. The company also started its own cruise line, with a maiden voyage in 1998. In 2012, the ships docked for the first time in Hell’s Kitchen and made it a permanent stop-off point in 2016. They will next be seen at the Manhattan Cruise Terminal in September.

In Hell’s Kitchen, all three Disney Cruise actors said the brand had made an indelible mark on Times Square, Broadway and the theater industry at large, and that connection would evolve to showcase more inclusive and diverse stories in Disney’s portfolio. The company recently announced that a Disney on Broadway adaptation of the hit 2017 film Coco is in the works.

Disney Cruises
Disney Cruise ships have been frequent visitors to Pier 88 in Hell’s Kitchen since 2012. Photo vis Disney

“I think it’s exciting,” said Carter. “We’ve had a hundred years, and you can see where it’s gone — but in the next coming years, I think we’re going to see more stories that show everyone.” 

But what of The Colony, where Mickey made his debut and put Disney on a path to celebrating its 100th birthday? In 1930, it was renamed the Broadway Theatre and would host Mickey again later that decade with the premiere of Fantasia. And while the theater has since only housed stage productions, it is, like much of the West Side, another Midtown landmark able to boast a special Disney connection.

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