Mickey Turns 90, and the Disney Marketing Machine Celebrates

A two-hour prime-time special on ABC. Cupcakes the size of cars at Disneyland Paris. Collaborations with a dozen fashion designers, including Marc Jacobs. More than 30 books.

Small and subtle are not the Walt Disney Co.’s style. But a new effort to focus attention on one of its oldest characters, Mickey Mouse, is truly something to behold.

Disney is using Mickey’s 90th birthday as a monstrous marketing moment, with the company’s cross-promotional machine revved up to what may be its highest level yet.

Every corner of the $168 billion company is contributing to the campaign, which will intensify Sunday when ABC runs “Mickey’s 90th Spectacular.” Disney theme parks will be hosting events into next year.

Disney executives describe the effort as a chance to polish the company’s broader brand and remind people — as Netflix moves deeper into family entertainment and Disney prepares to unveil its own streaming service — that the Magic Kingdom has been serving up beloved characters for decades. Mickey made his official debut in 1928 in “Steamboat Willie,” Hollywood’s first cartoon with synchronized sound.

Unless lawmakers intervene, as they have in the past, Disney’s control of the Mickey copyright will expire in five years. So there’s no time like the present to rally around him.

Disney has billions of dollars in merchandise sales to consider. Mickey and his friends (Minnie, Pluto, Goofy) make up Disney’s top-selling consumer products franchise, generating annual retail sales of at least $3.2 billion, according to The Licensing Letter, a trade publication.

That tally does not include the Disney Store chain or outlets at Disney’s theme parks. Disney does not disclose sales information, although a spokeswoman said the franchise had been growing both domestically and overseas.

There are challenges, however, the result of a shifting retail marketplace and declining television viewership. Disney’s child-focused cable channels are important Mickey engines.

“The challenge for any character, but especially for Mickey since he’s so historic, is maintaining relevancy,” said Marty Brochstein, a senior vice president at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association. “And the adults are almost more important than the kids in that way. The grown-ups decide what the money gets spent on.”