It’s hard to believe, but it’s almost been a year since Disney+ launched in the Netherlands, Canada and the United States on November 12, 2019. Despite being around for nearly a year, it still feels like a new service, which it is – the UK launch was only in March 2020, and regions such as Belgium, Portugal and Brazil are still waiting for its release – but with so much time behind it, now is a good chance to look at how it’s doing so far. Is there enough content to justify the $69.99 annual fee? Are there enough upcoming releases to keep your subscription? Let’s get into it.

The facts

Whether you love Disney or hate it, there’s no denying that Disney+ has had a stratospheric first eight months. In figures released in May 2020, it was revealed that the service had amassed a total of 54.5 million subscribers – and considering their aim in the next five years was to reach 60-80 million subscribers, there is no doubt that they will easily surpass these projections. However, it’s worth remembering that those subscribers won’t necessarily stick around. Plenty of enticing launch offers, including a $23 yearly discount on three-year subscriptions in the US, and a £10 discount on year-long subscriptions in the UK, have doubtlessly helped get people onboard, but without a stream of fresh new content, it’s hard to say whether Disney+ will retain such staggering momentum.

(C) Statista
Roaring past expectations – Disney+’s subscriber statistics.          (C) Statista

Original programming

When looking at Disney+’s rivals, particularly Netflix, it’s clear to see where their strengths lie: in the consistent stream of high quality original programming that keeps subscribers loyal. Shows such as Stranger ThingsThe Witcher and Orange is the New Black have become phenomena in their own right, and that level of culturally-significant original content is something Disney+ has yet to achieve.

They have made an effort to release original programmes: the biggest example is The Mandalorian, the Star Wars TV show spearheaded by Jon Favreau, which became a huge phenomenon in late 2019 due to the overwhelming popularity of a certain Baby Yoda. The show was a massive success: it was received well by critics, admired by fans as something new in the Star Wars mythos, and has a second season set to release later this year. But aside from that, there haven’t been many hugely popular Disney+ original shows or films.

Disney+’s most successful exclusive, The Mandalorian. (C) Disney, Lucasfilm

Most of the original Disney+ output has been unscripted, documentary content: the shows Into the Unknown: Making Frozen II and Disney Gallery – Star Wars: The Mandalorian are high-profile cases of this, tracking the development of Frozen II and The Mandalorian respectively but there are plenty of others. Prop Culture looks at the props from classic Disney films, and Disney Insider looks at the behind-the-scenes making of their recent films, but in terms of scripted, fictional content, it’s a little thin.

There have been efforts to combat this – films such as the live-action Lady and the Tramp remake and Star Girl have been released since the launch of Disney+, but for fans who have already watched and rewatched all the Disney archive content, the amount of original exclusives probably aren’t enough to hold them down.

Archive content

Yet if you haven’t already seen the wide variety of content Disney+ has to offer, there’s more than enough to do the job for a long time. Most obvious of all is the breadth of franchises covered here – not only are all the Pixar films here, but most previous Disney Classic releases, from Snow White to Frozen II, are available – on top of the huge amount of Disney Channel content, with original films such as High School Musical and box-sets spanning the likes of Hannah Montana and Lizzie McGuire. If you’re a novice to Disney’s back-catalogue, there’s hundreds of films and shows worth diving into – and considering the service’s relatively cheap price, it’s certainly good value for money.

On top of that is the wealth of other franchises under the Disney umbrella – particularly Marvel and Star Wars, which helps make Disney+ worth the purchase. In the UK, you can find all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and every canon Star Wars film, as well as corresponding TV series for each franchise, from Star Wars: The Clone Wars (which had a stellar final season release earlier this year) to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – as well as plenty of upcoming original content, from the recently announced animated show Star Wars: The Bad Batch to the 2020 Marvel TV shows, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier and WandaVision. It makes the service worthwhile even if you aren’t into the mainline Disney stuff – there’s nowhere else to see the upcoming Marvel and Star Wars content, which makes the service worthwhile in that respect alone.

Promotional art for Disney+’s much-anticipated The Falcon and the Winter Soldier. (C) Disney, Marvel Studios

And while Netflix is able to add new shows and series each and every day, Disney+ simply doesn’t have the back-catalogue to maintain this speed, but the efforts they have made to consistently release new additions are impressive, if a little on the small side. There have been some tentpole releases – dropping Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker on May 4th was a great move, and the recent release of Frozen II has drummed up plenty of discussion – but oftentimes, there are dry patches with the service, where only very small additions will arrive. This is to be expected – particularly in a clime where no new releases are coming out – but the move to release some theatrical films straight onto prime, such as Artemis Fowl, is proof of Disney’s dedication to keeping the catalogue fresh and constantly improving.

The Simpsons conundrum

One of the biggest hooks of Disney+ in the run-up to its release was the exclusive streaming rights to The Simpsons – a show which in the UK had never been able to stream on-demand anywhere. This was a massive announcement, and undoubtedly was the game-changer for many; the final straw that meant they simply had to get the service. And while it was a brilliant feeling logging in for the first time and seeing over 600 episodes of the beloved sitcom available to watch at any time, the controversy around the aspect ratio was a massive issue.

If you aren’t familiar with the problem, here’s a brief run-down. When The Simpsons first began stream on the Simpsons World service in 2014, the first 20 seasons – hundreds of episodes – were only available to stream in widescreen 16:9 ratio, meaning the top and bottom of the image was cut off. Not only did this make the picture look uneven, but it cut off visual gags to ruin the experience.

This was a problem Disney was well aware of, announcing at launch that they would fix the aspect ratio by ‘early 2020’ – something which eventually happened in May, where a feature was introduced that allowed users to toggle between the native 4:3 ratio and the widescreen 16:9 ratio for early seasons of the show.

Obviously this isn’t the worst issue a new service could have, especially one with so much other content available, but for Simpsons fans who subscribed to the service because of the show, it was undoubtedly a big problem – particularly because when the show streamed on FXX before Disney+ had control of the rights, the ability to watch in 4:3 was already available – which begs the question, why didn’t Disney include this at launch? It’s a baffling decision that undoubtedly put some people off subscribing, but Disney’s resolution to fix the problem proves it is listening to fans – and the recent addition of Simpsons short films, The Longest Daycare and Playdate with Destiny, shows how important the show is in Disney+’s long-term plans.

UI Problems 

While it’s all well and good having a breadth of good content, if the actual experience of using Disney+ is subpar, then audiences will inevitably be driven away from the service – just look at Amazon Prime Video, which is marred by terrible UI design that make finding something to watch more hassle than it’s worth.

Disney+ isn’t quite as bad as that: the Netflix-esque layout is visually pleasing, and the menu system, where there is a separate button for each of their franchises – Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Star Wars and National Geographic – works really well, but it’s the small details about the service that are a slight problem. Having a limit of 50 titles at once in your watchlist is really annoying, especially for users who may not have seen that much Disney material, as it totally prevents you from fitting everything you want to watch in one place – and the decision to have this, when Netflix operates without a limit, is completely baffling. Similarly, not having a bar below an episode once you’ve watched it also feels like a missed opportunity that Disney should’ve copied from Netflix: it’s an easy addition that helps you remember which episodes you’ve already seen, and surely couldn’t be hard to implement.

The verdict

All things considered, it’s safe to say that Disney+’s first eight months of operation have been a wild success. There have been problems – the UI still needs work, there’s a lack of innovative, scripted original programming, and there aren’t quite enough new releases to keep long-time Disney fans satiated – but thanks to its vast catalogue and promising future releases, there’s more than enough to appease long-time Disney fans – who can new rewatch their favourites more easily than ever – and novices – who get a wealth of high-quality content for a very reasonable price. It’s a service that will only get better with time – and considering those predictions of 60-80m subscribers by 2025, we’re pretty the House of Mouse will blow that out of the water.