In 1950, Walt Disney made a bold move in the history of its company. It released its first fully live action film, Treasure Island. The film was a minor success, but more importantly, it opened the door for live action films for Disney. By the end of the 1950s, the company had begun to develop a niche in the film industry for its child-friendly fare that starred child actors. At the same time, it was making a name for itself on television with projects like The Wonderful World of Disney and the Mickey Mouse Club. Soon, Disney was launching a veritable army of child actors. This tradition has continued in the decades since, and has even expanded since the introduction of Disney’s own cable network, the Disney Channel, in recent years.
Like most child actors, Disney’s choices of child stars over the years have been hit or miss when it comes to their careers continuing as adult actors. However, Disney has had a lot of notable successes of child actors from its films and television series going on to become gorgeous and successful adult actors. For the purposes of this list, we’re defining “child” as actors who began working for Disney when they were 13 or younger (it seems weird to say, “Oh, wow, that 16 year old actor sure grew up to become a good-looking adult… four years later!”). Plus, we’re only talking actors who are currently 21 or older (as they’re not really “grown up,” otherwise).
15. RYAN GOSLING
In 1989, Disney launched a brand-new version of its old show for kids, the Mickey Mouse Club. Dubbed the All-New Mickey Mouse Club (and later MMC, because abbreviating things always makes them cooler, right, NKOTB?), the show ran for seven seasons. Four years into the series’ run, Disney made a major cast overhaul and added a whole group of young actors to the show.
One of the young actors was a wisecracking kid from Canada named Ryan Gosling. Even back then, Gosling was one of the best actors on the show and he was used frequently in sketches (less so when it came to singing). Gosling has grown up into one of the most popular romantic leads in the film industry and is routinely considered one of the most attractive actors in the world.
14. CHRISTINA AGUILERA
The All-New Mickey Mouse Club launched at the same time that New Kids on the Block were dominating the music industry, so naturally, the good folks at Disney decided that they would try to cash in on the trend in young musical groups by creating one of their own out of five members of the show’s cast. Eventually dubbed the Party, the band became popular enough that they all left the show to concentrate on their music careers.
Therefore, when they got a new cast for the show, the casting directors tried to get as many young singers as they could. One of these singers was a young girl named Christina Aguilera. Aguilera has gone on to become a world-famous singer and actress (and early host of The Voice). However, when she was on the Mickey Mouse Club, she tended to be outshone by another young girl in the cast.
13. BRITNEY SPEARS
The girl that tended to take the spotlight from Aguilera when they were castmates together on the All-New Mickey Mouse Club (and then, later, when they both became solo singing stars), despite Aguilera being a year older than her, was a 12-year old girl named Britney Spears. Spears had more of a stage presence at her young age and the Mickey Mouse Club ended up featuring her more often than Aguilera (Aguilera tended to get more serious singing parts on the show, though).
After the show ended, Spears thought her career was over, but instead, she ended up transforming the music industry by making solo young female pop stars a thing again (it had been nearly a decade since the days of Debbie Gibson, Tiffany and Madonna). She has gone on to become one of the most popular female singers around.
12. ANNETTE FUNICELLO
Annette Funicello was just a shy 12-year-old when Walt Disney himself personally chose her as the last member of the original Mickey Mouse Club, which began airing weekdays on ABC in 1955. Funicello soon became the most popular Mousketeer, receiving thousands of letters every month. Awkwardly for the very reserved Funicello, she effectively went through puberty in front of millions of hormonal young viewers and she became one of the earliest teen idols.
As she got older, she transitioned into music and film. She was particularly well known for her “Beach Party” series of films, which prominently featured Funicello wearing a bikini and “surfing.” In the 1980s, Funicello was diagnosed with multiple scelrosis. She sadly passed away due to complications from the disease in 2013.
11. JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT
Joseph Gordon-Levitt started acting at a very young age, appearing in commercials when he was just four years old. He began appearing in TV series as he got older and was even a cast member of an influential early 1990s sitcom called The Powers That Be (it only lasted two seasons, but it launched a lot of careers, including David Hyde Pierce, Gordon-Levitt and the creators of the show, David Crane and Marta Kauffman, who then created Friends).
He was then cast as the star of the Disney film, Angels in the Outfield. Soon after, he was cast as Tommy on the hit sitcom, Third Rock from the Sun, and he has gone on to have a very successful acting career as an adult, appearing in films like Looper, Inception and Dark Knight Rises.
10. HILARY DUFF
Hilary Duff had a few notable roles in her young career before being cast in her own Disney sitcom, Lizzie McGuire, in 2000 when she was 13 (after playing one of his kids in the pilot episode of the sitcom, Daddio, the star of the series, Michael Chiklis, recalled telling his wife, “This young girl is gonna be a movie star. She was completely at ease with herself and comfortable in her own skin), but it was that series (which debuted in 2001) that catapulted her to young stardom.
Initially a show about a girl who would talk to the audience in soliloquies that would be animated, Lizzie McGuire became an even bigger deal when Duff began singing, as well (so Disney could sell CDs featuring Duff, as well). The show was a bit of a multimedia empire. Duff is currently co-starring on the TV sitcom Younger.
9. JOSHUA JACKSON
While he was born in Vancouver, Joshua Jackson spent his earliest years in California before returning to Vancouver when he was 8 years old. After playing Charlie in a musical version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he got an agent and got the role that would help him break through in his career, which was playing one of the players (amusingly enough, also named Charlie) in Disney’s The Mighty Ducks.
Jackson appeared in all three of The Mighty Ducks films (which were released every other year between 1992 and 1996) and then joined the cast of a new show, Dawson’s Creek, that launched pretty much the entire cast into stardom, including Jackson. He has been working steadily ever since, including roles on Fringe and The Affair.
8. HAYLEY MILLS
Hot off of her first acting role in the British film, Tiger Bay, playing a young witness to a murder (with her acclaimed actor father, Sir John Mills, playing the inspector investigating the murder), Hayley Mills was cast in the Disney film, Pollyanna. Surely, Mills had no idea at the time, but she was about to become one of the most famous Disney stars of the era, appearing in a stunning six movies in six years, most of which were box office hits, like The Parent Trap and That Darn Cat.
After taking a break from acting, Mills returned to acting as an adult in the 1980s and even had a Disney reunion when she starred in one of the Disney Channel’s first original series, Good Morning, Miss Bliss, which would later be retooled into Saved By the Bell (sans Mills’ Miss Bliss).
7. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE
Timing, as they often say, is everything. When his stint on the All-New Mickey Mouse Club ended, Justin Timberlake quickly tried to form a new boy band with the help of his manager Lou Perlman. One of the first people that Timberlake recruited was his mentor during his time as a Mouseketeer, JC Chasez, who was five years older than Timberlake. Had they been on the show years earlier, both guys would certainly have been chosen to be part of the Party (with the hilariously lame backronym of “Positive Attitude Reflecting Today’s Youth”).
Instead, they helped form *NSYNC, one of the most popular boy bands in the music industry in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Timberlake left the group to pursue a successful solo career. He has also become a popular actor, using his Mickey Mouse sketch training to host Saturday Night Live five times!
6. KIM RICHARDS
Kim Richards was an in-demand child actor in the early 1970s, appearing in the sitcom, Nanny and the Professor and a pair of made-for-TV Disney films adapting the Whiz Kid Capers novels (Richards played the younger sister of the “Whiz Kid” star of the series). However, her career really took off when she starred in 1975’s Escape the Witch Mountain when she was 11 as one half of a pair of siblings with strange mental abilities. Her younger sister, Kyle, also acted in Disney films.
After continuing her career as an actress into the 1980s (appearing in Tuff Turf opposite James Spader), Richards then married a supermarket mogul and settled into a life of being a housewife in Beverly Hills, something she later parlayed into renewed fame as a member of the reality series, The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (also featuring her sister, Kyle).
5. SHIA LEBEOUF
In the early 2000s, Disney decided to get back into the world of original sitcoms on the Disney Channel, something that it has continued to this very day. One of the earliest shows in this new re-dedication to original programming was about two siblings who had to deal with being in the same high school together. Titled Even Stevens, the conflict was between the overachieving older sibling, Ren, and her goofball younger brother, Louis.
Shia Lebeouf played Louis and he very quickly established himself as a star on the rise, winning a Daytime Emmy and getting cast in the hit Disney film, Holes. When the series ended, Lebeouf’s career continued to rise, with starring roles in the Transformers film series and as Indiana Jones’ son in the fourth Indiana Jones film. In recent years, Lebeouf has tried to pull back from the world of celebrity, making him arguably (and ironically) even more famous.
4. FAIRUZA BALK
In the early 1980s, someone at Disney discovered that, unbeknownst to pretty much everyone at Disney, it actually had the rights to L. Frank Baum’s later Oz novels (his original novel, The Wizard of Oz, had passed into public domain), but the later books would be falling into the public domain soon, as well, so they had to rush to get a movie out.
Disney started a major casting process for its new Dorothy and ultimately decided on 10-year-old actress, Fairuza Balk. After Return to Oz did not do that well at the box office, Balk’s acting career stalled, but she made a big comeback in the 1990s as the lead in the hit film, The Coven, about a group of teen witches led by Balk’s character.
3. KEVIN ZEGERS
Kevin Zegers got his start like a lot of the names on this list, doing commercials as a young child. He soon branched into television and film, with minor roles in Life With Mikey and the X-Files before finally getting his breakout role, albeit playing second fiddle to a dog, in the hit Disney film, Air Bud, as a pre-teen who discovers a dog that can play basketball.
Zegers also starred in the less well-received sequel, Air Bud: Golden Receiver, where he learns that his dog is also a really good football player! Zegers has continued acting in a number of different projects, including a significant stint on Gossip Girl. He is set to join the cast of Fear the Walking Dead in Season 4.
2. EMILY OSMENT
After the success of the Lizzie McGuire movie, where Lizzie McGuire pretends to be an Italian pop star, it is little surprise that Disney soon came out with a TV series about a teen pop star who has a “secret identity” of a regular teen girl. Starring Billy Ray Cyrus’ daughter, Miley Cyrus, Hannah Montana was a huge hit (with its own hit film).
One of the only people outside of Miley’s family who knew that Hannah Montana and Miley Stewart were the same people was Miley’s best friend, Lilly Truscott, played by Emily Osment (the younger sister of fellow child star Haley Joel Osment). Osment has gone on to success as both a singer and as an actress, including her Freeform sitcom, Young and Hungry.
1. JAKE T. AUSTIN
Jake T. Austin was not even 12 years old when he was cast as the youngest of the three wizard siblings on the hit Disney show, Wizards of Waverly Place, which launches the career of Selena Gomez (who played the oldest of the magical brothers and sister). The show ran for four years. This was not Austin’s first major role, though, as he had previously voiced the character of Diego, Dora’s cousin, on Dora the Explorer. This led to his own show, Go, Diego, Go!
After Wizards of Waverly Place ended, Austin originated the role of Jesus on the hit Freeform drama, The Fosters. He left that series after the second season. Recently, he participated on Dancing With the Stars (he was the first celebrity eliminated).
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