In January 2010, executives Rasulo and Staggs swapped jobs in a move widely seen as a way to broaden the executives' experience and see how they would perform in different roles.

Rasulo, a native of New York, joined Disney in 1986 after two years as a manager at Marriott Corp. He had a long stint as head of the parks and resorts division before taking Staggs' place as chief financial officer. During his parks tenure, Disney opened Hong Kong Disneyland and began a massive remodel of the California Adventure theme park in Anaheim.

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Rasulo was also previously chairman and CEO of Euro Disney. He has been credited with revitalizing Disneyland Paris, which opened in 1992 to poor reviews and with a large amount of debt. Rasulo joins Iger for quarterly earnings calls with analysts, providing details of the company's financial performance, and regularly speaks at business conferences and summits.

Staggs, an Illinois native, signed on with Disney in 1990 after serving as an investment banker for Morgan Stanley & Co.

Since Staggs joined the parks group, the division has doubled the size of its cruise line fleet and launched MyMagic+ to allow theme park visitors to more efficiently tour the attractions. The MyMagic+ bracelet given to guests also doubles as a hotel room key and theme park ticket and can be used to make purchases. Disney rolled out MyMagic+ at Disney World last year, and the system is expected to be introduced at other properties.

On Wall Street, at least, investors consider it a two-way race between Staggs and Rasulo, according to Laura Martin, a senior analyst at Needham & Co.

With the notable exception of Eisner, Disney usually selects its chief executive from within. The hiring of super-agent Michael Ovitz as president in 1995 led to one of the stormiest chapters in the company's history.

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"It is a tight and difficult culture, one that would be very difficult for outsiders to break into," Jeffrey Cole, director of the Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg School, said. "You'd have to be twice as good to come in from the outside."

At the same time, Iger's decision to hire Alan Horn as studio chief after a long stint at rival Warner Bros. is considered a success. Despite Disney's strong bench, an outside hire shouldn't be discounted, said Unger, who has led CEO searches for IMAX Entertainment, Telemundo and Public Broadcasting System.

"They've made a lot of the right steps in terms of developing their executives," Unger said. "But I am quite sure if a spectacular executive appeared the Disney Co. has an obligation to its shareholders to pick the best person and not just reward somebody because they are within the company."

Iger served as president and chief operating officer for five years before being promoted to CEO in October 2005. He earned his management stripes at ABC, where he began his career 40 years ago. Iger, who is married to TV news personality Willow Bay, was named chairman of Disney in March 2012.

He is scheduled to vacate his two positions when his current deal ends on June 30, 2016. When the board extended Iger's contract last year, its independent lead director said it did so because of his "outstanding leadership" and for his "unique ability to drive creative and financial success" at the Burbank giant.

And Iger's contract could be extended again.

"He is the dean, the real leader of the entire entertainment industry," Cole said. "It's tough to give up a job that has that much power ... and the board just adores him."

Times staff writer Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.