Disney's kid stars grow up -- What happens when Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers fly the coop?

Sooner or later everybody has to leave home — even if home is a castle sparkling with pixie dust. Last month, Disney’s biggest stars, Miley Cyrus and Zac Efron, showed signs that they could survive outside of the Magic Kingdom. First came Cyrus’ Hannah Montana movie, in which the Miley character forsook the Hannah wig to learn to be simply…herself. The film topped the box office with a $32.3 million opening weekend. A week later, Zac Efron hit No. 1 with an entirely Disney-free enterprise, 17 Again. Efron even teased his former bosses in a Saturday Night Live skit in which he played High School Musical’s Troy Bolton, returning to East High to warn his former classmates that in the real world basketball teams generally do not start singing for no reason.

For three years now, the Disney Channel has groomed Cyrus and Efron as carefully as Geppetto once carved a puppet out of wood. ”It’s almost like the old studio system, where they own you,” says agent Cindy Osbrink, who handles Dakota Fanning, as well as Disney kid Kyle Massey (Cory in the House). ”There are feature films and recording contracts. It’s all or nothing.” But, she adds, ”it’s not a bad thing. They take care of the kids very well.” For years, the relationships have definitely been win-win. Along with the Jonas Brothers (whose Disney sitcom debuted May 2), Cyrus and Efron have been part of a generation that’s dominated the pop culture landscape. But now Efron has parted ways with Disney — there’s an HSM 4 in the works with a new cast — and Cyrus has just one season left on her contract. (Both declined to comment.) Someday even the Jonas Brothers are going to start looking manly. So what happens when Pinocchio becomes a real boy? What happens when a princess wants to rule her own kingdom — or even just hit a club in peace? The upside for Disney is that once a teen star moves on, the company no longer has to answer for every saucy leaked photo and tabloid scandal. On the other hand, Disney and this generation have made beautiful money together. Breaking up is hard to do.

Disney has been a golden ticket for many a child performer, from the original Mickey Mouse Club in the 1950s to the fame factory MMC of the ’90s to the TV/music/movie stars of today. (And yes, being all three is usually part of the deal.) But the company didn’t truly figure out how to cash in on its stars — and how to hang on to them a little longer — until recently. Disney watched a host of golden geese fly the coop in the ’90s after discovering the likes of Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, and Christina Aguilera. In 2003, Hilary Duff famously walked away from a multimillion-dollar offer to stick with her Lizzie McGuire franchise through a movie sequel and ABC series.

By the time Cyrus showed up in 2006, the company finally seemed to have it down: Multiplatform synergy and package deals were the key. The Disney Channel’s business was no longer mere television-making — it was star-building. Disney had so much success with the formula that Hollywood has morphed just to keep up, with agencies like William Morris hiring kid-star experts and starting specialized divisions. Mainstream media went from virtually ignoring kiddie programming to breathlessly charting its stars’ every move. ”Everybody wants a piece of it,” says agent Bonnie Liedtke, William Morris’ tween titan. ”It’s changed so much. I’ll talk to filmmakers who will say, ‘I’m looking for the next High School Musical.’ That just wasn’t a reality four or five years ago.” And, of course, the kids have changed too — arriving at Disney with entourages of agents, managers, and publicists. ”They all want to do whatever it takes to be stars,” says an industry insider who’s worked with kids for many years.

As a result, sometimes Disney’s own star-building has gotten the better of it. A few years back, leading man Efron blew off the HSM concert tour to star in the hit movie musical Hairspray. Publicly, Disney chalked it up to an unfortunate scheduling conflict. Efron, though, quipped to Rolling Stone, ”If I had to hear the High School Musical songs anymore, I probably would have jumped off something very tall.” Today, Disney execs say it’s a problem they’re happy to have. ”These kids lead busy lives, and we’re conscious that people seek opportunities to grow,” says Rich Ross, president of Disney Channels Worldwide. ”I’m never more thrilled than to see [Efron] getting off a plane in Paris or Rome, whether he’s supporting one of our movies or someone else’s.”

Still, Disney has had to deal with its share of typical teenage rebellious outbursts: HSM star Vanessa Hudgens’ nude pics circulating online in 2007, Cyrus making a mean-girl jab at Disney heirs Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato on YouTube in 2008, and so on. (Incidentally, Disney contracts do have a morals clause addressing appropriate behavior, but it’s the same as any standard SAG contract, and a spokeswoman says it’s never been invoked.) ”We can’t control what human beings do,” a Disney exec says. ”A teenager’s brain — they just do dumb things sometimes.” Last year, Cyrus’ stream of minor shockers — a bra-revealing snapshot here, tabloid reports of snotty behavior there, a provocative Vanity Fair pictorial everywhere — fueled speculation that she wanted off her hit show in light of her newfound megastardom. (She’s denied it.) And success seems to embolden her to wander off script more. See, for example, her recent comments in Teen Vogue that Alice in Wonderland is a ”perverted movie” that’s ”all about Ecstasy.” Way to dis a fellow Disney girl.

Such antics call to mind past tween stars’ bumpy transitions — Duff’s teenage feud with Lindsay Lohan, not to mention Lohan’s and Spears’, um, entire adult lives. (Imagine if the latter two had still been under contract to Disney at the height of their public meltdowns.) And that calls into question whether franchises like Hannah Montana and High School Musical can live on into syndicated, logo’d-backpack-generating infinity even if their stars don’t stay on the straight and narrow. ”There’s not a model that came before this to teach Disney how to do this business,” one TV executive says. ”It’s much easier when it’s animated, but these are human beings.” As HSM‘s Corbin Bleu puts it, ”We cannot be the teenagers we were in High School Musical forever, as much as parents want us to. It will be nice to shake off some of the nice-guy, wholesome image.” Bleu’s just finished shooting The Beautiful Life, a sexy CW pilot about models. Translation: ample potential for tasteful half-nudity.

Recently, Disney has made its young actors so famous that the kids have the world at their feet. ”They’re now the stars of movies, as opposed to the third daughter,” says Ross. True enough. Efron — who recently scuttled plans to star in a Footloose remake, citing a desire to diversify — is in talks to headline an adaptation of The Death and Life of Charlie St. Cloud, a novel about a cemetery caretaker who talks to his dead brother. Cyrus will use her Hannah hiatus to shoot Nicholas Sparks’ next tearjerker, The Last Song, about a teen and her parents’ divorce. ”I have no doubt that Miley will be able to do what’s necessary [to transition to broader stardom],” Sparks says. ”When you saw Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman for the first time, you knew the camera loved her. The camera loves Miley Cyrus.”

And it turns out Cyrus, for one, has a pretty clear idea of where she’d like to take her post-Disney career. Don’t worry, parents, she’s not pining for an Oscar-bait role as a heroin addict. She wants to follow the path of Ben Stiller. ”He directs, produces, writes, stars in — he literally does everything on his films,” she told EW just before Hannah Montana The Movie premiered. ”That’s something that you’ve got to be so talented and so focused to do.” And we’ll be shocked if There’s Something About Miley isn’t greenlit by the time you finish reading this sentence.

(Additional reporting by Adam Markovitz)

The Kingdom’s Changing Faces

Zac has moved on (and Miley’s likely next), but the Mouse has plenty of fresh stars ready and willing to take their places.

Zac Efron
Instant star with HSM (’06). Has left Disney.

Miley Cyrus
Owes one more season of Hannah.

Jonas Brothers
Just launched Disney show.

Selena Gomez
Another Disney multimedia darling.

Demi Lovato
Star of Sonny With a Chance

Sterling Knight
Lovato’s heartthrob costar on Sunny.

Bridgit Mendler
Guested on JONAS. May get own show.

Debby Ryan
The Suite Life‘s Southern belle.

Hutch Dano
Star of upcoming Zeke and Luther