Thursday, July 30, 2020

Evangelizing Disney (Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World and Disneyland's 25th Anniversary)

It was somewhat confusing for me to learn that Walt Disney was, in fact, dead.

How was this possible when the studio bearing his name was still releasing new films (The Rescuers, ['77], Pete's Dragon, ['77], Freaky Friday, ['76]) in theaters, the United States was flanked on either coast by a Disney theme park that was open, operating, and adding new rides (Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain), and the man himself occasionally showed up on my television set, albeit in a slightly old-fashioned suit, to introduce that night's episode of The Wonderful World of Disney?

It was hard for me to reconcile the fact that Disney--the company--was wielding such a huge influence on my childhood while Disney--the man--had passed on over a decade earlier, before I was even born. How exactly was Disney able to sally forth so successfully without the guiding influence of Walt? 

Unbeknownst to me, industry sentiment at the time was not that the Disney studio was having trouble staying on the path set forth by Walt, but rather was too timid to break away from it.  

"Young people's tastes were changing, and the Disney product was not changing along with it." writes Leonard Maltin of Disney's post-Walt decade (The Disney Films, 3rd Edition, 1995, p. 270)

While the Disney brand still dominated the pop culture I consumed in the 1970s, my tastes were also being informed by the irreverent humor of The Muppets (not a Disney property at that time), PG-rated (and sometimes vulgar) comedies like The Bad News Bears ('76), Meatballs ('79) and Grease ('78), and of course the mega-blockbusters of the decade, Jaws ('75), Star Wars ('77, also not yet a Disney property) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind ('77).

The Cat From Outer Space ('78) and Unidentified Flying Oddball ('79), two examples of the type of corny sci-fi Disney was still releasing in the years following Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Disney, for its part, seemed stuck in a 1960s time-loop. Some current theatrical releases hewed too closely to Walt-era hits to be appreciated entirely on their own merit. Bedknobs and Broomsticks ('71) was Mary Poppins, but witches. The Aristocats ('70) was One Hundred and One Dalmatians, but cats. Island at the Top of the World ('74) was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but in the air. There were also countless tepid live-action comedies featuring a familiar roster of actors that Disney had been relying on for over a decade, among them a pair of Dean Jones starring sequels no one was clamoring for, The Shaggy D.A. ('76) and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo ('77).

With a few exceptions, (The Rescuers was both a critical success and, for a while, the highest grossing animated film of all time), it was generally "impossible to distinguish a Disney studio film of the 1970s from one made prior to Walt's death..." (Maltin).

Attempting to course correct, Disney, under the leadership of Walt's son-in-law, Ron Miller, began developing projects that could be described as experimental for a studio built on wholesome G-rated family entertainment. The films from this era, which lasts from the late 70s through the mid-1980s, included the studio's first PG-rated film, released under the Buena Vista banner to obscure its connection to Disney, Take Down ('79), as well as several attempts to tap into genres unconventional for Disney: horror (Watcher In the Woods, '80), off-world sci-fi (The Black Hole, '79), contemporary teen drama (an adaptation of S.E. Hinton's Tex, '82), a screwball scavenger hunt (Midnight Madness, '80), super heroes (Condorman, '81), and, in an unprecedented partnership with an outside studio (Paramount), medieval fantasy (Dragonslayer, '81) and a live-action adaptation of cartoon character Popeye ('80). 


But despite testing these new waters, Disney hadn't given up on the G-rated family market, they just needed to figure out how to convince Generation X to believe in that good ol' Disney magic their Boomer parents had grown up with, a challenge perfectly encapsulated in a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind: The Special Edition (1979), in which a 30-something Dad (Richard Dreyfuss) is more excited about the prospect of revisiting all the "furry animals and magic" of a revival showing of Disney's 1940 classic Pinocchio than his disinterested 8-year old son, who dismisses the film as "some dumb cartoon rated G for kids."

It seems it was up to the adults to evangelize Disney magic to the current generation of disbelieving children. And we can see that in two theme-park focused Wonderful World of Disney television specials from that period: The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World (1977) and Disneyland's 25th Anniversary (1980).

Using the medium of television to promote the theme parks was nothing new for Disney. The original 1954 incarnation of the weekly series that would eventually become The Wonderful World of Disney was named for the still under-construction park, Disneyland, and branded its anthological content to one of the park's four themed lands. Beginning in the 1970s, Walt Disney World was the subject of several episodes, including The Magic of Walt Disney World (1974, an updated presentation of a 1972 featurette).

But by 1977, much of that "magic" was lost on today's kids... that is, if we are to believe what we see in The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World, in which the cast of The New Mickey Mouse Club performs at a park they seem to have no interest in actually stepping foot in.

All screen caps were pulled from this YouTube upload of the program, although in an odd bit of coincidental timing, while preparing this post it suddenly became available officially on the Disney+ streaming service.

The New Mickey Mouse Club (TNMMC), premiering in January, 1977, was an attempt to reboot the hugely successful 1950s phenomenon, updating it for the modern era with a diversified cast, a disco-fied theme song, and a crayon box explosion of colorful sets and costumes. Remembered today mostly as the launching pad for Facts of Life actress Lisa Whelchel, TNMMC was yet another example of Disney playing it safe by repeating itself. But lightning didn't strike twice (Maltin called the show a "conspicuous failure"), and it limped along for two years before fading into obscurity.

The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World follows TNMMC's multi-day stay at the Orlando resort, chaperoned by a "Mr. Brown" (familiar TV actor Ronnie Schell, who had become a Disney film regular of late, appearing in The Strongest Man in the World, Gus, The Shaggy D.A. and The Cat From Outer Space.)

TNMMC cast arrives via Monorail at the Contemporary Resort, but they don't pause for a moment to marvel at the cavernous Grand Canyon Concourse and its magnificent six-story tall Mary Blair tile mural. Instead, they're excited to try out the not-so-magical tennis courts, an amenity commonly found at non-Disney resorts, sports clubs and parks across the country.
"I can't wait to get to the tennis courts." says Julie Piekarski to Kelly Parsons.

After a musical montage showcasing River Country, a themed water park that opened near Fort Wilderness Campground the year prior, TNMMC kids are seen enjoying rounds of skee-ball and pinball at the Fiesta Fun Center arcade.

While the arcade might be worth highlighting as a feature of the resort, there's little Disney "magic" to be found here that couldn't be replicated at any local mall of the day. When Mr. Brown interrupts their play to distribute park tickets, the kids' disinterest is un-mouse-stakeable.


Just look at the disappointment on the faces of "Pop" Attmore and Kelly Parsons. This is the look of a child receiving a $10 savings bond from Grandma for his birthday, not tickets to the greatest theme park in the world.

Comedienne Jo Anne Worley arrives as investigative journalist Colleen Osborn, who may as well be channeling audience skepticism (or at least, Disney's presumption of same) that this nostalgic 1950s-era Mickey Mouse Club concept will still fly in the raucous 1970s. "Level with me Mr. Brown, are the Mouseketeers really friendly towards each other?" Assuring viewers that TNMMC aren't the clean-cut and polite squares of yesteryear, but rather modern kids with modern attitudes and modern interpersonal problems, they stampede onto the scene, arguing and tearing at each other's clothes.

Anarchy in the W.D.W!

Lest there be any lingering doubt that TNMMC has changed with the times, in a later scene, Lisa Whelchel and Allison Fonte take a break from fighting over a rack of dresses to flirt with an attractive older man, or "fox" as the cool kids say.

This ain't your Dad's Disney vacation--although this "fox" looks old enough to be their Dad. Yikes!


Finally, action moves to inside The Magic Kingdom and, after riding the Tomorrowland Speedway and Space Mountain, the kids actually seem to be enjoying themselves for the first time.

But it doesn't take long for the Disney spell to be broken when the group spends a night camping at Fort Wilderness and an innocent mishap results in a tent collapsing. Blame lands on "Nita Dee" DiGiampaolo and the angry insults from her cast mates are piled on mercilessly... 
"That's really a dumb thing to do"
"Can't you do anything right, Nita?"
"What kind of scramble-brained idiot are you?'"
"Stupid!"
"You ruined our camping trip."
...leaving the poor girl in tears.

(Insert some profound comment about idealized Baby Boomer nostalgia being repackaged for a less optimistic generation that can't fully access it.)

So maybe TNMMC kids were more interested in sports, the opposite sex, and arguing with each other than in the unique pleasures afforded by a day at a Disney theme park. But child actor Adam Rich  threatens to one-up their ap-athy-doo-dah in Disneyland's 25th Anniversary (1980).


With his grandfatherly quality and a twinkle in his eye, you might assume that actor Danny Kaye is a Disney film veteran. But despite having appeared in a few non-Disney family friendly productions (Samuel Goldwyn's musical Hans Christian Andersen, ['52], television adaptations of Pinocchio and Peter Pan, both '76) this is actually his first of only two appearances with Disney (the 2nd being 1982's EPCOT Center: The Opening Celebration.) In addition to hosting duties, Kaye plays multiple character roles, including some comic-relief ethnic stereotypes that wouldn't fly today, even with the help of a magic carpet.

Different times, folks.

After an opening song explaining Disneyland's origin story, ("Once Upon a Time in Anaheim") Kaye delivers a thesis statement: "I've had people say to me, 'Disneyland? That's not for me.' You are never too old and you are never too young to enjoy the Magic Kingdom." But proving that to the audience, and Adam Rich, will take some extraordinary heavy-lifting.

Rich was known as the littlest Bradford child on hit television show Eight Is Enough (in its fifth season), and would go on to appear in exactly one Disney film, The Devil and Max Devlin ('81) Here, Rich is playing "himself", but he's also playing audience surrogate for those skeptical, modern young people Disney thinks it needs to win over.   

When Kaye, as Rich's grandfather, asks Rich what he'd like to do first in Disneyland, his one-word answer is: "Leave." He'd rather go to "Adamland", a.k.a. "home, where I live" than spend a lousy day at Disneyland.

Later, when Kaye leaves to find Grandma (also Kaye, in staggered appearances) in Frontierland, Rich grumbles, "What's so great about Frontierland?"

We are then shown exactly what's so great about Frontierland, at least according to a youth-market courting Disney, and it isn't Big Thunder Mountain, the Mark Twain, or any other attraction built by Disney Imagineers... instead it's a live stage performance by hip singing group the Osmond Brothers (intercut with their 1962 debut appearance at the park on the Wonderful World of Color episode Disneyland After Dark.)

Donny Osmond, who, along with his sister Marie, was by this time an even bigger pop sensation than the older Osmonds, joins them on stage to rock it up a bit. 

Afterword, when Grandma asks Rich to guess where they're going to go next, Rich snaps: "Back to the hotel?" Is it too late to deposit this little grouch at the future site of Disney's California Adventure so the adults can have some fun?

"Back to the hotel?" he quipped. Editors note: slapping children is wrong.

Next, we're treated to a great performance by veteran Disney stage performer Wally Boag (joined by Kaye as a black-hatted gunslinger) at the Golden Horseshoe stage, but Rich misses it all because he'd rather sit by himself on a bench, grumbling, "When are we leaving?"

In fact, the first time Rich cracks a smile at the Happiest Place On Earth is when he bumps into superstar Michael Jackson, who sings "When You Wish Upon a Star" and, referencing his recent appearance in the '78 film The Wiz, "Follow the Yellow Brick Road" and "Ease on Down the Road". Unfortunately Michael Jackson is a seasonal attraction, subject to change, with no guarantee he's going to personally serenade you on your visit. Check the park schedule and plan your trip accordingly.
Six years before Captain EO - it's Michael Jackson at Disneyland in 3-D!

Next is a park-wide sing-a-long of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah", featuring an era-spanning chorus of celebrities that's part 'Who's Who' (Annette Funicello, Buddy Epsen, Kim Richards, Patrick Wayne, Ruth Buzzi) part 'Who's That?' (Bart Braverman, Danielle Brisebois, Quinn Cummings, Sal Viscuso.) Both Jo Anne Worley and Ronnie Schnell from the The Mouseketeers At Walt Disney World make an appearance here as well, this time as themselves.

Again, we find Rich alone and sitting on a park bench in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle (Another bench? Septuagenarian Danny Kaye has more energy than this kid!) where he falls asleep, launching a dream sequence in which Kaye appears as the "Wild Witch of Disneyland".
No, this isn't Rich's report card for Attitude (that would also have a minus symbol on it). 

The Wild Witch presents Rich with a very special "F" ticket. Back then, the park wasn't all-you-can-ride, but used a ticket book system with graduated ride categories ranging "A" though "E", "E" being the newest and biggest rides. Awareness by the general public of Disney's ticket book system was so pervasive that the term "E-ticket" entered the lexicon as a metaphor for any exciting experience. 

So while there was no actual "F" ticket, we know this must be a very special category of attraction even better than "E", and not available to non-celebrity children who actually enjoy Disneyland. 

Kaye explains that the "F" ticket "entitles the bearer to one of the most fantastic fantasies of his choice." What follows might best be described as a leveled-up private performance of the Main Street Electrical Parade (still going strong since its 1972 debut) staged entirely around our little curmudgeon and his park bench. For a finale, Rich is magically saddled onto the back of the Pete's Dragon float, where a cast member playing Pete would normally sit.
Rich's "F"-ticket vision is the kiss that breaks the curse, and like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas morning, he awakens reborn, a soul won to Disney magic.
"I haven't missed it! The Spirits have done it all in one night!"

So that's all it takes to entertain a kid these days: have one of the biggest recording artists of all time give him a private concert, then let him ride the tallest float of the parade. 

Give me an "F"! 

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