This week’s SATURDAY SIX takes a look at the Six Craziest Disney Theme Park Television Special Moments by special guest Joseph Matt!
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Regular contributor Derek Burgan is currently preparing for a Royal Caribbean cruise. Despite Derek generously offering to “mail one in,” Joseph Matt stepped up to the plate, offering a unique look at some wild theme park moments. Take it away Joe!)
Disney’s theme parks and television have been intertwined ever since Walt debuted Walt Disney’s Disneyland in 1954. This tradition continued with specials created to cover attraction openings, anniversaries, and to show off celebrities. I love reliving my past Disney vacations and hyping myself up for my next through these specials.
But for a midwestern 90s kid I would have to catch a rerun on The Disney Channel’s Vault Disney or have access to a private VHS copy to catch these specials after their first airing. This all changed with YouTube; now anyone can digitize video and upload the specials, for free, for the world to watch. Now all my favorite old specials, and dozens of new ones, are available at my fingertips. These specials capture when television was king, a time before social media, podcasts, and connected fans, where a television special could set the tone of discussions about the parks.
For years my buddy Jeff and I would chill out at my apartment and watch these shows. Over pizza and beer we discovered a treasure trove of Disney Parks specials featuring faded celebrities, dated pop culture, zany situational humor, and hilarious PR speak. We have collected six of our favorite moments for you, the dear reader.
Grab a beer and buckle up kids, this is going to be a wild ride.
# 6 – Piggy and Gonzo – Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration
Lets start off with Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration Special. Debuting February 4, 1990 on NBC it was directed by John Landis (yes American Werewolf In London John Landis) and hosted by Tony Danza. In a who’s who of early 90s celebrities it features cameos by Roger Rabbit’s voice actor Charles Flesicher, Will Smith as the Fresh Prince, Michael Eisner as himself, the cast of Cheers, Ernest, and The Muppets.
This is peak Eisner synergy, the special opens up in media res at the Cheers bar. Woody recalls the time he met an actual ghost at the Haunted Mansion as a kid before the bar tunes into the start of the very special we are watching. Halfway through the special Tony heads to Star Tours to telecall with Miss Piggy (!?!?) about her favorite Disneyland memories.
Piggy recounts the time when as a teenager (her, with bangs) she wanted to be Cinderella for a day. Of course when she asks balloon salesmen Charles Flesicher how to become Cinderella she means the princess, not the rag wearing floor scrubber. While cleaning the castle floors as the real princess goes out to meet guests Piggy wishes for her own Fairy Godmother and gets a Fairy God…thing.
Piggy promptly wastes her three wishes due to poor wording (“I wish you were more serious!”) and quickly develops a Plan B: recruit Gonzo to abduct or entrap Cinderella and take over her place in the parade. Classic Muppet antics ensue as each trap Piggy sets is foiled by the flimsiest of reasons. In the end Piggy gets her wish and Gonzo gets to spent years (decades?) with the “real” Cinderella.
# 5 – Gilbert Gottfried and The Tower of Terror – Walt Disney World Inside Out October 1994
In 1994 Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, Microsoft launched their first website, and AOL was still king of network accessed computing. Outside of some Usenet groups no one had access to up-to-date information on Walt Disney World. Instead The Disney Channel aired a monthly show that replicated theme parks special with the aim to highlight the rapidly expanding resort. Walt Disney World Inside Out was our view into and a preview of Walt Disney World.
Every month I would tune in to watch and see what the latest addition or update to the vacation kingdom was. In October 1994 they highlighted the recently opened Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a thrill ride advertised as so terrifying I did not ride it until years after it opened. The fact the segment involved Gilbert Gottfried as an annoying Hollywood Tower Hotel guest did not help.
Playing the smart-ass comedic persona he is known for, Gilbert confidently makes his way through the check in process at the hotel in defiance of those around him. He delights in glee as he explains how everyone in the elevator will smash into a pancake while sarcastically mocking Rod Serling. Gilbert is even seen wandering around the hotel lobby in a pink bath robe wondering where all the guests and hotel staff are.
For a small cable channel getting a major comedian and movie star (this was not even two years after his role of Iago) to promote their latest ride was a huge get. Gilbert’s segment stands out in a series normally dry or overly corny in delivering the latest talking points about Walt Disney World.
# 4 – Colin Mochrie and Brad Sherwood Explain Disney’s California Adventure – Disney’s California Adventure Opening Special
To say Disney’s California Adventure opened in a rough state is an understatement. The sister park to Disneyland, DCA opened with too many restaurants and bars, nebulous attraction concepts (looking at farm equipment?), two historically bad attractions (Superstar Limo and Steps in Time), a terrible parade, and “theming done on the cheap”. DCA’s opening was so tumultuous that emergency plans were put into place before the end of the first summer to add new attractions and experiences. It took over a decade of work to make DCA a worthy neighbor to Disneyland.
But do not tell that to Colin Mochrie or Brad Sherwood. These two “Who’s Line is It Anyway?” stars play bumbling cops in Disney California Adventure’s Opening Special. The show beings with “Spin City’s” Richard Kind and Barry Bostwick decide to illegally park in the Disneyland Esplanade with the excuse they having a meeting with “Disney’s big cheese”. The fuzz chase our parking violators around the park while echoing Disney PR speak to make DCA sound amazing. It is clear Disney was scared about the perception of DCA as the line “Disney’s California Adventure has the same size and attraction amount as Disneyland when it opened” is used as a defense of your new park (never mind that was 1955 and this is 2001).
The whole experience is a surreal look back to a time when the phrase “If it’s good enough for Six Flags it’s good enough for Disney” was heard around Team Disney Anaheim. Rich and Barry act their butts off trying to convey the feeling of amazement at the sight of minimal theming and a bare bones theme park. A real highlight of the special is Rich and Barry meeting with Patrick Warburton, playing the deadpan role of flight attendant, in the queue line for Soarin’ Over California.
This ranks on our list because of the pure hubris on display, overacting of the guests, and the historical value of a time capsule of DCA. In the years to come DCA will lose half a dozen food venues, close several attractions, offer discounted tickets, and run many temporary events to bolster the attendance at this troubled park. Now we look at DCA and think of Radiator Springs, Buena Vista Street, World of Color, and Mission: Breakout but we should remember where it started.
# 3 – Imagineer Bruce Gordon’s Interview – Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain
From its origins as the first water ride at Disneyland to the final resting place of the audio-animatronics from the defunct America Sings, Splash Mountain is still one of the best attractions ever created. So how did Disneyland celebrate the opening of the attraction in 1989? Why by involving Ernest P. Worrell in a crazy slapstick special of course!
Ernest, for those under the age of 25, is a creation of a Knoxville, TN advertising firm Carden & Cherry for TV commercials. His catchphrases and innocence catched on and soon he starred in his own television series and movies. For some odd reason Michael Eisner took a shine to him and Ernest became a staple of early 90s Disney. In addition to appearing in the Disneyland 35th Anniversary Special a movie was filmed at Disney-MGM Studios and he was the titular character in “Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain”.
“Ernest Goes to Splash Mountain” features the tropes of the established Ernest-iverse: talking to the camera as Vern, an extreme blue collar aesthetic, and juvenile slapstick. Ernest is our expert ride tester, the first person to ride Splash Mountain. While watching vignets of Ernest preparing for his testing we get behind the scenes footage of Splash Mountain including an interview with Imagineer Bruce Wright. Bruce, show writer for Splash Mountain, was pivotal in the creation of Splash Mountain but he sticks out in this slapstick special like a sore thumb. His interview is the one earnest (pun intended) moment in this sarcastic special; Bruce talks honestly about the attraction but falls for the classic Lucy play of having the football pulled away at the last minute.
Bruce passed away in late 2007 as one of the most influential Imagineers of his era. In addition to his work on Splash Mountain Bruce also worked on attractions for Epcot and Disneyland, the Walt Disney Family Museum after leaving WDI, and writing countless books about Disneyland including the indispensable Disneyland: The Nickel Tour.
# 2 – All of “Alien Encounters”
So far these specials covered are funny, amusing, and bizarre. They have featured famous (at the time) actors and comedians in the parks, until now. Alien Encounters debut February 1995 in only two markets to advertise the brand new Tomorrowland and Alien Encounter attraction at the Magic Kingdom. Why did only two markets pick up the special? Because this special is an alien conspiracy theory special sandwiched between two small Tomorrowland pieces of advertising.
Actor Robert Urich hosts the special but only appears in Tomorrowland segments. The behind the scenes looks into the creation of the land and attraction are worth a watch (along with seeing Michael Eisner being held up at Area 51) but a majority of the special is a trip into the 90s aliens obsession. The special feels like it is trying to ride on the coattails of the X-Files while trying to use actual science to validate that aliens could exist. No wonder only two markets picked up this special when it debuted.
We now know Alien Encounter as one of the scariest and most misguided attractions in Magic Kingdom history. Alien Encounter never quite found its audience and now is remembered as an odd quirk of a show, just like this special.
# 1 – Tony Danza & Charles Fleischer on the Jungle Cruise – Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Celebration
THE number one craziest Disney theme park special moment takes us back to the Disneyland 35th Anniversary Special. Here we take a ride aboard Disneyland’s opening day attraction: The Jungle Cruse This segment includes it all: weird characters, over acting, horror, and death! So begins the surrealist Jungle Cruise of all time.
Our host Tony Danza and guests start their cruise as normally as any other with the usual stale jokes and smiles but quickly things turn sour. Tony and guests are relentlessly prodded and attacked like they are in a zombie movie. Skipper Fleischer encourages a guest to reach out to “pet” Old Smiley, said guest promptly falls out of the boat and is eaten whole. At one point in the Cambodian section, Fleischer points out the “four” cobras are just three in the ruins, so naturally the missing cobra is attacking the woman next to Tony and she also falls overboard.
If you do not die then you will get soaked. The boat is squirted by elephants and Fleischer “misses” the turn in front of Sweitzer Falls drenches all aboard. Actual spears are thrown from the jungle and guests jump into the river for safety.
For the pièce de résistance a python grabs ahold of Tony and, as an act of charity, Fleischer shoots at the snake as the remaining guests flee from the boat. It is so wonderfully silly and mccabe that it is like looking into an alternate dimension and caused me to fear riding the Jungle Cruise for years. For a ride about corny jokes and fake animals this special make the attraction seem like a death wish.
So there you have it: Six Craziest Disney Theme Park Special Moments! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out The Magic, The Memories, and Merch! articles, or, for your listening pleasure, check out the E-Ticket Report podcast. You can also follow the OG Saturday Six author (@derekburgan).
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Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Mr. ‘Ohana Tim Grassey, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, crazy cat lady – and our Fearless Leader – Laurel Stewart, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.
FINAL PLUG! Did you know The 2019 Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando has a special edition of the SATURDAY SIX in it?That’s right, ANOTHER NEW ONE EXCLUSIVE TO THIS EDITION!Finally, someone came up with an actual reason to read a book. ORDER this baby now!