Good Grief! Even More Orange Thoughts of an Orange Bird?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Is there anything more left to be said about Disney’s Florida Orange Bird? Is there anything new to be said about the cute little orange fellow? Has any new information been uncovered that only appears in this column and nowhere else? The answer to all those questions, surprisingly, is “yes!”

Since he returned to the Sunshine Tree Terrace on April 17, 2012, there have been a flood of postings on websites and blogs about the Orange Bird.

I first wrote about the character in 2007. Then in 2010, I did more research about the animated film and the comic book featuring the Orange Bird.

However, as I try to remind Disney fans, there is always more to the story.

I think that the affection many Disney fans have for the Orange Bird is that, unlike some of the other corporate characters the Disney Company created over the years, like Tommy Mohawk (for Mohawk Carpets), Fresh Up Freddie (for 7-Up soft drink), Bucky Beaver (for Ipana toothpaste), or even more obscure ones, like Indians Pow and Wow for Welch’s Grape Jelly, the Orange Bird was more than just a salesbird for Florida orange juice.

The Orange Bird became an emotional memory for many of us of the early days of the Magic Kingdom, just as Figment became the same for the early days of Epcot. The Orange Bird is an important part of Walt Disney World history beyond its initial purpose of being a marketing mascot.

The Florida Citrus Growers were one of the most important sponsors of the Magic Kingdom. These types of corporate sponsors helped with the costs of building and maintaining the park, something Walt discovered when he was pressed for funds to complete Disneyland.

The attraction literally gave the sponsor a “billboard” for their company name to millions of Disney guests who then, consciously or not, associated it with happiness and fun and all good things (despite whatever questionable things the corporation might have actually done). While the sponsor provided a ton of money, the Disney Company provided a seal of approval of quality, positive energy and pixie dust.

When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, citrus products were not just sold at the Sunshine Tree Terrace, but at locations all over the park.

Of course, the most prominent location for the Florida Citrus Commission was the Sunshine Pavilion in Adventureland with the big attraction, The Tropical Serenade. The attraction was not just a copy of Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Oranges replaced pineapples on the fountain in the center of the room. There were even a cluster of artificial oranges in the planter underneath the pre-show toucans, Clyde and Claude, performing a routine (“that’s almost as much fun as New Year’s Eve in the orange groves”) that did not exist at the West Coast version.

Representatives of the Florida Department of Citrus and Walt Disney Productions first sat down on July 3, 1967, to talk about the dream of how a Walt Disney World vacation destination could incorporate Florida citrus. More than two years later, the Florida citrus industry became the first official corporate sponsor of the Magic Kingdom by signing an agreement on October 1, 1969.

Even after signing, there were still long hours of conferences, countless trips back and forth from California to Florida, and studying of daily attendance charts and cost analyses of existing Disneyland attractions. One thing that was made crystal clear was that the sponsored location should be completely family-oriented (and accessible to everyone physically) and be designed for high-volume traffic.

The result was the Sunshine Pavilion that would include the Tropical Serenade attraction and the Sunshine Tree Terrace to sell Florida citrus products.

The Florida Sunshine Tree—a large replica of a citrus tree with fruit, blossoms, and leaves—was the creation of Disney technicians who studied Florida citrus trees a long time before putting the tree together limb for limb in a combination of reality and fantasy. The tree was the icon for the Florida citrus industry and adorned the costumes worn by the cast members who worked at the location in the early days. High in its branches was the little Orange Bird.

“The Orange Bird, created by Walt Disney Productions for exclusive use of the Florida citrus industry, hopped out of a meeting with Disney marketing people after Department of Citrus advertising materials were placed on a table with a request for recommendations on how to blend the advertising with the promotional promise of Walt Disney World,” according to an article from the Los Angeles Times, March 30, 1972.

It was Disney historian Michael Crawford who first discovered and posted that newspaper article, which also included a list of the citrus treats at the early Magic Kingdom:

“Citrus is on the menus of at least three food serving spots in Main Street USA, the turn-of-century creation that serves as entrance to the park. Two food establishments in Adventureland also have citrus dishes, as does one spot each in Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.

“As could be expected, orange juice and grapefruit juice are featured on the [Sunshine Tree] Terrace menu, but other specialties include tangerine soft freeze, a sherbet-like mixture of orange juice, tangerine concentrate, tangerine oil and sweetener; an orange juice bar on a stick and a jellied citrus salad composed of broken orange and grapefruit segments, grapefruit juice, sugar, and gel.

“Also offered is tangerine cheesecake, comprising cake topped with tangerine and orange glaze sauce; citrus tarts of heavy cream in an open shell, topped with orange sections and glazed orange sauce, and crepes ambrosia, a delightful mixture of oranges, tangerines, marshmallows and coconut dipped in heavy cream and rolled in a French pancake (a crepe).

“In the same area, Adventure Veranda is serving Fiji chicken orange chunk, made up of fried chicken breast, cantonese rice, polynesian vegetables, egg roll, grated orange rind and parsley, topped with orange or tangerine segments.

“Tomorrowland Terrace has citrus on the menu in the form of a specialty hamburger plate with Florida citrus Jell-O and fries, citrus tarts and a special citrus salad containing orange and grapefruit segments topped with orange sherbet.

“The Pinocchio Village Haus, located in Fantasyland, also offers the hamburger plate, citrus tarts and jellied citrus salad.

“A feature of the Liberty Tree Tavern in Liberty Square is Shrimp Florida, utilizing pink Florida shrimp with diced oranges in sauce louis. Another dish is Pate Maison Florida, composed of thin slices of homemade pate, with orange rounds molded into each slice.

“Cottage cheese jubilee salad, consisting of cottage cheese mixed with tiny bits of oranges and pineapple is scheduled for the menu of the Crystal Palace in Main Street USA. Other menu items are Orange Waldorf Salad, a mixture of oranges, apples and nuts.”

At the Sunshine Terrace, the favorite treat for so many Disney fans was the fabled Citrus Swirl, a dessert that was a mixture of a tart frozen orange slush, swirled with vanilla soft-serve ice cream that has been missing for many years at the Magic Kingdom but happily returned along with the Orange Bird.

The return of the Orange Bird is a big deal for many reasons, including the recognition by the Disney Company that Walt Disney World fans passionately love the history of that East Coast park.

D23 Members had been told they would receive a “special treat” when the “Tweet Meet” began at 8:30 a.m. before the Magic Kingdom officially opened on April 17, 2012. Seventy-one members and their guests showed up for the event, including many Disney bloggers and podcasters.

Disney archivist Steve Vagnini hosted the intimate presentation that included short speeches by Imagineers Dave Hoffman and Jason Grandt, Disney Design Group cast members Monty Maldovan and Casey Jones (talking about new Orange Bird merchandise) and a recorded music presentation by Melo-D23, who, under the direction of Richard Sherman in California, had recorded two of the Orange Bird songs.

Grandt should receive recognition for being the hero behind the classy re-introduction of the character. Among other things, he designed T-shirts and a new attraction poster.

Grandt revealed the original Orange Bird figure had been located and restored and was included in a new display behind the counter of the Sunshine Tree Terrace. In addition, there was an all-new marquee as well that featured the beloved character.

“With the 40th Anniversary for Walt Disney World, we thought this was a nice way to bring a slice of 1971 back to the park… bringing back the original figure is a great way to do that,” Grandt said. “A little bird told us where to find it and we had it shipped out here to Florida.”

While I have learned to be cautious about some Disney publicity, the bird was indeed the original bird. After a search, it was found in the Disney Archives in a drawer, and shipped to Walt Disney World for restoration and repainting.

Over the years there were two distinct orange birds that swung on a little perch at the Terrace. The first one was a static figure on a moving swing and was there when the pavilion first opened in 1971. This is indeed the figure that was recovered and reinstalled.

One of the reasons it still existed and was in good shape was that it was soon replaced at the Terrace with an improved and upgraded version that moved its green leaf wings up and down, as well as its head, as it swung back and forth giving it more of an illusion of life. That particular figure still seems to be unaccounted for at the moment.

When it came to the creation of the Orange Bird, I have always credited Disney artist Bob Moore with the design and Vince Jefferds at the writer of the concept story. However, at the dedication, credit was given to artist Don MacLaughlin for the design and to songwriter Bob Sherman (of the famous Sherman Brothers) for the story.

Moore joined the Disney Studios as an assistant animator in 1940 and moved up to being a storyman in 1946 (after a stint in the military from 1942-1946). He was the primary artist for the Publicity Art Department from 1948-1983. He was director of that department from 1950-1983 and was known to design specialty characters, including the Sam the Eagle mascot for the 1984 Olympics.

Don MacLaughlin had a long career doing the painted artwork for comic book covers published by Western Publishing’s DELL comics in the 1950s while he was also the art director for Little Golden Books from 1953-1967. From 1970-1984, he was the art director of Disney Publications and Character Merchandise having had some previous experience drawing Disney characters at Western Publishing.

Jefferds is credited prominently with the original story of the Orange Bird in several places from the 12-minute educational short Foods and Fun: A Nutrition Adventure (1980) to an “Orange Bird Sticker Fun Book” (1974) to a “Los Angeles Times” article dated March 1972 that declared “a story line was developed by Vince Jefferds”. He worked for thirty-two years at Disney and during that time authored two dozen Disney related children’s books. He became vice president for Disney sales promotions in the domestic and foreign divisions in 1972.

So I contacted Disney Archivist Steve Vagnini (who in his short time working as a Disney archivist has become a true Disney treasure for those of us who love Disney history) to help me connect the dots.

Vagnini explained, “Yes, I am so glad you asked about Don MacLaughlin’s work. We have a memo from Vince Jefferds from early 1970 stating that Don ‘designed a number of Orange Birds’ that Vince and Bob would be able to ‘narrow down from.’ Bob Moore oversaw the character’s design and he was responsible for the ultimate look of the character.

“We also have correspondence from Vince in Card Walker’s file indicating that Bob Sherman was assigned to write the story of the Orange Bird, and that he and Dick were assigned to write the songs for the album," Vagnini said. "Perhaps Vince came up with the basic concept, and Bob went into more detail?”

Of course, everything at Disney is done in collaboration. Many hands are involved in the final project whether it is animation or a theme park attraction. I think it is still safe to say that Vince Jefferds came up with the original story concept, especially since he was also the pitch man to the Florida Citrus Commission of the initial idea before there was even a concept drawing.

However, Sherman had to expand on that idea to fill a record album. On “The Story and Songs of the Orange Bird” record album, the illustrated storybook section is credited to “adapted by Jimmy Johnson based on a story by Vince Jefferds.”

While MacLaughlin came up with some preliminary concept sketches of the Orange Bird (and wouldn’t we all like to see those rejected concepts?), the final decision and probably some artistic tweaking, if not a complete re-design of the character, was done by Disney Legend Moore. MacLaughlin may have illustrated the storybook in the record album in the style of painting he previously did for Western Publishing projects from comic books to Little Golden Books.

The Disney Company tried to build awareness of the character even before its official debut at Walt Disney World in 1971. One newspaper declared that Disney was designing a new character that “every kid in America [would] want to be photographed with.” And, on March 3, 1971, the Orange Bird made his costumed debut at a press event in Lakeland, Fla., about six months before its official appearance in Adventureland.

Disney Legend Bill Justice is credited with the design of the costume for the walk-around character but there were at least two different versions of the costume.

The first version, which lasted for about the first five or six years, was more of a pajama-style costume (that would follow the contours of the performer’s own body like a “footie pajama”) with a hard, smooth fiberglass head. The second version was more similar to the other Disney character costumes of the time including solid yellow plastic footwear better able to withstand the rigors of walking and a flocked head to provide a softer presence in addition to other subtle tweaks.

The character didn’t just appear at Walt Disney World. In the 1970s and 1980s, the costumed Orange Bird attended events like parades with the currently reigning Miss Florida Citrus.

There are many fine articles and videos of the recent re-dedication of the Sunshine Tree Terrace, but what was the original ceremony like? Remember that even though the Magic Kingdom opened October 1, 1971, it was not officially dedicated until October 25, 1971 by Roy O. Disney.

While, the Sunshine Pavilion opened October 1, 1971, it wasn’t officially dedicated until October 6, 1971. Songstress Anita Bryant sang “The Orange Bird Song” and “Orange Tree”. In addition, she also sang “How Great Thou Art,” one of her favorite religious hymns.

Governor of Florida Reubin Askew pressed a button on an orange to formally open the $3 million dollar Tropical Serenade attraction that had already been viewed by thousands of Disney guests in its first few days of operation.

Also on hand for the dedication were Lt. Governor Tom Adams, and four cabinet officers: Comptroller Fred Dickenson, Agriculture Commissioner Doyle Conner, Attorney General Robert Shevin and Education Commissioner Floyd Christain. Besides a multitude of state officials and legislators, members of the Florida Department of Citrus attended the short ceremony.

Askew described the 20-minute Tropical Serenade show in the 340-seat pavilion featuring 250 audio-animatronics figures as “really tremendous.”

“I’m really proud of the Citrus Commission for its foresight,” said Askew alluding to the roughly four years of planning and work by the commission and the Disney organization. The Governor stated that the Disney-created Orange Bird would be featured in a $6 million-advertising campaign planned for 1972.

The character would be seen on billboards, television advertisements, and a wide assortment of Orange Bird products that could be found throughout the Sunshine State of Florida at souvenir shops and roadside fruit stands. Some of those businesses even created their own Orange Bird artwork on signs to attract tourists.

Donn B. Tatum, president of Walt Disney Productions at the time, joined the ceremony, which included music by musicians wearing bright orange jackets.

“Millions in the years ahead will visit the Sunshine Pavilion,” Tatum said. “And they will appreciate the Citrus Commission for making this moment possible.”

According to an article appearing in the Osceola Sun newspaper of October 7, 1971, “Featured at one side, adjacent to the exit of the show, is the Sunshine Tree Terrace. This is the center for sales and promotion of Florida citrus juices and products in the Adventureland section of the theme park. The Florida Sunshine Tree provides added color behind the juice bar, and affords a perch for the Orange Bird—symbol of the commission—sponsor of the attraction as well as Florida citrus products extolled in widespread advertising.”

And, now, after a quarter-century, the retro icon for the original Magic Kingdom has returned home amidst an outpouring of joy from Disney fans.

If you like these type of Disney stories, don’t forget to pick up a copy of my book “The Vault of Walt” filled with almost 40 stories of Walt, the parks, the films and more. Great reading for a plane trip or stretching out in the sun.