Four Extinct Disneyland Eventsby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
In April, I wrote about the multiple "Winnie the Pooh for President" campaigns held at Disneyland from 1968-1980.
While today many similar special celebrations are held at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, at one time there were some popular events that were exclusive to Disneyland and sometimes ran over multiple years.
In these early years, money was tight at Disneyland, so Walt looked for creative but inexpensive ways to "plus" the experience for guests by partnering with local clubs and with businesses that already operated at the park for special events.
His hope was that having such special events would encourage increased repeat visits from the local population, who were the primary source of Disneyland's attendance. For instance, the Horseless Carriage Club of America often showed off their vintage vehicles in a parade down Main Street usually during the Easter holiday season.
Walt scheduled several Zorro Days weekends where the stars of his popular ABC television show showed up at the park for a parade and several short stunt shows.
The Quaker Oats Company operated the Aunt Jemima's Pancake House in Frontierland and also sponsored the Aunt Jemima Community Pancake Days around the country, featuring an odd pancake race as part of a fundraising program for local clubs and organizations. The Western Regional qualifying round took place at Disneyland from 1957-1964 with women running down Main Street in high heels and flipping a pancake from a skillet.
Even after Walt's death, Disneyland management continued to look for new events to drive attendance, especially during the off seasons, or promote their latest film. Disneyland held a "Herbie Day" on June 30, 1974, in conjunction with the release of the movie Herbie Rides Again where there was a competition to "beautify your (VW) bug."
When Michael Eisner came on board the Disney Company in 1984 as CEO, he was also looking for ways to increase attendance at Disneyland during the off-seasons.
He introduced a special limited-time event at the park, Circus Fantasy in 1986. It was so popular it was repeated for two more years and generated new merchandise, as well as a spike in attendance and guest satisfaction.
I distinctly remember going to Disneyland in 1988 and being enthralled up close by the "Globe of Death," where two motorcycles raced around the cage-like iron sphere, barely missing each other in the spot where the Partners statue is today.
It resulted in two more multiyear promotional events, and eventually led to the creation of the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, and later the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, to serve a similar purpose of encouraging more visits to that park during the off seasons.
Today, I am going to discuss four special exclusive Disneyland events that I personally attended and enjoyed very much. My only regrets are that I didn't take more photos and notes. Like most Disneyland guests, I just accepted that they were taking place without realizing that others across the country did not have the opportunity to experience them and that one day they would be considered ancient history.
Spring: 1986, 1987 and 1988
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, We direct your attention to Disneyland for Circus Fantasy. It's a circus spectacular too big to fit into three rings, so we're turning the entire Magic Kingdom into the world's biggest Big Top! So run away and join the circus – at Disneyland!" proclaims the local publicity for the Disneyland Circus Fantasy event.
Eisner's first Disneyland promotion was Circus Fantasy that ran from January 25 to March 9 in 1986 and proved so popular that it appeared again in the spring of 1987 and 1988.
Its popularity and financial success resulted in similar special-themed events that followed the same model including State Fair and Blast to the Past to try to capture the same results.
Completely ignoring the individual themed areas of the park, the circus took over Disneyland entirely: The Great Wallenda Duo high-wire act going from the Emporium to the Walt Disney Story building; The Centrons motorcycle thrill act, that would drive up a wire attached to the Matterhorn; Captain Christopher Munoz "The Human Missile," who was shot out of a cannon over the Rivers of America to a net on the dock of Tom Sawyer's Island; John Theron, a swaypole acrobat at the Tomorrowland Terrace; the Diano's Elephants and Castle's Bears at Videopolis, as well as a circus-themed stage show at Videopolis that was shown several times a day; and circus clowns performing at Clown Alley set up at the Carnation Plaza Gardens.
Former Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Clown College Director Dick Monday and his long time friend Barry "Grandma" Lubin of the Big Apple Circus were among the performers. Clown face painting was held at several different locations.
In addition, twice a day was a colorful Circus On Parade that marched down Main Street USA with a pre-parade of the clowns from the Plaza Gardens. For the first year, Mickey started the parade riding on a circus wagon drawn by horses but, by the final year, he had his own special float. Minnie rode on top of an elephant during that first year. but joined Mickey on his float in later years.
By 1988, the acts included The Posso Brothers world famous high wire aerialists; the Flying Rafaels; Globe of Death, which showcased two motorcycles racing around a cage-like iron sphere, barely missing each other in the spot where the Partners statue is today; The Winn Family's Astro Sky Cycle; the Wheel of Destiny; Eric Braun and his Performing Dog;, The Trampoline Guys; and more, including the circus parade, Clown Alley and the Circus Fantasy stage show.
September: 1987 and 1988
In 1987, to offset the drop in attendance when children went back to school in September, and before the upsurge due to the holiday celebrations, Eisner introduced the Disneyland State Fair from September 19 to November 15.
There were Ferris wheels in the hub and one in front of the train station (in 1988 this one was moved to Big Thunder Ranch) and guests could ride them to get a unique view of Disneyland.
The area in front of "it's a small world" had midway games and also a dive tank where daredevils would high dive into the tank. Additional carnival booths were in Town Square (with pennants hanging overhead so it looked like a used car lot), the Hub, and Big Thunder Ranch. Games consisted of tossing a ring over something, knocking over bottles, getting a ball in a basket hoop and similar carnival-style amusements that cost anywhere from $0.50 to a $1 a try.
On the stage by the Rivers of America, there was the Lumberjack Timber Carnival with competitions that included tree climbing, log rolling, and ax throwing.
That first year (the event was also there in 1988) Disney gave away state stickers with different Disney characters.
The stickers featured an outline of the state and then a character in front, like Fiddler Pig for Iowa, Donald Duck as a pilgrim for Massachusetts (he was also a lumberjack in Minnesota), Mickey blowing a jazz trumpet in Louisiana (he was also in a straw hat and overalls in Missouri), and Uncle Scrooge throwing money high in air in Nevada among others. Each sticker was about 4 by 2 inches and had a peel-off adhesive back.
One of the big attractions was the "State Fair" food offerings, including pies, BBQ turkey legs, and chili.
The "Pigmania" show at Big Thunder Ranch had pig races around a course. Guest sections were assigned a particular pig and called out their special "SUE-EY" pig call to encourage their entry. A race between the Big Bad Wolf and the Three Little Pigs also took place on the course. The wolf never won.
Kirk Wall and his musical group (that would officially become Billy Hill and the Hillbillies in 1992) performed as "The Barley Boys" at Big Thunder Ranch. As Wall later recalled, "Our job was to help entertain the crowd and encourage the pigs to run their fastest. Each Barley Brother [Marley, Farley, Charley, etc] would take one of four sections of the audience and teach them a pig 'call' to encourage that pig during the race."
A special State Fair Parade featured John Deere tractors (celebrating their 150th anniversary) and live animals who were Blue Ribbon winners from county fairs in California. There was even a baby animal beauty contest.
Blast to the Past
Spring: 1988 and 1989
The 1988 season of Blast to the Past ran from March 18 through June 18. The concept was to capitalize on the nostalgia for the American 1950s and 1960s shown in films like Grease and Back to the Future and television shows like Happy Days.
The Blast to the Past Parade had significant differences each year. For 1988, there were cast members dressed as television show characters, like Superman, Lucy and Desi, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. The 1989 version included classic big finned 1950/1960s cars in addition to the appropriately costumed dancers (like roller skating car hops, high school cheerleaders and football players, and gas station attendants). Disney characters were included, as well as floats that resembled a gas station, a hair parlor, a rocket ship, and a drive-in theater showing monster movies.
On the weekends, the Main Street Hop performed in place on Main Street with floats designed like big juke boxes with a malt shop black and white tile floor that held the tables and chairs used by the dancers on the street.
The Carnation Plaza Gardens featured a show titled "Everybody's Rockin' with Goofy." A Beach Party was set up in front of "it's a small world" and labeled Surf City with a sand pit in front of the temporary boardwalk-style stage, palm trees and more. Papa Doo Run Run and the Six Ts (Sixties, get it?) were among the performers. Goofy and Donald Duck competed in a surfing contest for the title of the Big Kahuna.
Tomorrowland Terrace was designated the Rainbow Diner that sold burgers and fries along with performances from Big Daddy, the Coasters and Rocko and the Rainbows. In 1989, it became the Soultown Café (showcasing Rhythm and Blues in addition to Doo-wop). Disneyland Sock Hop was held Saturday and Sunday nights at Videopolis along with performances from Herman Hermits, Roy Orbison and the Turtles.
The 1988 season hosted the Super Hooper Duper event, smashing the world's record for the most people hula-hooping at one time in one location—1,527 people gathered in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. The 1989 season had performer Chubby Checker and 2,248 guests breaking the record for most people doing the twist in one location.
A Blast to the Past Trivia Game with prizes including jukeboxes, 1950s tapes, Wham-O Hula Hoops, Wham-O Frisbees, Fuzzy Dice, Duncan Yo Yos, Jr. Slinkys, Paddle Balls, Large Coca Cola and a chance to win one of five classic 1950s cars.
To participate guests had to fill out the back of their trivia game card and answer three questions correctly and drop it off at one of six entry bins throughout the park.
In the Hub, there was a huge jukebox and on the bottom level was a live disc jockey. Local Los Angeles television station KHJ aired a half hour special May 20, 1989 with highlights from the event.
Disney Afternoon Avenue
March 1991—November 1991
The Disney Afternoon was the title of a created-for-syndication two-hour block of animated television produced by Walt Disney Television animation and featured four half-hour series. It aired nationwide and in many other countries and was highly popular.
While various different series filled the block from 1990 to 1997, its first season was composed of Adventures of the Gummi Bears, Duck Tales, Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers and TaleSpin. (Darkwing Duck replaced Gummi Bears in the second season.)
To help promote the programming and to leverage the already growing excitement that had produced the highest ratings, Disneyland transformed the walkway from the Storybook Land Canal Boats to the front of "it's a small world" attraction into the Disney Afternoon Avenue.
Guests entered under an archway with a huge hot air balloon with the characters on top. The walkway was now a miniature, cartoon version of Uncle Scrooge's hometown of Duckburg with two-dimensional facades that served as themed photo locations where guests could get their pictures taken or meet with costumed characters from the series. The facades were similar in style to the ones at Mickey's Birthdayland in Florida.
Part of the enthusiasm for the new temporary promotion was that guests could meet their favorite characters from the different television series including a Beagle Boy or Don Karnage or the Gummi Bears, characters not usually seen at the park.
Two of the existing attractions got overlays so that the Fantasyland Autopia became the Chip'n'Dale Rescue Rangers Raceway and the Motor Boat Cruise became the Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen, the home of the Gummi Bears. Both rides now featured two-dimensional cutouts of the various characters along the ride, as well as new entrance signage.
The Videopolis Train Station was rechristened with a colorful, character filled sign declaring it the Disney Afternoon Train Depot.
Guests could pick up a free Disney Afternoon Live map that had 28 characters in circles encircling its border. Twelve of those circles were incomplete so guests would then go to a dozen locations, such as Scrooge's Vault (a pit filled with yellow balls to suggest gold from kids to dive in) or Duckburg City Hall to collect the appropriate character stamp for each circle.
Baloo the bear's dressing room was at a meet-and-greet location in Stage 1 that was under the bridge that now leads to Toontown (since that land had yet to be created) where the train crossed into Fantasyland. Another reason for this temporary land was to test ideas for Mickey's Toontown, including a specific meet-and-greet location for Mickey Mouse.
There was a Videocade Game Center where guests could sample the new NES video games based on DuckTales and Rescue Rangers.
Videopolis featured a stage show with costumed characters Baloo from TaleSpin, Chip'n'Dale from Rescue Rangers and Launchpad McQuack from Duck Tales called Plane Crazy. They tried to stop villains Don Karnage and Fat Cat from stealing the the X-22 spy plane that they have shrunk (thus the reason for the Plane Crazy title).