A Disney Easter Memory

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

When it comes to Easter, the holiday used to be a more important part of the Disney theme parks, especially Walt Disney World with the televised Walt Disney World Happy Easter Parade that aired on Easter Sunday, beginning in 1985 (two years after the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas parade started airing) and lasted as a annual television event through 1999

Earlier Easter parades (sometimes referred to as the Easter Promenade) at WDW and Disneyland usually featured a parade of antique autos, penny farthing bicycle riders, marching bands and costumed characters. The televised parade was hosted on ABC by several celebrities over the years, including the television personality from Good Morning America Joan Lunden, with various male co-hosts like Rick Dees, Ben Vereen, Regis Philbin, and Alan Thicke.

The Magic Kingdom was decorated for the Easter festivities, just like at Christmas, however, there were no religious references, and it was a much smaller and less varied experience.

The Magic Kingdom was decorated for the Easter festivities, as well, just like at Christmas. The televising of the parade was the inspiration of Walt Disney World marketing who felt it might generate increased attendance during the spring, and like the Christmas parade, offer an opportunity to promote the resort nationwide. When it was determined that the parade was not significantly increasing attendance and sales like the Christmas version, the parade was cancelled although a small pre-parade with Easter elements is still included before the regular park parade during the holiday season.

Unlike the Christmas parade, the Happy Easter Parade had a turn-of-the-century feel with the traditional Easter bonnets and long skirts, pastel colors, references to the old-fashioned barbershop, baseball themes, and more. There were no religious references, and it was a much smaller and less varied experience than its Christmas cousin.

Beginning in 1989 and for a few years afterwards, guests might even have seen a costumed Roger Rabbit sputtering out the song Let's Go To the Hop as he maneuvered down Main Street U.S.A.

A huge Easter basket float (with a generic huge yellow chick or some other Easter themed costumed character) might roll down the street with the song Here Comes Peter Cottontail playing in the background. Dancers dressed as painters with giant paint brushes to decorate giant eggs entertained the guests. Some costumed characters held on to large colored balloons that resembled eggs.

The beautiful Mobile Alabama Azalea Trail Maids in their colorful gowns and bonnets would glide down Main Street. For many years after the big televised parade no longer appeared, they were included in the short Easter-themed pre-parade in the Magic Kingdom on Easter Day.

For the 1985 Walt Disney World Happy Easter parade, Disney costumers produced 125 new costumes and renovated 283 others, making 112 new hats and selecting hundreds of pairs of shoes. They used 3,000 yards of fabric, 1,500 yards of ribbon, 500 yards of feathers, and 3,000 silk flowers. Altogether, the effort consumed about 6,000 working hours.

"We`re even costuming the horses," said Rebecca Brodrick, costume coordinator for the Easter parade. "I think we have six horses who will wear hats, and our Country Bears will get Easter bonnets. "To get 600 people dressed, it takes nine people to issue the wardrobe and we have to start about two hours (before the parade)."

Taking the costumes back and inspecting them afterward takes about the same amount of time said Brodrick: "There are so many pieces involved for each costume that it's real important we get them back orderly, or we'll never get them out again."

One year, Pluto might be dressed with a handlebar mustache and vest as part of the barbershop quartet float and the next year he might be wearing a green baseball cap leading a baseball team of dancers down the street. That barbershop float featured an authentic turn-of-the century barber chair that had been used in the Harmony Barbershop but when it broke, parts no longer existed to fix it.

Tokyo Disneyland held an Easter parade called Disney's Easter Wonderland that ran from 2010 to 2012. Mickey Mouse and his Disney friends donned rabbit ears and Easter bonnets to put on a happy Easter party parade. The nine float parade featured such visual treasures as characters from Alice in Wonderland on a giant Mad Hatter's hat, Goofy and Pluto hunting for eggs, Winnie the Pooh and friends in an egg-shaped Hunny Pot, an Oswald the Rabbit float and finally, Minnie Mouse, Daisy Duck and Clarice in their Easter finery. (And Mickey changing into six different costumes during the course of the parade and running around to appear on different floats.)

Tokyo even hosted elaborate Easter egg hunts with Disney characters on the eggs.

Disney's Easter takes place both at Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea. It is the longest-running event at Tokyo Disney Resort. Starting around the end of March, it runs until mid-June with parades, merchandise, special food offerings, live stage shows and more. Easter is not a holiday celebrated in Japan, but the Resort embraces the pastel colors, eggs, and cute, adorable bunnies to create a memorable spring event for guests.

Tokyo DisneySea has "usapiyo" characters who are cute, innocent little chicks wearing bunny ears. At Tokyo Disneyland, the bunny-eared, mischief-making egg characters "usatama" are featured in the parade and merchandise.

Of course, to celebrate a Disney Easter at home, all you have to do is just pop in a DVD of Funny Little Bunnies that was released on March 24, 1934, just in time for Easter as part of the Silly Symphony series of short theatrical cartoons. The premise of the cartoon is a visit to rainbow's end where in the magical land of the Easter Bunnies, they prepare for the holiday by decorating colorful eggs and other goodies. They weave and fill baskets. They make chocolate eggs and chocolate rabbits. At the end, a herd of rabbits load giant Easter baskets with the brightly colored items (with the colors taken right from the rainbow).

To release an Easter cartoon was a risk for the new Disney Studio because not all countries celebrate this holiday or even celebrate it as it is done in America.

Bill Justice had a long and varied career with the Walt Disney Company. He joined the studio in 1937 and quickly rose from inbetweening to doing full animation on feature films.

Perhaps the characters he is most closely associated with are the mischievous Chip and Dale, as he animated almost all of their appearances in theatrical shorts.

Walt Disney personally moved Bill to Walt Disney Imagineering (then known as WED) in 1965, where he programmed audio-animatronics figures for such attractions as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree and more.

In 1961, he began designing the floats and costumes (including the Babes in Toyland marching toy soldiers) for the early Disneyland parades.

Even after he officially retired in February 1979, Bill was often called upon by the Disney Company to execute special projects, including the huge character mural at the exit of the Walt Disney Theater on Main Street, being one of the traveling spokesmen along with Clarence Nash for Donald Duck's Fiftieth Birthday, and many more projects including the costume designs for Mr. and Mrs. Easter Bunny for the Magic Kingdom Easter Parade.

With all these accomplishments (and many, many more not listed here), there was one honor that people have forgotten: his contribution to the Easter at the White House celebration in 1985.

In 1985, Disney, and Bill Justice, had tie-in to the White House Easter Egg Roll.

The White House Easter Egg Roll is one of the oldest and most unique traditions in U. S. Presidential history. Rolling eggs on the Monday after Easter was a tradition observed by many Washington families, including those of the president. Some historians tell stories of informal egg-rolling parties at the White House dating back to President Lincoln's day. Over the years, the Easter at the White House event has evolved and changed, with different games and amusements popular in different years. Soon the event became a more elaborate affair, with bands, entertainers and food.

The event involving Bill and Disney took place the Monday following Easter in April 1985. This was the 107th time this event was being held. It included an egg hunt and an egg roll where children roll hard-boiled eggs in a race to the finish line. Bill was 71 years old. More than 100 eggs were hidden in straw for the children to find and keep as souvenirs. Fifty of America's best artists were asked by President Ronald Reagan to paint an Easter egg for the White House.

Bill shared with me the following when I interviewed him in March 1997.

"I'm not quite sure why the White House contacted me in particular to paint an Easter egg for them.

"They may have seen my work from a special 'Thank You' I designed for the President when he appeared on the Merry Christmas parade special filmed at Walt Disney World. All I know is that in February of 1985 I received a call from the White House. They proposed I decorate an Easter egg to be put on display for their annual Easter Party.

"The White House Easter Egg Hunt is a tradition that started in 1885. About 50 artists from around the country were asked to paint eggs. The organizers would supply a wooden egg for me to decorate with Disney characters. Even though I agreed, I worried about how does someone go about painting an egg? I thought I'd better practice before the real one arrived.

"At the time there was a special brand of women's panty hose called 'L'eggs' that were marketed in a hard plastic egg shaped container. I think every woman on the block was buying pantyhose so I could have their L'eggs' eggs. I glued the halves together and coated them with several layers of white acrylic. In pencil I drew the characters' heads, and then painted them in full color.

"By the time the White House's wooden egg arrived nearly two weeks later, I had painted eleven panty hose eggs. On one of them I had painted about 30 Disney character heads. There were the heads of Snow White, Pluto, Donald, Dopey, Doc, the Mad Hatter, Goofy, Mickey Mouse and Gurgi from The Black Cauldron.

"The White House sent two wooden eggs. One to be added to an Easter egg collection housed in the Smithsonian Museum and one for the egg hunt. To my surprise, the wooden egg wasn't much bigger than a normal hen's egg that you might buy at the store. I got to work and managed to paint 17 heads on the White House egg, then rushed it back to Washington by Federal Express.

"Soon I got another phone call. Would I design the cover for their program? I considered this request quite an honor and spent several days creating something suitable. Then I heard from the White House a third time.

"Everyone was very pleased with my work and I was invited to the Easter Party itself. The Disney Studio heard about the invitation and offered to pay all my expenses plus furnish me with limousine service for the entire three days I would be there. Not a bad deal.

"About 30,000 other people also decided to accept the invitation. Each guest received a shopping bag with eggs, candy, a program, some balloons, and a pin. I was pleasantly surprised to find my program design on the shopping bags, balloons and pin."

Bill's design for the program was of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Chip'n'Dale decorating five eggs as large as themselves. Donald is irritated because unbeknownst to a smiling Mickey and Minnie, Chip'n'Dale have decorated their egg with a tic-tac-toe game that it looks like Chip will win.

The artwork is copyrighted by Walt Disney Productions which means that the Disney Company could always duplicate that design in the future if they wanted.

Besides the program cover, Bill did four pages of Disney line art for children to color. One of the drawings has a Thumper-ish rabbit with a huge fluffy tail, picking out jelly beans from a basket. Behind the basket is an open empty jar with the label "White House Jelly Beans" and a picture of the White House. This was a reference to President Reagan's fondness for that particular candy.

"My wooden egg was displayed with the other artists' eggs," Bill told me. "In a second display were all my practice panty hose eggs. Those designs included the Three Caballeros, Mickey handing a flower to Minnie, Thumper and Flower with colored Easter eggs, The Three Little Pigs dancing, Lady and the Tramp nose to nose, and the White Rabbit rushing to the White House with some of the 101 Dalmatians.

Bill Justice designed many wooden eggs, including this one featuring the Three Little Pigs.

"There was even an egg featuring the Fair Folk from The Black Cauldron. My wife was Irish so I dressed the Fair Folk characters in green with shamrocks and mounted it on a music box that plays When Irish Eyes Are Smiling."

The Studio sent a costumed Mickey Mouse along with Bill. Many other costumed characters also attended, including Raggedy Ann and Andy, Spider-Man, Bugs Bunny, Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble. Most of Bill's time was spent at a table meeting and drawing for guests, which I know from personal experience made him very happy.

He was fast and good and wherever he was he would draw on anything he could find from paper plates to napkins to tablecloths.

The only problem was the cold. It snowed the next day. Bill had to wear his limousine driver's overcoat throughout the drawing session.

Afterward, he was taken inside to meet then Vice President Bush. President Reagan was in California that day. Bill attended an elaborate dinner party that evening and spent the next day sightseeing with his driver.

Bill told me:

"I have always been surprised by the publicity this event generated. On Easter Sunday, the Los Angeles Times ran my picture with a nice feature article.

"When collectors heard about the White House egg, I did another series of wooden eggs. These were about four and half inches wide by six and half inches high with wooden bases. My friend Stan Pawlowski cast miniature Chip'n'Dale figures to hold the eggs in place.

"I also made a special egg for President and Mrs. Reagan. I painted a portrait of the President and his wife and Mickey and Minnie Mouse on opposite sides. Ninety degrees around from them were Donald and Daisy Duck with Chip saluting an American flag that Dale was holding opposite Donald and Daisy.

"I am very honored to have been asked to provide so much artwork for the White House. This has been one of the most wonderful experiences in my life. I can't believe all the attention I got. It's nice though, after working for so long, to have it topped with a trip to the White House!"

Bill could accurately draw just about every Disney animated character and by the time of the White House event was a very popular guest on cruise lines, convention events and more where he would quickly sketch the characters.

Other artists might have been able to do the job but Bill probably got the assignment because when President Reagan appeared in a pre-taped segment for the televised Walt Disney World Christmas parade in December 1984, Bill came up with a unique "Thank You" card.

Bill took a photo of the Reagans at a podium, as if they were holding a news conference. Bill painted a group of reporters, in front of them, who were all wearing Mickey Mouse hats. The Reagans were surrounded on the platform by Pluto, Goofy, Donald and Daisy, the Dwarfs, and assorted friends.

The Reagans must have liked Bill's clever rendition because in February 1985, Bill received a phone call from Peggy Henkel of the Westport Marketing Group in Connecticut, who was the director of the Easter program at the White House:

"She invited me to be among the persons who will paint eggs for display that year. I agreed, and shortly afterward she called and asked if I would do the cover for the program.

"My friends started sending me egg-shaped canisters that had contained pantyhose, and I wound up painting 30 of those. I even mounted a few on music boxes that play tunes such as Easter Parade.

"The White House sent me two wooden eggs. I don't know where they get the chickens that lay wooden eggs. The splinters must be terrible. Try painting on a curve without getting your fingers in the paint!"

Henkel explained in 1985, "Every year we invite an American artist to execute a painting of the Easter event while it is taking place. This year it will be Janet Munro of Fly Creek, New York. But this is also the first time we will include a cartoonist on the grounds."

That year, cartoonists Mel Lazarus and Charles Schulz also decorated eggs, but it was Bill who was invited to attend and who did the artwork that was used on the program cover and all sorts of items like balloons and the gift bags.

While visiting the gardens during the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, I along with other guests are sometimes amused and fascinated by a real live rabbit munching away on the flowers that had been carefully planted. When I worked at Epcot, I remember the gardeners telling me that rabbits would often sleep in the miniature train tunnels at the Germany pavilion and that the first job in the morning in that area was to hustle them out of those cozy dens so the trains could run on time.

A happy Easter this year to all the readers of this column and may it mark the beginning of better times for us all. Like always, I will be celebrating the end of Lent by gorging on my favorite See's chocolates, including a huge chocolate Easter egg. I may even watch my VHS copies of the WDW Easter parade.