What's for Breakfast?

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Did Walt Disney eat breakfast? We know he loved Denver omelettes and fried potatoes at Biff's diner near the Disney Studio but did Walt ever gobble down cereal before driving his daughters to school? And if so, what cereal did he like?

Why am I suddenly so curious about Walt's breakfast habits? Well, this month will see the release of the latest cereals featuring Disney characters and it got me to thinking about the connections between Disney and cereal during Walt's lifetime.

This month, General Mills will introduce a new line of Disney-branded children's cereal for U.S. grocery stores. The new products, which feature Disney's Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, Disney Princess and Disney's Little Einsteins, are the first Disney-branded cereal products to launch since Disney announced its new food guidelines earlier this year.

"This new cereal line leverages strong Disney equities that need no introduction while delivering everyday value at very attractive, competitive price points. They are high-quality cereals with a strong nutrition profile that parents will appreciate and popular Disney characters that kids will love," said Kymm Pollack, marketing director of General Mills' Big G cereal division.

The cereals emphasize their whole grain, vitamin D, and calcium content. Disney's timetable for implementing its new policies (influenced by recent data indicating that over a third of American children are obese) is dictated by existing contracts, most of which will lapse in their current form within two years. The guidelines, which were developed in cooperation with two child nutrition experts, will initially govern Disney's business partnerships and activities in the U.S., and will be adapted internationally over the next several years.

Disney's connection with cereal products goes back to 1934 when merchandising genius, Kay Kamen, signed a deal with General Foods .Incredibly, Kamen got General Foods to agree to pay a million and a half dollars to put Mickey Mouse and his friends on the back of its Post Toasties boxes for one year. To put that price in perspective, in today's dollars it would be over $30 million.

Even more remarkable, this deal was during the Great Depression when people could barely afford food, let alone toys for their children. However, for 12 cents, a person could purchase a box of Post Toasties ("made of corn grits sugar and salt") that could supply a reasonably affordable breakfast plus Disney character cut-outs on the back and side of the box that kids could play with after they had finished the cereal. It was hoped that children would urge their parents to buy this particular cereal in order to have the "toys."

The boxes were an immediate success so that within a year, other film and radio stars from Shirley Temple to Popeye to Tom Mix found themselves on cereal boxes. (There was a Tom Mix premium, a ring, offered by Quaker Oats in 1933 but the famous cowboy was featured nowhere on the box itself.)

The Post Toasties boxes changed the marketing of children's cereal forever with future cereal boxes presenting drawings, a game or something like the cut-outs rather than having children simply mail in box tops and change to Battle Creek, Michigan for a premium.

Post Toasties cereal was sold in Disney-character boxes until 1941. There were close to 100 different boxes including some devoted to Ferdinand the Bull, the Three Little Pigs, and even Disney's animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

An interesting side note is that Mickey didn't appear on the front of the box until 1935. Also, in 1938, Post (General Foods) released the first Disney cereal premium on its Huskies (its version of Wheaties) brand. Children could send away for a cereal bowl with Snow White's portrait. It would be almost a decade before the next Disney cereal premium.

The General Foods deal was immensely profitable for the Disney Studios. Kamen eventually negotiated that Disney would receive a five percent royalty on each box of cereal printed with Disney characters regardless of actual sales of the cereal. The result was millions of dollars for the fledging Disney Studios.

However, as popular as Mickey Mouse was, the star of Disney merchandise was Donald Duck, who appeared on countless products including Donald Duck 3 Minute Oats (a Quaker Oats rival) from the National Oats Company. It was produced from 1943-1945 and guaranteed that in only three minutes the consumer could cook a healthy breakfast.

Apparently, the cereal was produced in two or three different sizes and while Donald was prominently featured on the front of the round container, Mickey, Pluto and Goofy were only allowed to appear on the back.

I have been told there was also a Donald Duck Corn Flakes cereal in the late 1940s. Why people would choose a cereal simply because of Donald Duck's picture on the box remains a constant puzzlement but Donald was such a sought-after spokesman that he sold everything from orange juice to rice to more over the years.

While General Mills will be releasing the new Disney cereals this month, they had a previous connection with Disney cereals starting in 1947 and lasting sporadically for the next decade. In 1947, both Cheerios and Wheaties from General Mills offered four sets of original Disney comic books. Set Y included the famous Carl Barks's story: Donald Duck's Atomic Bomb.

The bright yellow Cheerios boxes each showcased one of the following Disney animated superstars: Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Pluto and... B'rer Rabbit, who was being promoted in connection with the original release of Song of the South.

This promotion was so popular that General Mills repeated it in 1950 with its Cheerios and Wheaties cereal where another four sets of original Disney comics could be ordered. In 1954, General Mills released a set of eight 3-D Disney comic books as a mail-in premium.

Advertising promoted that you could get "eight comic books for only 15 cents and one Wheaties boxtop. All new stories. Not sold in stores." Even though each individual comic book was about one-third the size of a regular comic book, it was still a great deal, especially since Quaker Oats at the same time was only offering Gabby Hayes comics. Gabby Hayes may have been a popular Western cowboy sidekick but his adventures couldn't compare with the Disney characters.

Of course, who could forget the "Fun Masks" of Disney characters on the boxes of Wheaties in 1950? There was a set of eight cutout fun masks (Mickey, Donald, Pinocchio, Dumbo, Lucifer, Cinderella, Bambi and Br'er Rabbit). Cinderella and Lucifer were selected to help promote the release of Cinderella that year.

"Just think of the fun you'll have with these bright colored masks of famous Walt Disney characters. Surprise your friends. Give Walt Disney shows. Wear 'em at parties. They're right on the Wheaties boxes... ready to cut out and wear. Get all eight masks and have a barrel of fun!"

Kellogg's had a brief flirtation with Disney cereal premiums in the 1950s, including a very odd Donald Duck ring (Donald's head swiveled and his eyes glowed like something out of The Exorcist) on Pep (their version of Wheaties). "It's Moveable. It's Mysterious! Donald Duck acts ALIVE on your finger!" claimed the advertising that sounds scary today but enticed many a youngster in the '50s.

Kellogg's was also responsible for a set of twelve thin plastic statuettes of Lady, Tramp, Trusty, Toughy, Boris, Jock, Pedro, Dachsie, Bull, Peg, Si and Am to tie in with the animated feature release in 1955.

"Use for party decoration. For a knick-knack shelf. Sew them on your beanie or sweater. Trade them with your friends. Start with the one inside. Collect all twelve! Authentic Walt Disney creations! 3-Dimensional! Sturdy plastic."

Once the Disney Studios entered into television with its own show in 1954, there was an edict not to get involved with food products in order to avoid conflicts between potential sponsors. Walt didn't want a company not to advertise on his television show because a competitor was showcasing Disney characters on its product.

This was not always an easy rule to enforce because of existing contracts from Donald Duck Orange Juice to Tinker Bell shilling for Peter Pan Peanut Butter (from Derby Foods, one of the first sponsors of the Disneyland television program).

However, that rule needed to be broken to help promote Disneyland the park. From 1955-57, General Mills promoted Disneyland on Jets, Trix, Wheaties, Cheerios and Kix with "Disneyland Light-Ups."

There were a set of 18 scenes of Disneyland each on the back of a cereal box. The gimmick was to place a light bulb inside the box and with some punched out holes in the painted artwork, the scene seemed to come to life. There were scenes of the Frontierland, Tomorrowland, Sleeping Beauty's castle and more.

"Light 'em up. They look so real you can imagine you are visiting famous Disneyland park at night! See diamonds sparkle mysteriously in the seven dwarfs' diamond mine. See Captain Hook's pirate ship—the frontier stagecoach—the rocket to the moon! Eighteen exciting scenes in all! Watch 'em sparkle and glow. Just use your Xmas tree lights."

You can view all 18 of these Disneyland light-ups (and more Disney-related cereal boxes and advertising) at ImaginaryWorld.com.

General Mills continued its Disney connection in 1956 when its Sugar Jets featured an offer for eight plastic rings including Mickey, Minnie, Dumbo, Donald, Pluto, Snow White, Pinocchio and Peter Pan. "Ring adjusts to fit finer size. Fun to wear. Show 'em to your friends. Collect 'em. Trade ' em. Made of polyethylene plastic."

General Mills was one of the sponsors of the Mickey Mouse Club television show. So, it was not surprising that in 1956, Wheaties featured an actual 78 RPM record on the box and the opportunity to send away from four more regular records for a total of 16 songs as part of a promotion for the Mickey Mouse Club television show.

"Get regular weight Walt Disney's Mouseketter records. Four songs only twenty-five cents and the words 'Breakfast of Champions' from a Wheaties boxtop. Each Mouseketeer record has two songs on each side, is 'micro-grooved' to play as much music as two ordinary twenty-five cent records, is seven inches in diameter and can be played on any 78 RPM record player."

The songs included ones I am unfamiliar with including one about the character of "L'il Davy" who was popular in Disney comic strips and comic books around the time of the Davy Crockett craze.

In addition, an actual Alice in Wonderland 78 RPM record was also featured on Wheaties with an opportunity to send away for additional records.

The Disneyland promotion continued in 1957 with Cheerios featuring on the back of the box the Cheerios Kid in "Disneyland Adventures" where kids could help color in the story as they munched on their cereal.

General Mills finished this run of its licensing with Disney with six "wiggle pictures" that moved from one image to another when you moved them. Mickey, Bongo, Dumbo, Donald, Pluto and... Hippy Hippo.

Another Mouseketter tie-in was on the 1958 Cheerios boxes with an Annette cut out doll with three outfits: a cowgirl, Mousekeeter outfit and a party dress.

In the last year of Walt's life, the cereal licensing moved over to Nabisco, which did a major promotion for Mary Poppins with an inch-high Mary Poppins (and also Bert the chimney sweep) jumping out of a plastic chimney. The Nabisco connection lasted for about 10 years, providing a lot of Winnie the Pooh premiums.

Disney's cereal history is so rich that I couldn't mention everything like the 10-inch vinyl inflatable Mickey Mouse from Quaker Oats "Muffets" cereal in 1948 or the 1959 General Mills Cocoa Puffs boxes with the "Mickey Mouse Cartoon Theater." Maybe I'll revisit the topic again in the future but right now I have an urge for a bowl of cereal.