Five Things I Miss About a WDW Christmasby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I have always tried to be a “glass is half full” kind of person who is grateful for what he has rather than longing for what he doesn’t have. However, for this column I am going to let a little of my inner Grinch peek out for a few moments before going back into hiding for the rest of the year. Sometimes I do wish that things didn’t have to always change, especially when it was something good in the first place.
In 1995, I relocated to Florida from Southern California to take care of my parents who had developed some health problems. It turned out that by moving to less stressful, non-smoggy Florida with me watching over them in a shared house allowed mom and dad to enjoy another decade of life.
One of the things mom and dad enjoyed in that last decade was my taking them to the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) during the Yuletide season, especially when I became a full time cast member. Unfortunately, just like mom and dad, some of those beloved Disney holiday treats are not around this Christmas season.
Since I get a little nostalgic over the holidays, I thought I would recall some of those WDW offerings that mom and dad loved, but some Walt Disney World fans might have forgotten or never knew existed.
THE PORT ORLEANS CHRISTMAS
It is always a joy to find a free event at WDW. Back in 1992, when Disney's Port Orleans Resort had only been open a year and was not yet designated as “French Quarter,” the resort offered a nightly gift for a couple of weeks to WDW guests beginning approximately at 7 p.m.
In the open area outside the food court, an energetic harlequin jester costumed in Mardi Gras colors of yellow, green and purple entertained the audience with juggling, comedy, and, finally, remarkably balancing a 6-foot ladder on his chin. His smiling painted face of red circled cheeks and jingling bells on hidden headgear brought joy to even the youngest member of the audience.
That jester was my brother Michael, who performed this role in the evenings after his regular day job of being Disney-MGM Studios Streetmosphere performer Kid Rawhide (and sometimes, Nick Tracy, Dick’s forgotten brother). Occasionally, performer Mark Renfro, who also went on to be a Disney show director, substituted for my brother.
There was free cider, a sugar cookie and hot roasted chestnuts as the appreciative audience gathered to watch the 15-minute show. Then, the jester led the audience (sometimes accompanied by a three-piece band) to the open grassy courtyard by the pool. In the dim light, the jester held a lit candle and told the story of the Noel Candle, the origin of the French tradition to have a small candle burning in the window on the eve of Noel, to light the way for the solitary Christ child.
This simple and moving little ceremony was concluded with the singing of carols, the words printed on single sheets of paper that were passed out to the audience to be shared.
Unfortunately, this little Christmas treat only existed for about four years and completely disappeared. If you have the original The Magic of Christmas at Walt Disney World VHS tape from 1992, you can catch a glimpse of my brother. Amusingly, he also survived in the 2002 DVD release of the same name even though by then that event no longer took place and Mike had gone on to bigger and better things. You can catch him at the 8:40 mark on this clip.
JOLLY HOLIDAYS DINNER SHOW AT THE CONTEMPORARY
“Those Jolly, Jolly, Jolly Holidays! Those Holly, Holly, Holly Jolly Days! All the decorations! Many celebrations! Many happy faces! Cozy fireplaces! Let the bells ring out now! Everyone sing out now!”
The Jolly Holidays Dinner Show at Disney’s Contemporary Resort was performed from 1992 through the 1998 Christmas season when it was discontinued. The Fantasia Ballroom was converted into an immersive theater-in-the-round setting with more than 100 talented performers in a musical extravaganza. Besides the raised main stage, there were several smaller stages on the outer perimeter of the tables.
Performers spilled out into the audience, as well. The show took place at “Holiday Village” where the patriarch of the town known simply as “Papa” (and looking a bit like a grey-bearded Sebastian Cabot with a deep gravely voice) recalled his memories of the holidays.
Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Chip’n’Dale cavorted with perky singers and dancers. The Country Bears dropped by to play a tune before they went back out into the snow to play. There was even a short version of the Nutcracker Suite featuring the hippos and ostriches from Fantasia. Of course, some scenes seemed to be borrowed from other shows including the tap dancing horses for the sleigh ride, the marching toy soldiers and Santa Goofy making an appearance.
In addition, guests enjoyed an all-you-can-eat feast of fresh-cooked turkey, honey baked ham and other holiday treats. It was a hugely popular show, often completely sold out even at a premium price, although significant changes were made in its final year that did not please everyone.
Thankfully, one amateur videographer captured the 1994 show for future Disney fans.
COUNTRY BEAR CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
The Country Bear Christmas Special was a special holiday edition of the popular Country Bear Jamboree attraction that premiered simultaneously during the 1984 holiday season at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. It featured new costumes, settings, songs and re-programmed movements for the Audio-Animatronics bruins. The last time it was performed at WDW was in 2006.
Liver Lips McGrowl dressed as Elvis with a Christmas tree shaped guitar. Teddi Barra attired in ski gear had a cast on her leg. Terrence in white fur looking like a polar bear was next to a penguin encased in ice. Big Al dressed as Baby New Year. Even Buff, the buffalo on the wall, wore a Santa Hat while his deer companion Max has a red light bulb on his nose and goofy moose Melvin has a string of Christmas lights hanging on his antlers.
The songs included “Blue Christmas,” “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “Sleigh Ride,” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)," “Winter Wonderland,” and other holiday standards—all done with a country bear twang.
Of course, there was a financial commitment to installing this show and a period of downtime while the attraction was closed for the installation. These speedbumps never seem to slow down Disneyland from doing makeovers for both the Haunted Mansion and "it’s a small world" over the holidays each year. WDW officially stated that their guests are different than those that go to Disneyland who are primarily locals who visit frequently and require something new and different. Walt Disney World guests it is claimed are primarily tourists who have saved up for three years or more to visit and expect to see the traditional attractions and would be severely disappointed to see a holiday makeover instead.
GLORY AND PAGEANTRY OF CHRISTMAS
For more than 15 years in the 1980s and 1990s, the Disney Village Marketplace (now known as Downtown Disney) ushered in the season with a performance of The Glory and the Pageantry of Christmas. It was literally a traditional “living nativity scene” enactment that was originally performed at the open air pavilion known as the Captain’s Tower (now Pin Traders) but soon moved to the larger venue of the Waterfront Dock Stage. The shopping area nearby was decorated to suggest a recreation of the little town of Bethlehem.
It was such a popular and dignified show that guests did not mind standing in line for hours for a chance to see it. “The Christmas Story,” narrated by Kevin Miles (whose deep baritone voice could also be heard in venues like Epcot’s Voices of Liberty and Magic Kindgom’s Dapper Dans) and interspersed with Christmas songs, was amazingly simple. Mary and Joseph approach the manger and she reveals a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. The shepherds appear. The angels appear, rising up from behind the manger. There was a total cast of 36 performers.
The narration told how the shopkeepers of the village brought gifts including cheese from the dairyman and breads from the baker. Sadly, one little orphan child had no gift to bring. To the strains of the song “Little Drummer Boy,” a small child walks up to the manger and encouraged by Mary, plays his drum.
There was no official announcement of the reason for the show’s cancellation, but there were rumors that it had grown so popular that large audiences caused logistical challenges. There were also grumblings that the show was not substantially increasing sales at the nearby shops. Unlike other shows mentioned here, I know of no video ever taken or posted of this production.
LIGHTS OF WINTER
After more than a decade, in 2009, Walt Disney World did not install The Lights of Winter at Epcot. It was announced that it had been officially retired. The Lights of Winter was a canopy archway of 30,000 dazzling colored lights, running along the walkway from Future World to the World Showcase Plaza that would be synchronized to a selection of holiday music. The immersive, towering experience delighted guests for several years who loved walking under arches of dancing lights.
The reason given for its removal was antiquated technology (“tech to operate the lights is obsolete, prompting us to retire the lights" stated the Disney twitter) even though several sections had already been updated in past years and in fact, the Osborne Spectacle of Lights had undergone an overhaul to bring it up to modern technology.
Again, thanks to amateur Disney theme park photographers, you can catch several samples of the experience.
REGIS PHILBIN HOSTING THE WDW PARADE
Regis Philbin was not the original host for the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade. However, he brought his own special energy and perspective that always made it interesting. Regis loved having notes of “fun facts” (sometimes written with a wonderful expertise by Disney expert Greg Ehrbar) to include for each parade.
Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade was broadcast live for 90 minutes from Walt Disney World for the first time in 1983 with Joan Lunden and talk show personality Mike Douglas serving as the hosts.
The following year, Bruce Jenner was Lunden’s co-host and Regis Philbin popped up in a few segments as a roving commentator on the street. In 1985 and 1986, Lunden hosted with dancer Ben Vereen. Then from 1987-1990, it was Lunden and actor Alan Thicke (with Regis still out on the street and doing special reports).
In 1991, Regis finally came in off the street and joined Lunden at her side as the co-host and continued to do so up through the 1995 parade. In 1996, it was Suzanne Somers and Jerry Van Dyke doing the emcee duties.
In 1997, Melissa Joan Hart and Ben Savage shared the magic. In 1998, Caroline Rhea and Richard Kind did the same. It wasn’t until 2001, that it was Regis and Kelly Ripa hosting from the center of Town Square on Main Street and they continued to do so together until 2009.
In December 2009, Regis, recovering from hip surgery, was absent from the festivities and Ryan Seacrest reporting from California joined Kelly Ripa, who was in Florida. This was also the year that the show’s name was changed to its new title: Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade. By 2010, Seacreast and Nick Cannon had become the hosts.
Actually, more than just Regis, I miss the fact that the earlier parade broadcasts had fairly lengthy pre-taped segments showing upcoming attractions at the parks. Often, there were glimpses of concept art and models and the attraction being built. In the early days as the man-on-the-street reporter, it was usually Regis who did these segments and they often lasted about five minutes. Of course, today, it is amusing to see those clips about the forthcoming Dick Tracy and Baby Herman rides that never were built.
Some Disney fans may miss the fact that the Christmas parade is not broadcast live on Christmas Day. In fact, 1996 was the last year the parade was broadcast live. It was determined that there were too many negative variables from weather to performers not being able to appear so that it was more reasonable to pre-tape the event to guarantee a good show. The taping usually takes place over two days sometime during November or December.
Some MousePlanet readers may be missing some of their own favorites. It was a much different experience when the Candlelight Processional was performed in front of the train station at the Magic Kingdom. It was a much different experience to walk down Residential Street at Disney-MGM Studios and see the Osborne Lights twinkling on facades of actual houses and spilling out onto objects on the lawns.
Some folks may miss the nightly elaborate tree lighting ceremonies at various sites throughout Walt Disney World. Or perhaps someone misses some of the distinctive trees that used to decorate the property. The Adventurers Club tree had aviator goggles and airplanes. Fishing line was used for the garland and hand grenades hung in place of the usual glass apple ornaments. Many of the items were purchased at a local Army-Navy Surplus store. The tree top at the Rock and Roll Beach Club was a flamingo on a surfboard. Don’t ever expect to see those two trees again.
Of course, the thing I miss most about Christmas at Walt Disney World is sharing it with my parents who enthralled by the Disney magic would hold hands and smile broadly especially at the parade and the shows and all the happy people remembering that this is a season of hope and love.