Thirty years ago at Disneyland the park launched a modest promotion that became one of their more fondly remembered events of the 1990s. The Disney Afternoon Live! (yes, the exclamation mark was officially part of the title) ran from March 15 through November 10 of 1991. It could be found in the area between Storybook Land and it’s a small world, along the most northern part of the parade route. It was a true example of promotion, or corporate synergy, as it was based entirely on a block of syndicated Disney TV programs.
To better understand the origin of The Disney Afternoon Live!, a capsule history of that programming block may be helpful. Disney was one of the Hollywood pioneers in TV programming. Most studios actively fought against television when it first began appearing in American homes. Some studio heads actually forbade their Art Directors to show a television set on-screen through the 1950s! Walt, on the other hand, felt that properly handled, television could enhance revenue and prove to be a useful promotional tool. On Christmas Day in 1950 he presented “One Hour in Wonderland,” brought to viewers by Coca-Cola, and heavily infused with publicity for the studio’s next release, Alice in Wonderland.
By the mid-1950s Disney was all-in, providing a prime time Sunday night program, along with the daily Mickey Mouse Club. Both proved to be a boon for the studio’s bottom line, as well as invaluable and reliable places to promote Walt’s latest creation, Disneyland. Under various names, Disney held down their Sunday evening spot for some thirty years. The series ended only because the studio decided to launch The Disney Channel on cable in 1983, and did not see the logic in offering “free” broadcasts at the same time they were trying to attract subscribers.
When Michael Eisner was named head of Walt Disney Productions in 1984, he swiftly reversed the decision to keep Disney off the networks, reasoning that Walt’s original idea— that broadcasting both enhanced revenue and was a great promotional tool— was sound. Within a few years, Disney was back on Sunday nights and offering a variety of programs for both the networks and syndication.
This brings us to The Disney Afternoon, a “new” concept that was based on some existing ideas. It was a block of four, half-hour programs that were launched in syndication in September 1990. It was an immediate hit with the stations that aired it, proving to be an irresistible destination for children watching TV between the end of school and the start of dinnertime. The original series were: Duck Tales, Chip ’n Dale’s Rescue Rangers, Tale Spin (utilizing characters from The Jungle Book), and Disney’s Adventures of the Gummi Bears (a series based on those chewy candies).
The decision to promote The Disney Afternoon in the park must have been made somewhat swiftly, as it was just less than six months from the appearance of the shows and its physical manifestation at Disneyland. It may have been modeled on a successful promotion that had been running at Walt Disney World for two years.
Mickey’s Birthdayland had opened in 1988 to coincide with the 60th birthday of Mickey Mouse. It featured Mickey’s fully delineated house, a colorful stage show, decorated facades, and an opportunity to meet Mickey himself. The Disney Afternoon Live! was a more modest version of this. It would last just nine months, while the Florida attraction lingered on in various forms for some twenty years.
The Entrance to The Disney Afternoon Live! was striking, to say the least. A high arch was built across the northern end of the parade route, decorated with inflated tubes and topped with a hot air balloon, carrying various characters. These were irresistibly reminiscent of the inflatables that had been a part of the 1990s Party Gras Parade. This marquee was a highly visible beacon for kids seeking out their Disney TV friends. It was also easy to get great photos of it from the Skyway!
Stepping through the archway, you found yourself on Afternoon Avenue. Colorful facades representing various Afternoon Avenue destinations lined both sides of the parade route. Characters wandered about, there were a couple of rethemed attractions, a new stage show was offered at the former Videopolis, and there was a nifty activity to keep the kids busily scurrying about.
Small kiosks located throughout Afternoon Avenue were the objects of the activity. Fans of the show could pick up a free Adventure Map and then walk down the avenue, collecting Disney Afternoon Character stamps. There were twelve blank spaces in the border around the map, and at each kiosk, a rubber stamp would fill in the missing character. Originally the kids were allowed to do this themselves, but when stamped images of Baloo, Monterey Jack and Cubbi Gummi began showing up everywhere, cast members were assigned to “assist” at each location. The back of the map was a colorful mini-poster to take home.
Two venerable attractions in the area were given a new lease on life through themed overlays. The Motor Boat Cruise became the Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen. Duke Igthorn and his band of ogres were attempting to steal the latest batch of Gummi Berry Juice, and only you could… do something… as you steered your boat past a series of plywood cutouts leading to the hidden source of the magical Juice.
The Fantasyland Autopia (and yes, it was still a separate attraction in 1991) was transformed into Chip ’n Dale Rescue Rangers Raceway. The track remained the same, but thanks to another set of colorful plywood cutouts, drivers now maneuvered themselves out of the evil clutches of Fat Cat and his gang.
For many guests, this was the last opportunity to experience the Motor Boats. They closed permanently on January 11, 1992. The Fantasyland Autopia operated during peak seasons through most of the 90s, closing for good on September 7, 1999, after which it was incorporated into the expanded Autopia attraction that still operates today.
The Disneyland Railroad also got into the act, with the Fantasyland/Videopolis Station becoming The Disney Afternoon Train Depot. The new overpass directly east of the depot was also incorporated. A large billboard-style facade was placed behind the overpass, and became the entrance to a meet and greet opportunity. Excited fans could meet Baloo in his dressing room, and even take a photo with him. If this sounds kind of familiar, it is because this was sort of a public trial for what would become Mickey’s Movie Barn in Toontown.
One attraction that seems to have left no impact whatsoever was the Afternoon Avenue Videocade, sponsored by Capcom, the publishers of Mickey Mousecapade, Duck Tales, Chip ’n Dale’s Rescue Rangers, and, of course, Adventures in the Magic Kingdom. There is scant information available about this, despite the fact that it was dedicated by Disneyland President Jack Lindquist and film star Macaulay Caulkin.
After all the fun and excitement of Afternoon Avenue, guests could head back into the rest of Disneyland simply by looking for that balloon marquee, towering above the entrance. Only the Matterhorn could dwarf it.
The Disney Afternoon Live! was a promotion— and it was promoted within the park as well. The Disney Afternoon Celebration was a cavalcade that stepped down the Disneyland parade route at regular intervals during the day. Thematic design elements like a little red schoolhouse and big yellow school bus emphasized the fact that this was waiting on your TV every day after school. The music for the Celebration was derived from all four series, as well as the catchy theme song for the Disney Afternoon itself (and… rapping Baloo!).
Before the promotion ended in November, there was a grand apotheosis of corporate synergy on September 14, 1991. Disney’s KCAL-TV 9 (this was before they had purchased ABC TV) aired a one-hour special all about The Disney Afternoon Live! at Disneyland. Added into the mix was a featurette about the making of Splash Mountain, as well as upcoming projects from the Walt Disney Company. Since KCAL also broadcast The Disney Afternoon, this meant they were promoting a promotion that was a promotional event for their own programming!
Next month: An in-depth look at the Disney Afternoon Live! stage show, Plane Crazy.