When I think of Disneyland I think of Chicago, BDSM, mud wrestling, and playing FMK with the Disney Princesses (and a dog). And this is not even the most insane sequences in Disneyland's 35th Anniversary Celebration, which makes it a Top 5 special for me. I shouldn't get ahead of myself, lets dive into something that could only be produced in the 1990s with lots of celebrity favor from Michael Eisner, drugs, and some of the craziest writers around.
This special really locks in the variety show format with very distinct sketches and a musical segment designed around various aspects of the Disneyland experience. While previous and future specials will also share this format, none of them lean as much into the nightmarish aspect as the Disneyland 35th. The writing staff must have gone to Disneyland once on a bad cold after taking way more than the requested dose of NyQuil. I cannot stress this enough, I had nightmares about this special as a kid.
Talking about the writing, unlike other specials that feature characters from multiple shows or movies in them this special feels like it was written by the series writers. Cheers feels like Cheers, the Muppets feel incredibly natural, and Ernest is... Ernest (I hate Ernest).
Connecting all these skits is Tony Danza as our host and Charles Fleischer the character actor. Tony's our exasperated host being whisked location to location with his "gosh golly" grin and Charlie is there to cause mayhem and insanity. Tony nearly dies on the Jungle Cruise, talks to C3PO, hangs out with characters, and introduces segments while Charles tries to kill Tony, tries to lead Miss Piggy down a road of minimum wage theme park work, and tries to scare Woody from Cheers. Charles nearly steals the whole show if it wasn't for my absolute favorite segment.
Miss Piggy and Gonzo bring the house down with their chaotic, slapstick, and bat shit insane ploy to get a teen age Piggy to play Cinderella. While Jim is not credited or featured in the special you can sense his charm and silliness in the special (Jim would die only several months after this special aired in February 1990). Piggy ends up scrubbing a castle (not sure who's it could be since this is about Cinderella) when her Fairy God...thing shows up to grant her three wishes she promptly waists on platitudes about Gonzo, with my favorite being "I wish you were more serious" which turns Gonzo in a businessman. Not deterred by fate Piggy enlists Gonzo in several schemes to incapacitate Cinderella for Piggy to take over. Everyone ends up happy, Piggy in the parade as Cinderella and Gonzo talking to the real Cinderella about polygamy and nostrils.
The Disneyland 35th Anniversary Celebration is less celebration and more a love letter to the park. Characters wistfully look back at prior visits and dig deep into nostalgia as chaos and the 90s runs amuck around the boarders. This isn't the Disneyland that existed but the Disneyland we remember, as mind warping and dangerous as we imagined it was.
Michael Eisner, by his own constant admission, knows how to make a TV special. When he was just 25 years old, he was the Manager of Specials and Talent at the then-in-very-last-place ABC network, where he was in charge of creating and producing any major special the television executives decreed. In 1967, he was tasked with creating a special for a new theme park business that ABC had a new financial stake in: Marine World. Construction was just being completed on the San Francisco-area aquatic-themed park, and ABC wanted to produce an opening special similar to the 700 other theme park opening specials since the opening of Disneyland.
Through his experience with the Marine World special, Eisner learned the lessons he would carry with him through his later career at ABC, Paramount, and finally Disney. Every one of the TV specials made during Eisner’s tenure at these companies followed the same basic principles:
1) Find a celebrity host. In 1967, Eisner saw that ABC had a deal with Bing Crosby in exchange for the broadcasting rights for his Pebble Beach golf tournament. Bing owed ABC a show of some kind. Eisner called him up and signed him to host the special.
2) Have as many circus performers or celebrity cameos as possible and have them interact in/around the big headliners at the park. The Marine World special was packed to the gills with performances, including a water-skiing elephant.
3) Sign a popular musical act. In 1967, this act was called the Young Rascals. Since it was 1967, they had a hit song called Groovin’ (I’m pretty sure every band had a song called Groovin’ in the 60s), so they performed at the park and on TV, and because ABC had literally no shame they christened the special “Feeling Groovy at Marine World.” Aren’t we ever.
Practically all Disney specials during the Michael Eisner era adhered to these tenets, for better or worse. In the case of Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Special, it was for the better.
If Disneyland’s 35th isn’t my favorite Disney special, then it’s certainly near the top of the list. So many different elements make the entire presentation so gloriously hilarious.
A big reason why the 35th Special is so great is because it occurs in a real sweet spot for the parks and for the Disney company in general. By 1990, Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were of the mind that the theme parks were one big money spigot. Seriously, every time they raised admission prices, attendance didn’t drop, and in fact increased due to the rising amount of advertising spots Disney did for Disney World (including the “I’m going to Disneyland/Disney World” sports spots, and a few memorable TV spots starring the Huxtables). Every hotel they opened, even the most expensive ones, sold out constantly at any price point. Every big new attraction generated even more attendance and consumer interest. It was literally the best case scenario for any business: the more you build, the more you get back, automatically. And 1990 was right in that period when the faucet was on full blast.
At Disneyland, the park had just opened three of the biggest attractions in its history: Splash Mountain, Star Tours, and Captain EO. Star Tours and Captain EO especially had very famous celebrities and/or franchise characters, which increased merch sales as well. Disney had also just bought The Disneyland Hotel back from the Wrather Corporation, and with it the rights to build Disney-themed hotels near Disneyland (strange but true folks…for 34 years after Disneyland’s opening Disney did not own the rights to build Disney-themed hotels around Disneyland). Fresh off the success of Disney-MGM Studios, Eisner was more than willing to loosen the purse strings to make Anaheim a destination resort. Not to mention, Disney was also doing well at the box office and had real cache with numerous major stars at the time, many of whom were under contract and more than willing to do a special about Disneyland.
So here we were in 1990, at a time where Disney’s management really cared about the parks, about spending money to make the parks better, about spending money on advertising, and about using celebrities and every weapon in its arsenal to convince America that Disneyland is the best place to visit in the world. So yeah, seatbelts kids.
I can’t get over what an incredible tour de force this special was. I can’t even imagine even one of these segments making it past the Disney upper brass today. And I’m not just talking about its budget, or the celebrity A-Listers involved. I’m talking about the sheer audacity of the script and the VERY non-PC lines and actions scattered throughout the show. Jungle Cruise skippers shooting their pistols directly at Guests. Miss Piggy hijacks Cinderella and steals her place in the parade. Gonzo creeps on Cinderella everywhere. Rap music. None of that could get past the Disney anti-fun brigade today.
The show begins not at Disneyland, but in the bar populated by the cast of Cheers, which just happened to be the most iconic sitcom on TV at the time. This is seriously like Disney starting a Disneyland special today with the cast of The Big Bang Theory or NCIS, and then just seamlessly transitioning to the park. I mean, Disney today wouldn’t pay that much money to so many celebrity TV actors (NOT under contract by Disney) just for a 5 minute burst on a theme park special. And all of the supporting characters are present: Woody Harrelson (who thinks he was at the opening of Disneyland because “they had a parade” that day), John Ratzenberger (jealous that Woody got to meet Goofy and he didn’t), George Wendt as Norm (familiar to Epcot fans as Stomach from Cranium Command), Kelsey Grammar, Annie Potts, and of course Rhea Perlman.
The group somehow prompts Woody to recall that one time as a kid when he went on the Haunted Mansion, and fell in love with a girl who was actually a ghost. Apart from the fact that the segment is quite possibly the most random aside in the history of television, that is also really creepy. Apart from the following segment, this is the one that really stuck into my head when I was younger and wearing out my VHS tapes. And, since the story literally comes out of nowhere, I didn’t realize that this segment was even part of the 35th special until a few years ago. I had assumed it was a random Wonderful World of Disney segment that would be lost to the ether of old television specials, like Mother Goose Rock n’ Rhyme (seriously kids, check that one out if you’re high on acid).
The next segment (after the speech by someone important, Ronald Reagan I think his name is) is probably the penultimate segment in theme park special history: the most intense Jungle Cruise ride of all time.
Michael Eisner introduces the show, but can’t find the host, Tony Danza (again, another super-popular celebrity that Disney wouldn’t want near a theme park nowadays. This would be like if Nathan Fillion hosted Epcot’s 25th). Tony, of course, has completely abandoned the show so he can be one of the first people of the day to ride the Jungle Cruise. Michael says Tony has to host the show, so Tony cons Goofy into taking his place in line. Eventually the ride opens, and Tony takes his spot back and gets on the ride.
The skipper for the cruise is Charlie Fleischer, the voice of Roger Rabbit (who was BIG back then. Like Tony Stark big. Disney didn’t have many big hit movies until Roger Rabbit was the 2nd-highest grossing movie of 1988. So Eisner and the marketing gurus made sure EVERYONE knew about Roger Rabbit. He’s even featured in the Wonderful World of Disney opening). Fleischer would appear in practically every segment of the show, dressed in a different Cast Member costume (Haunted Mansion butler, balloon vendor, etc.) to show off his repertoire.
So begins the best Jungle Cruise ride of all time. Throughout the journey, the animals and characters featured in the attraction continuously attack the boat like they were featured characters in Dawn of the Dead. Fleischer encourages a Guest to reach out to “pet” Old Smiley, and the Guest promptly gets grabbed and eaten whole. Snakes continuously land in the boat and attack Guests. At one point in the Cambodian section, Fleischer points out the “four” cobras in the temple. But of course, there are only three. The other is, predictably, attacking the woman to Tony Danza’s right and causes her to fall in the river and drown.
Guests are squirted by elephants. Fleischer “misses” the turn in front of Sweitzer Falls and soaks the left side of the boat. The natives throw spears and cause half the boat to jump into the river for safety. And for the piece de resistance, the python grabs ahold of Tony, and as an act of charity, Fleischer continuously shoots at the snake with his pistol as Guests are still in the boat and jumping to safety. It’s so wonderfully silly and non-PC it’s almost like looking into an alternate dimension.
The following segment is great too, with Piggy and Gonzo (in full Jim Henson silliness mode) trying to hijack Cinderella so Piggy can take her place during the parade. And by the way, Piggy is relating this story a conversation with Tony, C-3PO, and the Three Little Pigs. Disney used to make sense, you know?
The special culminates as only a special like this can: with a Disney rap in front of the castle by the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Will Smith. Yes people, this is real. This is what Disney used to be.
We hope you enjoy this ridiculous and off-the-cuff look at a Disney theme park anniversary, one that puts every one from the last 20 years to shame.
-Jeff (@ParkScopeJeff) and Joe (@parkscopejoe)
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