Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

This week marks another new arrival to Disney+, the eight-episode Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom series, produced by National Geographic. The eight episodes, narrated by Josh Gad, all purport to offer the audience a weekly peek into the inner workings of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, one of the four theme parks of the Walt Disney World Resort, as well as The Seas with Nemo and Friends pavilion at Epcot. In doing so, the series is able to spotlight many of the animals you can encounter at the two theme parks and see how countless Disney Cast Members spend their days and nights behind the scenes ensuring these animals stay healthy. 

It’s a fine idea, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, because it lets plenty of viewers experience a theme park outside of just watching a YouTuber in Orlando brave the possibility of getting sick to walk around a half-empty Magic Kingdom. (Y’know, ‘cause of the whole pandemic.) The good news is that if you love looking at adorable animals, from feisty giraffes to sleek stingrays, Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be lots of fun to experience. (If you are less enamored of Mr. Gad and his Olaf-like personality, then…find the mute button. His narration is very Disneynature-like in its abundance.)

But theme-park fans are no doubt familiar and frustrated with the lack of theme-park specials you can find on Disney+, almost a year after the service went live. These days, you may find it hard to believe, but there are plenty of Disney theme-park specials that aired on national TV that could easily find a home on the streamer and may offer an entertaining glimpse at the company’s past. With no further ado, let’s highlight ten of those specials, many of which you can watch right now…but not on Disney+.

Dateline: Disneyland (1955)

What must it have been like to be there on the opening day of the original Disney theme park? You don’t have to wonder: you can find out by watching this live TV special that aired on July 17, 1955, and was hosted by – among others – future U.S. President Ronald Reagan. (Kids, there was a time when a performer becoming the leader of the free world was considered an impossible joke. Ah, simpler times.) You may already know that the opening day of Disneyland was not without its gaffes, and the same is true of Dateline: Disneyland. But this roughly produced special is a valuable piece of American cultural history, and it’s been made available on previous DVD releases. Having seen the special (via a Walt Disney Treasures DVD set), and knowing that not all of the older titles on Disney+ look HD-level pristine, this is one glimpse back that could show up immediately on the streamer to the delight of many fans.

Disneyland After Dark (1962)

Now, don’t get your hopes up: there’s nothing genuinely adult or mature about this episode of the Walt Disney anthology TV series in spite of the title. The hourlong special does take place at Disneyland, and does take place primarily at night, but that’s as close as you’re going to get. The setup of the episode is that Walt himself (who was clearly filmed in front of a screen instead of at the park, but let’s not get too picky) is inviting the audience to see some of the nighttime entertainment at Disneyland, from Tahitian dancers and firewalking in Adventureland to a jazzy performance on the Mark Twain Riverboat to some ’60s-era pop music in Tomorrowland. This special is most notable for the amount of legitimately famous folks caught performing in Disneyland, from the Osmond Brothers (in their first TV appearance) to former Mouseketeer Annette Funicello to a centerpiece performance on the riverboat led by jazz legend Louis Armstrong. This special was part of a Walt Disney Treasures DVD set, so once again, say it with me: there’s no good reason why this hasn’t arrived on Disney+ yet.

The Golden Horseshoe Revue (1962)

This episode of the Walt Disney anthology TV series kicked off its eighth season, allowing guests a full taste of the Golden Horseshoe Revue stage show at the original Frontierland. Though the facsimile of a saloon is still standing – whenever Disneyland reopens, you presumably will be able to stop by and get yourself, among other things, a nice bowl of chili at the saloon – it’s long since changed what amounts to dine-in entertainment. But the original version, featuring Wally Boag as a tooth-chucking traveling salesman with a gift of gab, is captured quite nicely here. There are Disney-friendly guests, too, such as Ed Wynn and Annette Funicello (still a little closer to her days with Frankie Avalon than the Mouseketeers), but this is just a nice way to experience the earliest version of live entertainment at Disneyland. Let your mind unwind for 50 minutes by watching this. 

Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair (1964)

Now, some of you may see this title and think, “Gee, wasn’t this 1964 special supposed to already be on Disney+?” This isn’t a case of wishful thinking on your part: Disney+ had announced in mid-April of 2020 that Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair would indeed arrive in the middle of May. And yet, sadly, that wasn’t the case for reasons unknown. Of the 10 specials listed here, it seems safe to presume that Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair – which highlights the attractions at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York that would go onto become among the most famous and beloved in the Disney theme parks (such as It’s A Small World) – may arrive on the streaming service…soon. If it was being prepped a month out in the spring, it stands to reason that the special is in the offing. (Through October, at least, there are no plans for its arrival.) Here’s hoping, because audiences would no doubt be thrilled to learn how Audio-Animatronic technologies of today were first birthed in the mid-1960s with these attractions.

Disneyland: From the Pirates of the Caribbean to the World of Tomorrow (1968)

For your consideration, this companion piece to Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair. As the original theme park was undergoing expansions in the late 1960s, this special with a lengthy subtitle was a way to document how Pirates of the Caribbean would transport guests back to the time of rum-fuddled looters and pillagers and how it truly was a pirate’s life…for them. There’s also plenty to spotlight regarding the way Tomorrowland was changing with the Carousel of Progress and other attractions that tied into the Space Age of the 1960s. This special, like Disneyland Goes to the World’s Fair, isn’t extremely kitschy, but there is a twist that makes this one a little more bittersweet: it’s one of the first theme-park specials to air after the passing of Walt Disney in 1966. 

The Magic of Walt Disney World (1972)

The early days of Walt Disney World must have been quite delightful to experience, even as there was just the one theme park, instead of four parks along with a couple water parks. Just over a year after the Orlando resort opened, Walt Disney Pictures released a 25-minute short titled The Magic of Walt Disney World and attached it to their 1972 slapstick comedy Snowball Express. Just a couple years later, an expanded version of this featurette appeared on television. Much like The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World – the rare TV special that is available for you to stream right now on Disney+, 70s-era commercials and all – this special highlights Walt Disney World in the days before Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, when it was a very different, but no less alluring, place. When the Magic Kingdom was really the center of focus, with a few hotels nearby, it really did feel magical. For now, you can relive that magic on YouTube, but Disney could easily make it available on Disney+.

EPCOT Center: An Opening Celebration (1982)

Just as there had been opening-day specials for Disneyland Park and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando, so too was there a big, celebrity-filled opening for EPCOT Center, as it was christened in October 1982. Hosted by the beloved entertainer Danny Kaye, EPCOT Center: An Opening Celebration teases the way the park originally embraced the optimistic futurism Walt Disney himself had displayed during his lifetime. (It even teased an Equatorial Africa pavilion, with Kaye speaking with Roots author Alex Haley, which sadly never came to fruition.) Though apocryphal reports imply that Kaye was, perhaps, not the friendliest star to work with, EPCOT Center: An Opening Celebration is a wonderful and thrilling look at what this second Disney World theme park was when it first became reality in the early 1980s. As they say, the 21st century really began with this park, and it’s very enjoyable to see how.

The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening (1989)

For a number of reasons, it was a very big deal that Disney-MGM Studios was being unveiled in the summer of 1989. It was the first new theme park opened by Disney after the arrival of CEO Michael Eisner, it was full of opportunities for celebrity synergy, and it beat Universal Studios Orlando to the finish line. So the TV special heralding the arrival of the new park was appropriately splashy: two hours long (including commercials), with Eisner in a swanky tux, and with lots of era-appropriate celebrities encouraging you to visit. Everyone from the late John Ritter to most of the cast of The Golden Girls were there to greet people, and you can watch it right now…on YouTube, of course. While the park has been drastically redone in the last 30 years, that’s all the more reason to see what audiences of the late 1980s were willing to flock to.

The Muppets at Walt Disney World (1990)

There are a number of good reasons why The Muppets at Walt Disney World should be made available on Disney+. First, as you no doubt know, Disney owns the Muppets in full now. Second, the special – in which Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, and friends visit Walt Disney World – is the last time Jim Henson performed as Kermit on a TV special. (He died just 10 days after this aired on network TV.) It’s a time capsule, of course; the main human actor in the special is Charles Grodin, who you may remember as the sniveling villain in The Great Muppet Caper. (At one point, Kermit is cheered up by a little girl singing “The Rainbow Connection.” Said little girl? Raven-Symone.) You can find bits and pieces of the special chopped up on YouTube, but it ought to reside on the Disney streaming service.

Disney’s California Adventure TV Special (2001)

One of the many joys of watching old theme-park specials is that they are an overload of era-specific kitsch. Consider, if you will, the TV special heralding the arrival of the second theme park in the Disneyland Resort, Disney’s California Adventure. This special is a perfect, if sometimes haunting, time capsule of what entertainment looked like on the ABC network circa early 2001. Though Michael Eisner, still the CEO of the Walt Disney Company at the time, appears, the show’s main stars are Richard Kind and Barry Bostwick, co-stars of Spin City, with guest appearances by improv actors Brad Sherwood and Colin Mochrie, best known at the time as two of the regulars on Whose Line Is It Anyway? Here is a TV special, in short, in which a CEO who no longer works for Disney is joined by actors who are rarely associated with Disney anymore, to hype up a theme park whose name has changed by showcasing many rides and areas which no longer exist. Some parts of Disney California Adventure, as it’s now known, are quite lovely. But this special is a memoriam to the park that could’ve been.

In a way, that’s been the magic of diving down into YouTube for this essay. There are lots and lots more theme-park specials you can find, VHS copies ripped onto the Internet. Maybe one day, someone at Disney+ will realize that an audience exists for a HD version of these specials.

 

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