by J.M. McNab & Robert Laronde
There’s always been something inherently insane about Disneyland and Disney World— think about it, why would anyone willingly visit a castle owned by a rodent in a land populated mainly by cartoon characters and robot presidents?
The new film Escape From Tomorrow purports to portray a unique vision of Disney World, one that’s dark and surreal. However, in conjunction with this week’s podcast (which is about Disney World in ‘90s sitcoms), we present to you five made-for-television specials that portrayed Disneyland and Disney World as batshit crazy wonderlands as far back as the ‘80s and ‘90s.
5. MICKEY’S 60TH BIRTHDAY (1988)
Most people spend their 60th birthday receiving humorous greeting cards concerning farts and an inability to maintain an erection; beloved character/corporate trademark Mickey Mouse, on the other hand, celebrated in style. In 1988, Mickey’s 60th birthday was marked with the greatest honor any entertainer could hope to receive: a TV movie.
What followed was a strange mix of eighties sitcom character cameos and a dark, Kafka-esque probe into the nature of identity.
For some reason, the wacky romp finds Mickey angering an evil wizard who, in a disturbingly existential twist, steals Mickey’s identity. There’s still a famous cartoon character named Mickey Mouse, but no one recognizes Mickey to be him, everyone just thinks Mickey is some random jerk. It’s kind of like the plot of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said.
Without his identity, Mickey drifts aimlessly through life—and by life, I mean other television shows. Mickey visits the Keatons from Family Ties, and, when they don’t recognize him, he heads to Cheers. That’s right, facing the slightest adversity Mickey goes straight to a bar…
In addition to Cheers and Family Ties, Mickey visits, in what must have been a special treat for the kids, the set of L.A. Law. It’s a nice little advertisement for NBC’s Prime-Time Lineup sandwiched inside the larger advertisement for Disneyland.
Even more disturbing, with Mickey absent for his big party at Disneyland, Donald Duck is thrown in jail for kidnapping Mickey. Remember when these cartoons used to be about fun things like driving steamships? Eventually Mickey reclaims his identity by singing with Phylicia Rashad for some reason.
4. BELIVE YOU CAN… AND YOU CAN (1983)
In 1983, Disney was ready to reintroduce the newly refurbished Fantasyland to the public. But just as Fantasyland had changed, in the almost thirty years since the park first opened, America had also changed. Even that guy from Disneyland’s grand opening was now president of the United States!
Of course, during the Cold War it wasn’t appropriate for Reagan to visit amusement parks– America had stopped believing in believing.
To remedy this problem, and promote their new Fantasyland attractions, Disney produced a TV special called Believe You Can… And You Can. The special featured Heather O’Rourke, The Dick Van Dyke Show’s Morey Amsterdam as well as all your favorite…
“Wait, O’Rourke? Isn’t that the girl from Poltergeist? The one who died?”
Yes, but please don’t interrupt.
The simple story follows Heather, playing herself, who is upset that her family is moving. Her mom says it’s because of Dad’s job, but she’s lying– it’s totally evil spirits again.
Heather is pretty bummed she hasn’t said goodbye to the Disney mascots, who seem to be her only friends. Naturally, Heather’s brother takes her Disneyland one last time. Also naturally, once there he quickly abandons her to mack on his girlfriend over at the Haunted Mansion (presumably because she is a ghost, and Heather’s brother is Woody from Cheers—more on that later).
Sadly, Heather discovers that Fantasyland is mysteriously closed. This is where it gets creepy; the park is completely empty, it’s like the rapture happened and only Heather was left behind.
Suddenly she’s accosted by some kind of demon who’s taken the form of Morey Amsterdam. He begins spouting some nonsense about “believing” that sounds like he’s inducting her into a cult.
Finally he takes Heather to see her beloved Disney characters, but they all decide that her “believing” isn’t strong enough, so they do what Disney characters do best: they teach her a lesson through song! No, wait, I’m wrong—they put the poor eight-year-old girl on trial and threaten to execute her by decapitation. Seriously.
In this dangerously dystopian Disneyland, anyone can be put on trial at any time apparently. It’s scary. The Witch from Snow White berates Heather while Winnie the Pooh nods in agreement and Mickey Mouse applauds—
No lie, this is the scariest infomercial in existence. Am I supposed to want to take my kids here? When is Timmy’s turn to be put on trial?
Producers may have thought only a horror veteran like O’Rourke would be tough enough to get through filming these horrific events, but couldn’t they have found an actress with a little more charisma? Was Drew Barrymore unavailable?
3. EPCOT Center: The Opening Celebration (1982)
Oh, Drew Barrymore was already in a Disney special. Just a few short months before Believe You Can… And You Can was released, Disney aired this special featuring the OTHER talented young actress Steven Spielberg discovered in 1982. Also Danny Kaye.
The purpose of this special was to celebrate the opening of EPCOT Center. EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) was originally envisioned to be a cutting edge model city and community that Walt Disney would use to test ideas of urban planning. Sounds boring, right? Well, luckily Walt Disney died and his successors were like, “Mm, let’s just build a giant golf ball and some world pavilions.”
The two major parts of EPCOT are Future World and World Showcase; the former showing what people from the 1980s believed the future (i.e. the early 2000s) would be like. They were WAY off. For example Danny Kaye tells Drew Barrymore she’ll probably go to high school in outer space. That did not come to pass. It would have been more accurate if he’d said that instead of going to school, Drew would be so high it seemed like she was in outer space. Partial credit to Mr. Kaye.
Drew introduces Danny Kaye to a robot, who introduces them to an imagination wizard, who has a pet dragon, and this is when you start to wonder what was in the brownie your roommate just gave you.
Then we move on to the World Showcase, colloquially known as Stereotype Land– I’m sorry, but Canadians aren’t all Mounted Police Officers and Lumberjacks. Many of us are merely fur traders or log drivers.
We also visit Alex Haley, the author of Roots, who tells us about the Equatorial Africa pavilion (that never actually opened) and a guy who looks a lot like John C. Reilly sings “This Land Is Your Land”– but if that song is true then why do I have to pay admission to get inside?
2. KRAFT SALUTES WALT DISNEY WORLD’S 10th ANNIVERSARY (1982)
Appropriately, this 10th anniversary special is a quality program in the same way Kraft Dinner is a gourmet meal. Beginning with an excruciating musical montage, father Dean Jones rounds up his apathetic family, including son Ricky Schroder, shoves them in an old station wagon bound for Walt Disney World.
Once at Disney World they rendezvous with Aunt Angelique (played by the great Eileen Brennan) who for some unknown reason is caring for a small Asian boy named Bobby who won’t say anything, either because he’s really shy or Stockholm Syndrome has taken effect.
Also, for some other unknown reason, Brennan’s character is perpetually wearing a cowboy hat, and instead of staying in a fancy hotel with the rest of the family, she goes camping with Bobby at Fort Wilderness to “give him an appreciation of the old West,”– you know, that time period that was so fun for Asian-Americans.
Doesn’t sound so strange to you? Did I mention the bellboy at the hotel is a manic, smarmy Michael Keaton?
Not only is he smarmy, he actually drops the family’s luggage as he leers at a female guest who walks by. Apparently, despite it’s squeaky-clean reputation, Disney World is mainly staffed by inept perverts.
Then they sing a bunch more songs while they explore the park, including one where the mother and daughter (along with clerk Michael Keaton who apparently has to work two jobs at Disney World) launch into a tune about buying gifts for all their friends and family in the gift shop. This isn’t a satirical parody of corporate consumerism, someone actually wrote a song about buying shit in a gift shop.
Eventually, the whole family goes out for a nice dinner at a fancy restaurant where, surely, the waiter won’t also be Michael Keaton–
1. DISNEYLAND’S 35th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL (1990)
If you were to spend an evening drinking moonshine, consuming expired dairy products, and obsessively watching sitcoms from the eighties and nineties, your ensuing dreams would probably look a lot like Disneyland’s 35th Anniversary Special.
Ostensibly to commemorate the park’s anniversary, while simultaneously advertising its many attributes, the 1990 special features an eclectic roster of entertainers so diverse it’s as if the show was booked by a chimpanzee throwing darts at a 1990 TV Guide.
Like any tolerable trip to Disneyland, this one begins with a visit to a bar–specifically Cheers (again). The popular sitcom’s characters are discussing, not surprisingly, Disneyland. The conversation takes a disturbing turn when the affable barflies begin discussing which Disney character they find the most sexually attractive– The Little Mermaid, Snow White, or Cliff’s contribution, Lady from Lady and the Tramp. You know, the dog.
Perhaps hoping to distract from the lingering unpleasantness, Woody tells everyone a story about the time he visited Disneyland as a child. In a flashback we see an Are You Afraid of the Dark-esque vignette in which Woody rides The Haunted Mansion, and falls in love with a young girl who turns out to be a ghost…
Within only ten minutes, this special managed to introduce both bestiality and necromancy into the Cheers universe.
Eventually, Disney CEO/soulless mannequin Michael Eisner introduces Tony Danza as the host. Danza is our guide through a bizarre melting pot of pop-culture icons, the strangest of which is perhaps when he meets C-3P0 and R2D2. Frankly, it`s weird to see any element of the Star Wars universe interacting with Tony Danza– Witnessing C-3P0 address him as Master Tony (presumably because he is, in fact, The Boss) may be one of the strangest moments in television history.
As for THE strangest moment in television history, that occurs when Danza rides the Jungle Cruise. Now, you might assume that this whole special is basically just an advertisement for Disneyland– but you’d be incorrect. If it were, why in God’s name would they include a scene in which Disneyland patrons are casually murdered by animatronic animals. This isn’t a joke, this happens.
First a man falls into the river and is eaten by a crocodile.
Disturbingly, the ride’s operator doesn’t seem to notice or care that one of his passengers has just been brutally killed. Next a woman is strangled by a snake–
Still the operator takes no notice… but when Tony is being strangled, finally the operator responds to the emergency situation in a manner that I can now only assume is standard procedure for all Disneyland employees: by wildly firing a gun into the crowd of families, forcing them to jump off the ship or be killed by an armed madman.
This special is as much of a promotion for Disneyland as Halloween was for kitchen knives. Surprisingly, this upsetting barrage of morally dubious Disney-themed sketches was directed by legendary filmmaker John Landis, and not, say, an illegitimate nephew of Walt Disney who had never made a movie or seen a television show before.
Summing up the rest of the special’s content quickly: the Muppets show up, probably to lighten the show’s “murder-heavy” tone, Jim Varney plays Ernest’s father in the Ernest backstory everyone in 1990 must have been demanding, plus Will Smith (billed as The Fresh Prince) and DJ Jazzy Jeff attempt to permanently eradicate the relevancy of the rap genre with a cover of Hip-Hop pioneer Julie Andrews’ Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.