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Unofficial Guide's Disney Dish Podcast Episode 53: Holiday Bonus Episode


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Unofficial Guide's Disney Dish Podcast Episode 53: Holiday Bonus Episode

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Len: Welcome to another edition of the Unofficial Guide Disney Dish Podcast with Jim Hill. It is I, Len Testa and we're back with Jim. And because each and every one of you have been such good boys and girls throughout the year, we've made a bonus holiday episode of the Unofficial Guide Disney Dish Podcast. Jim and I are going to talk about the history of Christmas at the Animal Kingdom park, at Disney's Hollywood Studios and also the history of New Years Eve in Walt Disney World. And to do that, I welcome back Jim Hill to the show. Jim, Merry Christmas!


Jim: Merry Christmas to you as well, Len.


Len: How's it going?


Jim: Not bad, not bad. What Len's trying to say is in the last two shows we actually forgot about these two theme parks.


Len: And New Years Eve. But whatever. That's fine.


Jim: It's a busy time of year. Things, you know,


Len: Exactly.


Jim: We're checking things off the list and like "Oh. Oh."


Len: "Oh, there's that."


Jim: Yeah.


Len: Those parks. Interesting, interesting.


Jim: But, I mean, just to jump into it, the nice thing about MGM was it was Michael Eisner's baby so. As a direct result of which where the other theme parks sort of had to grow their holiday decoration programs gradually, it wasn't a budget line item right out the gate. Because Eisner was so hands on with MGM, from the first year they had some spectacular holiday decorations.


Len: Really?


Jim: Well yeah. And the nice thing is because MGM was supposed to be the Hollywood that never was but always will be, it had holiday decorations that echoed the golden age of Hollywood. So it's late Nineteen Thirties, early Nineteen Forties. So you had these... lots of oversized holiday ornaments and they actually used to bring in a crane and drop an oversized Christmas hat on top of the Earful Tower. But for a lot of people what was really cool about this park is that right in front of the Chinese Theatre they put up an enormous Christmas tree but under the tree they had tis very cool Hollywood-themed Christmas train layout. Did you ever,


Len: Really?


Jim: Did you ever get the chance to see that?


Len: No. No no. We were too poor to go during Christmas when I was growing up, Jim.


Jim: Okay. Well, I believe this is on Youtube. You can chase this down but what was coo about it was the train actually starts off by rolling past a copy of LA's Union Station. It would then roll by the Hollywood Hills which actually had a tiny little Hollywood sign on it and the Hollywood Bowl. And but the best part is they then roll by Disney Studios from the Forties. So you had the animation building and you had the water tower and then... But where it got really really surreal is its final thing it drove by before completing the loop, was a mini version of the Chinese Theatre that had been positions right in front of the Chinese Theatre.


Len: And in front of the little Chinese Theatre there's a small train running.


Jim: Yeah. Now that would have been cool. Somebody should have thought of that. All right. Well, yeah. "Why yes, it's a Mobious Trip (???). Thank you for asking!" So.


Len: Exactly.


Jim: But at the same,


Len: How big was this train? I mean, how big was the tree?


Jim: The tree was, I wanna say forty to fifty feet tall. And the train was bigger than HO scale. So... 'cause the buildings were two feet, thereabouts. The Hollywood Hills was maybe five or six feet tall. It was, again, it was just a sweet, little touch that, again, just sort of locked the park into that Thirties and Forties era. But again, Disney being Disney, that was never enough and they were... so two to three years after the park opened, they were still... You know, the Magic Kingdom had its Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Parade and Epcot was just getting its Holidays Around the World thing up out of the ground and Studio knew they needed something. And this was the year Macy's came at Disney and said, "Hey, how would you like to do a new character balloon for the parade?" And Disney came back and said, "Well, how do you feel about Santa Goofy?" And they're like "Okay, we could do that." And but you have to understand that the balloons in the parade are paid for by the corporations that put, that own those characters.


Len: Sure.


Jim: And so Disney was like, "All right, tell you what. We'll pay for a Goofy balloon if you allow us to bring it and another couple of balloons back down to Disney MGM for Christmas." And that actually happened. Now, you know,


Len: Those balloons are huge though. I mean,


Jim: Well, yeah. You nailed it. They, for example, the Santa Goofy balloon- sixty five feet tall and took ten thousand eight hundred cubic feet of helium to fill. But,


Len: Wow.


Jim: But seriously, from December Fifth of Ninety Two through January Third of Ninety Three they had five balloons tethered backstage on York Street for what was,


Len: There's no way you can hid balloons that big.


Jim: Well, seriously, if you... for the notes of the show, if you want to grab this. Some great publicity shots of... it's Goofy, Betty Boop, Kermit the Frog, Humpty Dumpty, and I'm blanking the other balloon that was back there. But they were there for what was called Macy's New York Christmas. And they... each night they had a sort of a street lighting ceremony back there and you could get hot chocolate and buy roasted chestnuts. But you nailed it. These giant balloons tethered in place proved to be very very problematic. When the wind came up they'd drift a bit and bash into buildings and suffer leaks and,


Len: Yep.


Jim: Likewise, they were on display for twenty nine days fully inflated, so. And the balloons in the parade are never inflated that long. They're inflated the night,


Len: No. Forty eight... I mean, seventy two hours tops, right?


Jim: In fact, just a quick side note here, if you ever get the chance to go down to New York the night before Thanksgiving, you gotta go up to... It's up by the Natural History Museum. They actually, the balloons are inflated in place there. And then brought out on the parade route. So they got them under these enormous cargo nets that are then held down by sandbags. And they fill them probably seven eighths of the way. It's only just before they go out, you know, they step off... And these giant tanker trucks full of helium. You know, just give them that last spritz and then send them out the door.


Len: Really?


Jim: Yep. Though my favorite part of the Macy's story is, you know, you look at the people, they're walking down the parade route and they're wearing their coveralls that match the color of the thing, the balloon they're carrying. Which you don't understand is like ninety five percent of these people are Macy's employees from around the country who have just spent the night on a bus driving into New York.


Len: Really?


Jim: So, yeah, seriously. I mean, just as far away as Maine. They drive in and they get their first and only balloon handling training on those side streets as they've just come off the bus. It's like, so the Balloon Captain quickly walks them through the,


Len: "Here, hold this."


Jim: No, that's it exactly! So that's why when you're watching a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on television and it looks like the balloons have gotten out of control for some reason or go into a light pole, there's a reason. That's a person whose been trying to sleep on a bus for eight hours. So it's like, "Here's your balloon."


Len: And on the job training, right? On tv in front of millions of people.


Jim: There ya go. So.


Len: Wow.


Jim: So anyway, jump ahead. Neither Macy's nor Disney was ultimately happy with the Macy's New York Celebration. I mean, the balloons took a beating, and the colors faded in the sun. So Macy's New York Christmas was only done one year at MGM. And it would actually be another nine years before Macy's would partner with another Orlando area attraction at Universal Studios Florida to create Macy's Holiday Parade. It's worth noting that Universal had learned from Disney's mistakes. They never brought the full-sized character balloons down. The balloons that actually appear in the parade at Universal Studios of Florida... they're the smaller size what, um, what Macy's calls their recreation balloons. They're balloons that recreate memorable characters from the parade from the Thirties and the Forties.


Len: Okay.


Jim: And they're... and again, because they didn't do the giant Bullwinkle balloons back then... you know, a hundred feet long and so tall, they're a better fit for the scale of the theme park. And also, learning from Disney's mistake, these balloons, once they finish marching around the park, they just, they take them backstage and they're tethered inside of a soundstage so the wind can't knock them around and the sun can't face the colors. So. Anyway, back to Disney. As an experiment, the Macy's thing on New York Street... and again, just to double back here. Let's remember that area was never designed for pedestrian traffic. The original plan that you only experience this part of the park from the tram. You're supposed to zoom past those facades and take picture son the fly and not be able to walk up close to them. But Disney know knew that okay, a holiday event would fit back there. But what sort of event? Anyway, it's now June of Ninety-Five, the guys at MGM are still wracking their brains trying to come up with their own Candle Light Procession. And Bruce Laval comes into work that morning and says, "Did you see last night on CNN? The Arkansas Superior Court just- oh, Supreme Court- just told this guy in Little Rock he can't put up his Christmas lights display." And it was one of these things where the guys go and they turn on CNN and they watch footage of Jennings Bryan- Osborne's house. And it's like, "Ooooooh,"


Len: Noooo.


Jim: So, you know, Bruce,


Len: "Dear Mr. Osborne,"


Jim: Absolutely, absolutely. So but the weird thing of it is, you know, Jennings in getting a lot of mail and a lot of inquiries at this point so it's just sort of like... he initially gets this call from Disney and he just can't understand what it's about. It's like, "You want me to come down to Orlando and decorate a street?" And, "Tell you what. Put it in writing." And it's like, "All right." So Bruce goes back to his office, writes up a letter, sends it to Jennings and then goes on vacation for two weeks. And he comes back and there's this giant box on his desk that's filled with candy canes and photos and. It turns out that Jennings is this huge Disney fan and when  he figured out that "You want me to come into the parks and decorate? Oh, I'm there. I'm there. I gotta do this. You know, you have to come to my house."  And so,


Len: You have to come to my house?


Jim: Well, that was when Disney learned how difficult this was going to be.  Because Jennings... again, this had been going on for a couple years at this point. That, again, you gotta understand that over the nine years that Jennings had been doing this to entertain his daughter Breezy, this had grown from  a thousand red lights to millions of... You're talking seventy foot tall Christmas trees, a hundred angels with flapping wings.


Len: Just for his daughter.


Jim: Just for his daughter. But in order to try to keep the peace in the neighborhood, Jennings whose independently wealthy had purchased the houses of the two neighbors on either side of him who had been bitching and moaning the most about the lights initially.


Len: Sure.


Jim: And so when Disney shows up, Jennings has basically turned these houses to either side of him plus putting storage sheds out back, into where he kept his lights. And so the Disney guys are walking around looking and these are all lights that you can basically go down to Walgreens and buy. But he has  millions of them!


Len: Wow.


Jim: And, you know, just fifty to a hundred bulbs to each strand of lights and it's like... and so they were envisioning doing something with this on Residential Street and it's like, "Well what are we going to do?" It's like, "I got no clue." But next thing you know, the Mayflower vans show up, they fill four full sized Mayflower trucking vans with the lights and zoom them down to Orlando. They get there November Fourth. Now you have to understand, this event is supposed to open on the Twenty Fourth. So, they're just going twenty four seven and at one point about ten days out they called Jennings and say, "Can you come down here 'cause we can figure out how some of this stuff works." And it's like, "Well, no, but I can send down some of my guys who help me do it every year."


Len: Some of my guys.


Jim: Some of my guys. Some of the local guys who just... And they come down and they get it all set up. And it opens and it's a huge success right out of the gate. And more to the point, Disney loves it because Jennings doesn't want any money.


Len: [Heavenly music noises]


Jim: Right? What Jennings wants 'cause he's such a big Disney fan is like, "Look. What I want is you comp me and my family hotel rooms and just comp our stay. We want to come down and enjoy the lights." So every year from December Twenty-Fourth to January Third, Disney would put Jennings and his family- and it's a pretty big family, to be fair here- up at the Grand Flo. And they'd come out and turn on the lights and. And the weird thing is  that of course because this is all basically store bought stuff, Disney kept having to replace things because they would break over the years. So now there's very little of what originally Jennings bought and created there. But at the same time... and they've also moved it from Residential Street to the New York area starting in Ninety Five. So, it's... but at the same time it's been such, so successful and... here's the problem though. Again, it was a ten year deal, and again, Jennings didn't want money, which Disney loved. But if you'd work the math, Len, from when this opened in Ninety Five to now, we're coming up on the ten year renewal.


Len: Oooh.


Jim: And the Osborne family now... Jennings passed away in Two Thousand Eleven. The surviving family members do want to renew the deal but this time around they want a licensing fee. And,


Len: Really.


Jim: Yeah. And that's, that's gonna be a challenge. And, well, all right. Just to take a step back now. Are you aware of the show that ABC- it's a new reality series that began running about, uh, we're recording this just a couple days before Christmas now, this began running on ABC probably a week, two weeks ago. It's called The Great Christmas Light Fight.


Len: No.


Jim: It's worth checking out. In fact, the final episodes are actually airing this evening. We're recording on the Twenty Third of December. But what they basically do, the concept of the show, is they go to four different people around the country have amazing Christmas lights and then they each show off their lights and then it's determined who wins. Disney as part of the show is already soliciting for the  Two Thousand Fourteen season. You know, "If you have a great Christmas lights display, contact us."


Len: Sure.


Jim: What the belief is, within the company, is that Disney is now looking for the next Jennings Osborne. Looking for that next display with the notion that why pay somebody to license,


Len: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.


Jim: When you can take this entire area, I mean, and again, you've got Sylvania on board as your sponsor and you just now dedicate it to the Great Christmas Light Fight.


Len: Yeah, you each have like four families come in and just... Oh, and you get variety.


Jim: There you go.


Len: And they would do... Oooh. That's interesting.


Jim: Yeah. So keep an eye on that.


Len: So they would do it in the same Streets of America?


Jim: That's the belief. That, again, this is... right now this is just an idea that's bubbling up within the company. That though, it's hard not to connect the dots, understanding that the negotiation is going on with the Osborne family. But yeah, again, if you've got time tonight, Len, turn it on. Or folks, got o Youtube and check it out. 'Cause this redefines over-the-top. Some of these displays are just amazing. And you could see how just for the publicity and just for the, again, the free synergistic television coverage of, "Come on down to Florida and decorate our New York Street." You could see them jumping on this idea.


Len: Wow. That's awesome.


Jim: But again, and I know it will upset some people that the Osborne lights are going away but look, things change Len. The only thing you can count on in life is change. And for example when A Hundred Years of Magic promotion kicked in in October of Two Thousand One, with that a hundred and twenty foot tall Sorcerer Mickey hat in front of the Chinese Theatre, that meant that the Studio had to find a different place to put its Christmas tree. And which interestingly enough, they borrowed a page from what they do at Animal Kingdom, which is that the Christmas tree is now located outside of the theme park. By the entrance of the park. And now, at the Animal Kingdom, that's deliberately done for much the same reason that- remember when you couldn't get a straw for the longest time at that theme park?


Len: Yeah. Because,


Jim: You know.


Len: Yeah.


Jim: This is all about protecting the animals. They don't want a colorful light display or elaborate decorations. Something that was eye catching in the park that the animals would then, you know, the birds,


Len: Eat, yeah.


Jim: Eat and die. And two turtle doves lying on the ground dead next to the three French hens. It's like, "We shouldn't have put this here." So but again, that is one of the reasons why the holidays in that park aren't quite as celebrated as loudly or as crazily as the other parks. That, for example, why their holiday parade, the Jingle Jungle is actually just an overlay of the parade that was launched in Two Thousand One, again for A Hundred Years of Magic. They Mickey's Jamming Jungle. And even then it took them three years before they felt they had done enough research on animal-safe materials before they felt confident about putting that put in the parks.


Len: And that's a relatively small scale thing, right? I mean, that's not,


Jim: No, absolutely. But again, that's always been the problem with that park. It was always built- Rohde deliberately built it so it couldn't have a parade.


Len: Haha, and still.


Jim: Yeah. "Get me a Pargo, I'm gonna drive it thought here." but at the same time, look. Disney fans already knew about the change out of... how Jamming Jungle was going to change to Jingle Jungle in Two Thousand Four because of course on Christmas Day Two Thousand Three they had been sitting at home in front of television screens watching the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade. Which actually started out life as a syndicated television special with Joan Lunden and Mike Douglas as hosts.


Len: Joan London and Mike Douglas.


Jim: Yeah, yeah. And interesting thing, Len. This year is actually the thirtieth anniversary of what many outsiders have called basically a two hour long commercial for everything the Walt Disney Company is doing,


Len: Oh yeah, totally. Everybody knows that, right?


Jim: In the coming years. But it turns out it wasn't their first real attempt as a Christmas special. And I know we've talked previously in the earlier editions about the episodes of the Disney, the Wonderful World of Color and Wonderful World of Disney that actually did mention the holidays in the park. But the first stand alone holiday special was actually... It was called Christmas at Disneyland and it aired in December of Seventy Six and what's really kind of cool about this was that they wanted to do ice skating at Disneyland.


Len: Sure, why not.


Jim: So what they did is they took these two foot square tiles of plastic and layed them down on Main Street USA from the Market House all the way up to the Town Square and then they sprayed them with silicon to make them suitable for skating and then layed out- they sprayed the building with the same foam you use for when a plane is about to crash. So it's, but then so now it's,


Len: Festive.


Jim: That's festive. But now, so, here's Mickey Mouse skating on these sheets of plastic. And what was really kind of cool about it is that the guy who was dressed in the Mickey Mouse costume who was skating, that was actually Paul Castle. This was the- he actually started his career in the Ice Capades. He was- and in fact, if you've ever seen that awful footage, or those awful costumes the opening day of Disneyland? The ones they borrowed from the Ice Capades?


Len: Yeah, yeah, yeah.


Jim: Those are the ones Paul used to skate in.


Len: Those are the ones with the... they're really top heavy and they've got essentially lycra legs... like stick people legs.


Jim: Yeah. But this is the thing. Paul... but Paul was one of these guys who was an athlete but perfectly proportioned. Just four feet tall and when Walt saw him and when they put him in the Mickey Mouse costume it's like "That's the guy." And Walt actually hired him away from the Ice Capades so he,


Len: Really?


Jim: Would be Disneyland's Mickey Mouse. And he was- that's what they referred to him. He was the Main Mouse if you... whenever you see a picture of Walt with Mickey, that's Paul in the outfit. Because  Paul was short enough... that was the height that Walt believed the character should be. But to bring this kind of full circle here, because of Paul's height, he often got asked to do some very strange things. And one of them was in, this was about a year or two after they opened the Matterhorn. And Disneyland decided they were going to do their first ever really big New Years Eve Party. And somebody- and I wanna be careful here to credit this story to Tim O'Day, a good friend and a great publicist to the Disney Company. He actually has, I mean, he's shown footage of this. Len, this is I swear to God, this actually happened, all right. Because the idea was that in, much in the way that the fireworks for Disneyland starts off, with Tinkerbell sliding down that wire from the Matterhorn.


Len: Uh huh.


Jim: What they decided to do for New Years Eve was they were gonna throw Baby New Year off of the Matterhorn,


Len: Sure. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this idea.


Jim: Okay, and they tell Paul! All right. So now you have to understand that Paul,


Len: "Oh that's an interesting idea. Who are you going to get for Baby New Year?" Long pause. Awkward pause.


Jim: You have to understand, Paul was, in his previous life, before he began skating, was a sailor. And swore like a sailor. So,


Len: Oooh.


Jim: All right. So they, it's like, "Look, we're gonna give you a lot of money to do this," and initially he says yes. So now it's New Years Eve, I wanna say Sixty Two. And he climbs up the stairs to the top of the Matterhorn and he's dressed as a Baby New Year,


Len: What year is this?


Jim: This is Sixty Two. Okay. So they had just started doing Tinkerbell.


Len: So Walt's still alive.


Jim: Walt's still alive. All right.


Len: All right, okay.


Jim: All right, so... and again, I think they actually showed this footage at a D23 animation event at one point. But basically picture Nineteen Sixty Three and it's at night and it's dark but people are festive and they've got eight trumpeters on top of the Castle getting ready for the moment. Meanwhile, at the top of the Matterhorn, Paul has actually now looked out over the edge of the wire he's up,


Len: This is the test.


Jim: And it's like... no, this is the actual night. He's,


Len: That's what I'm saying. This is, again, on the job training.


Jim: And he's like, "No, I'm not doing this."


Len: Haha, yeah. Uh huh. "I think, Gentlemen, it is time to renegotiate my contract."


Jim: And they physically pick- (???)- they pick him up and at the "Three Two One!" And they throw him off of the mountain, all right. And,


Len: "Oh yes you are!"


Jim: So there's this great film footage of the spotlight hits Baby New Year and his arms are flailing but not in a happy joyful way.


Len: Like the "I'm falling oh god oh god."


Jim: Yeah. But not only that, but you can just make out enough- you don't really have to be a lip reader to get the sense of what Paul is saying as he slides down the  mountain.


Len: Expressing surprise and displeasure with the situation.


Jim: There you go. So look at it this way, folks. No matter how Two Thousand Thirteen has been for you or what you've got planned for New Years Eve this year, it's gotta go better than what happened to Paul Castle back in Nineteen Sixty Two. Yeah. But as far as New Years go at the Disney theme parks, that for me is the most memorable. The swearing Baby New Year sliding over the castle into the mattress that they're holding up just off stage in Fantasyland.


Len: Is there video of this?


Jim: There's actual- there's footage. I don't know if they allowed people at the D23 Expo- but tell you what. I will get a hold of Tim O'Day for you, Len. And at the very least, we will get it to you. So you can have the joy, the pleasure, the wonder of watching this swearing Baby New Year fly across the sky.


Len: I hope he doesn't like PTSD or anything. If you have a link, I'll post links to it on the show next.


Jim: I'll see what I can do.


Len: Awesome.


Jim: But anyway, that... I mean, don't get me wrong folks. I know we haven't touched on everything. We haven't, for example, gotten into Winter Summerland over at the, next to Blizzard Beach. But that's- and just as Len and I were talking about with Osborne Lights potentially giving away to the  Great Christmas Light Fight. This is, Disney is very dynamic when it comes in regard to the holidays. Has a lot of history and there's a lot of history yet to come. Well, I'm sure we'll circle around to this story yet again and talk about all the stuff we forgot to talk about this time. So.


Len: That's great. Great episode, Jim. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do next year. And like you said, if you have that video, let me know.


Jim: I will do my damnest, Len.


Len: All right, folks. Thanks very much for listening. I hope you enjoy the rest of your holidays. For Jim, this is Len. You've been listening to the Unofficial Guide Disney Dish Podcast with Jim Hill. Please rate us on Itunes, let us know what other episodes you'd like to hear us tackle next. For Jim, this is Len. We will see you on the next show.



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