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How the Imagineers came to create the "Country Bear Christmas Special" show

Jim Hill

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How the Imagineers came to create the "Country Bear Christmas Special" show

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Back when I lived in Central Florida in the early-to-mid 1990s, one of my favorite things to do this time of year was to go into Frontierland at WDW's Magic Kingdom and then catch a performance of "Country Bear Christmas Special."

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There was just something about that version of "The Christmas Song" (which you can hear starting 3:10 minutes into this YouTube recording of the show) which Henry & Teddi Barra perform in this theme park show that always used to give me chills. Made me miss my friends & family back up in New England.

Nowadays, of course, the reverse is true. I live up in the cold & the snow of New Hampshire now. And because the "Country Bear Christmas Special" is no longer presented at any of the stateside Disney Parks ... Well, I find myself really missing that particular rendition of "The Christmas Song."

But you want to know something interesting about the "Country Bear Christmas Special" ? The Imagineers didn't create a holiday version of the "Country Bear Jamboree" because they wanted  to celebrate the season. But - rather - because they were looking to give Disneyland visitors a reason to return to Bear Country.

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Strange but true, folks. Though Walt Disney Productions spent $8 million and relocated more than 250 trees in an effort to make this theme park's old Indian Village area look more like the Great Northwest, Southern Californians obviously weren't all that impressed with this new addition to Disneyland.

By that I mean: The crowds initially came out to this part of the theme park to catch a performance of "Country Bear Jamboree" when Bear Country first opened in March of 1972. But as Bruce Gordon & David Mumford explained in their most-excellent history of The Happiest Place on Earth, "Disneyland the Nickel Tour," at least from an attendance point-of-view, the park's newest addition " ... turned out to be a major letdown."

"And why was that?," you ask. Mumford & Gordon had their theories:

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This new land's main attraction - Country Bear Jamboree - turned out to be its only attraction. The rest of Bear Country consisted of nothing more than a row of Western-styled buildings circling a dead-end street.

The largest building in this new "land" (outside of Country Bear Playhouse) housed the Bear Country restrooms. The porch right in front of the men's room was often used as a stage for Bear Country's singin' cowboys and square dancin' gals. But the real entertainment was watching the startled faces of the guys comin' out of that men's room, still busy hitchin' up their jeans ... suddenly findin' themselves on stage, smack dab in the middle of a show!

Over the years, [whatever the real cause was of the attendance erosion that this part of Disneyland experienced] the problem would reveal itself in the most concrete of terms: the guests simply stopped going to Bear Country. By the end of the decade, it was obvious that something would have to be done.

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As earlier as June 1976, the folks who were in charge of Disneyland's long-range masterplan were discussing what could be done to compel Guests to once again visit the Northwestern corner of this theme park. Among the ideas that were discussed at this time was ...

... the Keel Boats could be moved from their existing location to the Bear Country expansion area removing some of the crowded conditions that presently exist on the river at the Tom Sawyer-Fowler's area. All of this could be (done in a way to compliment) the general woodsy atmosphere of the existing Bear County.

But in the end, relocating the Keel Boats (which was - after all -- a low capacity attraction) didn't seem like it would drive nearly enough Disneyland Guests back  into Bear Country to turn around this part of the Park's low attendance problem. Which was why - in January of 1982 - the Disneyland expansion committee began talking about broadening and/or changing the overall theme of this "land" because  ...

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... Bear Country (remains) a weak draw due to (its) limiting theme and potential attractions based around it. A broader theme would balance it more with Adventureland, Fantasyland, etc.

Which is why the Disneyland expansion committee began talking about shifting Bear Country's storyline, making this part of the Park a celebration of ...

... the deep South, Dixie, Kentucky home, Mark Twain.

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Which - at first glance - may seem like a weird idea. But let's remember that Bear Country abutted The Haunted Mansion. Which - in turn - was at the outer most edge of Disneyland's New Orleans Square. So by turning Bear Country into a nostalgic recreation of the rural south ... Well, that would then make this "land" ...

... a logical outgrowth from the city and plantations (New Orleans Square and The Haunted Mansion).

So with Tony Baxter helping to guide the development of this Bear Country retheming, among the attractions that were proposed for this Disneyland enhancement were a ...

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  • (a theme park version of Hal Holbrook's acclaimed one-man-show) Mark Twain Tonight using the front Country Bear Theatre. A Town Hall façade could be added to the berm, where the overflow queue is. Thus two attractions could be operated (inside of the) existing (structure).
  • (An) Aunt Polly's (restaurant which would serve) country dinners (out) on Polly's porch. (This would involve a) complete restyle on the Hungry Bear Restaurant.
  • Tom Sawyer's Island rafts - new location in the woods at the foot of Aunt Polly's (replaces canoes)

By the time the Disneyland expansion committee reconvened in February of 1982, Baxter and his team had further refined their ideas for this proposed Bear Country redo. Among the ideas that were talked about at this particular meeting was:

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  • Creating a "Fox and the Hound" -themed ride-through attraction where Guests would board cars similar to the Model T that Amos Slade drove and then roll past recreations of scenes from this 1981 Walt Disney Animation Studios production.

Adding a new show scene featuring Tom Sawyer & Huck Finn to the Rivers of America which would then reinforce the new rural South theming of Bear Country.

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The only problem with this plan was that it was going to take at least six months to develop. Plus an additional 15 months to produce all of the necessary show elements as well as complete the on-site construction phase. Now when you factor in the estimated costs of this retheming (which was reportedly north of $30 million) as well as all of the other Disneyland projects that had to take precedence (EX: New Fantasyland) ... It was looking like the earliest that this revised version of Bear Country could come on line was June of 1991. And in the meantime, attendance levels for the Disneyland version of the "Country Bear Jamboree" show continued to steadily erode month after month after month ...

Enter Dave Feiten and Michael Sprout, who - at that time - were newer, younger members of the staff at WED. More importantly, these two had a very different idea than Tony Baxter when it came to solving Disneyland's Bear Country problem.

As Sprout told Betsy Richman in an interview of the Winter 1985 issue of Disney News magazine:

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"(Dave and I) both really like Country Bear Jamboree, and talking about it one day, we decided that those poor bears must get tired of singing those same songs over and over. We decided to try our hand at developing a concept for a new show that would place the bears in an entirely different context."

Feiten then elaborated on the approach that he and Sprout took while developing their concept for a new Country Bear show:

 "We treated the bears as a repertory company, and wrote a new play for them. Costumes, scenery, songs, dialogue and movement are the elements of the show, and once we changed those, we had the equivalent of a skilled troupe of actors cast in a new play. Each bear fit into his or her role so easily, it wasn't hard to think of ways that they'd talk, dress or sing in another environment."

Dave Feiten at the control board, programming the "Country Bear Christmas Special."
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What happened next? Well, as Randy Bright recounted in "Disneyland Inside Story" ...

... WDI creative chief Marty Sklar ... reviewed some rough sketches by two young animation programmers. Each sketch took a specific Audio-Animatronic Country Bear performers and added new costumes, scenery, songs and dialogue, all on the theme of Christmas. Could an existing facility and a familiar set of characters be successfully transformed into an all-new show? The sketches said yes ...

Which is why Sklar put this rethemed Audio-Animatronic show into production in late 1983. Sprout and Feiten worked very closely with George Wilkins to create the music to "The Country Bear Special," and - with the exception of the traditional songs -- the lyrics are the result of a close collaboration between these three.

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 "The Country Bear Christmas Special" opened on November 23, 1984 at Disneyland as well as WDW's Magic Kingdom and immediately became a hit with theme park visitors. So much so that Sklar supposedly ordered Feiten & Sprout to write a second, more-long-lived show for Grizzly Hall / Country Bear Playhouse. Which is why Dave & Michael reunited with George to write the "Country Bear Vacation Hoedown" show, which premiered at both theme parks in February of 1986.

What's more, Feiten & Sprout also allegedly dummied up concepts for Halloween & St. Valentine's Day "Country Bear" shows which WDI was thinking of putting into production. But then ...

Well, the way I heard it, the classic traffic pattern at Disneyland held. In that Guests would go to the new "Country Bear" show for the first year or so, but then -- after that -- the attendance levels for this revamped Bear Country attraction would steadily erode. That coupled with the fact that it took the Imagineers three weeks and a reported $50,000 every time they changed out this show ... And you can see why the management team in Anaheim quickly lost their enthusiasm for WDI's let's-seasonally-change-out-the-show-in-the-Country-Bear-Playhouse idea.

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In short, the folks at Disneyland were looking for a bigger, more permanent solution to their Bear Country problem. Which is where "Splash Mountain" and Critter Country came in.

Anyway ... That's the story of how the "Country Bear Christmas Special" came to be. If you - like me - still miss this seasonal show (which was last presented at Walt Disney World in 2005) ... Well, there's always Tokyo Disneyland. Which is where the "Jingle Bell Jamboree" (i.e. that's the name which this Country Bear holiday show goes by at that theme park) has been presented seasonally since 1988.

Beyond that ... Well, I'm kind of hoping that - as part of the history-of-the-Country-Bear-Jamboree presentation that he's scheduled to give on board the California Zephyr in March of next year as part of Roger Colton's "Walt's Sierra Adventures" train excursion - David Feiten will talk about what the Halloween & St. Valentine's Day versions of Country Bear would have been like.

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So does anyone else out there have fond memories of the "Country Bear Christmas Special?" I mean, I can't be the only person who smiled whenever he heard this exchange.

HENRY: I sure do enjoy singin' with you, Teddi.
TEDDI: Why, thank you, Henry.  Y'all wanna come up and sign my cast?
HENRY: Soon as I can find a pen, I'll be there.

Your thoughts?

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  • They'd better bring this overlay back!

    Personally, I think it's just on hiatus temporarily, due to money being poured into other more long-term investments such as the Fantasyland expansion. Perhaps it'll be back once the expansion is completed.

  • P.S.: I also blame this overlay's absence on the economic recession as well.

  • Anonymous --

    I don't think that it's realistic to blame the economic recession for Walt Disney World's decision not to install the "Country Bear" holiday overlay. I mean, according to most experts, it was the collapse of several prominent banks and the subsequent Wall Street meltdown in the Fall of 2008 that really got this recession rolling. Whereas "The Country Bear Christmas Special" hasn't been presented at the Magic Kingdom since the 2005 holiday season.

    Whenever I've asked about why this seasonal show hasn't been presented in a while, I always get a variety of answers. Everything from "We didn't want to spend the money for that changeout" to "We didn't want to shut 'Country Bear' down for the three weeks that it takes to install the holiday overlay" right through to "The 'Christmas Special' ran at the Parks for 20 years. That was a good run. The reason that we didn't bring it back in 2006 was because it was time to do something different with the Park's holiday budget. Give the Guests something new to see when they visit at Christmas."

    Somewhere between all three of those answers is the real reason that Disney World no longer presents the "Country Bear Christmas Special." Here's hoping that at some point in the future -- just like they did with "Captain EO" -- Mouse House managers will realize that the return of a long-absent theme park show can sometimes bring around a bit on an attendance bump. And maybe then they'll pull the "Christmas Special" sets & costuming out of mothballs and once again present this holiday show at Grizzly Hall.

  • Sorry, Jimmy, but I DO think it's realistic to blame the recession, as well as the fact that so much money is being diverted away from Xmas offerings right now and shifting instead towards long-term investments like the Fantasyland expansion.

    Also, WDW's version of CBJ never took "three weeks" to install their version of the Xmas show. It only took two or three days at best, especially since WDW's CBJ takes up so little space.

  • The Country Bear Jamboree is a mess now. Last time I saw it, the figures didn't move nearly as smoothly and expressively as they once did (I know, because I have a video of the show from the 1970's.) Even after a so-called refurbishment, they move much more stiffly and the sound in the theater is dreadful. I wonder if the original audio-animatronics have been replaced by computer programming, and the transition did something to the sound and movement? In any case, the Bears are kinda sad to watch. They look like giant plush toys now, not the awesome 3-dimensional animated characters they once were.

  • What killed Country Bear Jamboree at Disneyland was the wait time between shows.  Originally, it ran in two theaters.  So when someone would come to the turnstile and ask how long until the next show, they'd be told about 12 minutes (at most) and it would seem a reasonable wait.  When it came time for a seasonal changeout, they could do it during a low attendance period by closing one theater and keeping the show running in the other theater, then doing the same thing to changeout the second theater.

    But then someone decided a little money could be saved by simply keeping the hoe-down show in one theater and the Christmas show in the other theater.  Only one theater would be open at a time and the seasonal change was just a matter of throwing a switch.

    But that also meant that when someone came to the turnstile to ask about wait time, the reply now could be as long as 25 minutes.  That left a lot of people unwilling to wait, so attendance plummeted.

    Then Disney gave up and took out Country Bears for the Winnie-the-Pooh ride.

    Critter Country is supposed to be set in the Appalachian South.  Can anyone explain to me what a stuffed bear (Pooh is not a critter, he's a toy) belonging to an English school-boy in rural England is doing in the Appalachian South?!?!?!?!

    While lamenting that departure of J. Thaddeus Toad from the precincts of Fantasyland at Magic Kingdom, Florida; at least his successor, Winnie the Pooh, is in his proper place.

  • I just cannot comprehend how it could take $50k to change out that show every year.  Is that including complete newly sewn costumes every year?  Aside from that, the audio-animatronic system simply cannot be that archaic that it physically takes that many man-hours to convert the show.  To me, it's a matter of stringing decorations, redressing the figures, and flipping over to the other programming.  How is that $50k?

  • Jim, I had an interesting thing happen in my Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 model of Disneyland years ago. Yep. I had trouble getting visitors into that section of my model. They came at first to my so called Country Bears Jamboree for which i used rct3 dark ride stuff. Still, no matter how much I changed my Country Bears model, they still didn't come. I even tried building an underground path going under the railroad berm and that didn't work. What ended up up working was my model of the log ride. Funny how the model followed what actually happened. What I didn't do was replace my so called dark ride version of Country Bears. That got lost when I lost the entire layout when my computer crashed LOL.

  • I loved the line at the beginning of the show where Melvin is singing Rudolf the Red nosed reindeer, and the mounted deer says that's his song.

  • Jim, I love your articles. I miss the Country Bears in Disneyland. In my ideal world, Toontown would have moved to DCA leaving room for a bigger Fantasyland - where Pooh really belongs.

    Then the Country Bears could return. Love the premise of the Fox & the Hound ride - I wonder if there were any sketches or models done. Also, would have loved the expansion of the Mark Twain/Tom Sawyer theme.

  • -to SpectroMan: it could easily cost 50K, with re-doing set pieces, costumes... just taking the time to replace them. It isn't simply "stringing stuff up".

    BTW, what is the cost of changing out Small World and Haunted Mansion at Disneyland each holiday season?

  • WDW NEEDS to bring the Christmas show BACK! The original is OK but only in small doses the Christmas & Vacation shows were WAY better. if I were in charge in Florida here's how the show rotation would go Original January-spring break Vacation: spring break-November And Christmas: November-Early January

  • on a side note, I caught a historical error. While the Christmas show debuted simultaneously on both coasts, "Vacation" debuted in February '86 in California then premiered in April '86 in Florida.

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