Walt Disney was an innovative person, always checking out the newest technology. That curiosity led him to explore television in 1950. He developed a Christmas special, featuring Edgar Bergen and Mortimer Snerd, giving television viewers a tour of the Disney studios. It was successful and was repeated in 1951.
In the early 1950s Walt came up with his idea for an amusement park, designing what would soon be Disneyland. The park was easier to design than to finance. Walt had a brilliant idea that he could work with a television network and they could both profit from the plan.
Roy Disney was sent to New York to meet with the three major networks to discuss an hour-long show. Part of the deal would be to have the network contribute financing to Disneyland.
CBS expressed little interest in the idea. NBC seemed to want the package but final negotiations kept falling through. When Roy visited ABC, they were definitely interested. The deal they worked out was that Disney would provide a one-hour show every week, and in return, ABC would invest $500,000 in Disneyland and guarantee loans up to $4,500,000. The agreement was announced in April 1954 with the shows to begin airing in October. Disneyland was set to open in the summer of 1955.
The first show was the Disneyland Story, which described the attractions that would be included in the park. At this time, there was little trust between movies and television. Producers and theaters had threatened to boycott any studios that supplied television networks with shows, so Disney was taking a risk in working with the network. The first show drew amazing ratings.
The shows were quite different in their format. Airing on Wednesdays, the December 8 show was called Operation Undersea, a documentary about the filming of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. During the first season, the studio aired Alice in Wonderland, Seal Island, So Dear to My Heart, Treasure Island, Wind in the Willows, and Nature’s Half Acre, as well as short cartoons. One of the most unusual shows was Man in Space, a look at the space exploration that was taking place.
Walt would introduce each show himself. He established a rule immediately that he would only endorse a sponsor’s product if he truly believed in it and used it. One of the sponsors he promoted was Eastman Kodak because he owned their cameras and liked the quality.
As part of that first season, Disney Studios decided to air Davy Crockett starring Fess Parker and co-starring Buddy Ebsen. It took Crockett from the frontier to Congress to the Alamo. A theme song, the “Ballad of Davy Crockett” hit number one on Hit Parade for 13 weeks and sold 10 million records. (I remember singing this song in one of our Spring Concerts in grade school about 1969.) Fess Parker became a big star, and the show re-energized Ebsen’s career.
Disney decided to market coonskin hats. After much searching, they made a deal with Welded Plastics who took a risk to manufacture them. They were so popular the wholesale price skyrocketed from $.50/dozen to $5/dozen and more than 10 million were sold. It sparked a national craze, and kids began begging for Davy Crockett costumes, coloring books, rifles, lunch buckets and other toys. Walt ensured that each item was authentic to the time period and high quality. Going against what executives thought was a backward idea, Disney combined the three Crockett episodes into one movie and released it in national theaters and, what was considered to be a flop, made over $2,500,000.
In the second season, the studio aired Dumbo as their first show, and it was the highest rated show on television up to that time. In October of 1955, the Mickey Mouse Club debuted.
In 1957, NBC, losing ratings, scheduled Wagon Train against Disney; Wagon Train was the most expensive series on television to produce. It knocked Disney off the number one spot. To counteract the move, Walt showed up at a network meeting in full cowboy gear, with plans to add westerns to the Disney schedule. The character of Zorro was introduced that season.
During these years, some of the most popular shows included The Making of Lady and the Tramp, the Use of the Multi-Dimensional Camera in Shooting Bambi, and Silly Symphonies.
In 1960 after six successful seasons with ABC and with Disneyland showing profitable numbers, ABC asked Disney to buy its interest in Disneyland back. Disney agreed and since ABC made the first move to divest itself, Walt felt he could now negotiate with NBC which was the only network using color. Walt filmed many of his shows in color even though they were being shown in black and white.
The new show, now called Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, made its debut on September 24, 1961. The first show introduced a new character, Ludwig von Drake. He explained the process of how shows made the transition from silent to sound and from black and white to color. My favorite character who emceed shows was Jiminy Cricket.
Walt Disney passed away in 1966, and no one felt qualified to step into his shoes to introduce shows, so the introduction was deleted from the scripts.
His spirit is part of all the shows that were produced and continue to be produced today, adhering to his strict standards that has formed the reputation Disney has acquired for quality products.
One of the highest rated shows occurred in 1976 when the Parent Trap was shown on television for the first time.
The shows continued to air on NBC until 1981 when NBC cancelled the show due to low ratings.
CBS picked up the show and moved it to Saturdays. In 1983 the Disney channel began and it seemed to compete with the other networks. The show always had lower ratings than Murder She Wrote and Sixty Minutes. In 1987 CBS cancelled the contract. In 1988, NBC renewed its association with the show, airing several Muppet specials. Ratings did not rise, so Disney moved the show to its Disney Channel. During the late 1980s, ironically, Disney purchased ABC. After the purchase, Disney put its show back on Sunday nights where it spent 25 of its 29 seasons.
If you and your siblings argue about the title of the show, you are all probably right. The show began as Walt Disney’s Disneyland (1954-1958) and then changed to Walt Disney Presents (1958-1961), Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (1961-69), The Wonderful World of Disney (1969-1979), Disney’s Wonderful World (1979-1981), Walt Disney (1981-1983), Disney’s Sunday Movie (1986-1988), The Magical World of Disney (1988-1990), and finally the Wonderful World of Disney (1991-1997). Good luck keeping all them straight.
Versions of the show have been broadcast in Argentina and Brazil. The show has won eight Emmys and was nominated an additional eleven times. The show had an amazing longevity. It was on ABC for the first seven years, on NBC for seasons 8-27, and on CBS for 28 and 29 before moving back to ABC for a total of 649 episodes. The show is fondly remembered by generations of kids who watched the show with their families.
Now the studio has its own channel and has introduced a variety of new stars and programs 24/7. I don’t think Walt would be too surprised; it’s the role he charted for his studios — to continue to explore new technology and change with the times, while making quality programs. He left a legacy to be proud of.