I haven’t been to Disney World in over four months. Yes, that’s a long time for me. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous. Still, it’s a bummer. When you get in the habit of doing something on a regular basis it can be hard to deal when your plans are unexpectedly disrupted. And despite the best attempts of Silicon Valley, COVID-19 has proven itself to be the king of all disrupters.
Okay, I know how awful it sounds to complain about not being able to go to theme parks because of a virus that has taken over 140,000 lives in the U.S. alone, and infected millions more. Theme parks are pretty much the last thing anybody should gripe about when a deadly pandemic is running roughshod through their country. And yes, Florida’s theme parks, including Disney World, have reopened, so I could go to a theme park right now, if I really wanted to risk it, and if I thought I could pull it off without just feeling stressed and anxious the whole time. But my one short-lived attempt at visiting a theme park was disastrous, and even though reports from Disney World have shown that its coronavirus precautions are largely running smoothly, it’s still not worth the time, money, and psychic duress it would cost to go down there.
Since I can’t be there in person, I’ve searched for other ways to get at least a fraction of that theme park jolt. YouTube is full of videos of parks and rides from over the decades, and I’ve watched a ton of them. I’ve played a videogame recreation of Disneyland—and saw one of the weirdest, creepiest things I’ve ever seen in a videogame. I’ve read books, looked at photos, written about the parks as often as I can, and just generally tried to find ways to scratch the itch that I’m missing out on.
Disney+ hasn’t been as much help as you might expect. It launched with the fantastic Imagineering Story documentary, and has long been streaming the Disneyland Around the Seasons special from 1966 (which debuted on TV three days after Walt Disney’s death). There’s a large amount of parks-centric TV specials from over the decades that aren’t on here, though, including the broadcast from Disneyland’s opening day. Yeah, it’s available elsewhere online, but it’d be nice to see a cleaned up version streaming officially through Disney’s in-house app.
Disney+ did add two new classic TV episodes about theme parks this past Friday, on the 65th anniversary of Disneyland’s opening. One of them, The Pre-Opening Report from Disneyland, originally aired a week before Disneyland opened. It offers a behind-the-scenes look at the construction of Disneyland, and is a must-watch for fans of the park. It’s a mostly serious, sober, documentary-style depiction, and the exact opposite of the show I’m actually here to talk about.
The other newly uploaded special is also a must-watch, and for more than just theme park fans. The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World, a TV special from 1977, isn’t just a campy, schlocky, goofy time capsule from the late ‘70s; it consistently makes weird, confusing and unsettling decisions, turning it into one of the most ridiculous things you’ll watch on TV this week. Here are just some of the weird things you’ll see here.
There’s not a lot of plot to this special. Basically the New Mousketeers—the late ‘70s version of the troupe, from the short-lived, discofied New Mickey Mouse Club show, and which included Lisa Whelchel (of The Facts of Life and Survivor fame) and 12 other kids who didn’t do much else of note (including Corey Feldman’s older sister Mindy)—are on a promotional trip to Walt Disney World. At that point the resort was still only five or six years old, and consisted of one theme park (the Magic Kingdom), a handful of hotels, a campground, the Walt Disney World Village shopping area, and the then-new water park River Country. Don’t worry: you’ll get to see almost all of that in this special. Disney was still selling it to the country, and this special was just another part of the pitch.
What little plot there is comes down to one repeating idea: these kids hate each other. They all seem nice and friendly when they’re riding the monorail into the Contemporary Hotel, or during the advertorial for River Country that kicks off the special. They all quickly turn on each other after Lisa (clearly the star of the show) pulls one of the oldest and most classic pranks on ‘em. While taking a photo of the gang on a pier on Bay Lake, Lisa tells them all to take a step backwards—and yep, they all fall right into the drink. Somehow this turns all the Mousketeers into bitter enemies who can’t even stand the sight of each other. Their hatred and disgust make up most of the first half of the episode, until their chaperone (played by perennial TV guest star Ronnie Schell), a nosy journalist (played by Laugh In’s Jo Anne Worley) and Mindy Feldman, the youngest Mousketeer, come up with a complex scheme to trick them all into becoming friends again. If you can’t guess, yes, the plot hatched by a child and a bumbling oaf of a man in a late ‘70s child’s TV show makes little sense and works perfectly.
That plan’s not put into effect until after the most absurd scene in the whole special, and the main reason I wanted to write about this thing in the first place. And that’s when…
At the height of the division and spite that has split the New Mickey Mouse Club apart, Lisa finds herself in the same Disney Village store as fellow Mousketeer Allison Fonte. They immediately start fighting over who would look better in the dresses on display, because every character in this show has to be as paper-thin and stereotypical as possible. While playing tug-of-war over a brown sundress (the official color of the ‘70s), Lisa notices a middle-aged man sitting on a bench who’s dressed like he’s ready for a doubles match. The two Mousketeers can’t decide if he’s a fox or a double fox, but are able to decide that it’s totally cool for two girls who are barely teenagers to hit on him. To the credit of Tennis Pro here, despite his short shorts, exposed chest hair, and immobile hair helmet, he doesn’t say or do anything explicitly creepy—he simply flashes his blindingly white smile while telling the two that their dresses are fine, and then saunters off screen and out of the special after his wife or girlfriend—very much an adult—calls him away.
This is all uncomfortable as heck by today’s standards, but at least Lisa and Allison learned something important after coming on to a guy old enough to be their dad. They realized that they wear each other’s clothes all the time, and that alone is enough for them to stop being mad at each other. So let’s give the Tennis Pro even more credit: not only did he let these massively underaged girls down gently, he also helped them rediscover the true meaning of friendship.
This special was made in 1977, almost 40 years before Donald Trump ever first appropriated the term “fake news.” The entire media industry hadn’t yet been destroyed by venture capitalists and shameless propagandists. And yet this special initially sets up Worley as a villain, solely because she’s a reporter trying to get a “scoop” about the New Musketeers.
Worley plays a writer for the prestigious and completely fictional Everglades Magazine who’s buzzing around the Mousketeers in hopes of an interview. Her first question with their chaperone, Mr. Brown (played by Schell), is if they’re actually friends in real life; she’s clearly trying to sniff out scandal, and so she’s ecstatic when the soaked and angry Mousketeers argue their way through the Contemporary right after Brown says they’ve never had an argument. To show how serious it is that the young stars of an unsuccessful syndicated TV show might not always get along, Worley gleefully says it “could be the story of the year” after snapping photo after photo. In hindsight, this probably wasn’t the most important thing to happen in 1977. (That would be the opening of Smokey and the Bandit, of course.)
The special quickly changes its tune on Worley—she befriends the kids while trying to trick them into giving her juicy info for her story, but can’t go through with it after realizing they really are friends. In fact, her character is so rehabilitated that she and Mr. Brown wind up falling for each other, for a thoroughly stupid reason.
Yes, Jo Anne Worley and Ronnie Schell are destined for romance. Well, they would be, if Mr. Brown wasn’t such a dork. They clearly have a thing for each other, but despite being in his 40s this guy seems frightened by the woman he’s been flirting with all night. They should’ve known the deal as soon as it started—they’re the only two adult regular characters in a child’s TV show, so obviously there’s going to be romance between them. It feels like there’s a third-act scene between them that got cut, or something—after an abortive kiss about halfway through, we never really see the two of them together again. Worley is crucial to saving the day in the end, though, and the show’s story, as it is, would make more sense if there was a resolution to this storyline that didn’t leave the editing room.
Eventually the special abandons any attempt at making sense. After a night at the Contemporary the group relocates to the Fort Wilderness Campsite. Mr. Brown gives one of the younger Mousketeers, Benita “Nita Dee” DiGiampaolo, the crucial task of tying the ropes of their tents to something sturdy and stationary. He was clearly thinking a tree; the 10-year-old girl he bossed around figured tying them to the back of an RV would do the trick. This clearly isn’t Nita’s problem; what kind of man leaves a vital task like that to a fourth grader and doesn’t follow up to make sure they did it properly? The type of cartoonish buffoon who’s an authority figure in a Disney TV show, clearly. Of course the RV pulls away right after the kids bunk down in their tents; even though it’s telegraphed by a billion miles, the timing of this gag, and the anticipation that builds up before hand, makes it by far the best joke in the whole special.
This is the second huge falling out between the group, and sadly for Nita, she’s the sole focus of everybody’s ire. The other kids are all brutal to her for not doing a good job with a chore she never should’ve been entrusted with in the first place. Not able to handle the thought of all of her friends hating her, Nita runs away, putting their entire show at the Magic Kingdom at risk. (Wait, did I mention they were at the Magic Kingdom to put on a show at the castle? Well, they are. Those are the stakes, and they are excruciatingly high.)
If you’re a kid at Disney World, and you ran away, where would you go? The other Mousketeers deduce that she went to the Magic Kingdom—the only theme park there at the time. (It’d be a lot harder to find her today.) Before they track her down, though, we see Nita wandering alone through an entirely empty Fantasyland, clutching a Winnie the Pooh doll in her hand. She sits down next to a fountain by the castle, and drifts off directly into a dream sequence more illogical and fantastic than anything in a David Lynch movie.
In the dream Nita and another Mousketeer (sorry, you can’t expect me to know all their names) are settling down for the night—both in pajamas, sharing the same bed, and with the older girl reading Nita a bedtime story. It’s about Winnie the Pooh. It’s actually a song, and not a story. And that song, inexplicably, is a polka about Winnie the Pooh. It’s called “The Pooh Polka,” it’s a new polka, and it’s really great; now the citizens of Heidelberg are up to date.
I actually put some research into this. I got online and googled “Winnie the Pooh” and polka, and after seeing thousands of results about Pooh merch with polka dots on it, I added the word “music” to the search. Nothing useful pops up. In the then-50-plus years that Winnie the Pooh had existed, there had apparently never been anything connecting him to polka. And yet this special, which debuted months after the show it spun off of stopped production, and is clearly more interested in showing all the different things your family can do on vacation at Disney World than telling a coherent story, decided it made sense to have a character intimately connected to the British countryside perform a German song (that’s actually more Czech than German, but whatever).
Disney goes all out for this number, too. Nita’s wearing her pajamas the whole time, but the other kids are decked out in German clothes, whirling and twirling in front of a snowy Alpine backdrop and some nondescript statue. Pooh is there as well, unfortunately not in lederhosen. It’s the most produced segment of the whole show, and it’s a dream sequence about a polka about Winnie the Pooh. The ‘70s are slathered on thick all over this special, but this segment is the purest, most uncut ‘70s variety show madness you’ve seen in a while.
When Nita wakes up from her dream, she no longer has Fantasyland completely to herself. She rises to find the park’s Winnie the Pooh walkaround character silently dancing in front of her. She’s ecstatic about this objectively creepy development. As she’s marveling at Pooh, she hears the other Mousketeers calling her name, and sees them filtering into Fantasyland in the distance. Still assuming they’re mad at her, she runs away, kicking off the climactic chase scene mandated of every TV episode of the late ‘70s.
These are kids, though, so it’s not a car chase. Instead Nita somehow makes it from the castle at Fantasyland to a dock out on Bay Lake in just a minute or so. She hops in a small motorboat and flies through the water, with a few Mousketeers in pursuit in their own boats.
It’s kind of amazing that a show that has no reason to have any plot beyond “kids sing songs and have fun at Disney World” winds up with a multi-minute chase sequence, but again, this is how every TV show ended in the ‘70s. Even Roots.
Eventually Nita drives her boat right up onto a beach and runs into the woods. She finds a small cluster of tropical birds and momentarily forgets the life-or-death chase she’s in the middle of. It’s a brief moment of peace that only makes sense once you remember the whole point of this special is to show off what your kids can do if you book a multi-day stay at Disney World. They, too, can crash a stolen boat onto a beach and then manhandle some parrots.
The best thing about this extended chase is the music. If you tried to write the most cliched, stereotypical, generic late ‘70s TV car chase music, you still probably wouldn’t come up with something as generic as this. That doesn’t mean it’s bad, or anything—car chase music should be cliched and generic, because the music that came to define car chases over 40 years ago remains among the greatest music you’ll ever hear on the screen.
The chase is especially egregious because it winds up being a total failure. The Mousketeers never catch Nita. She eludes them and winds up back at the park, resigned to the loveless, friendless life of an itinerant theme park drifter. The Magic Kingdom is her home now, as society has roundly rejected her. She’s prepared to live the life of a Disney lifestyle blogger, 30 years before those even existed. At least that’s what her child’s mind seems to think, until Jo Anne Worley shows up once again and tells her that her friends are sorry and miss her.
The actual ending of the show is their performance in front of Cinderella’s Castle. It’s weird and funny in the way that almost any ‘70s variety show looks to today’s eyes, but nothing more. Meaning it’s not that weird or funny—it’s just old and from one of the most… particular periods for fashion in recent history.
Honestly, as deeply ridiculous as the entire special is, it’s not all that unique. If you’re familiar with old variety shows or the perpetually cheeseball world of kid’s TV almost none of this special would be surprising—even the many parts that make absolutely no sense. If you’re going to watch either of those genres, you know going in that you’re just going to have to accept whatever silliness it gets into.
There is one genuinely confusing part of this special, though—or at least with how it airs on Disney+.
And I don’t mean in-house Disney ads. When the show first cut to an ad break 90 seconds in, I expected to see a black screen for a second or two before returning right to the show. Instead I got a Shake ‘n Bake ad, followed by a Gaines-burgers ad. Setting aside the obvious question (“Do Shake ‘n Bake and Gaines-burgers even exist anymore?”), I’ve got to wonder why Disney left these old commercials in. I’m not complaining—I love old TV ads, and yes, will occasionally pull up one of those YouTube videos that’s just like an hour of ads from 1982, or whatever. It’s awesome to see these ads on Disney+, and makes it even more fun to watch this special than it would otherwise be. Still, it’s really weird that they made this call. It’s like they just digitized a master tape and threw it up on the servers with no editing or retouching or anything. (Seriously, this show looks bad—it’s muddier and blurrier than most ‘70s shows you can watch today.) The stream even slips in one final ad after the credits, cutting off abruptly before it’s entirely through. It adds a lot to the overall package, though, fully immersing the viewer in the television world of the 1970s.
Despite the last, uh, 3100 words (what the geez, Garrett) lightly ribbing this show, you absolutely need to see it—especially if you’re a fan of Disney World, Lisa Whelchel, pinball (there’s pinball), polkas based on stuffed bears, or the general milieu of the 1970s. I think I’m allowed to give it the Official Paste Seal of Approval, so yeah, that’s what I just did. There are decades of this kind of stuff in the Disney vault—weird, one-off specials that aired as part of whatever its weekly TV show was called at the time, or on The Disney Channel once that came around. Hopefully we’ll see way more of these oddities on Disney+ soon.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.