Revisiting 'Disneyland Around the Seasons,' One of the Buried Gems on Disney+
(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
In its first couple of months, the Disney+ streaming service has offered its millions of subscribers a wealth of viewing options. If you like Star Wars, check out The Mandalorian or the many earlier films in the franchise. Marvel’s your speed? Good, have at the various MCU movies available to stream. And so on. But if you scroll through the hundreds of options in the Movies area, there are two titles that stick out like sore thumbs. One, a TV episode titled “The Plausible Impossible”, is something this column highlighted last month.
The other is an hourlong installment from the same show that, depending on your viewpoint, functions as a home movie and time capsule.
“Disneyland Around the Seasons” is not entirely what it sounds like based on the title, if only because only one segment of the episode is seasonally focused. As I discussed when talking about “The Plausible Impossible”, this hour is a remnant of the Walt Disney anthology TV series. That phrase may sound like a mouthful, but it’s also the most accurate way to call out the show. In 1956, when “The Plausible Impossible” aired on ABC, the show was simply called Disneyland. But in 1966, when “Disneyland Around the Seasons” aired, the show had changed titles twice and was on a new network. It was now known as NBC’s Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. (The program as it exists in 2019 is ABC’s The Wonderful World of Disney.)
The show was so renamed, and switched networks, for the same reason. In the early 1960s, ABC didn’t air its programs in color, but NBC did. For a studio that had long since embraced Technicolor, it was a necessity for Disney’s program to air in color. Of course, it didn’t help matters that the ABC network had waffled on selling its stake in the Disneyland theme park until 1960. (For those of you who didn’t know that a television network owned part of Disneyland back in the day…well, it’s a conversation for another time, but times were different back then.) Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was otherwise a very similar program to what aired in the 1950s. Each episode could explore one of the four lands you could find in the Disneyland theme park: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland.
Although that was true, by 1966, the show’s overall thrust had changed slightly. That year, the show was in its thirteenth season, with 25 episodes. (As of 2019, the show has aired 53 seasons’ worth of more than 1,100 episodes.) Of those 25 installments, seven were serialized versions of recent live-action films and ten others were new films split into serialized installments, films such as Gallegher Goes West and Willie and the Yank. (I promise you, those are real titles.) The earlier iterations of the show also made time for serialized content like Zorro and Davy Crockett, but they also had aired more episodes exploring topics in nonfiction form, from space exploration to the principles of animation.
Every so often in that first decade-plus of episodes, the show would travel to the theme park whose existence was inextricably connected to it. “Disneyland Around the Seasons” followed in the footsteps of episodes themed to the holidays, nighttime entertainment, and more. But the episode stands out for a much bigger, much sadder reason — though you wouldn’t know it from the Disney+ presentation.
“Disneyland Around the Seasons” aired on NBC on December 18, 1966. If you’re not a superfan or if you don’t know your important cultural/historical dates, that one may mean little to you. But diehard fans will recognize that air date as being fairly significant: Walt Disney died just three days earlier, on December 15, 1966. Disney had been the host of the television show since its inception, and would technically appear throughout the rest of the thirteenth season to introduce segments. But “Disneyland Around the Seasons” had the dubious honor of being the first episode to air after his passing.
The original airing, of course, didn’t leave this ignored — Dick Van Dyke of Mary Poppins and TV newsman Chet Huntley provided a brief tribute to the man and his legend before “Disneyland Around the Seasons” aired properly. Now, if you’ve already gone to Disney+ to watch this episode, don’t be too thrown off: the episode airing on the service doesn’t include that memorial footage. There’s no clear reason as to why it’s been removed. Having said that, since the Van Dyke/Huntley memorial was specifically designed (and quickly) to acknowledge the passing of the man whose studio bore his name, the need to include a tribute now would be less pressing.
Aside from that trivia, perhaps the most compelling part of “Disneyland Around the Seasons” is the reminder that the mid-1960s were a very exciting time of upheaval and change within the Disney theme parks. The setup for the episode is admittedly a bit thin. Walt is celebrating, in some ways, the second decade of Disneyland. July 17, 1965 marked the 10th anniversary of Disneyland, and the ensuing hourlong installment is meant to highlight some of the big and new changes at the park since that date. The specificity of that anniversary is necessary, too: one of the attractions that gets featured in the episode is Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which opened at the park on July 18, 1965.
The episode climaxes with a full-on daytime holiday parade as it rolls through Main Street, U.S.A. If you’ve ever experienced a modern Disneyland parade, you’ll see some familiar characters; if you’ve experienced a modern Disneyland holiday parade, you’ll also see obvious appearances from Santa Claus and his reindeer. What is truly fascinating to me, as someone who’s seen such parades and visited Disneyland Park plenty in the last decade, is how surprisingly willing the characters in this parade were with just strolling right up to random guests. Nowadays, as lively as the holiday parades can be, they’re vastly more controlled and secure. The one in the episode isn’t exactly a ramshackle affair, but there’s a looseness to the parade that I find both delightful and a little unnerving. (There are enough extreme close-ups of characters to last a lifetime in this segment. And depending on your opinion of the costume design, those close-ups might give you the willies.)
The rest of “Disneyland Around the Seasons” is a truly compelling cavalcade of what Disneyland Park used to be like, and how the mid-1960s are still one of the most important, foundational periods in its history. New Orleans Square, home to two of the most wonderful theme-park attractions to ever exist — Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion — was first unveiled in July of 1966, though the attractions themselves wouldn’t open for at least a year. (By the way, theme-park fans should think about how well that strategy would work now: opening a land without any rides.) It’s A Small World, which was a big hit at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, as was Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, gets its moment in the sun in the episode as well. And we even get to see the dinosaur-themed section of the Disneyland Railroad in the Primeval World.
From a filmmaking standpoint, what fascinates me most about this episode is what the logistics must have been like to film any of this. This footage was for a nationally televised program, something that would be seen by literally millions of people. I mention that because I think about a recent circumstance, in which my wife and I visited Disneyland Park while an upcoming ABC special highlighting the Disneyland Christmas parade was being filmed. Parts of Main Street, U.S.A. had been cordoned off, prioritizing the celebrities appearing and anyone else performing in the parade over the guests themselves. There was an audience for these performances, but it was all very carefully managed and precisely timed.
Compare that experience with the footage of musicians dancing and singing in New Orleans Square leading up to the patio stage of the French Market restaurant. (A restaurant, I should note, that still exists and is worth visiting.) The cameraperson is awful close to the performers, and there’s never a sense that they’re being blocked off by guardrails or security guards, or that guests aren’t able to roam about freely. There’s a stunning sense of closeness in these segments (and in that parade segment) that makes this hour weirdly quite endearing.
Aside from that, this will be viewing catnip for anyone who loves the Disney theme parks and their history, if only because you’ll get to see brief glimpses of how radically different things were back in the 1960s. Think of the rides that define Disneyland now: Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Indiana Jones Adventure, Toontown, and Galaxy’s Edge. They’re all rides that came well after the airing of this episode. The footage of the park is a snapshot of time that we can’t experience again (or, for those of us born after 1966, at all). We may know some of the lands, but not like this. Tomorrowland, for example, was the place to see, sure…but it was the place to see a man fly around while wearing a jetpack. (Fans of The Rocketeer, assemble. You’ll like that bit in the episode.)
“Disneyland Around the Seasons” is just the second episode of the Walt Disney anthology TV series to make its way to the Disney+ streaming service. Just like “The Plausible Impossible,” it was once available on a Walt Disney Treasures DVD collection, the kind of set that always appealed to the true superfan. But now, anyone can watch it. And since I’ve very publicly advocated that Disney+ feature all of the episodes of the anthology show, I sincerely recommend that you check this out.
For now, there aren’t other plans to add more episodes of the Disneyland TV series to Disney+. (I will note here that plenty of other episodes of the TV series were available on the Walt Disney Treasures DVDs, so hopefully they’ll get the HD treatment soon.) But episodes like “Disneyland Around the Seasons”, even if they wind up in the Movies section of Disney+ are well worth a watch. It’s not just the morbid connection to Disney’s passing — these episodes represent entertaining time capsules that showcase what it was like to see Disney Imagineering in action in one of their most creatively fertile periods.
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