(Welcome to Out of the Disney Vault, where we explore the unsung gems and forgotten disasters currently streaming on Disney+.)
One of the key parts of the Disney legacy, when it comes to the small screen, is the Mickey Mouse Club. During the nascent years of television, Walt Disney went all-in with his weekly primetime anthology series, but he also produced a five-days-a-week show featuring a group of clean-cut, cherubic kids in which they’d jump around, play, sing songs, and dance, in-between animated segments and serialized stories. The Mickey Mouse Club was an instant hit, vaulting young stars like Annette Funicello to stardom quickly. But because those kids grew up, the show ended just a few years after it started. The vaudeville-esque program went away as Disney’s own priorities shifted from TV to the theme parks.
Depending on your age, you may already know that the Mickey Mouse Club concept was revived in the early 1990s, with a group of young stars who would become some of the biggest names in popular culture like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling. This revival has not yet made its way to Disney+, but simply because some of those folks became so wildly famous, it’s a fun bit of trivia to keep in your metaphorical back pocket.
But you may not know that there was a different Mickey Mouse Club revival in the 1970s, with a disco flair. Until very recently, you’d have had no way outside of YouTube to experience the camp and kitsch of this revival, but that has mercifully changed with the arrival of The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World, an hourlong TV special that aired as part of The Wonderful World of Disney in the fall of 1977. On July 17, the anniversary of Disneyland’s opening day, Disney+ put this episode up, with fairly little fanfare. But it’s a weird, strange throwback to the 1970s that hasn’t been made available for a very long time.
The premise of The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World is baked in from its very title: it’s about the then-current iteration of the Mousketeers on a trip/concert tour to Walt Disney World in the back half of the 1970s. It’s easy to look at this as an early sign of the ABC sitcoms airing in the TGIF lineup in the 1990s, when they had Very Special Episodes filmed on location at Disney World. The corporate synergy could very well have been strong in this special. The operative word, though, is “could”.
If you know your Disney theme-park history, then you know that 1977 was not…a terribly important year for the Magic Kingdom. (For the overall parks, it was: Space Mountain opened in 1977…at Disneyland. The in-the-dark roller-coaster was already open at the Magic Kingdom.) Most important, in 1977, there was just one theme park within the Walt Disney World Resort; Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios), and Disney’s Animal Kingdom were years away from opening to the public. Of course, what that does mean is that The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World has lots of 70s-era elements of Disney World that you can’t find anymore. There’s a montage set at River Country, the long-defunct water park, as well as scenes set at Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, the dining and shopping center you may now know as Disney Springs.
If there’s a good word for the experience of watching The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World on Disney+, it’s “kitschy”. Here’s a good example. When I clicked Play on the episode, I was admittedly a little surprised to see a runtime of just over 56 minutes. Knowing that this was originally an hourlong installment of the Walt Disney anthology TV series, I was expecting this to be shorter, if only because the amount of commercials even in 70s-era primetime TV would have taken a few chunks out of that overall hour. I was both right and wrong. Commercials would have taken a few chunks out of the overall hour…and they are part of the Disney+ viewing experience.
Yes, if you’re curious, you too can not only watch this special, but the ads for products such as Tonka trucks and Shake & Bake that aired within the special. I have, in past entries within this column, bemoaned the lack of old-school Disneyland TV episodes on Disney+. I have also, within this column, noted that some of the episodes that are available on Disney+…well, they don’t look like they’ve been too heavily spruced up for the HD experience. And now, with The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World, I can tell you that they’re not even removing the ads. (The same is true of The Pre-Opening Report from Disneyland, which also arrived in mid-July on Disney+. At one point, there’s a transition from a glimpse of Disneyland construction to a bland announcer encouraging young viewers and their parents to submit an entry in a contest to win a trip to Disneyland along with a Hudson car. You know, a Hudson. Like the Hudson Hornet. From Cars.)
I’m not against this, either. If this is what it takes to get more of the Disneyland anthology on Disney+, then frankly, go right ahead. The lack of context makes the commercials all the more surprising – I feel like I clued in a small portion of Disney Twitter to this fact, simply by watching it early enough on the release day. The 70s kitsch, of course, does not stop with the commercials. The special itself is anchored by the 12 Mouseketeers, who are in Orlando for a concert at the Magic Kingdom, but end up getting so mad at each other that they may destroy the entire group for good! Is it possible that they’ll never be friends again? Could it be that one of the Mousketeers will be lost forever in the Magic Kingdom after tearfully running away? Is Tenet opening in theaters this summer?
Yes, the plot isn’t exactly the strong suit of this special, whose major adult figures are portrayed by Jo Anne Worley (from Laugh-In, though you may know her voice better as the wardrobe in Beauty and the Beast) and Ronnie Schell (who appeared in a series of Disney live-action films as well as Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.) Worley plays a journalist on the hunt for a big scoop, and Schell plays the Mouseketeers’ sole adult chaperone. It’s all very…uh…cute, perhaps no cuter than during a fantasy sequence where the Mouseketeers sing a polka song with Winnie the Pooh.
The New Mickey Mouse Club, as the 70s-era version of the series was called, ran in syndication for two years. (The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World was the exception to the rule, airing on ABC.) And there were a few well-known faces from that show who would move onto other work, most famously Lisa Whelchel of the 80s sitcom The Facts of Life. But this specific revival of the Mickey Mouse Club is mostly forgotten now, with The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World serving as its most easily accessible artifact. Most pieces of culture from the 1970s can’t be said to age perfectly well, but this one…well, feels a whole lot like an artifact of its time.
There are plenty of examples – the presence of Worley and Schell as the biggest adult names is one. But I really only need to highlight one moment to prove the point, both that this special hasn’t aged perfectly and that Disney+ badly needs a host for older titles, or at least some kind of video context. When the special begins, we see the Mouseketeers and their adult chaperone riding the Monorail from the Magic Kingdom to their hotel, the Contemporary Resort. And, because these Mouseketeers are plenty musical, they’re singing a song. And of course, they’re singing a Disney song. Which song? Oh, just “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah”, from Song of the South.
It’s worth noting a couple things here: first, this special was released more than a decade before Splash Mountain ever existed, which means it also arrived at a time in American culture when Song of the South was not treated by the company as cinema non grata. (After this special, the 1946 film would be re-released in American theaters two more times.) Second, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” is arguably among the five or so most iconic Disney songs ever. Also, these Mouseketeers, unlike the 50s-era version, weren’t all white kids (meaning they were only about 70% white, not 100% white). But using “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” as the opener, as unavoidable as it’s been for so long, is an…awkward beginning to the special in light of the Splash Mountain redesign news. (I’m being charitable by saying “awkward”, please note.)
The rest of the special isn’t so awkward, but again, if you know nothing about the Disney theme parks aside from a basic awareness of which parks exist there now, it’s perplexing. Perhaps even more perplexing, and an answer I can’t fully grasp: why was this special made? The easiest guess I have is that Disney simply wanted more eyeballs on the Mouseketeers, and promoting Walt Disney World at the same time is a win. So perhaps the better question is this: if Disney+ is open to putting up anthology TV series episodes on the service now, and if they wanted to honor the anniversary of the original Disney theme park…why was this posted for viewing? Why this? Why now?
As always: I wish I knew. I wish I could get to eavesdrop on the conversations that lead to things like The Mouseketeers at Walt Disney World being made available for viewing. It’s got some exciting, goofy parts to it. If you like 70s kitsch, this will very much be up your alley. But if you are still looking for a fuller set of options to watch from Disney’s history, you’ve got to keep looking.