These Vintage Trading Cards Will Blow Your Little Park Geek Mind

Like all geek things, it started in the 1980s.

Pop culture’s most iconic characters debuted in that decade. We got Jabba and we got Ewoks. And Indiana Jones (three times). The Ghostbusters materialized. So did Marty McFly and Biff. The Goonies were good enough. E.T. phoned home.

The list is endless. Freddy, Rambo, Predator, RoboCop, John McClane, Terminator, Ninja Turtles, and the WWF. Half of us loved K.I.T.T. The other half loved the General Lee. All of us loved Lou Ferrigno.

And every Hollywood movie — from Raiders of the Lost Ark to Harry and the Hendersons — immortalized their beloved characters with a custom set of collectible foil-wrapped, gum-sticked, randomized trading cards.

That caption should say "Roy Scheider's Shame." That pose. Those shorts.

Should’ve said “Brody’s Shame.” That pose. Those shorts.

They were available on every grocery store end-cap, right where mom had her wallet out. The best were loaded with action poses from our favorite movie stars. The worst featured the cast of Growing Pains.

But we loved them.

Disney had dabbled in trading cards before, including a set for their 1979 sci-fi flop, The Black Hole. But by the middle of the 1980s, newly-crowned Disney CEO Michael Eisner (who would later go on to buy the Topps Trading Card Company) was in the midst of asserting Disney’s dominance at theme parks.

Watto's Grotto Snowspeeder

The Snowspeeder prop outside Watto’s Grotto at Disney’s Hollywood Studios actually uses a giant vintage Star Wars trading card as a plaque.

The 1980s would see the number of parks more than double worldwide, with the addition of EPCOT Center, Tokyo Disneyland, and the Disney MGM Studios.  And by happy accident, somebody in the Consumer Products division was turned loose to design a new deck of trading cards, one that featured the parks in all their glory.

It was called The 50 Greatest Park Characters of All Time.

The self-styled “Series 1” trumpeted the uniqueness of park-specific characters (movie characters like Brer Rabbit or Mr. Toad didn’t make the list). It was never clear just what criteria they used to define greatness, but the final deck seemed to reflect a mix of historical importance, forgotten scene-stealers, and sheer lovability. As one Disney wiki described it:

Disney theme parks come alive, thanks to the performances of great characters. Now you can collect a keepsake of these park heroes for your very own! Each character is unique to Disney theme parks, appearing in your favorite attractions around the globe. Keep them for your own or trade them with your friends!

I collected these in my youth, mainly acquired during yearly trips to Walt Disney World, or more frequently at the Osco Drugs store. I looked forward to each unopened pack with breathless anticipation. I treasured every new card, grumbled at finding yet another duplicate, and even cut my tongue trying to chew the brittle stick of gum inside every pack.

There were 50 possible unique cards, but my collection puttered out around 35 — of which a full 17 were duplicates. I had the worst possible luck when it came to this set. Around the time of my sophomore year, I got rid of the duplicates, wrapped the remaining 18 unique cards in a rubber band and shoved them into my desk drawer, where I promptly forgot about them for the next ten years.

Flash forward to the late 90s. I’ve become pretty good friends with a guy from Chicago named Ted. One night we get to chatting on AOL, and the subject of the cards comes up.

And it turns out that I am not alone in the world.

Ted had done his own collecting, in much the same manner as myself. He had 20 unique cards, stored away in clear plastic binder sheets. We compared and found that between us, we had 30 of the possible 50 cards.

What happened next was a great quest, as the two future Parkeologists pooled their resources and scoured the globe. eBay was the obvious choice (and we got most of our cards that way), but there was also a comic store in Michigan, an internet friend from California, and incredibly, a next door neighbor who was a former Cast Member and just happened to have three rare cards we needed.

I am pleased to announce that as of last Christmas (thanks to a special relative who answered the call — you know who you are!), the Parkeology collection of the 50 Greatest Park Characters is finally complete.

As far as we know, the entire set has never been presented online. We debated posting them all at once, but thought it would be more fun to dole them out 5 at a time, as if you the reader were collecting them yourself. So expect a few more weeks before you see them all.

Here, without further ado, is the first card I ever got.


You can’t go wrong with Hitchhiking Ghosts. You’ll have to forgive the quality of the scan. This thing is 30 years old and has been tucked away in a drawer.

The other nifty thing about this set is that each card came with its own trivia section on the back, like baseball card stats. The factoids tended towards the humorous side, but also contained valuable information about the character’s history.


Here’s a more recent addition to the collection, sniped off eBay for a mere 5 bucks:


Henry may not be the most beloved character from the Country Bear Jamboree, but there’s no denying his importance. He deserves his spot on the list. And for those of you anxious to see the backside of bear…


Now the next card on our list is probably completely unfamiliar to the average park guest, but I guarantee that if you’re reading this blog, you know who he is:


We were able to track down Orville thanks to our friends at Imagineering Disney. It’s interesting to note that while the series favored a portrait layout, it did sprinkle in a few landscape cards from time to time. And as for Orville’s backside (“No privacy at all around this place!”)…


This next card is one of the things I love about this set. You get the obvious ones, as well as the ones that are kind of familiar. But you also get a few that have been lost to the vestiges of time.


Kitchen Kabaret was relatively new at the time the card was released. But an entire generation has grown up without the experience of watching robotic food perform vaudeville comedy about good nutrition. Perhaps a history lesson is in order:


And finally, I’ll end this week’s installment with one of my personal favorites.


Star Wars is still big business, and Captain Rex clearly has earned his spot among the all-time greats, as the card back shows.


And just like that, we come to the end of this week’s pack. You can try the chewing gum, but I don’t recommend it unless you have dental insurance.

Next week, Ted will share 5 of his favorites. Until then, hold on tight to these guys and don’t trade them for anything, not even a vintage Tron card. I hear those things are easily faked and don’t hold their value.


Streetmosphere Pirates Dig For Treasure In Their Noses

It happened during the week between Christmas and New Year’s. A week when the parks are so crowded, you have to wait in line just to scoff at the latest DVC sales booth.

I’m pretty sure this was an “Apocalyptic Crowds Season” deal, and that this will not become a regular occurrence in Adventureland.

But for a brief time, on one glorious afternoon, the entirety of Caribbean Plaza was infested with pirates.

Pirates in Adventureland

Normally when it comes to Streetmosphere, I’m a fan of the less-is-more approach.

Streetmosphere too often acts as the artificial sweetener for tasty three-dimensional placemaking. You’re at the mercy of someone with a theater degree — sometimes a perilous proposition.


As opposed to being at the mercy of someone with a law degree, who always makes theme parks more fun. Photo courtesy of Castles, Capes & Clones

It’s not that the performers aren’t talented (most are), and it’s not that they rely too much on zany I Love Lucy accents (far too many do). It’s that these unscripted encounter are taking place amid throngs of sweaty tourists, who in that particular setting are all too aware that the whole thing is fake.

Streetmosphere works best when it stays in the background. A perfect example is DeVine at Animal Kingdom, whose whole gig consists of remaining motionless so that guests won’t discover that a leafy space creature is planning to dine on their children when they turn their backs.

Front-and-center acts like the Dapper Dans blend in, because barber shop quartets were an actual thing. But snooty Hollywood Starlet Greta Glamourpuss is just somebody’s workshop character of the week.

And when is the Mayor finally going to stop glad-handing and do something about Main Street's terrible homeless problem?

And when is the Mayor finally going to stop glad-handing and do something about Main Street’s terrible homeless problem? Photo courtesy of Castles, Capes & Clones

And while we’re at it, a bunch of drumming janitors make as much sense in Future World as roving bands of stockbrokers in Dinoland.

But pirates are perfect for Adventureland.

On the surface, this is exactly the sort of cash-grab synergy you’d expect from Disney. They already have a pirate version of the Jedi Training Academy set up there, clogging up the Adventureland arteries like a brisket burger from Electric Umbrella.

Why not up the pirate quotient and turn this area into an everyday re-enactment of every single Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party I’ve ever been to?

But here’s the great thing about these pirates. They weren’t doing Johnny Depp impersonations or bandying about cliche pirate phrases. You know what they were doing? I’ll tell you what they were doing.


Pirates Who Don't Do Anything

Like this, only less nutritious.

They sat for long periods on random barrels and planters, snoozing under their hats or draped over branches. Every single one of them looked hung over from whatever fort-sacking they had completed the night before. If there had been a patch of muddy pigs, one would have been snoring in there with them.

Pirates at Tortuga Tavern

People would pose for pictures with them and they barely blinked. It was done with such understated laziness that they truly did blend into the background. The hundreds of people moving past the ride on their way to Splash Mountain or Big Thunder seemed hardly to notice them. It was a rare glimpse of pirates in their natural habitat. And every now and then you would spot another one — just as lazy as the last.

And yes, some even pillage their nostrils for a few gold doubloons.

Pirate Picking His Nose

You might think I’m making fun of this guy, but I’m not. This was absolutely hilarious and intentional on his part.

These pirates truly did not give a rip what the tourists were doing. They had to rest up for another night of marauding, embezzling, and even hijacking.

The scene just kept getting better. At one point, an English naval officer, who might as well have been Commodore Norrington, wandered through the scene, accompanied by two red-coated guards. This character was more likely to interact with the guests, but with disinterested courtesy, as if he always had one eye on the various rascals, scoundrels, villains and knaves lounging in the courtyard.

Pirate in a Tree

That beard is not “Disney Look”

Eventually Captain Barbossa himself showed up, searching for Jack Sparrow. This act played as more traditional Streetmosphere, but in reality was just an extended lead-in to the normal Jack Sparrow Trials of the Pirate Temple show that plays several times daily.

Pirate on the balcony

I call this fellow a “balconeer.” Get it??

The whole effect was fantastic and struck exactly the right note. One can imagine too many dim-witted guests complaining to City Hall that the drunken pirate wouldn’t sign his autograph book, but I hope the reaction is positive enough that Disney keeps this idea going, even if it is only seasonal.

Also, if you can’t get enough entertaining reading about pirates, you should totally check out my book, Johnny Shipwreck. It’s available for a limited time discount on Amazon right now, and it’s awesome.

Johnny Shipwreck Book Cover

5 Times Ben Franklin Made Me Want to Punch Him

Ben Franklin is an unrepentant theme park windbag and he deserves to have his butt kicked.

I’m not going to focus on the petty stuff, because that is beneath me. If you want to wear your stringy dishwater hair like a half-bald Michael Bolton, more power to you.

Nor will I pick on his frilly-suit/white-socks ensemble. Wear whatever feels comfortable, even if it makes you look like a blue turd suiting up to play for the ’75 Lakers.

Instead, here are 5 very specific episodes from Ben Franklin’s theme park repertoire that make me want to wipe that smug, jowly grin right off his polished wooden teeth with one good punch.

Surely I’m not alone in this.

#1 – Ben Franklin is a Credit Hog

Ben Franklin gets credit for inventing everything from Electricity to Democracy. I’m pretty sure God invented the former, the Jedi invented the latter, and the only thing Ben Franklin actually invented is the pen-name Silence Dogood, as a way of writing anonymous snarky commentaries about famous people.

What a tool.

Ben Franklin’s gift for glomming onto every little success and claiming it as his own extends even to theme parks. For years, EPCOT Center boasted about how Ben Franklin was the first Audio-Animatronic figure to walk, when he climbs a flight of stairs to visit Thomas Jefferson in The American Adventure.

Ben Franklin Climbs the Steps

This is all fine and good, except that Ben is clearly attached to the wall like the world’s most ridiculous stair chair, with maybe one mechanical peg leg to keep him balanced.

This is like me claiming to be the first Animatronic to cook stir-fry by holding an empty wok and making sizzling sounds.

Sorry, Ben. You lose to a freaking dinosaur.

Sorry, Ben. You lose to a freaking dinosaur.

And does Ben show any shame at this mockery of technological achievement? No, instead he berates Thomas Jefferson for being tired — this after acknowledging that he slept through the entire afternoon session of Congress.

Oh, sure, Ben did eventually walk in a theme park. But only because they hired an actual human to do it for him.

#2 – Ben Franklin Shakes Hands Like a SeaWorld Otter

Mark Twain, as we know, is a man’s man. Mark Twain worked on steamboats for a living. Mark Twain grew a burly mustache. When Mark Twain needed a pen name, he didn’t invent some middle-aged widow named Silence Dogood as his alter ego.

Mark Twain smoked cigars and let his work speak for itself. Mark Twain wore all white, like a good cowboy or John Travolta. If Mark Twain was a hugger, he’d give you a bro hug.

Ben Franklin is not a hugger. Ben Franklin is a limp noodle.

When the two shake hands at the end of The American Adventure, Ben can’t even touch him. He just sort of flops his hand around like a dying river trout. It’s like one of those movies where the silly aliens don’t know you are trying to give them a fist bump. Mark Twain just lets him flail around, cocking one eyebrow and blowing smoke in Franklin’s face as a test of manliness.

Franklin fails miserably.

Ben Franklin and Mark Twain Shake Hands

On the bright side, maybe Ben is now the first Animatronic to turn purple and cough delicately like a middle-aged widow.

Just grab the man’s hand and give it a firm shake, Ben. It’s not hard to grasp (no pun intended). Especially for a mental giant who had the brilliant foresight to fly a metal kite in a thunderstorm.

Maybe he could learn a thing or two from his own insignia for the Philadelphia Contributionship over in Liberty Square (fire insurance – another thing he “invented.”)

#3 – Ben Franklin Hawks All Over His Lines

Why Ben Franklin gets any screen time in something called The Hall of Presidents is beyond me. The only thing Ben Franklin was ever president of was The Ben Franklin Fan Club.

But for some reason, past incarnations of the attraction found Ben Franklin “inspiring” his feeble-minded countrymen (also known as “Future Actual Presidents”) with phlegmatic speeches about the importance of what they’re doing.

And here I’m using phlegmatic in its “disgusting mucus throat coating” meaning, not “self-possessed and calm,” which the dictionary seems to think is correct.

Franklin’s speech can be heard at 2:18 in the following video.

When he says “infallibility,” it sounds to me like he should be shaking his jowls like Boss Nass.

Boss Nass

Yousa no tinkin yousa greatest inventor of all time?

Fortunately, this version of the show is no longer around. But the line reading has stuck with me, because nothing is so attractive as saying the word “infallibility” like you are about to blow snot all over 43 leaders of the free world.

Maybe he can invite them all over to the Ben Franklin Room at the Liberty Tree Tavern and regale them with more appetizing lung loogies over a nice turkey dinner. Don’t doubt the infallibility of this gravy, Washington, my good man.

I could go on about how he refers to the Declaration of Independence as an “instrument” instead of a “document,” but I suspect Ben Franklin is only trying to take credit for inventing marching bands.

#4 – Ben Franklin Brings Out the Worst Cosplayers

Warning to you internet-savvy readers: Do not google for “hot Ben Franklin.” There is no good to be found down that path. It will only lead to darkness.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped cosplayers from trotting out the turd-suit/Laker-socks uniform. They even do it in the parks.

The worst offender is Grandpa, at the Carousel of Progress.

Grandpa in Carousel of Progress

The sight of this poor old man — just a few stringy hair extensions away from mastering the art of the floppy handshake — is enough to break anyone’s heart.

#5 – I Hate Ben Franklin’s Stupid Self-Congratulating Jokes

Word to the wise: If you happen to find yourself in an austere patriotic theme park presentation, opposite one of the most gifted wits in literature, who is not only smoking a cigar on stage without lighting his mustache on fire, but also has provided enough one-liners to fill an entire Riverboat narration track — don’t fire off an ill-conceived joke about one of your tacky inventions.

Mark Twain says:

“We now face the danger, which in the past has been the most destructive to the humans: Success, plenty, comfort and ever-increasing leisure. No dynamic people has ever survived these dangers.”

Ben Franklin, master of clever witticisms like pretending to be a middle-aged widow, fires back:

“I may have invented these bifocals I’m wearing, but I can assure they are not rose-colored!”

Wha…? I mean, huh? You invented… okay, you invented bifocals, I guess. And that’s important for us to know because–well, I guess because everything is about you, Ben.

I get it now. So clever.

I may not have invented the idea of silly food metaphors, but I can assure you that you are about to enjoy a tasty knuckle sandwich.

Man, I just hate that guy.