Circus Bear Mix-Up

I have no wish to rant about Storybook Circus, but there’s Another Part of Me that wants to. Circuses may have been magical in the first half of the 20th century, but today they conjure up negative associations with animal cruelty, carnival freaks, and child endangerment. Which come to think of it are pretty much the three defining characteristics of both Dumbo and Captain EO.

Certainly the fan community is impressed. All it takes is one Carolwood Pacific reference and Disney will have us all eating out of their hands. And that carpet in the gift shop! Such beauty we have never seen before! Judging by my blog reading list, there have been reams of paper spent on the Big Top Souvenirs carpet (because who doesn’t print out their blog reading list?) But I’m a jaded old cat, so I say talk to me again in six months and let’s see how that carpet is holding up.

I tend to lump Disney geeks into three categories. At the top you have the really passionate fans who know everything about everything. They write blogs and stuff. They’re well aware that there used to be a Mickey Mouse Club Circus at Disneyland (it sank into the swamp), a Circus Fantasy parade/show (it also sank into the swamp), and an EPCOT Daredevil Circus (it burned down, fell over, and then sank into the swamp). But Storybook Circus stayed. These people would have spotted the Carolwood reference a mile away, without any self-congratulatory help from the official Disney Parks Blog. These people know that the original idea for Storybook Circus came from a 1972 model for Dumbo’s Circusland, and if you check out the pictures, you can see just how similar the idea is. It’s easy to see why the 1972 version was never built: It lacked a 60-second, barn-themed kiddie ride.

Flight of the Hippogriff

Practically de rigueur after this stunning masterpiece of theming!

In the middle are the normal fans. These folks may not know everything, but then again, they also have lives. They can name most of the major Imagineers (especially those with outrageous names like Xavier, Yale, Rolly, and Jim). They have some appreciation of history. They can quote Haunted Mansion word for word. They’re either transitioning into obsession, or are self-aware enough to recognize that a career in circus rants isn’t as exciting as it sounds.

At the beginner level are the Hidden Mickey guys. These are the people who just love everything Disney, including its lesser films like Anastasia. They know about all the secret things in Florida — the hidden tunnels and the collapsible castle and so forth. They also know that discovering three random, vaguely conjoined circles is either a super-secret hobo language invented by Leonardo DaVinci himself, or a possible indication that you live in an Olympics host city.

The Last Supper

Do you see it??

I don’t despise the Hidden Mickey fans. We were all there once, right? But the main point of the Internet is to find some other group to feel superior to, and the hidden mickey crowd just happens to be the Rebecca Black to our Justin Bieber. Also I find it terribly amusing when they stumble off the bunny slope onto the Black Diamond trails.

True story. This happened at Storybook Circus a few weeks back. There I am, minding my own business, when suddenly I recognize two of the most famous faces in all of the Disney podcastosphere (not exactly the population of China, but still!). George and Jeff from Communicore Weekly are in line behind me at Dumbo. I’m friends with these guys online, but had never met them in person. It helped that they were both wearing these:

Oswald EarsSo we’re spending a few minutes catching up, introducing the families, etc. And some more people rush up, who shockingly recognize none of us. They just want to know where Jeff and George got those awesome ear hats. The guys politely explain that they got them at the Emporium on Main Street. The lady is thrilled. She is a huge Disney fan and recognizes how unique these items are. She wants to know what that picture is on the little badge. “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit,” Jeff replies. He points to her companion’s Oswald t-shirt. “Just like you have there.” This woman is talking to two mega-fans who hosted their own live sold-out fan-event at Epcot, and one Parkeologist who makes up fake interviews with the sheep in Impressions de France. If there’s another level of Disney nerd above us, it’s reserved for people whose last name ends in “Lutz.” “Oh no,” she says. “That’s not Oswald. That’s Mortimer, before Walt changed him to Mickey.”

Like I said. Bunny slope.

Anyway, I have gotten so far off topic by now with my celebrity name-dropping, that I’m not even sure what my point was. Oh yes, Disney geeks and Storybook Circus.

My theory is that Imagineering often aims for the mid-level of geekiness because most Imagineers are themselves in this level. They work for the company, so they have a decent amount of knowledge. And they were probably fans growing up, because it’s a weird career choice otherwise. But it’s also their job. We all like to say we’re passionate about our jobs, but I’m guessing most of us aren’t obsessing about the rich history of Accounting or collecting Teacher trading cards. Imagineering has its share of obsessive geeks of course, and probably its share of hidden mickey lovers too, such as whoever dreamed up Paradise Pier (that’s actually insulting even to hidden mickey lovers). But most Imagineers probably don’t come home from work, trim their mustache, change into vintage Smoke Tree Ranch pajamas, and dine on chili and beans (I’m not the only one that does this, right?)

I don’t really fault them for this. In the end, it’s not how much Disney history you know. It’s whether you can built a great Disney attraction. Yet it still bothers me when they miss an obvious reference to Disney lore and culture. Take this, for instance.

Humphrey the Bear

One of the posters outside the gift shop.

Now the funny thing is, in many circles, this is actually considered a successful example of Imagineering geekiness. Humphrey is practically unknown to the vast majority of the people visiting Storybook Circus. I’d wager that 99% of the people there think this is just a random bit of artwork made up specifically for the circus poster, and that Humphrey has no history outside of this one-time use. Of course, Disney geeks know Humphrey starred in a few National Park inspired shorts several decades ago, and he has actually been making a bit of a theme park comeback (Humphrey merchandise was on sale in Frontierland not too long ago).

Lambert the Sheepish Lion

Hard to call someone who thinks he’s a sheep a “Man Eater”

Humphrey isn’t the only obscure character referenced in Storybook Circus posters. Lambert the Sheepish Lion, from a 1952 short film, gets his own poster, as does Salty the Seal, who originally starred in Mickey’s Circus all the way back in the 30’s. There’s even some character referred to as “Goofy” whose origins remain unknown.

But Humphrey bothers me. Not because I dislike Humphrey (I love Humphrey! Humphrey’s the best!), but because they have a whole 30 minute featurette sitting in their library, whose entire plot revolves around a circus bear. Bongo the Circus Bear is not just a major theatrical effort for the company. It’s also SEO friendly.

Bongo the Circus Bear

His whole shtick is that he’s good on a Unicycle! It’s like Humphrey is pulling some Single White Female switch on him!

You’ve heard of Mickey and the Beanstalk, of course. The Sir Mickey’s shop in Fantasyland already references this film. What you may not know is that it was only one half of a feature length movie from 1947 entitled Fun and Fancy Free. It was released during Disney’s anthology period, when money was scarce because of some war or something. It had two segments, stitched together with some Jiminy Cricket transitions. The Beanstalk made it into the parks. Jiminy made it into the parks. But Bongo has disappeared completely.

It’s strange to me that Imagineering built an entire Circusland in the parks, and had an obvious need for some kind of circus animal to not only add some background, but to also be the main face of their candy apple counter inside Big Top Souvenirs (Humphrey appears on the signage there too). They wanted a bear, and instead of tapping the only circus bear in all of Disney theatrical history, they opted for the comic foil of a stuffy park ranger.

John Muir

The Chuck Norris of Park Rangers.

Bongo, I feel like Imagineering owes you an apology. Either nobody over there has ever bothered to watch all 51 canonical Disney animated features (I’m not the only one that has done this, right?), or they’re all a bunch of Humphrey groupies.

I suppose I will just have to forgive this oversight, and accept that Bongo is never going to be the kind of breakout star we all hoped for, even though they did see fit to give him a Vinylmation. It’s like Bill and Ted, or Bosom Buddies. One guy goes on to get all the glory, the other guy is stuck waiting for the reunion show. And anyway, at least Humphrey is still a genuine obscure Disney reference, so it’s not a total failure.

Unlike that Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom game. Disney, have you fixed this blatant Dalmation error yet???


Comments (32)

  1. Fast forward to 2020, a pandemic, and Disney +…
    The entire version of ‘Fun and Fancy Free’ popped up, to my initial delight. I have seen Mickey and the beanstalk, about a hundred times; but never this!
    (Devils advocate asking…) Do you think Disney wanted this to not be remembered? Oh, say for it’s entire overtone of abuse on several levels?
    At first I was extremely sad, then excited for the escape! However, things got and stayed different… I honestly can’t see a place for real tribute to a character that was the central focus of disparity, and the ‘just coming to grips with it’ take away… Especially in today’s climate.
    Or even several years ago when this was originally written. Do you feel any different towards the storyline now? Or is it just a gem that had been lucky enough to survive that “big war” or whatever?

  2. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought that Anastasia was made by 20th Century Fox. Is it really a Disney movie?

    • Nice catch! It was a little bit of facetious poke-funnery at the Hidden Mickey crowd’s expense. Because even when they think they are uber-fans, they are sometimes sadly misinformed.

  3. When it first came out on VHS in the early 80s, I think I probably watched “Fun and Fancy Free” 50 times with my, then very young, nephews. Mickey and the Beanstalk is no doubt the better of the two pieces, but Bongo definitely grew on me. So much so that I’d much prefer watching a 3D interactive version of Bongo at the Imagination Pavilion over Captain EO. No offense to the memory of Michael Jackson. His music will live forever and I love it, but EO just doesn’t do it for me. I may be the only one, but I actually miss Honey I Shrunk the Audience.

    Hard to believe they left this bear out of Storybook Circus. Bongo for president!

    • A 3D Interactive version of Bongo would likely include a lot of slapping. This might be more than I can take, since I always have to lean forward for the Wasp section of Tough To Be A Bug.

      And you are not the only one who misses HISTA! I have an affection for it as well, although it was definitely showing its age, and I enjoyed the nostalgic EO switchup. They both probably need retired at this point, and a new show put into the Magic Eye Theater.

      • I’d take Magic Journey’s over either of them… seriously.

        And Shane… WIMP.

  4. And yet not word of Duffy.
    I totally see the point of this post. In fact, ineptly the first few times I’d seen photos of Humphrey on the cycle my mind automatically said Bongo. It wasn’t till this post that I even consider the truth. So there you go, maybe that’s the genius of it all.

    • It’s a dark plot, I tell you. George Lucas will soon be releasing Fun And Fancy Free Special Edition, and Bongo will have been totally replaced by Digital Humphrey.

  5. I’m laughing my huge tracts of land off over here!

    • Stop that! No more singing!

    • Out of all the hilarious comments on this post, yours made me laugh the hardest. (Especially because I nearly missed Shane’s original allusion)
      Nicely played

  6. The hidden Mickey in the Last Supper…by god (pun intended), that was brilliant!

    But yes, that interaction we had in Storybook Circus was quite…hilarious, to say the least!

  7. This is one of the best Disney pieces I’ve read all year. Thank you! Just one thing made my skin crawl…

    I can’t stand Bongo. I don’t know if it’s the narration or the reeeally awful plot point song “A Bear Likes To Say It With a Slap,” but I’d rather watch Morris the Midget Moose than Bongo, even with my love of circus films. Just a personal opinion — others may find the slapping song charming.

    I gotta say a few words in defense of Paradise Pier, even though you’re probably dead right about the person who dreamed it up. Sure, it started off on the wrong foot or six, but it’s become one of the loveliest nighttime spots in any Disney park. All it needs is a good dark ride, replacements for the wild mouse and Jumpin’ Jellyfish, and some actual landscaping around the end of Screamin’, and it’ll be awesome. As it stands, I’d rather be there than current Tomorrowland.

    Anyway, this was a great, great read!

    • Ha, great point, Rich! I actually agree with you that the Bongo storyline is mostly boring, and Bongo himself is not an extremely lovable character. But he is at least a prominent circus character for a studio that only has Dumbo and Toby Tyler to go along with him (interesting: no Toby Tyler references that I’ve found either, even though Toby Tyler has some tangential relationships with early Disneyland).

      Paradise Pier has improved, but every time I see it, I find the whole thing disheartening. Typical Six Flags concrete queues, off-the-shelf rides, and the thing that Walt swore he would never have in his park: A Ferris Wheel.

      It has at least managed to jettison the forced “California hip” overlay (giant Oranges and awful puns) for a more classical early century Boardwalk, but I’ll take ramshackle Tomorrowland over it. Or most of Tomorrowland anyways. Obviously there’s some junk there too (Stitch and Monsters in Florida, Innoventions in Disneyland).

  8. Bongo may be a hair more recognizable now, since “Fun and Fancy Free” is on video and the Humphrey cartoons are mostly consigned to unavailable (at a rational price) Treasures tins. But for boomers and a decade or two beyond, Humphrey was far more familiar thanks to multiple episodes of the Sunday night shows (Bump bump!). He even turns up in the Mickey Mouse Club title sequence. Also, he LOOKS a lot funnier than Bongo, which I suspect was a big factor.

    For similar reasons Lambert (sort of a standard lion for late-period Disney shorts) beat out the sleepy circus cats from the original Dumbo. And the mid-30s seal act from Mickey’s Circus was replaced by the much later and cuter zoo denizen of Mickey and the Seal.

    And let’s be honest: For all the visual appeal and occasional flashes of wit (Bongo whips out his press clippings during a fight), it’s mostly one dubious joke — hitting as a sign of affection — stretched too far.

    • I’m sure you’ve hit the nail on the head for the reasons why they went with Humphrey. As a character design, Humphrey is far superior to Bongo. But to have NO sign of the only Circus Bear in their stable just seems odd. It’s like a total blind spot.

      Have you ever noticed they do the same thing with Madame Medusa (The Rescuers), whenever they market the villains? Not just in big productions like Fantasmic, but every now and then you’ll run across some tableau of all the villains in a poster or something, and Medusa is always conspicuously absent. She’s the major villain of a moderately well-known movie, and she gets ZERO treatment. They’ll include Si and Am (very minor villains) over Medusa. Edgar, from the Aristocats, also gets the shaft.

      It was almost to the point where I wondered if there was some underlying lawsuit that was preventing any Medusa references. She’s not one of the all time great villains, of course, but can’t they paint her into the background next to Kaa or something?

      • HEY! I actually own an original Kaa cel. it is like the one nod to Disney animation that I have (being much more of a parks guy)… and now you go and lump the great Kaa in with some third rate never-was like Madame Medusa.

        I am DEEPLY OFFENDED Shane… you are walking a fine line these days!

        • Did you know that if you study your Kaa cel’s spots carefully, you will find a Hidden Mickey?

      • Madame Medusa is gloriously flamboyant in animation, but as a costume character or an out-of-context drawing she’d read as a creepy broad in a shapeless dress. Even in the film she’s a two-bit operator — a cruel one, but still. Compare to Cruella, whose very costume screams “I don’t brake for animals or people!” Poor Edgar is a visually generic butler who’s too nervous and incompetent to rank with the real villains anyway.

        • They’re definitely both third-rate, but you know how sometimes Disney will release posters of all their villains or placemats or coffee mugs and things? You would expect to see these two show up occasionally, in the background! They don’t have the star power of Hook or Cruella, but they have to rate somewhere!

          I have a framed villains poster from the late 90s that I got from the parks, and it includes Pain and Panic, Sir Hiss, Magica de Spell (from the freakin Duck Tales cartoons), and the mother-lovin Black Cauldron (not the Horned King, just the cauldron!) It even has the Cheshire Cat as a villain! When you kidnap a little orphan girl, stuff her down in a flooding cave with dead pirates, and sic not one but two enormous alligators on her, and STILL get beat out by a fluffy pink cat with the same voice as Winnie the Pooh… well, that’s just not right!

          Come to think of it, the other Rescuers villain, McLeach, also is a no-show on these things. As is Amos Slade from Fox and the Hound. Come on, Disney! Where is my comprehensive Villains poster???

  9. Just for the record.. I adored the Barnstormer. Just flat out fun, gets my stomach just enough without being so scary that my youngest daughter wouldn’t ride it with me. Plus my husband is a huge Goofy fan and it was really the only attraction “dedicated” to him at WDW. I have yet to see the new “incarnation” of the ride, but I am very glad they did not tear it down. One of the biggest reasons we will mourn the area was the focus on the classic characters, there are simply not enough of them in the parks anymore.

    While some may feel it’s overkill, I really enjoy all the tributes in the new additions. It’s yet another way Disney sets itself apart from other parks. Makes it at least a little more about the people and their creativity than a generic money machine.

    I guess Bongo just wasn’t “bear” enough for them. He’s a cutie though and it would not have been hard to toss in a tribute somewhere.

    • I don’t really think it’s overkill. Just that they had a better tribute waiting in the wings and botched it.

      We will have to disagree on Barnstormer though. At 60 seconds, it’s pathetically short (probably the shortest ride in all of WDW), and I just can’t stand the exposed coaster tracks that betray it for what it really is: An off-the-shelf kiddie carnival ride.

      But under the right guidance, it could have been decent, and the coaster itself is at least zippy.

  10. That’s not Oswald. That’s Mortimer >SNERD<, before Walt changed him to Mickey.

    • Phil coming strong with a nice reference to Fun and Fancy Free! Mortimer Snerd was part of the interstitials between the segments.

  11. Shane, another brilliant blog, full of humor, wit and detail. Thankyou for those.
    What I am not grateful for is the blatant disrespect shown to Michael Jackson/Captain EO in the opening paragraph. It as was as disgusting as someone perpetrating the awful myth of Mr Walt Disney being a racist and hating Jewish people. Untrue, disrespectful and not funny in the slightest. I’m not sure what your reasons were for including these snarky comments RE: Captain EO, I’d love for you to share them with us if you have any, but be aware that there are many Disney fans who are also Michael Jackson fans, and Michael Jackson himself was not only a HUGE admirer of Walt Disney’s genius, but also of the Art of the Disney artists, the films, and the genius, detail, and fun of the Parks, and had a huge collection of Disneyana.

    I do look forward to your next blog, I hope your not offended by my honesty here, but I hope it won’t stoop to trash talk like this one did (talking trash cans will be an exception of course). Regards- Q.

    • I am not offended in the slightest, Q. As someone who owns every Michael JAckson album, saw This Is It in IMAX, and once dressed up as Michael for Halloween, I consider myself a HUGE Michael Jackson fan. That said, I also don’t have any problems poking fun at some pop star’s image. Even if you love him, you can’t deny that MJ is a pretty weird guy. My comments were obliquely snarky, but they weren’t all that mean spirited, considering his HIStory.

      My reasons for referencing MJ are because it is a Disney reference that most people are familiar with. The jokes don’t really work unless we have a common point of reference. But in the interest of not offending you, just mentally replace all references to Captain EO with the name “Chairman Clench.”

      • I too was deeply offended by Shane’s comments about Michael Jackson… but then he loaned me a pair of his MJ underoos, so I’m OK with it now.

        • You went deep into the vault for that one! My underoos haven’t been referenced since the old AOL boards we used to frequent. fl-attractions forever!

  12. It’s been surreal to see that the business of getting a Disney reference “no one else” gets become a major part of how Imagineering designs and builds things. From the Haunted Mansion queue additions to Storybook Circus to the Phil Holmes portrait in the New Fantasyland there seems to be an ocean of tributes and references that seem exist entirely to help make that mid-level Disney fan feel good about themselves. I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with making people happy in this way exactly, but it’s been an interesting development. There have always been hidden details and tributes but now they’re kind of wagging the dog.

    • There’s nothing really wrong about these forced tributes — they’ve kind of been doing this stuff for years. I guess what makes them a little more tiring now is that Disney is quick to spoil them all themselves. They were quite proud of that Carolwood thing. They fell all over themselves trying to slyly chat it up (parks blog, twitter, D23, etc). I don’t mind these tributes at all, I just wish they were more subtle about it. And they do still throw in some subtle stuff from time to time, but it’s so hard now because the savvy top-level fans have figured them out by the time the first construction wall comes down.

  13. What’s even weirder then having no Bongo is that Lumpjaw is apparently involved in one of Goofini’s Acts as seen in the Barnstormer posters. How could they overlook Bongo and use his antagonist for something?

    • I need to take another look around. When the posters first started going up, I had a vague impression that I too had spotted Lumpjaw, but in looking back through some photos, I thought I must have imagined it. Is he really there? This mystery must be answered!

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