Ranking the Disneyland Anniversary TV Specials

With last Sunday’s premiere, the Disneyland 60th Anniversary TV special won the evening with a robust 1.8 Nielson rating, proving once again that nobody understands Nielson ratings.

Ted and I live-tweeted the entire 2-hour broadcast because anniversary specials are rare. Through the first half of Disneyland’s history, there were four. Through the second half (i.e. my entire adult life), there have been only two.

But only one featured Joy from Inside Out, a shorn Kylo Ren, and that new Jesus dude from The Walking Dead singing acapella.

And only one featured Joy from Inside Out, a shorn Kylo Ren, and that new homeless dude from The Walking Dead singing acapella.

For those of you like me who have a fondness for the pomp and pageantry of an overwrought self-congratulatory commercial, it helps to know where last week’s special fits in the big picture of theme park anniversary shows.

If ever a category cried out to be ranked, this is it.

#6 – Disneyland 60th Anniversary

Last week’s show had many things in common with all of its predecessors: Celebrities, announcements, world premiere exclusive sneak peeks, and cross-platform synergy.

Only one thing was missing:


I get that you want to promote your upcoming movie slate, your cable channel tween stars, and your financially draining overseas property. But you’re celebrating the anniversary of the only park that Walt himself personally oversaw. Can’t you do more than a three minute Josh Gad Dole Whip run?

The show isn’t even hosted at Disneyland. The big names (Helen Mirren, John Stamos… you know, the giants!) are all sequestered in the Dolby Theater across town. There’s some token acknowledgement that we’re talking about Disneyland because Dame Helen is wearing mouse ears, but mostly it’s songs from the upcoming Jungle Book movie, or a reminder that hey, maybe the Muppets could still be relevant! Or a baffling parade of kid-in-loin-cloth movie trailers.

On very rare occasions, they cut away to Elton John sleepwalking in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle.

The one moment everyone is waiting for is whenHarrison Ford comes out to tell us more about Star Wars Land. There are a few brief glimpses of concept art which is either identical to what we have already seen, or slightly different but not really showing anything. It’s clear they don’t really have anything ready yet.

If I’m being honest, I’m worried they don’t understand Star Wars at all. There’s a lot of appeal in visiting the Star Wars universe, but it’s hard to imagine Universal opening a Harry Potter expansion featuring an area never seen in any of the movies or books.

Then it’s back to Idina Menzel for yet another Frozen performance, and some talk about Finding Dory, and then suddenly Shark Tank is on. Nice transition, guys.

#5 – Disneyland 35th Anniversary

By funny coincidence, the two most recent specials are at the bottom of this list. But make no mistake, the 35th Anniversary is much more Disneyland-focused.

It has a celebrity host, Tony Danza, at the height of the Who’s the Boss craze sweeping the nation (ask your parents, kids). It also has a cold open with the cast of Cheers. It’s worth noting that these were not Disney shows, but merely popular. These specials always relied on a corny mixture of nostalgia and pop culture relevance.

This show also features the tried-and-true gag of casting a celebrity as a Jungle Cruise skipper. Because as millions of Awards shows have taught us, celebrities are great at bad jokes.

There’s also a nice moment when Miss Piggy gets strung up like a wild west outlaw next to the Matterhorn. Though I admit that I only like this scene precisely because everyone in the background seems oblivious to the fact that someone just rocketed a pig puppet into a tree (28:55 mark below)

The highlight of the show (and really the only segment I remember from it) is an appearance by DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince doing a rap version of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.

Usually Disney raps are more awkward than taking your sister to the prom. And this one is slightly better than that.

#4 – Disneyland 25th Anniversary

For the big silver anniversary, Disney turned to heavy hitter Danny Kaye as the celebrity host. You may know Danny Kaye from his work as celebrity host of the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center, which is literally the only other thing I know him from.

This special featured various celebrity appearances, stitched together by Danny Kaye in “comedic” and sometimes “racist” skits around the park.

About halfway through the special, a pre-EO (heck, even pre-Thriller) Michael Jackson shows up to sing Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Looking back on this moment now, it’s completely surreal and wonderful, not least of which is because of how normal MJ looks.

And if anyone can figure out the identity of the tutu-clad girl bear who dances with Balloo, Brer Bear, and the Country Bears at the 40:20 mark, please let me know.

#3 Disneyland ’59 (Disneyland 5th Anniversary)

Those of you who are good at math may wonder why Disneyland was celebrating its 5th Anniversary on its 4th birthday. Well there’s a very good reason:


This special was a “re-dedication” of the park, thanks the expansion that brought the Submarine Voyage, the Monorail, and the Matterhorn to the park.

In terms of style, this one feels very much like the original opening day broadcast. Walt Disney and Art Linkletter are the hosts, and there are iconic moments to be found here, such as Vice President Richard Nixon trying (and failing) to cut the ribbon on the monorail.

I downgrade this show in the rankings only because it is barely alive today in a watchable format. The only surviving footage is from a kinescope (basically someone videotaping their TV screen).

Apparently someone in the Disney archives took one look at grey submarines, streamlined monorails, and Swiss mountains and decided they didn’t need to keep a copy of that kind of crap.

#2 – Disneyland 30th Anniversary

This show hits #2 on my list for purely personal reasons.

Growing up in the midwest, the specials were a rare treat–a chance to visit the parks from the comfort of my own living room.

My family was on the cutting edge of VCR technology, and I taped everything I could. Two shows in particular were played literally hundreds of times in my house–the Grand Opening of the Disney MGM Studios and Disneyland’s 30th Anniversary.

I have probably seen the 30th Anniversary as many times as I’ve seen Star Wars, and can recite it with the same accuracy.

I don't think I own a working VCR, but I still own these tapes.

I no longer own a working VCR, but I still own these tapes.

Drew Barrymore, hot off her appearance in the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center in which she is creepily cuddled by Danny Kaye, was one of the hosts, along with John Forsythe, who is a gentleman. Much like the recent 60th Anniversary, most of the celebrity portions take place at night.

Through this special I fell in love with Debbie Allen during her Adventureland-inspired Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah number (apparently we here at Parkeology cannot resist women dancing around in native garb), fell in love with Marie Osmond wearing all-white on Main Street U.S.A. (hot off her performance in the Grand Opening of EPCOT Center in which she angrily sings about World Showcase), and fell in love with the music of Alabama in spite of never once listening to any other Alabama songs other than the ones performed on this show.

Driving through Vegas later in the decade, my jaw hit the floor when I saw that I was actually in the same city as one of the acts from that 30th Anniversary show. Bobby Barosini’s Orangutans were appearing nightly! (my parents heartlessly did not buy us tickets)

Also, you have not lived until you have watched David Hasselhoff singing with the Big Bad Wolf or dancing with Fantasia Hippos.

There’s a nice playlist of the entire show on youTube.

#1 – Disneyland Tencennial (Disneyland 10th Anniversary)

It’s not the most star studded affair, though it does feature the first Disneyland Ambassador, Julie Reihm, and some Studios suit as the host.

I'll let you figure out which is which.

I’ll let you figure out which is which.

The musical numbers are much more muted. Some pieces of birthday cake and candles dance in front of the castle, in what might be the most bizarre character show in Disneyland history. A high school band performs down Main Street.

But the showcase of the park is second to none. Walt highlights three coming attractions: Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and It’s A Small World, which are probably still the greatest three attractions in Disneyland history.

And he pulls no punches. This is no coy, static pan over the same three pieces of concept art. This is a full on walk-through of the entire Pirates ride, followed by a long ride-through of virtually every Small World scene. In our era of spoiler-free teasing, it’s shocking how much the master himself is willing to give away.

Eat your heart out, Harrison Ford.

To top it off, there’s an elaborate segment detailing the history of Disneyland, and the whole episode is capped by a glorious sequence on the Rivers of America, which is especially poignant in light of the recent closures.

This one is required viewing for Disney fans of all ages.


Comments (17)

  1. May I just say, I really appreciate you validating my long-standing “meh”-ness at the plans for Star Wars Land. I agree wholeheartedly that it feels like Disney has no idea what makes Star Wars cool – at least to me. It seems lots of people don’t care that the land seems curiously devoid of Jedi powers and lightsabers, or that “space” has taken a back seat to “some weird planet you’ve never heard of.” Or that, let’s face it, the Millenium Falcon just really isn’t that cool compared to X-Wings.

    Of course, it seems that the vast majority of people are excited anyway, so it’s just nice to know that I’m not totally alone in wanting my Star Wars Land to feel like it has something to do with Star Wars 😉

    • But there are X-Wings, I think the Millenium Falcon is in fact cooler, space will be part of the attractions and you can damn well bet there will be Jedi and light sabers crawling all over the joint. So that leaves “some weird planet you’ve never heard of.” Well Star Wars is made of many many weird planets we had never heard of until suddenly we did. Never heard of Hoth until Empire, never heard of Jakku until TFA. It’s all about the execution. Should this new planet be executed well all will be fine.

  2. Tony Danza’s Jungle Cruise ride in the 35th special is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen.

    • Have you WATCHED that Fresh Prince rap??

  3. The 60th Anniversary special sucked. Even the 35th was lame (although it did show some of the park). Watched a little of the Tencennial and will finish it tomorrow. Watching legends such as Walt, Marc Davis, John Henchmen and Mary Blair kicks the living crap out of Tony Danza, Will Smith and that Ernest guy.

    What they should’ve done for the 60th was erect a giant Mickey sorcerer’s hat right in front of the castle and have Justin Bieber and Kanye West perform a rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

    • At least Bieber and Kanye are relevant. Elton John is… somewhat not. It blew my mind today when we found out our intern at work was born in 1994. AFTER Lion King came out.

  4. Girl bear in the tutu is meant to be Lulubelle from Bongo.

    As for Star Wars Land, the difference between Star Wars and Harry Potter is that Star Wars is an ever expanding setting with new worlds being introduced constantly while Harry Potter is confined almost entirely to London and Hogsmeade. You could do an entire Star Wars park and indeed, many people have armchair imagineered such a park, but it’s hard to narrow down a specific choice for a single land. Fortunately, for the reasons described earlier, it’s easy to get away with introducing a brand new world with familiar characters and concepts and really, throwing new stuff and concepts alongside some familiar elements was one of the biggest strength of the original Star Tours versus the overly self-referential and jokey Star Tours 2.

    • I think the tutu is what was throwing Shane… she does not wear one in the movie… just sort of a random park addition.

    • I assumed the reason for setting Star Wars land on a planet not visited in the films is to quiet the hardcore fans who consult Wookiepedia and loudly complain that something or other is non-canonical in the land.

      • Star Wars Land BETTER have laser cannons. I don’t think I can deal with it being non-cannonical

  5. Danny Kaye is in White Christmas! A classic! Another good one of his is “The Court Jester.”

    • Didn’t see them 🙂 Plus, stop robbing me of my attempts to make fun of Danny Kaye! It brings me such pleasure.

  6. There was a theatrical version, shot on film. One hopes Disney has a better print: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1L-sqgM8CZs

    Always surprised when they use arial shots that call attention to industrial-looking roofs and such. Watch for the Jungle Cruise shot that reveals animals mounted on a sort of turntable. And early Disneyland parades had a small-town buzz. The saloon float looks to be covered in aluminum foil, a real homecoming parade touch.

    Cheats: They toss in footage of real fish when the sub lagoon never had them, being heavily chlorinated. And note the absence of any live sound or music. The band is scored with a mock-76-Trombones tune where the broadcast had the real thing. And I think we see Meredith Willson standing next to Walt Disney.

    • The cheats are always fun to spot. Especially in today’s world, where they like to mix and match clips from different parks (Magic Kingdom subbing for Disneyland or vice versa).

      And totally agree about the parades. Things have definitely come a long way to today’s “street-tacular celebrations”

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