Column by Audrey Brown
Movies are king when it comes to theme park merchandising, ticket sales and advertising. As early as Aladdin, the Genie was off to Disney World after being freed. Stop for a second and just try to imagine Disney World or Universal Studios without movie tie-ins – it’s impossible. But not so long ago, television was the best way for theme parks to get the word out about a new parade, ride or special event.
Yes, before the Internet, before the landmark financial success of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the best way to entice the viewing public to visit a theme park was to give some of America’s favorite families a day at the park. As far back as the 1970s, the Brady Bunch was invited to film at Kings Island in Ohio and the television tradition only continued on, especially through the ’80s and ’90s.
Today we’re accustomed to seeing Samantha Brown or Burt the Conqueror grace the small screen in everything from log rides to parades, doing documentary television. But pre-Internet, the glossy and sugary world of sitcoms and fictional plotlines were the status quo. It’s hard to believe it, but not so long ago before the internet-savvy audiences of today, potential theme park guests were enticed to visit via sitcoms and made-for-television movies.
If you lived outside of Orlando, all you knew about the city was what you saw in old family photo albums or on television. So it makes sense that the parks used to turn to special programming for promotion and marketing. It’s a tradition that started with Walt Disney himself, who first created a partnership with ABC when they agreed to front the money that would allow him to finish Disneyland if he would create an hour-long television show for them. (What resulted was an Emmy winning behind-the-scenes look at 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.)
Here are just a few TV to theme park tie-ins that you may remember from the ’80s to the early ’90s.
Disney’s Halloween Treat
This 1982 special program featured music videos set to contemporary hits (Rockwell, anyone?) and cartoon montages galore, all Halloween themed of course. Why, back in my day, this is how most of us kids learned about the existence of the Mansion. We didn’t have that new-fangled Internet gizmo. All we had were well worn brochures passed from neighbor to neighbor and the seconds-long glances at the ghostly ballroom that this show offered. Just imagine it, one TV show rerun for years and years resulting in an annual country-wide chorus of children everywhere begging their parents to take them to Disneyland or Disney World. (Also, when we went to the parks we had to walk uphill in the snow both ways.)
Doc Brown Goes to Universal Studios
In 1988, Back to the Future legend Doc Brown appeared in a long Universal Studios theme park promo handed out to press. In the promo, Doc uses the Delorean to go on a “wild journey to Orlando” and preview the park. (Where he meets Murder She Wrote actress Angela Lansbury.) At that time, the opening of the park was delayed from 1988 to 1990 and the video was created as a kind of apologetic press release meant to satiate frustrated fans.
• Full House Goes To Disney World
In the 1993 special two-part episode, “The House Meets the Mouse”, the whole gang was treated to a world class vacation at Walt Disney World. The two-parter was filmed on location at the Grand Floridian resort and the (then) three theme parks that constituted Disney World. Plot points covered the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, the Princess for a Day promotion, the Living Seas at Epcot, and just about every costumed character Disney had in stock. The show even featured a special concert held in front of Cinderella’s Castle by Jesse and the Rippers – you know, Uncle Jesse’s band. Audiences today may not put up with the saccharine music, sweet script or overt advertising, but as a kid at the time, this episode felt like a little slice of heaven. Uncle Jesse at Disney World? Pay dirt for anyone under 13.
• Disney’s Sunday Night Movie Christens the Indiana Jones Adventure
Forgive me if I venture briefly out of Orlando, but this one is too good not to share. In 1995, to promote the opening of the dark ride at Disneyland, the Indiana Jones Adventure, the Disney Channel produced a special hour-long show of the same name. To the public’s surprise, it even featured A-listers Karen Allen and John Rhys-Davies reprising their roles as Marion and Sallah from Raiders of the Lost Ark. This blast from the past is too good not to Google. It’s odd to think that this was produced in the early-’90s, yet it seems so different in tone than anything that would be produced today.
• Tower of Terror
Speaking of things that are too populist to get produced today … This 1997 made for TV movie starred Steve Gutenberg and Kirsten Dunst. The movie was shot on location at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where the ride is located and completed on a soundstage in Hollywood. The movie was something of a test to see whether or not rides would be viable properties from which to launch films. We all know how that worked out. So the next time you find yourself marveling at Johnny Depp as Capt. Jack Sparrow, just know that you have Steve Gutenberg and an early ’90s TV movie to thank for that.
• The Golden Girls go to Disney World
Though they never actually filmed in the park, a model of the home that served as the exterior location for the show was erected at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and put on the Studio Backlot Tour. In addition, several episodes mentioned the park and even worked a trip into the plotline. Once, Dorothy gifted her mother Sophia with a trip to the parks because Sophia was desperate to ride Space Mountain. Sadly, audiences only ever got as far as the hotel. (I can say sadly, because I remember watching the episode with my grandmother and anxiously awaiting a look at Space Mountain. I was pretty bummed when it never came…)
Thank goodness for the Travel Channel and Internet content (Orlando Attractions Magazine – The Show, Theme Parks with Audrey and Jake and podcasts galore) that cover the world of theme parks today. Because when it comes to television tie-ins, it’s obvious they don’t make them like they used to. Good luck finding irony-free TV today. Watch the special Full House episode again and you’ll know, that age has come and gone. Whether that’s for better or worse is your call.
What other theme park-related TV specials do you remember?
• Audrey is a freelance writer and voice over artist. Her work has appeared in “Geek Monthly”, “Animation World”, “Haunted Attractions”, “Orlando Attractions Magazine” (print edition) and more. You can read more of Audrey’s writing at her blog, Born For Geekdom. She is currently pursuing her MA in creative writing in the midwest. She escapes to Orlando as often as humanly possible, where she has spent an inordinate amount of time vacationing and would take up residence in the Haunted Mansion if she only could.