January 10, 2024

The wonderful world of Disney on TV

Today I'm pleased to welcome back Bill Griffiths. Last September, Bill penned a guest essay on his childhood memories of KTVU in Northern California, and now he's back with a look at the history of Disney on TV. As a former cast member at Walt Disney World for fifteen years (!), you can understand that this is a topic near and dear to him; I think this look back will bring back some fond memories for you as well, as it does me! 

by Bill Griffiths

Disney a cartoon tonight?”

This was the question my younger sister would ask each week. Having already read through the current TV Guide, I’d have a ready answer. While we both enjoyed the cartoon episodes best, we would still be guaranteed a fine hour (or two) of entertainment if it was one of the many animal-related stories, a gimmicky comedy (sometimes involving animals) an international and/or period-piece drama, a documentary or a theme park special. Such was The Wonderful World of Disney. It was the beginning of a great interest in the works of Walt Disney and his studio that continue to this day. That would lead by happy circumstance to becoming a Walt Disney World cast member, a role I was privileged to have for 15 years. Being part of the WDW team would also in an indirect way introduce me to my future wife. We would ultimately be married on Disney property although not in any of the parks—too expensive. Even though we no longer work for the Mouse, I still follow company developments.

Not too many years ago, we were visiting some relatives. While their kids were watching a Disney program, I casually remarked how I remembered when Disney was only on television once a week. Suddenly they turned around and one asked, "What? Only once a week?" Indeed it was true. Actually, I could very well be from that last generation that clearly recalls Disney coming on solely Sunday, and later Saturday nights. Now, there was the occasional special showing of an episode or a movie on another evening, and for a period during 1977-78 there was also The New Mickey Mouse Club in syndication (shown locally on KTVU Channel 2… and if you haven’t read my earlier salute to that station, go check it out. Sorry, there is no mention of that version of the Club that was made for you and me). The anthology series aired uninterrupted for an amazing 29 years and has been brought back for extended periods right through to the present day. It has been aired under eight different titles:

  • Disneyland (ABC 1954-58) 
  • Walt Disney Presents (ABC 1958-61) 
  • Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color (NBC 1961-69) 
  • The Wonderful World of Disney (NBC 1969-79) 
  • Disney’s Wonderful World (NBC 1979-81) 
  • Walt Disney (CBS 1981-83) 
  • The Disney Sunday Movie (ABC 1986-88) 
  • The Magical World of Disney (NBC 1988-90)

ABC revived The Wonderful World of Disney as a weekly series from 1997 until 2006, with occasional showings through 2008. Since 2015, it has again been seen on an irregular basis, "temporarily" returning as a weekly offering due to the writers and actors strikes in 2023. In my humble opinion, Walt Disney was a genius. He had a pretty good instinct for what the public wanted, and his track record is proof of that. He was the first major film producer to see television as an asset—something he could use not only to promote his product, but also generate original material. Once Walt fully entered television with the premiere of the Disneyland series on ABC October 27, 1954, he put more money into the TV productions than what he got out of it, although ultimately the show was quite profitable. For example, the majority of episodes were filmed in color even though ABC could only broadcast in black-and-white. Live-action stories such as the phenomenally successful "Davy Crockett" hours benefited from location shooting in addition to also being in color. 

Then, there were the segments highlighting Disney’s classic cartoon characters. Specially commissioned animation—again, mostly in color—succinctly tied together the cartoon shorts where it was often difficult to tell what was new and what was older. Some of those animated showcases even had moments of host Walt Disney or other live action performers interacting with the characters, especially in those episodes devoted to Donald Duck. Additionally, at a time when most of the major studios refused to release their films to television, Walt was presenting relatively recent features on his program, albeit edited and sometimes divided over two weeks. These included now-classic movies such as Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland. All of these efforts would pay off over the years the anthology aired on network television and later in airings on The Disney Channel, syndicated reruns, and VHS and DVD releases.

I should note a point of criticism to some when it came to episodes devoted in whole or in part to upcoming theatrical movies or Disneyland and Walt Disney World. But again the information presented, and the production and entertainment values were so high that it could be easy to forget they were essentially extended commercials! In fact, those theme park episodes can now be viewed as a time capsule, capturing on film or videotape sights and sounds that have passed into history. This “promoting” of the parks even extended into the credit sequences which for most years opened with fireworks above Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle and later Cinderella’s Castle at the Magic Kingdom Park with Tinker Bell flying around followed by quick scenes encompassing the many facets of Disney. It certainly served its purpose to get viewers excited for the evening’s offering.

My initial exposure to The Wonderful World of Disney was in the mid 1970s into the early 1980s. It was one of four programs that in our household was appointment viewing on the weekends—other programs included Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, The Muppet Show, and The Lawrence Welk Show. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the Disney organization as a whole (with the exception of the theme parks) was experiencing challenges due to the changing nature of the entertainment industry and the company’s reluctance to tamper with the successful formula established with Walt, who had died in 1966. While I certainly didn’t realize it, an increasing amount of episodes consisted of airings of live-action theatrical features (often shown in two parts, sometimes seen in one night) and reruns from earlier seasons. Original live action made for television productions declined to a mere handful per year. 

But in carrying on the standard for quality set by Walt, these episodes shared the same production personnel and even actors that appeared in Disney theatrical films. Still, what had worked well for 25 years gave way to a feeling of complacency by 1979. This also reflected in the Nielsen ratings. Whereas The Wonderful World of Disney was routinely ranked in the top ten or top twenty through 1975, the series had fallen to 55th place by the end of the decade. Of course it didn’t help that NBC was mired in third place.

The same year NBC proclaimed it was "Proud as a Peacock," the Disney anthology made a few changes of its own, shortening the title to Disney’s Wonderful World and, for the first time since The Sherman Brothers memorable Wonderful World of Color title tune of the 1960’s ("The world is a carousel of color/ Wonderful, wonderful color!"), the opening montage of clips was accompanied by a new song announcing "It’s the friendly old place/A happy new face!"  I remember when this happened and while the theme didn’t really catch on, I liked it even if not all the words made complete sense. The actual opening and closing music was fun and contemporary, which was certainly the goal. The composers of the theme song were John Debney and John Klawitter. If Debney’s name sounds familiar, he is one of the most prolific film and television composers having been nominated and won numerous awards in his career. This was his first major musical contribution. Needless to say after one year, the theme went back to the familiar medley of Disney songs that with variations to the arrangements and tempo had opened each episode since 1969…in this case, the version first used during the 1978-79 season.

In a callback to the 1954-61 episodes coming from Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland or Tomorrowland, each week would now be themed Adventure Night, Comedy Night or Fantasy Night. Additionally, a new but familiar voice would be heard: Gary Owens, replacing Dick Tufeld, who had replaced original announcer Dick Wesson. Fun fact: all three men were heard as TV announcers in the 1971 comedy The Barefoot Executive. This movie is a must-see for classic TV fans, not only to spot the many familiar faces including Kurt Russell (Disney films of this era were always well-cast) but also prove that a chimpanzee can program a network just as good if not better than any human!

The cosmetic changes didn’t help much. Then came 1981. One day that spring seemingly at random, I was told the Disney series was going to soon be on CBS Saturday nights. The move actually brought a little improvement to the anthology format with an increased emphasis on new episodes and even attempts at separate shows such as Small and Frye, a comic take on the 1950's Zorro series called Zorro and Son, and even two programs based on Disney films: Herbie the Love Bug (The Love Bug movies), and Gun Shy (The Apple Dumpling Gang). None of them lasted longer than a handful of episodes. Much more successful was the network television premiere of one of Walt Disney’s biggest hits—Mary Poppins. Taking over an entire evening’s schedule November 22, 1981, it was one of the first programs recorded on our new VCR. Despite these changes, CBS would end Walt Disney as a weekly series at the end of September 1983. While ratings were a factor, the decision was apparently at the request of Disney management. While ultimately Disney’s presence on television would eventually flourish 24/7, it was the launch of cable’s The Disney Channel in April 1983 that would in the short-term come at the expense of the studio’s broadcast presence. It was with considerable anticipation that we were finally able to access The Disney Channel with the installation of a huge satellite dish in 1984. 

Around that time the channel began scheduling regular airings of The Wonderful World of Disney with most episodes taken from the period with Walt hosting. In earlier network showings, reruns from the 1950’s and 60’s often deleted his introductions. Now they were reinstated, with some being shown in color for the first time. Through these presentations, I came to appreciate Walt. He had a causal, welcoming on-camera presence even providing information to give the viewer a feeling that what they were about to see was indeed special. It was an element that could not be replicated even with later guest hosts that would appear from time to time post-Walt. One exception would be the animated Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by Paul Frees who was known to improvise some of the dialogue), a self-professed expert on everything who headlined some of the funniest hours Disney produced.

Although the anthology format was revived in 1986, I did not watch on a regular basis, having moved on to other programs. Then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner stepped in as the new host. While he largely did a capable job introducing the movies, he never quite captured the warmth and attention to detail of Walt. I do admit Eisner did a good job bringing Disney back onto network television in a big way, especially with hit individual shows through the Touchstone Television division such as The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, Home Improvement, and more. As Walt Disney Productions became The Walt Disney Company, Eisner and his team headed up an expansion far beyond what Walt could have ever imagined. A lot was positive. Other decisions—not so much. Ultimatel, such factors led to Eisner’s departure after 21 years (1984 to 2005) and the ascension of Bob Iger. Wisely, he recognized his on-camera limitations and has not hosted any subsequent versions of the anthology.

2024 will mark 70 years since the debut of Walt Disney's weekly foray into television. Wouldn’t it be WONDERFUL if those anthology episodes made specifically for television appeared complete on Disney Plus? For now, subscribers have to settle for a handful of shows available on the service which are generally accompanied by an unnecessary advisory that the presentation "may contain outdated cultural depictions."  This of course is in keeping with current management's goal of pushing divisive social and political issues that have turned away Disney fans who simply don’t want to be bombarded with messaging that comes off as insulting and disrespectful. Supposedly Iger’s return from temporary retirement was in part to temper this justified criticism. That remains to be seen.

For the time being, there is a better option to watch classic Disney television. One enterprising individual has posted on You Tube hundreds of full episodes and rare clips under the heading "Keeping Walt in Disney." It is a great resource to track the evolution of the series, especially the different names and title sequences over the years. Most of the uploads appear to come from off-air recordings either in their original network runs or Disney Channel showings. Some however are from copies of ABC and NBC film prints that were sent to affiliates that aired the show on a delayed basis. A handful even come from rerun airings on Australian TV. The real treasure is seeing Walt himself happily and informatively present episodes. It is a reminder that Disney is capable of offering solid entertainment. I don’t think that is asking for too much.

I’d like to conclude this essay with some episode recommendations. This is by no means a definitive list of the best ones. But they are some of my favorites and maybe yours too. If you grew up with The Wonderful World of Disney, you probably know of others that bring back fond memories.

The Disneyland Story (October 27, 1954)—This is the premiere of the anthology series. The first half-hour is a preview of Disneyland the park which was under construction as well as upcoming episodes of Disneyland the TV show. The highlight is Fess Parker’s performance of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," heard for the first time. The Crockett shows and its theme song were soon to become major hits, far exceeding Walt’s or anyone else’s expectations. Those five episodes, first aired between 1954 and 1956, are also highly recommended. The second half-hour is devoted entirely to Mickey Mouse with highlights from his then-25 plus year career. In introducing the beloved character Walt famously says, "I only hope we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse."

From All of Us to All of You (December 19, 1958)—Jiminy Cricket hosts this collection of Christmas and winter-themed shorts along with "memorable moments" from classic animated features. The order and selection of cartoons would change in subsequent airings. Most showings from 1963 onward offered a "surprise gift" consisting of an extended excerpt of a new Disney animated feature film. This episode is still seen annually in Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland where it is ranked as one of the most watched programs each year.

An Adventure in Color / Mathmagic Land (September 24, 1961)—After seven years on ABC in black-and-white, the anthology is now "brought to you in living color on NBC."  Walt previews the new format and then introduces Professor Ludwig Von Drake (Donald Duck’s uncle) who humorously attempts to explain the mechanics of color. One statement in particular is brutally honest: "This whole program is being seen in color. And that’s a lie! You know that’s a lie because only the people with color tv sets are seeing this in color!"” Watch for the spectacular kaleidoscope opening with the classic theme penned by Richard & Robert Sherman, and a not-too-subtle jab at the NBC Peacock. The second half of the episode is the 1959 featurette "Donald in Mathmagic Land," the first Disney cartoon to be shown in its entirety on color television.

Fire on Kelly Mountain (September 30, 1973)—A Forest Service fire lookout spots smoke from a lightning strike and is sent out to investigate while another major fire is raging nearby. He is the only person keeping what is initially a small blaze from turning into one more inferno. Filmed on location, the action is punctuated with frightening wildfire footage (primarily taken from the 1961 docudrama episode "A Fire Called Jeremiah") and an intense music score by longtime Disney composer Buddy Baker. Starring Larry Wilcox, Andrew Duggan and Anne Lockhart (daughter of June).

Three on the Run (January 8, 1978)—Two brothers with three unlikely—and seemingly inept—dogs decide to enter an annual sled race that was once won by their deceased father. The episode is again enhanced by music from Buddy Baker especially during the race sequence. This particular show holds a sentimental element to me. The white dog in this story looked exactly like our German Shepherd that we called Bullet. Yes, our dog was named after the Steve McQueen movie. Starring Denver Pyle, Davey Davision, Peggy Rea and Ron Brown. Brown was an actor in Disney nature stories such as Charlie the Lonesome Cougar and Lefty the Ding-a-ling Lynx. He also served as a co-producer for other animal films made by the studio.

One Hour in Wonderland (December 25, 1950)— I’m including this because this was the first Walt Disney television production. The original format of the anthology series can be traced to this special, which partially serves to promote the 1951 animated feature Alice in Wonderland. It stars Walt Disney and Edgar Bergen, with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd; also appearing are Kathryn Beaumont (the voice of Alice), Bobby Driscoll, and Walt’s daughters Diane and Sharon Disney. Hans Conried plays the Magic Mirror who also guest hosted several episodes of the anthology. According to the late Disney historian and author Jim Korkis (who passed away in 2023), it was estimated some 20 million viewers tuned in at a time when there were only 10.5 million sets in the United States. The huge success of the special led to another holiday program called "The Walt Disney Christmas Show" in 1951. In February 1953 Ed Sullivan devoted an entire edition of his Toast of the Town to Walt Disney, little knowing Walt’s series would one day air in part opposite Ed’s "really big show."

Thanks again to Mitchell for giving me the opportunity to contribute to Its About TV! TV  


  1. For reasons I won't get into, 2024 (so far, anyway) is off to a bad start for me, but let that slide.
    This being a Disney post, may I be allowed to make a modest recommendation - a novel having no direct connection with the Disney Organization:
    Bombshell, an historical novel (sort of) by my friends Max Allan Collins and his wife Barbara Collins.
    Here's the setup:
    In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev made a major state visit to the USA.
    As part of the tour, he made a stop in Hollywood, where he got to meet Marilyn Monroe, and visited the set of the musical Can-Can.
    There was a bit of a flap, though, when the State Department handlers wouldn't allow Khrushchev to visit Disneyland - which got quite a bit of space in the papers for a few days ...
    Well, that was then; fast-forward to 2004, when my friends Max and Barb come up with their own what-if tale about Nikita had his new friend Marilyn sneak him away from his handlers and into Disneyland for a late-night visit ... and what happened then ...
    Let's be clear at the outset: Bombshell is a comedy - an entertainment from a time long past.
    Marilyn and Nikita meet up with Walt Disney himself, and the three share a fantasy-adventure - and it's a whole lot of fun to read (especially if you're old enough to remember the 1959 flap, as I am).
    Let me stay on that for a while: foreign relations were a lot more casual back then ( a Millennial reader might be surprised at just how casual), but Max and Barb are in my age range, and they do their research (and their homework).
    But the bottom line is this: Bombshell is an entertainment - a fun ride through recent history - so enjoy the ride (and while you're reading, think about whom you'd cast in the movie they might have made).

    Bombshell is available at Amazon (I checked; it's been through a few editions), and not at all expensive (ten bucks or so, give or take).

    On that note, I'll stand down for the moment; this coming year is about as unpromising as it can get, so I'll just wait and see ...

  2. Great essay! I noticed you didn't mention the main reason WWoD began its mid/late-Seventies slide into the Nielsen basement, in fact the same reason I was rarely permitted to watch the program until summer reruns: The meteoric rise in popularity of competing powerhouse, 60 Minutes. Until our family got a second TV, all final viewing decisions were made by Dear Old Dad, who had little interest in the Magic Kingdom and its offerings.

    I also recall that in the early '80s, HBO aired a heavy slate of Disney programming including live-action feature films, animated shorts between movies, and on one occasion ran an edited version of "Jiminy Cricket Presents Bongo" (episode 24 of Disneyland), and, astoundingly. in the original show's black & white, yet! Of course, all this bountiful goodness disappeared once The Disney Channel launched.

  3. Thanks for this great look back at a brand that brings back a lot of nostalgia for me, even if there's little I like about it now. I loved the DISNEY'S WONDERFUL WORLD them introduced in 1979 and was disappointed when 1980 brought back the old Disney song medley, which had been running as long as I remembered. I also loved the WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR theme, which I don't remember seeing or hearing until ABC's 1995 Disney annversary special, which began with Tom Hanks singing a couple bars of it off-key. I was a big fan of the Disney Channel, which my parents got on cable for my grandmother in the mid-1980s. I've pretty much had no use for the channel since it dumped its great "Vault Disney" feature in 2002.

  4. What wonderful memories of Disney on Sunday nights when I was a kid. The cartoons, the nature shows, the silly comedies, the occasional adventure films. You can still watch the Scarecrow of Romney Marsh on YouTube with the original introductions by Walt Disney. This generation will never know the magic.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!