If you've been to Walt Disney World in the past five years, chances are good you've seen merchandise featuring a cute little Orange Bird. You may have even visited the Sunshine Tree Terrace and seen this adorable little character up close (and perhaps ordered a drink in a souvenir Orange Bird cup!) However, unlike other characters you'll find around Walt Disney World, the Orange Bird has never appeared in a film, is not based on a classic fairy tale character, and isn't featured in any attractions.
Though you wouldn't know it by looking at him, the Orange Bird was conceived as a representation of a nearly 80 year partnership between the Walt Disney Company and the Florida Citrus Commission, a partnership that predates not only Walt Disney World, but Disneyland as well.
However, the Orange Bird was more than just a sponsorship icon, and went on to become a central figure of Walt Disney World's early years, helping to put the Magic Kingdom on the map during its first decade of operation. However, the story of the Orange Bird is a complex one with plenty of twists and turns involving some marketing mis-steps, a disgraced beauty queen, a slow and painful exile from Walt Disney World, and finally, the Orange Bird's triumphant return to his home.
So who exactly is the Orange Bird? And where did he come from? Well, like so many things at Walt Disney World, it was all started by a sponsorship...
The Florida Citrus Commission and the Walt Disney Company
In order to fully appreciate the origins of the Orange Bird, we have to go back to 1941, to the first partnership between the Walt Disney Company and Florida’s Natural Growers. This early deal was fairly simple, and allowed the cooperative to use the character of Donald Duck to sell orange juice. Though Donald Duck orange juice hasn't been as prominent in recent years, this 75 year old agreement endures to this day, and is one of the longest American marketing partnerships in history.
Fast-forwarding nearly three decades from the start of this partnership, and the newly formed Florida Citrus Commission (which grew out of Florida’s Natural Growers), and the Walt Disney Company were looking to extend their collaboration. Construction was up on Disney’s Magic Kingdom and both parties saw the opening of this new theme park as an opportunity neither could ignore. A deal was struck in 1969 which saw the Florida Citrus Commission take on sponsorship of the Sunshine Pavilion, which housed the Tropical Serenade Show (now known as the Enchanted Tiki Room) as well as the Sunshine Tree Terrace snack location. The cost for such an expansive presence at Walt Disney World? A cool $3 Million (which translates to a nearly $20 Million investment in 2015).
In an effort to support the Florida Citrus Commission's massive investment in Walt Disney World, the Walt Disney Company decided to create a new mascot the following year to help solidify the partnership between the two and provide a vehicle for joint promotion for the two entities. The official birthdate of the Orange Bird was in 1970, and this mascot was designed to be fairly simple. As the name implied, the bird would be orange, and have a head shaped like the citrus fruit he was meant to sell and green leaves for wings. However, though the design of the Orange Bird was pretty straightforward, he still needed a "gimmick"
And here's where things get interesting. While other Disney characters like Mickey Mouse can talk and interact with others, the Orange Bird's defining characteristic would be that he was unable to speak, squeak or even make the smallest sound. Instead, the Orange Bird could only communicate through Orange-tinted smoke, that would display his thoughts. Unsurprisingly, the Orange Bird thought a lot about oranges and the state of Florida, but he soon developed a catchphrase of sorts. Whenever something was pleasing to the Orange Bird, his thought-bubble would say 'NICE!' in all caps.
It didn't take long to come up with the concept for the Orange Bird, and after all the character details were finalized this brand new mascot was immediately put to work. The above promotional image was taken while Walt Disney World was still under construction and shows the Orange Bird posing in front of what would eventually become the Sunshine pavilion at the Magic Kingdom....his future home.
However, the Orange Bird was never confined to just Walt Disney World, and soon began gracing billboards on the Florida stretch of I-95 as well as print advertisements in newspapers and magazines, working double duty not only as a promoter of Florida orange juice, but also as a spokesbird for the forthcoming Walt Disney World resort. Advertisements like the magazine ad below that promoted Walt Disney World and Florida Citrus Growers were an extremely common sight at citrus stands, grocery stores and other areas around Florida where citrus was sold.
Though guests’ first experience with the Orange Bird was likely in one of these advertisements, this burgeoning mascot was able to move into his “forever home” in 1971 when the Sunshine Pavilion opened at Walt Disney World. Though his presence was small at first (the Orange Bird was simply a figure behind the counter of the Sunshine Tree Terrace), the popularity of the character rose to meteoric levels almost overnight.