TPT logo

Your guide to theme parks in Orlando and beyond

 

Main menu

From Mineral King to the Magic Kingdom: Startin' Up the Country Bear Jamboree

Golden State at last!

The Country Bear Jamboree was enthusiastically received at Walt Disney World, becoming an instant fan-favorite and a must-see spectacle that encapsulated the wonders of what Disney could do. Decades before Audio-Animatronic dinner shows populated local family entertainment centers, Disney had done the impossible and brought an entire band of bears to musical life.

That’s why the Country Bear Jamboree was the first ever attraction to be cloned from Walt Disney World back to the original Disneyland.

Image: Disney, via Yesterland.com

But where would it go? Luckily, Disney had an expansion pad ready. When Disneyland opened in 1955, its Frontierland was designed to bring to bring to life the stories of the American West that featured so heavily in pop culture at the time. Davy Crockett, The Lone Ranger, and even Howdy Doody had shaped Americans’ fascination with our wilder ancestors taming the untouched American West, and at a time where children spent their summers playing “Cowboys and Indians,” the inclusion of an Indian Village made sense. In fact, a $100,000 Indian Village added as part of 1956’s expansion of Frontierland gave the country’s native people a purpose-built corner of the park.

Surprisingly reverent for the era, the Indian Village employed “full blood” natives to share their culture and customs in interactive displays and shows, including a Fire Dance Circle and the area’s only attraction, the Indian War Canoes.

But by 1971, things had changed. The southern end of the Rivers of America had become New Orleans Square, with the Haunted Mansion essentially cutting the Indian Village off from the rest of Frontierland. Plus, times and attitudes were changing, and elements of the area that seemed respectful in the mid-century (labeleling bathrooms as “Braves” and “Squaws,” for example) hadn’t aged well.

Image: Disney via Yesterland.com

In 1972, a new land called Bear Country replaced the Indian Village, creating a seventh themed land for Disneyland. Themed to the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest, this new Bear Country featured its own Country Bear Playhouse.

Since Bear Country was a bit more remote than the well-developed Western town of Frontierland, the Country Bear Playhouse was accessed via a covered bridge over a babbling book, leading to the theater tucked away in the forested hills.

Once inside, though, the show that guests experienced in California was exactly like the one in Florida. But behind the scenes, the logistics weren’t. Responding to the enormous enthusiasm of Magic Kingdom guests, Imagineers intentionally doubled Disneyland’s installation with two theaters offering double the hourly capacity of Florida’s.

Later days

When Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983, it, too, featured the Country Bear Jamboree, its Audio Animatronics figures benefitting from the decade of innovation since the U.S. installations.

Then, during the 1984 holiday season, both Magic Kingdom and Disneyland’s attractions swapped programming to become the Country Bear Christmas Special. Come to think of it, that made Country Bear Jamboree the first Disney attraction to receive a seasonal overlay, besting “it’s a small world holiday,” Haunted Mansion Holiday, and the Jingle Cruise by decades!

Image: Disney

The show continued along on both coasts for years, even as pop culture and the parks changed around them. In 1988, Disneyland geared up for the arrival of its newest E-Ticket – one of the first cinematic thrills instigated by the arrival of then-CEO Michael Eisner. Splash Mountain would become the Country Bears’ neighbor, and fittingly, Bear Country was renamed to the much more inclusive Critter Country.

The Country Bear Jamboree closed forever at Disneyland on September 9, 2001 – just two days before the terrorist attacks on New York would freeze Disney tourism… and just one year before the theatrical film The Country Bears (one of the worst Disney ride-to-film adaptations in history) opened in theaters… an odd moment when the parks seemed to be out-of-sync with the studio, which likely would’ve preferred the attraction stay open to cross-promote the movie.

Image: Disney

Why did Disneyland’s version of the attraction close? Think of it this way: Walt Disney World was built to be “the Vacation Kingdom of the World;” an international destination for families the world over, constantly and continuously revitalized and refreshed by new crowds that may visit only once every few years, or maybe once in a lifetime.

Disneyland, by comparison, is different. Disneyland’s guests tend to be intensely loyal with multi-generational ties to the park, and – by and large – many Disneyland guests aren’t coming from very far away. Especially prior to Disney California Adventure (and its subsequent rebirth), Disneyland was a single theme park with one hotel; a day-trip for Californians and other regional guests, not a destination earning international trips. Many Disneyland guests visit multiple times a month, or more!

And while those loyal, local guests tend to love the idea of shows like the Country Bear Jamboree, they don’t tend to visit them. It’s the same fate that befell another Modern Marvel: Carousel of Progress, which played at Disneyland for only six years before attendance declined enough to warrant sponsor General Electric requesting its relocation to Florida, where it has played for forty-five years.

Besides, the double-sized showbuilding housing the Country Bears was prime real state for another of Disney’s ursine characters… and one who had experienced a resurgence of popularity and created a merchandising empire.

Image: Disney

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh opened in Critter Country in 2003, replacing the Country Bear Jamboree. The ambling, lumbering dark ride has never become a fan favorite, either (and, humorously, it’s become evidence that Disneyland is really, really crowded if its wait time crests 5 minutes). Eagle-eyed guests can still spot Buff, Max, and Melvin as a hidden Easter egg on the ride by looking behind them as they enter the “Hunny Heaven” scene.

Preservations and possibilities

The good news is that Disney Imagineers knew what they were doing when executives forced them to insert Winnie the Pooh into Disney’s parks.

At Disneyland, Pooh replaced the Country Bear Jamboree in Critter Country.

Image: Disney

At Magic Kingdom, Pooh replaced the Lost Legend: Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Fantasyland.

That meant that, while Pooh did cause the closure of a classic on each coast, two classics were also preserved… Disneyland continues to host Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in Fantasyland, and Magic Kingdom still offers the Country Bear Jamboree in Frontierland! (The attraction is still offered in Tokyo Disneyland, too, alternating between the classic show, the Vacation Hoedown summer show, and the Christmas Special production around the holidays.)

From the earliest days of Disney California Adventure, fans speculated that the Country Bears could make a return in the park’s Grizzly Peak. You’ve got to admit, that would be a clever and relatively inexpensive way to provide the park with a “Tiki Room” equivalent while simultaneously paying tremendous service to Disney history and its fans.

Image: Disney

While no serious rumors have ever suggested that that might be a possibility, the Country Bears are known to be walkaround meet-and-greet characters in the area beneath the towering stone mountain eroded to resemble the extinct California Grizzly. As if that weren’t appropriate enough, it means that – in a roundabout way – the Country Bears have already made their return to California’s High Sierras: the very place they were originally meant to debut within Mineral King.

In 2012, Magic Kingdom’s Country Bear Jamboree underwent a 21st century edit meant to tighten the show for shorter, modern attention spans (after the success of a similar slim-down at the Enchanted Tiki Room in 2005). About 4 minutes were sliced from the runtime, allowing the show to remain a favorite for modern families while simultaneously granting higher hourly capacity.

Heart, We Did All We Could

Image: Disney

The Country Bear Jamboree remains a staple of Disney Imagineering and an iconic master class in entertainment from the mind of Marc Davis. Standouts of the development WED Enterprises was undertaking in the 1960s and early ‘70s, the singalong showcase lives on as a Modern Marvel at Magic Kingdom and will forever rank among our Lost Legends at Disneyland.

We can’t help but think of how different Disney Parks might feel today if it weren’t for the attractions and additions shepherded by Marc Davis… Or how different things would be if every attraction he designed had come to be. For example, we explored one of his never-built concepts – the Enchanted Snow Palace – and how it set the stage for Disney’s decades-long quest for the Snow Queen in the in-depth Modern Marvel: Frozen Ever feature. Best of all, we dissected Marc’s never-built magnum opus – the ride he thought would change Disney World forever – in Possibilityland: Western River Expedition… an absolute must-read for Disney Parks history buffs. Interestingly, if Western River Expedition had opened, it would've given Davis a creative monopoly on Florida's Frontierland.

Image: Disney

Between the attractions he built and those he couldn’t get off the drawing board, Marc Davis may be the most astounding Imagineer in Disney’s history… One thing is certain: even if Walt’s early designers weren’t, we’re glad to have had him around.

If you enjoyed the in-depth history of this unassuming Magic Kingdom classic, we’ve got great news for you – the adventures continue in our In-Depth Collections Library, where we’ve told the true and interwoven stories of closed-classics, Modern Marvels, and never-built masterpieces from across Disney Parks and beyond. Make the jump there to set course for another in-depth feature.

Then, use the comments below to share your thoughts – is the Country Bear Jamboree really deserving of Modern Marvel / Lost Legend status? Does this Magic Kingdom hoedown still entertain, or is it a remnant of another era best left on the cutting room floor? How might Disney be different today if the Mineral King Ski Resort had opened?

Go to page:

Pages


There are no comments so far.

Connect with Theme Park Tourist: