Once upon a time, a kindly old gentleman appeared in our collective living rooms on Sunday evenings. He offered a glimpse into his imaginative world featuring a literal treasure trove of family entertainment. Offering a mixture of classic live-action films, nature segments, and the company’s iconic animation, the show went by many names over the years, appearing on just about every channel at one time or another. Most fondly remember it as The Wonderful World of Disney.
Originally hosted by Walt Disney himself, the series started on ABC in 1954, under the title Disneyland and included animated shorts, documentaries and other footage. The show broadcast the grand opening of the Disneyland theme park live the next year and formatted the content of each episode to correspond with the park’s areas: Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland. A serialized dramatization of Davy Crockett’s life became the major sensation of the mid-50s, spurring kids into a frenzy over Crockett merchandise, particularly coon-skin caps.
In the 1960s, the series moved to NBC to take advantage of the color broadcasting capabilities and was renamed Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. A wise and eccentric duck named Prof. Ludwig Von Drake (Donald Duck’s uncle) explained the principles behind color television on the first episode.
After the 1966 death of Walt Disney, the series ran without a host as everyone agreed that nobody could fill those shoes. Even without a host, The Wonderful World of Disney–as it was called after 1969–continued to garner very high ratings.
In 1976, the program showed the classic Disney live-action movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the first time such Disney fare had been shown in a two-hour time slot. The company was hoping that the popular adventure would help the sinking ratings but even Captain Nemo couldn’t save the series. A number of resurrections, however, would follow in the years to come.
CBS picked up the low-rated show in 1981 and aired it on Saturday nights for a few years, before Disney gave it another name change and moved it to ABC again as The Disney Sunday Movie. For the first time in 20 years, the series got a host; Michael Eisner, Disney CEO. After another move to NBC and yet another name change, The Magical World of Disney ended in 1990. Eisner was no Walt.
The show surfaced again on ABC in 1997, where it aired until 2008, when Disney finally called it quits. Still, 54 years is a pretty good run for a television show. In fact, it’s the second longest showing prime-time series on television. It’s longevity explains why it has touched so many generations, who still smile at the mere mention of those magical Sunday nights of their youth.
Were you a regular viewer of any of the incarnations of The Wonderful World of Disney? Was it a family event in your home? We’d love to hear your memories of this iconic show in our comments section, as we tip our hats to one of the masters of family entertainment.