13 fascinating facts about ‘The Wonderful World of Disney’
Connect the pioneering anthology series to disco, Dick Van Dyke, the Muppets and more.
One of the longest-running shows on television is one for the kids. It's The Wonderful World of Disney, which has been known by a series of names since its debut in 1954, including Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The Disney Sunday Movie and its original title, Walt Disney's Disneyland.
By any and every name, though, parents knew what their kids were getting: classic cartoons and kid-friendly adventures that could spark the imagination for a lifetime.
Here, we've gone back through the history of Disney's Wonderful World to rediscover the beginnings of its popular cultural movements (like the very beginnings of Disneyland and The Disney Channel) to trace the anthology series' journey from the very earliest cartoons (featuring Ludwig Von Drake!) to eventual special episodes that aired its biggest hits (like The Parent Trap!).
We also threw in some trivia that might surprise you, from considering hosts like Dick Van Dyke to the series' key part in the Muppets' long legacy.
Enjoy this look back below, and join a chorus of wannabe Mouseketeers at home, who for decades discovered a truly wonderful world right there in our TV sets.
1. It’s been known by nine different names.
The Wonderful World of Walt Disney is one of the longest-running primtetime TV series, running with only a few short breaks since 1954. Over that time, it's been known by nine different names: Walt Disney's Disneyland, Walt Disney Presents, Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color, The Wonderful World of Disney, Disney's Wonderful World, Walt Disney, The Disney Sunday Movie, The Magical World of Disney, and The Wonderful World of Disney. No matter what you called it, though, it's likely you saw the same recycled classic shows, cartoons and movies.
2. Ludwig Von Drake is the first Disney character created for television.
Ludwig Von Drake was introduced in the first episode of Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color during a cartoon called "An Adventure in Color." If you don't remember the episode name, you'll likely recall "The Spectrum Song," which Von Drake presented. We'll pause now so you can sing along with the video below, "Red, yellow, green, red, blue, blue, blue."
In 1961, and NBC was the only network broadcasting in color. Fortunately, Disney had filmed nearly all the previous episodes of the anthology in color, so NBC's new format meant they could air old favorites in full-color. The only three episodes they hadn't filmed in color were the notable series of Fred MacMurray (My Three Sons) comedies, The Shaggy Dog, Son of Flubber and The Absent-Minded Professor.
3. In 1988, Disney rebooted three anthology classics.
Fans of The Absent-Minded Professor only had to wait, oh, 27 years to see that film in color, when Disney remade three of its anthology series classic episodes in 1988. In MacMurray's professor role was Harry Anderson (Night Court). The other two remakes revived two of Disney's most memorable early characters, Davy Crockett and Polly (a.k.a Pollyanna).
4. Hallmark Hall of Fame is the only primetime series that has run longer.
Hallmark Hall of Fame had a bit of a head start on Disney's Wonderful World, premiering in 1951 with the one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors. Where Wonderful World often turned to folk tales for its Adventureland segments, Hallmark Hall of Fame was more dependable for viewers who were fans of classic Shakespeare plays like Hamlet and MacBeth.
5. The anthology series was designed to fund the opening of Disneyland.
Walt Disney is, of course, the original Imagineer, so it's not surprise his idea to fund his dream theme park was an amazing one. His vision for the anthology series began as a sort of extended, highly entertaining commercial for the park he was working to build, and thus, he called the show Walt Disney's Disneyland. Earliest episodes were thematically tied to one of Disneyland's "worlds," Adventureland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. Every episode began by introducing these worlds, as seen in the photo here.
6. Walt Disney was the first major film producer to see the benefit of producing TV shows.
Ever the innovator, Walt Disney notably became the first of the world's biggest movie producers to turn his eye to television. The only ones to do so before him were independent film producers like Jerry Fairbanks (Public Prosecutor) and Hal Roach (The Stu Erwin Show, The Gale Storm Show), who also made a little extra by leasing his TV studios to popular shows like Amos 'n' Andy and The Abbott and Costello Show.
7. 'Wonderful World' featured one of the world's first stereo simulcasts.
Although Disney may not have leased its studios out to make an extra buck, it did see the value in creating episodes that directly promoted its film properties. One noteworthy episode to do so was "The Peter Tchaikovsky Story," which was instrumental in getting the word out about their little upcoming animated film called Sleeping Beauty. The Tchaikovsky episode was one of the world's first stereo simulcasts, airing on TV in mono as well as on the radio for those who wanted to hear the music in stereo. Pretty novel stuff!
8. The first full-length movie Disney aired as part of the anthology series was 'The Parent Trap.'
The Parent Trap was released in 1961 and became a huge hit for Disney. By 1976, Disney was ready to share some of its more popular properties with its anthology series, hoping to boost ratings. So that's how The Parent Trap came to air that year as a 2.5-hour special episode. All previous episodes has been locked into the program's hour-long format, apart from two 2-hour episodes that aired the previous year in 1975: Now You See Him, Now You Don't and Napoleon and Samantha.
9. There was a short-lived spin-off series.
Based on the popularity of The Apple Dumpling Game (one of Disney's most successful 1970s movies), a sitcom was created. It was called Gun Shy and briefly aired on CBS in 1983. In it, Barry Van Dyke assumes Bill Bixby's role as Russell Donovan. It ran for just six episodes.
10. In 1979, 'Disney’s Wonderful World' got a disco theme.
Still trying to compete with ratings juggernaut 60 Minutes, Disney's Wonderful World saw some pressure from the network to make some changes in 1979. That included a shorter name and a new theme that stepped away from Disney's traditional orchestral arrangements to capture kids grooving to disco. Check out the new look and feel for the intro sequence in the video below.
11. The Disney Channel launched the year the series was supposed to end for good.
In 1983, The Disney Channel launched, which helped heal the wounds of Wonderful World leaving TV. The new network relied a lot on regurgitated material from the anthology series, with segments that could be conveniently sliced and repackaged for 1980s kids. The first program the new channel aired was Good Morning, Mickey!, which featured a series of classic Disney cartoons.
12. 'The Disney Sunday Movie' considered a wealth of stars to host in 1986.
Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Cary Grant, Tom Hanks, Walter Cronkite, Roy E. Disney and Mickey Mouse were all considered to host The Disney Sunday Movie when it premiered in 1986. In the end, they went with Michael Eisner, the company’s then-new CEO.
13. Jim Henson's last Muppets special was on the Disney anthology series.
In the 1989-1990 season of the anthology series, then known as The Magical World of Disney, featured two Muppets specials. One of them, The Muppets at Walt Disney World, turned out to be the last Muppets special produced by Jim Henson. The special aired on May 6, 1990, and Henson passed away 10 days later on May 16.