Growing up, I was lucky enough to go to Walt Disney World fairly frequently. My Mom’s parents lived near Lakeland, Florida, and we’d work in a visit to see Grandma and Grandpa for a day or two and then drive over to Orlando for the rest of the week at Disney World. It feels like we did that a lot growing up, close to once or twice a year until my brother and I became teenagers. Even though we never stayed “on property,” we always had a lot of fun. I remember my Mom buying the newest guide books every year and I’ll always cherish the memories of my Dad and I spread out on the hotel room floor in some discount hotel in Kissimmee as we plotted out our day on the park maps inside those books.
Then our trips became sporadic, as my parents mixed in a few places that THEY wanted to go. Then, of course, there was that last Disney trip as a family right before I went off to college. My older brother had such a nasty sour attitude from not being able to spend his final spring break the way he wanted to that he ruined it for all of us. Funny enough, though, if you ask him about it now, it was his favorite trip of all time and he doesn’t remember being so moody.
My parents always emphasized the importance of vacations. They would always save their money to give us the experience and memories of vacation time rather than name-brand sneakers, frequent trips to the movie theater, or that big screen TV that some of our neighbors and friends would always have. I’ve often thought back on all of those airplane rides and hotels in Orlando and figure it’s one of the main reasons I’ve always wanted to be an airline pilot. To be totally honest, I still get a kick out of landing in Orlando and seeing the happy faces of children and adults all decked out in Disney swag as they start their Disney vacation. Of course, the group getting on the plane to go back home look run down and wore out, but that’s half the fun of visiting Uncle Mickey and Aunt Minnie.
My wife and I are still big Disney people. We’ve gone several times since meeting back in 2004, including squeezing a quick visit to the Magic Kingdom at the end of our honeymoon when our cruise ended early. We’re eagerly looking forward to taking our Mickey Mouse-obsessed daughter to meet them in person when she’s old enough to remember it.
When we were home, I was also a kid who watched a lot of television and I was excited to notice a trend amongst the Friday night TGIF sitcoms of the ’90s.
Eventually, they went to Disney World.
What caused this trend in similar sitcom scriptwriting? Simply put, these family-focused sitcoms aired on ABC. What mega-conglomerate owns the American Broadcasting Company, you ask? Why, Disney, of course.
So what better cross-promotion and targeting of children than implanting the idea of a Disney World vacation into their brains early.
The first occurrence of this “phenomena” started in 1993 with Blossom. While “Blossom” may have been an NBC show, it was produced by Touchstone Television Productions. Touchstone, as you may have guessed, is owned by Disney!
Disney didn’t own ABC when the Tanner family from “Full House” took the trip to Orlando, but the episode was described as a “mutually beneficial arrangement.” The family-focused Disney promoted itself to families via a television show, while that television show made for families borrowed from the wholesome qualities of Disney. The same would go for the April 1995 episode of “Family Matters.” However, negotiations for the July 1995 merger between ABC and Disney were likely ongoing when that episode for “Family Matters” was produced.
It wasn’t only about promotion, either. Production was able to get a change of scenery to freshen up the show and create a few new storylines out of the deal. Most of these sitcoms that visited Disney World had been on the air for a few seasons already and were starting to feel stale. Much like sitcoms have done for decades (just look at “I Love Lucy” and Hollywood or Europe), when things need a refresh, go on vacation!
All of the sitcoms follow a familiar pattern. The family is presented with an opportunity to go to Walt Disney World, no matter how outlandish. Soon, they find themselves checking in to the on-property resort hotel and heading out for Space Mountain or a restaurant in EPCOT. Some will spend the entire time in one park, like “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” “Sabrina” spends the whole time advertising The Animal Kingdom. Or, like “Full House” or “Step by Step” did when they run the full vacation gamut of parks, rides, character meet-and-greets, and restaurants.
- “Blossom” February 8, 1993 – (“Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men,” Season 3 Episode 19)
“Blossom” was the first of the 90s sitcoms to visit Disney, and the only one not on ABC. Unlike the rest of the 90s shows, “Blossom” went to Disneyland in California, rather than Florida’s Disney World. Admittedly, I wasn’t a regular viewer of the show, but I remember seeing this episode in reruns.
In “Best Laid Plans of Mice and Men,” the Russo family gets an opportunity to visit Disneyland when Blossom’s father Nick lands a job as an Elvis impersonator. Like I mentioned earlier, the reasons to take the whole family to Disney were sometimes a bit of a stretch. The entire cast of characters shows up, including Blossom, Joey, Six, Tony and his girlfriend, and Blossom’s boyfriend, Vinnie. Joey is attempting to pick up girls during the entire episode but winds up spending most of his time with a nun. After showcasing some rides, the Disney magic quickly wears off for Blossom when she sees Vinnie hugging another girl while she’s on a ride with Six. Fortunately, it’s all a big misunderstanding as the girl Vinnie is caught with is only his cousin. The two make up during the evening fireworks.
- “Full House” May 11 & 18th, 1993 – (“The House Meets the Mouse Parts 1&2” S6 E23-24)
When I asked a handful of people if they remembered the “sitcom goes to Disney” trend of the 90s, every one of them immediately brought up “Full House.” I’m not sure if this two-part episode is memorable because it was likely the first “Disney” episode we kids in the TGIF crowd watched, or if perhaps it was the most ‘believable’ storylines of the Disney episode cadre. It also uses every cast member in different storylines, something the other series could not effectively do.
In Part One, Uncle Jesse and the Rippers are scheduled to perform at Walt Disney World, and in a happy coincidence, his second anniversary to Aunt Becky would take place at the same time. He surprises her by booking the exclusive honeymoon suite, but to his surprise, the whole family joins in on the trip. D.J. is missing her boyfriend, Steve, and she begins seeing him everywhere. In a cute inside joke, she even sees him as Aladdin, the character Scott Weinger (Steve) voiced in the 1992 Disney cartoon. Meanwhile, Michelle wins “Princess for the Day” and earns three wishes. Over at the then Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios), Joey finds his friend in the animation department who allows Joey to doodle a cartoon likeness of himself. Meanwhile, Danny’s girlfriend Vicky arrives at EPCOT and he tries to propose but keeps getting interrupted. Michelle lets “Princess for the Day” get to her head and grows bossy, upsetting her sisters. As the girls argue, Michelle wanders off unnoticed. At the Living Seas’ Coral Reef Restaurant, Jesse and Joey are recording their radio show from underwater in the shark tank while Danny and Vicky are having lunch.
Part Two starts just as Snow White finds Michelle, who asks for her second wish. Jesse and Joey are still doing their radio show underwater and Joey prevents Jesse from leaving the tank because he’s afraid of the sharks. Jesse is already late to meet with Becky, who has been waiting for over an hour for him by the docks for their anniversary dinner. Michelle begins to miss her family, and they soon all arrive, led by Mickey Mouse. Becky grows angry at how late Jesse is and leaves. He finds her at the hotel and the two make up before going on an evening lagoon dinner cruise. D.J. mistakes Indiana Jones from the stunt show for Steve again, while the real Steve shows up in Orlando to surprise her. Stephanie, who has been upset at Michelle for “stealing” her shot at Princess for the Day, is pleasantly surprised when Michelle uses her third wish to make Stephanie the Princess for the “rest of the day.” Because Michelle was so unselfish, the whole family was allowed to ride in the parade.
Jesse’s gig with the Rippers is a success that evening. He then dedicates a song to “dreamers everywhere” and sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes.” Fireworks go off in the background as Danny finally proposes to Vicky uninterrupted. She says yes as the fireworks continue. The family gathers together to enjoy the happy moment together.
- “Family Matters” April 28 & May 5, 1995 – (“We’re Going to Disney World Part 1&2” S6E22/23)
Whereas Full House was able to use everyone in various storylines, when I watched these episodes back, I felt it was all about Laura and Steve’s alter ego Stefan. It really felt as if the rest of the cast was just used to showcase Disney and its resorts, rides, and characters and didn’t have much to do.
Thanks to his transformation chamber, Urkel has won a trip to Disney World and invites the Winslow family with him. Eddie has to work, but eventually, he and Waldo leave on a road trip to Orlando. At EPCOT, Steve demonstrates the chamber and emerges as the suave Stefan. Laura, head over heels for this version of Urkel, messes with the chamber’s wiring and prevents him from transforming back to the nerdy Steve. Meanwhile, Carl Winslow is having the time of his life enjoying Walt Disney World without Steve Urkel being a thorn in his side. Stefan and Laura go on to have a romantic few days together, and at the end of part one, Stefan proposes to Laura. Steve’s girlfriend Myra wakes up in a cold sweat back home in Chicago.
Part Two begins as Myra, worried about Steve, packs her bags for Orlando. Eddie and Waldo find themselves lost in Canada, where they pick up a beautiful hitchhiker who winds up stealing their truck. The family is seen on many of Disney World’s rides, including the new “Tower of Terror.” On the Tower of Terror, Carl tells Harriet that Stefan has proposed to Laura. He’s having such a good time it doesn’t bother him, and in fact, he’s so happy at Disney he wants to move the entire family to Orlando. Myra arrives, but when she finds out Stefan can not return to being Steve, she walks away from the relationship. Laura feels guilty and tells him what she had done to his transformation chamber before begging him to stay as Stefan. He grows angry, and she later apologizes and offers to help fix the chamber so he can return to Steve and rejoin Myra. He repairs the transformation chamber and returns to being Steve Urkel. The Winslow family, Steve, and Myra are all leaving the hotel to return to Chicago when Eddie and Waldo finally arrive.
- “Roseanne” February 20 & 27th, 1996 (“We’re Going To World”/”Disney World War 2” S8E17/18)
Some folks may have a different opinion of Roseanne through the lens of 2021, but the truth is her show “Roseanne” was groundbreaking for its time and actually quite progressive when compared to other television programs. That said, the show was coming off the rails by Season 8, and by the time they went to Disney World in February of 1996, it felt like they were grasping for anything to put on the air. According to an older article from The Orlando Sentinal, Roseanne admits to only pitching Walt Disney World as an idea because the writing team knew the network would agree to pay for the on-location shooting, which would amount to a paid vacation for the cast and crew.
Earlier in the season, Dan had decided to leave his good job with the city to return to his old construction crew and they decide to use his last paycheck and part of his pension on a family trip to Orlando. In true Conner fashion, Roseanne schemes to get lower airfare by canceling other people’s reservations on the sold-out discount airline. On the plane, Roseanne begins to annoy the flight crew by being quite demanding. The family is spread throughout the plane, and the other customers grow annoyed as the Connors mingle or yelling across the plane. Roseanne eventually wanders up to an empty First Class, and before you know it, the whole Conner family has taken it over.
In “Disney World War Two,” we start as the family excitedly explores their hotel rooms. Having never stayed in a hotel before, every little detail, including the telephone, excites them. The family enjoys a room-service breakfast before heading out to the Magic Kingdom for the day and at rope-drop (the Disney term for park opening), the Connors sprint down Main Street. DJ is following Darlene and David around begging them to join him on the rides, but they ask to be left alone to spend some “couple time” together. To show off how clean Disney World is, Roseanne and Jackie enjoy littering around the park and then happily watch as the staff hurries to clean up. Dan winds up in EPCOT alone in search of alcohol. Meanwhile, David continues to give in to DJ’s requests to go on rides while Darlene gets angrier and angrier. As she’s fuming, Winnie the Pooh walks up and gives her a hug, and her mood suddenly changes into child-like glee. They ride several more rides before ending the night in front of the fireworks.
It’s actually later revealed that Darlene got pregnant at Disney World, and this is the impetus for the wedding at the end of Season 8. Dan has a heart attack at the wedding but survives, which leads to the acid-trip like Season 9. Of course, at the end of Season 9 (Spoiler Warning), it’s revealed Dan did, in fact, die at the wedding, and Season 9 was all fiction in a book Roseanne was writing.
- “Step by Step” May 3rd and 10th, 1996 – (“We’re Going to Disney World Part 1&2” S5 E22 &23)
Season Five of “Step by Step” was deep into the seven-season run of the series, and heading to Disney World seemed like a much-needed bit of “fresh air.” Like some of the others, the show has a fairly outlandish reason for arriving in Orlando. Also, Jake “Flash” Gordon was a handyman hired by Frank in Season Five that only lasted on the show for four episodes, yet here he is in Disney World with the family.
In this case, Part One opens with Grandma arriving to give everyone their inheritance early in the form of a huge trip to Walt Disney World. After several product placement style shots of the various amenities at Walt Disney World, they arrive at the hotel. Frank is grumpy about spending his anniversary with the family while the kids begin planning their vacation. J.T. and Rich are busy trying to impress a pair of girls by spending large amounts of money on fancy restaurants and gifts. Mark and the other boys plan to help “Flash” break a record of visiting every ride, restaurant, and souvenir stand in four days. This certainly creates an advertising opportunity as they race from ride-to-ride and restaurant-to-restaurant, showcasing all that a Disney vacation has to offer. The girls follow some boys into a country-western bar and Karen winds up entering a singing contest.
Part Two finds the boys continuing on their quest around the parks. When the Indiana Jones Stunt Show gets delayed, “Flash” Gordon winds up playing Indiana. At the country music contest, Karen gets stage fright and can’t sing but her two sisters eventually join her on stage. She rocks out with the whole bar and wins the contest. J.T. and Rich get into a big fight over how much money they’ve spent on girls after discovering they only have $11 left to their name. That night, “Flash” is upset he fell short of the record, but Mark discovers that the previous record-holder was there during a holiday week, which meant the park was open an extra hour each day. He still has three hours to break the record. The next morning the entire park, including guests, employees, and the media, are there to cheer him on as he hops from ride to ride. The entire family, and Mickey Mouse, await him at the footsteps of Cinderella’s Castle as he breaks the record.
- “Boy Meets World” May 10th, 1996 – (“The Happiest Show on Earth” S3 E21)
Growing up, I was a big fan of “The Wonder Years” on reruns. When Fred Savage’s little brother Ben had his own show that was just right for my age group, I was instantly a big fan of “Boy Meets World.” I felt that it was pretty similar to what I was going through growing up as we were roughly the same age as the episodes aired. When they went to Disney World, though, I have to say I was a little underwhelmed. I had grown tired of Cory and Topanga’s on-and-off-again relationship, and the episode, even at 12 or 13, felt like they forced in Disney World. This episode also aired on the same day as the second Disney World episode of “Step by Step,” and actress Stacey Keanan (Dana on “Step by Step”) appears briefly in this episode as a nod to the audience that both “families” were in Disney at the same time.
The show begins with Cory on a date with a new girl Kristen. She mentions that he’s been out with a new girl each night since he broke up with Topanga and they kiss. When he calls her Topanga it pretty much ruins the date. In class the next morning, Mr. Turner announces that Topanga and several other students have won a contest for a week in Disney World. Unfortunately for Cory, the school hunk Ronnie Waterman, played by 90s teen heartthrob Andrew Keegan, won the same trip. Cory worries that Ronnie will have a week alone with Topanga and win her affections. Cory’s best friend Shawn got his uncle to hook them up with airline tickets, and the two plan to ditch school (and their parents) so he can follow after Topanga. Cory tries to get Topanga to stay, and he’s interrupted by Kristen who wants to give him another chance and kisses him in front of Topanga, creating a very awkward situation. Just as she leaves, Topanga hits him with a boy’s most dreaded words… “don’t worry, we’ll always be friends.”
Arriving at the EPCOT Living Seas Pavillion, the dolphin trainer is played by Debbe Dunning, who was in the middle of her run on as Heidi the “Tool Time” girl on another ABC show, “Home Improvement.” While Topanga is learning about dolphins at EPCOT, Shawn and Cory arrive and begin searching for her. They finally stumble into the Living Seas Pavillion, and Cory bumps into Kristen who thinks he flew all the way to Orlando just for her. Topanga walks into another misunderstanding and storms away. Cory then chases Topanga and Ronnie around EPCOT for a day before she finally explodes after Kristen again interferes. At the Living Seas Pavillion, Cory runs into Dana from “Step by Step,” who is feeding the dolphins on her own. She gives him some quick advice about emotions, animals, and girls before leaving. Cory talks to the dolphin, who is also temporarily separated from her mate, and Topanga overhears. She runs after him and the two reunite before sharing a kiss in front of the iconic Spaceship Earth globe amidst a beautiful evening fountain display.
- “Sabrina, The Teenage Witch” April 24, 1998 (“Disney World” S2 E23)
I’ll admit right up front, I have never watched more than 5 minutes of this series. Then again, I wasn’t in their target audience, but my wife was and had fairly good memories of this episode when I asked about it. This episode takes place entirely at the new Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, which is fitting for a show with a talking cat in it. Interestingly enough, this was filmed inside the not-yet-open Animal Kingdom, and when this episode aired on April 24, 1998, the park had just opened to the public two days prior.
We begin at school as Sabrina is warned that she will be given a test for her witch license. She uses magic to get the principal to announce a school trip to Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, and her aunts Hilda and Zelda are going as chaperones. Popular girl Libby tries to woo away Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey but Sabrina quickly runs off to complete her scavenger hunt for the witch test. Meanwhile, Hilda and Zelda set off for DinoLand, USA, to look for old bones. As Sabrina hunts around the park for the things needed for her test, Principal Mr. Kraft keeps tabs on her. Meanwhile, Libby continues to make her move on Harvey. Aunt Hilda interferes in Libby’s plans and zaps Harvey onto the Safari ride to keep him away from her.
Zelda is obsessed with the bones in DinoLand while Hilda shops for a bunch of Disney merchandise. Valerie finds Sabrina’s potion supplies back at the hotel and makes herself what she thinks is “herbal iced tea.” She shares it with Libby, and it winds up turning the two into a pair of zebras. Back at the hotel, Zelda has taken the bones and turned them back into the caveman they once were. As he destroys the room, Sabrina runs off looking for Valerie while Mr. Kraft tries to catch her breaking the rules. Hilda and Sabrina enlist Tootie, the caveman, to find the two zebras and the ingredients needed for her potion. She returns the girls back to human form, and they find Harvey, who is tired from giving tours on the Safari Ride all day.
After 1998, the collaboration between Disney and sitcoms cooled off. Between 1993 and 1998, seven sitcoms visited Disney, and of those seven, all but “Blossom” visited Walt Disney World in Florida. Since 1998, only five shows have visited Disney parks, and all but “The Middle” went to Disneyland in California.
“The George Lopez Show” visited Disneyland in 2004, and it was a long eight years later when “Modern Family” drove a few miles down the road to Disneyland in 2012. In 2014, “The Middle” saw the Heck family take the All-American road trip down to Florida for a hilarious two-episode visit to Disney. In 2018, “Black-ish” and in 2019 “The Goldbergs” took the family to Disneyland.
It’s quite the juxtaposition to see seven “Disney” shows in a five-year stretch in the 90s compared to only five shows over a 20 year period since then For one, sitcom audiences have dwindled to rock bottom numbers. In the 90s, when nearly 28 million people watched the “Full House” family take a trip to Disney World, they were able to sell quite a few vacations but in 2018, less than 6 million people watched “Black-ish,” resulting in a much lower return on the investment.
Today, with YouTube and Disney vlogging (it’s a real thing), you can get daily updates of the parks and virtually ride every ride from several different points of view. Paid promotion of the parks by Disney is almost non-existent anymore as they get tons of free publicity through social media. They invite social media influencers into the parks for events and grand openings, and in return, they reach a much larger audience of young adults and children than they would with the modern offering of network sitcoms.
It also wasn’t just that Disney didn’t need the promotion on ABC any longer. There just simply aren’t very many family-friendly sitcoms on television anymore. The sitcoms are aimed at an older demographic now and feature a little more sophisticated writing style. Adult viewers wouldn’t just accept the “Grandma left us a money for a trip to Disney in her will” storyline the way children would. Children would tend to easily overlook something like that to get a peek at a trip to see Mickey Mouse, especially at a time when there weren’t many ways to do so. When “Modern Family” and “Black-ish” visited the parks recently, television critics were quick to point out the corporate product placement was “enough to make your eyes roll back into one’s head.”
I’d have to politely disagree. As a kid in the 90s, those bits of corporate product placement, stock footage, and glimpses of Disney magic wouldn’t make my eyes roll. They only served to get me excited and start planning my next trip to Disney.