Last time we took a ride down the Autopia of the Tomorrowland Speedway in the Magic Kingdom. That opening day ride continues to be a rite of passage for a generation of new youngsters visiting the park for the first time. Today we are going to sit in on another opening day show at the Magic Kingdom. A show that many fell in love with in their youth, lost interest with in their teenage and young adult years, but have come back around to later in their Disney life. I’m talking about that the knee slappin’, down home fun of the Country Bear Jamboree.
All your favorites are here; Liver Lips McGrowl, The Sun Bonnet Trio, Trixi, and of course Big Al. They each have a country song to sing and a story to tell. Before we start clapping our hands and stomping our feet, let’s get started with our…
Know before you go essential facts:
- The show is located in the Magic Kingdom
- Fastpass+ is NOT offered
- The fright factor is 0 out of 5
- There is no height requirement
- Guests may remain in a wheelchair/ECV
- Reflective Captioning and Assistive Listening are available
- The show is 11 minutes long
- The show opened on October 1, 1971. It was most recently refurbished in 2012. When the show reopened it had been cut down from 16 minutes to 11.
“Howdy folks! Welcome to the one and only original Country Bear Jamboree, featuring a bit of Americana, our musical heritage of the past.”
These are the words of Henry, the friendly bear host of the Country Bear Jamboree. He welcomes you to Grizzy Hall, established in 1898 by one Ursus H. Bear. The hall looks as though it has been living here in Frontierland since 1898. The rustic looking cabin exterior gives way to more warm toned wood on the inside. The foyer of the building is lined with ornately framed oval paintings of the bear musicians. Gas-like lanterns illuminate the hall and if you look closely at the floor, you may notice some marks that appear to be made from bear claws. All of this detail is a good indicator of the thought and detail that went into the making of the Country Bear Jamboree.
Surprisingly though, that thought and care did not begin at Walt Disney World, and no, it wasn’t Disneyland either. Even though this was an opening day show at the Magic Kingdom, its roots go back to a project you might not be familiar with. Once upon a time, Disney had plans for a ski resort in Mineral King, California. The resort would have included a self contained village in the Sierra Nevada mountains, complete with ski lifts and year round fun. Walt envisioned guests skiing or hiking on the mountain during the day, and being entertained in true Disney style at night.
Building on the success of Disneyland shows like the Enchanted Tiki Room, and rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Disney team went to work on creating a new show for the ski resort featuring Audio-Animatronic characters. For a mountain resort it only seemed fitting to have those characters be bears! Walt once again called on the talents of Disney legend Marc Davis to develop the concept of an AA bear show. Marc worked alongside Al Bertino and came up with several different concepts for the bears. In what is a bittersweet story, Walt saw Marc’s drawings of the bears only a few days before he passed away. Walt was so fond of the drawings that it is said they made him laugh out loud, and thus the Country Bear Jamboree is affectionately known as Walt’s last laugh.
Not only was this one of the last projects Walt was directly involved with, it has a special place in Disney lore thanks to this story.
After Walt passed away, the bear show and the resort continued to be developed. Three years after winning the bid for the land in Mineral King, Disney unveiled its plans for the resort in 1969. A few months after this unveiling, the project came to a halt when a legal battle arose between the Sierra Club and the U.S. Government. We don’t have time to get into the details of this part of the story here. However, there is a great blog post written by Jack Spence which you can read here. For our purposes today, it became clear to Disney that the Country Bears might need a new home. With the development of the Magic Kingdom in full gear, the decision was made to adapt the plans for the show to this upcoming new park in Florida.
The show opened with the park on October 1, 1971 and was an immediate hit! The 24 Audio-Animatronic bears took turns singing comedic country songs on the five stages of the theater for 16 minutes. Audiences clapped to the country music beat and laughed at the corny charm of the bears. The show was so popular that Disney immediately decided to duplicate the show in Disneyland, opening the West coast version 6 months later on March 4, 1972. A third version was later opened in 1983 at Tokyo Disneyland.
Before we get into the individual performances and what to expect from this show today, there are a couple of historical versions of the show to note. In 1984, the show was updated for the holidays with a show called the “Country Bear Christmas Special.” New costumes were put on the bears, new songs were added to the show, and a polar bear joined the cast. This special holiday version marked the first time a Disney show changed out for different seasons within the same year. That was true not only of Walt Disney World, but of Disneyland as well. This may seem insignificant given the fact that Disneyland enjoys the majority of seasonal changes in the parks now, but I find it interesting that it first took place at WDW. The “Country Bear Christmas Special” ran from 1984-2005.
Two years after the Christmas special debuted, another variation of the show came along in 1986. When the “Country Bear Christmas Special” was not playing, the “Country Bear Vacation Hoedown” was the main event. This version of the show had the bears on summer vacation, sporting new outfits and singing new songs about the great outdoors. The show proved to be less popular than the original and therefore only ran for 6 years. It was replaced by the original version of the show, which ran along with the seasonal Christmas Special until 2005. After the Christmas Special failed to return in 2006, the original version of the show ran year round until 2012. At that time the show went down for refurbishment. The bears got a new coat of fur, some fresh new duds, and a much shorter playlist. Given the waning popularity of the show after 40 years, it was decided to cut the show length down to 11 minutes. A couple of songs were removed entirely and others were trimmed down.
Over at Disneyland, the show closed permanently in 2001 to make way for the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. However, the Tokyo Disneyland version is alive and well today, rotating all three versions of the show throughout the year.
That brings us to the now, and what you can expect from a cast of country singing Audio-Animatronic bears. As I mentioned at the beginning, Henry is your bear host for the show, but you will actually meet 3 other characters before Henry takes the stage. Hanging on the wall on the far right of the hall, are Melvin the Moose, Buff the Buffalo, and Max the Buck. The three animal heads appear stationary when you first enter the theater, but soon come to life in full AA fashion. They talk to each other and tell a couple of jokes to warm up the audience. Once the show gets going, your attention will be drawn to the stage, but be sure to check back on Melvin, Buff, and Max every now and then as it can be fun to watch them watching the show.
After Henry welcomes the audience, he introduces the first act, the Five Bear Rugs. The show’s main band consists of Zeke, Zeb, Ted, Fred, Tennessee, and Baby Oscar. If you are counting, that is six names, but Baby Oscar doesn’t actually play in the band. His only audio contribution comes when he squeezes his squeaky Teddy Bear. The others have instruments of humble origin: a compilation of a banjo, dishpan, fiddle, washboard, mouth harp, and the One String Thang. The latter is a homemade guitar with only one string. Being the largest group, they perform on center stage, both at the beginning and end of the show.
The other group that gets the center stage treatment is the Sun Bonnet Trio. The bear triplets are quite cute and cuddly, dressed in blue bonnets and dresses. The sisters, Bunny, Bubbles, and Beulah, sing one of my favorite numbers entitled, “All the Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down.” They also appear in the big number at the end of the show entitled, “Ole Slew Foot.”
One thing that is great about the show is the use of the five stages. In addition to these acts that take place on center stage, you have Liver Lips McGrowl, Wendell, Shaker, Ernest, Trixie, and Big Al who take turns appearing on one of the four side stages. On top of this (literally), is Teddi Barra who drops down from the ceiling. This feminine bear is gussied up with a pink hat and matching boa. She sits on a swing decorated with pink roses as she sings, “Heart We Did All That We Could.” Henry watches Teddi from one of the side stages and his heart is clearly set on Teddi.
In stark contrast to the lovely serenade of Teddi Barra is the fan favorite that follows her. Before the curtains even open up, the off key strum of a guitar string signals the arrival of Big Al. The giant gray bear with droopy eyes sings, “Blood on the Saddle,” a rather macabre number about the untimely demise of a cowboy. Big Al continues his solo at the end of the show while everyone else is singing in unison to “Ole Slew Foot.” His offish presence and subpar music ability seem to make him endearing despite his questionable choice of lyrics.
Still, it is the variety of characters and song selections that make the show fun for young viewers. Never knowing which curtain will open next, the subtle movements of the AA figures and catchy tunes of the show make it an engaging experience for first time viewers. One of the last numbers in the show features Henry singing, “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” For this number Henry wears what appears to be a coonskin cap. However, shortly into the number the coonskin comes to life and Sammy the raccoon pops his head out of the fur below. Fun little surprises like this make the show. As I said earlier, the level of detail put into the show and each of its characters is a testament to the Imagineers.
Now, this won’t be the most popular show with teens or tweens. Ask anyone that has been going to Walt Disney World for a while and you will probably find their opinion of the Country Bear Jamboree has probably fluctuated over time. For young kids it offers colorful characters and stimulating music. As those same kids get older, the jokes seem a little cornier, the songs more old fashioned, and the bears less appealing than nearby Splash Mountain. However, once you pass a certain stage in life, the appeal of the Country Bear Jamboree begins to grow again. Sitting down in an air-conditioned theater for over 10 minutes sounds like a welcome respite from the daunting pace of a Disney vacation. The charming simplicity of the bears offers a call back to a different time. If you are really lucky, you will join an audience that gets into the show and claps along and stomps their feet to the beat of the music. In fact, this is what all audiences did back in the show’s heyday when it opened in 1971.
It is good to point out that audiences on the West coast never embraced this type of participation and the show was never as popular in Disneyland. Had they clapped their hands and slapped their knees I think they might have enjoyed the show a lot more. The same is true for visitors to the Magic Kingdom today. I think this type of audience participation is key to getting the most out of the Country Bear Jamboree experience. So, next time you stop by Grizzly Hall, don’t be afraid to let loose a little, clap those hands, and laugh at the corny jokes. After all, aren’t most of us looking for some unbridled fun on our vacation? Who cares what you look like, or if your kids are embarrassed by you. Actually, that might be all the more reason to clap and sing along!
Well, that wraps up our time with the Country Bears! I hope you have enjoyed getting to know the history behind this opening day show at the Magic Kingdom. For me, thinking about Walt laughing at the original concept drawings for these characters makes this an experience I want to revisit next time I’m in the parks. There is still some magic left in these opening day rides and shows, which is why we are going to spend a little more time in the Magic Kingdom again next week. I hope you will come back and join me again then!
For now, I want to say a big thank you! I really enjoy sitting down every week to dig deeper into the magic of Walt Disney World. However, when you tune in and listen, it makes my day! Rides are best enjoyed with friends and I want to thank you for being my friend and coming along for the ride this week. Wherever you may be listening from, I hope our podcast has brought a smile to your face and inspired you to go make each day a ride worth taking!