Our story about Country Bear Jamboree begins with the 1960 Winter Olympics held in Squaw Valley, California. Walt Disney had been selected as the Chairman of Pageantry and John Hench was chosen to design the Olympic Torch. This first picture is of a plaque attached to one of the official Olympic flagpoles at Squaw Valley. It displays a relief of Walt’s signature.
Walt was struck by the area’s alpine beauty and felt that the creation of a family oriented resort would be an asset to the public and help diversify his company. At the games conclusion, Walt began a search of existing and potential sites around the United States to achieve this goal.
In 1965 the U.S. Forest Service requested public bids for the development of Mineral King in the Sequoia National Forest in California. It was believed that this area had the potential to support year-round recreation. Mineral King is a subalpine glacial valley with a lower elevation of 7,400 feet with surrounding granite peaks rising to around 11,000 feet.
The Disney Company entered public bidding against five other organizations. In December of that year, Disney won out and was awarded a three-year planning permit. The Company spent $750K in research and planning and in January 1969 received final approval of its developmental master plan.
Disney proposed spending $35M to create a self-contained village, ski-lifts, and overnight accommodations for year-round use. In an effort to be sensitive to the fragile environment, plans called for the complete elimination of automobiles from the valley floor. Guests would be required to park at a lower elevation and be transported to the resort by an electric cog-assist railway. The State of California pledged $650K to build an all-weather access road to the “drop-off” location. Then Governor Ronald Reagan and a number of other high ranking state officials all went on record supporting the plan.
Walt knew that the resort would offer plenty of daytime activities with skiing during the winter and hiking and camping during the warmer months. But he felt some sort of Disney entertainment was needed after the sun set. He believed that a show featuring bears would be apropos to the surroundings and be good for a few laughs. He assigned the project to Marc Davis who had been instrumental in developing characters for the Enchanted Tiki Room, Carousel of Progress, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Working with Al Bertino, Marc came up with a number of concepts. One featured a bear marching band. Another, Dixieland bears. Even a bear mariachi band was considered. One day in late 1966, Walt walked into Marc’s office, took a look at some of his concept drawings, and told him that he loved the characters. As Walt readied to leave, he uncharacteristically said “Good bye” as he walked out the door. This was the last time Marc ever saw Walt alive. A few days later, Walt died on December 15th.
As plans progressed, it was decided to give the bears a country-western persona and feature them in the Mineral King Resort’s Bear Band Restaurant Show. Although difficult to see in this Marc Davis drawing, the names were slightly different in the beginning. From left to right they are as follows: Lil’ Lemonade Bear, Big Fred, Old Zeke, Cousin Ted, and Brother Zeb.
To hear a one minute excerpt from a Mineral King demo recording, check out the following link.
Jumping back in time about 76 years we find naturalist John Muir, journalist Robert Underwood Johnson and businessman Galen Clark campaigning to create Yosemite National Park. They achieved their goal in 1890. Muir was also interested in safeguarding the entire Sierra Nevada Mountains and was instrumental in the formation of the Sierra Club. This organization promotes responsible use of the earth’s ecosystems, protection of natural and human environments, education, and lawful means to carry out their objectives. Muir was elected the organization’s first president and served in this capacity until his death in 1914. The Sierra Club fought many environmental battles over the years and they saw the Mineral King project as one more encroachment into pristine and unspoiled land.
In June 1969, six months after the Disney Company unveiled its master plan for Mineral King, the Sierra Club filed suit in a Federal District Court to prevent officials of the Departments of Agriculture and Interior from issuing the permits necessary for work to begin. The case proceeded through the judicial system and eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court where arguments were presented on November 17, 1971.
During the entire legal battle, Disney steadfastly stood by their plans but suspended all investments until the case was settled. Eventually, the Sierra Club prevailed and the Mineral King project was scrapped. Disney was never a part of the legal battle. This was strictly between the Sierra Club and the U.S. Government.
From 1974 through 1977, Disney tried to resurrect their plans for a mountain resort at Independence Lake in Northern California. Once again, legal entanglements eventually doomed the project.
While the Mineral King Project was mired in legal red tape, Disney was also hard at work planning and building Walt Disney World. Sensing the inevitable outcome, the Imagineers shifted gears and took a new look at the singing bears and felt that Frontierland would be the perfect home for these ursine stars. Imagineer X Atencio and musical director George Bruns were brought on board to pull together the score. Here we see star-of-the-show Henry receiving some last minute instructions from his acting coaches.
Country Bear Jamboree was an opening day attraction at the Magic Kingdom (October 1, 1971). The presentation is housed in Grizzly Hall and the theater can hold approximately 350 guests. The show runs just shy of 16 minutes.
There are a few interesting details around the exterior of the theater. High about the “Country Bear Jamboree” sign, are two bearskin rugs hanging on the wall. If you think about it, this is rather ghoulish considering who performs inside.
If you look closely at the pendulum on the clock near the entrance, you’ll see the letters CBJ engraved in the metal.
Across the street from Grizzly Hall is Big Al’s cabin and former home. With the success of the show, Al decided to cash in on the tourist trade and his home now acts as a merchandise stall and sells frontier souvenirs.
Disney was extremely pleased with the popularity of the show in Florida. East Coast guests loved the wacky bears and would eagerly stomp their feet and clap their hands when instructed to do so.
Less than six months after Country Bear Jamboree premiered at the Magic Kingdom, an entirely new land opened at Disneyland. On March 24, 1972, Bear Country debuted, replacing the Indian Village located in the far northwest corner of Disneyland.
Besides a recreation of Country Bear Jamboree, this new land featured Teddi Berra’s Swingin’ Arcade, Davey Crockett’s Explore Canoes (formerly the Indian War Canoes) and a new restaurant named Golden Bear Lodge. It’s interesting to note, Disney received so many requests from guests wishing to “lodge” at the Golden Bear Lodge that they renamed the facility Hungry Bear Restaurant to avoid confusion. With the opening of Splash Mountain in 1989, Bear Country was renamed Critter Country to accommodate all of its new inhabitants.
At Disneyland, the Imagineers built two identical theaters for the Country Bear Jamboree attraction, thus doubling the capacity. However, the West Coast reaction to the show never approached that of the Magic Kingdom’s. Overall, audiences were blasÃ© about the presentation and there wasn’t a lot of foot stompin’ and hand clappin’. Bear Country was often deserted after sunset. Even the addition of Splash Mountain did little to boost the attendance. The Country Bear Playhouse closed at Disneyland on September 9, 2001 to make room for The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh.
Tokyo Disneyland also received a copy of the show and it was an opening day attraction (April 15, 1983). Like Disneyland, this park had two theaters, however it plays to large audiences throughout the day. It’s interesting to note, the spoken dialogue is in Japanese, but several of the songs are sung in English. Another subtle difference in the Tokyo version of this show is that the curtains behind the bears are black rather than red.
This attraction was not duplicated at Disneyland Paris or Hong Kong Disneyland.
To give you an idea of what it’s like to see Country Bear Jamboree in Tokyo, I have created a two minute video. I have only included selections presented in Japanese since the English songs are the same recordings we hear in the States. It’s fun to pick out the English names and words that are sprinkled into the songs. This was filmed seven years ago with an inferior camera to what I use today.
On December 19, 1984, Disney introduced the Country Bear Christmas Special. Directed and animated by Dave Feiten and Mike Sprout, this show featured holiday songs, new outfits, and the replacement of Terrence (aka Shaker) with a lookalike polar bear. The show was presented each year from mid-November through early January. After a short rehab, the original Country Bear Jamboree show would return and play for the rest of the year. Country Bear Christmas Special was the first “interchangeable” Disney attraction. This show enjoyed holiday runs through 2005. Disney never made any official acknowledgment as to why this show did not return in 2006, but budget cuts were probably the culprit.
In the spring of 1986, the Vacation Hoedown show debuted at Disneyland and Walt Disney World. This variation on the original production featured the bears enjoying nature and the joys of summer travel. Most of the cast was given a new outfit and/or prop that in some way represented outdoor activities. The one variation to the cast was the elimination of Sammy, Henry’s raccoon pal, to be replaced by Randy the skunk.
Although the show was well received, it failed to maintain the numbers of its predecessor at the Magic Kingdom. So on February 1, 1992, Vacation Hoedown was retired after just five years and the original Country Bear Jamboree returned. At Disneyland, Vacation Hoedown played until the attraction was closed. At Tokyo Disneyland, all three shows, Country Bear Jamboree, Vacation Hoedown, and Country Bear Christmas Special cycle through the year.
Except for the busiest days, Country Bear Jamboree does not open until 10am at the Magic Kingdom. Most people are running for Dumbo, Peter Pan, and the thrill rides during the first hour of operation.
That’s it for Part One of Country Bear Jamboree. Check back tomorrow when I discuss the stars of the show.