The Disney Afternoon Revisited
Cartoon series produced by The Walt Disney Company, even those of less than classic stature (I’m looking at you, Marsupilami) have a way of gaining importance in the world of pop culture regardless of their quality. One group of cartoons that truly earned their legendary standing in the minds of kids everywhere were the programs featured each weekday on The Disney Afternoon from 1990-1997. Some shows brought established characters into a new setting, while others were original creations that became instant classics. Either way we memorized the theme songs and tuned in to sing along daily. So flip on the TV and join me for a look back on my experiences with what passed for appointment viewing in elementary school.
I always saw The Disney Afternoon as the animated version of TGIF on ABC. Shows like Boy Meets World, Family Matters and Step By Step eventually earned a devoted audience, but to bring viewers in, the network originally had ratings giants Full House and Perfect Strangers on the schedule. And so it was with The Disney Afternoon's decision to include The Adventures of The Gummi Bears and Duck Tales into the starting line-up. Leading up to 1990, the only place I caught Disney cartoon series’ like The New Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, Gummi Bears and to a lesser extent, Wuzzles was on Saturdays mornings when I got tired of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. So it was a smart move throwing some current hits into the mix. But very quickly, “the new breed” became a major cultural obsession.
Though Duck Tales had been around since 1987, I didn’t really experience it until The Disney Afternoon was created, where it quickly became THE flagship show. There was no denying that Scrooge McDuck, the miser with a heart of gold, was the leader of the animated charge that began once the school bell rang at 2:30pm. The show brought us to the city of Duckberg where ,”Life is like a hurricane…” and in each episode The Beagle Boys or possibly Magica De Spell would be concocting a plan to get Scrooge’s money, which would then have to be defended by the billionaire and his 3 Grand-Nephews (?). My confusion came from the fact that I had seen Huey, Dewey and Louie plenty of times in old Donald Duck cartoons referring to the hot-headed sailor as “Unca Donald”, but now they were calling this Scottish fellow “Unca Scrooge”, what was up with that?
As it turns out, there was 50+ years of comic book adventures featuring this crew of feathered fightin’ fowls that I was completely unaware of at age 8. My Dad on the other hand, had been a big fan when he was my age. When my father heard me talking about Uncle Scrooge swimming through his vault of gold coins on TV he was all smiles, “I used to have stacks of those comics when I was growing up, is that popular now?” I never would have pegged my Dad as a comic book reader, he was always talking about The Hardy Boys or Mr. Flibberty-Jib (whoever that was) but now we had a common bond. Unfortunately the Duck Tales comics of the time didn’t really excite me the way the show did, that is unless they were the issues featuring Gizmoduck!
Say it with me, “Blathering-Blatherkites!” With that run of gibberish, Fenton Crackshell would attract robotic armor to his body and transform into the wheeled warrior, Gizmoduck! For most episodes my go-to guy was Launchpad McQuack, especially the episode where he defends the Earth from an alien invasion, showing up Huey, Dewey & Louie’s cowardly TV idol, Major Courage. In a pinch I would settle for the “Superdoo” episode where the chubby duckling, Doofus gained super-powers from a space “doughnut”. But nothing could match my excitement when Gizmoduck would transform to save the day in his clumsy slapstick style. While Duck Tales was clearly the front runner in schoolyard chatter, just a hair down in accolades was Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers.
Re-imagining the rascally Chipmunks as private investigators/do-gooders for hire was exactly the right move for a generation coming off of shows like The A-Team and Magnum, P.I. (from whom Dale obviously borrowed his wardrobe). Chip took on the role of Fedora-wearing leader in their battles against the forces of Fat Cat and his gap-toothed buddy was the comic relief. Seeing the rodents hunting for justice rather than acorns was a pretty exciting, especially when they had to get out of sticky situations with the MacGuyver like skills of new character, Gadget.
Monterey Jack’s addiction to cheese was occasionally humerous and Zipper was really just along for the ride, but the spunky, jump-suited mouse mechanic really made the adventures possible building airplanes and other vehicles from stuff you’d find in your junk drawer at home. Gadget’s inventions were even the focus of the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys that came out during those years, with thimbles, spatulas and buttons creating machines that fed the Rangers’ need for speed. Next up was an even more unlikely imagining, Baloo the Bear in Talespin.
Oh-Ee-Ay (you’re turn) Oh-Ee-oh (sing it again!) Yep, those classic characters from The Jungle Book were given a new lease on life in this show that had Baloo playing an aloof, but heroic airplane pilot amongst the exotic flora and fauna. I’ll be honest, I usually didn’t stick around until 3:30pm to watch this show (Baloo was just so old school), that is unless they got me hooked by watching cool cub, Kit Cloudkicker “air-surfing” at the top of the episode. Seeing Kit flip out his boomerang board and start gliding through the clouds was totally radical. Skateboarding was cool, but “air-boarding” was the next level of awesomeness. Plus the kid was rocking the backwards baseball cap, which in the 90’s was the official sign that this was the character we should idolize. It still wasn’t enough to keep me tuned in, but by the next year, Disney had me hooked big time.
“Let’s get dangerous!” With a catch phrase like that, how could you not love Darkwing Duck? He was the only full-time super-hero on The Disney Afternoon roster after all. What’s crazy is that although I was huge fan of old radio shows featuring The Shadow (again, my Dad’s influence there), I never realized what an almost direct homage DD was to that character until recently. The fedora, the cape and coat combo, even the pistol, it was all there. For some reason I always thought of him as more of duck version of Batman (not to be confused with the adult animated sitcom, Duckman on the USA network). After all, “When there’s trouble, you call DW!”
The arrival of The Masked Mallard spelled the end for Gummi Bears and Duck Tales as part of The Disney Afternoon, but it’s just as well because that meant he could hook-up with one of the recently unemployed citizens of Duckberg, Launchpad! This was an awesome crossover to rival The Jetsons Meet The Flintstones. It wasn’t just a one-time event, ol’ Launchpad was jumping ship to become The Dark Duck Detective’s permanent sidekick in St. Canard. It meant this was a shared Disney-Verse and that’s like crack to the comic book lovin’ geeks of the world.
I especially enjoyed the battles against Darkwing’s evil counterpart Nega-Duck and the most amazing of all moments, when Gizmoduck along with other heroes joined forces with Drake Mallard’s alter-ego to form the Justice Ducks! Is it any wonder Darkwing Duck was my #1 sought after autograph at Disneyland during The Disney Afternoon Avenue event? Never heard about it? Oh, you missed out!
Growing up just 20 minutes from Anaheim, I didn’t really go to Disneyland until a visiting relative from out of state demanded it, which usually happened every other year. This event however, was one of the rare occasions that I asked my parents to take me out of my own desire to experience the magic. Guess what? It worked! The Disney Afternoon Avenue was a re-branding of the space between The Matterhorn and It’s A Small World from 1991 to 1993. They basically just slapped new paint jobs and signage on existing rides that were waning in popularity, but it was still very cool.
For example, The Autopia became Chip N’ Dale Rescue Rangers Raceway. It was still the same slow-moving car on a track, but now there were wooden cut-outs of Fat Cat and his goons for you to dodge! That’s new…right? It was basically the same deal over at the Motor Boat Cruise, which became the Motor Boat Cruise to Gummi Glen thanks to a few awnings and more 2-D cut-outs. You know the more I think about it, they really cheaped-out on this promotion! Come on, Mickey, you couldn’t spring for a few statues of Sunny and Zummy? Heck you could’ve just hung the plush dolls from a tree on a rope that made them bounce up and down, give me something! Luckily the rides weren’t what got me through the gates, it was the chance to meet actual TV stars!
I remember the week before we went I was busy cutting out and stapling together squares of paper to create an autograph book for the characters to sign. I even cut out pictures from TV guide and Disney Adventures magazine to glue on the front, so I could remember who I was there to see. Somehow while making my way to The Disney Afternoon Avenue I ended up in line to get Belle from Beauty and the Beast to sign my book. Not my first choice, but the movie had just come out, so I guess I just got caught up in the hype of meeting the celebrity of the moment. I next got a chance to shake hands with Launchpad McQuack, he was so tall! It was amazing to see him in 3-Dimensions and writing me a personalized message.
When I went to work in the Disneyland character department in my college years, I always looked to create a moment like this for the kids I interacted with. In fact, during the audition process there is a section where they test how you look in costume and who did they give me to wear? Launchpad! It was a surreal moment that really brought me full circle. That character was long since retired by 2000, so it was a rare treat to don the flight jacket and goggles to strut my stuff.
Of course standing right next to him was his partner, Darkwing Duck! Now DD was shorter than imagined an action star to be, but he had the cape flinging routine down and made some very heroic poses. I don’t know why I didn’t get pictures, but I’ll always have the autographs you see above to remember the excitement. There is one more memory I have of the event, that I can’t find any confirmation of online…
Are you ready for this? I swear that a blimp flew about 50 feet above The Matterhorn, which was being piloted by none other than Roger Rabbit himself! I remember walking by the Alice In Wonderland ride and hearing a familiar voice coming over the loudspeakers in the park and being told to, “Look up here, people!” I tipped my head up to see the king of Toontown flying through the air, waving at the park guests below. I have to believe it was for the filming of some TV special or something, but I’ve never caught a glimpse of that footage. If I dreamed it, fine. But that was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had, man.
To close I’ll just say that The Disney Afternoon went many more years and many more shows beyond the initial line-up that’s cemented in my memory. Goofy got back in the spotlight with Goof Troop, Aladdin got an animated series and even some random police officer bobcat creature named Bonkers hung around for a while. When Gargoyles hit, I thought I just might keep watching the animated line-up. It was basically Batman: The Animated Series mashed-up with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, which seem like a 100% win. But as awesome as Gargoyles was, by 1996 I was devoted to Saved By The Bell for my afternoon viewing hours since I was entering high school myself and ended up leaving cartoons in the dust. Still The Disney Afternoon is a cherished memory I’ll always look back on fondly as animated entertainment at its finest.
So which was your era of The Disney Afternoon? What show dominated your TV viewing each day from 2:30 to 4:30pm?