What would it be like for man to travel to Mars? We have often asked this question, and even though it’s been 45 years since man first stepped on the moon, no one has gone any further than that in our solar system. But the details of such space travel, as mundane as they may be, are necessary to parse. Maybe the ship that goes to Mars, whenever it does go, would be shaped like an umbrella, and maybe it could provide artificial gravity to its denizens. The trip might take 400 days at 100 thousand miles an hour. But it could happen. And it was described clearly and concisely roughly 57 years ago on an episode of the Disneyland TV series, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last week.
You know what Disneyland (without the italics) is; everyone knows what Disneyland is. It’s a theme park, and its own 60th anniversary is right around the corner. But before there was a theme park, back when an orange grove in Anaheim was in the process of being converted to a never-before-seen haven for children of all ages, there was a TV series. This series existed in some form for 45 seasons on all three broadcast networks between 1954 and 2008. However, the show that many of us grew up with in the late 1980s and early 1990s, hosted by then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner, isn’t quite what the original Disneyland was. One week on the original, you might turn on the show to see a truncated version of a Disney classic, like Alice in Wonderland. The next week, you might be given an hourlong look at how some of Disney’s animated characters were created, and the various tenets of hand-drawn animation being practiced in the 1960s. The week after that, you might be presented with “Mars and Beyond,” the episode referenced in the previous paragraph. Just as the Disneyland park is comprised of multiple themed lands, so too was the TV show; from Fantasyland to Adventureland to Tomorrowland, there was something for everyone.
There is no single show like Disneyland anymore, though its disparate elements are easy to spot, in some ways, on cable TV. This is in part because the television landscape has changed so vastly in the last 60 years. When there were only a handful of options to choose from, it wasn’t hard for a show to become successful. And the idea of what would and wouldn’t work on TV was more flexible, too; anthology programs like Playhouse 90 are foreign to today’s TV slate, more groundbreaking and far different than American Horror Story or True Detective and roughly as prolific as most network dramas. Disneyland was intended to unite the entire family around the television set, just as the parks are intended to unite the family around different attractions and areas. It’s true that you can find, on a basic level, the content that made up many of the Disneyland episodes on the countless networks available on any satellite, cable, or streaming subscription. You can find something akin to the Davy Crockett films, or a space documentary (such as the recent excellent reboot of Cosmos), or a behind-the-scenes look at hand-drawn animation or the Disney theme parks. But not all in the same place, and not quite like this.
To watch these episodes is to step back in time, to a period of breathless, exciting invention the likes of which haven’t been seen in quite some time. If you’re willing to drop a few bucks on eBay or from an Amazon seller, you could, for example, purchase the Tomorrow Land box set in the now-out-of-print Walt Disney Treasures collection. This two-disc set features four episodes from the TV series, all focused on an optimistic view of the future, a future that doesn’t take place entirely on this planet. There’s “Mars and Beyond,” “Man in Space,” “Man and the Moon,” and “Our Friend the Atom,” all a blend of live-action and animation, with input from animators like Ward Kimball and scientists like Dr. Wernher Von Braun. This mix of heady education and loopy entertainment is what the Disney Imagineers have attempted to achieve at Walt Disney World’s Epcot, as well as in attractions like Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and The Hall of Presidents. The testing ground was the TV series.
In this age of streaming content, you might think that accessing the various episodes of the Disneyland TV series would be a snap, all the more so thanks to the Disney Movies Anywhere app and Disney’s deal with Netflix to bring its content to the streaming service. For now, though, you’d be wrong. Though a few of the Disney True-Life Adventures are available on Disney Movies Anywhere, you can’t find the Disneyland TV series anywhere in an official form. (You can always go to YouTube to find unofficial transfers of episodes, such as the live “Dateline Disneyland” episode that aired on the day of the theme park’s opening in July of 1955, but it’s not quite the same, is it?) While it’s true that most people who attend Disneyland or Walt Disney World on any given day likely don’t know (or don’t really remember) the TV show, that’s because it’s almost like the end of a self-fulfilling prophecy. People don’t know the show because it’s neither readily accessible in a new format (outside of a Disney Junior redo) and because the older episodes aren’t easy to obtain. Thus, they continue to lack awareness, because Disney chooses not to inform them.
And that’s a shame, because even in its more self-promoting episodes, like that “Dateline Disneyland” show, the TV series is a fascinating example of the flexibility of the televisual form. What’s more, the various dips into the world of optimistic futurism that are present on that Walt Disney Treasures DVD set are truly awe-inspiring. It may be easiest to remember the Disneyland TV series simply for the opening moments, hosted by Walt Disney himself at his desk, sometimes with Tinker Bell lifting him up in the air by pixie dust or spending time with Imagineers or sharing screen time with a wild animal. And those moments are indeed iconic, helping firm the memory of Disney as the avuncular Uncle Walt, wearing a suit or sweater in an office that felt more like your relative’s inviting study where he’d tell you a story during a holiday visit or something similar.
But it’s what comes after Disney’s introduction that matters most, because he often would give over time to those behind the innovations going on at his parks or in his studios. The ambition displayed in these hourlong looks at the world that was, the world that should be, and the world of delightful make-believe needs to return to Disney. It’s amazing that the TV series even happened, considering how low the company’s financial future was in the 1940s and early 1950s. The very idea of Disneyland seemed like as much a folly as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was considered back in the mid-1930s. Yet the theme parks were groundbreaking, inspiring competition around the globe, just as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs redefined what cinema could be. The show, however, hasn’t had the same direct impact on culture; some of that is due to the constantly shifting nature of what Disneyland was. Even within the various categories, the show wasn’t as rigidly controlled or constructed as the parks.
But it is an extraordinarily important part of Disney’s history, and as an example of the innocent optimism of a space age, it’s equally vital. Scientific innovation has been in the news recently (with unfortunate tragedies involving private space travel), and it’s going to be the topic of discussion for both new big releases at the movie theaters this coming weekend, as both Interstellar and Big Hero 6 appear to embrace science as a way to live life in the future, as perhaps the only true way to improve ourselves and our environment. So certainly, with Big Hero 6, Disney isn’t completely looking past its roots in encouraging the spirit of invention. But they can do more, and not just in their films or theme parks.
The idealistic dream here would be to get Disney to revive the Disneyland TV series, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, back when Uncle Walt was hosting. With a slew of networks as the company’s disposal, it’s not exactly an issue of getting greenlit, and with a wealth of studios to visit as well as decades of new technology to explore, content couldn’t be a problem. The Cosmos reboot, too, proved the possibility for audiences to flock to a mix of heady education and streamlined entertainment. Disney has the tools and resources; what more do they need to push themselves one step further? A slightly more down-to-earth request is one that should be equally simple to achieve: release the Disneyland TV series (or as many episodes as are salvageable) on Blu-ray. In fact, why not put the entire Walt Disney Treasures series on Blu-ray? This company’s history is potentially its most valuable asset, and should be maintained at any cost. Audiences on a wide scale may not realize what the TV series was, or about the specifics of Disney’s history in the early days, but that isn’t to suggest that they don’t care. We can’t expect everyone with a passing interest in Disney to wade in deep to its past on their own; Disney needs to push itself again, to reassert itself as a beacon for moving forward. There are myriad steps to doing this; one is acknowledging the company’s roots and reminding audiences that Walt Disney was there when television started, and he helped drive it into the future.