ORLANDO, Fla. >> The panicked rumors started to swirl on Disney fan blogs last spring: “Mama, Don’t Whip Little Buford” was a sure-fire goner.
That not-so-politically-correct song, performed at Walt Disney World since 1971 as part of a corny Magic Kingdom revue called Country Bear Jamboree, would never survive an impending modernization, fans worried. Trixie, an obese animatronic bear with a boozy performance (“Tears Will
Be the Chaser for Your Wine”), might also be in trouble.
“It’s outdated, but it’s also like stepping back into your childhood,” Evelyn Garcia said after taking in the show in May. “They mess with it over my dead body.”
And therein lies one of Disney’s most vexing challenges: How do you keep these outdated but beloved shows relevant to the iPad generation while not angering hard-core fans? “Country Bear Jamboree,” which closed in August and reopened Wednesday — shorter, without two songs and featuring new fur styles for its stars — is a window into how the entertainment giant is lately trying to walk that line.
The overhaul “was done with a lot of love,” said Bruce E. Vaughn, chief creative executive at Walt Disney Imagineering. “You want to be really sensitive to the original spirit. But tastes also change, how people consume media changes. We must keep our product relevant.”
“What used to be a ‘wow’ may not be a ‘wow’ any longer,” he said, referring to the way that rudimentary animatronic figures used to enthrall audiences.
Country Bear Jamboree, featuring 24 animatronic animals who promise in their opening to dispense with any “chit chat, yick yack and flim flam,” was one of the last attractions worked on by Walt Disney, the company’s founder. He developed the revue for Mineral King Ski Resort, planned for a spot near Sequoia National Park in California. Marc Davis, an animator who created Cruella De Vil from “101 Dalmations” and Cinderella, designed the characters.
Disney died in 1966 and the resort was shelved, but the jamboree joined the lineup at Walt Disney World here. The banjo-playing bears with James Carville accents were such a smash that Disney installed them in its California park a year later.
But by the late 1980s, the bears, expensive to maintain, looked as if they had played one music hall too many. And the crowds had thinned, drawn instead to new shows like “Captain EO,” a 3-D short film starring Michael Jackson and his sidekick, Fuzzball. Country Bear Jamboree closed in California in 2001. A movie based on the characters, “The Country Bears,” flopped in 2002. The Orlando show powered on, but did not pull its weight; at the peak of the summer season, you could often walk right in.
It was starting to become a museum exhibit, a dreaded situation for Disney.
Vaughn said his team considered a series of questions. How could they make the show relevant to modern kids? How could new technology be introduced to make it better? Are there ways to integrate new Disney or Pixar characters into the show?
But Disney has learned the hard way that change can enrage fans. When the company tried in 1998 to update the Enchanted Tiki Room, a 1960s-era revue starring singing flowers and robot birds, fans greeted the changes with venom. The Enchanted Tiki Room: Under New Management — featuring Iago from “Aladdin,” voiced by Gilbert Gottfried — was abandoned last year, and Disney reinstalled the original. (“Occasionally, you’re going to get a miss,” Vaughn said.)
Disney has successfully updated some attractions, like Pirates of the Caribbean, the Spanish Main ride that spawned the movie series, but when fans caught wind that changes were afoot at Country Bear Jamboree, the blogosphere lit up. “Keep those bears the same, dag nabbit!” one fan wrote on the site WDWRadio.com.
On Wednesday the company unveiled the new show. Exhale: Disney has a sense of humor, too. “Buford” remains, as do Trixie and Liver Lips McGrowl, who sings “My Woman Ain’t Pretty (But She Don’t Swear None.)” The Sun Bonnet triplets — Bunny, Bubbles and Beulah — still perform “All the Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down.”
No new characters were added, not the giant demon bear from “Brave” or Justin Beaver or reality TV’s Honey Boo Boo, as some fans worried.
Vaughn’s main change was length. The revue is now 11 minutes instead of 16, accomplished by removing two numbers — “Fractured Folk Song” and “Pretty Little Devilish Mary” — and some banter from the peanut gallery: mounted animatronic buffalo, moose and deer heads that serve as this show’s version of Statler and Waldorf. (Gone are their fat jokes, for instance: “That’s a mighty big song, Trixie!” Response: “That sure ain’t all that’s big.”)
The faster pace, Vaughn said, reflects the speedier way that people speak today and the rise of interactive media. It’s not necessarily that attention spans are shorter, he said, it’s that kids raised on video games are not as accustomed to more passive entertainment experiences.
There are new costumes, props, lighting, stage curtains and sound systems; modernized backstage controls give Disney the ability to add seasonal changes easily. Fresh animatronics give the bears “an increased sense of aliveness,” Vaughn said.
How is it going over?
For some fans, the changes may take some getting used to. Tom Bricker, writing on Twitter, complained, “the wittiest attraction at Walt Disney World dumbed down.” Pixiedustmaker, a commenter on WDWmagic.com, where the Country Bears discussion ran to 34 pages on Friday, declared it “garbage.”
But Disney also got applause for keeping some of the cheekier numbers and many comments were quite positive.
Touring Plans, a company that publishes unofficial guides to Walt Disney World, live tweeted from the first performance of the new show. While it “feels very abrupt,” Touring Plans also said in one Twitter post that it liked the “really great new sparkly hat and parasol” on Teddi Barra, who performs on a swing.
“It did not feel butchered at all,” Aladdin2007 wrote on WDWmagic.com, while a visitor to that site commented: “I can’t say I’m angry about it. It’s nice to see the bears looking in such good condition.”
The visitor wasn’t so sure about some of the new coifs, though. “Liver Lips’ hair does look weird,” he wrote.