Disney fans tend to equate the name Walt Disney with excellence. The company has experienced unprecedented levels of innovation and success over the last 90 years, from cartoons to live-action films and television to theme parks. However, occasionally, even Disney projects backfire. Some films were outright bombs, while others simply did not go according to plan. One event from the early days of Disneyland proves that not everything Walt Disney touched turned to gold — despite his and the company’s best intentions.
Bob Thomas sets up the story of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus (or Disneyland Circus, as it was alternately known) in his biography of Roy Disney, Building A Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire:
Roy’s check writing would never be over. Walt was constantly “plussing” Disneyland, making improvements and additions, all of them with a price tag. When attendance fell during the first winter, Walt decided he wanted a circus. He had been fascinated with circuses since his boyhood in Kansas City. Now he could run a circus all his own.
As with any Disney project, Walt and the Imagineers meticulously planned out every detail:
When The Mickey Mouse Club wrapped up filming of the first season, the Mouseketeers remaining with the show were sent to perform in 2 huge circus tents (costing $48,000) on the fringe of Fantasyland (approximately where the Matterhorn currently exists). Bruce Bushman, Dick Irvine, and George Whitney were the lead Imagineers on this project, creating storyboards for the show and overseeing the design of signage and midway booths. Antique circus wagons were located and restored: 9 from the Bradley and Kaye Amusement Park in Los Angeles and another 5 were found in Venice, California. A 1907 20-whistle steam calliope (built for the Mugivan and Bowers show) was also purchased and tested right on the Disney Studio lot in Burbank.
Bob Thomas continues the story, along with the first hint of trouble:
Walt had gathered some good circus acts and impressive animals and had enlisted his vastly popular Mousketeers of The Mickey Mouse Club to be acrobats and other performers. The Mouseketeers were no problem; the mothers were, constantly complaining about how their children were treated and seeking better roles for them.
Walt quelled many of those complaints by inviting the Mousketeers’ mothers to perform in the circus alongside their kids.
For the Grand Opening Parade on November 24, 1955, Walt himself served as grand marshal along with Fess Parker, Disney’s most popular star at the time. The parade included painstakingly restored circus equipment, and the guests were treated to the sight of the animals in their circus carts. One cart contained a tiger on one side of a partition and a black panther on the other. The tiger managed to get his paw around the partition, and the panther proceeded to chew the paw off, all in plain sight of horrified onlookers.
“My boys tackled the panther with two-by-fours to get him off,” Joe Fowler [the admiral who supervised Disneyland’s construction and served as the park’s first manager] recalled. “By the time we finished, we destroyed fifteen thousand dollars worth of cats.” Roy got the bill.
The schedule called for two performances per day, including Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, and the shows included an appearance by Santa Claus. Opening night brought its own challenges for Fowler. The wheel of a pumpkin coach caught one of the tent’s corner posts, but no harm befell the tent. Fowler received word that the llamas had escaped, and he and his crew chased the animals along the railroad tracks to the Main Street Station, where they captured the spitting llamas. When Fowler, out of breath, returned to his seat next to Walt,
Walt said, “Joe, you missed the best part; one of the leading ladies split her tights.”
That incident was not the only wardrobe malfunction. One of the aerialists’ top came undone in mid-flight, and she had no choice but to sail topless through the air until she grabbed the hands of the man catching her on the other trapeze. Walt had to worry about what the Mousketeers witnessed backstage as well – the circus workers gambled, cussed, and drank heavily with no concern that the squeaky clean child stars were nearby.
On many levels, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was a disaster. Guests did not pile into the tents, which remained half full throughout the show’s run. The Mickey Mouse Club Circus closed January 8, 1956, and Disney never ran a show like it again. Other similar activities like puppet shows failed in that area as well. Walt learned his lesson –people came to take part in the unique experiences of Disneyland, rather than seeing Disneyfied versions of real-world activities.