It's time for another edition of Disneyland Childhood. I was hoping my first one would become a huge hit, and since people have been asking me to continue, I am more than happy to deliver this sequel. This time, I am going to be talking about probably one of Disneyland's most missed attractions: The Country Bears. Now, for those of you who aren't familiar, let me start you out with a little backstory.
In the 1960's, Walt Disney had an idea to build a wilderness lodge and ski resort in Big Bear, California. Along with that, he wanted to have some sort of entertainment for guests who stay at the resort. He came up with the idea to have a show with audio-animatronic bears. The owners of the land agreed to allow Walt to build the ski resort, and Walt worked with one of his animators, Marc Davis, on coming up with designs for the bears. There were intending to be hoedown bears, Mariachi bears, etc.
However, in the mid 60's, Walt was fighting a battle with lung cancer. Throughout the later half of 1966, Walt's health was failing. In December of 1966, Walt came in to see Marc and laughed at the bear designs that he made. As he walked out the door, Walt said, "Goodbye, Marc", which is something Walt has been known to never say. A few days later, Walt suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. Even though Walt had passed away, plans for the ski resort still carried on, but eventually, the plans were canceled in 1969.
Walt's brother, Roy, decided to instead make the bear show an attraction for Disney World, which Roy decided to rename "Walt Disney World" in honor of his brother. The Country Bear Jamboree opened in Walt Disney World as a Fronteirland attraction when the park first opened on October 1, 1971.
Since the Country Bear Jamboree became such a popular attraction, a similar version of the attraction came to Disneyland the following year. The attraction replaced the Indian dance show and launched a new themed land called "Bear Country".
Now, I never got a chance to see the original Country Bear show until I visited Disney World in 2008. In 1986, the Country Bears had a brand new show called the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown. This is the show I remember from my childhood, so that's what I'm gonna be talking about.
We start off by entering what appears to be a log cabin. As we wait inside the waiting room, you can take a look around and see all these things that are interesting to look at. You will see posters of the bears as well as the doors that lead to the dressing room of each individual bear. Of course, the doors are not real, so don't bother trying to open them. You may notice that there are two sets of doors: one set of green doors, and another of brown doors. Unlike the Disney World version, the Disneyland version of this attraction had two seperate theaters, each showing the same show, so that way, they can bring twice as many guests in at a time. Eventually, a cast member will announce on a loud speaker that the bears are ready to perform and will tell the guests which set of doors they should be behind. It was always really funny when we stood outside the green doors and they all had to move to the brown doors when prompted.
As we enter the theater, we are seated on these benches, some of which are on higher levels. Whenever a show has an overflow, they always allowed people in the front to sit on the floor.
On the left side of the theater, hanging over the exit doors, are what appear to be three hunting trophies, but in reality, they're part of the show. There's a deer named Max (wearing a baseball cap), a buffalo named Buff (wearing a fishing hat), and a moose named Melvin (wearing a whole bunch of hats).
In front of us is the stage. It shows five curtains. The large one in the center is the main stage, while the four surrounding it are mini stages. A cast member greets the guests on a loud speaker, and then the show begins. As it begins, we hear instruments tuning up from behind the curtain. Then, we hear a voice yell out, "Hey, Rufus, wake up! It's show time!" The guests then hear from above and behind them loud footsteps. (That used to always scare my brother.) The houselights go out, and the stage lights come on as the main curtain opens.
This is where we see the Five Bear Rugs: Zeke, Zeb, Ted, Fred, and Tennessee. (Oh, and little Oscar.) They perform the opening song, "The Great Outdoors". Oh yeah, I also remember when the cast member greets the guests, he/she tells them to feel free to clap their hands on stomp their feet along with the music. Most of the time, they really did do it to this song! That always did give me a good feeling.
The right curtain opens revealing the host of the show, Henry. Henry welcomes everyone to the show. About this time, Max and Buff come in and tell Henry that they're ready for the show. However, Melvin is still sleeping, but they wake him up. The bears finish singing the opening song, and then we move on to the next number.
Both the main curtain and Henry's curtain close, and the curtain on the far right opens revealing Trixie. She performs a blues-styled song called, "Life's No Picnic Without You".
Next, we put our focus on the main stage as Wendell rises from below. The main curtain opens revealing a mini screen, which Wendell uses to show his vacation slides while he sings his song. The song he sings is Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again". At the end of the song, Wendell takes a picture of the audience, and then another picture comes up showing the theater with bears sitting in the audience. A woman's voice comes on saying, "There's no flash photography allowed during the performance...and that goes for EVERYBODY, Wendell!" Wendell apologizes as he leaves the stage.
The right curtain opens again revealing the Country Bears' rock star, Liverlips McGrowl. He sings a song called, "We Can Make It To the Top", which is kind of a parody on Elvis Presley's "Jailhouse Rock".
The left curtain then opens revealing Henry talking about a relaxing day at the beach. As he says this, Gomer rises from the stage, and the main curtain opens revealing a tundra. Henry notices something wrong and calls up to Rufus and have him change the backdrop. While they're waiting for the backdrop to change, Henry tells Gomer to distract the audience by playing something. He starts playing "Jingle Bells", but then starts playing something different just in time as the new backdrop comes down showing bears on a beach.
This is when Henry introduces Bonnie, Bubbles and Beula, who rise from below the stage. Gomer assists the Sun Bonnetts as they sing "California Bears", a rendition of the Beach Boys' classic, "California Girls". Oh yeah, and Max, Buff and Melvin sing with them too.
The left curtain opens again revealing Terrance the Shaker. He is assisted by an octopus who is in love with him. Shaker sings a love song to her called "Two Different Worlds". Now, correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the octopus's name was Delores.
The main curtain opens again with the Five Bear Rugs singing "Rocky Top Tennessee". As the curtain closes, they discover a weird little critter. They find out that it's a skunk and start panicking as the next number starts.
The curtain on the far left opens revealing Ernest the Dude, who sings a song called "Nature". Of course, he doesn't get to finish his song as a little bee starts buzzing around him and he tries to shoo it away as the curtain closes, and then right when it's fully closed, we hear him yell out, "YEOW!"
The left curtain opens revealing Henry again. It starts raining in the theater, which is actually just lights posing as raindrops, which I think is a pretty cool lighting effect. Teddy Bearra desends from the ceiling, and she and Henry duet to Gene Kelly's classic, "Singing in the Rain".
Now, we come to what is probably my favorite number in the show. The main curtain opens again for the Five Bear Rugs, except this time, it's dark. Zeb tells Zeke that Oscar wants to hear a ghost story. This is when the bear band plays Johnny Cash's "Ghost Riders in the Sky". Lightning struck a couple times during this number, but I think it might have been cool if they showed a ghost rider going across the theater too. But oh well, they didn't.
As the curtain closes, it's now pitch black, then we suddenly hear crunching footsteps and a low growl. Then, all of a sudden, a little light appears on the far left of the theater. The spotlight comes up for the far left stage revealing Big Al. He performs the depressing, "I Lost My Way to Your Heart".
After he's finished, we hear more yelling over the skunk and chaos going through the whole theater. The far right curtain opens, and the skunk that's been running around is now perched on Henry's head. As it turned out, the skunk was really Henry's little raccoon friend, Sammy, who's been trying to break into the theater the whole time, but kept getting run off.
He came in just in time for the finale. All the bears come out to perform, "Thank God, I'm a Country Bear", a rendition of John Denver's "Thank God, I'm a Country Boy". The only bears who don't participate in the finale are Trixie and Ernest, which I never thought seemed fair. After all that, the curtains all close, the bears all leave, the house lights come on, and Max, Buff and Melvin go back to sleep. This is when the guests are told by the cast member to exit the theater.
The Country Bears, while not talked about much, did serve as a popular attraction at Disneyland. In fact, it was so popular that they even had costumed characters of Wendell, Liverlips, Shaker and Big Al walking around the park. Later on, things started to change.
In 1989, Bear Country was renamed Critter Country due to the opening of Splash Mountain, since this attraction gave the impression that this country was made for more than just bears.
Critter Country started taking a bit of a turn in 1995 when another certain bear decided to make this place his home. A character greeting area opened in Critter Country where kids can meet Winnie the Pooh, Tigger and Eeyore. Not only that, but the Crocodile Mercandile was renamed Pooh Corner, and a lot of Winnie the Pooh merchandise was being sold around Critter Country. Eventually, by the late 90's, the Country Bear Playhouse was getting lower attendance, and the line to see Winnie the Pooh started getting longer and longer and longer. Also, at this time, Teddy Bearra's Swingin' Arcade closed down to become an expansion to Pooh Corner.
At the time, I was a teenager and wasn't really into the Country Bears much anymore, but I still had a bad feeling at this point that they were going to close down the playhouse and replace it with a Winnie the Pooh attraction. There have been rumors going around saying that this was going to happen, but in 2001, it was confirmed that the rumors were true.
The Country Bears performed the Vacation Hoedown for the last time on September 8, 2001. That's right, it closed just a couple days before the 9/11 attacks. It is sad to know that two tragedies happened in America within the same week, but don't get me wrong; 9/11 was a lot more tragic. It was sad to see my bears go away, but at least I did get to see the show one last time before it closed.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh opened in it's place on April 11, 2003. This was definately a huge mistake for Disney to make. First of all, a lot of people were outraged because the Country Bears was one of the last attractions to be based on an idea of Walt Disney's. As for this new attraction, I just don't think Winnie the Pooh fits in Critter Country at all. Don't tell me he's a critter, because I have never heard anyone call Pooh a critter in my life.
There is also a version of this ride in the other Disney theme parks. One thing I don't like about this version are the extremely ugly ride vehicles. In the other rides, you ride in a honey pot, where in this one, you ride in a carved hive. Blugck!
It's not like we had much of a choice. Disney needed to make a Winnie the Pooh ride due to the popularity of the character, and it would have fit perfectly in Fantasyland. However, if it were that way, it would have replaced Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. In 1998, the company announced that they were planning to replace the Mr. Toad rides in Disneyland and Walt Disney World with a Winnie the Pooh ride. Petitions were held to save Mr. Toad, which thankfully recieved enough signatures to save the one at Disneyland, but not enough for the one at Disney World. So, unfortunately, what we got is what we got.
Going back to the Country Bears, if you were a fan of the show, you can take some bit of comfort knowing that they still exist. The show at Disney World still exists, but it only plays the original show. There's also a similar version of the Vacation Hoedown that is still being shown at Tokyo Disneyland as of today.
The Country Bears also had their own Christmas special that played during the holiday season. Maybe I'll talk about that show when Christmas comes around.
Even though the Country Bears have been banished from Disneyland, there are rumors that the show is going to return and take up residence next to Grizzly River Run in Disney's California Adventure.
This concludes another edition of Disneyland Childhood. For those of you who remember this attraction, I hope I tickled your memories, and for those of you who haven't seen it, I hope this was at least educational for you. See you next time.
In memory of the Country Bears
Note: All rights of the photos taken from Yesterland.com belong to Werner Weiss, whom I give a special thanks to for granting me permission to use those photos for this article. All other photos with logos within them are all property of their respective owners (all rights reserved).