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10 Twangy Facts About Disney's Country Bear Jamboree

Disney’s Country Bear Jamboree hasn’t changed much in the past 44 years—and maybe that’s part of the charm. The animatronic stage show featuring a variety of ursine entertainers has been a Magic Kingdom staple since the Florida park opened on October 1, 1972. Even if you’re a bona fide Liver Lips McGrowl groupie, you may not know these 10 facts about the Country Bears.

1. THE ATTRACTION WAS ORIGINALLY SLATED FOR A DISNEY SKI RESORT.

Back in the mid '60s, Disney had big plans to build a ski resort in California’s Sequoia National Park. In addition to the ski slope, the resort would have included a five-story hotel with 1030 rooms, a movie theater, a general store, ice rinks, tennis courts—and a variety show featuring a band of bears that appeared to have wandered in from the surrounding forest. On September 19, 1966, Disney held a press conference to announce the project. On December 15, 1966, Walt died. Plans for the resort were eventually canceled, but the Imagineers didn’t forget about those animatronic performing bears. Catch a demo for the original idea here

2. IT WAS ONE OF THE LAST PROJECTS WALT WORKED ON.

Imagineer Marc Davis has said that Disney delighted in the preliminary sketches for the bear band concept. “Walt laughed when he saw [the sketches],” Marc remembered. “He looked awfully bad. He’d been in the hospital, and he’d lost a lung, and so on. Later he came back around ... and I stopped in my doorway ... and as he walked down the hall about 40 feet, he stopped and turned ... he said, ‘Good-bye Marc.’ And that was it. He died a couple of weeks later. And he never said good-bye, usually. He would say, ‘Let’s get together,’ or ‘How about next week?’ or something. I’m positive he had a feeling about it.”

3. IT WAS THE FIRST DISNEY WORLD ATTRACTION TO BE REPLICATED AT DISNEYLAND.

Plenty of attractions from Disneyland ended up in the Sunshine State, but the success of the Country Bears in Disney's Florida park made it the first attraction to be reproduced on the other coast. In fact, in 1972, Big Al and his pals inspired an $8 million Disneyland expansion called “Bear Country.”

4. THERE WAS A COUNTRY BEARS CHRISTMAS SHOW …

When the bears proved to be a roaring success, Disney added a twist to keep park-goers coming back. A kitschy Christmas version of the show, which included holiday songs and seasonal outfits for the bears, ran from 1984 until 2001 at Disneyland, and from 1984 until 2006 in Florida. Some of the props from the show live on in the Walt Disney Archives, including Liver Lips’ Christmas tree-shaped guitar and Teddi Berra’s skis.

5. … BUT LET'S NOT FORGET THE "COUNTRY BEAR VACATION HOEDOWN."

Christmas isn’t the only time Imagineers tinkered with the show. They also created the Country Bear Vacation Hoedown, a version that replaced the original country songs with tunes like “California Bears,” “Thank God I’m a Country Bear,” and “On the Road Again.” If you have fond memories of bears in bikinis and Hawaiian shirts, you need only to hop on a plane to satisfy your nostalgia: Vacation Jamboree is still playing at Tokyo Disneyland, with questionable updates (such as Trixie’s performance of “Achy Breaky Heart”).

6. DISNEYLAND'S WINNIE THE POOH RIDE CONTAINS A REFERENCE TO THE COUNTRY BEARS. 

By the ‘90s, enthusiasm for the Jamboree was waning on the West coast. In 2001, another bear was brought in to replace the show—Pooh Bear. Grizzly Hall was renovated to house The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, but you can still catch a glimpse of its predecessor: The taxidermied heads of Max the deer, Melvin the Moose, and Buff the Buffalo can still be seen just before the entrance to the Hunny Heaven room (but you have to turn around in your car to spot them). 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

7. THE COUNTRY BEARS LIVE ON AT DISNEYLAND IN ANOTHER WAY AS WELL.

After the show closed in 2001, rumor has it that Big Al, the sad sack bear who plays guitar, was stripped down to his animatronic skeleton and given new life as Oogie Boogie from Nightmare Before Christmas. He appears seasonally in the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay.

8. BIG AL'S "BLOOD ON THE SADDLE" WAS PERFORMED BY TEX RITTER.

“Blood on the Saddle,” Big Al’s big solo in the show, is a real song originally performed by country singer Tex Ritter, father of actor John Ritter and grandfather of actors Jason and Tyler Ritter. Tex also provided Big Al's singing voice.

9. A FEW OF THE OTHER VOICES MIGHT SOUND FAMILIAR TOO.

If you’re a Disney fan, you’ve probably noticed that the company uses its favorite voice talents again and again. Country Bear Jamboree is no exception. Here’s where you’ve heard a few of those voices:

-The voice of Melvin the moose was provided by Bill Lee, who is also the singing voice of Roger in 101 Dalmatians and Cinderella’s father.
-Melvin’s buddy Buff is voiced by Thurl Ravenscroft, who can also be heard in the Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Enchanted Tiki Room. (He’s also Tony the Tiger of Frosted Flakes fame.)
-Bubbles the bear is a member of the Sun Bonnet Trio, probably best known for the song, “All the Guys That Turn Me On Turn Me Down.” She gets her dulcet tones thanks to coloratura soprano Loulie Jean Norman, who can also be heard over at the Haunted Mansion as the opera-singing ghost in the graveyard. Norman definitely cemented her place in pop culture—she’s also the voice behind the Star Trek theme song and the high part in the song “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

10. THE ORIGINAL SHOW WAS SPONSORED BY PEPSI AND FRITO LAY.

Even though the sponsorship only lasted 10 years, the show script contained a reference to the Pepsi sponsorship until a 2012 refurbishment. Henry’s line at the beginning of the show, “Just refrain from hibernating, and we’ll all enjoy the show. Because we got a lot to give,” was a nod to Pepsi’s old slogan, “You’ve got a lot to live. Pepsi’s got a lot to give.”

If all of this talk has put you in the mood for some tunes from the all-bear Grand Ole Opry, you’re in luck. Here’s the complete Magic Kingdom show:

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Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Pop Culture
The Computer Virus That Brought Down Whac-A-Mole
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk inside any pop-up carnival, amusement park, or retro arcade space and you’re likely to find a rodent infestation so stubborn that visitors are expected to bludgeon the pests to death with a mallet. Despite receiving thousands of concussive blows, these creatures are virtually guaranteed to continue being a nuisance—and for the game’s operators, their seeming indestructibility is a lucrative source of revenue.

Whac-A-Mole, first introduced in 1976 by the Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) amusement company out of Florida, is a cabinet game that features plastic-molded moles raised and lowered on mechanical sticks to be walloped by players wielding a foam club. Despite all of the moving parts, it’s generally understood that the games will require only minimal maintenance: a new washer every now and then, and maybe a cleaning.

That’s why the sudden failure of several Whac-A-Mole machines beginning in 2008 was so strange. BSR began fielding calls from unhappy customers who complained that their units were malfunctioning. After working fine for days or weeks, the units would power down without warning.

Some of them opted to deal directly with Marvin Wimberly, a computer programmer and contractor working for BSR who was able to diagnose and fix what appeared to be a defective module that was infected with a virus.

Before long, both BSR and local authorities would come to believe the repair came easily to Wimberly for a simple reason: They suspected he was the one who infected the modules in the first place.

A Whac-A-Mole game in Cedar Point, Ohio
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to a 2011 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Wimberly, then 61, had been with BSR since 1980 as an independent contractor. For 22 years, Wimberly wrote the computer programs that told Whac-A-Mole and other games how to interact with players. Wimberly believed his software was his property; BSR believed they owned it—a point of contention that would soon come into dispute.

The work wasn’t always steady, and Wimberly was apparently unhappy with his wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations for BSR to buy his software outright for $500,000, in 2009 he asked that his fee per chip be raised from $60 to $150.

A few months prior, in September 2008, modules began surfacing that were infected with a virus—or what some programmers call a “logic bomb”—that would render the machines useless after a set number of games: sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 511. BSR bought equipment to examine the chips, found the virus, and became convinced that Wimberly had gone rogue. They told police he had sold them 443 infected modules for $51,000, then sat back as the company began to field complaints from operators. When BSR approached Wimberly with offers to fix the chips, he would—and then, according to police, promptly install a new virus that would begin the countdown all over again.

The authorities also believed Wimberly fielded inquiries from disgruntled customers who didn’t want to bother going through BSR for repairs, and even registered a website, bobsupgrades.com, that sought to solicit repair work from amusement operators.

The cabinet art for the Whac-A-Mole arcade game
Nick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Feeling they had sufficient information from BSR, Orlando authorities arrested Wimberly in February 2011 on charges relating to offenses against intellectual property. He was released after posting $15,000 bail. BSR CFO Michael Lane told the press that Wimberly’s actions had led to roughly $100,000 in losses for the company.

The news media found a lot of humor in poisoning the well of Whac-A-Mole, but Wimberly, who was accused of a second-degree felony, wasn't laughing: He faced 15 years in prison.

Except Wimberly wouldn’t be swatted away so easily. According to court records kept in Volusia County, Florida, Wimberly asserted the virus was a software bug that was a result of new diagnostic procedures, not sabotage. In April 2012, Wimberly argued before a judge that, as the owner of the software under question, he couldn’t be accused of tampering with it—as he owned it outright.

“He is essentially accused of modifying his own software,” read the motion to dismiss, which noted that Wimberly hadn’t been paid for the repairs and was therefore failing to profit from the alleged wrongdoing. The court agreed, and the criminal case was dismissed in April 2013.

But Wimberly wasn’t satisfied. In September 2013, he sued Bob’s Space Racers for misappropriation of trade secrets, accusing them of continuing to sell Whac-A-Mole and other games containing Wimberly’s codes after parting ways with him and without paying any licensing fees. He also alleged that BSR had failed to come to him with news of the virus’s discovery, preferring to build a case against him with local police instead; BSR countered that Wimberly had “intentionally programmed the [chip] software to include a virus” and that he was paid to repair the malfunctioning chips.

The case dragged on for more than two years, inching toward a jury trial. In November 2015, the parties finally reached a settlement with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for BSR declined to comment to Mental Floss on the matter; Wimberly could not be reached.

If there was an attempt to sabotage Whac-A-Mole, it couldn't be proven to a criminal court's satisfaction. If Wimberly did indeed own the software, his argument that he was free to do with it as he liked would have been weighed against the harm done to BSR's reputation for having to service defective modules. But Wimberly insisted he did not write or install a virus: The accusation that he had, he claimed, was unfounded.

The next time you play, it may be a good idea to remind yourself that the people behind the game often have worse headaches than the moles.

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Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images
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entertainment
The One Phrase Disney Theme Park Characters Aren't Allowed to Say
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images

The 14 Disney theme parks located around the world attract so many attendees each year that the company recently decided to increase admission for peak times by 20 percent to help decrease crowd congestion. Anaheim’s Disneyland is such a popular tourist attraction that some days the park is actually at capacity.

What keeps visitors packed in like sardines? The promise of a suspended reality—one that treats the various Disney characters as though they had just stepped out of a movie. There’s a laundry list of employee policies to help sustain that illusion, and Travel + Leisure recently uncovered one of the most interesting ones: Actors dressed as Disney characters are never allowed to say “I don’t know” to guests.

The motivation is understandable: Disney never wants people to feel as though they need to wander around looking for information. If they pose a question to, say, a Disney Princess, the actor is expected to communicate with other employees or areas of the park in order to find the answer. If Elsa doesn't know where the nearest restroom is, she's tasked with finding out before your kid's bladder gives up.

If a guest is looking for general directions, there’s also protocol for how to point. Performers are not allowed to use their index finger by itself. Instead, they use it in conjunction with their middle finger. In addition to index finger-pointing being considered rude in some cultures, legend has it that the gesture was partly inspired by Walt Disney himself, who once roamed the park grounds pointing at structures with two fingers that pinched a cigarette.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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