Why Love the Country Bear Jamboree

Why Love the Country Bear Jamboree

If you’ve never seen The Country Bear Jamboree, it’s hard to explain why this modest attraction among massive experiences in Walt Disney World has such a beloved almost-cult following. If you’re one of the people who don’t get it, you’re not alone. There are others–even within Disney.

For instance, many Imagineers don’t get it. They went in with a knife and cut out over a fourth of the show a few years ago. They tried to make some of the bears more hip. It didn’t work. Still, the show is so good it survived despite it.

Certainly operations management doesn’t get it. Hours for the attraction begin an hour after opening and end earlier than park closing. And yet, prior to opening, you can find a crowd of people standing around, waiting to get in. And throughout the day, you can find lots of guests. It’s beloved. But why?

The bears gather together for the finale. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Here is my take on why this is such a beloved attraction.

1. Unique. The Country Bear Jamboree was the first attraction built in Florida that hadn’t been built in Disneyland. While originally designed for the Mineral King ski development, the show ended up in Florida when that project came to an end and when something was needed for Frontierland. Much of the promotional material during those early years played up on attractions unique to Walt Disney World such as the Hall of Presidents, the Mickey Mouse Revue, the resort nature of the property (in the iconic form of the monorail going through the Contemporary), and also the Country Bear Jamboree. Merchandise was created uniquely for the attraction to include plush, albums, and, I kid you not–paper dolls of the bears. In fact, I confess that as a kid, I created a stage with red curtains so I could showcase the bears. I would make my parents sit and watch while I changed out the bears, all the while listening to the album.

Trixie. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

2. Top of the Ticket Book. Up until Big Thunder Mountain, the biggest ticket item was The Country Bear Jamboree. It started as a D-ticket in the ticket book, but there was no E-ticket attraction in Frontierland at the time. When Rafts to Tom Sawyer Island was finally built, Country Bears was promoted to being an E-Ticket attraction. It remained so until Big Thunder Mountain was built in 1980.

A mid-1970’s ticket shows the arrival of Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. Diminished is the Mickey Mouse Revue.

Remember that there were advantages to this. First of all, there were always more E and D tickets than C, B, and A’s. Consequently, there was much more demand to use such a ticket. There was also greater perceived value. E-tickets were about 90 cents. D-tickets 75 cents. C-tickets 50 cents. B-tickets 25 cents and A-tickets were 10 cents. As an uninformed guest given that information, you’re going to think to yourself, “Well if I’m going to get my money’s worth, I better use up the E and D-tickets before I’m through with the day.”

As a contrast to that, The Mickey Mouse Revue never had the same demand as The Country Bear Jamboree, even though it had a far bigger theater to hold guests and, consequently, less of a queue. It was never top of the ticket in Fantasyland because it had to compete with both it’s a small world and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Later it was pushed to a D-ticket instead of an E, sealing its fate as not as important to see.

3. Location, Location, Location. In the early days, the Country Bear Jamboree was at the center and the edge of the frontier. Remember that Pirates of the Caribbean was not yet open, so guests were coming up from the Jungle Cruise landing or Tropical Serenade (both E-tickets) and coming right into the Country Bear Jamboree. Other than the Davy Crockett’s Canoes and eventually the Railroad station in Frontierland (which did not open when the park first did), there was simply nothing else to go visit. No Splash Mountain. No Thunder Mountain. So visiting The Country Bear Jamboree seemed like the thing to do while you were in Frontierland.

Entrance to Country Bear Jamboree. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

And then there’s Tomorrowland. Much of what we know as Tomorrowland did not open until 1975. Attractions such as the Carousel of Progress, the WEDway PeopleMover, Star Jets, and especially Space Mountain were not there on opening day. Only a few attractions existed, and there was constantly a lot of fencing around everything else–kind of like it looks in Fantasyland today. Once those attractions all opened, people naturally turned to the right and headed into Tomorrowland. But up until then, they turned left and headed toward Adventureland and then Frontierland. So that part of the park played much more prominently in the agenda of guests visiting the park.

4. A Technically Great Attraction. In 1971, the concept of audio-animatronics had reached its first decade. The technology had progressed significantly from the tiki birds and gods of Tiki Room which opened ten years earlier. And ten years later they were still far more sophisticated than anything you could find in a Chuck E. Cheese. Christopher Finch’s The Art of Disney summarized it well when it said:

“The Country Bear Jamboree is a more lighthearted affair [comparing it to the Hall of Presidents]. A dozen audio-animatronic bears put on a performance straight out of the Grand Ol’ Opry. The greatest success of the characters in the Bear Band (and this holds true of all audio-animatronic figures) is the skill with which their eyes have been programed. The audience’s attention is instinctively drawn to the eyes; if they were not convincingly naturalistic, the entire illusion would break down.”

This certainly plays out when you visit Tokyo Disneyland, the only other park that features this attraction. There they have two theaters offering a show that is both in English and Japanese. Check out this video of the Country Bear Vacation version. Note the quality of the animatronic movement.

5. Interactive. I didn’t grow up in Florida, but I saw the Country Bear Jamboree when it first opened at Disneyland in 1972. The memory of that experience came to me as I watched the show a couple of weeks ago at the Magic Kingdom. Guests were still clapping away as the Five Bear Rugs came forward with a musical number. I remembered how, as a child, I would try to get the audience to clap along. One person clapping can get the whole room clapping. Because I had the album, I sang along with the lyrics, though I found many doing the same when it came to Henry and Sammy’s rendition of the Ballad of Davy Crockett. The possibility of interacting with the show and the audience always made the show a “must do” for me.

Guests also love to interact with the bears as they walk around Frontierland. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

If you didn’t come to the Magic Kingdom in the 1970s, you might be confused as to why anyone would care about the Country Bear Jamboree. There are so many other things at the Magic Kingdom and throughout Walt Disney World that vie for your time. As the 50th anniversary approaches for not only Walt Disney World, but for this attraction, may I suggest that Imagineers should consider some of these factors that made the show great to begin with, and re-strengthen it, rather than diminishing its role. There is still much country music that could be enjoyed. Interactive technology provides all sorts of options that could be explored. Imagine the bears celebrating someone’s birthday or anniversary by calling out to them during the show. Bring back the holiday shows or add more, like for Halloween. And remember, guests would rather buy a plush version Baby Oscar or a Big Al than a Duffy, the Disney Bear, any day.

Merchandise offering Big Al has always had a following through the years. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Make the show unique–something you can’t get anywhere else–even at Walt Disney World. That’s what the Country Bear Jamboree was from the beginning.

J. Jeff Kober

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