Some of my favorite Christmas memories through the years involve watching the Walt Disney World Very Merry Christmas Parade on Christmas morning. We would get up and open all our presents, then head over to my grandparents' house to watch the parade with them until the rest of the family got there. Of course, we had set the VCR at home to tape the parade as well, just in case we missed some of it. Especially in the early days back before the internet, it was fun to see what all they had planned for the new year. For those of us that only got to go once a year, it was one of the few ways of finding out about the new stuff.
The parade first aired in 1983 on ABC. From the beginning, Joan Lunden was the host; Regis Philben joined in the next year as the man on the street. There was also a male co-host, which changed from year to year for a while. Those co-hosts included Mike Douglas, Bruce Jenner, Ben Vereen, and Alan Thicke. As Regis's popularity continued to climb, he was made the co-host in 1991, and he held that position for several years. For the first 10 years or more, the show was live, of course with "portions recorded earlier". They usually had some sort of tie-in to the big Disney holiday movie, and there were usually some big name musical guests. And as I mentioned before, there was a lot said about what you could expect on your next vacation to Walt Disney World.
Of course, the whole program was just one big two hour advertisement for Walt Disney World. And occasionally Disneyland, when they would highlight something going on in California. But it was all quite effective, at least for me. The show made me look forward even more to our upcoming trip, even though it was usually six months away. During almost every break was a commercial for the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Resort Area, which obviously enjoyed riding the coat-tails of Walt Disney World. They usually had a vacation guide that you could request.
There were several fun moments throughout the years. One involved Joan Lunden not knowing where co-host Alan Thicke was, only to have him turn up in a performance with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, who were appearing at the Disney-MGM Studios at the time. Another year featured a musical number with Kermit the Frog the Christmas before Jim Henson passed away, while Disney was negotiating to buy the Muppets. The 1990 broadcast featured a salute to the members of the Armed Forces stationed in Saudi Arabia at the time, including a special performance by Lee Greenwood. There was always something new to make you look forward to the show each year.
The show even received an Emmy one year for costume design. I thought that was a little interesting, because the costumes were really designed for the parade and not for the television show, but I know the designers were happy to receive the award. And it got the parade broadcast even more attention, because they could promote it as an Emmy winning show.
For a few years I had problems watching the parade. Our local ABC station chose to show a local church's Christmas pageant instead of the Walt Disney World parade. Some years, they showed the parade in the wee hours of the morning, some years not at all. This improved somewhat when that local station was bought by Fox and we got a new ABC afffiliate, which didn't have any other Christmas morning committments. Another thing that helped out was when my parents got their satellite dish up and running. With that, they could pick up the feed from Walt Disney World to the network. So if you found the feed on the satellite before the actual broadcast began, you could see Regis and Joan getting into their positions and chatting a bit before the show started. It was fun to see those candid moments. During the commercial breaks, you still got to see the commercials that were part of the feed, but just a black screen where the local affiliates could show their commercials.
In the late 1990s, they started experimenting with different formats for the parade. I guess they thought people might not want to see the parade year after year because of the similarities to previous years. But if you think about it, the Macy's Parade is quite similar from one year to the next, with most of the same floats and balloons as before. Regis and Joan no longer shared the hosting duties, which were instead taken over by different stars of ABC shows. One year, the parade even aired on Christmas night during prime time instead of the traditional Christmas morning slot. And these shows were no longer presented live. Announcer Dick Tufeld would instead say that the show was "Direct from the Walt Disney World Resort." To me, knowing that none of the show was live took away a little from its appeal. What also became obvious after a few years was that the parade footage was recycled. The only thing new were the host segments and the "What's new at Walt Disney World this year" segments.
But this year brings a new change. Returning as host is Regis Philben, along with his "Live with Regis and Kelly" co-host Kelly Ripa. They are also filming new footage of the parade for this year's show, and it has gone back to its Christmas morning time slot. You should check the listings of your local ABC affiliate, because some of them may choose not to show the parade, at least at the normal time. Hopefully, the parade broadcast will be back to its old glory this year. I know I'll make a point to set the VCR Christmas morning, and I will look forward to the time when everything settles down Christmas night, so that I can once again watch the Very Merry Christmas Parade.
- Story and Photo by Steve Burns
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