A spoonful of sitcom synergy: 25 years of the "Disney episode"

Family Matters' Disney episode, "We're Going To Disney World," aired April 28, 1995
Photo: ABC Photo Archive (Getty Images)

If you’ve watched sitcoms over the past 25 years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen a “Disney episode.” They all follow the same basic formula: A family (it’s always a family) is suddenly presented with an opportunity to go to Walt Disney World (it’s nearly always Walt Disney World). Maybe the uncle’s band is playing somewhere inside the Magic Kingdom. Perhaps their annoying neighbor has entered an inventor’s contest at EPCOT. Or maybe the kids’ teacher in dark magic conjures a field trip to Animal Kingdom, so they can learn to brew potion from the local fauna. Whatever the excuse, the characters are soon making a trek to Orlando, where they discover something about themselves while plunging down Splash Mountain or dodging wildlife on the Jungle Cruise.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Disney episode: NBC’s Blossom, produced by Walt Disney’s Touchstone Television, aired an episode set at Disneyland in February 1993. It was followed later that spring by ABC’s Full House taking the entire Tanner clan to Florida. These sweeps-month stunts kickstarted a long-running sitcom trend—one that AdWeek called a “rite of passage” when ABC’s Black-ish became the most recent to make the pilgrimage in 2016. However, it’s a rite of passage that’s far less common than it once was. Seven sitcoms visited one of the Disney parks between the years 1993-1998. Since the year 2000, only four have. While the tradition is still alive, whatever value the “Disney episode” once had has changed dramatically: the Happiest Place On Earth doesn’t create the same TV magic it once did.

Illustration for article titled A spoonful of sitcom synergy: 25 years of the "Disney episode"
Illustration: Myles McNutt

Although the Disney episode is commonly—and logically—understood through the lens of corporate synergy, that’s an oversimplification. While it’s true that Disney now owns ABC, it didn’t when Full House became the first “TGIF” sitcom to visit Walt Disney World in 1993. At that time, their promotional partnership was based on the huge family audience for ABC’s Friday night programming block, which created a mutually beneficial arrangement for the hit show and the Disney conglomerate. After Disney announced plans to acquire ABC, three more of the network’s shows visited in 1996—Boy Meets World, Roseanne, and Step By Step—though there wasn’t much in the way of overt cross-promotion. There, as always, the Disney episode was still predicated on connecting the company’s parks to TV for and about families. The synergy just made it easier to organize: According to the Orlando Sentinel, Roseanne pitched Disney World as a location because the writers knew it would be the easiest way to convince their network’s new owners to pay to let the crew film an episode on location.

Naturally, that synergy drew plenty of scrutiny. In 1997, The New York Times covered the growing Disney episode trend, asking, with the ring of accusation, “Has anybody noticed how many sitcoms have had episodes set at Disney World? And how lately they all seem to be on ABC, the network the Walt Disney Company announced its merger with in July 1995?” In response, ABC defensively noted that “Disney World has always used the medium of television to promote itself”—which is true. Disneyland itself was introduced to America through its partnership with ABC, where Walt Disney used his weekly anthology series to show off his Magic Kingdom to potential tourists.

But with the advent of the Disney episode, scripted shows were now being forced to contrive reasons for their characters to travel to Orlando, while also balancing the needs of the story with corporate expectations to highlight certain areas of the park. It’s no coincidence that Sabrina The Teenage Witch’s Disney episode is focused exclusively on Animal Kingdom: It actually filmed before Animal Kingdom had even opened to the public, airing only two days after its grand opening in April 1998. Especially when watched in succession, you can see how these certain, short-listed locations—like the restaurant in EPCOT’s The Living Seas, for example—are specifically highlighted across multiple series, in between the standard montages of character meet-and-greets.

Scenes from Full House and Boy Meets World, both set at the Coral Reef Restaurant at the Living Seas Pavilion at EPCOT.
Scenes from Full House and Boy Meets World, both set at the Coral Reef Restaurant at the Living Seas Pavilion at EPCOT.

Those post-merger ’90s Disney episodes are, on average, pretty weak episodes of television. Full House does a nice job of dividing story up among its characters, whether it’s Michelle’s “princess for a day” storyline, or Danny proposing to his girlfriend Vicky with a fireworks display at episode’s end. (There’s a reason why it’s the one Disney episode that I have distinct memories of from growing up.) But it proved to be a model other shows couldn’t repeat: Urkel’s trip to Disney World on Family Matters is a good excuse to delve into the fantasy of Laura’s relationship with his “Stefan Urquelle” alter ego, but the rest of the family has zero reason to be there except to roam the park. Boy Meets World is helped by only sending Cory, Shawn, and Topanga to the park, but it also weirdly isolates itself in EPCOT’s The Living Seas for much of its running time. (Disney must have been really worried about Sea World’s market share.) And the less said about the terrible Step By Step episodes the better.

“The House Meets The Mouse,” Full House, aired May 11, 1993
“The House Meets The Mouse,” Full House, aired May 11, 1993
Photo: ABC Photo Archives (Getty Images)

But for the most part, we don’t remember Disney episodes because they were particularly good. We remember them because, in shows with long runs and lots of episodes that tell variations on the same story, they have an undeniable novelty—one that few shows managed to translate into great comedy. Besides, for most of these sitcoms, quality was never really a concern. They drew all of their value from their huge, family audiences, and none from critical acclaim. When the St. Petersburg Times covered its Disney episode, it matter-of-factly called Full House “mawkish and predictable and no threat to ever win an Emmy.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s one word-preview was “So?” Variety, meanwhile, dismissively reviewed Family Matters’ trip to Disney in 1995, arguing it was full of “Kodak Moments that otherwise would have cost Disney millions of commercial dollars.” But Variety would have reviewed any episode of Family Matters—or any “TGIF” show—with the same disdain.

Today, ABC’s sitcoms are now aimed at an older demographic, and they’ve hence become more sophisticated in the stories they tell and how they tell them. “Novelty” is no longer as necessary. While it can be rewarding to see your favorite TV families enter the pages of sitcom history, it also feels like a detour from the show you actually love. During Modern Family’s trip to Disneyland in 2012, our own Donna Bowman found it charming, but also acknowledged how “the corporate synergy makes one’s eyes roll back into one’s head.” In her review of Black-ish’s trip to Disney World, LaToya Ferguson observed that “the special Black-ish that we’ve come to know certainly isn’t the first priority.” What were once special events welcomed by (mostly younger) audiences have become burdens in an era where we take these shows—and TV in general—more seriously.

The one ’90s show held to that standard was also the one that sat outside of “TGIF.” Roseanne was a critically acclaimed Emmy winner when it entered into the pantheon of Disney episodes in 1996; they have often been held up as a harbinger of the show completely falling off the rails in its final seasons, abandoning its focus on the working class to indulge in sitcom fantasies. But to its credit, Roseanne was one of the only shows to acknowledge that fantasy: When Dan gets extra vacation pay in his last check from the garage, he and Roseanne raise the possibility of paying off debts or saving money. Instead, they laugh at the very absurdity of fiscal responsibility, choosing to take the whole Conner clan to Disney World. And where other families teleported to Disney after the first commercial break, the Conners spend an entire episode scrapping their way there, even canceling other people’s flights to get the best deal. When they do arrive at Disney, we get the familiar marketing tropes—Dan races to EPCOT, the only park that served beer at the time—but actually depicting the hassles and financial realities of the journey was a big step away from synergy.

Modern Disney episodes have, similarly, done better work with the limitations of the format than most of their TGIF predecessors. Modern Family benefits from tapping into the characters’ histories and the distinct culture of Disneyland, which the Los Angeles-based Pritchetts would have visited more often due to growing up nearby. The Middle follows Roseanne’s example and has the working class family’s drive to Disney World take up an entire episode, after Sue wins the trip in a “Hands On A Hardbody” contest. They also realize at the gates that they’ve actually won a trip to Disneyland; they then have a disastrous day trying and failing to keep the vacation on the rails, before eventually finding a bit of that Disney magic. Of these, Black-ish suffers the most—but not because the episode is particularly bad. It’s just that the frivolity of a Disney episode is felt more acutely when it airs in the same year as an episode that confronts systemic racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

One of the other reasons we’re seeing fewer Disney episodes is that, despite assumptions, ABC doesn’t seem to be forcing them. Talking to AdWeek, Black-ish producer Jonathan Groff emphasized that it wasn’t “mandated,” but rather a “suggestion” the writers latched onto. Still, Disney exerts its control where it can: Groff himself admits that they’d originally planned on shooting at Disneyland—as the fellow, L.A.-set Modern Family did—but the plan changed when “Disney’s priorities as a corporation switched.” It stands to reason that, if these shows aren’t being forced to set episodes at Disney, they’re definitely not going to without a good story to tell. This might explain why even the Orlando-set Fresh Off The Boat has never made the pilgrimage. It makes sense that they’d rather spend their location money to travel to Taiwan.

The other unavoidable fact is that family sitcoms simply aren’t the hits they once were. In the ’90s, the Disney episode sold America on vacations by using sitcom families as a trojan horse, but that was when 27 million people were watching Full House, instead of the 6.4 million who watched Black-ish. From the days of The Wonderful World Of Disney, TV was also one of the few outlets Disney had to show off their parks. Today you can see take virtual rides on every attraction on YouTube, and flip through thousands of photos from Facebook friends. One of them texted me their Disney World photos as I was writing this piece.

Disney clearly knows this: at the same time as they’ve moved away from producing sitcom episodes at both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, they’ve doubled down on inviting social media influencers into the Parks, which is cheaper for the parks themselves and also a better way of reaching the young audiences who they were trying to influence with “TGIF” in the ’90s. And while Shay Carl and his family aren’t necessarily going to draw larger audiences than a show like Black-ish, YouTube family and kid vloggers have access to a sense of authenticity that sitcom families lack, making the parks seem that much more accessible for “average” people and not just television’s version of average people. They’ve even cut out the middle man with their own ABC/Disney Channel stars, including the young cast of Black-ish, bringing them to parks and filming them for the “Best Day Ever” YouTube Channel.

The result is that sitcoms are less inclined to sacrifice story to sell a Disney vacation, while a Disney-owned show might not want to spend millions to shoot on location, just to reach a much smaller audience. Given how few of those old Disney episodes actually hold up, and the middling quality of their more modern incarnation, it wouldn’t be a huge loss if there were never another Disney episode.

That said, there are still stories to be told in and about the Disney parks, if the right show wanted to tell them. I recently went to Disneyland for the first time, my first trip to a Disney park since I was 10. And while I saw all the things they often downplay on TV—the long lines, the claustrophobic journeys from one area to another, the cold you catch a few days later—amidst the undeniable Disney magic of it all, I also thought about how well a more socially conscious generation of ABC sitcoms could bring new perspectives to the Disney experience. What if Speechless explored how the parks are experienced by those with disabilities? Couldn’t Fresh Off The Boat have the Huangs take a trip into EPCOT to consider how Asian Americans respond to the World Showcase? Why can’t Black-ish have a conversation about Splash Mountain’s ties to the racism of Song Of The South?

The primary reason, of course, is that Disney—a company notoriously protective of its image—would likely never let these stories be told. (Just look at how it shelved a Black-ish episode that intersected with the debate over kneeling during the National Anthem in the NFL, which garnered plenty of speculation involving Disney’s corporate partner, ESPN.) However, if Disney no longer sees the TV sitcom as the best ad space for the most “Magical Place On Earth” to families, why not let it engage with some of the criticisms against the parks in a context where—this still being a family sitcom—everything has to work out in 30 minutes or less? Perhaps the next generation of Disney episodes could be about the perseverance of Disney magic in spite of these challenges—much as ABC’s sitcoms have evolved to be about the perseverance of family despite the challenges of life in America.

Contributor, A.V. Club, and Assistant Professor of Communication at Old Dominion University.