10 Facts About the Country Bear Christmas Special
Last week, we took a loving look back at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, one of the most beloved holiday attractions in Walt Disney World’s long history. But those dancing lights aren’t the only treasured holiday memory from Christmases Past.
While it does not seem to command the same degree of nostalgia as the Osborne lights, the Country Bear Christmas Special was a vital part of holidays in the Magic Kingdom for over two decades, opening in November of 1984 and running until 2005.
But how did it come to be? And why? And who’s that big, hairy baby with the deep voice? Don’t worry. All your questions will be answered.
Who was that man? I want to shake his hand…
So, who exactly do we have to thank for getting the Country Bears into the holiday spirit? Two men as it turns out. In the Winter 1985 issue of Disney Magazine, author Betsy Richman wrote about the show, which had debuted the previous year.
In the article, Michael Sprout, show designer at WED Enterprises (now Imagineering), stated, “The idea for Country Bear Christmas was the result of collaboration between Dave Feiten and myself…” Feiten was originally an “in-betweener” on Fox and the Hound, before moving to Imagineering to animate animatronics.
A cure for boredom
While that answers the “who” behind the show, it still leaves the burning question of, “Why?” Turns out the answer was pretty simple: Boredom. That’s right. Sprout and Feiten felt that the Bears were probably bored performing the same songs over and over.
In the same interview, Sprout stated, “We both really like Country Bear Jamboree, and talking about it one day, we decided that those poor bears must be getting tired of singing the same songs over and over. We decided to try our hand at developing a new show that would place the bears in an entirely different context.” Lucky for us, that context turned out to be both joyful and triumphant.
A Disney first
Holiday overlays have become a staple at Disney parks, whether it’s the Nightmare Before Christmas invading the Haunted Mansion in Disneyland, the Jingle Cruise, or even the holiday version of Living with the Land, it’s always a treat to see how our favorite attractions dress up for the season. But as it turns out, the first attraction to do so was the Country Bear Christmas Special.
Meet the newest member of the gang
The Christmas Special didn’t just provide Guests with a new show. It introduced an entirely new character to the Country Bear Jamboree family. The newest critter to join the party was a stage manager named Rufus. He was, as Disney magazine noted, “the behind-the-scenes “stage manager”…blamed by the bears throughout the show for any mishaps.”
Name that tune
For this holiday version of the Country Bears, our ursine friends sang a mix of classic and original Christmas songs. The complete playlist was as follows:
- Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas
- Tracks in the Snow
- 12 Days of Christmas (Oh What a Christmas)
- The Hibernating Blues
- Deck the Halls
- Rock and Roll Santa
- Blue Christmas
- Sleigh Ride
- Hungry as a Bear
- The Christmas Song
- Another New Year
- Let It Snow/Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer/Winter Wonderland
From Doodletown to Disney
For the original numbers (and for the Country Bear-ified versions of the classics) Sprout and Feiten worked with composer George Wilkins, who began his career as a backup singer for Patti Page and later co-founded the Doodletown Pipers. Disney fans likely know this Buddy Baker protege for his work on a wide variety of classic attractions like The Living Seas, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, Living With the Land, Horizons, and the swinging sounds of Sonny Eclipse.
Notify the tabloids!
Longtime Country Bear fans are likely aware that there is a bit of romance that is hinted at between Henry, our lovable MC, and Teddi Barra. But the new show added a wrinkle to their relationship by creating a love triangle. Trixie, best known for her plaintive wailing of Tears Will Be the Chasers for Your Wine, shamelessly flirts with Henry during her appearance in the Christmas Special, while Henry desperately tries to find an excuse to remove himself from the situation.
Who’s that baby???
Guests viewing the show might rightly wonder why the heck Big Al is dressed like a baby in the Christmas Special. Except he isn’t just any old baby. He’s dressed as Baby New Year. You’d be forgiven for not knowing this particular character, who is essentially just the personification of an idea. After all, he’s not nearly as well-known as Father Time, Mother Nature, or even Jack Frost.
In the United States, he became popularized as a symbol of the New Year in the Saturday Evening Post, which depicted him as a toddler dressed in a black top hat (though in Big Al’s case he wears a party hat). But he’s got ancient origins. In fact, in ancient Greece it was a tradition to display an infant in a basket at the start of the New Year. It took until 1984 for the character to reach its peak form: a rotund bear with a basso profundo voice who plays an out of tune guitar.
What could have been…
The story of the Country Bears is filled with tantalizing “what could have been…” moments. The most famous of these is the original concept which would have placed them in the never-realized Disney’s Mineral King Ski Resort. However, the success of the Christmas Special almost spawned a whole series of spin-offs. The Country Bear Vacation Hoedown premiered two years after the Christmas show, and plans were reportedly in place for a Valentine’s Day themed show as well as a Halloween themed program. Alas, it was never meant to be. We’ll just have to dream about seeing Big Al dressed up as Cupid.
A trip to Tokyo
While visitors to Disneyland and Walt Disney World can no longer see the Country Bear Christmas Special, Guests of Tokyo Disneyland can still view the program under the title of the Jingle Bell Jamboree in Westernland.
While it’s a bit of a trek, this die-hard fan has to admit that he’d make the journey just to hear his favorite bears wish him a merry Christmas.