Originally hosted by Walt Disney himself, the series presented animated cartoons and other material (some original, some pre-existing) from the studio library. The show even featured one-hour edits of such then-recent Disney films as Alice in Wonderland, and in other cases, telecasts of complete Disney films split into two or more one-hour episodes. Other studios feared television would cut into their revenue streams. However, Disney embraced television wholeheartedly, and Disneyland became the first successful TV production created by a movie studio. After its success, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros. produced their own anthology series to promote their respective studios, but none of them lasted very long.
The show spawned the Davy Crockett craze of 1955 with the miniseries about the historical American frontiersman, starring Fess Parker in the title role. Millions of dollars of merchandise were sold relating to the title character, and the theme song, "The Ballad of Davy Crockett", was a hit record that year. Three historically-based hour-long shows aired in late 1954/early 1955, and were followed up by two dramatized installments the following year. The TV episodes were edited into two theatrical films later on.
On July 17, 1955, the opening of Disneyland was covered on a live television special, Dateline: Disneyland, which is not technically considered to be part of the series. It was hosted by Walt along with Bob Cummings, Art Linkletter, Ronald Reagan, and featured various other guests.
In the fall of 1958, the series was re-titled Walt Disney Presents and moved to Friday nights, but by 1960, it switched to Sunday nights, where it would remain for twenty-one years.
1960s and 1970s
The series moved to NBC in September 1961 to take advantage of that network's ability to broadcast in color. In addition, Walt Disney's relationship with ABC had soured as the network resisted selling its stake in the theme park before doing so in 1960. In a display of foresight, Disney had filmed many of the earlier shows in color, so they were able to be repeated on NBC. To emphasize the new color feature, the series was re-dubbed Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color and retained that moniker until 1969. The first NBC episode even dealt with the principles of color, as explained by a new character named Ludwig Von Drake (voiced by Paul Frees), a bumbling professor and uncle of Donald Duck. Von Drake was the first Disney character created specifically for television. Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color title sequenceWalt Disney died on December 15, 1966. While the broadcast three days after his death had a memorial tribute from NBC news anchor Chet Huntley and film & TV star Dick Van Dyke, the intros Walt already filmed before his death continued to air for the rest of the season. After that, the studio decided that Walt's persona as host was such a key part of the show's appeal to viewers that the host segment was dropped. The series, retitled The Wonderful World of Disney in September 1969, continued to get solid ratings, often in the Top 20, until the mid-1970s. In 1976, Disney showed its hit 1961 film The Parent Trap on television for the first time, as a two-hour special. This was a major step in broadcasting for the studio, which had never shown one of its more popular films on television in a two-hour time slot (although they had shown their 1972 film Napoleon and Samantha as a two-hour TV program in 1975). A sightly edited version of the Disney classic 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea made its television debut as a two-hour special on NBC later that same year.
The show's continued ratings success in the post-Walt era came to an end in the 1975–1976 season. At this time, Walt Disney Productions was facing a decline in fortunes due to falling box-office revenues, while NBC as a whole was slipping in the ratings as well. The show became increasingly dependent on airings of live-action theatrical features (nothing from the Disney animated features canon aired except Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo), cartoon compilations, and reruns of older episodes, but in an era where cable TV was in its infancy and VCRs did not exist, this was the only way to see Disney material that was not re-released to theaters. Additionally, in 1975, when CBS regained the broadcast rights to The Wizard of Oz from NBC, it scheduled it opposite Disney for the first few years. At that time, the annual broadcast of that film was a highly-rated annual event which largely attracted the same family audience as this series. From 1968 to 1975, when NBC owned the rights to Oz, (which it had bought in 1967) it usually pre-empted Disney to show it. However, the show's stiffest weekly competition came from CBS's newsmagazine 60 Minutes.
In 1975, an amendment to the Prime Time Access Rule gave the Sunday 7:00 P.M. ET slot back to the networks, allowing NBC to move Disney back a half hour. It also allowed CBS to schedule 60 Minutes at 7:00 P.M. ET starting December 7; before it had been at 6:00 P.M. ET and did not begin its seasons until after the NFL football season ended. Disney fell out of the Top 30 while 60 Minutes saw its ratings rise exponentially. In September 1979, the studio agreed to the network's request for changes. The show shortened its name to Disney's Wonderful World, updated the opening sequence with a computer-generated logo and disco-flavored theme song, but kept the format largely the same. After comparing the ratings strength of 60 Minutes to the continuing problems of this show; low ratings, less and less original material, and frequent pre-emptions, NBC cancelled Disney in 1981.
CBS picked up the program in the fall of 1981 and moved it to Saturday night at 8:00 P.M. Despite another even more elaborate CGI credits sequence and yet another title — now simply Walt Disney — the format remained unchanged. It lasted two years there, its end coinciding with the birth of The Disney Channel on cable TV. While ratings were a factor, the final decision to end the show came from then-company CEO E. Cardon Walker, who felt that having both the show and the new channel active would cannibalize each other.
After the studio underwent a change in management, the series was revived on ABC as a two-hour program beginning February 2, 1986, under the title The Disney Sunday Movie (in the summer, the series was temporarily titled, "Disney's Summer Classics"), with new CEO Michael Eisner hosting. Eisner was not the first choice. Many names were considered including Julie Andrews, Dick Van Dyke, Cary Grant (who was asked but turned it down), Walter Cronkite, Roy E. Disney (who closely resembled his uncle), and even Mickey Mouse. Eisner was persuaded to do it. He was not a performer, but after making a test video with his wife Jane and a member of his executive team (which required multiple takes), the studio believed he could do it. He hired Michael Kay, a director of political commercials for then-U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, to help him improve his on-camera performance.
The Disney Sunday Movie offered more original programming and a larger selection of library films than the Disney program had in the last few years of its original run, including another animated canon entry, 1973's Robin Hood. However, it still faced heavy competition from CBS; not only from 60 Minutes but now from the top-rated Murder, She Wrote at 8:00 P.M. Eastern Time. In the fall of 1987, ABC cut the show down to an hour. It moved back to NBC in 1988 under the new title The Magical World of Disney, where the competition problems it faced on ABC remained unchanged. NBC cancelled the show in 1990, and the title was used as a Sunday night umbrella for movies and specials on The Disney Channel from then until 1996; Eisner continued to host. The old name of The Wonderful World of Disney was used throughout the early part of the decade on many network specials.
1990s and 2000s
The series was revived again on ABC in 1997 , two years after Disney purchased ABC. Once again called The Wonderful World of Disney, it ran on Sundays until 2003, when it moved to Saturday night; it continued in that time slot until 2008 (airing in the midseason of 2005–2006 and the summers of 2007 and 2008). Since 2005, Disney features have been split between ABC, NBC, the Hallmark Channel, ABC Family Channel, Disney Channel, and Cartoon Network via separate broadcast rights deals. The show aired during the television midseason and/or the summer as an anthology series similar to Hallmark Hall of Fame with features such as the 2005 made-for-TV movie version of Once Upon a Mattress or commercial TV broadcasts of various films. The series finale aired Wednesday 8:00 P.M. ET on December 24, 2008, with a presentation of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.