I like to refer to my early twenties as my Billy Peltzer phase. Like the protagonist of Gremlins, I felt stuck in an unfulfilling job, still living at home, bereft of any significant social engagement and lacking the confidence to plot my way toward something bigger or better in life.
But I had the Disney Channel. In the absence of a Mogwai to make life meanginful, my raison d'être in those days was the nightly Vault Disney broadcast, consisting of one of the hundreds of one-hour TV programs Disney had produced in the (at that point) almost 50 years it had held a regular presence on American networks. At the time, episode details were scarce for archival shows like Vault Disney; none of the TV programming guides offered individual breakdowns for each episode, so I had no way of knowing in advance what kind of material might air on any given night—whether it would be Fess Parker playing Davey Crockett in one of the seemingly infinite number of frontier adventures Disney had filmed in the fifties, a collection of animated clips created to push one the company's dozens of theatrical features, or—if the satellites aligned—a vintage theme park special.
Since the very start of Disney's TV output in 1954, its prime-time specials had periodically featured activities in Disneyland (and, later, Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Center parks), but in my Peltzer days, a relatively early period in the life of the internet, there was no publicly available catalog of these programs. I had no idea how many such fabled shows existed, or when one of them might air on Vault Disney. To further complicate things, Vault Disney only aired weeknights around 1 a.m. CST, a rather inconvenient timeslot given the insane 5 a.m. start to my day. So, each night before going to bed I would set the VCR with the hope that Disney's cycling scheduled would feed it after midnight and I might wake up to find the blank tape transformed into something wonderful akin to Disneyland After Dark or The Mousketeers at Walt Disney World.
That happened infrequently enough to make the whole practice seem futile, in retrospect, but the rare occasions that this video metamorphosis did deliver a relic of the theme park past more than compensated my efforts—perhaps no more so than the day it brought 1978's Christmas at Walt Disney World into my life.
Produced post-energy crisis but pre-EPCOT Center construction, Christmas at Walt Disney World sits at a strange point along the Florida resort's timeline, and that of American culture in general, as evidenced by the absurdity that makes up these 50 bizarre minutes of television. The peculiarity peaks, for me, early in the special. Sandwiched between a handful of impossibly weird skits staring international miming superstars Shields and Yarnell (including one in which the duo portrays a pair of babies sucking on each other's thumbs) is a glorious and decidedly un-yuletidey music video set among what was then an island zoological park and the large lake surrounding it.
With no particular outlet (and no knowing whether the special would ever reach a wider audience than other obsessors of theme park obscurities), I've had to confine my enthusiasm for Christmas at Walt Disney World to myself for nearly two decades. But thanks to old internet pal, Orlando resident, and fellow podcaster Mike Westfall, that stretch has finally come to end.
This holiday season Mike was gracious enough to invite my Hourchive co-host Drew and me onto his show, the Advent Calendar House (“a salute to all holiday specials, but mostly the Christmas ones”) with the sole purpose of trying to make sense of Christmas at Walt Disney World, and you can practically hear the waters of Bay Lake bursting out of me.