We love our champions and their championships, whether it is a National Title, a Super Bowl, a World Series, or Gold Medals. And for a number of years the MVPs of these games were ask one question, “What are you going to do next?” The athletes’ famous answers are now common knowledge, but how the phenomenon started is the topic of today’s Back Issues, from the Fall 1989 issue of Disney News, written by Libby Slate.
One evening in early January, 1987, during the opening festivities for Star Tours at Disneyland, The Walt Disney Company Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner and his wife Jane were dining with Jeanna Yeager and Dick Rutan, the history-making crew of “Voyager,” the first aircraft to circumnavigate the globe on a single fuel load.
“You’ve fulfilled your dream,” said Jane Eisner, “what are you going to do next?”
“Well,” Yeager replied, “we’re here at Disneyland.”
What a great idea for a commercial, Jane Eisner later told her husband – and thus was born one of the most popular, talked-about marketing campaigns the Disney Theme Parks have ever devised.
Known in Disney parlance as the “Champions” or “What’s Next?” commercials, each spot features a montage of the key moments experienced by a person who has just accomplished something extraordinary – such as winning an Olympic Gold Medal, the World Series or Miss America – underscored by the Disney signature song, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” An offscreen announcer recounts this achievement, then asks, “What are you going to do next?” The person, still heady with the first flush of victory, exults “I’m going to Disneyland!” or “I’m going to Walt Disney World!”
The first commercial, filmed less than three weeks after that fateful Disneyland dinner conversation, spotlighted New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms, the Most Valuable Player of the 1987 Super Bowl. Other stars that first year included American Cup winner Dennis Conner, NBA World Championship MVP Magic Johnson, and World Series MVP Frank Viola of the Minnesota Twins.
On the 1988 roster were Super Bowl MVP Doug Williams of the Washington Redskins, Olympic Figure Skating Champion Brian Boitano, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, fresh from the Lakers’ back-to-back World Championship win, and Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Orel Hershiser, MVP of the World Series. The first commercial of 1989 featured Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, the winning Super Bowl quarterback.
The commercials were initially produced only by Walt Disney World, with Disneyland becoming involved for the first time in the summer of 1987 with the only fictional character yet spotlighted – Snow White. That was followed with the athletes from the Winter Olympics of 1988.
The Theme Parks’ advertising staff members who write and produce the spots say that with each one they try to tell a story, focusing on whatever aspect makes that particular accomplishment unique. Boitano’s commercial showed his emotional roller coaster of anxiety and anticipation, performance highlights and the payoff of winning. Abdul-Jabbar’s spot expressed the feeling of “This guy’s been around a long time and he’s still amazing to watch.”
Why have most commercial stars been athletes? Because, staffers say, there is probably nothing, other than politics and religion, that so arouses people’s passions. The Super Bowl, for instance, is one of the most highly viewed programs in the world.
The simplicity of the commercials’ premise belies the amount of offscreen preparation and teamwork involved from conception to airing. First, the subject must be selected. Certain subjects are obvious, such as the MVPs of major sporting championships. For the Olympics, where there are literally hundreds of athletes from which to choose, the creative staff considered the sports which get the most attention; from those, they then chose the sports in which Americans were favored; finally, they narrowed it down to specific athletes within the most likely sports.
After obtaining the contender’s agreement to do the spot, the logistics of actually filming the commercial are worked out.
As close as possible to the event, Disney personnel meet with the athlete (when available), trainer, coach, and representatives to outline filming specifics. However, when it comes time to actually make the commercial, the nature of live sporting events may dictate hasty improvisation rather than those carefully detailed plans. At the 1987 World Series, for example, What Disney World producers did not know who would be named MVP until the eighth inning of the final game.
After filming, the commercial is edited and on the air within 24 hours; the record is a mere seven hours that elapsed between the Lakers’ 1988 win and the Abdul-Jabbar commercial’s first airing on “The Today Show.” Each spot runs only five to seven days, so as to retain its immediacy.
And what do the “Champions” think of their experience?
“The point of filming was at a wonderful moment for me professionally, and it was a pleasure to share it with Disney,” says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “It was funny, because it was such an emotional moment… and then it was all over so fast!”
When he is in public, the basketball star adds, people often call out, “How was Disneyland?”
The same holds true for Brain Boitano, who visited Walt Disney World last summer with his father, sister, and two young nieces. “Everyone on the street asks me, ‘Have you gone to Walt Disney World? Have you gone to Disneyland?’” he says. “I had a blast when we went. We went everywhere you could possibly go. I was Grand Marshall of the daily parade, then went to watch the rest of it. At the end, Tigger, who was on a surfboard, saw me and struck the same pose I’d closed with in my Olympic program.
“I’d never done a commercial before,” he continues, “… being affiliated with Disney is the best thing I could have done, when you see what they do for children and adults.”
Clearly the commercials have accomplished their goal: to bring recognition and exposure to the Disney Theme Parks. They have even been imitated – by David Letterman, in commercials, on the soap opera “Santa Barbara.” And one souvenir of this year’s Presidential inauguration was a T-shirt with a photo of a smiling, newly elected George Bush and the words, “I’m going to Disney World!”
(Ironically, an incident during an earlier Presidential campaign was an inadvertent precursor to the “What’s Next” commercials. Back in 1960, when Lyndon Baines Johnson learned, while watching television, that he had lost the Democratic nomination to John F. Kennedy, he switched off the set and said to his family, “Well, that’s that. Tomorrow we can do something we really want to do – go to Disneyland, maybe.”)
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but perhaps Brain Boitano’s equally sincere admiration says it best. “This was the best endorsement I could make,” he declares. “It’s not even an endorsement; it’s a belief. A Belief in Disney.”