Later this month, Disney theme parks in Florida and California will shut down "Playhouse Disney — Live on Stage," a 22-minute minute puppet show that has been performing for nine years. Workers will remove some characters, add new ones, repaint marquees and redo stage backdrops.
The repackaged show will reopen in March under a new moniker: "Disney Junior — Live on Stage."
The makeover, which will occur simultaneously in Disney'sHollywood Studios and Disney California Adventure, is designed to buttress a new Walt Disney Co. television channel aimed squarely at pre-school-aged children. Dubbed "Disney Junior," it will begin in February as a block of programming on the Disney Channelbefore becoming a standalone cable-TV channel early next year.
With the move, Disney is aiming to get its characters in front of children at an earlier age than ever — and establish a brand affinity for life. The new network's slogan: "Where the Magic begins."
"For many kids, it [Disney Junior] will be their first experience with Disney," said Adam Sanderson, senior vice president of brand marketing for Disney Channels Worldwide. "It's very valuable from a company perspective. But it's also something that parents grew up with and want to share with their kids."
But Disney theme-park managers say Live on Stage, which is often overlooked by visitors with older children or without any at all, does far more than provide cross promotion for the company's media networks. Live on Stage consistently ranks among the most popular of any Disney attraction for parents traveling with preschoolers.
That makes it a crucial lure for Walt Disney World, which knows that one of the biggest barriers to family travel is parents who fear their children are too young to enjoy a theme park. And that makes it doubly valuable to Disney's Hollywood Studios, a park that earlier this decade became best known for a pair of thrill-rides — Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster — that young children couldn't ride.
Disney has been attempting to broaden the park's appeal to families in recent years, with both big-ticket additions (Toy Story Mania!) and smaller tweaks (incorporating the cartoon characters Phineas and Ferb into this year's version of Osborne Family holiday-lights display).
"You have to have something offered for those younger children," said Rilous Carter, the Disney World vice president in charge of Hollywood Studios.
Underscoring Live on Stage's importance: It is typically performed 10 times a day, more than any other live show in Disney World's four theme parks. The theater holds about 600 people at a time. Disney is also weighing plans to introduce Spanish-language versions of the show.
Live on Stage was clearly designed with young children in mind. Visitors sit on the floor, ensuring kids — who are encouraged to stand, jump and dance during the performance — are at eye level with their parents.
The central device is an oversized storybook in which new characters appear every time the page is flipped. That has allowed Disney to swap out characters several times over the years as new television programs become popular. The current edition — which features characters from " Mickey Mouse Clubhouse," "Handy Manny," "Little Einsteins" and "My Friend Pooh" — has been performing for just under two years.
Disney will take advantage of that flexibility again with its latest changes, which will include scrubbing Winnie the Pooh from the show. Pooh is also being removed from Disney's television lineup, as the company clears the decks for a big-screen movie featuring the honey-loving bear that will reach theaters this summer.
In his place, the new Disney Junior version of Live of Stage will incorporate characters from "Jake and the Never Land Pirates," a new program created for Disney Junior's launch. That show, which will follow a group of kids who meet Captain Hook, is a way for Disney to extend its multibillion-dollar pirates franchise to a new audience.
"Everybody wants to be a pirate," Carter said.
Elsewhere in Disney's theme parks, references to Playhouse Disney will also be erased in favor of Disney Junior. Among the locations that will be made over: The Play 'N' Dine in the Hollywood & Vine restaurant, a buffet restaurant where guests currently eat amidst the Playhouse Disney characters.
Disney television executives are banking on the theme-park attractions to help cement Disney Junior in children's minds. The company says that, once Disney Junior replaces the SOAPnet channel next year, it will be available in 75 million homes.
"We felt it was really important for kids to be able to come to the parks and be able to experience these characters up front and personal," Sanderson said.