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When Walt Disney first conceived of the idea that would eventually become Disneyland, much of his desire to build his own amusement park location was born from the fact that he was largely unhappy with the offerings of the day. Simple "kiddie rides" were only fun for children, and mom and dad had little to do. Carnivals and circuses tended to be dirty and frequently brought in a bad element. Adults tended to drink a lot because, in Walt's opinion, there wasn't much else for them to do. Disneyland was designed to be the antidote to all of that, which is why it may surprise you to learn that at one time, Disneyland actually had its own complete circus within.
The Mickey Mouse Club Circus began on November 24, 1955, just a few months after the park opened. The big top was in the corner of Fantasyland, near Autopia. It was a full-fledged circus with animal and human acts, including members of the Mickey Mouse Club, which was a popular show at the time. That made the circus a place where guests could see some of their favorite TV stars. It was promoted as being the largest striped tent ever constructed, with three rings of entertainment inside. Disneyland plus a circus might seem like an obvious combination, but this one was... not a massive success.
Why A Circus?
Walt Disney did have his issues with the circus, but he was still a fan. While he thought most modern circuses had issues, Walt was always a believer that he could do things better, so creating the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was about doing things his way; the better way. Also, it should be said that as mentioned, this was early in the days of Disneyland, and so a lot of what we're familiar with today wasn't built yet. So the space where the circus tent was put up was largely unused at this point in Disneyland's life. Walt didn't want to waste the space, and the circus was one way to fill all of it.
To be sure, the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was more than just a circus. It began as a parade on Main Street U.S.A. that started near the entrance to Disneyland and ended at the circus tent. Elephants walked down the street. Several Mousekateers would be there to wave at guests. Acrobats and clowns would be on hand. The idea was, of course, that the crowd would follow the parade into the tent to watch the show. Reportedly up to 2,000 people could be housed inside the massive tent, though it was rarely, if ever, full.
What Was In The Mickey Mouse Club Circus?
As much as Disney might have tried to put its own spin on the circus, this largely didn't work. The circus itself looked like most other circuses of its days, and featuredn trapeze acts, clowns, lions and a lion tamer. If you've been to any circus, you know the score. The only real "plus" to it all was the inclusion of Disney personalities. Jimmy Dodd, the MC of the popular Mickey Mouse Club TV show, as well as the writer of the iconic "Mickey Mouse Club March," was the Ringmaster for the circus, and he would introduce the various acts. Several members of the Mickey Mouse Club would also appear, including fan-favorite Annette Funicello.
Also, because the circus was around starting in late November, it had a Christmas theme. Santa Claus was part of the parade and the Ringmaster would lead guests in the singing of Christmas carols, which I'm sure was fun enough. But if you're picking up on a theme here, while the circus certainly had elements that people enjoyed, there just wasn't the "wow" factor attached to it that we normally associate with Disney. There was so much outside the tent that people had never seen before that the circus, which they had seen before, simply wasn't that impressive. Sitting for the extended circus show just wasn't a priority.
Problems With The Mickey Mouse Club Circus
In addition to the circus simply not being a "plus" attraction, it had a share of its own issues related to being a circus. Part of the reason Walt may have been so into the idea of the circus was that he really wanted to include live animals in the park. Originally, the Jungle Cruise was going to use real, not animatronic animals. Unfortunately, live animals are difficult to manage, something that the circus quickly discovered. There are stories about llamas getting loose during the parade and running off, as well as, of course, spitting on guests. There was also fighting inside the cages. The human performers didn't fair much better. Apparently, the clowns, much like the clowns in Dumbo, apparently had a tendency to get intoxicated and even walk around in very little clothing backstage, which was all the more of an issue since since the kids of the Mickey Mouse Club were hanging around in the same area.
The original run of the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was only planned for six weeks, but certainly if the circus had been a hit, it would have stayed around longer. But that didn't happen. The Mickey Mouse Club circus ended its run in early January 1956, never to be seen again. As such, it ranks among Disneyland's earliest flops. Even at its opening, Disneyland was largely a success, and it's always been a place where new ideas and attractions steal the imagination away. This was not one of those times.
In the end, the big top would come down and a second Autopia track would be built, with a focus on younger drivers, with the hope it would help reduce the line at the main attraction, which had proven quite popular. The various elements of the circus would find new homes elsewhere, many of them still exist, but for the most part few remember that the Mickey Mouse Club Circus was ever a thing. And even fewer probably actually saw it.