‘I’m Going to Disney World’: Inside One of the Most Iconic Commercials Ever Made

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It all started in 1987, with a game in Pasadena and a woman in suburban New Jersey

Diane Weis Photo
The "I'm going to Disney World!" ad captured at 1987 World Series (courtesy of Diane Weis)

On Sunday night, Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce shared a smooch on the field in Las Vegas. But Kelce’s teammate Patrick Mahomes still managed to score the most iconic post-game moment when he and his family were asked what they’re doing now that the Kansas City Chiefs had won the Super Bowl. His reply? “I’m going to Disney World!”

It’s a memorable phrase stretching back 37 years that immediately connotes a celebration and serves as savvy marketing for The Walt Disney Company and its parks division, which along with its cruise ships and resorts brings in more than one-third of the entertainment giant’s revenue. But the hastily created commercial campaign had humble beginnings and ended up being a needed spark in the late 1980s for Disney’s stale parks division.

Known internally as “What’s Next?,” the ads have become a staple of popular sports events but also have trickled into “American Idol,” and, in 1997, simply Christmas. For more than a decade, Disney has utilized them only for the Super Bowl, with the game’s MVP being asked the post-game question.

Nearly 40 years later it has evolved into a cultural artifact, endlessly quoted and instantly identifiable — just like the shape of mouse ears or the promise of a gleaming castle at the end of a turn-of-the-century Main Street.

The “going to Disney World” spot “might be the most iconic commercial ever made,” Mark Champion, who has voiced the question since the commercial’s inception in 1987, told an interviewer in 2022. It’s hard to argue.

Super Bowl ads are a critical marketing tool for companies, with 123.7 million viewers tuning in this year, a 7.47% bump from last year’s game, which also featured the Chiefs. Commercials have risen in cost from $600,000 for a 30-second spot in 1987, to $2.1 million in 2000, to $7 million this year.

In the wake of the latest Super Bowl, TheWrap took a trip down memory lane in recounting how the “What’s next?” commercial was launched.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away …

Michael and Jane Eisner
Michael and Jane Eisner in 2004 (Evan Agostini/Getty Images)

It all started with Jane, at a dinner.

On Jan. 9, 1987, the “Star Wars”-themed attraction Star Tours opened at Disneyland. At the ceremony, Michael Eisner, then the newly installed chairman and CEO of Disney, took a moment to introduce some pioneering pilots who had traveled around the world nonstop on the Rutan Voyager, including Dick Rutan, Jeana Yeager and Burt Rotan (who also designed the Voyager). In 1986, Rutan and Yeager became the first pilots to embark on a nine-day, non-stop, non-refueled around-the-world flight.

At a dinner before the event, Eisner sat with George Lucas, Disney president Frank Wells and others, as recounted in Eisner’s memoir “Work in Progress.” At some point during the dinner Jane Eisner, Michael’s wife, asked Rutan: “Now that you’ve flown around the world and done the most adventurous thing imaginable, what are you going to do next?” Rutan replied,“Well we’re going to Disneyland.”

Later, Jane pulled Michael aside and recounted the exchange. “This would make a great advertising campaign,” she told Eisner.

At the time Disney was desperately in need of some cool promotion.

The company had languished in the two decades since Walt Disney had passed away in 1966. Disney was paralyzed by indecision and creative indifference. When corporate raiders launched a greenmail attempt that would have carved Disney into pieces, the Disney board took action and installed Eisner and Wells, who injected much-needed enthusiasm and excitement into the moribund company.

NY Giants quarterback Phil Simms in a Disney ad in 1987

One of the big challenges they faced was how to breathe new life into the theme parks — older kids and teenagers thought that they simply weren’t cool. By 1987, an attempt to correct that perception was underway. A few months before Star Tours launched, “Captain EO,” a 3D movie starring Michael Jackson, opened at Disneyland. It became a sensation. And Eisner and Wells were in the process of transforming Walt Disney World into a vacation destination, with a new theme park, new water parks and a mixed-use shopping, dining and entertainment venue, exclusively for adults, called Pleasure Island.

The morning after the “Star Tours” dinner, according to Eisner, he called Tom Elrod, president of marketing and entertainment for Walt Disney Attractions. Elrod, in turn, called on Diane Weis, who was a writer and producer in the marketing department.

“I was told about this concept that Michael Eisner had told Tom about,” Weis remembered in a conversation with TheWrap. She recalled having about 10 days from getting the first call about the project in which to execute it.

Super Bowl XXI took place on Jan. 25, 1987, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Neil Diamond sang the national anthem and George Burns and Mickey Rooney entertained a captive audience during the halftime show.

The mad scramble

The Disney marketing team quickly went about trying to make the idea a reality.

Weis said that the business affairs unit went about contacting the teams, figuring out who the MVPs would be — in that year either New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms or Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway — and then offering them deals to appear in the commercial. “I said, ‘Wow that’s crazy and I want no part of it,’” Simms said in a documentary called “The Most Magical Story on Earth: 50 Years of Walt Disney World.” “My agent was just beating me over the head with it. And I said, ‘OK, just shut up, I’ll do it.’”

Disney paid Simms $75,000. (Fun fact: Simms was one of the commentators on this past Sunday’s game.) Disney hasn’t released numbers since but reports keep it in the same ballpark. Of course there is the additional perk of getting to go to Disney World (or Disneyland) and get treated like Disney royalty, appearing in a parade, having a Disney tour guide (or guides) assigned to you throughout the day and staying in one of the parks’ luxury hotels. Tom Brady, who has gotten to say the slogan multiple times, recounted on “The Most Magical Story on Earth”: “I brought my kids. Different teammates come for different times. Each time has been a really fun experience.”

The company recruited Mark Champion, a Detroit Pistons announcer, to provide the voice of the person questioning Simms, and used “When You Wish Upon a Star,” originally from Disney’s 1940 masterpiece “Pinocchio,” to set the stage.

Pam McKissick, Weis’ boss, led a team in Pasadena, with three cameras at the ready. Weis went, alone to New Jersey, near Simms’ home. They had wanted someone near Simms’ residence, which forced Weis to work out of a New Jersey television station, where she cut the ad in their edit bay.

“Somehow we had to get the tapes. And someone might have flown after the game to New Jersey to deliver the tapes of Phil doing the lines,” Weis remembered. “The main mission was that we had to basically take a football game and turn it into a Disney commercial.”

Weis had the raw materials — “When You Wish Upon a Star,” Champion’s lines, plus footage from the game and footage of the parks. There were also two-line readings from Simms — “I’m going to Disney World” and “I’m going to Disneyland.” “That’s really all I had to craft a 30-second commercial with those elements. And making it a Disney commercial with a Disney feel and making it a little magical,” Weis said.

disneyland
Disneyland (Getty Images)

Weis remembered working on the commercial all night and getting done the following morning. “You scramble as quickly as we could, because we knew that having that momentum of getting the commercial on the air as soon as possible after that event [was crucial],” Weis said.

As to why she chose the “Disney World” line reading, she doesn’t remember, except that the entire creative team for the commercial was based out of Orlando. (Weis claims that this was before the element of the MVP touring the parks the next day was added to the promotion, so geographical proximity wasn’t an issue. Eisner claims it happened in 1987, but he also erroneously claims that Simms said “Disneyland” instead of “Disney World.” Mahomes was in Disneyland on Monday.) 

Weis doesn’t remember the ad being an immediate hit but rather something that “took a while to catch on.” She also doesn’t recall if the ad sparked people to buy more tickets to Walt Disney World. But that didn’t stop them from trying to replicate the magic.

More wishes

After the ad aired in 1987, Weis got a call in her office. It was Michael Eisner. Or at least that is what her assistant, a known practical joker, told her. Weis didn’t believe her. But she finally picked up the phone and it was him. “He had called me to congratulate me and thanked me for working on the spot,” Weis said. “I was really touched.”

But there was no time to bask in the glory. There were more spots to be made. Three more “What’s next?” spots ultimately aired in 1987, taking place at the America’s Cup, NBA Finals (where Magic Johnson got to say the phrase) and the World Series.

The main mission was that we had to basically take a football game and turn it into a Disney commercial.

Diane Weis, former writer and producer at Disney

There was also an ad that was attempted but never actually finished — at the Belmont Stakes racing track. A horse (Alysheba) and jockey (Chris McCarron) were hotly tipped to win, and had already won two legs of the Triple Crown. “We had great access,” Weis said. “They were trying to make the racetrack more of a family venue, to get more families to attend races. They gave us great access everywhere and we got great footage. And they showed us where to set up our crew to capture the horse that was the odds-on favorite to win.” (That horse did not ultimately win.)

The Disney crew was actually blamed for the jockey (and horse) getting distracted, with the team from the race putting a stop to the commercial. “They kind of chased us off the race track,” Weis said. She never did find out what really happened.

By the time the World’s Series took place in October of 1987, Weis was in the trenches with the crew. The final game was in the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. Frank Viola of the Twins was the MVP.

“We ran on the field after the game, it was total chaos commotion, the noise was deafening,” Weis said. She was wearing a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt so she could be identified. Her small crew was her, a camera man and a sound guy. Viola said the “going to Disney World” line in the middle of the madness but Weis was worried that he couldn’t be heard. They got the footage but she asked him to stick around. They waited until everybody else had left the auditorium.

“Frank stayed after everybody left. And I asked him several times, just give us those lines,” Weis said. “And he gave us those lines, just the audio. And we went back to the edit bay, and miraculously one of those lines worked.”

In 1988, the Disney marketing team created five more ads. At the Super Bowl in 1988 the MVP was Doug Williams, the first Black quarterback in the history of the Super Bowl. “Some things you never forget,” said Williams in “The Most Magical Story on Earth.” “Saying ‘I’m going to Disney World’ was big time at that time. Real big.”

A lasting legacy

A couple of years after Weis made the ads, she met Disney Imagineer Bob Weis while he was working on what would become the Disney-MGM Theme Park in Walt Disney World and they married. Eventually he became the head of Walt Disney Imagineering. They had a family and then split up.

Now Weis has a short documentary, “To Myself, With Love, The Bessie Stringfield Story,” premiering next month in Palm Springs.

Part of her knows that the “Disney World” commercial will be something that she’ll always be remembered for. “I never imagined that this campaign could go on more than 30 years,” Weis said. “When I tell people that I created the format for this commercial and figured out how to make that work, people are impressed. Everybody knows about it.”

Even if the ad didn’t amount to a single extra ticket sold, the ad campaign crucially restored some of the cool credibility that Disney had been sorely lacking in the late 1980s. Top athletes saying they were headed to Disney World or Disneyland made people want to visit the parks.

Eisner, in his memoir, said that the ad “acquired a certain icon status.” He wrote that “world-famous athletes were suddenly eager to have the ‘What’s Next?’ ads on their résumés.” The campaign, the former Disney chief said, “has given our parks and the company enormous visibility, but it also has a subtle effect: powerfully identifying Disney with excitement and achievement, triumph and joy.”

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