Monday, August 31, 2015

The Story Behind Donald Duck and the 50 Real Ducks That Followed

By Keith Mahne



On  May 19, 1984, as Donald Duck celebrated his 50th birthday, Donald and a group of 50 live Peking ducks took a stroll through the Magic Kingdom. This was no easy feat getting 50 ducks to follow someone through a crowded theme park of all places. The backstory is just as exciting as watching the cute ducks follow Donald on that eventful day in 1984. Continue after the page break and I'll tell you all about it...









Those who were in the Magic Kingdom on the day Donald celebrated his 50th birthday remember the parade well. The main reason is that it featured Donald Duck being followed by 50 live Peking ducks. Each would waddle after Donald as if he was their Daddy. Adorable, right? This publicity stunt was the brainchild of longtime WDW PR guy Charlie Ridgway. When Charlie heard that Disney Corporate was planning a Company wide celebration of Donald Duck's 50th birthday for the Summer of 1984, he hatched this promotional scheme.

As Ridgway recently recounted...








"According to Charlie Cook, who was Disney World's bird guy, the only way that we could train the Peking ducks to perform this kind of behavior was if Donald was introduced to them at birth. Which is why we then arranged to have a cast member dressed as Donald Duck to be on hand at a Miami hatchery when these fuzzy little ducklings initially hatched out of their shells.

Then, to further re-enforce the bonding between these live ducklings and the costumed Donald Duck character, when these animals were finally moved on property in the early Spring of 1984, they were always fed by a cast member wearing the Donald Duck walk-around costume. Which is why these ducks then began to associate the costume with the reward of food."








Of course, when dealing with live animals not everything will go as planned. During the Donald Duck 50th birthday publicity stunt, Charlie still regrets his decision to bring Donald and all 50 of those Peking ducks up to Cinderella Castle for a photo op...








Charlie remembers...

"We had made this giant birthday cake out of frozen corn that the ducks were supposed to nibble at. But as soon as those ducks saw the water in that moat around the Hub, that was all she wrote. It took us hours to collect them all up again, fish them out of the water."

This episode taught the folks at Walt Disney World that, no matter how well an animal may have been trained, its natural instincts are eventually going to kick in. After that initial photo op of those live ducks following a costumed version of Donald up Main Street, U.S.A...








... the parade operations team opted to go  for a far more manageable solution. Which would still allow the public to get a peek at these 50 Peking ducks over the course of Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration parade. At the same time, it also gave these fowls far fewer opportunities, as this parade rolled around the Hub and/or past the Rivers of America, to take like a duck to water.









You may be wondering, "What became of all those ducks after Donald Duck's 50th birthday celebration was wrapped up?" Once this special promotional event was complete in August of 1984, the Peking ducks were broken up into pairs and donated to zoos all over the country. Although I'm sure they enjoy their new humble abodes, they will always miss their daddy Donald Duck and that one time they were able to swim in the Cinderella Castle moat. You have to admit though, this sure was one of the cutest darn publicity stunts Disney had ever pulled off...









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Keith Michael Mahne is the owner and editor of Disney Avenue and the host of the Disney Avenue Podcast. He has made countless trips to the Walt Disney World resort since his first trip in 1989 at the age of four. Keith has a strong passion and respect for Walt Disney, the parks and resorts, and the men and women who help create them. He started Disney Avenue as a way to inform and entertain readers and to repay all those who make dreams come true every day.


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