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Volume 21 No. 30
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Dinner helps birth ‘I’m going to Disney World’

One of the most recognizable commercials in sports television history — “I’m going to Disney World!” — was developed from an offhand remark toward the end of a late-night group dinner.

 

For athletes, the spot became the television equivalent of being on a Wheaties box — it featured only the most famous sports stars after their biggest victories. For Michael Eisner, who developed the idea in 1987 when he ran Disney, the commercial is one of the things he remembers most fondly about his career, he said.

Eisner credits his wife, Jane, with coming up with the idea during the grand opening of the “Star Tours” attraction at Disneyland in January 1987. Eisner and his wife sat with Dick Rutan and Jeana Yeager, pilots who were the first to fly around the world without stopping.

“It was one of those dinners that starts at 10 p.m., and the food doesn’t get there until 11,” Eisner recalled. “You’re sitting there, you can’t keep your eyes open. All you really want is to go home.”

At one point during the meal, Eisner leaned over to Rutan and said, “You had this unbelievable success, what can you possibly do next?”

Eisner credits his wife Jane, shown in 1987, for the popular slogan.
Photo: getty images

Rutan responded, “Well, I’m going to Disneyland.”

That’s when Eisner’s wife piped in, “That’s a good slogan.”

Eisner agreed. The next day he called Tom Elrod, who headed up marketing for Walt Disney World, and set a goal to have a commercial ready for the Super Bowl, which was going to be held at the Rose Bowl in about two weeks. The commercial would have a star player from the winning team say on camera, “I’m going to Disneyland!” and “I’m going to Disney World!”

Disney would then cut two commercials so that viewers in Eastern time zones would hear “I’m going to Disney World,” which is in Orlando, and viewers in the West would hear “I’m going to Disneyland,” which is in Anaheim.

“It had to be exactly at the moment that they won,” Eisner said. “It couldn’t be the next day.”

Eisner called NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who bought into the idea almost immediately and cut a deal to allow Disney to have a cameraman and crew on the sideline.

“We were the first ones into the bedlam,” Eisner said.

Other Disney executives called the two Super Bowl teams, the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, to get them on board. They also spoke with the agents of top players before the game to make sure the players were willing to say the phrase on camera. The player picked to say “I’m going to Disney World” — in 1987, it was Giants quarterback Phil Simms — was paid $75,000, according to press reports at the time. Disney only approached players who were willing to cooperate.

Eisner watched the game from his home. Elrod and his staff were at the game. It was in the age before cell phones, so Elrod and Eisner had to communicate via a landline at the stadium. They started talking in the fourth quarter about which athlete they should pick.

“If a field goal won the game in the last second, we would change, but usually we knew by five minutes before the end because we had to get set up,” he said. “We tried to pick the most theatrical. We didn’t have any criteria. … We didn’t care whether they were the most valuable player. We just picked the player we wanted. I would say 80 percent of them were the MVP.”

The commercials still run today — Philadelphia quarterback Nick Foles played the part after this year’s Super Bowl.