Search This Blog


favourite Posts


WCW's Summer at Disney World in 1996

Growing up, my parents took us to Disney World quite a few times.  When we returned to the hotel each night, Dad and I would study the park maps and flip through the guidebooks before bed to plan our next day.  I fell in love with the park's "Disney Magic" at a young age and still jump at any chance to spend time in The Magic Kingdom.  

I also began following professional wrestling at a very early age when I first saw NWA wrestling on television on Saturday night in 1989 or 90.   The National Wrestling Alliance eventually morphed into World Championship Wrestling, and during the mid-90s, I noticed they began filming shows at Disney World!  

Could this be?  Two of my favorite things coming together?  How exciting!

In early 2023, wrestling fans and "journalists" spent much time speculating that The Walt Disney Company might purchase the global wrestling promotion World Wrestling Entertainment.  Today, we know that in April of 2023, Endeavor (the owner of UFC) purchased the WWE.  However, it's still speculated that Disney might buy the rights to air WWE's television programming for one of their many television networks or streaming platforms. 

Many of the younger fans today are surprised to learn that this wouldn't be Disney's first foray into the world of professional wrestling.

Back in early 1989, Disney celebrated the opening of Disney's MGM Studios at Walt Disney World.  It was intended to be Disney's response to the soon-to-be opening Universal Studios just minutes down Interstate 4 in Orlando, Florida.  The Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, was world-renowned for being a part of Univeral Pictures' actual working movie studio, giving visitors a glimpse of film and television shows in the middle of production. 

Meanwhile, at the same time, World Championship Wrestling was declining in popularity and failing financially.  It was amid a corporate change, moving from a small regional southern promotion to a worldwide company owned by media mogul Ted Turner.  WCW would begin using big-name stars and began touring nationwide in an attempt to compete against the World Wrestling Federation (WWF).

Eric Bischoff, a young third-string television announcer for WCW, had bright ideas about how to give the company's wrestling shows a modern and mainstream appeal.  In 1993, after several different failed leaders, Turner made Eric Bischoff the new Executive Vice President of Wrestling Operations.  Eric quickly began forming the company into his ideal image.  Nearly immediately, he stopped using the half-empty, dark, and dilapidated southern arenas previously used to film their weekly television program.  

Bischoff wanted to move the operation to a controlled environment with the ability to have much better production values.  The controlled environment he desired included a controlled studio audience who would boo or cheer on command for whomever WCW management wanted.  

Disney's brand-new MGM Studios was the perfect fit for WCW at the time.  The theme park sought "real" television productions to film on their lot to legitimize their new studio, and WCW needed a new home.  

One major aspect of this new studio arena that many fans still remember was that the ring was placed higher than normal on a rotating platform.  This provided better camera angles and gave the studio audience a unique 360-degree view of the action.

On July 7, 1993, WCW and Walt Disney World opened its doors to theme park guests when the first syndicated show, WCW Worldwide, was filmed.  The crowd consisted of theme park guests who were mostly non-wrestling fans.  They were told by producers who the "good guy" and "bad guy" were and then told when to cheer or boo.  These folks saw Champions and superstars like Ricky "The Dragon" Steamboat, Arn Anderson, and "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair.  Ironically, Flair had spent his career comparing himself to the iconic Disney attraction "Space Mountain."  He's the oldest ride with the longest line, after all!

As a bit of trivia, the first match taped at Disney World featured my own personal favorite wrestler of all time, Sting.  Sting was still in his bright neon-colored "Surfer" Sting persona at the time (also my favorite.)  Sting teamed with The British Bulldog" Davey Boy Smith to defeat "Beautiful" Bobby Eaton and Chris Benoit. 

From 1993 to 1996, WCW developed a deeper relationship with Walt Disney World and began taping other shows on the MGM Studio's lot, such as WCW Pro and WCW Prime.  For these syndicated tapings, the crowds present were most often tourists given free passes, merchandise, or souvenirs to attend the tapings.  Disney treated the wrestling show like one of the other park attractions, making the audience's participation an exciting way to spend an hour or so at the theme park.  

Occasionally, die-hard wrestling fans would find their way into the tapings, but WCW went to great lengths to limit the number that did.  Many wrestling fans knew the match results were pre-determined, although the producers behind the scenes had always gone to great lengths to not reveal this to their audience.  Filming at Disney practically threw away this tradition, as the shows were taped weeks and even months in advance, often exposing future storylines, resulting in wrestlers having to appear with championships or different gimmicks (characters) weeks or months before they would happen on television.  Some wrestling fans were inclined to leak the results to wrestling newsletters or on the message boards during the early days of the internet.  This resulted in fans nationwide knowing WCW's booking plans months in advance, removing the surprise for any potential matches in the future that could sell tickets of pay-per-view orders.  

One of the more pivotal moments in my wrestling fandom was on June 11, 1994.  Hulk Hogan signed a groundbreaking contract to wrestle for WCW after years of making his name in competitor WWF.  A parade and ceremony, hosted by the late great Gene Okerlund, was held at Disney-MGM Studios on New York Street.  I was enthralled by the sight of Hulk Hogan joining my favorite wrestling company at one of my favorite places on earth.  Only years later did I learn the whole thing was fake.  It was a scripted event filled with extras and employees posing as fans and was only filmed for a scene for the weekly wrestling show.  Oh, well.  I still think it's fun when I rewatch it today.

When 1996 rolled around, the city of Atlanta prepared for the challenges of hosting the Summer Olympics.  World Championship Wrestling, the Atlanta-based promotion owned by Turner Broadcasting, faced its own challenges as a traveling television production that needed a suitable venue with its own production facility.  While the Olympics drew significant attention and media coverage, Turner Broadcasting's mobile production units were assigned to other broadcasters under very lucrative contracts to produce and broadcast the Olympic Games.  WCW found it difficult to secure traditional arenas and television production crews with "live-to-air" ready equipment for their weekly flagship show, Monday Nitro.  

This screenshot of the opening of the July 8, 1996, Nitro perfectly blends WCW and Mickey Mouse.

Mickey Mouse came to WCW's rescue once again!

Between July 8 and August 5th, 1996, WCW made Walt Disney World's MGM Studios its home for the summer, with the ring set up directly in front of the iconic Art Deco design of the entrance to Disney's MGM Studios.  Swooping camera shots during the show display iconic Disney images, such as a statue of Mickey Mouse standing atop a globe, the Chinese Theater, the EPCOT globe, and the looming Tower of Terror, providing an awesome backdrop for the show.  This outdoor setting enhanced the excitement, while the outdoor crowd was closer to that action than ever before, as no guardrails were separating the front row of seats from the action.

Over the years, many wrestlers have said they truly enjoyed their time spent at Disney World.  Most wrestlers had young families during the mid-90s, and they could spend time with their children enjoying Orlando's theme parks when not wrestling.  Several wrestlers also enjoyed being able to stay in one place for a longer period of time, having grown weary of the weekly travel around the country.

The summer of 1996 provided some game-changing moments in wrestling history.  Besides the fresh, new storylines, we fans got some of the first-ever views of the backstage areas.  It might be commonplace for today's wrestling fan, but in 1996, it was unheard of and shocking.  To us fans, backstage was just "behind the curtain" or a phony-looking locker room scene established for interviews.  During this era of Nitro, we began to see more behind the curtain in an effort to blend reality and storyline.    

As the summer, and the nWo storyline, progressed, Eric Bischoff and WCW leaned heavily into blending reality and storyline.  In interviews, they blurred the lines of fact and fiction, in instances where The Nasty Boys mentioned their real-life friendship with Hulk Hogan or Randy Savage blaming Hogan for his divorce from Miss Elizabeth.  These "truths" blended with storyline fiction had never been such a large part of a wrestling broadcast before, and it made us fans begin to question, "I know this wrestling stuff is fake, but... could this part of the show be real?"

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

These Disney tapings during the summer of 1996 happened at an exciting time for WCW.  

The very first Nitro at Disney took place the night after Hulk Hogan's shocking heel turn at Bash at the Beach 1996 to create the new World order (nWo) with Kevin Nash and Scott Hall.  

Many memorable events took place this summer at Disney World.  Let's take a brief look at each week:

July 8, 1996 - Hot off the heels of Hogan's shocking turn to the dark side, the nWo is about to run roughshod over the WCW.  The Disney World residency started off with a very fast-paced match where  Rey Mysterio, Jr. defeated Dean Malenko to win the WCW World Cruiserweight Championship.  A fun "Blood Runs Cold" promo airs for Glacier following an interview with Gene Okerlund, the Steiner Brothers, and the Nasty Boys.  A second great cruiserweight match between the legendary Eddie Guerrero and Psychosis (in his WCW debut) precedes another Gene Okerlund interview, this time with WCW World Champion The Giant and his managers Kevin Sullivan and Jimmy Hart.  

As we head into the second hour, the Steiner Brothers defeated the Nasty Boys.  United States Champion Ric Flair defeated Jim Powers, followed by an interview with the rest of the Four Horseman concerning Hogan's news alliance with The Outsiders.  Eric Bischoff announces that Lex Luger is still injured following the events of Bash at the Beach.  Chris Benoit defeats Seargent Pittman in under 2 minutes as we roll into the Main Event of the evening:  Sting taking on Arn Anderson!  Sting wins after ten minutes and gives one heck of an interview after the match about Hogan.  Randy Savage gets some time on the microphone and mentions that he can't tell Hogan on television what he really thinks of him, especially at Disney - the happiest place on earth!  The show wraps up with an interview of Nash and Hall, who promise that Hulk Hogan will be at NEXT week's Monday Nitro.

July 15, 1996 - This episode has one mission: reminding everyone that Hulk Hogan and the Outsiders will appear tonight.  Right off the bat, it's announced Flair, Sting, Randy Savage, and The Giant are not on this show as they are in the middle of a tour of shows in Japan.  

The Steiner Brothers (Rick and Scott) open the show against Fire and Ice (Scott Norton and Ice Train).  Kevin Sullivan and Jimmy Hart promote tonight's match between Big Bubba and Lex Luger before complaining that they spent the last 2 years as the Dungeon of Doom trying to destroy Hulkamania, and he did it himself at Bash at the Beach.  Another Glacier commercial airs before we see a backstage segment where Fire and Ice break up as a tag team.  Dean Malenko and Billy Kidman have a great match before former NFL player Kevin Green confronts another former NFL'er, Steve "Mongo" McMichael.  Tag Team Champions Harlem Heat (Stevie Ray and Booker T) come to the ring with Sister Sherri.  Sherri recently returned after being released the year prior following her great storyline with Colonel Robert Parker.  Tonight, Sherri's team takes on Parker's brand new team, "Rough and Ready" (Dirty Dick Slater and Mike Enos.)  Sherri kisses Slater, and he's too stunned to kick out of a pinfall.  A hype video for Rey Misterio plays before another Kevin Green segment.  Madusa defeats Malia Hosaka to win the right to fight Bull Nakano at the Hog Wild Pay-Per-View in August.

Fun fact:  Malia Hosaka was a flight attendant at an airline I worked for 15 years ago.  She mentioned in passing one day that she had been a former pro wrestler, and I must have talked her ear off about wrestling once she told me her "working name."  I'm still ashamed I didn't recognize her before she told me who she was, but she couldn't have been nicer about it.

Hall and Nash appear and get into mischief.  Okerlund interviews Mongo and Debra McMichael about Kevin Greene, followed by a hard-hitting ten-minute match between Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit.  For the Main Event, Lex Luger defends his WCW Television Championship against Big Bubba, but a run-in with Hall and Nash ends the match early.  Hogan finally arrives and gives an interview about Sting, Savage, and The Giant.  He gets personal, remembering Sting as a "skinny little kid in Venice Beach" nervous about meeting Hogan.  Hogan brings up how Savage blames him for Savage's divorce and talks about The Giant's lack of wrestling skills.  Garbage fills the ring from the audience as we end the show.

July 22, 1996 - The show opens with highlights of Muhammed Ali lighting the Olympic Torch in Atlanta.  They also mention that Shaq has just signed with the Los Angeles Lakers and that both men had been on a WCW show once.  We get a replay of last week's Nitro, where Hogan insults WCW and its top guys.  Scott Norton defeats Squire David Taylor in under 2 minutes.  The Four Horseman are hanging around catering and mention that Flair will be fashionably late tonight.  Konnan defeats VK Wallstreet (Mike Rotunda) in a few minutes, followed by Mean Gene catching up with Sting, Luger, and Savage.  They want to beat up Hogan and Flair and feel like they are ready to take on the world.  Another Glacier commercial, but this time we see his face, and it's the first time we realize it's a rip-off of Sub Zero from Mortal Kombat.  Poor Glacier was DOA.  A random video package airs of some lower-level WCW wrestlers, Renegade, Alex Wright, Jim Powers, and Joe Gomez, shirtless on the beaches of Orlando (there aren't any beaches in Orlando.)  They'd never waste that kind of TV time on low-level guys today.  I always liked Renegade and Alex Wright, though.  

Whatever is left of the Dungeon of Doom (Kevin Sullivan, Hugh Morrus, the Barbarian, and The Leprechaun) takes on the men from the beach.  Still, this match is played to only the live audience as Kevin Nash and Scott Hall invade the production truck, and cameras make a groundbreaking cut backstage.  Once Hall and Nash are chased out of the truck, we return to the 8-man tag match.  The Giant interrupts and chokeslams everyone, agreeing to defend his World Title against Hogan at Hog Wild.  

A WCW Saturday Night commercial runs.  I was still a BIG Saturday Night fan, and this edition would have Ric Flair defending his US Title against The Booty Man (Brutus Beefcake) and The Booty Babe (Kimberly Page.)  Speaking of Page, Diamond Dallas Page is out against Prince Iaukea, and it only takes a minute for DDP to hit the Diamond Cutter to win.  Dean Malenko beats Chavo Guerrero before Meng beats Ice Train with the help of Train's former partner Scott Norton.  Eddie Guerrero puts on a clinic with Psychosis in a great match next.  The Main Event features Arn Anderson, Chris Benoit, and Mongo McMichael (with Ric Flair still missing) against Sting, Randy Savage, and Lex Luger.  Luger picks up the win after Woman gets involved, distracting Benoit.  No Hogan or Flair, but a memorable show with one of the first-ever backstage scenes with the Outsiders in the production truck.

July 29, 1996 - This episode contains one of, if not THE, most memorable moment in Monday Nitro history.  The announcers mention that the WCW Motorsports NASCAR team won a Busch Series race this past week.  Jim Duggan and Mike Enos open the show with a very long match, especially for those two.  After, Duggan says he and America (Hooo!) feel betrayed by Hogan.  Sting, Luger, and Savage take on Ric Flair, Chris Benoit, and Mongo.  Tony Schiavone keeps hinting that Ric Flair will join the nWo because of how much power and wealth they have.  It's a pretty decent match when suddenly, "The Mouth of the South" Jimmy Hart runs out to the ring and frantically tries to interrupt it.  The cameras initially ignore him, and it looks like an unplanned, unscripted event.  Eventually, the men in the ring stop wrestling to pay attention to Hart, who finally gets them to follow him backstage.   

A little "Disney Magic" happens when we get backstage, as luck, good writing, and great timing converge into a memorable scene.  Scott Hall and Kevin Nash hold baseball bats as they stand over the beaten-up Arn Anderson and Marcus Bagwell.  Bagwell's tag partner Scotty Riggs appears, and Hall smashes him in the face.  Rey Mysterio, Jr. launches himself off the steps of the production trailer and is caught mid-air by Kevin Nash, who lawn darts Mysteria face-first into the trailer wall.  Mysterio falls over 7 feet straight down to the ground, and all mayhem breaks loose.  When the wrestlers from the ring arrive backstage with Jimmy Hart, Hall and Nash jump into a waiting limo that speeds off.  In an unscripted move, Randy Savage jumps onto the limo and hangs on for dear life as it speeds off.  

Everyone was freaking out, women were crying, and backstage producers and production agents stood around with the thousand-yard stare as if it was a truly traumatizing, real-life event.  Mysterio mentions that there was FOUR MEN!  Arn, Bagwell and Mysterio get loaded into ambulances, and several wrestlers ride with them to the hospital.  Take a look below.

This event may seem like small potatoes now, but I cannot express how groundbreaking it was in 1996.  It was so new and different to see such things on your wrestling program that the local police in Orlando and Disney Security fielded several phone calls from concerned fans about gang warfare happening at a wrestling show at Disney World.  I'm not kidding; it really happened.

The second-hour starts, and several planned matches cannot take place as Arn was supposed to face The Giant in a World Title match, Mysterio was going to fight Eddie Guerrero for the Cruiserweight Title, and The Steiners were going to take on The American Males (Bagwell and Riggs.)  Instead, the Steiners quickly defeat High Voltage (Kenny Kaos and Robbie Rage), followed by Eddie Guerrero killing twelve whole minutes against Big Bubba.  Following this match, the first (that I can find) of the famous black and white styled nWo promos airs.  Replacing Arn Anderson against The Giant in the Main Event was... Greg "The Hammer" Valentine.  Giant wins in under a minute.  

August 5, 1996 - The show opens with a recap of last week's vicious nWo backstage attack.  Tonight, several wrestlers decide to act as security for themselves, including legitimate badasses Meng, Barbarian, Big Bubba, and Scott Norton.  The Tag Champions Harlem Heat defeat the Rock and Roll Express.  Mean Gene interviews the Nasty Boys and asks about their "real life" friendship with Hulk Hogan.  Sting and Luger come by and demand they hold their friend Hogan accountable but agree to settle their differences in the Main Event.  Another Glacier "Blood Runs Cold" commercial, followed by a match between Madusa and Malia Hosaka.  Hosaka wins when Sonny Onoo interferes.  Chris Benoit takes on Alex Wright, but when Dean Malenko interferes in the match, Benoit is counted out, giving "Das Wunderkind" the win.  Randy Savage then quickly defeats Lord Steven Regal.  

Sting and Luger approach a limo sitting backstage to only find a bouquet of flowers with a note that says, "Our condolences on the death of WCW."  Ric Flair defeats The Booty Man (Beefcake) in 3 minutes.  An excellent interview with Arn Anderson follows, where he famously says, "In the rules of gang warfare, when they send one of yours to the hospital, you send one of theirs to the morgue."  Flair and the rest of the Four Horseman join the interview, and it goes off the rails until Flair brings it home.  A brief recap of the backstage attack leads to another black and white nWo promo.  Sting and Luger demand the WCW production truck turn it off before we see The Giant defend his World Title against... Sgt. Craig Pittman?  Giant wins in 2 minutes and is interviewed by Gene Okerlund about his Hog Wild match with Hulk Hogan.  

In the Main Event, Sting and Luger defeat the Nasty Boys.  Afterward, Sting and Luger pose with fans before approaching the parked limo again.  The limo door opens, and a black bag is tossed out.  The limo speeds away, and the show goes off the air as we get a look at the bag.  It has a Turner logo, suggesting that Turner Broadcasting and/or WCW was helping to fund the nWo. 

As we found out months later, in November, WCW Vice President Eric Bischoff was the double agent and revealed himself as the nWo's ringleader.  

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

After the August 5th Nitro, WCW headed to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the Hog Wild Pay-Per-View event, where Hollywood Hogan defeated The Giant for the World Title, beginning a long reign as champion.  

The longtime relationship between WCW and Disney would end in 1997.  WCW's popularity outgrew the small crowds of freely admitted theme park guests.  At about the same time, Disney's MGM Studios was moving away from becoming a full-on working film studio as it moved toward its eventual change into Disney's Hollywood Studios.  As Disney moved away from filming live content, WCW would have to look elsewhere to tape syndicated programs.  Thankfully, across town at Universal Studios, WCW was able to find a home at another Orlando area theme park.  WCW Worldwide, Pro, and Prime began filming on one of the soundstages at the Universal Studios Orlando property.  

In 1998, after dominating WWF in the ratings for 83 straight weeks, the WWF's Monday Night Raw finally dethroned Nitro as the top-rated wrestling show, and things would never really be the same for WCW.  The syndicated shows would turn into mostly recap shows by the end of 1998. WCW would eventually leave Universal Studios, using Thursday Thunder tapings as an opportunity to film the few extra matches needed for the weekend syndicated programming.  

The contrast between the gritty world of professional wrestling and the family-friendly appeal of Disney seems unlikely, but it resulted in an exhilarating blend of excitement and nostalgia.  
The collaboration between WCW and Disney World resulted in an interesting intersection of fan bases.  Wrestling fans who may not have been regular visitors to Disney World were drawn to the park to witness their favorite stars in action.  Likewise, Disney enthusiasts who may not have been avid wrestling viewers found themselves caught up in the excitement and drama of WCW's events, broadening the reach of both entities.  The fusion of wrestling's grand spectacle and Disney theme park's enchantment created a truly unforgettable experience for fans of both worlds.  I know it did for me!

The end of WCW at Disney was not the end of wrestling and its theme park days, as TNA/Impact Wrestling would bring the Impact Zone to Universal Studios for several years.  More recently, AEW Dark would be recorded from the same location.