The weird period when Disney hosted pro wrestling shows

Some Disney fans may not know of the time when Disney partnered with World Championship Wrestling! Look back at when you could watch wrestling shows at the Studios!
Photo: Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair... WWE
Photo: Hulk Hogan and Ric Flair... WWE /

Over the decades, Disney has made some unique partnerships with other companies. From various movies and fast food franchises to video games and more, Disney has touched just about every part of sports and entertainment. 

Yet many may forget that period in the early 1990s when Disney had a partnership no one would have expected: Professional wrestling. But it's true that at one point, Disney parkgoers could see guys in a squared circle going at it in some pretty unique ways. 

A Short History of WCW

When pro wrestling is mentioned, most think of the World Wrestling Federation, which became WWE in 2002. But for a long time, WWF's biggest competition was World Championship Wrestling. Created by Jim Crockett under the auspices of the National Wrestling Alliance, WCW began growing in size and strength over the years to be the number two promotion behind WWF. 

That was mostly due to how, in 1988, Crockett, overwhelmed by debt, sold WCW to Ted Turner, then the billionaire owner of CNN, TBS, TNT, and a few sports teams. Having had WCW programming on TBS for years, Turner's money helped push the company up. 

WCW boasted some first-rate talent and was often seen as more "real" wrestling compared to the frankly cartoonish antics of WWF. However, it was held back by management which could be charitably called inept. While Turner was willing to back the company, the people in charge seemed to have no clue how to run a wrestling promotion. 

As 1993 began, WCW was undergoing yet another management shift, with former announcer Eric Bischoff becoming VP, which basically put him in charge. Bischoff wanted to give the company a new push and a sleeker look, and somehow, that got him on Disney's radar. 

How WCW started at Disney

At the time, WCW did most of their shows, especially the two-hour Saturday afternoon series, at their longtime Atlanta studios. Bischoff saw a way to get some cheaper programming done by having their syndicated weekend TV shows (Worldwide, Pro, and Prime) taped at the Disney-MGM Studios. That included hosts Tony Schiavone and Jesse Ventura at the parks and looked more upscale than the older arenas WCW usually used. 

In various interviews and his autobiography, Bischoff explained the reasoning as how WCW just wasn't bringing in large crowds to arenas in early 1993 so the TV shows would show half-empty arenas. They needed a spot filled out and yet still affordable and running it out of an operation like Disney seemed best. Not to mention, taping all three shows at the same location was cheaper than having them filmed at different spots.

The Studios did make WCW look better with nicer seating, good lighting and production values and notable for the ring set on a platform that would rotate. Supposedly, they had considered having the ring turn during the matches only to realize that would throw off the wrestlers too much, but they kept up the spinning before and after bouts. 

The shows were the standard for the time as big stars faced "jobbers," so termed because their only job was to lose and make the bigger stars look good. There could be a fancy main event between some of the main event workers and guys doing interviews to push the various storylines in WCW. 

The initial issue was that rather than dedicated WCW fans, the crowds for these tapings were Studio guests who just wanted to be part of a free show. So they were specifically told things like who to boo and who to cheer, which was shattering a bit of the illusion of wrestling ("kayfabe" is the classic term in the business). 

However, that was added onto by WCW making one of their dumbest moves. And for them, that's saying something. 

The Disney-MGM tapings and how they shifted WCW

Back in this time, it was commonplace for wrestling companies to tape a week or two of programming for their TV shows. However, WCW went the extra mile as in a single weekend, they taped three months' worth of programming for their shows.

This was a massive shattering of kayfabe, giving away months of story turns. There'd be segments of a champion doing an interview and then literally handing the belt to someone else to do an interview on "just winning it" that would air weeks later. Some fans would leak these segments to the "dirt sheet" newsletters and the burgeoning Internet, spoiling scores of programs. 

It also took a toll on the wrestlers, as it's hard to get motivated to do your best when you know that storylines are set in stone for a while. This meant the TV taping matches were rather lackluster, with the wrestlers knowing there was no reason to try to show off when there were no plans to give you a better shot at the top.

To make it worse, while wrestling may be predetermined, guys do get injured for real and a few would occur to throw off the taping results. A good example is how the tapings revealed that tag team champions Steve Austin and Brian Pillman would lose the belts at a coming pay-per-view event. However, Pillman suffered a real leg injury so Steve Regal had to replace him for the title loss just to not mess up the tapings.

There was also how Sid Vicious had been taped as WCW World champion, but before he could actually win the belt, he was fired after a brawl with a fellow wrestler in a London bar, ruining several episodes.

Thus, the Disney-MGM tapings have become such a big deal for WCW, it has its own Wikipedia page and how to save a few bucks, they wrecked a lot of shows. 

The Hulkster arrives at Disney

WCW wisely didn't do such a schedule again but still kept up the Disney-MGM tapings. Now and then, they'd move out of the indoor studios and have a wrestling ring set up at the New York Street part of the park for folks to watch. 

In June of 1994, a huge moment occurred as Bischoff reached out to Hulk Hogan. The former WWF mega-star had left the company for his short-lived action TV show Thunder in Paradise, which used Disney World for its locations. Lured by a big payday and creative control, Hogan agreed. 

So viewers on WCW's Saturday night shows watched Hogan get a ticker-tape parade down WCW's main street to sign his contract with the company. The tapings would continue for a while, including in 1996 when the Studios were used for the Saturday night show as Turner's main crews were busy with the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. 

Welcome to Disney-MGM Nitro!

In late 1995, WCW made a huge move with their prime-time program WCW Monday Nitro, going head-to-head with WWF's Monday Night RAW. So, in the summer of 1996, WCW would do a few shows with the ring and seats for a few hundred fans set up right outside the gates of the Studios. It made for a cool visual of the Tower of Terror in the background. 

A notable episode was after Hogan turned into a villain and joined Scott Hall and Kevin Nash to become the New World Order. In a memorable moment, the NWO attacked some WCW wrestlers, with the nearly seven-foot-tall Nash tossing five-foot-one Rey Mysterio into a truck like a lawn dart. 

The end of the partnership

Frankly, it's amazing this partnership lasted as long as it did, but in 1997, the initial agreement between Disney and WCW ended. By this point, WCW was successful enough to run more shows out of bigger arenas and started to think working with Disney was hurting their image. 

Thus, the tapings at the Studios ended, but interestingly, WCW ended up moving across Orlando to tape their syndicated shows at Universal Studios. They kept it up for a bit before moving it to regular arenas until the company's bad business moves finally caught up with them to put them out of business for good in 2001. 

So this partnership of WCW and Disney is mostly ignored outside of hardcore wrestling fans, but it is fascinating to see how, at one point, Disney parkgoers could take in some squared circle action amid the rides.