25 years ago this week, Disney ran the first of its now iconic “What’s Next?” spots.
The commercial opened with highlights of New York Giants quarterback Phil Simms picking apart the Denver Broncos defense in Super Bowl XXI to the tune of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” a song made famous in the 1940 Disney film Pinocchio.
A voiceover asked, “Phil Simms, you’ve just won the Super Bowl. What are you doing next?” Simms, who had been named MVP of Super Bowl XXI, looked into the camera and said, “I’m gonna go to Disney World!”
Later that year Disney asked other recently crowned champions about their plans. America’s Cup winner Dennis Conner, NBA Finals MVP Magic Johnson, and World Series MVP Frank Viola all gave the same answer. All three were headed to Disney World.
Over the past quarter century, four dozen athletes, teams, and other champions have announced their intention to celebrate their victory at a Disney park. Half have been Super Bowl champions. While Disney occasionally airs spots with winners of the World Series, NBA Championship, Stanley Cup, or other events, the Super Bowl ad has become an annual tradition.
Since 1987 athletes representing every Super Bowl winning team but one have appeared in “What’s Next?” commercials. The one exception was Super Bowl XXXIX. Disney opted out of the big game that year because of the Janet Jackson-Justin Timberlake incident the year before.
Yes, They Actually Go to Disney World
Prior to Super Bowl XXI, Disney offered both quarterbacks, Simms and John Elway of the Broncos, $75,000 for a commitment to appear in the ad if they were victorious. By 1998 the fee had fallen to $30,000 for the person appearing in the commercial.
Disney also gives the featured athlete a trip to Disney World or Disneyland with the expectation that the athlete will make a public appearance there. Last year’s Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers was in Orlando the Monday after the Super Bowl. Here is Rodgers keeping his word:
Who Gets to Go?
There is no formula for who gets to appear in the “What’s Next?” ads.
For the inaugural commercial, Disney made arrangements beforehand with each team’s quarterback. The winning quarterbacks also appeared in the spots that ran after Super Bowls XXII (Doug Williams), XXIII (Joe Montana), and XXIV (Joe Montana again). In Super Bowls XXII and XXIV the winning quarterbacks doubled as the game MVP.
The first non-quarterback to appear in a “What’s Next?” spot was New York Giants running back Ottis Anderson, MVP of Super Bowl XXV. For the next 3 seasons the MVP went to Disney World, regardless of position. The Super Bowl XXIX commercial featured two players, 49ers quarterback and game MVP Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice, who had been MVP of Super Bowl XXIII but wasn’t featured in the commercial.
While most of the featured players in Super Bowl “What’s Next?” spots have been quarterbacks and/or game MVPs, there have been a few exceptions.
- The Super Bowl XXX spot featured Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith. (Defensive back Larry Smith was game MVP.)
- Colts coach Tony Dungy and running back Dominic Rhodes appeared in the Super Bowl XLI ad. (Quarterback Peyton Manning was game MVP.)
- Dungy was the second NFL coach to announce his intention to go to Disney World. The first was Jon Gruden, who joined Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson in the ad that followed Super Bowl XXXVII.
- Disney approached Broncos coach Mike Shanahan and Packers coach Mike Holmgren about appearing in a commercial after Super Bowl XXXII, but both coaches turned it down.
Disney ran “What’s Next?” ads after five NBA Finals: 1987, 1988, 1989, 1991, and 2006. Four of the 5 players featured in those commercials were Finals MVPs. Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was one year away from retirement, appeared in the 1988 spot instead of Finals MVP James Worthy.
Frank Viola and Orel Hershiser, MVPs of the 1987 and 1988 World Series, both made a trip to a Disney park following the Fall Classic.
Disney wouldn’t feature another World Series champ until 2002 when the Angels’ Scott Spiezio appeared in an ad. Spiezio wasn’t the series MVP (Troy Glaus was), but he hit a 3-run homer in the seventh inning of Game 6 with the Angels trailing the Giants 5-0 that kicked off a 6-run rally. The Angels avoided elimination in Game 6 then won the series in Game 7.
In 2004 the trio of Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz went to Disney World for the Red Sox. Manny Ramirez was the MVP.
Disney also ran “What’s Next?” ads when Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds broke the single-season home run record in 1998 and 2001, respectively. But most people choose to forget about that.
Two commercials featured Stanley Cup winners, the Flames’ Al MacInnis in 1989 and the Canadiens’ Patrick Roy in 1993. Conner, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and the World Cup-winning 1999 USA women’s national soccer team are the other athletes who’ve said, “I’m going to Disney World!” Disney has also run spots with 1988 Miss America Gretchen Carlson, assorted college graduates (1990), Santa Claus (1997), and recent American Idol winners.
Two Commercials, One “World” and One “Land”
Since Disney has parks on both coasts, and since families in Utah tend to vacation at a different park than families from Ohio, the company always cuts two “What’s Next?” commercials, one for Disney World and another for Disney Land.
Here is the Aaron Rodgers “Disneyland” ad from last year:
And here’s the “Disney World” spot:
To my knowledge, no commercial in the campaign features an athlete who is planning on going to Disneyland Paris or Tokyo Disney.
“The corniest thing I’ve ever done.”
During the build-up to the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, figure skater Nancy Kerrigan became one of America’s most popular and beloved athletes. Her rivalry with fellow Olympic hopeful Tonya Harding got nasty when Harding (allegedly), Harding’s ex-husband, and Harding’s body guard hired a goon to break Kerrigan’s right leg. The goon failed to break Kerrigan’s leg but succeeded in forcing her to withdraw from the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Kerrigan went on to win silver in Lillehammer and to tell an adoring public, “I’m going to Disney World.”
Kerrigan skipped the closing ceremonies to fly to Orlando to fulfill her obligation to Disney. During the parade in her honor at Disney World a camera caught Kerrigan saying, “This is corny. It’s dumb. It’s the corniest thing I’ve ever done.” Kerrigan insisted that she was not referring to the parade or the trip to Disney World but to her mother’s insistence that she wear her medal during the parade. It was a lame excuse, but the controversy went away.
Ingredients of an “I’m Going to Disney World!” Commercial
Every “What’s Next?” ad has four elements:
- Footage of the featured athlete(s) from whatever competition the athlete(s) just won
- A rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star”
- The athlete(s) saying, “I’m going to Disney World” (or “Disneyland”) during the post-game celebration
- An image of fireworks over either Cinderella’s Castle (Disney World) or Sleeping Beauty’s Castle (Disneyland)
The first element requires a quick turnaround. Producers have to compile footage during the game so that the commercial will be ready to air shortly afterward. For that reason, the first “What’s Next?” commercials didn’t air until the next day.
The person who asks, “What are you going to do next?” is Muncie, Indiana native Mark Champion, current play-by-play guy for the Detroit Pistons and former voice of the Detroit Lions and Michigan State Basketball.
The version of “When You Wish Upon a Star” has changed over the years. Many of the commercials from last decade (such as the Dungy-Rhodes commercial from Super Bowl XXLXI) use a rendition by a singer named Clara Lofaro. More recent ads (including the Rodgers ads above) have used a version sung by Season 8 American Idol winner Kris Allen.
If it were up to me, every commercial would use the version that Cliff Edwards sang in the character of Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio (1940).
A List of Every Athlete to Appear in a “What’s Next?” Commercial
- Super Bowl XXI: Phil Simms, New York Giants
- Super Bowl XXII: Doug Williams, Washington Redskins
- Super Bowl XXIII: Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
- Super Bowl XXIV: Joe Montana, San Francisco 49ers
- Super Bowl XXV: Ottis Anderson, New York Giants
- Super Bowl XXVI: Mark Rypien, Washington Redskins
- Super Bowl XXVII: Troy Aikman, Dallas Cowboys
- Super Bowl XXVIII: Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys
- Super Bowl XXIX: Jerry Rice and Steve Young, San Francisco 49ers
- Super Bowl XXX: Emmitt Smith, Dallas Cowboys
- Super Bowl XXXI: Desmond Howard, Green Bay Packers
- Super Bowl XXXII: John Elway, Denver Broncos
- Super Bowl XXXIII: Terrell Davis and John Elway, Denver Broncos
- Super Bowl XXXIV: Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams
- Super Bowl XXXV: Trent Dilfer, Baltimore Ravens
- Super Bowl XXXVI: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
- Super Bowl XXXVII: Jon Gruden and Brad Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Super Bowl XXXVIII: Tom Brady, New England Patriots
- Super Bowl XL: Jerome Bettis and Hines Ward, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Super Bowl XLI: Tony Dungy and Dominic Rhodes, Indianapolis Colts
- Super Bowl XLII: Eli Manning, New York Giants
- Super Bowl XLIII: Santonio Holmes and Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers
- Super Bowl XLIV: Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints
- Super Bowl XLV: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers
- 1987: Magic Johnson, Los Angeles Lakers
- 1988: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Los Angeles Lakers
- 1989: Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
- 1991: Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls
- 2006: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
- 1987: Frank Viola, Minnesota Twins
- 1988: Orel Hershiser, Los Angeles Dodgers
- 2002: Scott Spiezio, Anaheim Angels
- 2004: Curt Schilling, Pedro Martínez and David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Single-Season Home Run Record
- 1998: Mark McGwire, St. Louis Cardinals
- 2001: Barry Bonds, San Francisco Giants
- 1989: Al MacInnis, Calgary Flames
- 1993: Patrick Roy, Montreal Canadiens
- 1987: Dennis Conner, America’s Cup
- 1994: Nancy Kerrigan, figure skating, Winter Olympics
- 1999: U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, FIFA World Cup