It was the start of something new. When High School Musical debuted ten years ago, it welcomed a new era of Disney history. It was an explosive time, unique from anything before or after it, that all began with those simple lyrics in the opening moments of the film. A decade later, we look back at the legacy of this television titan and its special connection to Walt Disney World.
Disney Channel first aired High School Musical on January 20, 2006. Bob Iger was only a few months into his new role of Disney CEO, the company was just about to purchase Pixar, and the entire Disney brand as a whole was in an unfamiliar state of transition. This unsuspecting, Kenny Ortega-directed Disney Channel Original Movie was about to make some serious waves.
Infusing pop music into projects designed as star vehicles for its young actors was not foreign to Disney Channel. It had already done so successfully in years prior with Hilary Duff in Lizzie McGuire and Raven Symone in That’s So Raven and The Cheetah Girls. However, High School Musical was arguably the first to so blatantly spotlight this trend as such a huge part of its central focus. High School Musical would be the project that laid the framework for other endeavors that followed it, not just on Disney Channel but on other networks. It set the standard. It truly changed the landscape for all of children’s programming. The triumph and sensation of Miley Cyrus on Hannah Montana, Selena Gomez on Wizards of Waverly Place, and the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato on Camp Rock all owe their existence to the phenomenon High School Musical created and the demand of its viewers for more music-driven programming.
In the years that followed its 2006 premiere, High School Musical became an astronomical hit. In today’s climate, a logical comparison is Frozen, in that Disney utilized each and every corner of its synergy advantages. Everywhere, all the time, everything was in High School Musical mode. The film’s leads, unknowns Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, became overnight superstars. The soundtrack broke records. Most of the main cast toured the nation in a Disney-produced concert. Disney On Ice devoted an entire show to the film. A sequel followed in 2007 and became the highest-rated cable telecast ever with 17.2 million viewers, prompting another sequel in 2008 released theatrically. There was no stopping this thing.
In the Disney theme parks, there is generally more caution toward attractions and events themed to television properties. Since TV programming comes and goes very quickly, with a very small portion of it having a lasting legacy, it admittedly doesn’t make much sense to invest energy into building something that won’t be relevant for very long. However, that does not mean Disney Channel is absent inside the parks, especially in the form of live entertainment, and it does mean that whenever the network is given the spotlight, there is usually good reason for it. High School Musical was, of course, pertinent enough in the Disney-sphere at the time to merit theme park presence.
Its first came in the form of High School Musical Pep Rally, a live show featuring Wildcat students and cheerleaders (but no actual “characters” from the film) performing songs from the movie. Debuting in fall 2006, the show was oddly placed on a temporary stage in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom Park. After several months, it was more reasonably moved to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the form of a mobile stage that traveled the parade route toward its stopped destination in the center of the park. Over the years, the show revised itself with each new film, eventually becoming High School Musical 2: School’s Out! and the mouthful High School Musical 3: Senior Year: Right Here! Right Now! That last version would continue performances until 2010, when it was replaced by Disney Channel Rocks!, which was essentially the same concept, only now incorporating music from all the other Disney Channel musical productions that the success of High School Musical spawned. It performed through 2013.
In the midst of all this buzz, the phenomenon nature of the franchise lent itself to some unique performances within the parks during several annual telecasts of the Disney Parks Christmas Day Parade. In 2006, the entire length of Main Street, U.S.A. became a sea of red and white Wildcat pride singing “We’re All in This Together.”
In 2007, the forecourt of Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland was the site of a Christmas rendition of “What Time Is It?,” with summertime lyrics replaced with holiday-themed verses. It may seem a bit strange today, but I assure you, this was a big deal.
Disney Channel has tried to repeat the success of High School Musical from two angles: first, the aforementioned superstar machine, which has introduced the entertainment world to quite a collection of notable talents, and second, simply trying different musical movies. In this latter respect, none has caught on at anywhere near the level of High School Musical, though some make valiant efforts (the most admirable of which is probably Teen Beach Movie). The closest anything has come is actually the most recent attempt, Descendants, a 2015 musical telling the story of the Disney villains’ children, which is not-so-coincidentally also directed by Kenny Ortega.
Watching High School Musical today, one is instantly taken back to the 2006 world of plaid shorts, flip phones, and swoosh haircuts. This seemingly ordinary, little movie was Disney’s bread and butter for a tiny glimpse of time that nonetheless was a powerful force to be reckoned with.
Why did it become such a huge success? Well, I personally theorize there to be two main reasons. The first is the most obvious and simple: The film struck a chord. This was something kids could really get into, and the strong soundtrack helped the movie to sustain itself beyond something confined to the restrictions of a one-time telecast. You carried the film’s music with you throughout your day. Secondly, and perhaps more intriguingly in hindsight, High School Musical received so much attention from Disney because it was all the company had at the time. If we are to assume the model of Disney’s extensive subdivisions stems from the inspiration of current, hot movies, in 2006 there wasn’t much to work with. There was nothing else to cultivate. Pixar was doing well, but the new relationship of the studio to Disney was still being shaped, and Disney Animation itself was in an irrefutable rough patch. With the chord struck by High School Musical into audiences, and without anything else making much of an impact, all arms of Disney were able to devote undivided and unprecedented attention into High School Musical in a way no other television project had ever received or likely ever will receive again. It was a truly special time, and ten years later can be succinctly accredited as a defining moment for Disney Channel and all of children’s programming.
What’s your favorite ‘High School Musical’ memory? Share them in the comments section below and/or on Twitter with #HSM10.
(Images © Disney. YouTube videos: blastedew – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrQNrDAxIak and VanessaAshley1220 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrQNrDAxIak)
Blake studies Electronic Media and Film at Appalachian State University. He enjoys making his family of six watch the parade in Frontierland and then sprint to Main Street in time to see it again. You can find him on Twitter @blake_242 or at BlakeOnline.com.