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The Aristocats and Orange Bird Connection

By: Kendall Foreman

A photo of the Sunshine Tree Terrace marquee sign featuring the Orange Bird as it appears today and is located in Adventureland.

What do the French flaneur Thomas O’Malley and the citrus-headed Orange Bird have in common?

They are both orange…?

That’s about it, right?

Not quite… the loafer-turned-hero of The Aristocats and the 1970s mascot of the Florida Citrus Commission actually intersect in another little known way. But first, there may be some readers asking just exactly who are Thomas O’Malley and the Orange Bird.


Thomas O’Malley

The Aristocats is a full-length Walt Disney Studios animated feature film that was released on December 24, 1970. It tells the story of a family of cats living with the wealthy Madame Bonfamille in turn-of-the-century Paris, France. With the cats due to inherit the Bonfamille fortune, the greedy butler, Edgar, sets out to kidnap and dispose of the little family. Along the way Duchess, the mother cat, and her three children – Marie, Toulouse, and Berlioz – meet an alley cat, Thomas O’Malley, who helps them find their way back to Paris and give Edgar what he has coming to him.

Thomas O’Malley was voiced by Phil Harris and had a song titled after him that musically outlines his chosen life objective: to roam the world, free of anything that would tie him down. Thomas O’Malley was written by Terry Gilkyson, but it was not the original song intended to tell of the tomcat’s lifestyle. Instead, there was to be tune called My Way’s the Highway. While this song never appeared in the film, it can be heard on the album The Legacy Collection – The Aristocats from Walt Disney Records. There are two tracks by that name on the dual disc collection. One is an original demo recording of famed songwriter Richard M. Sherman performing the track. Such a demo would have been used as an example to pitch the tune to the individual who would be performing the song in the film. The other is a newer recording of voice artist Randy Crenshaw performing the song in full.

But still, what does this have to do with the sweet little Orange Bird?


Little Orange Bird in the Sunshine Tree

Just in case readers have not visited Walt Disney World in the last decade to witness his re-emergence, the Orange Bird is a character that was created by Disney in partnership with the Florida Citrus Commission to help sell a number of orange and tangerine related food items. He was designed by Disney animator Bob Moore and publicity art designer Don MacLaughlin in 1969. He was created with an orange for a head, two orange tree leaves for wings, and a small orange and yellow body. The little figure could be found swinging from a branch in the Sunshine Tree at the Sunshine Tree Terrace in Adventureland when the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971. He also made appearances as a walk-around character and was even used on merchandise sold across Florida to promote the state’s citrus products.

As with all characters in Disney Parks, the Orange Bird was not to be left without a backstory. The 1971 vinyl Storyteller LP, The Story and Songs of The Orange Bird, told the tale of the bird who could not sing, but instead, communicated through puffs of orange smoke. The poor little guy was made fun of by the other birds and set off in search of a new home. Along the way, he had a number of misadventures and eventually found a place with a family after he stopped them from careening off a washed out bridge. This story was punctuated throughout by a number of songs written by Richard and Robert Sherman.

The most well-known was The Orange Bird Song, but there was another titled I’ll Fly the Sky-Way. This cute little ditty told the story of the Orange Bird optimistically looking for new friends with joyful lyrics like “My heart is full of elation, at the wonderful vacation, waiting down the sky way for me!”


Sky Way Rhymes with Highway

When the Sherman Brothers were called on to write the original music for the Orange Bird’s story, it looked like a great opportunity to repurpose a discarded number from days gone by. With a little tweaking, lyrics from My Way’s the Highway like “My way’s the highway under the beautiful sky way. On me own, a rolling stone that’s me,” became, “Oh, I’ll fly the sky way, Over the beautiful highway, On my own a rolling stone I’ll be.” While the transition between these few lines seems simple, the songwriting duo deserves credit for keeping the same tune but masterfully changing the entire tone and outlook of the song. In the Thomas O’Malley version, he was looking to live life traveling from one social event to another, but ultimately still on his own. The changeover to the Orange Bird completely alters the attitude and conveys the feelings of a character that wanted nothing more than a group of lifelong companions.


Forgotten Songs No More

A photo of the Orange Bird mural in Adventureland at Magic Kingdom

For many years, these two songs were lost to time. One, cut and replaced in a film that is oftentimes overlooked itself. The other, forgotten as its album’s namesake ceased to serve as mascot. Thankfully, The Legacy Collection series of soundtracks has put a number of unreleased songs like My Way’s the Highway into the hands or digital libraries of Disney fans. Also, Disney Parks devotees owe a debt of gratitude to the diehard Orange Bird champions within Walt Disney Imagineering who both brought him back to the parks and chose to highlight the character’s history.

Cats and birds do not often get along (just listen to that Storyteller LP for proof), but it looks like Thomas O’Malley and the Orange Bird are forever linked through an interesting little piece of Disney history!

Photos from the author’s personal collection.

Kendall has been a member of the WDW Radio Team since 2013. Today, you can read her work on the WDW Radio Blog or hear her join Lou for a number of WDW Radio podcast episodes. Kendall’s affection for Walt Disney World began with her very first family visit in the 1990s and has continued with each magical vacation since. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.