All about Disney’s orange bird character:
Though I wasn’t alive when the orange bird was first introduced in Disney World, I fell in love with him as soon as he made his return to the theme parks. In fact, I actually fell for the frozen treat, the citrus swirl, first. When I saw the adorable mascot I knew the orange bird would quickly become a favorite character. After all, my favorite color is orange, I love oranges, and he is just too cute.
It didn’t take long for the little orange bird to become my favorite Disney character, though even back in 2012 when I first got hooked he wasn’t very well known to many Disney fans. It’s only in the past few years that Disney’s orange bird has really made a big resurgence when it comes to merchandise and appearances.
I wanted to learn as much as possible about this guy and his history, and I’m excited to share my research with you now!
Development of Disney’s orange bird
When Walt Disney World was being built the company sought out sponsors for a number of their attractions to help pay for the park. One of the groups they partnered with was the Florida Citrus Commission, who sponsored the “Sunshine Pavilion.” This included the Tropical Serenade attraction (now the Enchanted Tiki Room) as well as the Sunshine Tree Terrace, where citrus swirl and orange juice was sold.
As part of their deal with Disney the FCC wanted a character to represent their brand and pavilion. Disney didn’t like the idea of letting another company use a character like Mickey Mouse in their advertising, so they created their own character just for the Florida Citrus Commission – the orange bird. They signed the paperwork back in 1967, before Disney World even opened.
Design of the orange bird
The artistic design of Disney’s orange bird is actually attributed to two different artists, depending on which sources you’re looking at. Most official Disney publications say he was created by Don MacLaughlin (his name is mentioned in a video from D23), but a number of other historical accounts mention Bob Moore. From what I’ve gathered it seems that perhaps Don MacLaughlin created some of the original designs or concept art and then worked together with Moore to narrow down and finalize the design.
You can see some of the early concept art at the D23 archives page here.
The orange bird actually made his first appearance before the Florida theme park even opened. On March 3rd, 1971, the orange bird made an appearance as a full sized costumed character art a press event.
Orange Bird at Disney World
Sunshine Tree Terrace
The Sunshine Tree Terrace and the orange bird were there at opening day of Disney World on October 1st, 1971. Because the dedications to various attractions were spread throughout the month the dedication for this location happened on October 6th, 1971. Anita Bryant, the “voice” of the orange bird and performer of his theme song, was at the ceremony and sang there.
Meet and Greets
During the 1970s and early 80s you could often find Disney’s orange bird walking around Adventureland as a costumed character. He’d pose with guests and occasionally steal a bite of their citrus swirls too!
He sometimes appeared for photos at the Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village (later down as Downtown Disney, and currently known as Disney Springs). There was a shop called the Captain’s Tower that had an orange bird banner and statue there as well.
Orange bird in film and media
Sherman Brothers album with Anita Bryant
Anita Bryant may be one of the names most closely associated with the orange bird, because she was his “voice” for years. Since the orange bird doesn’t talk, Anita Bryant was hired to sing his theme song and talk on his behalf. The Sherman brothers wrote a series of 6 songs.
These songs were released as a record with Anita Bryant singing most of the songs, as well as narrating a short story about the origins and backstory of the orange bird in between ditties. The record also came with an illustrated book, so kids (and adults) could follow along with the story while listening to the record. You can see a good bit of it here:
Orange bird educational shorts
In the 1980s the orange bird focused more on education and spreading the word about nutrition. He made 2 films – “Food and Fun: A Nutrition Adventure,” which came out in 1980, and the Orange Bird and the Nutrition Bandwagon. While you can watch “Food and Fun” on YouTube, I couldn’t find any recordings of the Nutrition Bandwagon or even an exact year of its release. If anyone has more info please let me know!
The little orange bird also appeared in commercials throughout the 1970’s made by the Florida Citrus Commission advertising orange juice. He is typically accompanied by Anita Bryant. These commercials were not associated with Disney – they were just for the Florida Citrus Commission.
Welcome center and souvenir shops
The orange bird was actually seen in artwork at advertising at the Florida welcome center, which is where many people traveling to Disney on vacation first saw him! It was also not unusual to see merchandise and souvenirs with the orange bird at various souvenir shops and non-Disney merchandise locations throughout Florida.
Orange bird as a character
He is a bird on the small side, mainly orange with a yellow belly and yellow feet, green leaves on his head, and green wings. His head is round and shaped like an orange fruit.
Unusual for a cartoon bird, he doesn’t talk or even sing. He is mute and can make no noise at all. His main way of communicating is through puffs of orange smoke that appear above his head. These show what he is thinking to other people and animals.
Friendly and upbeat
The orange bird is a friendly fellow, wanting to hang out with others. Unfortunately due to his unusual appearance and inability to make any noise, other birds bully him. While this gets him down a bit it only makes him try harder to make friends in other places. When he does find friends he is extremely happy.
Motivated and works hard
Since he isn’t accepted where he is, the orange bird decides to travel south to make friends somewhere else. However, being small he is not quite ready to make such a long trip. He learns how to get healthier and stronger and works hard to achieve his goal. He eats and balanced diet, starts working out (mainly by jumping rope), and makes sure to get good sleep every night. He’s also organized and tracks his goals with a calendar.
Smart and clever
There’s even more to this little guy than just happiness and hard work, though! He shows that is actually quite smart and is able to get himself out of sticky situations. In one story he runs into a cat, who thinks he might be a tasty meal. The orange bird distracts him by creating the image of a mouse in an orange puff of smoke, which gives him enough time to escape.
Brave and caring
Little orange bird cares about his friends, but he even cares about those who may not like him at first. He attempts to make friends with two young children who are very taken with him, but the dad calls him silly and brushes him away. Despite this rejection the orange bird later saves the dad’s life by warning him of impending danger by creating a stop sign with orange puffs of smoke. This act shows dad just how special the little guy is and the family takes him in.
Disappearance of the orange bird
Ties cut with Anita Bryant
While the orange bird was a popular figure in the 1970s, he fell into a bit of a hard place around 1977. Anita Bryant had been his “voice” since he began – she sang his songs and appeared alongside him in commercials and at a number of events. Unfortunately Bryant became rather vocal against homosexuality in her hometown of Miami, which led the Florida Citrus Commission to cut ties with her completely. While the orange bird survived this ordeal, he no longer had anyone to represent him.
In 1981 the original ten year sponsorship between Disney and the Florida Citrus Commission was up, and the two signed a new deal for a 5 year sponsorship that included continuing their relationship with Sunshine Tree Terrace as the orange bird, as well as sponsoring a new juice bar in Fantasyland.
During this time period the orange bird didn’t really appear in commercials anymore without Anita, but he was still around in the early shorts in the 1980s, on merchandise, and hanging out at the Sunshine Tree Terrace.
Sponsorship with Florida Citrus Commission ends
In 1986 the sponsorship with the FCC ended and they opted not to renew their contract. The Sunshine Tree Terrace stuck around but the orange bird figure was removed and he stopped appearing on merchandise. As far as I can tell from my research the citrus swirl was still served for a bit, but at some point after this the Sunshine Tree Terrace started serving other ice cream options, including a different orange swirl and a traditional vanilla/chocolate soft serve. At this point the orange bird was not associated with the Sunshine Tree Terrace.
Return of the orange bird
Surprisingly, it was not in Adventureland that the orange made his first reappearance, but at Tokyo Disneyland. In 2004 the theme park introduced a line of orange bird merchandise in conjunction with their “Orange day” on April 14th. The orange bird was a huge hit in Tokyo – not surprising given how adorable and “kawaii” he is. More merch was produced there as the orange bird started developing a new fan base over in Japan.
Return to Disney World
The first sign that Disney’s orange bird might be making his way back to Florida was an announcement from the Disney Parks blog in February 2011 that Epcot was selling a retro orange bird t-shirt (which is adorable, by the way – I wish I’d been able to get one!).
On March 1st, 2012, Disney World brought the citrus swirl back to the Sunshine Tree Terrace with the original recipe. This was followed by the exciting return of the orange bird on April 17, 2012. Disney had uncovered the original figurine of the orange bird from the Disney Archives and had him re-installed at the Sunshine Tree Terrace. He was actually in excellent condition due to the fact that the figure from 1971 had been replaced not too long after opening with a figure whose wings actually moved. The whereabouts of that one are still unknown.
A short move
3 years later, in March 2015, the orange bird once again took flight – but this time he didn’t go far. Disney switched the locations of the Sunshine Tree Terrace and Aloha Isle, which sells dole whip. This was most likely due to the size of the locations. Aloha Isle tended to attract longer lines and bigger crowds, and the area couldn’t accommodate it as well. Of course these days the citrus swirl is often seeing longer lines thanks to its growing popularity!
Orange bird merchandise
There were plenty of orange bird items sold in the 1970s and 1980s when he was first introduced. Merchandise was sold in Disney World and other locations in Florida, including souvenir stands the Florida welcome center. You could expect to find things like mugs, t-shirts, a sipper, a coin bank, and even an ash tray. Searching Ebay for vintage orange bird stuff can be fun though it can be pricey!
Apparently they was even an orange bird cookbook called the Sunshine Cookbook, which included a number of recipes featuring citrus. The website A Wild Tonic Vintage has pictures of the pages of the book. I may have to experiment with making some of these, though some sound a bit unusual (like the peanut butter, bacon, and orange sandwiches!).
A small collection of orange bird merchandise appeared when he made his return back in 2012. There were shirts, a pin, and an ear hat.
In 2015 there were additional new items, including a plush, a mug, a magic band, and a line of home decor which included kitchen towels, plates, glasses, a pitcher, and salt and pepper shakers. By this time my own love for the orange bird had grown strong and I was buying anything Disney made with him on it, since it wasn’t much. Most of my items had come from Etsy sellers so far. I think I purchased every item they made during this release.
Orange bird merchandise today
His popularity only grew from there, as we saw more shirts, hats, cups, bags, and all sorts of things. It definitely got to the point where I couldn’t buy it all, but I do have an awful lot of it in my orange bird collection!
In 2018 Epcot started featuring him on some of their Flower and Garden Festival merchandise and since then he’s been extremely popular. I’m not going to be super hipster and say that I liked him before he was cool (after all, there were people who were fans in the 70s long before me!), but I do feel just a little bit of pride in how much other people love him now too.
He also makes an appearance in the Disney Kingdoms comic book series, in the issue about the Enchanted Tiki Room. One of the cover variants had the orange bird on it.
Where you can find the orange bird now
Sunshine Tree Terrace
This, of course, is his home. He’s on the sign, his figurine is in there, and the citrus swirl is served up to guests. You’ll find it in Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom, not long after you walk in the archway. Just this year, in 2021, Disney added a new mural featuring the orange bird next to the Sunshine Tree Terrace.
A few years ago Disney realized the popularity of both the orange bird and instagrammable walls, and they painted an orange bird mural in Disney Springs. It’s right next to Erin McKenna Bakery in The Landing area, not too far past Paddlefish.
Believe it or not, the orange bird has made it over to California as well! There is a small nod to him inside of Trader Sam’s.
There is a very small reference to the orange bird in an area of the Skipper Canteen restaurant in Adventureland. In the library there are a number of books, and one of these is titled “Native Orange Birds of the Southeastern United States.”
While running the 2020 marathon, I was delighted when a little more than halfway through the course I heard the orange bird song playing… and there was an orange bird statue you could take a selfie with. From all the research I’ve done I’m not sure where this statue came from and when it originated, but it was fun to see!
Want to learn even more about the Disney’s orange bird or see some of the older photos? Check these out:
- Rare photos from the Disney Parks blog
- The Story and Songs of the Orange Bird by the Sherman Brothers
- Orange bird concept art from D23
- History of the Sunshine Tree Terrace from Widen your World
- More early orange bird photos from Imagineering Disney
Are you a fan of Disney’s orange bird?