Black-ish might be a hit show worthy of an Emmy nomination for best comedy this year, but when you're an ABC family sitcom, you haven't truly arrived until you travel to Disney World or Disneyland to film an episode.
The series is finally doing that during Wednesday's Season 3 premiere, when Dre, played by Anthony Anderson, takes his family to Disney World to give them the VIP Disney vacation he never had as a kid.
The Disney World (or Disneyland) excursion has become a rite of passage for ABC's family sitcoms since Disney acquired the network in 1996. The Middle took its cast to Disney in 2014, while Modern Family set an episode at Disneyland in 2012. In the '90s, six ABC shows traveled to Disney World—Roseanne, Family Matters, Full House, Boy Meets World, Step by Step and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch—though some of those trips came before Disney bought ABC.
But the partnership wasn't a mandate from ABC's parent company, said Black-ish executive producer Jonathan Groff, who also wrote the episode. Sydnee Rimes, director of current programming at the show's studio, Disney-ABC Television Group, "is a giant Disney fan, and she was like, 'Wouldn't it be cool?' We responded to the idea right away," said Groff.
At first, Black-ish was going to visit Disneyland as Groff and creator Kenya Barris even scouted the Anaheim, Calif. park in spring 2015. "Then I think Disney's priorities as a corporation switched, and they said, 'we'd actually try to do something with Disney World.' So that became a bigger conversation, and a more ambitious travel situation for us, but they were really excited about it," said Groff.
Producers worked with Kevin Young, who handles global broadcast content for The Walt Disney Company, to come up with a suitable story and script that would get the thumbs up from the Disney Parks team. "He was really good at knowing what Disney, brand-wise, would be comfortable with, and also knowing that we needed to make a funny show that was entertaining, and do a show that was still our show," said Groff.
Those discussions with Young and other Disney executives over content were no different than his usual dealings with the network and studio, said Groff. "For me, it was just wrangling another set of notes and being realistic about stuff," he said. "It's a good partnership. We're getting to go to this fantastic location with this unbelievable access, and they get to show this American family having a great time at their park. It was surprisingly smooth. Every time I thought, we're going to get into an argument here, we never did."
When Black-ish debuted in 2014, creator Kenya Barris intentionally made Anderson's character an advertising executive so the show would be able to organically work in integrations, like last season's partnership with State Farm. The Disney World partnership isn't an integration, but the season premiere episode does kick off a multi-episode integration with Microsoft, as the agency will be handling their account this season.
And while producers did initially pitch a storyline in which Dre's agency worked on a campaign for the theme park, they later decided it was better to make the trip more personal for Dre. "We made it a little bit of a story, as we often do, between him and Pops, Laurence Fishburne's character, where Dre had gone to Disneyland as a little kid, but they had to eat tuna sandwiches out of a brown paper bag because they were scrimping and saving to go to this place," said Groff.
That backstory is touched on in this early footage that ABC released of the episode:
Disney had signed off on the first pitch, because "they saw the value of it being looped into Dre's workplace," said Groff. When the storyline changed, producers agreed to keep one Disney World-centric scene at the agency, where Anderson brags about the upcoming trip to his coworkers.
While the show had planned to feature all four Disney World parks in the episode, logistically the cast and crew wasn't able to make it to Disney's Hollywood Studios. That forced them to cut a scene where Dre's older son, Junior (played by Marcus Scribner), who is a huge Star Wars fan, falls for a girl participating in the park's Jedi Training Academy.
The four Black-ish kid actors had previously visited Disney World in spring 2015, to shoot promos for Disney Parks. "We did think briefly about, if we get stuck, is there any way we could use some of that footage?" said Groff. But given that the teenage Scribner has gone through a growth spurt in the past year, "it wouldn't have worked."
ABC gave Groff copies of The Middle and Modern Family's Disney episodes, but "I never watched them, because I didn't want to feel overly influenced," he said. He did speak with Middle creators Eileen Heisler and DeAnn Heline for guidance, and Kenya Barris did the same with Modern Family co-creator Steve Levitan.
Levitan told Adweek that when his show was approached about the idea for the 2012 episode, "We said, 'Well, we're not doing a Disneyland commercial, but it certainly makes sense for Modern Family to go to Disneyland. Southern California families go to Disneyland. And you're now offering to make it easy to shoot there?' So let's see if there's a good story."
And Disney was open to Modern Family poking fun at them. "We said, 'Look, we're going to make fun of the long lines at Disneyland. If you don't want us to do that, we're not doing the episode.' And they said, 'Fine, go ahead.' So it made sense, and we did it. It wasn't a paid thing for us," said Levitan.
Groff said he's also happy with how his own Disney episode turned out. "We got a lot out of the time that we were there, and I think it's funny and I think it looks good," he said. "It feels like we've told a story that works for us, but we also respected the fact that we were guests there and in business with them as well."