Disneyland Debate: Where Do Billy Hill and the Hillbillies Belong?

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It’s no secret that many of us here at Touring Plans are big fans of Billy Hill and the Hillbillies; in the 2013 Unofficial Guide to Disneyland we give their musical comedy show 4 1/2 stars and call it “not to be missed.” Originally a street show created for the opening of Critter Country in 1989, the Hillbillies have been the most frequently featured act in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon since the Golden Horseshoe Jamboree ended its run in December of 1994.

While the Hillbillies have had the Horseshoe stage to themselves for most of the last 17 years (with the exception of Woody’s Round-Up’s run from 1999 to 2000), lately they’ve been on the move. Over the summer, they were shuffled out to the arena stage behind Big Thunder Ranch as part of a seasonal promotion, while the Laughing Stock Co. improv players took their place. More recently, Billy and the boys returned to Big Thunder for the Limited Time Magic resurrection of the beloved Golden Horseshoe Revue, albeit in the form of a “Salute” tribute show.

The Hillbillies’ hilarious bluegrass hijinks consistently draw a capacity crowd to the Horseshoe on the five days each week they perform, but all the performances of theirs I’ve seen at the Ranch have seemed much more sparsely attended. The answer as to which venue is the better location for them might seem obvious at first. But over the summer, I sat down with a highly-placed member of Disneyland’s entertainment team who gave me a different perspective.

This upper-level employee (who must remain anonymous, as our lunch was an off-the-record social meeting) is a lifelong fan of the original Revue, and was instrumental in advocating for its (temporary) return. He/she argued that, though the Billy’s are brilliant at what they do, their act is thematically inappropriate for the Saloon’s 19th century setting, because they “know they are in a theme park” and “break the fourth wall” with modern pop-culture wisecracks.

After attending a recent show in which the Hillbillies referenced American Idol, YouTube, and the Columbia House Music Club, it’s hard for me to argue with the premise. Yet, the packed audience around me (especially the special-needs boy blissfully dancing in the front row) didn’t seem to mind at all.

Should Disneyland’s favorite funny fiddlers have a permanent home in their most popular locale? Or should the Saloon return to presenting authentic 1800′s entertainment full-time like it did when Walt sat in the opera box? If entertainment and thematic integrity conflict in a theme park setting, which should win out? Join the debate, and leave your opinion in the comments below!

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Posted on March 4, 2013

23 Responses to “Disneyland Debate: Where Do Billy Hill and the Hillbillies Belong?”

  • It’s a good question.

    Personally, I think the days of a perfectly historically accurate show are long over, given rumors of numerous guest complaints about the Golden Horseshoe Revue during Limited Time Magic. There are a million “historically inaccurate” aspects to just Disneyland alone (e.g. Star Tours = “long time ago” in “Tomorrow”Land).

    Billy Hill certainly celebrates the old west in a way a show about Woody and Jesse could never do.

  • Billy Hill and the Hillbillies belong in the Golden Horseshoe, right where they have been for the past seventeen years. As Kevin Crossman pointed out, there are many examples of “historically inaccurate” attractions in Disneyland. And entertainment value, especially that of a time-honored, deeply loved act like the Hillbillies, who have been consistently playing to a packed house for many years, is far more important to the average park guest than perfect historical accuracy. Furthermore, it is much more comfortable for guests to enjoy the show inside the Golden Horseshoe in every type of weather than it is to view it outdoors in Big Thunder Ranch. The Billies’ audience at Big Thunder Ranch has been pitiful, but they pack the house in the Horseshoe. Please, Disney execs, if you are reading this, please don’t mess with our beloved Hillbillies. Let them continue to play to capacity crowds inside the Golden Horseshoe.

  • I don’t think the billy’s were ever on for their historical accuracy but for the music and laughs that fit our current culture. Does the joke really matter as long as the audience likes it? All of my family and friends love the billy’s because of their lovable style and are pretty upset they were moved from the horse shoe and are not considered as good as they used to be by some people. I can assure anyone that more people will be upset than pleased if the billy’s are removed or leave the horse shoe permanently. Please do not do this!

  • I hardly know where to begin. OK, Disney has a situation with Billy Hill and The Hillbillys (as well as Off Kilter in Epcot) where a band has managed to devise a show that is creative and unique within the confines of a theme park environment. That in itself is remarkable. Certainly any musician in the parks is going to be competent, but having to please, or at least not offend, corporate execs, sponsors, families, etc does not afford the freedom of a nightclub or music fest, yet these guys have managed to pull it off.

    But I saw numerous problems at the Ranch last November. First, the intimacy is gone. I was 20-30′ from the stage-and I was front row center! At the Shoe, one can sit ON the stage. I’m a veteran of many outdoor music events, and they require volume. Disney will never turn it up loud enough because it will bleed out to other sections of the park (Off Kilter can be heard across the lake). That can’t happen at the ranch, either, because it will interfere with cookie decorating, and animal petting, and, well, there’s another problem-there are too many distractions from the show at this location.

    But the problems I witnessed at the holiday show went beyond these logistical issues. I’m only guessing, but I just don’t see the guys on stage coming up with ideas like pre-printed cards for sing-a-longs or the Country Bears dancing in front of the stage. This makes me truly fear that someone may try to turn a great family show into a kid’s show. To clarify the difference, Toy Story 3 is a family movie; Elmo spending 80 minutes searching Garbageland for his lost blanket is a kid’s movie. It would destroy the show, and is unnecessary anyway. I’ve invited strangers to sit at my table, and have seen a quiet, shy kid totally light up when the music starts.

    We first saw this band in 2001 just to be DL completests, and have been back every time we’ve been down since. I consider their show one of the top 10 attractions in the park! One of the top 5 shows I saw last year was The Billys on Leap Night, and Bruce Springsteen is also on that list. But after hyping up the band, I felt a need to apologize to family members for the performance we saw at the Big Thunder Ranch. Worse still, I was talking to a friend that also loves this band, and she said the same thing about the show in that venue. Venues matter, if you the same band at The Fillmore and a winery, it will be a different experience. In this case, most of the differences are negative.

  • Great article Seth. Billy Hill and the Hillbillies is my favorite live entertainment in any Disney Theme Park. I never miss it.

    The time for arguing a traditionalist position for the relocation of the show seems long past. The Billys have played enough shows to become a tradition in their own right. Breaking “the fourth wall” and working in references to pop culture is a big reason why I find the show so entertaining. So is the case with Disney’s Aladdin: A Music Spectacular across the promenade. Both would be lesser shows, in my opinion, if they omitted the Charlie Sheen and American Idol wisecracks.

  • I have really enjoyed watching Billy Hill and the Hillbillies at the Golden Horseshoe much more than at the Big Thunder Ranch. The seating is better, the sound is better and the audience seems to get into the show much more.
    The Laughing Stock may be considered much more 19th century, but I don’t see how a guy dressing in drag is very “trsditional” or more of Walt would have wanted to see. Plus, I find the production much more campy and predictable.
    I say if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

  • by mike walton on May 25, 2013, at 9:29 pm EDT

    I have seen the Hillbillies show at least a half dozen times. I really
    enjoy the show. But this discussion has made me recall that back when I worked at Disneyland as a restaurant kitchen helper 1974-1976, I used to watch the show at the Horseshoe that was, come to think of it, a Vaudeville style act that probably was created in the image of late 19th and early 20th century entertainment. I think it would be nice to revive that style of entertainment at the Horseshoe. I recall that it was very popular. Maybe the return of Vaudeville-like entertainment should be given an opportunity in keeping with the Park’s theme and to give folks a glance of an era now mostly forgotten. I’m saying this as a Hillbilly fan. If Disney doesn,t do it, who else will ?

  • Golden Horseshoe, no question. Anyone with any entertainment industry experience would know that an act like The Billys only works in an intimate venue. Kirk Wall is a brilliant physical comic and the audience is cheated when positioned far from his subtle inflections. This is show-biz 101, which I’m afraid is apparently lost on this generation of Disney leadership. Sad.

  • by Bruce Bergman on June 5, 2013, at 7:00 pm EDT

    There IS continuity in the Billies, strangely enough – a younger Kirk Wall (Elvis Billy, the Lead) was one of the regular Subs for the Traveling Salesman (Dick Hardwick, originally Wally Boag) in the original GH Revue.

    The Billies fit in well at the Horseshoe, and there are several other shows at DL and DCA that take pokes at the Fourth Wall – The Genie over at the Hyperion has been tying it into a pretzel for several years now, and I’ve heard the Mad T Party take a few swipes at it too.

    They do all right at the Ranch, but Weather is a big problem – Rain and stringed instruments don’t get along too well… And Disney has finally fixed the place up, they needed to add shade-cloth ‘sails’ and get a lot more benches and tables, and push them out towards the stage.

    Oh, revise the original story, they have enough Players and Subs that there are three basic “team” groupings and they have covered 7 days for several years now.

    http://www.jansworld.net/The_Billys.html
    http://www.angelfire.com/biz7/wb6uce/area51.html
    among several others.

  • They only play 7 days a week during busy season. All 4 times I’ve gone to DL this year the show was dark Tue-Wed.

  • Personally I say leave them in The Golden Houseshoe…If not, then build a theater at the Ranch…an outdoor show does them and Disneyland a disservice!The Billy’s are a mainstay at the Park and should be treated with more respect. The Laughing Stock sucks! (Sorry)

  • by Irene Kautto on June 5, 2013, at 9:28 pm EDT

    The thinking of the upper level employee really bothers me. I’m afraid this is the kind of thinking going on in Disney management and that is behind many of the decisions being made that make many of us who love Disney, and especially the entertainers, shake our heads in dismay. The Billies in the Golden Horseshoe is a gold mine for the Park. The shows are consistently packed out because they put on a good show in there. As has been stated in comments above, this show works so much better in an intimate setting. It was disheartening last Summer to see how poorly attended the show was at Jamboree. So many people just didn’t seem to grasp the concept of where they were. Lots of people continued to go the the Shoe and were confused when they did not appear. The hike up the trail is hard for some people, the weather can be tough up there, the stage is way to large for them, etc. Mind you, I love Laughing Stock also, but they just don’t bring in the crowds like the Billies do. Their show works better outside the Shoe like it has in the past. Breaking the fourth wall is what makes this show so fun and different each time you go. One of the main reasons I have continued to purchase an Annual Pass every year is because of the Billies. I will follow the Billies no matter where Disney puts them, but they belong in the Golden Horseshoe.

  • They SO belong at the Golden Horseshoe. NO question about it. I also saw them in the fall (Halloween time) at the Big Thunder Ranch. The crowd did not know what to do as there were so many other activities going on around them. The “Billys” deserve respect while they are entertaining us. The Ranch was like a free for all. People were up and about, talking over the music (rude) and the characters were wandering around distracting from the Billys. Yes, they belong at the Golden Horseshoe.

  • I renew my passport every year because of the Billies playing at the Horseshoe. It is the best entertainment in the park, and their talent is unmatched. However, when they were moved to Thunder Ranch, I was so saddened to see the show surrounded by a petting zoo and dancing characters. That is NOT who the Billies are! They have created a show that is perfect for the horseshoe venue, and is packed every time I go. The comments of modernizing the show being out of place is ridiculoous. Disney acts like over the years they have not made updates to their attractions that cater to the modern public. For instance, Jack Sparrow is now a part of pirates and the haunted mansion has too many updates to even count including an entire halloween change based on one of their more modern animations. Would Disney dare move the pirates from their home, or the ghosts from the haunted mansion? Why mess with perfection and remove the billies from the environment in which they created?

    • by Bruce Bergman on June 6, 2013, at 1:40 pm EDT

      Ummm… :blink: Outdoors isn’t the problem, it’s the faulty match between the act and venue that doesn’t help. The nucleus of what became The Billys got their start outdoors in the walkways of Bear Country and running “PigMania” (pig races) at the “State Fair” summer promotion in what, 1976? Goats a few hundred feet away are nothing in comparison to a dozen mini pigs right there…

      And they still do fine as a street act when they go play with Farley or they get kicked out of the Shoe to the Emporium porch for a day for a special event. But there again, they are allowed to get ‘up close and personal’ with the audience.

      The main problem with the Festival Arena / Big Thunder Ranch is it was built for big events and a big cast – the boys have a hard time filling the stage, and there’s no easy way to shrink it by pushing the Cyc (backdrop/rear curtain) forward. No front stairs down to the audience, they have to go alllll the way around the sides, then cross the moat of that big gap between the stage apron and the audience.

      And it needed sun control, and a lot more seating was finally added – people had to sit on the concrete if they weren’t the first ones there.

      And the food service from ODV Carts at the Ranch was slow to arrive and leaves much to be desired (selection price and quality) compared to the Mile Long Bar and full kitchen from Stage Door Café. All this stuff should have been addressed before sending them out there, but the move was done on the cheap.

      Besides, there are a few advantages – the Billys get to scream at the trains, goof with the Characters wandering around (including the Big Cheese) and “play off” the Goat Parade as they head Backstage if the Circle D Ranch folks time it right. Can’t do that in the Shoe!

  • by Judy Cordell on June 14, 2013, at 10:19 pm EDT

    My only struggle on this one is that I think the sound quality is much better at the ranch. Other than that they ABSOLUTELY belong in the Shoe – the intimate environment is perfect for the show and they have made it their own. They are the best live entertainment in Disney and their show is the reason I have an annual pass. And they certainly don’t need all those other “goings on” at the ranch – one of my favorite things about the shows in the Shoe is watching the kids. It’s one of those wonderful experiences Disney creates for kids – they are sitting there learning how amazing great live music and comedy can be. What else could Walt have wanted for his beloved Golden Horseshoe? If that’s not fitting with the spirit of Disney, I don’t know what is.

  • The first thing I checked before deciding to get tickets to Dland with my kids was which rides were inoperable and what were the showtimes for Billy Hill and the Hillbillies…once the ‘castmember’ on the phone told me they weren’t on the calendar (9/5/13) I decided against coming…they are the main reason that I personally love going…the looks on my kids faces are PRICELESS when intimately viewing their antics, expressions and interactions with the audience. Our last visit at the Horseshoe was incredible…it wouldn’t be the same without them. Sounds like they moved for a spell at another venue…can’t imagine not being able to see their expressions…those TEETH, LOL!! Love these guys…they don’t have to change one thing, I’ve seen the show it seems dozens of times and I never tire…the kids never stop laughing the moment they show up on stage. I hope they come back to the Horseshoe SOOOON!

  • Horseshoe. Definitely. When my family and I were at Dland last year for 5 days, we went to see the Billies 5 times. It was on all of our Top Five lists (and we were ages 9-63). I, too, would factor in the Billies’ performance schedule when planning future trips to Disneyland. I didn’t see them perform at the Ranch, but I don’t have to in order to know that it wouldn’t work well. That corporate concern about the Billies being anachronistic is silliness and a little pitiful. Show some respect to the Billies and KEEP THE BILLIES AT THE HORSESHOE. Their show is one of Disneyland’s greatest assets.

  • The premise is all wrong. The question is not “Where Do Billy Hill and the Hillbillies Belong?”, The issue is that the Golden Horseshoe is deserving of a top billed show at the park. There has always been a live show in the Golden Horseshoe, and each have evolved with different pop culture jokes. A cheap improve of regular cast members seems to be the issue. Billy Hill can be one of the shows at BTR, or GH. Please Park Entertainment. Apply your budget to maintain the dignity of the park’s facilities.

  • Billy Hill & the Hillbillies is some of the best comedy around. What makes comedy work is an audience’s ability to identify with the humor being presented. The Billies have always done that, complaining about their contempory jabs is to complain about their ability to make us laugh. They, of course, have developed a serious fan base that keeps coming back and misses them deeply whenever they are not present in the park. They deserve the Golden Horseshoe as their venue. That’s where we met them and fell in love with them. Big Thunder Ranch is not their natural environment — it was the Revue setting that unleashed the creativity we experienced there. When they get moved the “magic” ceases to function in the same way!!! Bring them home, please!