Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and so, too, is a very special birthday for Disney Junior, the Mouse House’s home for content targeting younger children: It’s turning 10.
Disney Junior first came to be on Feb. 14, 2011, as a programming block on Disney Channel, anchored by the premiere of “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” A year later, it became its own 24-hour channel, home to such hits as “Pirates,” “Doc McStuffins,” “Sofia the First,” “Elena of Avalor,” “The Lion Guard,” “Muppet Babies,” “T.O.T.S.,” “Puppy Dog Pals” and “Mira, Royal Detective.”
“Disney Junior has always been about embracing emotional, character-driven storytelling featuring age-appropriate lessons for preschoolers, combined with a touch of Disney magic that the whole family can enjoy together. We’re proud of the diverse series and characters that we’ve built over the last 10 years, including the groundbreaking ‘Doc McStuffins,’ introducing Disney’s first Latina princess with ‘Elena of Avalor’ and first little girl princess with ‘Sofia the First,’ and multiple series and specials highlighting Disney’s No. 1 star, Mickey Mouse,” says Joe D’Ambrosia, senior VP of original programming and general manager, Disney Junior. “None of this would have been possible without the most imaginative and hardworking team of executives and creative talent in the animation community. I am inspired by their work over the last 10 years and excited for what lies ahead.”
In honor of the occasion, artists Tom Warburton, executive producer of “Muppet Babies,” Ritsuko Notani, character designer of Princess Elena in “Elena of Avalor,” and Jose Zelaya, lead character designer for Disney Junior’s upcoming “Mickey Mouse Funhouse,” sat down with Variety to talk about the characters they helped fashion for the channel over the last decade.
Zelaya has worked on a number of Disney Junior projects, including its first, “Jake and the Neverland Pirates.” He calls the channel’s content “the perfect formula.” “The shows are very engaging and relatable, and we talk about positive things like inclusion, friendship, community and culture,” he explains. “’Jake and the Neverland Pirates’ was such a fun show. We all gave 100 percent to that show.”
Warburton has worked for Disney at various times over his 30-year animation career, starting out as a character designer on the Disney’s animated sitcom “Pepper Ann” in the late 1990s before moving on to his own Cartoon Network show “Codename: Kids Next Door.” When he circled back to the Mouse House, he came on as exec producer of Disney Junior’s reboot of the classic toon, “Muppet Babies,” where he got a chance to design a brand new character, Summer Penguin.
“It was a kind of delicious mix of scary and amazing and an honor to be given the opportunity to create a new character, a new Muppet,” Warburton says. “It’s no secret that the Muppets don’t have a lot of female characters, so I wanted to add another girl to our cast.”
There were a lot of discussions about what form that new character would take. “Is it going to be another frog? Is it going to be a giraffe? Is it going to be a duck? Eventually it just came down to me and our art director, Chris Marino, saying ‘Look, let’s go old school and get a stack of papers and pencils, put on some music and just doodle, and see what we come up with,’” he recalls. When it came time to present the ideas to Disney Junior execs, they had a few options. “I think there was a giraffe and there was a reindeer. Nancy Kanter [then head of Disney Junior] went right to the penguin.”
After the success of Summer Penguin, “Muppet Babies” introduced another brand new character in its Season 3 debut last month: Fozzie Bear’s adopted little sister, Rozzie.
Notani, who previously was the principal designer for characters in the “Disney Fairies” franchise, is the lead character designer on “Elena of Avalor,” the Disney Junior series created by Craig Gerber (“Sofia the First”) featuring Disney’s first Latina princess. So making sure the character is true to the culture is key, Notani says.
“We wanted make her authentic looking, not too old-fashioned. We looked at modern history and Disney classic movies, too, because we wanted her to relate to the Disney princess style,” Notani explains. The diversity of the crew has been a big plus. “We all come from different backgrounds,” she says. “That’s really nice because, if I have a question before I design, I can ask anyone and they have really unique opinions and ideas.”
Zelaya agrees. “As character designers, we’re always learning. It’s really important for us to learn different styles.”
Warburton sees Disney Junior’s success as a continuation of Disney’s overall legacy. “It’s great storytelling and classic, fun, relatable characters that kids can instantly feel like they can jump into the TV and be friends with.”
Ten years from now, Zelaya says, “I can totally see us working on more exciting Disney Junior content. There are always going to be babies. There are always going to be kids.”
“The world of Disney is so deep that there are tons of different places from which to pick and choose to do new shows,” Warburton adds. ”We tell great fun, wholesome, interesting stories, which are entertaining. But they also have great lessons to give to kids to show them about being good people.”