In the late summer of 2002, a handful of young actors converged in Hollywood at Raleigh Studios and started a new era of the Disney Channel. After beginning as a subscription-based network and carrying a variety of classic Disney movie and TV reruns over its first 20 years, the sudden popularity of Even Stevens and Lizzie McGuire provided an impetus for a full rebrand. So, a month before launching an interactive logo and new color design, executives arranged for their bright-eyed stars—Hilary Duff, Shia LaBeouf, Christy Carlson Romano, and numerous others—to spend a day in front of the camera, introducing their real selves to all of their devoted viewers.
Nothing about this block of promotional shooting seemed very special. Upon entering the sound stage, actors went through wardrobe and makeup stations, then walked over to a variety of film setups. To kick off the channel’s new “Express Yourself” initiative, director Glen Owen asked each of them questions about their lives, switching out lighting gels and backdrops in between answers to diversify the minute-long packages meant to show how Disney kids were just like real kids. Owen would then guide each of them to a white backdrop for some new station identifications. “It was a small part of their day,” he says. “Just one more stop along this promo train.”
After relaying the vision, Owen handed them a green drum stick, which an effects team would later turn into a sparkling wand, and asked them to address the camera with a simple, three-part phrase—“Hi, I’m [state your name], from [state your TV show], and you’re watching Disney Channel”—before tracing the outline of Mickey Mouse’s ears to approximate the new logo, making sure their pretend wands didn’t block their face and mostly kept the character’s rounded shapes. “We didn’t realize what we were doing was branding ourselves,” Romano says. “But they really were creating an image that would never get out of people’s heads.”
When the “wand IDs” premiered 10 months later on June 7, 2003, they exemplified the network’s revamped synergistic strategy and kid-friendly aesthetic. As conceived by Disney Channel creative director Andrea Taylor, the brief interstitials helped contextualize the actors with the characters they played, but more importantly, they showed the stars interacting with sparkly Disney magic, conjuring the mouse-eared logo with an easy and mimicable one-handed motion followed by a hummable (and highly-memorable) four-note mnemonic. “The idea was that the kids, who are the stars of the network and the same age as the audience, could interact with the logo and be a new Disney Channel,” Taylor says. “We felt it was the perfect connection.”
The brilliant piece of marketing distinguished the Disney brand from competing kids’ networks, breaking the fourth wall between Lizzie McGuire or Ren Stevens and the tweens watching them each week. And for newer iterations of Disney stars who grew up on the channel, being asked to wave the wand became a rite of passage (over 350 have aired to date). It wasn’t until 2016, when outtake footage from Atlanta-based editing house Guillotine Post leaked online, that the wand IDs reentered the cultural discourse. The clips—still saturating social media today—were hysterical, but their virality highlighted the easily recognizable nature of those original interstitials, nostalgic artifacts that transported many back to their favorite childhood programming. “I don’t think that we ever really thought this was going to live on,” Romano says. But in many ways, the promos were designed to do just that.
Throughout the late 1990s, Disney Channel couldn’t decide on a target audience. At the time, it had been split up into three programming blocks: Playhouse Disney, with content aimed at preschoolers; Vault Disney, which packaged classics like The Mickey Mouse Club and The Love Bug into its overnight schedule; and an afternoon and late evening block called Zoog Disney, featuring tween shows like Smart Guy, Bug Juice, and The Famous Jett Jackson. But as the network fell behind in the ratings and lost market share to Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, Disney Channel president Richard Ross knew his brand needed a facelift and more focused point of view.
After the channel migrated to basic cable in 1997 and started developing newer shows and original movies over the next few years, Ross shook up his outdated slate, removing Vault Disney from the channel (to the ire of baby boomer parents) and pivoting to 24 hours of programming for kids and tweens in 2002. “The Disney Channel is a service for kids and their families; it’s not a general entertainment service for everybody,” Ross said that year. “We can’t be all things for all people.” Around the time of the restructure, and under the guidance of brand and marketing VP Eleo Hensleigh, Andrea Taylor took on reupholstery duties, auditing the channel’s entire aesthetic before determining a new direction for what Taylor remembers as “basically a channel for 6-year-old girls.”
To get a sense of her audience, Taylor raided kids’ closets, looked inside their families’ fridges, and asked her nieces and nephews about their interests and habits. “They wanted to have fun, had a lot of energy, and the channel needed to exude energy,” she says. That meant stripping away the navy blue and darker red aesthetic that gave off the vibe of an “old-people network” and replacing it with bright greens, pinks, and turquoise: “fashionable colors for that age group,” Taylor says. But the bigger goal was to pivot away from Disney’s cartoon characters. The previous logo had featured an animated Mickey Mouse (and sometimes a Goofy or Donald) jumping around a mouse-eared TV, and Taylor wanted to keep the “hokey” cartoons in their vault in favor of something more relatable. Still, she says, “we couldn’t get rid of the legacy that was Disney.”
Taylor compromised with the ears. In what was a revolutionary move then, she turned the logo into a Mickey-eared outline and pushed it to the bottom left corner of the screen, differentiating it from every other channel’s right-corner identifiers. The decision allowed her to fill the logo with various kids and custom animation that could also seamlessly shoot out graphic overlays at the bottom of the screen. Then, Taylor remembers, “it all sort of came together.” Instead of just filling in the logo, she thought, Disney Channel actors could draw it out using a wand, a “secret nod to Tinkerbell” which would further connect the actors to the channel. “All those early wand IDs are sparkly and green because we knew from different focus groups, especially 11- to 14-year-old girls, that sparkles and glowing things were big,” she says.
“It was genius,” says Ron Pomerantz, who took over as Disney Channel’s creative director in 2007. “What you were doing with the stars and those IDs was showing them feeling the magic as much as anything else.”
Because Disney Channel had no commercials, Taylor was also responsible for filling 20 minutes of every hour with synergistic content. In her quest to make the channel’s stars relatable to viewers at home, Taylor suggested centering a series of sit-down interviews with actors that would tap into their youthful qualities. Labeled the “Express Yourself” segments, the minute-long features allowed actors to open up about their personal life and interests, their feelings about current events, what kinds of music they listened to, or the fashion they liked. “It’s nice to see somebody your own age talking about going through the same thing as you,” Taylor says. “I thought it was fun that the kids could step out of the shows and seem like real kids, even though [their] real life was nothing like your life.”
“Mike Galeota, who was on one of the original Disney shows called The Jersey, made this joke on set,” Romano remembers. “Disney kids are just like you except they’re famous and they live in Hollywood and they’re doing this commercial. At that time, we were like the 1 percent of the 1 percent.”
If the promos looked exceptionally cinematic, that’s because Owen used 35 millimeter film and dolly tracks, capturing his actors’ personalities in rich, moving close-ups and colors. “Kids know when something looks magical and alive and doesn’t look cheap,” Owen says. “People respond to that subliminally.” Taylor also opted for softer lighting to cultivate a more intimate first impression, and a grainier texture to share a visual language with the Disney Channel Original Movies. “That feeling, that magic and heart and soul had to be there,” she says. “What had been done before didn’t feel permanent, it didn’t feel like a big deal. This felt like a big deal.”
The ultimate goal was for kids to look at Disney Channel as if it was their friend—more specifically, their safe friend. In contrast to Cartoon Network’s vibes of a rowdy kid “standing on a desk throwing paper,” Taylor says, and Nickelodeon’s “kids vs. parents” branding, Disney Channel could be counted on as a place for “nice, occasionally rebellious” kids learning tidy moral lessons. The “Express Yourself” promos and wand IDs only accentuated that. “Yes, kids can be wacky and crazy, but we were also very smart. We knew what was going on in the world and in our own lives,” says Tamera Mowry-Housley, one half of the starring duo on Sister, Sister. “The stars were not afraid to really go there, make faces, be emotional, and enjoy every moment of it. It literally felt like home.”
Much like the actors he was filming, Glen Owen had no expectations for the interstitials he recorded. “There was no real gravity about what this was going to turn into,” he says. The director had worked with Taylor previously at TNT creating NBA playoff and NFL promotional campaigns, so he was used to running various subjects through a gauntlet of questions and prompts. Still, because this was the first time he was asking actors to trace invisible mouse ears, the Disney stars felt like guinea pigs. “We didn’t have a video to show them what it would look like,” Taylor says. “It was hard for them to understand. They’d had a long day.”
That’s evident in the viral Guillotine Post clips, which showed stars such as Hilary Duff and Lalaine not quite grasping the reference of their imaginary drawings. “If their arm movements weren’t right then we would do it again,” Owen says before laughing. “That obviously shows that I wasn’t a good communicator of what we were doing, I guess.” Around the time of this old footage dropping, design-savvy fans added a green marker effect to show the real lines the actors were waving, which hardly resembled Mickey’s rounded ears. “I was, like, a pubescent teen—I was like, ‘What are they making me do, this is invisible!’” Duff told BuzzFeed last year. “But Raven-Symoné was nailing it!”
Over the next few years, as more stars got their chance to light up Mickey’s ears, Owen and other directors leaned on the first batch of finished promos to demonstrate the logo without the effects teams resorting to too many close-ups and hiding tricks. When That’s So Raven star Kyle Massey arrived on set, he had the benefit of looking at the correct shape on a whiteboard as a reference point before being told to “do something crazy” as a bowtie for the bumper. “It looks like you’re going right to left but you’re really going from left to right,” says Raven’s Home star Issac Ryan Brown. “It’s very confusing and if you are not paying attention it can definitely look like you’re drawing something that’s not on the screen.”
The visual didn’t help Spencer Breslin, who was invited to the set to promote his Disney Channel Original Movie, You Wish! “I can’t overstate how bad I am at drawing and tracing,” he says. “I’m just terribly uncoordinated. It doesn’t look like I knew what I was doing.” On the other end of the spectrum, Kyla Pratt, excited for an opportunity in front of the camera as the voice of Penny from The Proud Family, made sure to nail every detail. “I remember trying to be extremely precise with my perfectionist ways,” she says. “I did a small line across, then a perfect ear lobe, and then a line across, and then a perfect ear just to finish it off. I was very big on trying to make sure it looked right.”
The same amount of effort went into the “Express Yourself” promos. Before production, Taylor and Owen would review a list of prompts, eventually asking each actor the same question three different ways to get varied inflections and answers that usually turned into productive conversations. “It flowed nicely and had an organic feel and ultimately it let kids feel more comfortable,” he says. Before YouTube and social media, the promos became the only way kids could learn something new about their idols, many of whom would go on to become celebrities in their own right. “They were their movie stars,” Taylor says. “Lizzie McGuire was the biggest thing in those kids’ lives. She was huge.” As Breslin puts it: “Hilary was like the Julia Roberts for kids.”
“Disney wanted us to be normal kids, but what ended up happening was the opposite effect,” Romano says. “It actually glamorized us and made us these household names that also amplified Disney Channel.”
Two decades later, Pratt hasn’t been able to escape the power of the Disney wand. As the voice of Penny once again on The Proud Family: Louder and Prouder, she’s continued to attract younger fans, but many times they’ll approach her in public with a simple flick of the wrist. “They’ll just walk up and pretend like they’re holding a wand and literally try to do the Mickey Mouse ears,” she says. In keeping with her perfectionist ways, however, Pratt often obliges with a few corrections during these encounters, breaking the tension by helping them draw it out again. “I’ll be like, ‘Hold on, you didn’t do it right! You forgot the area in the middle,’ and we’ll make a joke out of it.”
That’s a tribute to Disney’s dedication to the wand ID, the way it’s become a fixture and an unlikely through line between the channel’s past and present stars. What might have been just another silly stop on a long day of promo shooting in 2002 became an aspiration for actors looking to break into the network. Getting the chance to wave the wand, introduce oneself, and tell everyone the name of the channel they were watching suggested a milestone in the kid-entertainment industry. “It felt like I had finally entered a new realm,” says Brown, who now acts alongside Raven-Symoné, one of the original wand wavers. “It felt like I had earned my stripes.”
In the same way Selena Gomez would practice her own wand IDs before landing on the network, Pomerantz remembers Sabrina Carpenter telling him that she had waited her entire life to perform one of these interstitials, so that by the time they filmed, she was “reaching this weird pinnacle.” Sometimes the IDs even prompted contractual issues, especially if an actor wasn’t scheduled to film one of the promos. “It was either negotiated or you have to squeeze another one in,” he says. “It became a point of contention.” Despite today’s stars never having watched That’s So Raven or The Suite Life of Zack & Cody, they know those shows’ actors all took part in drawing mouse ears. “The kids that are on the Disney Channel now, to a degree, know about their ancestors,” Romano says. “In some ways it’s a visual living history of those who come before them.”
Of course, kids (like those stopping Pratt on the street) and Disney adults share a similar desire to wave the wand, even if they’ve outgrown watching the network. No doubt inspired by the wand ID outtakes, fans and even some past Disney stars contributed to a TikTok trend that involved drawing the mouse ears with their nose instead of a wand. And at last year’s D23 Expo, the Burbank-based giant set up an interactive exhibit in which fans could hop inside a larger-than-life television and wave a wand over some mouse-ear outlines for a nostalgic and cathartic photo-op. “It was one of the most popular things,” says Taylor, who left television to start an interior design agency. “So many people connect to a piece of their childhood.”
As she looks back on her brief but crucial time at Disney Channel, Taylor believes her interstitials have persisted because they reflect the company’s mission: “making magic and fun and something amazing out of nothing.” Though today’s stars now draw an updated pair of mouse ears that function as the dot on Disney’s “I,” their practical function and essence remains. “As a kid, so many things are done for you, but it’s amazing when you can do something yourself,” she says. “[The wand] transforms you into this world. You can make the ears, you can make the world nice. Even if it’s for four seconds.”
Jake Kring-Schreifels is a sports and entertainment writer based in New York. His work has also appeared in Esquire.com, GQ.com, and The New York Times.