How Disney Channel explained 9/11 to kids

Following 9/11, Disney Channel released content to help kids contextualize the attacks and understand their emotions.
Miguel Ortiz Avatar
disney 9/11

The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, changed the United States and the world. For children, the historic event was even more difficult to process and comprehend. Following 9/11, Disney Channel released content to help kids contextualize the attacks and understand their emotions. This included a TV show for younger kids, a movie for older kids and PSAs that aired between programs.

A crown jewel in Disney Channel’s youth programming was Bear in the Big Blue House, an Emmy Award-winning show from Jim Henson Television. An hour-long special, titled “Welcome to Woodland Valley,” first aired on September 13, 2002. “The Big Blue House is the ultimate safe haven for kids and we thought it would be the ideal setting to address some of the fears and concerns they might have,” said executive producer and creator Mitchell Kriegman in a Disney press release. “This one-hour special introduces Bear’s world — the town of Woodland Valley — and creates a safe and engaging parable for kids about September 11th, addressing how communities come together when times are difficult.”

disney 9/11 show
The two-part episode expanded the show’s setting while also covering complex themes in a kid-friendly manner (Disney)

The special depicts the titular character’s community following a storm that causes a tree to fall into the local library. Bear, a member of the Woodland Valley Volunteer Fire and Rescue Company, hosts a town meeting where the community laments the loss of their library and makes plans to rebuild it. Brad Garrett of Everybody Loves Raymond and Gilbert Gottfried of Aladdin voice two possums who lived in the tree and were affected by the loss of their home. Throughout the episode, the concepts of loss, grief and recovery are presented in kid-friendly ways, mirroring the emotions of 9/11. The special was followed by other episodes that continued the themes of community, heroism, volunteering and bravery.

Aimed at an older audience, Tiger Cruise was a Disney Channel Original Movie that premiered on August 6, 2004. The film follows a teenage girl named Maddie (Hayden Panettiere) who has a strained relationship with her father (Bill Pullman), a Navy Commander named Gary, is regularly away from home on deployments. Hoping to strengthen their relationship, Gary invites Maddie to a Tiger Cruise aboard his ship, the USS Constellation. Maddie, along with other military dependents, embarks aboard the aircraft carrier to witness Navy operations firsthand. While underway, the 9/11 attacks occur and the ship goes to a high state of readiness as the country goes to war.

tiger cruise
Tiger Cruise was a unique DCOM that recounted the events of 9/11 through a military family (Disney)

Maddie and the other dependents realize the importance of the service of their loved ones aboard the ship. From a father whose son is a culinary specialist to Maddie and her father who serves as the ship’s XO, they all understand the gravity of 9/11 and are fearful as their loved ones prepare for combat. However, the event also brings the families closer together, with Maddie understanding why her father serves in the Navy and learning to be a proud Navy brat. Tiger Cruise is based on a real-life event; the Constellation was returning from a Western Pacific deployment with “tigers” aboard when the attacks happened. For more mature viewers, the film revisits the events of 9/11 with themes of sacrifice, duty and selfless service.

For years, Disney Channel didn’t air commercials. Instead, Disney used breaks to promote its own programming or deliver PSAs. One series of PSAs was known as “Express Yourself.” These short clips featured Disney Channel stars sharing personal details about themselves including hobbies, crushes and family. This showed viewers a relatable side to the actors and encouraged kids to express themselves. A few weeks after 9/11, a sub-series of “Express Yourself” aired in which stars recalled their thoughts and reactions after the attacks.

Hilary Duff, Shia LaBeouf and Kyla Pratt were just some of the stars who shared their thoughts and experiences in the PSAs. Even then-First Lady Laura Bush was featured on Disney Channel. “All across the country, everywhere I look, I see an American flag,” she says in her segment. “It’s wonderful to see because our flag stands for all of us, every single American…that’s what freedom’s all about and that’s a flag worth flying high.” In general, the PSAs called for unity and cooperation across the country in the wake of 9/11.