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ABC revives weekly Disney series

Sundays and "The Wonderful World of Disney" used to go together like, well, Mickey and Minnie. The weekly anthology show was a national institution.

And for lots of us who grew up in the '50s, '60s, and '70s, it was a weekly event. An hour every Sunday that we could count on, that we looked forward to, that we sat down and watched with our mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers.And ABC - now a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co. - is reviving that tradition tonight. "The Wonderful World of Disney" returns as a weekly two-hour movie and kicks things off in a big way - the television premiere of the blockbuster animated movie "Toy Story" (6 p.m., Ch. 4).

It's a perfect way to revive a tradition - and what a tradition it was. For 34 of the 36 years between 1954 and 1990, a weekly "Disney" show aired on one of the three major broadcast networks. For 25 of those years, the show aired on Sundays.

The title of the program didn't much matter. It was always the same sort of family fare, whether it was called "Disneyland" (1954-58), "Walt Disney Presents" (1958-61), "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color" (1961-69), "The Wonderful World of Disney" (1969-79), "Disney's Wonderful World" (1979-81), "Walt Disney" (1981-83), "The Disney Sunday Movie" (1986-88) or "The Magical World of Disney" (1988-90).

"Hey, `Walt Disney' was a part of my childhood, too," said ABC Entertainment Chairman Stu Bloomberg. "I remember watching it with my family. We want to bring that experience back for kids today."

To that end, ABC and Disney have put together a package of theatrical and made-for-TV movies. The biggest difference between today's "Disney" and the classic versions is that this time around it will run for two hours every Sunday instead of one.

(That and a change in hosts - although current host and Disney Chairman Michael Eisner did host the show from 1986-90 on ABC and NBC and has hosted "The Disney Sunday Movie" on cable's Disney Channel since 1986.)

"We want to have something for everyone," said Charles Hirschhorn, president of Disney Telefilms. "And we want movies that will appeal to both kids and adults."

Among the Disney films scheduled for the Sunday-night time slot are "The Santa Clause," "Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book," and "Pocahontas." And a couple of straight-to-video films are included in the mix - "Aladdin and the King of Thieves" and "Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves."

Not all of the theatrical films on "The Wonderful World of Disney" will be from the Disney studios. Among the upcoming offerings are "Babe," "Casper," "The Flintstones," "A Little Princess" and "The Little Rascals."

There will also be 16 new made-for-TV movies designed especially for "The Wonderful World of Disney." The first, "Toothless" stars Kirstie Alley as a reluctant - and rather goofy - tooth fairy. (It airs Oct. 5.)

Other TV movies include:

- "Angels in the Endzone," a sequel to the theatrical "Angels in the Outfield," with Christopher Lloyd returning as Al the Angel.

- "Flash," the story of a boy (Lucas Black) and his horse.

- "The Garbage-Picking, Field Goal-Kicking, Philadelphia Phenomenon," with Tony Danza as a garbageman-turned-kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles.

- "The Love Bug," an updated version of the Disney classic.

- "Miracle at Midnight," the fact-based story of how the Danish people saved 7,500 Jews from Nazi invaders.

- "Oliver Twist," a new version of the Dickens tale headlined by Richard Dreyfuss and Elijah Wood.

- "Ruby Bridges," a fact-based story about a 6-year-old African American girl who was among the first to attend a previously all-white school in New Orleans.

- "Tower of Terror," a Halloween horror movie that features Steve Guttenberg and Kirsten Dunst.

The premiere event of "The Wonderful World of Disney" - and perhaps one of the premiere events of the TV season - comes Nov. 2.

"I'm a father of three, so I know to love all my children the same," Hirschhorn said. "But, nonetheless, one daughter we've spent more money on than any other - a little girl named `Cinderella.' "

The big-budget, big-star version of Rogers and Hammerstein's classic TV musical features Brandy in the title role, Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother as well as Jason Alexander, Whoopi Goldberg and Bernadette Peters.

The fact that Disney bought out the ABC network doubtless has a lot to do with the fact that "The Wonderful World of Disney" is back on its schedule.

"Well, it's certainly no surprise to any of us or any of you," said ABC's Bloomberg. "But I'd like to think we would have done something like this even if we weren't in the Disney family.

"And if that's what it took to put a weekly family movie on our schedule, I'm not complaining."

And neither will anyone who has fond memories of Sunday evenings spent with Uncle Walt and "The Wonderful World of Disney."