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'Disney Channel Games' quietly ended 15 years ago, but it was the peak of Disney Channel's golden age

Allison McClain Merrill   

'Disney Channel Games' quietly ended 15 years ago, but it was the peak of Disney Channel's golden age
  • "Disney Channel Games" ended 15 summers ago after a three-season run from 2006 to 2008.
  • In the series, Disney Channel stars competed in various challenges to win the annual color war.

Editor's note: The following interviews were conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began on July 14.

In 2006, Disney Channel was at the top of its game.

The network had a major hit on its hands when "High School Musical" premiered in January, and shows like "Hannah Montana" and "The Suite Life of Zack & Cody" were airing new episodes weekly. Its young stars — including Zac Efron, Miley Cyrus, and Vanessa Hudgens — were becoming household names.

With a captivated young audience, the network gathered its young Hollywood talent for what it hoped would be a summertime must-watch: "Disney Channel Games."

The producer Art Spigel's reality-competition series ran for three seasons, from 2006 to 2008. The games divided the young actors from the Disney Channel universe into color-coded teams and challenged them to complete obstacle courses, hamster-ball relay races, and more.

The competitors are now full-fledged adults; some are still in the spotlight, and others are far from it. But the short-lived program remains a time capsule of a different era of Disney Channel and reality TV.

Fifteen years after the games ended, Insider spoke with showrunners, participants, and others about how the games came together and their lasting impact.

'Disney Channel Games' allowed fans to see their favorite stars interacting together

Reality TV was picking up speed by the new millennium, with shows like MTV's "The Real World" and ABC's "The Bachelor" drawing large audiences. Disney Channel wanted in on the reality TV craze.

"MTV had switched from showing videos to mainly showing reality programs, and a lot of them were challenge-based. So it was definitely on our mind that we wanted to be competitive with that type of programming," Skot Bright, an executive producer of the 2007 and 2008 seasons of "Disney Channel Games," told Insider.

The channel had dabbled in reality TV with "Bug Juice," which followed non-famous teens to summer camps around the US and aired in 1998. But by 2006, Disney Channel had an advantage its competitors didn't: a roster of teen megastars.

"Disney Channel Games" gave audiences the rare chance to see stars like Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale, Zac Efron, and Corbin Bleu as themselves, all in one place.

Each year the games got bigger — and the stakes got higher

Disney Channel filmed the premiere 2006 games in Santa Clarita, California, with three teams: red, blue, and green. Competitors tested their skills in inflatable obstacle courses; egg tosses; Rock, Paper, Scissors; Simon Says; and more.

Bright said that as the series evolved, the games "had to be bigger," in terms of both their scale and their filming location.

After the first season, the show moved from Santa Clarita to the massive fields of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida, and expanded to feature Disney Channel stars from not just the US but around the world.

The games included more complicated events, like kart racing and soccer with a giant ball. Viewers at home could win points for the stars by playing online games.

By 2008, there were four teams: the Inferno, the Lightning, the Cyclones, and the Comets. As important as the competition was, half the fun was watching the Disney Channel stars interact.

Director Linda Mendoza said they wanted it to feel organic, capturing moments like real-life best friends Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez checking their lipstick ahead of the games or watching the teens hang out in their color-coded team tents with inflatable furniture between rounds.

Bright said the producers spent a lot of time figuring out the teams, considering the stars' personalities and ensuring a good mixture of international participants. "It helped amp up the rivalry and the competitiveness of it," Bright said.

Part of building up the games was adding a charity component. The first year, the winning team walked away with a trophy and each member received a medal. The following two years, each of the four teams also donated $25,000 to a partner charity.

Stars got to know each other through the games — they just had to score an invite

To make the games a can't-miss event, the channel needed the buzziest stars to compete.

Actors from originals like "High School Musical," "That's So Raven," and "Hannah Montana" got their chance to shine. The "Suite Life of Zack & Cody" actors Brian Stepanek and Phill Lewis shared host duties for the first two years. (Stepanek hosted solo in 2008.)

Monique Coleman said she and Jason Earles, her "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" costar, recently laughed about how competitive they got during the games. "We were ridiculous," she said. "And we were older than everybody and did not care."

Ambra Lo Faro, who appeared on Disney Channel Italy's "Quelli dell'Intervallo," said that while she was confident as a musician and singer, she knew she was "the worst sports player ever" — so she wasn't expecting her "Disney Channel Games" invite.

"Once they asked me to be part of these games, I told them, 'Are you sure?'" she recalled.

After all, appearing on Disney Channel didn't automatically score an actor an invitation to compete.

Alyson Stoner said the network didn't ask them to participate until they appeared in "Camp Rock," a 2008 Disney Channel original movie. From 2002 to 2006 they appeared on "Mike's Super Short Show," an interstitial series that regularly played on Disney Channel but was owned by Buena Vista.

Stoner said they felt that their previous role "didn't make the cut in terms of hierarchy," but said when they finally did get the invite, they felt as if they'd "been affirmed as a special, exclusive, cool kid."

The coveted invite wasn't just an opportunity to participate in the games — it was a ticket to a week filled with friends and VIP access to the Disney parks.

Actors competing in the 2007 and 2008 games stayed at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, a 15-minute drive from Magic Kingdom.

"It really turned into a camp-like experience where we were coming from all over and then suddenly we're here together and forming friendships," said Jason Dolley, a "Cory in the House" actor. "And the best thing was at the end of the day we got to go out and go to the parks together."

The stars received VIP treatment, with personal drivers who'd take them and their families from Space Mountain to the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster to the Tower of Terror.

"We immediately were spoiled because they really made it so magical," "High School Musical" star Corbin Bleu said. "We had a VIP tour guide for our family that would take us through the park and bring us to the front of the line."

Michael Seater, a star of "Life with Derek" who joined the games as a Canadian correspondent, recalled the "Suite Life" stars Dylan and Cole Sprouse getting Space Mountain technicians to keep the ride open after hours.

"We're shooting out of the mountain into the fireworks," Seater said. "It was one of the craziest things."

Disney Channel tapped rising pop stars to perform at the games' Olympics-inspired 'closing ceremonies' in 2007 and 2008

There was no concert in the 2006 "Disney Channel Games" finale, but because many Disney Channel actors were also pursuing music careers, it was a no-brainer to have them perform at closing ceremonies in 2007 and 2008.

Hope Diamond, Disney Channel's former vice president of public relations, said that if the network was promoting an actor's singing career, it was "firing on all cylinders of entertainment." The strategy included playing the actor's music on Radio Disney, which was owned by Disney Branded Television, and giving them a slot to perform live at the games.

The addition of music made the final ceremony bigger. In 2007, the Jonas Brothers took the stage to perform "Kids of the Future," and Cyrus sang "G.N.O. (Girl's Night Out)."

The following year, Cyrus returned for a live rendition of "See You Again," Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers sang the "Camp Rock" hit "This Is Me," Jordan Pruitt belted out "My Shoes," and The Cheetah Girls performed "One World."

Mendoza said that when the Jonas Brothers played in 2008, "it was like a sea of bouncing heads." She added, "It was the most phenomenal energy I think I've ever seen at a show."

"We were excited to have other artists that are on the channel be there to see us live in person, because that was one thing we didn't always get to go do," Sabrina Bryan, a member of The Cheetah Girls, said.

Disney Channel nixed the games in 2008, but they remain a fond childhood memory for many people

In 2009, a Disney representative told the website PopStar that Disney Channel would shift its focus away from the games.

"Disney Channel Games" never returned to the air.

Though the games weren't on for long, they've stuck with people. For competitors, it was a chance to spend time with their friends.

"As you're inducted into the Disney Channel family, you end up doing Disney Channel interstitials, and you have different commercials," Bleu said. "At press events, you start to see all of the same people over and over again. And so those other TV shows become your family."

For fans, it let them feel closer to the young stars they loved.

"People still actually ask about it," Andrea Guasch, who joined the games from Disney Channel Spain, said. "It was so long ago. I just did an interview this morning, and they were like, 'Oh my God, and how was the "Disney Games"?' I was like, 'Really? After all these years?'"

The people interviewed for this article said they didn't know why the games ended after 2008, and a representative for Disney Channel did not respond to Insider's request for comment.

Still, the games arrived at what many millennials consider the network's golden age. Maybe someday it'll join a slew of other nostalgia-fueled shows and be rebooted, but for now, "Disney Channel Games" remains firmly in the past.

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