Happiest Turkeys on Earth

at Santa’s Reindeer Roundup
Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

It’s 2005 at Yesterland. You can visit two turkeys here—37-pound Marshmallow and 35-pound Yam. They look like regular farm-raised turkeys, albeit very large ones. But these gobblers have bragging rights—especially one of them.

They were given to the White House by the National Turkey Federation, but were granted stays of execution through official pardons from the President of the United States.

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

There was a ceremony at the White house on November 22, 2005. Marshmallow took part in it, but Yam had to wait in a truck outside. Maybe that’s why Marshmallow is proudly strutting for guests while Yam is hiding in the back of the pen.

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

Here’s what President George W. Bush declared at the ceremony:

I’m going to grant a pardon this afternoon, and the pardon I grant comes with a new measure of responsibility and fame for Marshmallow and Yam. In the past years, the turkeys I spared went on to lead lives of leisure at Frying Pan Park in the state of Virginia. This year is going to be a little different. Marshmallow and Yam were a little skeptical about going to a place called “Frying Pan Park.” I don’t blame them. So I’m proud to announce that Marshmallow and Yam will serve as honorary grand marshals at Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. And they’ll go on to spend the rest of their natural lives at Disneyland.

The turkeys came from Trites Farm in Henning, Minnesota, so President Bush added, “I know that Marshmallow and Yam are going to feel pretty good strutting around sunny California, remembering the cold days of Minnesota.”

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

After the ceremony, both birds headed to Washington Dulles International Airport in a motorcade. The entire first class cabin of an LAX-bound United Airlines flight—dubbed “Turkey One” in their honor—was reserved for the caged birds and the Disney and turkey executives who accompanied them.

A Disneyland press release quoted Jeff Foland, United vice president, North America Sales:

United is honored to assist the National Thanksgiving Turkey in fulfilling the dream of all domestic turkeys—to be able to fly. It makes perfect sense the National Thanksgiving Turkey would relish the chance to fly United first class to Disneyland after being pardoned and we’re proud to assist in making him the “happiest turkey in the air.”

Two days later, Marshmallow served as honorary Grand Marshal for Disneyland’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Disneyland. Once again, Yam was left out. That’s what happens when you’re just the understudy.

Then both turkeys took up residence at their new pen.

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

So now you know why these Thanksgiving turkeys are covered with white feathers, not with crispy golden-brown skin. Instead of winding up on the Thanksgiving table at the White House, they are here at Big Thunder Ranch, home of Santa’s Reindeer Roundup.

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

The turkeys are not alone. There are other seasonal critters nearby. The story is that Santa Claus has reindeer in training here. They’re enjoying a warm winter at a corral in Yesterland before being pulled into duty at the North Pole to pull Santa’s sleigh through the nighttime sky.

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Two photos by Allen Huffman, 2005

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

Because it’s not a Thanksgiving tradition to eat reindeer, these animals did not need a presidential pardon.

There’s one more significant difference between a reindeer and a turkey…

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2005

Happiest Turkeys on Earth and Santa's Reindeer Roundup at Disneyland

Photo by Allen Huffman, 2009

You can’t feed a reindeer—but a turkey can feed you.

There had been earlier cases of a President of the United States sparing a turkey from winding up on the Thanksgiving table, but the annual tradition of granting a “presidential pardon” to the National Thanksgiving Turkey began in 1989 with President George H. W. Bush and continued with his successors.

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

White House photo by David Bohrer, 2005

President George W. Bush officially pardoning Marshmallow in 2005

The 2005 ceremony with Marshmallow was President George W. Bush’s fourth turkey pardon. But it was the first time that the turkey and his backup would go to a Disney park.

According to the New York Times (“Two Turkeys Pardoned, With First-Class Tickets” by Elisabeth Bumiller, Nov. 23, 2005), PETA tried to take credit for the switch to Disneyland.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which has been pressuring the White House for years to stop sending turkeys to Frying Pan Park, claimed credit for the switch to Disneyland. A spokesman for the organization, Bruce Friedrich, said the birds were kept in a small enclosure at Frying Pan Park and looked lonely and neglected when he visited them there several times a year.

“It doesn’t make any sense at all that the leader of the free world pardons two birds and then sends them to a life of squalor,” Friedrich said. “It’s hard to argue with Disneyland.”

Joel Brandenberger, a spokesman and lobbyist for the National Turkey Federation, which handles the pardoned birds, said the animal rights group had nothing to do with the decision to send the birds to Disneyland, “and if they think they did, they’re absolutely delusional.”

Brandenberger said Frying Pan Park had always treated the pardoned turkeys well, but Marshmallow and Yam were sent to Disneyland because it had asked for the turkeys this year to help celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Marshmallow and Yam would not be the only “Happiest Turkeys on Earth.”

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

White House photos by David Bohrer, 2005

Marshmallow, before heading to Disneyland

In 2006, President Bush pardoned Flyer and backup Fryer. His remarks included this:

Flyer is probably wondering where he’s going to wind up tomorrow. He’s probably thinking he’s going to end up on somebody’s table. Well, I’m happy to report that he and Fryer both have many tomorrows ahead of them. This morning I am grateful—I am granting a full presidential pardon so they can live out their lives as safe as can be. In fact, it gets even better. Later today, Flyer and Fryer will be on a plane to Disneyland—where they’re going to achieve further celebrity as the honorary grand marshal of the Thanksgiving Day Parade.

In 2007, President Bush pardoned 45-pound May and backup Flower. This time their destination would not be Disneyland. According to the President:

They’ll be shortly flown to Disney World, where they will serve as Honorary Grand Marshals for the Thanksgiving Day Parade. I hope that honor doesn’t go to their head. May they live the rest of their lives in blissful gobbling.

In 2008, his final year in office, President Bush pardoned the 45-pound backup turkey named Pumpkin, after Pecan, who was supposed to be the National Thanksgiving Turkey, fell ill the night before. The president announced their fate:

Pumpkin and Pecan have an exciting trip ahead of them. Later today, they will fly to Disneyland aboard “Turkey One.” Pumpkin will be the honorary Grand Marshal of Disneyland’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Together these birds will gobble the rest of their days in “The Happiest Place on Earth.” I just hope they stay humble there.

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

White House photo, 2009

President Barack Obama officially pardoning Courage the turkey, 2009

In 2009, Barack Obama was the new president. He continued the annual tradition by pardoning 45-pound Courage and backup Carolina. Before sending the birds off to be in Disneyland’s “Give a Day, Get a Disney Day” Thanksgiving Parade, President Obama’s remarks included these lines:

Today, I am pleased to announce that thanks to the interventions of Malia and Sasha—because I was planning to eat this sucker—Courage will also be spared this terrible and delicious fate. Later today, he’ll head to Disneyland, where he’ll be grand marshal of tomorrow’s parade. And just in case Courage can’t fulfill his responsibilities, Walter [Pelletier, chairman of the National Turkey Federation] brought along another turkey, Carolina, as an alternate, the stand-in.

The annual tradition of presidential pardons for Thanksgiving turkeys has continued, but not the five-year tradition of sending them to Disney parks.

2009 was the final year for new “Happiest Turkeys on Earth.” In an AP news story the following year, Disneyland spokesman John McClintock said, “We’re moving on to do new things and surprise our guests with new things.”

After Disneyland, the next destinations for pardoned Thanksgiving turkeys were George Washington’s Mount Vernon (2010 and 2011) in Northern Virginia and Morven Park (2013, 2014 and 2015), once the home of Virginia Governor Westmoreland Davis.

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

Virginia Tech media photo

2018 turkeys Peas and Carrots

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

White House photo, 2020

President Trump pardoning Corn (of Corn and Cob), a 42-pound turkey, on November 24, 2020

Presidential pardon of Thanksgiving turkey

White House photo, 2022

2022 National Thanksgiving Turkeys, Chocolate and Chip, pardoned by President Joe Biden

From 2016 through 2019, the turkeys went to Gobblers Rest at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, after their White House visits. The retirement home for the 2020 turkeys, Corn and Cob, was at the campus of Iowa State University. For the 2021 turkeys, Peanut Butter and Jelly, it was Purdue University West Lafayette, in West Lafayette, Indiana. And for the 2022 turkeys, Chocolate and Chip, the destination after the White House was North Carolina State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Over the years, regardless of where they lived after being pardoned, the turkeys usually died within a year. These were commercial turkeys, bred for fast growth and plenty of white meat—not for longevity.

Three years after Disneyland received its final “Happiest Turkeys,” an article in The Huffington Post (“Presidential Turkey Pardon 2012: Saved Birds Often Have ‘Short Retirements’” by Arin Greenwood, Nov. 20, 2012) revealed that Disney had become very good at extending the lives of the birds:

Disneyland Resort spokesman John McClintock, however, says at least three of Disney’s pardoned turkeys are still alive, thanks to a special diet devised by Disney animal keepers that has allowed them longevity beyond their expected one to two years.

“They’re not bred to live a long time,” says McClintock. “These turkeys are bred for Thanksgiving.”

The final year for Santa’s Reindeer Roundup in Frontierland was 2011. The Orange County Register explained why the seven-year tradition of “reindeer in training” would not be back in 2012 (“All of the other reindeer used to laugh and visit Disneyland” by Sarah Tully, Nov. 11 2012):

Disney’s official reason: “The reindeer are at the North Pole preparing for the holidays,” said Suzi Brown, a Disneyland Resort spokeswoman.

The back story: Disney officials recently discovered a little-known federal rule in the Animal Welfare Act, which requires a 6-foot-high fence around certain animals, including reindeer, in public displays.

Disney was allowed to get around the rule by using other barriers, because the reindeer were only there temporarily. The U.S. Department of Agriculture found no problems with the enclosures, said David Sacks, a department spokesman. OC Animal Care, the county’s animal-control department, also approved the previous displays.

But Disney officials, after discovering the rule, thought it best to halt Santa’s Reindeer Roundup this year. A 6-foot fence is too tall for smaller visitors to easily see the reindeer.

For three additional years, Disneyland’s tradition of transforming Big Thunder Ranch for the Holidays continued with a new name —Jingle Jangle Jamboree. Guests could enjoy Disney characters, music, games, cookie decorating, crafts, and seasonal entertainment. The final year was 2014.

Big Thunder Ranch closed permanently on January 10, 2016. It seems very unlikely that presidential turkeys will ever go to Disneyland again.

Unless live Thanksgiving turkeys have a significant role in future Star Wars movies, they don’t belong in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

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