December 25, 2008

Getting cable for Christmas

Remember gliding along on the Skyway at that magic twilight hour?

Pretend it’s a winter night in 1978. The Park is dark on Mondays and Tuesdays, but today is Thursday. Up in the cool air as Disneyland’s lights come on, you’re having a lovely time gracefully cruising the cable. You’ve gotten to all your E-tickets, done most of the Ds, even started your day hours ago with an A on a Main Street vehicle. Now, you can pause to simply look out at the Magic Kingdom and enjoy the view.

If you boarded your bucket in Fantasyland, you might be thinking about grabbing something to eat and then dancing at Tomorrowland Terrace. On the other hand, if you began your Skyway trip in the Tomorrowland station, maybe you’ll slip through Sleeping Beauty Castle and catch the big bands at Plaza Gardens once you swing into the (now weed-choked and abandoned) chalet. The slight chill and the spray from the waterfall is just enough to make the snow seem real as you pass through the Matterhorn and wave at a passing bobsled.

I hope the cover photo on this beautiful souvenir guide from summer 1978 reminds you of what that ride was like. It looks to me like the image could have been taken during a deep, cold winter, but the feeling is nothing but warm.

Just the thing to wish all of you a very merry Christmas.

December 7, 2008

Continuing the tradition

Something struck Disneyland in 1984, and I don’t think the Magic Kingdom has ever really recovered.

It wasn't just a third of the Cast, who voted 97% to reject the company’s offer of a two-year wage freeze and 1% increase in the third year of a new three-year contract.

It wasn’t even the twenty-two day period during which nearly 1800 Disneylanders stayed away or picketed the Park.

It was the attitudes that dropped onto 1313 Harbor Blvd. like a kind of genesis device, largely replacing the Disneyland that existed back then with something else. Since Disneyland will never be completed, that shouldn’t have been such a big deal. But the new tried to represent itself as the old, and just about everyone who was around back then could tell it wasn’t going to be anything close.

You could hear it in the hollow echo of times past hanging in the air in the Opera House after Eisner and Wells tried to re-instill “The Spirit of Disneyland” in presentations that did little to convince us that the spirit hadn’t departed to join the 999 happy haunts, forced out by new landlords interested more in raising the rent then keeping the quality at the highest level.

You could feel it backstage when some Cast Members began referring to management as the “dark side.” Sometimes, you could see it onstage in guest relations that were less than they should have been. It’s nearly impossible to create happiness in others if you don’t have it within yourself.

In this holiday season, I wish for the Disneyland that was, the Park that played an important part of helping me become the person I aspire to be. Before the Bass brothers ever heard of Anaheim, before Eisner, Wells, Ovitz, Pressler, and Harris. Before Rocket Rods, Pizza Ports, and Paradise Pier.

Maybe I’ll get my wish this year. A recent new visitor to this blog reported all the Cast Members he encountered during his last visit presented an outstanding Show. If a work force composed of lower-paid, rapid turnover people can still make the dream a reality, then the new management must be doing some things right.

If you’re one of those Cast Members, keep up the good work. And if you’re in management, hop on the Jungle Cruise when Mike is back at the helm. After you ride his boat, catch up with him on break at the Pit, and learn what things were like twenty-plus years ago.

Then help bring that magic back to the Magic Kingdom.

You’ll find that by continuing the tradition, you’ll be helping to create a very important thing in life.

November 28, 2008


The Disneyland I knew didn’t have a bronze monument to Walt in its Central Plaza.

It didn’t need such a thing. The Park itself was a monument.

It represented the ideals and the dreams of Walt Disney, ideals and dreams that turned out to be the same as those of millions of people.

A better tribute to Walk would have been an image of all of those people, not his own likeness. If you wanted to see Walt’s face in Disneyland, you needed only to look around at people like this. A parent and child having fun together.

Walt was never the king of his Magic Kingdom. Disneyland used to believe its most important partnership was the one it shared with its guests. That’s why as Cast Members when working at Disneyland was The Best Possible Job, “our reason for being was not . . . to park cars, sell tickets, serve food, sweep and clean, maintain facilities, count money . . . or do any of the over 400 important tasks required to produce the Disneyland Show.

We were there to create happiness. That’s why Disneyland was a true reason for being, not merely a job.

It first described that attitude in its 1955 orientation handbook, which I’ve quoted below. The next time you go, see if you think it’s still there:

The most important person in Disneyland is a guest. A guest is a person who enters Disneyland seeking entertainment.

A guest may be white, black, brown or yellow...

Christian, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu...

Republican or Democrat...

Showoff or wallflower, big shot or small...

Rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy...

But, from the moment his car turns into the Disneyland parking lot until he leaves, he is a guest of Disneyland.

How we greet him, how we look, the big and litle things, are all vitally important to the enjoyment of his day at Disneyland.

A Disneyland guest is to us, a King in our Magic Kingdom.

November 19, 2008

There was a lot more to see on Mars

There was imagination.

There was education. (“Earth and Mars are anywhere from 35 million to 240 million miles apart at times. Which used to make a trip to Mars pretty tricky. For example, space ships had to follow a curved path for about eight months to intercept Mars when it reached a certain spot. It was like trying to hit a golf ball in California hard enough, and accurately enough, to make it go through one particular window of a train arriving in Florida that much later.”)

There was even a classic bit of Disney slapstick (remember the albatross who tripped the emergency alert every time he came in for a landing?)

That was Mission to Mars.

Now, there’s this. Seems like there was a transporter malfunction when they were trying to beam in a new attraction to update the original Flight to the Moon. They got something from the local mall’s food court crossed with a Johnny Rocket’s outpost, leaving this hideous result.

Perhaps someone told the excited crowd that their object is actually a time capsule, filled with Peoplemovers, Rocket Jets, and America’s music. Or maybe it’s the nucleus of the atom! Do they dare enter the unknown vastness of its inner space?


It is better that they return to the realm of the marketing for a slice of pizza before they are tempted to go on shrinking profits — forever.

November 16, 2008

Balloon musings

Disneyland’s modern balloons are quite different from the ones that floated above children’s heads as they toddled around the Magic Kingdom in the ’80s.

When I worked in Outdoor Vending back in ’83 or so, balloons were the simple ones Alice is passing out here. Five colors. Two ears. One dollar. Now, you might as well be at Six Flags. Even the strings were simpler. Plain red cords, not rainbow ribbons. They were just strings, after all.

The balloons those strings held were likewise just balloons. Even so, they were more fun, more innovative, more Disneyland than anyone else’s balloons. Carnival barkers and amusement parks hawk the kinds of balloons Disney now sells. None of them have the simplicity that made the old balloons—and the Park they complemented—such a joyful expression of good design.

Among all the Magic Kingdom’s forced perspectives and thematic facades, you used to be able to find a feeling of honest quality. The old balloons had that, and so did just about everything else. Even though it took tremendous effort and nonstop discipline to keep the Show on the road, Disneyland didn’t try too hard the way it does now. It didn’t layer everything with gimmicks over glam coated with hype.

Now that the Park is a Resort, the balloons are shiny mylar or worse. I don’t know what Mickey’s marketeers thought that trapping him inside a hamster ball added to the Show. Maybe once the new guy from Bolt starts rolling along during parades, somebody will connect the two and decide to let the Mouse out.
In my view, these things represent everything that separates what Disneyland used to be from the place it is now. Just look at this bunch of inflated noise. Cars, Incredibles, Nemo, and mylar Mickey. It’s like a helium multiplex, a collision at the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade, or Tomorrowland.

See how the simple silhouette mouse stands apart, even surrounded by its bizarre bubble? That’s a glimpse of the uncomplicated magic upon which Disneyland rose before Disney popped its balloon.

November 9, 2008

A honey of a place until ’89

Before the “critters” came, Bear Country was a great place to spend a lazy hour or two of a Disneyland afternoon.

Does anyone spend lazy times at Disneyland anymore? If you’ve never done anything but race from fast pass to fast pass, I wish you could have strolled through Bear Country. You’d have played nickel and dime games in Teddi Barra’s Swingin’ Arcade, maybe sat in Henry’s Vibratin’ Bear Chair (“It’ll shake you up — gently — and wind your watch”), and, if you were lucky, listened to the Big Thunder Breakdown Boys. There was nothing like their rendition of “Pluto Dog,” a Disney variation on “Salty Dog,” an old bluegrass composition:

Standing on the corner with the lowdown blues,
a great big hole in the bottom of my shoes.
Honey, let me be your Pluto dog.

Well, let me be your Pluto dog
or I won't be your man at all.
Honey, let me be your Pluto dog.

Few work locations were more pleasant in the 1980s than Popcorn (“PC”) 8, adjacent to the Country Bear Jamboree. The ice cream wagon next to Bear Country’s entrance sign was opposite the Haunted Mansion’s exit and felt as much part of New Orleans Square as it did of Bear Country. You can just see the edge of the red umbrella standing next to that wagon in this photo at Yesterland. Deeper inside Bear Country at PC 8, it sometimes felt like you weren’t even in Disneyland anymore. You couldn’t hear or see any other part of the Park.

The location was unusual for another reason. Guest traffic in Bear Country didn’t really pick up until about noon, and things thinned out around 1900 hours, or 7 PM. (Disneyland operates on military time). A PC 8 shift took up the whole day and was just about the only wagon that the same Cast Member both opened and closed. Once, on a break, I went wandering around backstage behind the Mile Long Bar to see the sign shop and various other fabrication facilities. Call me crazy, but it was great fun!

There was definitely something about Bear Country worth keeping. Even Magic Mountain tried to install some of the bluegrass flavor of Disneyland’s smallest land. Vintage Disneyland Tickets has this remembrance of Spillikin Corners, an unusual little section of a park famous more for fast rides than slow strolls.

I miss Bear Country’s simple pleasures. Critter Country just doesn’t evoke the same atmosphere. The home-spun musical revue of the Jamboree, the postcards with Marc Davis’s sketches of the Country Bears, even the snoring up in the caves near the entrance. It all came together to create a wonderful part of the Magic Kingdom.

November 4, 2008

Great moments

Walt said that he got “red, white, and blue at times.” I think this would be one of those times. Congratulations to our next President from Illinois.

Photo: Ozier Muhammad, The New York Times

November 2, 2008

Pave Paradise (Pier), put up a parking lot

In 1984, I started biking to work. Leaving my car (I think it was a ’78 MG midget), meant that I could roll right up to Harbor House without having to cross Disneyland’s hundred-acre asphalt desert. Since I didn’t need my parking pass that summer, I still have it as an artifact from the Disneyland that used to be. These stickers went on the rear view mirrors of Cast Members’ cars, so I think that most are probably as long gone as the lot itself.

I had one friend who worked the pavement as part of his duties as a Main Street/Parking Lot attractions host. It seemed to me that the crew had a lot of fun out there. For the rest of us, it was free and generally convenient work parking.

The only time it wasn’t quite as convenient was during the summer months. Unless you had an opening shift, you usually had to park in “X,” the section out near the Toll Plaza entrance off Harbor Blvd. A pretty good hike just to get in to punch your time card, and you couldn’t hop on the tram. You were fine if you allowed enough time, which you probably made sure to do after a couple of sprints to clock in, get to Wardrobe, change, and make it to your work location. After closing shifts, we shuffled out to our cars together and often decided to head over to the Denny’s across the street. Good times.

For a laugh, you can see another interesting “artifact” of 80s Disneyland at this link to some rare footage of “parking lot man,” a seldom-seen being now probably buried in the rubble beneath California Adventure. Be sure to mark your location so you can find your way back!

October 21, 2008

Disneyland shops weren’t always Disney Stores

Disneyland shops once offered all kinds of things.

The incredible selection made Disneyland a fabulous place for holiday gifts. I remember once meeting up with my sister, who worked at Plaza Inn, to undertake a quick search for Christmas presents late in December. We raced from Bear Country’s Wilderness Outpost to Tomorrowland’s Character Shop and got it all done.

You were sure to find something for each person on your list somewhere. Kitchenware, candles, Native American arts and crafts, handbags, flowers, pipes, almost anything. The mall merchandise hadn’t been pushed into every corner, crowding out nearly everything else.

Disneyland shops even carried things that can’t possibly have sold all that well. How many folks left with antiques or custom perfumes, for example? It didn’t really matter. The experience that included such things brought many of those folks back through the main gate time and again. Some people came just to shop, visiting the Park and not getting on a single attraction.

The shops added a lot more than dollars to the deposits turned in at Cash Control at the end of every shift. They added value and interest and helped make Disneyland all that it used to be.

And that’s not something you can buy in any store.

October 16, 2008

There used to be more magic in the Magic Kingdom

Disneyland once had twice as much magic. In 1983, when Sleeping Beauty Castle’s drawbridge was raised and lowered for only the second time, half that magic disappeared.

If Merlin's Magic Shop had to go, at least it left with its own sort of magic trick. When the New Fantasyland premiered in 1983, Merlin’s had vanished. The not-quite twin sister of Main Street Magic was replaced by Mickey’s Christmas Chalet, a short-lived tinsel and ornament boutique themed to match Mickey’s Christmas Carol, an equally short-lived animated featurette.

Since the original Fantasyland was closed around the time I joined the Cast in summer 1982, I never got to work a shift in the Castle courtyard opposite Merlin’s. I remember it fondly from my youth as a place I spent a good deal of time and money. I bought my first Tarbell volume there, along with a number of tabletop illusions that amused many a kid's birthday party in my later years.

It’s amazing that Disneyland merchandise once included things like the Tarbell Course in Magic, arguably the best magician’s training program ever produced. Tarbell is a serious course, something you’d expect to find in a professional magician’s supply store. Talk about more interesting retail than never-ending plush and t-shirts!

I’m glad that Main Street Magic remains, but the two shops were really more complements than twins. Fantasyland contributed a “sorcerer” atmosphere to the tricks and monster masks. The interior of the small shop was stone and iron, a fitting background for latex gargoyles and ghouls. Main Street Magic was the Orpheum, the Hippodrome. More Blackstone than Sword-in-the-Stone. Gleaming chrome Chinese linking rings, colorful production screens, and sleek aluminum cups and other apparatus presented a different flavor of magic than Merlin's. White gloves and tuxedos, not pointy purple hats and robes with stars and moons. That’s good. Main Street needs its vaudeville.

But Fantasyland needs its sorcery, too. Disneyland should make Merlin’s reappear.

October 10, 2008

Why I wanted to work at Disneyland

We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.

Walt said quite a few good things, but this one really captures something about why a job at Disneyland once meant so much.

Before Disneyland was what it is today, it’s my sense that the Disney characters served a different function in the Park. They were used as transmitters of ideas, as much or more than they were pushed into being vehicles for driving retail sales.

The simple ideas and ideals that Disneyland once stood unabashedly for were embodied in the entertainment Cast Members who helped bring Mickey, Donald, and the rest to life when they walked on stage. The character costumes were three-dimensional depictions of the intangibles that differentiated the Magic Kingdom from amusement parks.

Physically, Disneyland would be a small world in itself," Walt said. But almost any major amusement park is such a thing. Disneyland also became a state of mind because, as Walt continued, it was designed to encompass “the essence of the things that were good and true in American life. It would reflect the faith and challenge of the future, the entertainment, the interest in intelligently presented facts, the stimulation of the imagination, the standards of health and achievement, and, above all, a sense of strength, contentment, and well-being.”

All of those things were there in Mickey’s white-gloved hands. The amazing thing was that even if you weren’t inside a character costume—maybe you wore, say, a bright yellow shirt/pant combo instead—you likewise embodied those ideals when you pinned on your nametag.

That was why I wanted to work at Disneyland. Not to operate an attraction, guide a tour, sweep up, scoop popcorn, or sell Mickey Mouse figurines in the Character Shop, but to join the characters as a goodwill ambassador to the land outside the berm. The job was a way of helping to create a very important thing in life.

After reading stuff like this, I’m pretty sure that being a Cast Member these days is just a job. That’s a shame. “Our perturbed world” needs characters a lot more than it needs cash cows.

October 9, 2008

Annuals past

You can still experience one special aspect of Disneyland as it was before it became a “resort.” You don’t even have to go to Anaheim.

Just go to your local garden center. Wander over to the displays of annuals. All of those bright, colorful flowers that are here today and gone tomorrow. Put yourself right in the middle of the aisle. Close your eyes. Breath in.

It’s 1983, and you’re entering Tomorrowland.

The magnificent aroma you’re inhaling was exactly what once greeted you as you hurried to Space Mountain past a planted pool like this one. A similar smell greeted you on the other side of the Central Plaza as you hustled toward Big Thunder.

It hung in the air with Adriana Caselotti’s soprano tones along the path by Snow White’s Wishing Well as you skipped through on your way to the Matterhorn. I think it even felt like it was in the Flower Mart as I stepped onstage through the entrance on East Center Street, though all the blooms were plastic.

Flowers were in place and at work all over back then, adding a layer of olfactory beauty and their own visual splendor to the carefully designed Park. Waiting for guests to arrive while I was at work on an early morning shift, that scent set the mood for a happy day. Toward the end of a hot Southern California afternoon, it refreshed and revived.

Annuals never fail to trigger memories of the Disneyland of years past. If you remember being there when Tomorrowland looked like this, you know what I’m talking about. You couldn’t miss the contribution of flowers to the Disneyland experience, even as you raced to ride as many things as you could.

If I could live it again, I know one thing. I wouldn’t hurry to Space Mountain, or anything else.

I’d just stroll around with my nose in the air.

Tomorrowland entrance photo used under Creative Commons license.

October 4, 2008

Dream of a million years

The object up there in this blog’s masthead is the service pin I received after one year in the Disneyland Cast. It occurred to me that some folks outside the berm might not know what the little bronze Sleeping Beauty Castle represented, so I thought I’d explain how you went about earning one like I did back in the 1980s.

After an interview at Disneyland’s Casting Office, you were hired and assigned a department in the Park. (Outdoor Vending, Dep’t. 937, was mine.) Your status was officially “Casual-Seasonal,” which implies anything but job security, but was still a major step up from the “Casual-Temporary” label once applied to new Cast Members.

As a CS, you were essentially in the same position as the most unfortunate of the guys on the Jungle Cruise’s lost safari. You could count on twenty hours a week at best, fewer in 1984 (attendance really dropped off during the LA Olympics). Fortunately, it was pretty easy to pick up extra hours, provided you didn’t exceed forty.

Once the “seasonal” aspect of your status reached its zenith, however, you were likely on your way until the next peak period. Before Disneyland went to seven-day operations in about 1980 (the Park used to be closed on Mondays and Tuesdays), there wasn’t enough work for you. Unless you made PPT.

Permanent Part-Time Cast Members worked year-round. Maybe not forty-hour weeks, but still enough to call it a living. Even better, you were in the Park in the off-season, when things were comparatively slow. I think the guests during those times were happier because they had Disneyland to themselves. Although it closed at 6:00, there were no lines for anything. As Walt said, “In the winter time you can go out there during the week and you won’t see any children. You’ll see the oldsters out there riding all these rides and having fun.”

Your performance appraisal and the Park’s needs after your CS season determined whether you made Permanent. If you were offered a position, you were sent to a Disneyland doctor for a physical. Then you were on your way to being one of the relatively few who enjoyed presenting the Show to a truly appreciative audience.

It got even better at your one-year mark. You took your nametag to Wardrobe, where they drilled a hole through Mickey. Your one-year pin took his place, setting you a little bit apart, sometimes prompting a guest’s query about what the pin meant . . . and giving you a small sense of life at the next rung up the Disney ladder. Becoming Permanent Full-Time was basically joining the management ranks, probably as a Senior Lead or Supervisor.

My Area Supervisor rose from a fry cook position at Plaza Gardens to managerial authority over Tomorrowland. It took him something like twenty years, but what a career. Imagine twenty years of Disneyland as it was. I often think about what it would have been like to have followed such a path. My time onstage didn’t come close, and, as they say in the Haunted Mansion, “there’s no turning back now.”

That’s one more reason why the year represented by this pin is one I would never trade.

October 2, 2008

The 21st century began October 1, 1982

I had hoped to put this up yesterday to herald ”The Dawn of a New Disney Era” circa 1982, but it just didn’t happen. (Maybe that’s somehow appropriate. After all, we’ve certainly seen a new Disney era. It just didn’t happen the way Walt likely hoped.)

I confess that I have never trekked from the left coast to EPCOT and WDW. I’ve held onto this optimistic coin since Cast Activities sent it out shortly after I was hired not from any special fondness for the magical little Park’s younger sister, but simply because I can’t part with any part of my Disneyland experience. I can’t say that what I’ve seen and read online makes me at all eager to visit Walt Disney World, but I could certainly be persuaded otherwise.

In any case, here’s a salute to October 1, 1982. If there are any EPCOT Center fans among the throngs who wander over to this blog, this one’s for you!

September 29, 2008

A walking, talking information booth with a smile

Custodial and Outdoor Vending hosts and hostesses are the most accessible Cast Members at Disneyland. It’s tough to converse with a Disneylander while stepping aboard an attraction, but the nearest sweeper or vendor is expected to be all ears all the time.

Fewer guests had complaints in the 1980s, but we were still taught never to send them hoofing off to City Hall. Out there with nothing but a pan and broom or wagon between you and an upset guest, you were City Hall.

Fortunately, most of the guests I met while scooping popcorn, dishing up ice cream bars, or handing out balloons had questions, not complaints. (I admit that sometimes I had complaints about their questions!) And the key point to remember about questions is that no matter how many times you might have answered a particular one, each is a first occasion for the guest asking it. To that guest, that question is the most important one in the world.

That doesn’t mean that some guest questions weren’t really dopey. How about these:

What time is the 2:00 parade?

Are the fireworks outside?

Is Disneyland open till it closes?

Where are the whores? (I am not making that up. Only time a guest ever stumped me. I was at a wagon just outside Plaza Pavilion, and I suppose he hoped that the building might be a house of ill repute!)

And my all-time favorite:

What do you have? (Asked while approaching ice cream wagon, which has large sign on front facing guest stating items and prices.)

Most of the questions I got were ordinary, but extremely important:

Where are the restrooms?

Have you seen my kid?

How do you page somebody? (Guests really want to be able to page each other. At least, they did in the 80s, when a cell phone was about as big as a loaf of bread. I don’t know if you still hear announcements in the Park like this: “Daisy . . . Duck . . . please call . . . the Disneyland . . . operator. Daisy . . . Duck. Please call the Disneyland operator.” They happened every so often way back when. Answer: sorry, but no paging except in medical emergencies.)

Where’s the Lost and Found?

I got few foreign language questions, but one happened while I was working the popcorn wagon in New Orleans Square. A guest who spoke only french bought a popcorn and asked, “où est la maison de pirates?” Luckily, that one was easy.

Sometimes guests didn’t really care about the answers. They just used a question as a good excuse to talk to you.

Fortunately for me, that excuse also works for writing.

September 28, 2008

Keeping the Show on the road

Disneyland looked different in the early-to-mid 80s.

Not just because there were only seven themed lands and maybe fifty ice cream and popcorn locations (during the peak seasons). Not just because guests could see unique shops offering unusual wares, a treehouse in which they might have imagined living, or a sustainable and efficient transportation system for moving them and many other people. Not even just because weenies at the end of every street stood as carefully planned compass points to lead guests into and through the Show.

Disneyland looked different back then because it was clean. Shirley Temple could have been talking about the Park when, after unveiling Walt’s special Oscar™ for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (one big and seven little statues), she exclaimed: “Isn’t it bright and shiny?”

Before the last guest was halfway down Main Street after the closing announcement, many of the more than 350 maintenance and custodial personnel were busy cleaning and inspecting. Every pedestrian surface was pressure-washed and dried before the first guest pressed up against the rope line the next day.

The scenes in Frontierland and Adventureland’s shooting galleries were completely repainted every night. Each of the 108 six foot brass pole on the King Arthur Carrousel was hand-polished, a four-hour job.

Walt knew that such maintenance was both expensive and essential. “To keep an operation like Disneyland going,” he said, “you have to pour it in there. It’s what I call ‘keeping the show on the road.’ You have to keep throwing it in; you can’t sit back and let it ride.” And he was prepared for “those sharp-pencil guys” who told him, “Walt, if you cut down on maintenance we’d save a lot of money.”

Now, Tomorrowland is filthy. Paint is peeling all over the place. There are big cracks in the monorail beamway supports. Abandoned keelboats, mine trains, and more than one sustainable and efficient transportation system sit in decay. The list goes on.

Barack Obama has pointed out that the policies that led to the crisis on Wall Street are the same ones that led to the crisis on Main Street. Of course, he didn’t mean that 1890s road in Disneyland, and I am certainly being more than a little tongue-in-cheek in comparing the two.

But since there’s another American institution besides the investment banking industry that’s had serious trouble keeping the show on the road, why not some Mickey Mouse earmarks?

September 23, 2008

A smile big as the (silver and) blue

It was 1980, three years before I would step onstage with a part instead of a passport. I was sixteen, and Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom was twenty-five.

Disneyland shimmered in its anniversary attire. Silver and blue. Simple and sophisticated. A family reunion. And, for me, the pinnacle of what the Park was and should be always.

In 1980, there was a connection to Walt’s ideas and ideals, not a statue to his memory. There was no second gate and just one hotel. There were no fast passes or maintenance slowdowns.

Of course, it was just as true then that “Disneyland will never be finished.” For those folks who know only the Disneyland Resort, I’m sure that it’s at least something special to you, if not something wonderful. But I think that when Walt called Disneyland “something we can keep developing and adding to,” he never meant it to become something other than what it was created to be.

“A family park where parents and children could have fun together.”

“A fair, an exhibition, a playground, a community center, a museum of living facts, and a showplace of beauty and magic.”

In 1980, it served as all of those things superbly, and that was all Disneyland ever needed to do to succeed. At the 25th-year family reunion, families were welcomed with warmth, not prizes or gimmicks. The Magic Kingdom expressed its gratitude not with gewgaws or garishness, but by graciously being its absolute best, as only it could.

There wasn’t a burnt-out bulb on Main Street.

Nothing needed repainting, because it was repainted every night. Painters worked alongside pressure washers, gum scrapers, and brass polishers.

The focus wasn’t on marketing, but on presenting the Park as it was meant to be, and thereby celebrating all it had become in the quarter-century since its dedication.

The twenty-fifth birthday parade might have been the touchstone for what one youtube poster called “the era where parades at Disneyland were classics.” It featured simple floats, one for each land. Polynesian dancers. Golden Horseshoe girls. A host of characters, including Cinderella in a crystal coach pulled by a team of gleaming white horses in polished harnesses. A choreographed group of upbeat roller skaters. And a train of long, blue platforms, each topped by shining mirrored letters spelling out the name of the Happiest Place on Earth.

The music tracked each land as its float passed, shifting as the letters approached to a tune that defines Disneyland as I recall it most fondly:

Now you’ve seen
our land of dreams.
A kingdom full of magical things,
where love and laughter come to stay,
here and each and every day

Twenty-five is not so long.
With Mickey Mouse, you can’t go wrong.
Come on, my friends, let’s sing along.
Disneyland is your land.

It’s a magical kingdom.
Where every wish
will come true.
Everything you ever do
brings a smile
big as the blue.
And we’re so glad to see you passing through.

A family world.
For every boy and every girl.
A happy-ever-after world.
Disneyland is your land.

If you weren’t sixteen, or even six, in 1980, I’m glad to see you passing through now. And if you were part of Disneyland all those years ago, welcome to this family reunion.

September 21, 2008

Let us re-live Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln

Some of the most memorable moments I spent at Disneyland were the ones listening to Mr. Lincoln.

As a kid when the original attraction was around, I didn’t pay it too much attention on my family’s all too infrequent (for me!) visits to the Magic Kingdom. “Great Moments” was updated in 1984, a year or so after I joined the Disneyland Cast. Advanced animatronics broadened the Lincoln figure’s range of movement, and a longer opening that included the “Two Brothers” civil war montage from EPCOT’s American Adventure made the original presentation richer without changing its essence. Once I could sign into the Park anytime, I came to really enjoy Mr. Lincoln, and I often spent some time in the Opera House on my days off.

As I sat there as a young adult who hadn’t yet gone to college, I think that some of the seeds that grew into my decision to become a lawyer were planted. Maybe it’s corny to say so, but I’m sure that those recorded words, coupled from several addresses Lincoln gave during his life, created a connection.

If they did, I think it’s because Lincoln represents something that has become much tougher to find in America. It’s not hard to think that we’re having trouble finding our way home. This, of course, is a blog about Disneyland, not politics, so that’s as far as I’ll go on such matters here. As Walt once said, “why be a governor or senator when you can be king of Disneyland?”

It just seems to me that while an attraction about Abraham Lincoln may have consumed valuable real estate on Main Street without returning any marketing value for the latest Pixar production, it presented a unique and invaluable experience that conveyed perfectly “the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America.” You can’t find that experience in Disneyland any more, and I think we need it desperately. After all, as the voice of Paul Frees once intoned, Lincoln’s “prophetic words are as valid for our time as they were for his.”

Lincoln talked about changing course back to the American ideal. Here are some of the words that guests once heard when they stepped into the theater on Main Street:

My countrymen,

if you have been taught doctrines conflicting with those great landmarks of the Declaration of Independence,

if you have listened to suggestions which would take away its grandeur,

if you are inclined to believe that all men are not created equal,

let me entreat you to come back.

Come back to the truths that are in the Declaration of Independence.

Do not destroy that immortal emblem of humanity.

If that Declaration is not the truth, let us get the statute books in which we find it, and tear it out.

Let us stick to it then. And let us stand firmly by it.

As we prepare this week to watch debates as important for our time as those between Lincoln and Douglas were for theirs, it’s a time for all of us, whatever our political leanings, to think seriously about “these immortal words,” and about which candidate will best guide America forward. I’d like to do my thinking about that while wandering around the Walt Disney Story, listening to Walt explain why he gave his tribute to our 16th president a permanent home at Disneyland.

Fortunately, if the skills of the sculptor and the talents of the artist can no longer let us re-live Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the video cameras of the folks who post on youtube can.

September 20, 2008

It takes people to make the dream a reality

Disneyland’s Casting Office was just to the left of Harbor House, the small building where Cast Members entered and left the Park (after finding a slot to slip that all-important time card so you’d remember where it was among the thousands in the racks the next day). Casting put out this lovely little brochure, which describes quite nicely what it was like to work for the Mouse in the 1980s.

Of course, what I like most is that Outdoor Vending is so well represented!

If you always wanted to work at Disneyland but never made it to the Casting Office, I hope you’ve enjoyed this look inside.

September 18, 2008

Come all ye young (and not so young) sailors

My roommate when I lived in Anaheim in the early 80s also worked in the Park. He was an Attractions Host who had made Disneyland a career and had enough seniority to ensure a great rotation between the world-famous Jungle Cruise, Big Thunder, the Mark Twain, and the mighty Sailing Ship Columbia.

The Columbia was one of my favorite things about working at Disneyland. She didn’t cruise the Rivers of America everyday, spending much of her time tied up behind the immortal Keel Boats at the dock in Fowler’s Harbor. It was a serendipitous thing to get a day shift at the popcorn wagon near the Haunted Mansion, or an ice cream wagon on the path along the river, on a sunny afternoon when the Columbia was sailing.

I would hum along with her theme, which is called The Boston-Come-All-Ye . You can hear the great Thurl Ravenscroft sing the Disney version here. Here are the lyrics:

Come all ye young sailormen listen to me, I’ll sing you a song of the fish of the sea.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Oh, first came the whale, he’s the biggest of all, he clumb up aloft, and let every sail fall.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Next came the mackerel with his striped back, he hauled aft the sheets and boarded each tack.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

The porpoise came next with his little snout, he grabbed the wheel, calling “Ready? About!”
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Then came the smelt, the smallest of all, he jumped to the poop and sung out, “Topsail, haul!”
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

The herring came saying, “I’m king of the seas! If you want any wind, I’ll blow you a breeze.”
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Up jumped the tuna saying, “No, I am the king! Just pull on the line, and let the bell ring.”
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Next came the cod with his chucklehead, he went to the main-chains to heave to the lead.
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Last come the flounder as flat as the ground, saying, Damn (at Disneyland, Thurl sings “blast”) your eyes, chucklehead, mind how you sound!
Then blow ye winds westerly, westerly blow; we’re bound to the southward, so steady she goes.

Thanks to rumolay for the original photo, used under Creative Commons license.

September 17, 2008

When the Haunted Mansion threw open its doors

Mike at Jungle is 101 has a terrific post today about an encounter with one of the 999 happy haunts of Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. His story got me thinking about my trip behind the scenes of the Mansion back in 1985.

As part of the 30th year celebration, Disneyland Cast Activities threw an “open house” for Cast Members and their families. The festivities included dinner and tours of several attractions. You could get a look at the Big Thunder control room, ride Space Mountain with the lights on, and, best of all, walk through the Haunted Mansion.

I understand that this kind of thing has become much more common in recent years. Reports I’ve read of various private functions/merchandising opportunities strike me as pretty disturbing.

For a few evenings in May of 1985, however, something extraordinary happened. Especially for those whose roles in the Disneyland Show never took them anywhere near the inside of a “ride.” Everyone from Arcade Mechanics to Zebra Taxidermists was allowed to see the Mansion without being confined to a Doom Buggy.

We learned all about Pepper’s Ghost illusions and front projections. We heard about the spiderweb created to hide the hole shot by some guest into the glass panel in front of the dining hall scene. We got up close and personal with Little Leotta and the ghosts who follow you home.

I don’t know how many people were there, but it was by far the most popular tour. Lines stretched out into New Orleans Square so far that you practically had to choose between seeing the Mansion or anything else before the night was over.

It’s amazing that the decades have not reduced the magic in what is, at heart, a carnival dark ride. But when Disneyland and imagination were still close friends, a simple but unexpected light in an upstairs window of the “house that people avoid walking past at night” became heart-stopping.

And a simple but unexpected extended visit to that house became one of the things that made being a Cast Member in the 80s the best possible job.

September 15, 2008

Showmanship Disneyland style - Act Two

Two fond memories of the past today present the Disneyland Show as it was during my days onstage. First, another part of the Cast booklet I posted earlier. This is the only full-color spread, but it’s got some nice photos of some of my favorites. The Main Street Electrical Parade and Country Bear Jamboree have been discarded, but at least the Mark Twain and Jungle Cruise are still afloat!

Next, a guide to some of the shows that used to be such a big part of the Magic Kingdom, especially when seen multiple times over a summer! Today at Disneyland, a terrific assortment of talent, capped off by the electrosynthemagnetic musical sound of the Main Street Electrical Parade. This schedule offers “Facts & Features” about what was once a Southern California icon.

Working a popcorn wagon along the parade route during the Electrical Parade meant switching off the lights. The wagons have two can lights on brackets illuminating the underside of the roof over the small counter. With these off, there wasn’t really anything to break up the Anaheim darkness, since the floats lit up only the route, not the surrounding area. On more than a few occasions, I stood watching the crowds watch the Parade when a guest appeared seemingly from nowhere to order a popcorn. It was especially startling when they came up on the wrong side of the wagon!

After all the floats passed and the Park’s many lights came back up, I would hit the switch on the little panel that served as the wagon’s nerve center, controlling the clown, the agitator inside the kettle, and the oil dispenser. My two little lamps would click on, adding to the glow of another warm Disneyland night.

September 14, 2008

Where to find pixie dust*

One of the niftiest things about Outdoor Vending in the early 80s was the fun of working all across the park, as I’ve described in earlier posts. Far and away the premier work assignment was the balloon position in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle. If you take a close look at the center of this publicity photo, you can catch a glimpse of a vendor assigned to that location. (It’s not me and I don’t recognize whoever it is. If you do, please let me know!) He or she looks to be wearing the long-sleeved shirt and bow tie of the Main Street costume, which no longer exists. That means whoever it is was assigned to the Castle, as only Lead, Relief, and Tomorrowland positions wore yellows.

Except for Disneyland’s first-rate Custodial Hosts and Hostesses, no other Cast Members had the chance to become part of the Magic Kingdom’s signature spot. Standing out there with a bunch of fifty bright, colorful Mickey balloons, you were truly an integral piece of the Disneyland image. Whether I worked that spot as my assigned position or just stepped in as a Relief to cover a lunch or break, I felt just a bit prouder of my role. How could anyone not? You were in front of one of Walt’s most famous icons, holding a bunch of red strings connected to fifty big copies of another, and everyone in the park passed by you.

The person under one of those clouds of multicolored mice was not only someone guests greeted as they headed into or out of Fantasyland, he or she was someone they often included in their photos. I was never in the character department, but was asked many times to pose with guests for a Castle snapshot. Even handed a balloon to actor John Candy as he strolled by one day.

I don’t know if the company still puts balloons out there. If they don’t, they should. That single spot has more pixie dust than just about anywhere in Disneyland.

*“Pixie dust,” for non-Cast Members, is an elemental mixture of certain qualities like enthusiasm, cheerfulness, and general motivation to create happiness found most often in eager new hires and dedicated old hands. Those for whom a role in the Disneyland Show was better described as a “job” tended to be in short supply of the mysterious and quite magical substance, which has reportedly been detected in only trace quantities at the “Disneyland Resort.”

September 10, 2008

Summer of ’83

1983. My first summer as a vendor.

One of the most unique roles in the Disneyland show, we humble purveyors of popcorn, ice cream, and balloons had the best of all possible worlds, or, more accurately, lands. In a single week, you might be assigned to Popcorn 8 in Bear (not Critter) Country, the Train just up the walk from It’s a Small World, Popcorn 1 in Town Square, a balloon position under the Peoplemover (not Rocket Rods, not abandoned) track across from the Character Shop, and an ice cream wagon opposite Pirates looking over the Rivers of America.

As a vendor, you were in one of the most visible, accessible guest contact positions. Unlike my friends in Attractions, who move guests courteously and efficiently through the turnstiles, vendors served guests when and for however long the guests chose to be stand at your wagon. Even the smallest shop, something like the Mod Hatter, has the barrier of counter and cash register. Those of us in ODV were basically in guest relations, except we didn’t do tours or answer phones.

You had time to actually converse with those who came to Disneyland not to ride Space Mountain or share an adventure with their kids. I met a lot of folks who, like me, enjoyed just being there. You answered question and gave directions. Sure, it had its drawbacks. Not always fun to stand behind a hot popcorn wagon in July, or be at the end of a line of what seemed like 84,000 sweating guests looking for something cold.

But I loved it, and I know that I’m not just remembering it as better than it was. Canoe races before work. Signing back in most nights after, maybe to meet friends at Tomorrowland Terrace or sit and listen to Rod Miller at Coke Corner. Just being there.

I don’t think what became California Adventure was even on the drawing board. Pixar didn’t exist. C3PO and Indiana Jones were not Cast Members. If you wanted to find a Walt Disney character, perhaps Mickey, you could look in Town Square or catch Steamboat Willie at the Main St. Cinema.

It seems looking back now that Disneyland was a much simpler magic kingdom then.

But in 1983, I think it was practically perfect in every way.

Showmanship Disneyland style

Popcorn was sixty-five cents. Balloons came in yellow, red, blue, light blue, and pink. Ice cream wagons served up Carnation ice cream bars, ice cream sandwiches, orange juice bars, and frozen bananas.

It was the spring of 1983, and I was a new Outdoor Vending Cast Member, proudly attired in yellow polo shirt and pants with red and white stripes. One of the best parts of the job was its breadth. Vendors worked throughout the park, heading out from our office behind America Sings all the way to the farthest corner of Bear (not Critter) Country.

It was a time before Eisner, before Disneyland and Walt Disney Productions shifted focus from the finest in family entertainment to whatever it is the company sells now. I know that a great many people still find a special kind of happiness when they visit the various Resorts, Parks, ships, etc., and I haven’t started this blog to criticize Disney. I’ve put it up to celebrate the time and the showmanship I remember. Mike at Jungle is 101 has pointed out a lot of things from around my time period and continues to run a tight ship (as tight as a leaky tiki) on his excellent blog. I hope to add some more good stuff in a similar vein.

Here's the first. This booklet came out a few years before I put on my nametag and is a terrific example of what Disneyland used to be about: creating happiness for each and every guest, one at a time. These are some of my favorite pages, and I’ll likely put the rest up, too.

A very special thanks to the Disneyland Cast of late 1982 through 1986. And to all who come to this happy blog, welcome.