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.