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!