May 23, 2010

Every show has its reviews

One of the first things I learned as a new Cast Member was that Disneyland is a Show, not just a job. Producing the Happiest Place on Earth's unique entertainment experience took much more than just the highest levels of skills found in other hospitality industry positions.

In spelling out performance expectations, the annual performance appraisal (this is mine from August 1983) gives a terrific insight into exactly what was required to deliver the finest in family entertainment. The organization that Walt built invested heavily in its employees back then. Training, development, increasing levels of responsibility—casual/seasonal, permanent part time, hostess, relief, trainer, lead—and Cast activities were all focused on building a team of performers expert at Disney showmanship. The annual review was a chance to compare the reality with the dream and praise, adjust, or correct accordingly.

The appraisal appears kind of strict, and it was. It largely determined whether a casual become a permanent Cast Member. Behind the ratings, though, was a genuine consideration of employees as valuable partners. Until the union troubles and management changes in the mid-to-late Eighties, working at the Park was still as it was explained in Showmanship: Disneyland Style, which I've often quoted:

It is because we work together at being a "show" and not just a business that the special Disneyland magic is not lost. When we say, "Look to the name Walt Disney for the finest in Family Entertainment," we feel that this is a fact...not a boast. We feel we have the greatest pool of creative talent anyplace in the world. We are proud of that.

We realize we are not the "biggest," or "richest," or "oldest" in the field of show business or American industry. We do feel however, that we are the "friendliest" group you'll find anywhere. Creating fun is our work; and our work creates fun—for us and our guests. One needs happy people to produce a happy show. We take our work seriously, but we don't take ourselves too seriously.

It's difficult—if not impossible—to create fun for our guests if you can't find some fun in playing your own role.

I found both an enormous amount of fun and an immense feeling of satisfaction in working at Disneyland. Judging by my review, I'd say that I put on a pretty good performance. Sometimes I sure wish that the curtains hadn't closed.

May 16, 2010

The center of Disneyland

It's Spring 1983, and you've just clocked in at Disneyland for the first time.

As a brand new Cast Member, you completed "Traditions I" at the University of Disneyland yesterday. Now it's time for your first shift.

As you show your ID at Harbor House, you're waved inside. No passport or annual pass. And not only are you in, there's a time card with your name on it. At Wardrobe, there's a nametag to match.

You'll train under someone experienced in performing your role in the Show. You'll learn that what might seem simple—operating a popcorn wagon, taking tickets, sweeping up—is anything but. Once you're stepped onstage behind your engraved nametag, you're no longer just at Disneyland. You are Disneyland.

Whatever the job, you'll train the entire shift, perhaps longer. Learning the keys to the Disney experience: Safety, Courtesy, Show, Efficiency. These keys unlock the center of the Magic Kingdom. You've never known exactly where that was. Even if you were like me back then and could have pointed immediately to the hub or even to the nearest restroom after being led blindfolded to any part of the Park and turned around three times, you never really put your finger on the center of Disneyland.

Now, standing there in your spotless costume for the first time, with guests coming up to you for answers, ice cream, or a bobsled with space for three, you're applying Walt's formula. You're watching as people are having one of the most wonderful times of their lives. You're treating those having less wonderful times with kindness, which is like a smile and a song that makes things a little bit better.

And it hits you.

The center of Disneyland is exactly wherever you're standing.

In the abstract, it's kind of a hard thing to explain. Because you're no longer a guest, you're suddenly the least important person there. Without you at your best, however, there's no magic. Sure, there's a fairy castle. But forced smiles and uncaring attitudes can turn it into a fake carnival facade for whatever guest is on the other end of them. You've got the power to make dreams real or make them evaporate. In that sense, you're the most important person of all. You're at the heart of what makes Disneyland the Happiest Place on Earth.

It's something that you simply can't experience unless you're a Cast Member, no matter how many times you pass through the main gate. I hope it's still feels that way for those working at the resort. Back then, the feeling of being part of the extraordinary family that was Walt Disney Productions was like nothing else.

After what seems like five minutes, your shift is up. You've spent a day getting paid to create happiness for others. Creating the kind of rare quality and value that Disneyland offered before things changed. There's only thing that makes it possible to step off stage from a job like that.

Knowing when you're scheduled to step back on.

May 9, 2010

Your mother and mine

Take your mom to Disneyland today.

If you really want to treat her right, start early. Don't skimp at the Main Gate. Go for the Deluxe 15 ticket book. Then head into Town Square. Catch Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln at the Opera House. Lincoln remembered his mom:

My mother, who died in my eighth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.

On your way down Main Street, stop off at the Flower Mart and pick up a few blossoms. They'll last forever. Stroll on down to the hub. Stop by and look at the menu outside the Plaza Inn, where you can take your mom to lunch later.

Spend the rest of the day exploring the Magic Kingdom that you knew as a kid with the mother who gave it to you. In New Orleans Square, have Mlle. Antoinette's Parfumerie blend a custom fragrance, find something lovely at Lafitte's Silver Shop or La Boutique d'Or, or maybe set her up with a new hat from Marche Aux Fleurs, Sacs et Modes. Head back this way to the Blue Bayou for dinner.

Cross the drawbridge into Sleeping Beauty castle. Fly over London with your mom, Peter, and Wendy, but try not to cry, will ya? If you held back your tears, hop aboard Dumbo. By the time you land, you're sure to be at least sniffling.

Dry your eyes while you glide over the Skyway to Tomorrowland. You won't want to miss the many musical salutes to moms of the past at America Sings. Yours is sure to remember these:
She may be somebody's mother
Come let her go her way.

Learning new vices all the night long
Tempted to all that's sinful and wrong
Listening to the siren's old song
Down in the licensed saloon.

After dinner, it's time for big band sounds and dancing at Plaza Gardens. Harry James and his Orchestra might be up tonight, or maybe Les Brown and his Band of Renown. Whoever's playing, it's sure to be the perfect end to a perfect day.

That's what your mom deserves. Find some way to give it to her.

May 2, 2010

All a-bored

Here's the "C.P. Huntington," pulling out of Main Street station for a grand circle tour of the Mag--

Not so much.

It's apparently the C. P. Huntingdon, with a nameplate apparently intended to invoke comparisons to the railroad circling its distant neighbor in Anaheim. but this is most definitely not the Magic Kingdom. This is Oaks Park, a "historic amusement park" in Portland. I wandered around there yesterday and took this postcard shot. The little train is a (very) narrow-guide attraction of the typical carny design. Love the truck mirrors topping the locomotive cab.

Oaks Park covers 44 acres of grounds, mostly lawn used for company picnics and birthday parties. There's a midway and collection of rides: Tilt-a-Whirl, Scrambler, and versions of some that I rode often at old Magic Mountain, like the Himalaya, Electric Rainbow, and Jolly Monster. There's a dark ride based on the adventures of Lewis and Clark, which is about as close to a theme tied to its Pacific Northwest location that Oaks Park gets. It does have some history, most notably in the form of a vintage roller skating rink and dance pavilion.

According to Wikipedia, the park was built by the Oregon Water Power and Railway Company and opened on May 30, 1905, during a period when trolley parks were often constructed along streetcar lines. By 1985, the park was donated to a not-for-profit corporation. It celebrated 100 years of continuous operation in 2005, making it among the oldest in the US.

If you accept it for what it is, it's a OK way to spend an hour or so. Its most impressive feature, however, might be one that was never planned: A demonstration of the true genius displayed by Walt when he looked at similar parks and thought that there must be a way to make something better. "A family park, where parents and children could have fun together."

I find little difference between Oaks and California Adventure, but a world between the Disneyland that I knew and this typical, albeit historically charming, permanent carnival. Take the "C.P. Huntington." You might need more imagination than most people have to pretend that you're riding back to the turn of the century in these little cars. Walt thought families might enjoy and learn something on such a trip—so he gave them a genuine railroad, a genuine station, genuine engineers.

Disneyland is at its best when it retains that "genuine" quality. Whether it's rooted in the worlds of yesterday, tomorrow, or fantasy, it's an authenticity that can't be duplicated without tremendous effort. Oaks Park and its peers are nice, but they fall so far short that comparison is really impossible. And that's the way that "Disney" should keep it.