EDITOR’S NOTE: Please join us in welcoming David Koenig to the MiceChat family. If the name sounds familiar it’s because David has developed quite a following for his groundbreaking Mouse Tales books and fantastic Disney insider articles on Disney fan sites. There’s a little something for everyone in David’s first MiceChat column. Please read all the way through and be sure to leave him a note in the comments below.
The weekend before last, I had the pleasure of attending the 50th annual banquet of the Order of the Red Handkerchief—the club comprised of those who at one time worked on the old Mine Train thru Nature’s Wonderland, as well as a few perennial party-crashers like me. Every year the event is fun. This year’s was extraordinary.
Sam Towler (nwrr.blogspot.com), Disney-contracted model artist, spoke about and displayed his stunning 7.5-foot-by-5-foot recreation of the Mine Train ride, complete with two sets of trains, glistening Rainbow Caverns, spinning rocks, miniature Mule Packs, lighting, sound effects, even a bypassing Gullywhumper. Every element was handmade (and remade over and over as over the years his skills matured and he wanted everything just perfect). His masterpiece premiered at Fullerton Railroad Days last spring and if he brings it out again next year, please, please, PLEASE find a way to check it out.
The event’s headliner, however, was Dave Hall, a venerable character actor best know for his recurring role on CSI as the coroner. While in college, Dave worked as a West Side ride operator at Disneyland (1965-1968) and pulled a number of infamous pranks (several recorded for posterity in the original Mouse Tales), so I’d always wanted to meet him personally and hear the tales first-hand. His presentation was equally hilarious.
As he recounted the park’s priorities back in his day: “Safety, Courtesy, Capacity, and we had a fourth—we wanted to entertain the hell out of the guests.” The exception, he explained, was Grad Nites, “when it was Capacity, Safety, Courtesy. I remember working Skyway and literally throwing people against the sides (of the cabins).”
He was a natural on Jungle Cruise, where he said he only stuck to the script once: the trip he drove with Walt on board. “It’s the only time I ever game a spiel verbatim. That’s VER-BA-TIM.”
“If you misbehaved on the Jungle Cruise, you were sent to the Treehouse,” he recalled. “I spent a lot of time on the Treehouse.”
To pass the time while sentenced to the Swiss Family Treehouse, he and his equally ornery co-worker would make up songs about the guests walking by, usually the prettier ones. In fact, they composed an entire silly opera they’d sing to attract girls to their otherwise desolate attraction.
His favorite attraction was, of course, the Mine Train and he especially enjoyed the one summer in which the operators were encouraged to perform the spiel live instead of playing the recording. That same summer, he was made night foreman.
“One night, I hopped on the back of Dan Nichols’ train to do the live spiel,” he recounted. “I did the straight spiel, but I’d occasionally interrupt it to explain that I had a real phobia about snakes and, if anyone saw a snake, to raise their hand and please let me know. As we were going through the Painted Desert, one guest said, ‘I think I see a snake.’ So I stopped the train, and a few more people pointed out the snake. I climbed out and individually thanked everyone on the train for pointing it out. Then I jumped on top of the snake and started wrestling it. I was whapping its head against a cactus and everything. I finally got back on the train and for the rest of the trip everyone was completely silent. Even when we went through Rainbow Caverns, which usually got a big reaction, complete silence. We pulled into the station, and they gave me a standing ovation. I think they thought we did that every trip.”
Dave Hall still loves Disneyland. “It’s a magical place,” he smiled, “and somehow we didn’t screw it up too much.”
I’m hoping that today cast members today—particularly those in management—have similar priorities. I believe Disneyland should be a completely safe place to visit, but it should also be all about fun and, when possible, spontaneity. Its history should be celebrated, not just monetized.
You see, 30 years ago, there were no Disney theme park websites, or podcasts, or discussion boards. There weren’t even any Disney park history books, apart from travel guides and souvenir booklets for tourists.
For one thing, the Disney Company didn’t view its parks as important enough to merit preserving their stories in print. Nor did it see its cast members as worthy of being written about. Ride operators, tour guides, characters, even managers were seen as replaceable cogs lacking unique talents, unlike the artistes from Imagineering and especially Feature Animation. (As for me, I’ve always loved a great story and I discovered from friends in college that no one has better stories than the hourlies who work on stage, witnessing the sometimes outrageous daily life at Disneyland.)
The other thing was that back in the 1980s, there were still hundreds of cast members, including much of management, who had been working at the park since the 1950s and 1960s. They believed in keeping their stories—and their dirty laundry—to themselves. “We don’t talk out of school,” a number of old-timers would tell me. The press, for its part, seemed willing to play along, only publicizing mishaps and strange occurrences when they were too big to keep a lid on—such as a high-profile lawsuit or fatality.
The lid first started coming off in 1984, after a 22-day strike and a change in corporate management that ousted the long-honored Ways of Walt, first at the studio and in short order at the parks. Some cast members began to speak up because they realized, to Disney, loyalty was no longer a two-way street. Others opened up in hopes that exposing some of Disney’s poor decisions might encourage management to correct—or at least to not repeat—the mistakes.
That’s where I entered the picture, in 1987, with my first formal interview of a Disneyland cast member—a longtime merchandise host who adored Disneyland, but had seen his Land turned upside down by the changing policies and priorities. Little did I know at the time that my curious fascination with the secrets and stories of Disneyland would become my livelihood.
Later in 1987, Disney published its first mass-market history book about the park, Disneyland: Inside Story. It had some great photos, some great (albeit sugar-coated) stories—but it was more concerned with the creation of the park and its attractions, rather than their operation. I was certain there’d be interest in a more realistic, unvarnished look at what really happened inside the berm. The big New York publishers, however, apparently disagreed, confirmed by the rising pile of rejection slips I received through the early 1990s. They usually responded that no one would be interested in reading a book about Disneyland. I’m happy to say that in 1994 Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland proved them wrong.
Now in its 20th printing, Mouse Tales may be the best-selling book ever written about a theme park. In its wake have come a flood of books on veritably every aspect of DisneyAnything. I’ve written five other books since, including Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World and my latest, The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic. I also became one of the original contributors to MousePlanet, peeking “behind the ears” with Al Lutz, Jim Hill, The Fabulous Disney Babe, Kevin Yee, and other MiceChat pioneers. I’m currently helping Bob Penfield, the last original cast member to retire from the park, with his memoirs (more on that next time).
And now I’m looking forward to sharing my perspective and secrets on the Happiest Place on Earth with MiceChat readers. I’ll always try to be fair and accurate; just remember that they’re coming from someone who sincerely believes that the Ways of Walt are (not were) better than most of the policies and priorities of today. That doesn’t mean that I think the Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame was better than Star Tours, or that any idea is intrinsically better just because Walt thought of it, but that his business philosophy (give general audiences the highest quality entertainment at a fair price, celebrate nostalgia while looking to the future, turn employees into natural ambassadors of the brand) guarantees long-term success, which outweighs the value of short-term surges or the costs of momentary hiccups. Walt wasn’t just a profiteer of the Disney brand—he knew he was also its caretaker.
Today, that philosophy might seem quaint. Some argue the company’s gotten too big for it, the world too complex, stockholders too unforgiving. I disagree. So when I hear that some venerable attraction or policy is being changed, my natural reaction is dubiousness—though I will acknowledge when changes turned out to be improvements (yes, guests do seem more enamored with Starbuck’s than the Market House).
My future stories will also reveal what’s been going on backstage at the park or plans that might be coming down the pike. Just remember, sometimes these things are “done deals” and other times they represent a proposal that may end up rejected or seriously altered. As they say, “At Disneyland, nothing’s concrete, except Splash Mountain.” Or “You’ll know it’s true the day after it’s built.” Plans change, and I’ll try to be as clear as possible on how firm any proposals I share are. You can check my archive of 100-some stories over 16 years at MousePlanet to gauge my track record.
Let’s take, for example, Star Wars Land. The new area will have an eatery similar to the cantina in Star Wars: A New Hope, which Team Disney Anaheim is considering making a real cantina, serving real alcohol.
The move would be a huge departure from the Ways of Walt, but a next logical step for current management. To preserve the family atmosphere, Walt was insistent that there be no booze served in Disneyland, apart from the libations served at private parties or from his VIP backroom bar at the Red Wagon Inn (which was basically superseded by Club 33).
His successors figured it was okay to bend that rule for the more adult-oriented EPCOT Center, and Anaheim tried to replicate that vibe with Disney California Adventure—with great success. “Alcohol sales have been a VERY big moneymaker for the resort,” one insider shared with me. “It’s one of the reasons DCA is so popular.”
There’s a flip side, though, one he hopes Disneyland can avoid: “Cast members have noticed underage drinking, particularly at the Mad Tea Party, where legal age guests buy or share their drinks with minors, and some bad behaving intoxicated guests. We (on the Disneyland side) would like to continue without this one less problem.”
One proposed solution is to treat Star Wars Land as a separate park-within-the-park, and prohibit guests from carrying adult beverages outside the area and into Disneyland Proper. With the large sums of potential revenue on the line, my source expects the plan to be approved, and for management to excuse it with the catchphrase that it’s meant to improve “The Guest Experience”—their increasingly common justification for any changes they’ve already decided on.
What’s a done deal, however, is Tom and Huck’s Tree House on Tom Sawyer Island. There was speculation that the structure—which closed in 2013 because of its OSHA-unfriendly short railings and narrow stairways—might be chopped down during the island’s current overhaul.
It’s instead gotten a reprieve. It’s been repainted and spruced up. The little shack on top is still there. But the staircase and any access on to the tree has been removed. So when Tom Sawyer Island reopens, you’ll still be able to see the treehouse, you’ll just never again be able to climb it.
It’s funny; these days it’s not the crazy cast members like Dave Hall we have to worry about “screwing up” the park.
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