Let’s go back to early Disneyland history with Imagineering legend Bob Gurr as he takes us on a journey to the inaugural year of Walt’s original Magic Kingdom. There are many unsung heroes responsible for helping to shape the park in its formative years. Bob recalls some of the noteworthy and perhaps not as well known of Disneyland’s opening crew.


Today’s Wheel of Years stopped at 1955, so here we go. Disneyland fans never tire of the chance to learn some tiny new “undiscovered” tidbit of historic background facts to do with the creation of Disneyland. Naturally the focus seems to be about Walt Disney’s early organization, Wed Enterprises, Inc. (WED). In focus too are any kind of Imagineer, especially Walt’s original seven hired on from outside the company, and the next eleven chosen from then current Walt Disney Productions animators. The story of the original creation of Disneyland has been covered by literally hundreds of books about Imagineering.

But there’s another story all together that hasn’t received as much interest – who managed and operated Disneyland right from the get-go? Very few publications share the who-what-how and why of Disneyland’s earliest existence, except one – Window On Main Street – by Van Arsdale France, Founder and Professor Emeritus, Disney Universities, published in 1991. If you really want to know the full backstory, warts and all, this fabulous book is by far the best you’ll ever read. Independently published outside the Disney corporate publishing empire, The Window has no dressings – just the facts ma’am. If you want the blunt code words for how Disneyland started operations, it would be “scrounger, liar, and thief”. Those are Van France’s quotes.

Readers of The Window will learn who the early key players were, where they came from, and what was their before-Disney expertise. To be sure, Walt was a brilliant judge of the potential creativeness of those who he brought into the tent. Not just the Imagineering creativeness, but the operational business management creativeness. While artists are known for fits of ego, operational managers have the characteristics of used car salesmen, pitchmen, and yes – carnies (folks who work in traveling carnivals). Since Disneyland was to be operated as an amusement park, you might as well pick the brains of the best carnies you can find just for starts.

During the first few years of Disneyland’s operations, my boss Roger Broggie and I gradually met and worked with a number of these managers as we added new attractions and fixed existing ones. I remember that they were sort a puzzling bunch, lots of power plays, shifting assignments, and obvious competition amongst each other. I think this was because folks who will take on a new risky adventure are born entrepreneurs. In fact, within a few years several of these guys had built an obvious following that became quite noticeable – several left with their coterie, voluntarily and otherwise. (Look up Freedomland USA – you’ll see a familiar name). I got the impression that Walt hired who he needed at the time to get started, but eventually grew irritated at empire builders and “Texas” carnies.

C.V. Wood at the opening of Freedomland
C.V. Wood at the opening of Freedomland

But by around 1960 the whole Disneyland operation was populated with a number of very bright folks who had come up thru the ranks from ride operators (now known as cast members) to become highly experienced managers who really understood the business. That business was focused on how to “create happiness”, handle millions of guests, and operate a clean and safe place. I was so proud to know and work with so many of them in those early days. I think it started with Walt hiring C.V. Wood, a successful wartime aircraft manufacturing superintendent, who brought in Van France, who then brought in Dick Nunis. Van was an expert in training production employees, Dick was a 21 year old ex-USC football star – later known as “the white tornado” due to his ability to handle any situation, any person, any problem to Walt’s satisfaction.

Joe Fowler with Walt Disney

Joe Fowler Walt Disney

Added to this mix was retired Admiral Joe Fowler, who Walt placed as director of all Disneyland construction – we all referred to Joe as “can do”. That was his signature comment to everyone at the end of each conversation – “can do boys”. Both Joe and Dick never would accept the word “no” when problems seemed impossible. When he would follow up later to personally see that you did indeed get the job done, you learned to figure stuff out darned quick. This was Walt’s secret weapon, surround yourself only with folks who “figure it out and just do it”. I thrived in this arena of Imagineers and Park Managers – just do it! Remember, Disneyland was the first of what later became the Theme Park Industry, and which started literally from zero.

Earl Vilmer
Earl Vilmer

Oh gosh, there were some great guys that I learned from; Earl Vilmer, railroad expert and Maintenance Manager, Truman Woodworth, Manager of various Lands, Jack Riley, Disneyland Chief Engineer, and so many others. Earl was so laid back that when advised of a major equipment shutdown, he’d look at you and say “first, there’s got to be an easier way”. That was such a hoot. I respected everything that George Whitney taught us about how to manage amusement park guests. George originated from the operations of Whitney’s at The Beach up in San Francisco. Ken Kohler was a terrific team leader on the Disneyland Railroad, who became became the operations lead on the Viewliner. This little train was a hot number with it’s Chevy 327 engine. Ken was the only guy who could teach others how to drive it without spinning the wheels – his background was in stock car racing.

Jon Catone was a great example of a new teen hired as the Tomorrowland Spaceman who worked his way quickly into managing one department after another. Bill Evans and Ray Miller were in charge of all the trees and flowers, everything growing in Disneyland. I think they personally knew every living item of plant material in the whole park. One time I expressed delight in the ice plant growing at Autopia. Ray suggested that why don’t I come in after closing and help myself to all I could trim away to take home and plant in my front yard. It didn’t dawn on me that he was saving some gardener wage hours if I did the work. (Tony Baxter obtained some historic trees for his period home in similar fashion many years later – but that’s a story for a different day)

Oh there’s more names that fans should have known about. Doc Lemmon, in charge of all ride operations, Pete Crimmings, who seemed to be involved in every new attraction, Eddie Meck, the energetic fellow handling park publicity, Bob Riley, an expert in handling guests in a safe and happy manner. If you look thru the list of Disney Legends, you’ll find many Disneyland Manager folks that have been so honored. Hopefully some of you fine readers will recognize some of these names and add your own recollections in the comments below.

This is how history is recorded folks. Join in the discussion!

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Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."
  • CaptainAction

    This is when Disney Leadership were always thinking about the guests. This is when they strived to give the guests what they wanted. The guests came and Disney was a great success.
    The last 10 years Disney Leadership at WDW is fat, dumb, and getting their butt handed to them by Universal. Walt, Bob Gurr, and the guys would never consider taking 3 YEARS to BUILD a SIMPLE CHILD’S COASTER while their competition built whole NEW LANDS in 18 MONTHS. These old men wouldn’t force a new fastpass system on the guests to try and force the guests to old attractions with a fastpass reservation which are never crowded. These old men would’ve given the guests NEW ATTRACTIONS which would DISTRIBUTE the guests because guests were in love with the new attractions and followed the rides.
    These old guys were not fat and lazy and taking the guests for granted. These old guys didn’t view the guests as GIANT WALLETS! They respected the guests and earned their money.
    That is what Universal is doing today – respecting the guests, giving them what they want and earning their money. Universal fills the void – GO GUYS!

    • Westsider

      Disneyland management (especially senior management) has lost a lot of that “can do” spirit and they are only vaguely focused on Guest satisfaction today. At Disneyland the things a manager worries about are, in order;
      1. The next DOSH Inspection from the government overlords
      2. Puffing up their “Personal Development Plan” (PDP) that is used to figure out their raise and bonus each year.
      3. Eliminating Cast Member injuries (band aids and bee stings count!) to help their PDP numbers
      4. Keeping their spreadsheets of numbers and bar graphs up to date to impress TDA bosses who only care about numbers and bar graphs
      5. Oh yeah, there’s rides out there in that theme park, I hope folks are having an okay time.

      It’s easy to know that list because that’s all a manager at lunch talks about at Disneyland when you sit at their table. Or grab a beer with them after work, which tenured hourly supervisors can do with managers they’ve known for years.

      That said, there is a very noticeable difference between the caliber of Disneyland management and WDW management. And it’s not just the lax dress code and lazy personal habits of the Floridians that set them apart from the Californians. The Floridians seem to live on another planet entirely, and it’s as if they don’t even know how to manage people and processes, let alone inspire excellence to bring Walt Disney’s vision to life. The current results at the WDW parks are clear evidence of that.

  • Great article as always Bob. You are absolutely right that the fans tend to focus on the Imagineers, completely overlooking the other stars of Disneyland . . . the folks who actually made the park function.

    I really wish that Disneyland management would return to the training methods of Van France. The extensive training on guest satisfaction has long since been watered down to just the basics. Hopefully all of the old programs are saved somewhere safe, to be dusted off and used again in the future.

  • Jeff Heimbuch

    That letter from Van France is absolutely amazing, Bob! He comments at the end of it are great.

    It’s great to hear some new names to add to the list of Disney superstars; those who helped maintain the park and kept it running day to day.

    • Love that shot of Van typing at the beach on the little desk!

  • ParadiseDude

    I had the chance to meet Bob Gurr at D23 Expo and he was one of the nicest guys over at the expo.

  • ParadiseDude

    Great article as always!

  • DobbysCloset

    So very precious. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Disneyland and I are the same age. I just found a picture of me in my first Mouse Ears in 1957, so I was indoctrinated early. My grandpa held an RCA dealership and Walt pioneered color TV, so I was watching all along even if I don’t remember.

    That’s why this is so precious — someone older HAS the memories! Thank you very, very much.

  • disneylandfan8

    Another fabulous and informative article, Mr. Gurr! Your knowledge and recollections of so many details never cease to amaze me!

    I guess Disneyland was the original creator of “Just do it!” Forget Nike…

    I had no clue about Freedomland, either. It reminded me of my research on another “land” that I ran across a while back – Apacheland. It, too, seems to have a Disney link.

    I wish I had the ability to come in at night and “trim” the plants to bring home to my place! Love the ice plant story and now am very curious about what else Tony Baxter has at his home!

    I hope to someday go to the Bob Gurr Museum as you have so many memories and I seem to recall you saying you have every one of your flight records! Maybe you could open up a wing at the Walt Disney Family Museum? LOL

    Bob, it was a pleasure reading this. Thank you.

  • TodAZ1

    I have the book, A Window on Main Street, and Bob is absolutely right. One of the best books on Disneyland behind the scenes ever published.

  • BC_DisneyGeek

    Fascinating article, it’s truly amazing how differently things are run nowadays. I agree with an earlier comment, that it seems ludicrous how long it is taking to build a (relatively) minor attraction at the Magic Kingdom.

    “Figure out and just do it, but take your time.”

  • Spacepainter

    Reading this article was like jumping in a time machine. Thanks for another great one, Bob! Incredible.

  • glowman

    Really enjoyed your article, Bob, it brings back many old memories of the “old days” at the park. I had the pleasure, honor, and fun of working for Van France when he had an office above the Opera House. I joined his department conducting surveys, teaching new cast members and retraining full time cast members along with Ruth Bartling and Evelyn Heuple. We also coordinated the yearly “Spring Tonics” show that all cast members were scheduled to see each Spring in the Mickey Mouse Theatre to get them enthused about the upcoming summer season. I can’t remember if you were ever in that show, Bob, but know that Joe Fowler, Dick Nunis, Bob Reilly, Wally Boag (who always wrote the show), and many others made fun of themselves and made fun of things that the cast members could relate to. I recall Joe Fowler saying, the year that the Matterhorn Bobsleds opened, that he never wanted to build another mountain as there were’t two pieces of steel the same size in that thing. The old days were a lot of fun because everyone, including Walt, were learning each day how to operate a fun place like Disneyland. There weren’t any OPs, you just got in there and learned how to run things properly and efficiently. Great memories! Keep ’em comin’, Bob.

  • hollywood1939

    Read a lot about Van France and the beginnings of Disney University from other Disney books. I’ve heard stories from you Bob about Joe Fowler and have read many about him as well. Dick Nunis is in many books about Walt and the company. Those are the ones who I have recognized and know what they did for the Walt Disney Company.

    Others you mentioned like C.V. Wood and Jon Catone that I’ve heard but never knew how much they contributed and did (aside from Catone as Tomorrowland’s Spaceman).

    Then there are others that I’ve never even heard before so I’m thankful that I got to read your article today as I’m always very interested to read about the people that did a lot for Disneyland that we don’t read or hear about that often. I will have to bookmark this to get more info on everyone. Thanks Bob!

  • DobbysCloset

    What I recognize is the dress the woman in the photograph is wearing, with the wide white organza collar. My Barbie had that exact same dress circa 1964.

  • Doug Lipp

    Bob, thank you for such a generous tip-of-the-hat to Van France. I learned a lot from Van during my days in training at Disney University at Disneyland, on the start-up at Tokyo Disneyland and as the head of the training team at Disney Studios. Van really called it like he saw it and was a huge factor in perpetuating Walt’s dream. You and I met at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and chatted briefly about a book I wrote about Van and the Disney University. Jim Cora, another Disney Legend and my boss in Japan wrote the Foreword for my book: “Disney U: How Disney University Develops the World’s Most Engaged, Loyal and Customer-Centric Employees.” I am honored to have worked for Van and many other Disney Legends. I never met Walt, but I feel as though I did because of my association with so many who did. Jim Cora, one of the founders of Disney University along with Van, told me a great story of how he ran into Walt while on his way to working his shift at the Matterhorn. Jim told Walt of his ideas for training. Intrigued, Walt said to Jim, “There’s a fellow named Van over in Administration who is starting something called the University of Disneyland. If you’re interested, go over there and tell him Walt sent you.” The rest, they say, is history!

  • Timmy55

    I’m glad to see C.V. Wood mentioned. He was an eccentric Texas character and one of the “Forgotten Men” of Disneyland. I grew up knowing C.V. and his family. He was always interesting.

    • Would love to hear your stories sometime Timmy!

  • PecosBill

    I’m still waiting for Dick Nunis’ followup to Van France’s ‘Window On Main Street.’ – his memoir published outside of the Disney establishment.

  • kenzington

    How lovely to see kind words about my great-grandfather, Ken Kohler! I know he was a somewhat controversial character at Disneyland. By the way, I worked on the trains at Disneyland some 50 years after he did.