DESIGN: Those Were The Times – No.16 1955 Early Disneyland Managers

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disneyland Resort

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Published on August 21, 2013 at 3:01 am with 20 Comments

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.

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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.

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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!

About Bob Gurr

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."

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20 Comments

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

  2. 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.