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From The Mouth Of The Mouse

Behind the Scenes at Disneyland's Parades, Merchandise, and Attractions with Stephen

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by , 12-06-2011 at 05:22 AM
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Hello, and welcome to this week's [B]'From The Mouth Of The Mouse!'[/B]

Each week, we spotlight a different Cast Member story to give you more insight into some of your favorite attractions, resorts, and movies from all over the Walt Disney Company.

This week, I talk to Stephen, who worked at Disneyland from 1977 through 1982. He has held many, various positions during his time there, starting as a toy soldier in the very first Very Merry Christmas parade, to working at the Golden Horseshoe, at New Orleans Square merchandise and much more! He's got some great stories to share, and I hope you enjoy them.

Also, some of the photos used in this post are courtesy of MiceChat user [URL="http://micechat.com/forums/members/geomorph.html"]Geomorph[/URL]. Thanks a lot! :)

Here's Stephen!

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[I]JEFF: What made you want to work at Disney to begin with?

[/I][/FONT][/SIZE][INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] I grew up a few miles from the Park. We could see the fireworks from our backyard (before all the trees matured). We usually took a couple of trips to the Park each year as a family. In addition, we had a lot of relatives from the Midwest who came out to visit each winter, so I ended up going to Disneyland 8 to 10 times a year. This was the era before Annual Passes, so going to Disneyland that many times a year was extraordinary and I became obsessed with working there.

You had to be 18 to work at the Park (or 17 if you were a graduating High School Senior). My sister was a few years older and had gotten a job at the Plaza Inn. She was a "Golden Girl,” costumed in a massive plantation style hoop skirt and parasol. She stood in front of the restaurant basically as street entertainment, posing for photos. Later, she transferred to Retlaw and was a monorail driver.

Anyway, the Fall of my Junior year, a friend told me he was going to audition for the Christmas parade one weekend - you only needed to be 16 to work in the parade. It never occurred to me that it was basically a dance audition! I was a klutz, I just knew I wanted to work there. I went down and auditioned and I was awful, BUT... I was tall, which was basically the only requirement to be a Toy Soldier. So I was cast as a Toy Soldier in the very first "Very Merry Christmas Parade". For years, it had been "Fantasy On Parade", so it was a big deal at the Park that they were introducing a whole new parade.

The next year, my senior year, I desperately wanted to get a job at the Park, but it was really difficult to get hired there. Part of the reason was the cachet and perks of working at Disneyland, and part of the reason was the pay was so good. Back then, the park was union and even the lowliest dishwasher job paid well above minimum wage. The ride operators were Teamsters and paid so well you could make a career out of it - when I was finally a ride operator I made almost as much as my mother who was an Anaheim school teacher.
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JEFF: So it seems like you had an interesting road to finally get hired!

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] I did. To increase my chances, that Fall I enrolled in a vocational program that was offered through the local school system. You could intern at various local businesses after school, and one of the businesses was Disneyland. It was a twelve week program and you'd spend four weeks at a food location, four weeks at a merch location, and four weeks on a ride, three days a week (Disneyland was closed on Monday and Tuesday in those days, which is when they did all the rehabs and decorating, so you never, EVER saw any workmen or construction in the Park).

I was assigned to the Golden Horseshoe for my food location (with the great Wally Boag), Adventureland for merch and finally to the Main Street Vehicles for my ride. When I finally got to Main Street, they realized I had never learned to drive a stick shift before. So they took me backstage and I learned stick on the double decker bus.

A few months later, I landed a real job in the Park, in New Orleans Square merchandise. I worked primarily as a stock boy, but occasionally as a clerk. I ended up as a lead within a year. Back then, and we were told this on the very first day on the job, the shops of New Orleans Square were primarily for show. It was all about the atmosphere and the shops weren't expected to make any money, and often they didn't. Some of the shops never made more than $100 a day, and the company didn't seem to care. They were real shops - we carried no Disney branded merchandise. We were considered "special" - we had our own bags and wrapping paper, gold with a black New Orleans Square logo.

Large purchases were taken and wrapped and sealed with a special metallic New Orleans Square sticker. The One-Of-A-Kind shop was a real antique store. We had our own buyer, Hildegard, a feisty German woman who traveled the world strictly buying antiques for New Orleans Square shops. The quality was top notch, and on several occasions, Mrs. Disney came through and cleaned us out. She would arrive backstage and take the Lilly Belle to the New Orleans station for lunch at Club 33, and afterwards do a little shopping. She had remarried at that time and was "Mrs. Truyens"... under no circumstances was she to be addressed as "Mrs. Disney". I always thought it was odd that as soon as her second husband passed away, she went back to "Mrs. Disney," and you never heard of him again. The family still used the Firehouse apartment, and around the holidays I ended up delivering wrapped packages up there on several occasions. After a couple of years in merchandise, I transferred to "West Side Ops", the rides of Westside of the Park. I worked Pirates mostly (which I have an interesting story about), and the canoes during the summer. I was also trained on Mansion and Bear Band, but I didn't work those attractions all that often.
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JEFF: Tell me the interesting story you mentioned about Pirates!

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] Well, the thing about Pirates that amazed me when I first started working the ride was just how low-tech it was behind the scenes. The sets all looked kind of temporary; all wood and paper and cellophane. The big fear on Pirates was always fire. The animatronics were all operated by hydraulic fluid (which was extremely flammable), which were always under high pressure. The fear was one would spring a leak and the fluid would hit some of the stage lighting, and ignite the sets. And yet, the "warning system", such as it was, was simply a cafeteria tray with a float under each figure. If a figure sprung a leak, the theory was the fluid would hit the tray, raise the float, which would sound an alarm. It never happened while I worked there, and the ride has gone through several extensive rehabs since then, so I'm guessing they've updated the technology. I certainly hope so!
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JEFF: Hildegard sounds like a real character...any good stories about her?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] Oh, she was. She could be really intimidating when you first met her, but we ended up getting along great. Disneyland paid her to travel the world strictly to buy antiques for the Square and I think there may have been a similar store in Liberty Square in WDW, although I'm not sure. She would be gone for months at a time.
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[I]JEFF: I honestly had no idea about the antique shops being considered "not primary" in the Park. Nowadays, every space is prime location for retail, and everything is sell sell sell! How did it feel to be, and excuse me if I'm mistaken about this, but to be in a more laid back place than some of the other merch shops?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN: [/B]There was quite an uproar when the Pirate arcade was converted to Pieces of Eight because it was the only shop in the Square that carried any Disney merchandise and the old timers were incensed. They tried to upscale it a bit - you used to be able to buy replica maquettes of all the pirate figures. But still, it mostly sold plastic hooks and swords and guns.

During Grad nights, we'd come in and stock all the stores with Grad Night Plush and pennants and regular Disney merchandise, but as soon as it ended at 5am it was all quickly removed before the park opened for guests.
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JEFF: So you were pretty much assigned all of the places you had to work?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN: [/B]You really had no choice. I was just happy to get a job. One of the nice things about working in New Orleans merch was I got to work with a lot of ladies who had been at the Park since it opened. They had been hand-picked to work the area when it opened in 67. The park was only open 5 days a week, so all these ladies ruled their shops like they owned them. Most of them had Walt stories and stories of the early days. One lady told me Disneyland had gotten in a little trouble with employment discrimination because they used to "cast" the employees - if you were blond and Nordic looking, you went to Fantasyland, if you were Asian you went to Adventureland, etc. She joked that if you were a red head you went to New Orleans Square because you looked like a hussy. I have to say, a lot of the ladies in the Square were redheads.
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JEFF: How did you wind up in attractions?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] A lot of people who weren't originally in Attractions would try and transfer there over time. Attractions was the sexy job and it paid more. After a couple of years on merch, I transferred to Attractions. Once there, you could be moved around from ride to ride. Some days you could be switched during your shift, depending on staffing and crowds, but you would always have to go back and change costumes. It was a cardinal sin to work an attraction in the wrong costume. One day, I had to change costumes three times. The only exception was if you went out to do crowd control for the parades.

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[I]JEFF: Can you give me an overview of what a typical day was like working in the shops?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] I usually worked as a stock person, which was great because you got to move around to all the stores, stocking them as needed or taking things down to be wrapped and visiting with all the other cashiers. There's a huge stock room under the One-of-a-Kind shop. It actually backs up on the cavern scenes of Pirates. All day long, you hear "Dead Men Tell No Tales" from the ride.

Actually, working in the shops could be kind of boring. Most of the shops did little business. As I said, they were mostly for show. One of a Kind, the Gourmet shop and the Hat shop (because they sold film and cigarettes) did steady business. And Pieces of Eight, when it opened (it was still an arcade when I started). The rest, not so much. My first summer, I was low man on the totem pole and got stuck in the old silver shop. That was a long summer...I basically polished silver all summer, there wasn't much going on. The centerpiece of the store was a huge hutch that was from the 1770's. It was so large I was told it had been moved in before the store was finished since it wouldn't fit through any door. I always wondered what happened to it when Café Orleans absorbed the space.

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[SIZE=3][FONT=verdana] [I]JEFF: How about a day in Attractions? I’m sure it differed!

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] On Pirates, you rotated through the positions in 15 minute shifts. The Park had just switched from tickets to passports, but you still had a position at the front door, load, unload, then the tower, then a break. You basically got a 15 minute break every hour. Opening the ride was always fun. At the end of the night, they raise a small dam at the top of the first drop, and most of the water is held upstairs for the night. The first thing you do to start up the ride is drop the dam and send a small tidal wave through the ride. It's a little creepy to watch actually.

The other ride I worked most often was the canoes, which was a blast. Being outside, out on the water, it was great. Plus, we were all VERY popular when the employee canoe races came around. The only occupational hazard was if you got some blockheads in the canoe who would try to cause trouble. If they knew how to steer a canoe, it was pretty easy to divert us and people always thought it would be great fun to steer us into the paddle wheel of the Mark Twain. I had a couple of close calls. But luckily, I never overturned a canoe or had any other mishaps. The only time I went into the water was on my last day, which was tradition.

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JEFF: Any stories that kind of stick out in your head about working at Disneyland?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] When I was a lead in merch, it was a really quiet Friday night and there was a commotion outside One-of-a Kind. I went to check it out and there was Michael Jackson, alone and without an escort. He was getting mobbed. He looked kind of scared and asked me to get him out of there. I took him down into the store room and called security to get him an escort out through backstage. While we were waiting, he became mesmerized by our bulletin board. We had a huge bulletin board covered with company memos, stupid stuff like time card reminders and first aid tips. Being Disney, they all featured Disney characters. He asked if he could have them, so I said sure and took them all down for him. He was ecstatic.

I also used to work crowd control for the Electrical Parade. People lined up so early and had a lot of time to kill, so I used to spend a lot of time interacting with the guests and leading them in cheers, which was a fun.

The other thing was my mom was an Anaheim elementary school teacher, and when she had some outstanding students, she'd reward them by having me sign them and their families into the Park and then I would spend the day acting as their personal tour guide. They always felt like such VIP's and I loved doing it.
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[I]JEFF: I need to know more about your interactions with Lillian Disney!

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] As I said, I only met her a couple of times when she'd come to the Park for lunch at the club. Each time, she'd be accompanied by Disney Big Wigs like Card Walker. She'd come down to window shop in the antique store and she was treated like the Queen. Definitely don't speak unless spoken to, and again, under no circumstances call her "Mrs. Disney" - she'd remarried at that point.

I do remember getting a panicked call around 5am one Saturday morning. I was scheduled to work the stock position that day and evidently Mrs. Disney had come through the previous afternoon and purchased almost all the furniture in the store. Like I mentioned, the store was really stocked with top of the line antiques, some of the pieces going for up to $10,000. And it sold, let me tell you. I was always shocked to see people buying furniture at Disneyland, especially antiques, but they did. At any rate, we had to move out all the furniture and replace it before the Park opened. We had a separate antiques warehouse back behind Fantasyland.
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[I]JEFF: You mentioned to me in an earlier conversation that you were a test dummy for Big Thunder Mountain. Tell me a little more about that. [/I][/FONT][/SIZE]

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[B]STEPHEN:[/B] It was 1979 and the ride was about to open. They posted a notice in the break areas looking for test subjects. I jumped at the chance. We weren't paid, and it was an 8 hour shift. I showed up and got to meet Tony Baxter and all the Imagineers. They put about 8 or 10 of us in each train and we were sharing a seat with sand bags. The first 8 or 10 times around the ride were fun, but it quickly got a little monotonous. Then they started testing the emergency breaks and we'd get stuck on all the banked turns for what seemed like forever, stuck at a 45 degree angle with 100 lbs. of sand pressing on you.

A couple of things about Big Thunder - they had a hard time getting test subjects because there were all kinds of rumors of trains derailing and sending Disney execs and Imagineers to the hospital. I don't know if any of them were true or not.

The other thing that I was amazed at was that they built the whole load platform structure, but it was determined to look too "new", so they tore it all down and rebuilt it with the sway in the roof and other aged effects.

The ride was originally going to be sponsored by GM, and GM was actually going to come out with a "Big Thunder" truck. They had the GM logo on the building and everything. And then right before opening, the GM logos disappeared and you never heard another word about the sponsorship or the truck.

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JEFF: Did you have any good interactions with Wally Boag while you were there?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] Wally was great. I was only 17 at the time and he made me feel like I was a part of the show and always thanked us for doing such a good job and "making him look good".
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[I]JEFF: You mentioned to me before the interview that when you were there, the Disney Suite above Pirates was the Tokyo Disneyland Training Center. Did you ever have any interactions with any Japanese execs?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] Yes, and it led to some interesting culture clashes. They would rotate through all the various jobs - food service, merchandise and ride operations. They would shadow the supervisors as they roamed the Park to get a better feel for the jobs. I remember being assigned one of the execs on the Canoes. Watching a middle aged, Japanese man decked out as Davy Crockett, trying to do the canoe spiel in broken English was quite amusing. We happened to get a Japanese tour group on one of our trips and he came alive and turned in an amazing performance...all in Japanese!
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[I]JEFF: You also mentioned to me before the interview something called the Banana Ball. Now I NEED to know more about that! Do tell!

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] The Banana Ball was a huge Cast Member party held each summer. It wasn't sanctioned by Disney and was organized by the CMs. I think it was called the Banana Ball because it was originally organized by the Jungle Cruise guys. During my time, though, I think it was the parking lot crew who put it together. The parking lot crew were the "Cool Kids". They didn't interact much with those of us in the Park and were a little cliquish. They all had that "California Surfer" vibe - really tan and sun bleached hair, probably from being out in the sun all day. They were the only employees allowed to wear sunglasses and they all had mirrored aviators. They were "Top Gun". Basically, one of the exhibition halls at the Orange County Fairgrounds was rented, bands were hired and they had several beer trucks for libations. It always got a little out of control!
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[I]JEFF: Being a canoe guy, I'm sure you competed in the races! Were you ever on the winning team?

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[INDENT][SIZE=3][FONT=verdana][B]STEPHEN:[/B] Sadly, no.

One urban legend that I can confirm is there were leaches in the River. The story was that there used to be a Upjohn Pharmacy on Main Street and it was themed to a real turn-of-the-century pharmacy and included jars of leeches. When the store went down for re-hab to become something else (I think the clock store, but I'm not sure), someone took the jars of leeches and dumped them in the river. Or so the story went. I have no idea if it's true or not, but we definitely encountered leeches on the canoes. I found them on my paddles numerous times, and one guy who was thrown in on his last day ended up with one in the last place you would want one.
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Thanks for sharing with us, Stephen

And thank you for reading! Don't forget come back each week to hear more of the magic directly [B]From the Mouth of the Mouse[/B].

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Be sure to LIKE the brand new [URL="http://www.facebook.com/ftmotm"][B]'From the Mouth of The Mouse' [/B]Facebook page[/URL] for more information on the meet up!

And finally, a lot of folks who followed me over here from my old stomping grounds have been asking if the Podcast will return anytime soon...and the answer is yes! I have a few lined up that need to be edited, so look for them in the coming weeks. And if you're new to the column, and would like to catch up, you can download them by visiting it's [URL="http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/from-the-mouth-of-the-mouse/id419255897"]iTunes page right here! [/URL]

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If you are, or know, a Cast Member who would like to share some of their stories and possibly be featured right here on MiceChat, please email me at [EMAIL="[email protected]"][email protected][/EMAIL]. I'd love to hear from you!

Jeff also writes a MiceChat column titled [URL="http://micechat.com/blogs/the-626/"][B]The 626[/B][/URL]. We invite you to check it out!

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Updated 12-06-2011 at 11:31 PM by Dustysage

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Comments

  1. wec's Avatar
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    Thanks for the update! Regarding Mrs. Truyens, (spelling) Yes that's the proper way to address her.
    Once he died and she went back to Mrs. Disney, then that's the proper way to address her. One thing I don't buy though is not speaking to someone other than being spoken too. From what I've read about her over the years, she wasn't too impressed with that type of stuff. That stuff comes from the various "yes" people who hang around the boss.
  2. DisWedWay's Avatar
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    Great stories by Stephen. Loved seeing the photo of the actual "20.000 Leagues Under the Sea"specimen case from the movie and Tomorrowland attraction that used to be in the "One of a Kind Shop" (my favorite) as you pictured it here, behind the ships wheel and spinning wheel. A lot of smalls were sold out of that case back then. Now that the management who removed the shop are no longer there, they should put it back, as Stephen mentioned it did do a lot of high end sells. I still have my 1820 grandfather clock the Hildegard's had purchased for the 2 shops here and at Walt Disney World. Paying it off on time, I was allowed to come in and work on it during closed hours. Those are what I call a Disney Collectables. PD
  3. FredSimmons's Avatar
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    Great stories, Stephen!

    I usually went to Disneyland every Christmas, starting long before 1982, so I probably saw you as one of the tin soldiers.

    I had assumed that the unique shops at New Orleans Square must have been subsidized (for ambiance), because they didn't carry the usual Disneyland tourist junk, and it didn't look like they were likely to make a profit. Those were the days when Walt Disney's desire to have a perfect park still outweighed the bean-counters' desire to make a bigger profit...

    Word of advice: Never volunteer to be a test subject.
  4. DizMiiLand's Avatar
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    Wow, that was quite an eclectic narrative about NOS in the 70s-80s. Very fun to hear about Lillian.
  5. Dustysage's Avatar
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    Fantastic interview!



    Unique shopping is what is missing from Disneyland these days. Aside from the Disney Gallery and Disneyana the rest of the shopping in the park is far too generic and bland.

    Bring back the One of a Kind shop and land-specific merchandising!!!
  6. SpectroMan's Avatar
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    Re: the photo Dusty referenced...I see 3 lamps in that picture I'd like to buy right now!
  7. Westsider's Avatar
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    Look at that amazing picture from the 1980's of New Orleans Square stores!

    Can you imagine if they brought back the One-Of-A-Kind Shop in the age of massive ECV's? Within three hours of park opening most of the merchandise in that store would be turned to rubble after a couple of rented ECV's barrelled through there!
  8. wonderpeep's Avatar
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    Great stories!!! Thanks : )
  9. Concieved@DL's Avatar
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    It is funny, each generation has its own unique view of Disneyland. I am so happy to read the view that I remember. Thanks for the stories.