In addition to creating “The Happiest Place on Earth”, Disneyland was innovative in many other ways. In the 50’s, believe it or not, waiting lines at banks or airports were traditionally a straight line. Sometimes a movie theater would bend them around a corner; the Department of Motor Vehicles would simply open the front door and run the line out onto the sidewalk.
Think what it would look like if security checkpoint lines at airports were linear instead of the sinewy system in use today! I had never seen a waiting line that snaked back and forth like the lines for attractions at Disneyland, where they created a holding pen that economized space. Such was the system introduced by Walt Disney’s Imagineers.
They also thought of a way to use existing technology to create the Disneyland Monorail System. In 1959, it was the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere. Though the park was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays in the off-season, visitors could board at the Disneyland Hotel and still see the Park (though quiet on those days) from a bird’s-eye view. Now, monorails are common at places like metro airports, transporting passengers swiftly from terminal to terminal.
“Thrill” rides were the big profit-makers at amusement parks throughout the country – roller coasters, ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, the twisters. These were the parks that Walt Disney grew up with in the mid-West. When Disneyland opened without a roller coaster or ferris wheel, it became clear that this was not another stereotypical American amusement park. It took a while for the Imagineers to introduce a “thrill” ride that was new and connected it to a theme experience. Space Mountain filled the bill.
But of all the unique and innovative aspects of this new magical Disneyland, it was the on-stage appearance of the Walt’s most beloved animated characters that captured visitors’ hearts. To see Mickey and Minnie, Pluto, Goofy and Donald strolling around the grounds was truly a miracle. Little kids, just as they do today, were simultaneously terrified and delighted, either crying or laughing at the sight of their “friends” coming off the movie and TV screens and shaking their hands in person.
It was part of my job to schlep the characters around to local TV stations for an appearance. I’d stack the heads in the back of the company station wagon and then stuff the 20-something cast members into the car, dressed in the rest of their costumes. With the company logo on the door and the character heads visible through the window, we’d get lots honks and waves from freeway commuters.
Little did they know how stinky it was inside the car. The accumulation of sweat from endless summer days in the Anaheim sun had turned those costumes lethal in close quarters. The guys were so used to it they didn’t even notice. “Good grief! Open the window!”, I’d plead.
The independent channels in the Los Angeles market – KTLA, KTTV, KCOP – had original children’s programming every weekday. (This was before Sesame Street.) The host was usually some corny guy wearing a sailor hat and a striped t-shirt or a fat ersatz comedian encased in a too-tight suit. The format was always the same “And now boys and girls, we have some special visitors today. Hi, Mickey and Minnie!!! (silence from the characters but lots of waving and dancing about.) Yes, boys and girls, Mickey and Minnie are here to draw the name of the lucky winner for a Day at Disneyland!!!! And now, Mickey, who is the lucky boy or girl? (silence but much waving of the winning entry). “Well, well, well, boys and girls, it’s Johnny Frost of Burbank, California!!!” (more silence with frenetic clapping of gloved hands).
Then, I would bundle them all up, costumes and all, back into the station wagon and we’d proceed to the next show….but now with all the windows down.
Previously in The Park:
Part one: The Park – Disneyland in the first decade
Part two: The Park – Inside the press event for the Tiki Room
Part three: The Park – The Celebrity Treatment