The early 1980's were a very dramatic time for Disneyland. The company had recently survived the Saul Steinberg corporate raid event, and they had recently created the two new movie divisions that would allow Disney to produce R-rated movies and such to a non-Disney focused market. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells had just come on board and the energy that followed was like a mounting tidal wave that washed over a park that had been languishing in focus and direction for far too long.
The Park had recently opened the New Fantasyland which was what Walt had originally designed but ran out of money to build, however there was apathy on the part of guests wanting a great reason to visit the Park again.
Many won't remember or even know that from 1955 until the end of 1984, Disneyland was closed on Monday and Tuesday for park wide maintenance during the slow winter months (our attendance averaged between 4,000 to 8,000 per day). The last year this took place was also the last year of the old ticket books, which were gradually phased out with the new all-inclusive Passport ticket which I seem to recall was something like $8.50 for adults.
Disneyland had a team that developed the attendance forecast each year, and 1984 posed an interesting problem for that summer. This was the year of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and they determined that attendance that summer was either going to be brutally heavy (something the park had not seen in a long time), or it was going to be a ghost town (due to potential guests thinking, "Gee, I'd like to go to Disneyland while we're here, but I bet everyone is thinking the same thing, so it's going to be too crowded. Better not go..."). The park was a ghost town the entire summer. It is nothing short of amazing how masses of people can think with a single brain. We would see that effect often in the park, when it seemed like everyone was in the East side with a two hour wait for Space Mountain, and the West side had Pirates with a 15 minute wait.
As for those low prices to get into the Park, the new team was informed by the newly installed and aggressive accounting team that prices at the Parks had not followed the cost of living index, and they developed a price increase strategy that would eventually see the Passport go from $8.50 to $27.50 in 1991. Guests never put up any serious price increase complaints, and frankly, Disneyland was certainly providing them their money’s worth with all the new shows and attractions that were beginning to take place, or was in development. In 1985 the headquarters for Disneyland, Inc. (responsible for Tokyo Disneyland and the pending Euro Disneyland), was located in what had been originally designed as Walt’s private apartment to be built over the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean (after this team relocated elsewhere, the Disney Gallery opened for guests). I remember seeing a large board which had an in-depth comparison of the two sites under consideration for the Euro Park: France and Spain. In reviewing the comparisons, it was quite clear the company would be going for the Marne-la-Valle location in France.
I remember that one of the first projects for Disneyland that the new team of Eisner and Wells approved, was the purchase of the entire stage assembly (truss, lighting and audio systems) from the recent Rolling Stones world tour. This would open in July of 1985 as the immensely popular evening dance experience known as Videopolis. The teenage attendance levels skyrocketed, as the stage alternated between a DJ and popular bands. It also brought in a new experience for our Security team: drug dealers. Security developed a new team of undercover folks to try and combat this new wrinkle, but they were never successful. The dealers were too experienced at spotting the rather obvious Security hosts, and I think they only bagged one guy.
The Thirtieth Anniversary of Disneyland on July 17, 1985, was what I believe to have been the kickoff to the revitalization of Disneyland (and in many ways, the Disney organization itself). That day was the first of the many all-night parties and events to follow, along with the Gift-Giver machine doling out prizes to each guest coming into the park in a "30" format (30th that day, 300th, 3,000th, etc.), eventually culminating in the 30 millionth guest to come to the park (who won a high-end Cadillac). It was during this time that many of the typical Disney elements and events were formulated, such as limited edition cloisonné pins (which would develop into pin-trading), and the year-long parties/celebrations, to help drive attendance. 1985 was a pivotal year for the company in many ways, as Walt Disney Productions completed it's corporate identity makeover to The Walt Disney Company, WED Imagineering over to Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), and so on. It also saw the return of guests en masse, and from an attendance standpoint, it really never looked back. Those days of 6K attendance were over: in fact it was not unusual to have 6K come thru the gates in an hour during the summer.
This was also the beginning of the Annual Passholder explosion, which began in 1985 and really took off during the Gift Giver promotion in '86 that saw every entering guest receiving a prize. Some of the Passholders were coming so often, and getting to know the Park and the Cast so well, I noticed that many times these guests knew more about what was happening in the Park, than did the Cast. This was also when the Merchandise team found the opportunity and funding to begin designing all of the unique Disney Merchandise so commonly found today. One downside to this rapid and explosive expansion of Disney paraphernalia, was the demise of several specialty shops, many around since the Park had opened. Instead of unique Cowboy and Indian items found only in Frontierland, this shop gave way to...Disney Plush, Disney Candy Suckers, etc.!
Another pivotal event came about in December of 1985, when Disneyland sponsored "Skyfest", which was a Guinness Book of Records attempt for the largest release of balloons (one million), in honor of Walt's birthday. It was the first appearance of Lillian Disney in two years after some private issues with the new regime. The problems had originally arose during the ouster of then CEO Ron Miller by a team led by Roy Disney, who brought in the Eisner/Wells team. Dick Nunis had made an all out attempt (with the backing of Lillian Disney and her daughter Diane) to be chosen as CEO, but that effort failed, and he would soon be off to distance himself from corporate headquarters by moving to Florida as President of Disneyland and Walt Disney World. Roy had split the Disney families again with his effort to dethrone Lillian's son-in-law (historically, Walt and Roy's families had a very tempestuous relationship over the years).
Matters were made worse by an unintentional slight by Eisner/Wells early on: adjacent to the 2nd level Firehouse apartment of Walt and Lillian, is a pleasant private courtyard that is an ideal viewing platform for parades and fireworks. Although technically all portions of the Park belonged to TWDC (The Walt Disney Company), this area had remained for the exclusive use of the Disney family. When Eisner and Wells learned of this spot, they immediately started using it quite frequently for family and friends. Lillian severed all ties with the Company, and it wasn't until someone mentioned this little faux pas to Eisner, that he immediately contacted Lillian to formally apologize for any inconsiderate acts. Their first reunion took place during Skyfest. Although feelings were mended somewhat, Lillian gradually began to pull more and more away from the Disney organization.
Over at the Opera House, on display for several years in the pre-show area of Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln, were displays of Walt's two offices. These were not re-creations, but the actual contents transferred over to the Park when it became time to finally reconfigure the large space taken up by his working and formal offices. I can verify with actual TWDC documentation photos of the offices (taken several months after his death), that the placement was exact in detail, except for what was located where the viewing windows at the Park were placed (in the working office, I can tell you his private bar, hidden by an electrically operated sliding wooden panel, was positioned essentially where you were standing at that window).
In early 1986, Lillian had her private secretary come to the Park with a very specific list, and removed certain awards items from both offices (one of the most notable was the special Snow White Academy Award, that included the Seven Dwarfs).
The next time this individual returned, was when we had informed Lillian that their Firehouse apartment had sustained some floor water damage, due to a broken water heater. I was part of the team that inventoried the entire apartment, and what I saw just knocked me for a loop. It was like a trip back in time to the early 60’s. The contents of the apartment had been essentially untouched since Walt’s death in 1966. A number of Walt’s clothes, jackets and slacks, still hung in the closet. I remember seeing about a ½ dozen of his distinctive Smoke Tree Ranch kerchiefs lying in a drawer. There were glass baby bottles on a shelf, and at the wet bar, all of the liquor were priced with black grease pen writing, long before bar codes came about. All of these unique and personal items were removed and returned to Lillian. A few years later, I would have the honor of being in the apartment again with Lillian, and she walked around pointing out items and recalling with perfect detail where and when she and Walt had received said items. I couldn’t remember what I had for breakfast the day before, and here she was with perfect recall on things over 60 years before. A truly gracious lady who I first met during Skyfest, leaving me with some very poignant memories.
I was fortunate to work with a number of folks who spanned the time of working directly with Walt, and each of them made an indelible imprint on me. One of those was Bill Evans, who Walt originally hired to landscape his Holmby Hills ranch, and then would go on and develop the entire landscape pallet for Disneyland, The Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, and Euro Disneyland. He often drove the Landscape Department batty when he showed up at the Park and demanded certain things that were not being done, to be done his way and right now! Bill was in his 80’s then, but still had incredible drive and a crushing handshake.
Another favorite was Van Arsdale France, founder of the Disneyland University, and most of the training programs that every theme park new employee goes through at every Disney Park throughout the world. At the time, Van’s office was in the old trailer known as “The Circle D (also known as the Pony Farm)”, right next to the only remaining original house on the Disneyland property, and probably 70 or 80 years old.
I also enjoyed stories from a Club 55’er known as Claire. She was the one who first told me about during the first two weeks that the Park was open, there was a live alligator caged pit in front of the Jungle Cruise. Every morning, the Maintenance team would go out and keep doing a ‘gator count, because the guys would often make a break and get out of the pit and head into the Jungle Cruise. Maintenance would then have to blockade the area, call over to the Buena Park Alligator Farm, and have a wrangler drive over to capture the errant reptile(s), and return them to the pit. Claire told me she was the one who after being frightened nearly to death each week, finally stormed up to Joe Fowler and demanded the removal of said reptiles. Don’t know if that conversation is what did the trick, but apparently they were gone a few days later.
Back over at the Studio and at WDI, Eisner was like a kid in a candy store. He spent a tremendous amount of his time at WDI, and in a very calculating (and highly successful) move on the part of Disneyland Entertainment, they got an equal amount of Eisner's attention. This would lead to a number of interesting (and often painful) events like; Circus, State Fair, and numerous all-night parties (often called by the cast who had to work them: Disney's Drunkfest).
Circus had some interesting shows and elements, but by far my favorite was the performer shot out of the cannon (I’m trying to recall, but I think he was known as “The Great Santini”?). Over in front of Pirates of The Caribbean, before the queue/overpass bridge was built, was the location for the cannon. Before the elaborate stage for Fantasmic was built, was a much simpler wood platform stage in the river in front of the Mill on Tom Sawyer’s Island. The performer and his crew set everything up after the park closed, and by early morning, they were ready for the first test shot which would be a special sandbag to approximate the performers weight. The idea was to leave the cannon from in front of Pirate’s, fly over the River’s of America, and land in a net that was set up about 6 feet over the dock/stage. While the performer’s mother sat on a bench working her worry beads, the countdown went to zero. A huge BOOM sounded, and through a billowing cloud of smoke emerged the sandbag. The trajectory was perfect, as it arched over the River and headed for a perfect landing, dead center in the net. Unfortunately, there were some prop crates that had been left in place under the net, and as the 200 pound sandbag hit the net and it flexed down under the weight, the crates were smashed into pieces with an enormous CRUNCH! I looked over to see the mother with wide unblinking eyes, furiously working her worry beads, and her son also wide-eyed and a hand furiously working his chin. The remaining props and debris were quickly removed, and the next attempt was Santini himself. He put on his helmet, and climbed feet first into the cannon. After a few moments, he called out to his assistant, and the cannon fired! Santini came out through the billowing cloud of smoke in seemingly slow motion, and I clearly remember his hands and fingers outstretched with a look of intense terror on his face. He followed the identical arc over the River, and landed dead center in the net, while grabbing the net with his hands and holding on for dear life. Success!!! Mother was still seated with her eyes closed, but I thought for a second those beads were going to catch on fire she was working them so fast. He would then perform that stunt for the first time for guests less than one hour later, and you could see how relaxed and easy it became for him during the course of the event.
In 1986 there was a large cable that extended to the top of the Matterhorn, and a motorcyclist rode up on the cable, and then rode it in reverse back down. On Main Street, there was a cable that went from The Emporium over to The Walt Disney Story, and members of the extended famous family of the Flying Wallendas performed a high-wire act. There was also a trapeze event in this area as well. The Hub received extensive modifications during this time. A large concrete basement pit was created in order to house all the planned events that would take place, such as a Ferris Wheel for State Fair, an elevator to lift the grand prize Cadillac into view for the GiftGiver Extraordinaire, and for the giant see-through metal ball known as the Globe of Death. For that event, there was a panel that opened downward, and a motor-cyclist entered with his bike, closed the panel, started his bike and began riding around the bottom of the ball until he had some momentum and started climbing higher until he started doing loops inside the ball. Very loud, but very entertaining for the guests. State Fair was an even bigger and more popular event, but that is for a future article...