There was a magazine convention at Disney World last week. It brought memories of the original Disneyland in California. They aren’t much alike these days. Disneyland is a postage stamp compared to its sprawling Florida descendant. One obvious constant is the attention to detail, to order. It seems every other employee is cleaning or painting something. Walt Disney liked it that way.
He liked it that way in the summer of 1957, when we went to ROTC camp at Fort Sill, Okla. Four of us drove together. None had been west of West Philadelphia, much less the Mississippi River, and after our six weeks in Oklahoma we decided to move on to California, where we could stay in a trailer at the home of one of the guys' relatives. We planned a brief visit, but Disneyland changed that. The park had been opened for just two years, and it was a natural place to check out. Checking it out, we met some girls who told us that the summer workers from California were heading back to school, and we might get jobs. We did not have to back at college until mid-September.
The fellow who hired us was Ron Dominguez, who went on to a big job with Disney. He said if we would stay until Sept. 15, we had jobs. This was early August. We said we would, and we did. One guy had a speaking job on the Mark Twain boat. Two of us were hired as cowboys. It was an amazing month, and it did not take long to appreciate Walt Disney’s hands-on management style. We did not know what he looked like – not at first – but he roamed the park at all hours, making sure everything was the way he wanted it. And the word came down that Disney wanted the kid taking tickets for the stage coach and mule train to tear those tickets in half before dumping them in the trash basket.
The month passed quickly. We never tired of roaming the park after hours, or wearied of the nightly Mickey Mouse parade. We also saw a bit of history. The mule train riders were mostly kids, but a lot of older people rode the stage. It was late on a September afternoon when we heard an ominous sound. Horses galloping. Normally they moved at a gentle trot. The ponies rounded the fake mountain from the Painted Desert, dragging the rig without the coach, and piled up in the loading area with much shreking and dust. Sensing something unusual, we raced up the trail.
It was a scene out of a western, but this was not make-believe. Something had spooked the ponies, who bolted and could not make a curve in the trail. The coach was on its side, wheels spinning, and people were staggering around, covered with dirt. It turned out there were no serious injuries, but you couldn’t tell that from the scene. We helped one elderly woman to her feet. Elderly in those days was older than 60.
“Young man,” she gasped through a mouthful of dirt. “Does this happen often?”
“No ma’am,” we replied. “First time all day.” Actually, we didn’t say that. Walt Disney would not have approved, but the line has played well over the years. We had little work the next few days. The live rides were shut down, not to reopen – at least not in the same form. Our commitment was up and the Philadelphia cowboys went home, hitting Vegas on the way.