Best job at Disneyland? Aspiring cast members' consensus answer for Most Coveted Position isTour Guide. As a result, the chosen few are usually among the park's best, brightest, and most beautiful.
They are entrusted with the most intensive guest interaction rolesingle-handedly entertaining and pampering higher-paying guests, often celebrities or dignitaries, for hours at a time. Guides must memorize a lengthy spiel, often speak multiple languages, and wield a mean rider's crop.
The Tour Guide department rose to prominence in the 1960s, under the leadership of Cicily Rigdon. She groomed them into a prim, proper and respected group, dressed in English equestrian outfits that coordinated well with Cicily's British accent. From their ranks rose, one a year, a Disneyland Ambassador who would represent the company around the world and often appear at Walt's side during TV shows, parades, and other appearances.
Guide June Halverson directs her group aboard the Omnibus in October 1958. Note the breadbox-sized megaphone hanging from her arm. Photo from the November 1958 Disneylander, © Disney.
But there was a time earlier that Cicily likens to the Dark Ages, back in the late 1950s when Cicily was just starting out by selling tickets to the park's Holidayland picnic area. You see, this crack organization of professional guides actually began as more of a rag-tag outfit, hastily thrown together under emergency conditions.
Practically from Day One, Disneyland had considered offering guided tours. But in the hectic early days, there always seemed to be something more pressing to deal with. Management lacked the time in the summer and the manpower in the off-season to put together a tour program.
The proposition finally began gaining momentum midway through 1958. Who's given credit for the idea depends upon who's telling the story. One source attributes the program to marketing director Ed Ettinger, who during a plane trip to New York supposedly hatched the scheme as a promotional gimmick.
Club 55'er Bill Hoelscher credits the park's creative entertainment director, Tommy Walker. Back in the 1950s, Anaheim was in the middle of nowhere, so Disneyland contracted with a bus line to offer shuttle service from Los Angeles, Long Beach, and other cities. Problem was, these tourists typically had to catch a bus home a few hours later. Tommy thought that there was a need for guided tours for people on a limited amount of time, Hoelscher explained. People would come from L.A. on a bus, and they only had four hours, but they wanted to see the highlights of Disneyland, so that they needed to have someone to take them around.
Yet perhaps the most logical explanation for the birth of the tour guides comes from one of the originals, Donna Clark (née Jackson). People were just used to taking guided tours at such places, she said, So we had many requests.
During the waning days of the summer of 1958, Tommy asked several other divisions if he could borrow a few of their seasonal workers after Labor Day. Van France of the Disney University offered up survey-takers Ruth (Bartling) Boehlke and Evelyn Huepel. Operations donated Bep Jones and Carla Gammon. Lessee Carnation provided Donna Jackson.
No one expected much from the experiment, so the draftees kept their old jobs. While waiting for guests to sign up for a tour, the guides could occupy themselves taking tickets or scooping ice cream.
From his own Customer Relations department, Tommy appointed staffer Larry Hutch Hutcherson as a sort of foreman, and hand-picked his roaming musicians/comedians Bill Skiles and Pete Henderson to take out the very first groups. Skiles and Henderson were quickly making a name for themselves as the Disneyland Doodlers, playing dueling pianos and in a two-man band, doing a sounds of Disneyland comedy act, and participating in sketches throughout the park with Wally Boag, Lucky the Sheriff, and others. Although Skiles and Henderson were undisciplined, Walker wanted them as an insurance policy. Tommy wasn't sure how interested guests would be in park trivia or the history of a place that was only three years old and, if anything, Skiles and Henderson knew how to engage an audience.
The gameplan was simple: For $3.25, guests would receive a strip of five tickets. Following their escort, guests would begin with an Omnibus trip down Main Street, head left to the Jungle Cruise, and circle the park clockwise, sampling one attraction in each land. Tours would end in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, where the guide would give each attendee a ticket to ride another attraction on their own and a Disneyland Souvenir Guide (a 25-cent value!).
Since there were only seven guides and management assumed the program would only be temporary, there were no special uniforms. Most of the guides just wore clothes from home. At first we didn't have costumes, recalled Donna Clark. We wore whatever Costuming had. I wore a gray skirt and my own blue blazer. Lulu [Miller, Disneyland's one-person Wardrobe Department] eventually got us uniforms from Pendleton's, which consisted of a red blazer and blue skirts for the ladies, red blazer and blue pants for the gentlemen.
The guinea pig guides had two weeks to test the concept. They would walk up to small groups of tourists entering the Main Gate and offer them a free tour of the park. The guides were given a few pages of basic facts (Say, did you know the Disneyland Railroad is built at five-eighths scale?) and were then charged with taking the show to the guests. Audience reaction seemed favorable, but nothing spectacular. Expectations remained low.
To draw attention to the new service, Skiles and Henderson wrote a Tour Guide Song. In theory, every morning the tour guides would line up inside the park's entrance courtyard and sing the song to arriving guests. It's sung to the tune of Colonel Bogey's March (better known as the whistling theme from Bridge on the River Kwai):
We are the guides of Disneyland,
Always there with a helping hand,
Questions, we answer questions
About this kingdom in which you stand.
Round you, the wonders will unfold,
Four lands of happiness untold.
Come now, we'll have some fun now,
Our park holds joy for the young and the old.
You will see each land in its crowning glory,
From the jungle to a trip to the moon,
Disneyland is a never ending story,
As you'll see for yourself very soon.
Come now, let us be on our way,
Listen, to what we have to say,
Hoping, we're really hoping,
That you'll enjoy Disneyland today.
With that, the tours were announced to the public and advertised as designed to fill the need of the winter guest who doesn't know where to start his trip through the Magic Kingdom. And the first paying tours were set for September 17, 1958the day Guest Relations would look back on as its very own Black Wednesday.
That first morning, just before opening, our seven recruits positioned themselves nervously inside the Main Gate. They noticed the crowd appeared to be a little larger than normal for a Wednesday in September. Little did they realize that 90 percent of the day's guests were there to try out the new guided tours.
Within minutes of the first turnstile click, the crowd began backing up from the tour guide office at City Hall. Immediately, a thick, slow line formed from Town Square back out the gate and down toward West Street.
It took all of 15 minutes for Disneyland to run out of tour guides. Hurriedly, secretaries were pulled out of their offices to give tours. Skipper John Waite was pulled off the Jungle Cruise and given a group of wide-eyed out-of-towners. The wives of managers Milt Albright and Bob Reilly were suddenly appointed guides. Even Tommy Walker, Van France and Dick Nunis were pressed into service.
It was a big fiasco, remembered Waite. They wanted groups of 15, no more than 20, but we ended up with 50 on a tour.
Guides were equipped with clunky, battery-powered megaphones. The black metal behemoths wouldn't last long. They weighed a ton, and nobody wanted to carry them, admitted Clark.
Little went right during those frantic first days of tours. Untrained guides would look out at the dozens of inquisitive guests and their minds would go blank. Others were forced to make their spiels up as they went along.
According to Waite, With so many tours to take, often we would find ourselves walking backwards while talking to our group. This inevitably ended up with some guides tripping over flowerbeds and finding themselves flat on their backs looking up at their tour group from the flowerbed's point of view.
The wildest tours were those of Skiles and Henderson. The duo was big on having a good time and putting on a fun show, but had little interest in educating visitors about the park. Bill and Pete would arrange to have their tours head out one after the other, so they could play off each other. Instead of following the predetermined route around the park, the comedians preferred to point out the sights of Disneyland from the Hub, while recreating the sounds of the attractions and razzing their partner and his group.
We only lasted about two weeks, recalled Skiles, admitting his tours regularly got out of hand. People would yell back and forth, What's going on?' 'What are they talking about?'
That first day, guides endured about three hours of yelling, misplacing guests, and general bedlam. Finally, they deposited their herd in front of the castle and trudged wearily back to City Hall, desperate for a breakbut only to be sent back into the park with 50 more tourists.
During the program's first three days, 2,355 guests would take guided tours. Management was dumbfounded. No one had ever considered that the program might be a success.
Instantly, the decision-makers began meeting in the Hideout conference room in the back of the Red Wagon Inn to address the problems. The number one thing we learned, John Waite recalled, was that we needed a lot more tour guides.
Within weeks, nearly 30 more tour guides were hired and a detailed program of training and scheduling was drawn up. By the end of the first month, the fast-growing department would lead 804 separate tours for 18,238 guests.
For the first few years, as Disneyland worked out the kinks, guided tours were offered only during the winter. For that, we should all be thankful.
Even with the primitive tour conditions, wouldn't it be great if we could step back in time to the 1950s and walk through the Disneyland of Day One? In two weeks, I'll tell you how.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.