Hundreds of Disneyland alumni flew into Orange County from around the U.S. to celebrate the park's 50th anniversary-two weeks after the Disney Company had completed all of its official festivities.
The occasions were a couple of reunion parties, one for the Disneyland Alumni Club, the other for the park's Entertainment division. But while the events were held the same night (Saturday July 30) and ostensibly had the same general goal-reuniting former co-workers-the similarities stopped there.
The first was the prestigious one-the Disneyland Alumni Club's once-every-five-years bash, held in the Disneyland Hotel Grand Ballroom and promoted to thousands with slick, full-color flyers. For $77, you got a nice sit-down meal, the chance to win one of countless door prizes, and a star-studded lineup of entertainment.
The event began at 5:30 p.m. in the lobby with a pre-show mixer-one that exposed the one flaw of this type of party masquerading as a reunion: most of the guests didn't know more than a handful of other attendees. Certainly every time Dick Nunis and Ron Dominguez turned, there was someone else reaching out for a handshake, saying, Remember me? (Although the well-practiced smiles of these two disguised the fact that, no, most of these people they probably didn't remember.) In fact, I probably knew as many of the attendees as anyone, and I wasn't even an alumni. The problem was the club designed a very general marketing to the Disney community at large-their target audience was anyone who'd ever worked at Disneyland, in any capacity, over the last 50 years.
At dinner, I ended up sitting between a fitness shoe salesman who had worked Foods in the late 1960s and a theme park consultant who skippered Jungle boats in the 1950s. I enjoyed fantastic conversations with them both, but I don't think they exchanged two words with each other.
Long before that, the crowd had begun crowding in front of the ballroom entrances, anxiously waiting for the doors to open. This looked less like a reunion of old friends than a Saturday morning rope drop on Main Street. I saw a half-dozen members of the Mine Train club, but groups like this should have been encouraged to come together.
Master of ceremonies Ron Stark (left) and Alumni Club newsletter editor Richard Ferrin speak at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion. Photo by Bob Elliott.
Instead, what the Alumni Club's marketing stressed was the entertainment program-and it did not disappoint. Key organizer Richard Ferrin put together a great show, and shouldn't surprise anyone that he's now a successful theme park attraction designer who got his start creating the role of King Lion in the Main Street Electrical Parade. For those of us who remember seeing the character leaping and swinging with boundless energy, that was probably Ferrin.
From left, former theme parks chairman Dick Nunis, photographer Bob Elliott, ex-Disneyland V.P. Ron Dominguez attend the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion. Photo by Bob Elliott.
Granted, the program did include the obligatory speeches and back-patting and reading of congratulation letters. Yet the evening's most touching moment was one of these simple tributes-a nod to the late Van France, who founded both the Alumni Club and the Disney University. Emcee Ron Stark recalled his first encounter with Van for a long-ago business meeting. France insisted that they sit on the floor. He knew that it was hard to get pretentious sitting on the floor like a child.
Chief Imagineer Marty Sklar also delivered a captivating keynote address. Although his talk and video clips were about his career, Sklar made sure Disneyland or Walt or fellow cast members were the stars of all his stories. Most eye-opening had to be when he stressed how lucky we all were that Disneyland was looking so beautiful of late. A series of photos popped up on the screen; on the left appeared some neglected area of the park with peeling paint. This is what Disneyland looked like two years ago, Sklar said solemenly. On the right were current photos of the same areas, all shiny and restored. This is how Disneyland should look every day, he said.
Imagineer Marty Sklar keeps things moving at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion with a memorable look at his own career. Photo by Bob Elliott.
Next up, original Mouseketeers Sherry Alberoni and Tommy Cole bounded onto the stage, we presumed, to sing and dance to old Mickey Mouse Club numbers. Instead, the duo reminisced and introduced grainy clips from their TV show. Their session was very well received, but they did miss a Golden opportunity-everyone in the audience wasn't necessarily interested in the Mickey Mouse Club, we were all there to celebrate Disneyland. And, Sherry, Tommy and gang appeared at the park on Opening Day, performed that first season in the Fantasyland theater, starred that winter in the disastrous circus, and appeared regularly in park shows and parades thereafter. Yet they spent very little time talking about Disneyland and screened no clips of their in-park appearances. It was nice to hear about Cubby and Jimmy Dodd and the Big Mooseketeer, but what about Walt?
Disneyland Alumni Club reunion speakers Tommy Cole and Sherry Alberoni look back at their years as two of the original Mouseketeers. Photo by Bob Elliott.
Then came what many of us thought would be the evening's highlight-comedian Wally Boag. Stark introduced with the former Golden Horseshoe headliner with a TV clip of his balloon act from The Muppet Show. Wally then wandered in through the crowd, musing aloud, That fellow just did my act! The audience laughed, but then seemed a bit nervous when Wally reached the stage and engaged in an awkward, protracted bit of ad libbing with Stark. Maybe, 50 years later, it was time for Pecos Bill to hang up his holsters?
Wally Boag revives his Golden Horseshoe Revue act at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion, 20 years after the show ended. Photo by Bob Elliott.
Fortunately, Wally loosened up as soon as he launched into his tried-and-true Traveling Salesman act. The crowd roared with approval as his still-limber 85-year-old body re-created the memorable antics Boag used to perform during their tenure at the park. It was as if, with so many things so different at Disneyland, we still had Wally Boag. The audience thanked him with an extended standing ovation.
Wally's protg, Dana Daniels, followed and received even heartier laughter with his comedy/magic/hypnotism act. But what made it best was his obvious affinity for Boag. Daniels mentioned how, while working as a character, he caught a performance at the Golden Horseshoe Saloon. He was mesmerized by Wally, and knew then and there that was what he wanted to do. During a break during one of his character sets, Daniels marched up to Wally's dressing room-still wearing his Goofy shoes-and knocked on the door. When Boag answered, Daniels said, I want your job.
Comedian Dana Daniels, who followed in mentor Wally Boag's footsteps at the Golden Horseshoe, performs for the crowd at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion. Photo by Bob Elliott.
The evening closed with a visit from Art Linkletter, still looking and sounding great at 93. Yet when he took the stage well past 10:00 p.m., he humorously wondered why they scheduled him last, so much past his bedtime. Linkletter held the audience spellbound with tales of Walt and Opening Day, many of the same anecdotes he's been sharing over the past few weeks during TV appearances and official ceremonies. Not surprisingly, he earned the night's second standing ovation.
Final presenter Art Linkletter captivates the audience at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion. Photo by Bob Elliott.
As the clock neared 11, the crowd slowly began filtering out of the ballroom, well fed with quality Disney entertainment.
1970s ride operators Elizabeth Hayes, Nancy Colvin, and Mark Zimmer reunite at the Disneyland Alumni Club reunion. Photo by David Koenig.
At the same time, a few miles down the freeway, the other party was just getting going. Ironically, though put on by Disneyland's Entertainment division, it had a conspicuous lack of entertainment. The group had rented out the Discovery Science Center and, while there were plenty of old character training films and home movies and photo montages playing on screens and monitors throughout the venue, it was all in the background. The real party was one giant Meet and Greet. Hundreds of old friends packed the two-story venue, spilling out into the courtyard out front.
Characters and other entertainers pack the Discovery Science Center for the Disneyland Entertainment division reunionand in particular this hallway, which led to the bar. Photo courtesy of Jim Moore.
One long hallway was so crowded, some attendees never made it to the end-not so much because it was elbow-to-elbow, but because every time they took a step they ran into someone else they knew and had to catch up with on the last 20 years. Most attendees, however, said they were able to complete the trek multiple times since (a) the hall led to the restrooms, (b) buffet tables lined the walls, and, most importantly, (c) at the end of the hall was the bar.
From left: Troy Romeo, Matt McKim (son of the late Sam McKim), Linda Ellis, and Dolly Boliver attend the Disneyland Entertainment division reunion. Photo courtesy of Jim Moore.
Through the night, there was a discernible buzz in the air. Even at midnight, everywhere I looked I saw eyes opened wide in excitement or moistened by tears of joy. I was one of several brave souls who attended both parties, and I could see how the others, fatigued after a long night, perked up as soon as they saw all the faces from their past.
Disney artist Stacia Martin brings her tools of the trade to the the Disneyland Entertainment division reunion. Photo courtesy of Jim Moore.
The Alumni Club had served up the quality entertainment Disneyland used to offer; the Entertainment partymasters had given alumni back their family. An alumni club for a place with as many graduates as Disneyland can be a tricky thing to get people involved with. Certainly there will never be a shortage of prospective members. But what will get people excited enough to join and remain active? Certainly, it's tougher now that the club's no longer underwritten by the Company and that members must pay annual dues to stay current.
Giving them a quality Disney show once every five years is nice, but I think most alumni want to stay connected for a different reason. For most, the best thing about their time at Disneyland was the people they worked with. Some would remain friends, others would disappear into the Real World.
Golden Horseshoe cancan girls reunite for the Entertainment Division party. Photo courtesy of Jim Moore.
Perhaps the Disneyland Alumni Club should subdivide itself into chaptersnot grouped by geography, but by role or even era. The club could act as a clearinghouse to find old friends, a way for those who have drifted apart to stay in touch, and a vehicle to publicize when there's a reunion of the ride operators who opened Space Mountain or of the sweepers of the Sixties.
1955ers Bill Sully Sullivan, Gene Johnson (one of C.V. Wood's cronies from Texas), and Bill Hoelscher. Photo by David Koenig.
Consider this: the all-frills Alumni Club banquet, which the Company helped organize and promote, drew 599 alumni and spouses. The Entertainment division party, which was promoted with a Web site and word of mouth, had 825-many of them who at 3 a.m. still hadn't left. That is a homecoming.
(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.