The Story of the Red Wagon Inn
With today being the Fourth of July, I debated about doing a column on Walt and patriotism. I've done several different ones over the years. However, in the spirit of always giving MousePlanet readers something different, I remembered as a kid how the Fourth of July seemed to bring to mind images of Main Street America at the turn of the century and, of course, all the delicious food associated with this holiday. So, here is another little-known story about Disneyland that ties in to that memory.
Most Disney fans know about Club 33 at Disneyland. It is a private restaurant located above the Blue Bayou restaurant. It was created and designed by Walt Disney himself to use to entertain VIPs, business associates and friends in an upscale atmosphere that recalled the finest gourmet restaurants of New Orleans.
Walt himself never got to use the facilities since it opened on June 15, 1967, roughly six months after Walt's death. However, that doesn't mean that Walt, during the first decade of Disneyland, didn't have a secret restaurant location at the park to entertain important guests in privacy. Walt's special little hideaway was in one of Walt's favorite restaurants.
Pay attention and I will reveal the story behind that little hideaway but first, it is important to understand a little of the history of food service at Disneyland.
Money ran out quickly when Disneyland was being built. Budgets soared as the challenge of building something that had never been built before resulted in delays, expensive overtime charges and unplanned for expenses for material.
To offset some of these ever-spiraling costs, Walt Disney allowed lessees (now referred to as operating participants) to run various businesses in the park from selling balloons to running the food and beverage venues.
After all, Walt reasoned, these companies had had experience in providing these services. Little did Walt suspect at the time that even the highest quality participant would never reach the standards that Walt expected of businesses in his theme park.
When ABC invested in one-third of Disneyland, Walt also agreed to having ABC's contract foodservice subsidiary, Universal Paramount Theaters, operate most of Disneyland's food operations. This included three "buffeterias," one full service operation and various fast food stands.
Other famous name lessees handling Disneyland's food service included the Maxwell Coffee Shop, Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and Coca-Cola Refreshment Corner on Main Street. Fantasyland had the Pirate Ship restaurant handled by Chicken of the Sea Tuna. Frontierland had Pepsi-Cola sponsoring the Golden Horseshoe, Aunt Jemina running a Pancake House and there was also a Casa de Fritos Mexican Cantina.
In the 1950s, Swift Foods was one of America's largest producers of prepared meats. They also became one of the largest lessees of Disneyland. They ran the Market House on Main Street and the Plantation Chicken House in Frontierland (where a whole Plantation House "tender grown chicken dinner" could be purchased for $1.65) as well as the Red Wagon Inn. Starting in 1957, Swift was also the official caterer for the Disneyland picnic grounds, Holidayland.
In 1955, Disneyland sold hamburgers for 35 cents (cheeseburgers cost an additional dime), ice cream bars for 15 cents, milk shakes for 35 cents, coffee for 10 cents and strawberry shortcake for 35 cents.
According to the 1956 official "A Complete Guide to Disneyland": Twenty-four restaurants and refreshment stands in Disneyland were equipped to serve approximately 8,000 persons hourly. Approximately 935,460 hot dogs were consumed by Disneyland guests in the first year after the park opened.
The Universal Paramount Theaters contracts ran out during the first decade of Disneyland's operation and Walt bought out ABC's stake in Disneyland and took over the food operations for Disney to run, including several other food lessees throughout the park.
Since they were all separate operations, the food and beverage locations competed against each other to attract guests often to the detriment of what Walt was trying to achieve in the park in terms of seamless storytelling. Don DeFore even resorted to installing spotlights to attract people to his Silver Banjo Restaurant that he felt was hidden in Frontierland.
In 1992, Dick Nunis, who was then chairman of Walt Disney Attractions, recalled the situation: "It wasn't a case of a sudden urge to be lucrative, but rather a desire to control in order to improve quality and service. Realistically, profits would improve as quality and service improved, but it wasn't necessarily the driving factor."
Walt was upset that the public perception was that the food at Disneyland was not considered top quality. By 1965, Disneyland food operations were entirely controlled by Disney.
In 1966, the New Orleans Square Blue Bayou restaurant was supposed to represent the new approach to a more upscale dining experience. The new restaurant was supposed to feature live entertainment but after a dress rehearsal and trial dinner, Walt decided against it.
"In this restaurant, the food is going to be the show, along with the atmosphere," Walt told his executive team.
In the same time period, the Enchanted Tiki Room was originally designed as a restaurant until wiser heads realized that the guests would be so enthralled with the show, they wouldn't eat and wouldn't leave for the next group of diners.
When Disneyland opened on July 17,1955, the top restaurant and Walt's personal favorite was the Red Wagon Inn at the end of Main Street near Tomorrowland. It was called the Red Wagon Inn because the icon for Swift Premium Foods at the time was a red, horse-drawn delivery wagon.
When a guest exited Main Street, the Hub area was surrounded by the Red Wagon Inn, the Plaza Pavilion and the Carnation Gardens so there was a feeling that the guest was being eased out of the turn of the century small town into a little park with magical paths to take the guest to other adventures. It was a gentle transition to the other lands and also offered guests an opportunity to enjoy a good meal either before or after their adventures.
The Red Wagon Inn was the only restaurant in Disneyland that served full-course dinners. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were served in four dining rooms. The Gold Room and the Green Room were for guests but there were also two "secret" dining rooms.
"The Inn Between" dining room was a Cast-Member only restaurant. It was called "The Inn Between" because it was located in-between Main Street and Tomorrowland. It was also a sly reference to the animation term "in betweener" referring to an artist who fills in the drawings between the animator's key drawings. "The Inn Between" was the first employee cafeteria in Disneyland and the only one open for graveyard shift and was located at the rear of the Red Wagon Inn.
The other dining room at the rear of the restaurant was variously known as the "Hideaway" or the "Hideout" over the early years. It was here that Walt would entertain special friends, business partners and, of course, his participants.
Guests found their way into the club through a very private entrance. The Hideaway had a fully stocked wet bar and was the only place in Disneyland that served alcohol. There was also a private bathroom, as well. This area became a hospitality center for Goodyear when they were a sponsor, and was eventually converted to offices and finally destroyed in the 1999 rehab.
The menu at the Red Wagon Inn originally offered a varied selection of food, featuring steaks and chops and Swift's quality meats. The Red Wagon Inn proved there was much more than just hamburgers at early Disneyland.
The restaurant served a lot of sandwiches and some fish, as well. Reportedly, Roy O. Disney was especially fond of the split roast chicken served there.
General Manager John Mueller remembered that the Red Wagon Inn "featured entrees of chicken pot pie, Swift's premium baked ham, Swiss steak, traditional chef's salad and a fruit plate. We served thousands of meals. However, eventually, after Swift and Co.'s lease ran out, the restaurant was converted to a cafeteria."
Walt had imagineer John Hench work on redesigning the Red Wagon Inn and it re-opened on July 18, 1965 as the Plaza Inn, a cafeteria-style restaurant. Swift's Plantation Chicken House sponsorship ended in 1961 and the area was cleared for New Orleans Square. The Plaza Inn went through another rehab near the end of the century and opened on June 18,1999 with crystal chandeliers, themed soda fountains and enclosed patios.
The original Red Wagon Inn featured ornate interior woodwork, chandeliers, stained glass and tile floors that were something of a rarity in a restaurant that offered reasonably priced foods. These turn of the century furnishings were taken from one of the West Coast's most noted old mansions.
The back of the menu provided the following historical information:
"The Red Wagon Inn on the Plaza in Disneyland offers elegance and glamour reminiscent of famed eating houses of yesterday.
Turn of the century furnishings are authentic mementos of the 1890's. The leaded cut glass entrance doors to the Red Wagon Inn, as well as the stained glass ceiling and back panel of the lobby, were taken from the mansion at No. 20, St. James Park in Los Angeles.
This home was built in 1870 and was one of the luxury homes of the era. Walt Disney purchased this home and removed all the hand carved paneling, newel posts, grand stairway and stained glass that has been used here in the Red Wagon Inn."
Walt wanted a sense of authenticity in the original restaurant as an example of Walt's commitment to "theming."
"Swift's Red Wagon Inn is a good example," explained Disney Imagineer John Hench almost two decades before his death when he was discussing with some of us how the concept of theming was utilized in Disney restaurants. "Even the interior had a color scheme of wood that was finished in a yellow-brown that was like tobacco. And naugahyde seat covers that were like chipped beef-a dried blood color. The place was authentic and also kind of depressing."
As a tribute to the original Red Wagon Inn, I found some recipes for the location showcased in the May 1957 issue of the magazine Better Homes and Gardens, roughly two years after the Disneyland and the Red Wagon Inn opened. I don't recall these recipes ever being printed anywhere else, so for those of you who might like to eat like Walt's special guests in 1957 at Disneyland, here are some dishes you might want to try to prepare:
"Fresh fruit salad plate has drama. [The] Hub is sherbet (or cottage cheese) with arches of apple, peach, and whipped cream-romaine plumes.
"Nothing like a sirloin-steak sandwich for hungry folks on the go. Rest your feet, while steak broils. Meat is propped on toast to catch every drop of juice, is served with crisp French Fries, onion rings.
"In a hurry to ride the horsecar or play the nickelodeons? Then make your lunch the Paul Bunyan chilled meat platter-husky slices of baked ham, turkey breast and Swiss cheese with potato salad.
"At Red Wagon Inn, general manager Myrt Westering confides there are two kinds of people-the ones who have already been up'n'at'em and are now willing to relax and enjoy a sturdy meal-and the ones who are in a hurry to be on their way and 'do everything' at Disneyland. The menu at Red Wagon Inn caters to both.
"Mr. Westering points out french fries can be 'restaurant speedy' at home-and extra crisp. It's a chef's trick to fry the potatoes till partly done, then to finish them as an order comes in to the kitchen. The recipe tells how.
Cut pared potatoes lengthwise in strips. Soak one hour in cold water. Drain thoroughly between towels. Fry small amount at a time in deep hot fat (370 F) until just light brown. Drain on paper towels. Cool thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until serving time. Then return potatoes to hot fat (390 F) for a minute or two until crisp and golden brown. Drain on paper towels. Sprinkle with salt, and serve at once. NOTE: New potatoes are not suitable for french frying.
Another quick specialty at Red Wagon that lets the family get going is the Paul Bunyan platter. Here's the recipe for the potato salad.
6 potatoes, cooked in jacket (4 cups peeled and cubed)
3 hard-cooked eggs, chopped
1 cup chopped celery
1/2 cup French dressing
Combine cubed potatoes, chopped eggs, the celery, salt and paprika. Add French dressing. Chill four to six hours. Then, before serving, add just enough mayonnaise to moisten salad. Serve with a salad scoop. Makes eight servings.
Use this tangy fix-up, too, for canned julienne-style beetsdrain, heat in the butter sauce-
6 or 7 medium beets
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 tablespoons lemon juice, fresh, frozen or canned.
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Pare fresh beets. With sharp knife, cut in thin strips. Melt butter in skillet. Add beets; sprinkle with lemon juice, sugar and salt. Cook covered over low heat 15 to 20 minutes or till tender. Sprinkle with parsley. Makes four servings.
Special because the peas cook in a lettuce nest, keep all their sweet flavor.
2 pounds fresh peas
3 to 6 lettuce leaves
1/3 cup green-onion slices
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter or margarine
Shell peas. Cover bottom of skillet with lettuce; top with peas and onions. Sprinkle on sugar with seasonings; add butter. Cover tightly and cook over low heat 10 to 15 minutes or till peas are done. Makes four servings."
If beets, potato salad and springtime peas are not quite your favorite, fortunately, this issue of Better Homes and Gardens also featured one other recipe, this one from the Maxwell Coffee House on Main Street:
"The Coffee House manager, Raul Grisanti, says their hot-fudge ice cream cake is a favorite with his guests. Just split fresh-baked sponge cake, fill with vanilla, chocolate or pink peppermint ice cream; spoon hot fudge sauce over.
Hot Fudge Sauce
2 1-ounce squares unsweetened chocolate
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
Combine chocolate and water. Stir over low heat until blended. Add sugar and salt; cook slowly, stirring constantly, till sugar dissolves and mixture thickens slightly. Add butter and vanilla. Makes about one cup."
In a future column, maybe I will share some of the ice cream parlor treats from Main Street like the Gay Nineties, Santa Fe Express, Gibson Girl Parfait and Victorian Banana Split that were described in this issue.
I also just discovered, in an issue of Better Homes and Gardens from the 1930s, a personal recipe by Walt Disney for Mickey Mouse Macaroni and Cheese that supposedly he offered to guests visiting the studio. I'm familiar with Walt's chili recipe and his love of Chris Cold Pie for dessert but this one was a new one for me and, hopefully, it will be for you as well when I share it in a future column.