Decades before a Little Mermaid named Ariel captured the hearts of audiences, or Madison the mermaid from the live-action movie Splash swam through many dreams, Disney had a school of finny females who enchanted Disneyland guests and made male hearts race a little faster.
Disney animation has a long history with depicting mermaids, whether it is the flirtatious trio in Peter Pan or the cherubic imps in the 1938 Silly Symphony Merbabies, actually produced by Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising. However, it was their live counterparts who appeared at Disneyland that have brought a smile to many a face over the years as well as much confusion as to exactly when they swam in the Submarine lagoon and what they did.
In the summer of 1959, for the dedication of the new Submarine ride attraction at Disneyland, the opening ceremonies had eight live actress mermaids performing a synchronized swimming ballet in the lagoon. They also frolicked underwater to the delight of eager guests peering from the submarine portholes. Earlier that day, four of the mermaids appeared on a special float in the Main Street parade where they tossed strands of pearls from King Neptune’s treasure chests to guests gathered on the curbs as King Neptune sat in a giant shell throne at the front of the float. These events were captured by movie cameras for the ABC television special, the live action film short Gala Day at Disneyland and in other Disney film publicity.
You can see a black and white excerpt from the 1959 ABC television special and a color excerpt from A Gala Day at Disneyland. At the minute mark, you can see the mermaid float. At the four minute mark, you can see the mermaid ballet in color.
There has been debate whether the live mermaids ever appeared again in those early years after the dedication ceremony. Most people believe that like the colorful dancers at the Matterhorn dedication, they were just hired for that one day ceremony, resulting in disappointment from Disneyland guests who only saw inanimate floating mermaid figures for the next few years as they anxiously pressed their faces against the portholes.
In 1965, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Disneyland, the mermaids returned to the lagoon for the summer. The guest reaction was so positive that, the following summer, a new set of mermaids took up residence in the lagoon. Apparently, that was the last season for the mermaids although there have been claims of other live action mermaid sightings in later years.
Today, it is a delight being a Disney historian, because there are so many websites and blogs that share obscure Disney history. One of my favorites is Matt Crandall who runs a site devoted to his decades-long interest in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.
However, his’s interests go beyond just Alice in Wonderland and he found some photos of Disneyland mermaid tryouts from 1966. When he posted those images, he was contacted by Edie, one of the young ladies in the photo in early March of this year. You can read the whole story and see the photos.
Knowing Matt from our days working on Paul Anderson’s much lauded magazine, Persistence of Vision, I also contacted him, and we were able to arrange a lengthy interview with Edie about her experiences being a Disneyland mermaid when she was 19 years old. The entire interview will appear in a future edition of Didier Ghez’s excellent “Walt’s People” book series that now includes 10 volumes of interviews with people who have contributed to the magic of Disney.
However, I got special permission from Didier and Matt to run an excerpt of some of that interview especially for readers of MousePlanet:
Jim Korkis/Matt Crandall: Did you ever see the live mermaids at Disneyland before you tried out for the job?
Edie: I went to Disneyland all the time, but do not remember seeing the live mermaids. Disneyland was practically my "backyard." I went there for birthdays, parties, school trips, etc. It was THE BEST! I had been on the Submarine ride and I found it totally enchanting, being a water person! And cute “drivers”!
JK/MC: How did you hear about the tryouts for the summer of 1966?
E: From a high school friend, Robin, who was a mermaid in 1965. She lived across the street and we surfed together. She said that I would be perfect for the job. It was just one day in June. We had to be at the Disneyland Hotel pool around 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning. It was a regular lap size rectangular pool. It was just a “show-up” thing. Robin told me to wear a bikini and smile a lot. There was no age limitation that I remember or any other restrictions. There were about 90 to 100 girls trying out according to an article in the newspaper afterward. Mostly local to Orange County. I don’t remember them saying how many they were looking for but five of us were selected plus one girl from the year before.
JK/MC: What was the tryout like?
E: I don’t remember any formality with the judges, but they may have asked us questions and talked to us while we were waiting around the pool for our swim. Basically we were told they were looking for girls who could swim, smile, had long hair and out-going personalities. The only actual judging I was aware of was the pool swim—two lengths of the freestyle, and lengths of one or two other strokes wearing the tails from the previous year. There was no formal interview. We all stood around the pool for a while in swimsuits and wore them as long as the try-outs lasted.
JK/MC: Can you describe briefly the other mermaids that were chosen?
E: All the girls were great. Judy, Lynn, Marcia, Cynthia, Jini and myself. We worked in shifts of two at a time for an hour in the water and an hour out. I think they tried to schedule one blonde and one brunette together each shift, so I mostly worked with Judy and Marcia, and not too often with Jini and Cynthia. We had a lot of fun and no problems getting along. Everyone was good, with their own personality. Lynn was probably the prettiest, and Jini the best swimmer, and Marcia had the sexiest figure. I thought I did great since I’m very outgoing and smile a lot.
JK/MC: One mermaid was from the previous year?
E: Jini. She was primarily our supervisor. I think she was already hired for 1966 to help the rest of us who would be new. She taught us how to swim dolphin-style, and how to keep bubbles from coming out of our mouths, plus basics about what to do while sitting on the rock, and underwater when the Subs went by. I don’t know why there weren’t any other mermaids from the previous year. My friend, Robin said it was really fun, but that she couldn’t do it in 1966.
JK/MC: What was the job like?
E: Being a professional mermaid for Walt was nothing to take lightly. The Productions Department measured us from hip to toe for neoprene tails, complete with large flukes, and green starfish bras. We were each individually fitted for our tails. There was only one for each girl, no back ups. We were taught to slither into the Submarine Lagoon from a hidden chamber and dolphin kick underwater to magically surface in the center of the pool. There we sat on a rock and untangled our hair with immense blue and yellow plastic combs, and plucked ersatz lyres.
We worked in shifts of two, and traded off hourly. The lagoon was about 10 to 15-feet deep I guess. Each time a submarine passed, we dove underwater to frolic about, hang upside down by spinning our tails, and to wave at curious faces plastered against the portholes. With practice we learned to smile without emitting bubble screens that would distort our faces into repulsive creatures from the deep. For all this we were paid $1.85 an hour—a whopping net of $59.55 each week.
On a typical day, we’d arrive before the park opened so we could get to our trailer—where we stayed between water shifts. It was behind the park "border," and we got to it through a gate in a tall wood fence. We’d put on our bras and bikini bottoms, and short muumuu type "shifts" to wear around the park. They were provided and were very colorful. We’d eat lunch, dry our hair and use the restroom in the trailer. The first shift would be in the water by the time the park opened.
We worked one hour in and one hour out, for a total of eight hours a day. We got into our costumes in a tunnel inside the park at the lagoon, where we kept our tails during the day. Then we’d slip out a tube underwater and swim to the center of the lagoon so the visitors wouldn’t know where we came from. Same for leaving when out shift was over. No set performance except to go underwater and greet the Subs. The lyres were wood and didn’t make any noise. If the props got hot, we’d take them into the water with us. We performed five days a week.
The chlorine and chemicals were hard on our hair and skin. Some of the blondes had trouble with green. My hair was sun-bleached and the chemicals dried it out. Some of the fairer-skinned girls would get sunburned, and sometimes I’d take their shifts for them because I was very tan and it didn’t bother me.
JK/MC: Were there any wardrobe malfunctions?
E: Not that I ever heard of - and I think I would have heard! (laughs)
JK/MC: It was rumored that the mermaids attracted a lot of male attention.
E: Each weekend flotillas of sailors in dress whites draped over the handrails around the Lagoon, ogling with off-duty exuberance. They rolled quarters inside dollar bills and tossed them into the lagoon for us to retrieve, a lucrative bonus to our income. One young hero flung himself into the water and swam to our rock. He basked between us, waving to his howling buddies, until Security retrieved him. It’s the only time that it happened to me, and the only time I know of that it ever happened. I never had anyone throw anything but money, and it was almost always the sailors just trying to get a smile—so that was fine. I never once thought of it as a circus animal act. No one tossed food or popcorn. We kept the money. Finders keepers—or more appropriately, divers keepers.
JK/MC: What is one of your fondest memories of being a mermaid?
E: A section of the Monorail hung above the Submarine tank. It was a ride that gave passengers an aerial view of the entire park and had several stations for boarding, one of which was next to the Lagoon. Three flights of stairs zigzagged up, giving visitors a bird’s eye view of our rock. One of the Monorail conductors told me of a conversation he’d had with an elderly lady:
“Are they real?” she asked.
“Oh yes.” He replied, assuming she thought we might be robots.
She sighed in amazement and said, “I wonder where they found them…probably the Sargasso Sea.”
That one really got me.
JK/MC: Did you or the other mermaids ever do anything naughty?
E: This is possible dangerous territory (laughs). Some of us would go underwater and “rearrange” the fish, which were attached to rocks by fishing line to hold them in place. We would place them in groups, etc.—really fun. One other mermaid who used to rearrange the fish and myself got carried away and wanted to rearrange a rock, not realizing it was hooked up to tilt when the sub went by, and it fell down toward the track exposing some black wires —but may not have actually landed on the track because I don’t remember anything terrible happening to the ride or to us. We were really scared. Never told that story until now! We always wondered if someone came at night and fixed it. I don’t think they would have approved of us moving fish around underwater but no one ever said anything.
We stayed on our rock out in the middle and swam around it, and underwater to wave at the Subs—only swam back to the tunnel [underwater] when our shift was up. We couldn’t swim to the railing because of the Sub track—and also to maintain distance from the crowd. We waved to them, but never conversed, or at least I didn’t and never heard any of the other girls do that.
JK/MC: What was your last day working as a mermaid?
E: Late August. I could have done it all year! The mermaids talked about going to Sea World and applying as a professional team. Unfortunately, we all went our own ways and it never happened. We were all so young and from different cities. I would love to talk with any of them now!
JK/MC: Why do you think that was the last year for Disneyland mermaids?
E: I think because of safety issues. There were rumors about the chemicals, that one girl had eye problems, and I heard another hurt her arm swimming into a sub. We did experience dry skin, discoloring and dryness of our hair, and skin, sunburn and some problems with opening our eyes underwater because of the chlorine and whatever chemicals were in the lagoon to keep algae from growing so the water would be clear for the view from the subs.
JK/MC: Did you ever meet Walt Disney himself?
E: I believe we saw him one time at the railing around the lagoon. Oh he was great! He smiled and waved! I never got to talk to him. I was in college at San Diego State when I heard he had passed away, and it was very sad—the end of an era, in a way.
JK/MC: You’ve mentioned the experience of being a mermaid was very influential on the rest of your life.
E: I never thought I’d get picked—and when I did, it made me realize that you should always try for what you want—no matter how “against the odds" it might seem! Very impacting lesson that led me to all sorts of adventures.
JK/MC: Thank you so much for sharing your memories with us.
(Send an email to Jim Korkis)
Jim Korkis grew up in the Los Angeles area and since the age of five was a frequent visitor to Disneyland. He was an original member of both the Mouse Club and the National Fantasy Fan Club. He attended all the local conventions where he had the opportunity to interview many of the people who actually worked with Walt Disney. Jim describes his house as looking like "a toy shop and a bookstore exploded and I decided to live in the remains". For over two decades, he has been a freelance writer and a teacher and for a while was a dealer in animation artwork and related resources. His columns concentrate on sharing stories of Disney history that haven't been recorded elsewhere.
From 2006 to 2010, Jim wrote under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson. He finally revealed his true identity in September of 2010. Those articles can be found here.