The Story of the Mickey Mouse Helium Balloons, Part Oneby Jim Korkis, staff writer
Frequent readers of this column know that I am always interested in exploring and sharing Disney history that appears no where else in an effort to save this information before it is lost forever.
As a kid, I loved going to Disneyland, and one of those joys was getting the Mickey Mouse helium balloon. My dad was smart enough so my brothers and I would not get one until toward the end of the day so it didn't have to be lugged around all afternoon or tied to the handle of a stroller as the family negotiated through the various rides and adventures.
I remember the balloon bouncing up to the roof of the car on the ride home, and it floating in my bedroom until, as the days passed, it gradually sank lower and lower until it finally floated near the floor of my room and needed to be popped.
The Mickey-eared balloon had been around as long as the 1940s, although not primarily as a helium balloon, but simply a party decoration. With the opening of Disneyland, the helium balloon became an iconic fixture of the park beginning sometime in 1956 and was the star of many photos.
Fortunately, I recently had the chance to interview someone who really knows about Mickey Mouse park balloons. The complete interview will appear in a future volume of the book series "Walt's People," edited by the amazing Didier Ghez.
However, as an exclusive for MousePlanet readers, I have formatted some of the information into two separate columns so you can enjoy the history of the Mickey Mouse balloon that was and the Mickey Mouse balloon that exists today.
Treb Heining began his life-long career as a "balloon guy" when he first started selling Mickey Mouse helium balloons at Disneyland in 1969 when he was 15.
Working several summers at Disneyland, he became enthralled with the world of balloons and their possibilities. When he graduated school, he set up his own private company, BalloonArt by Treb, Inc., specializing in elaborate balloon displays for celebrity parties around Southern California.
Heining has been responsible for the balloon effects at 18 Super Bowls, the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics Games, and every Republican National Convention since 1988, as well as two presidential inaugurations.
He was responsible for the million-balloon launch over Disneyland in 1985, as part of the park's 30th anniversary celebration. He invented the "balloon archway" that became popular at so many events.
In recent years, he created the Mickey Mouse helium balloon inside of a clear balloon, known as a glasshouse, as well as the Mickey Mouse helium balloon that lights up.
He heads up Glasshouse Balloon Company, Inc. which is part of an industry that employs more than 50,000 people worldwide and he was extremely gracious and patient as I asked him about the history of the Mickey Mouse balloon and his re-invention of the classic.
Jim Korkis: You attended high school in Garden Grove and you saw some of your classmates get jobs at Disneyland.
Treb Heining: I was only 15 and Disneyland didn't hire until you were 18. My Dad came home from work one day and told me that a friend of his knew a guy named Nat Lewis who operated the balloon vending at Disneyland as a lessee. He believed that Nat hired kids who were under the age of 18 and gave my father a phone number to call.
JK: Did you just keep calling them until they hired you?
TH: On my first call they told me they were not hiring at the moment and to please call back. I can't remember if it was at my parents urging or just part of my personality but I called them several times a week until they finally told me to come down and fill out an application. I was just 15 and a half at the time and, technically, Nat didn't hire you until you turned 16. I remember clearly how excited I was to go into the "backstage" area of Disneyland for the first time.
I entered from the Harbor Security Gate—under the train tracks and the balloon room was located near the back of the Monsanto ride—Adventure Thru Into Inner Space. After filling out the application, I heard them scrambling to get someone to work as someone had not shown up that day.
They finally turned to me and asked if I wanted to go out and work right then and I jumped at the chance. Had to go back out and tell my Dad, who was waiting in the car, that I would call them when I was finished. I knew nothing about balloons but was just thrilled to get the chance to work at Disneyland.
JK: Were there limits because of your young age?
TH: Yes—in the beginning it was just weekend work and during the summer—could not work past 10 p.m. Had to have a work permit, etc. I had already been working since the age of 13½ at a business in Long Beach (Signal Hill) owned by a neighbor. It involved supplying parts for oil drilling rigs and I worked in the stockroom. That job paid $1.50 an hour.
Nat Lewis started me at minimum wage - $1.35 an hour—so I took a cut in pay just to be able to work at Disneyland. My parents were completely supportive of me working at Disneyland. I started in 1969 and worked for Nat Lewis until 1972
JK: What was that first day like working at Disneyland?
I remember my first day was very exciting, and also a little scary as there was so much to learn. I will never forget that feeling of walking with my balloons in the backstage area and passing through the door just past the Inn Between and suddenly being in Disneyland. I had always entered through the Main gate.
Back in those days, you started in the Fantasyland position (inside courtyard of Sleeping Beauty Castle)—one that was not popular because of the outfit you had to wear and also because the downdrafts coming over the castle made it more difficult to keep all your balloons straight.
The Room crew (guys who worked at just filling up and delivering balloons) were very patient with me and had to keep straightening the balloons for me but they also made it clear that they were not happy to have to keep doing something that it was really my job to do. Keeping a group of 50 or more balloons in a perfectly flat umbrella outside with wind etc. is really a skill.
The other challenge was making change and handling cash while holding onto all the balloons. The balloons were 35 cents back then and, even though I was pretty good at math, it took some quick calculating to get the right numbers worked out in my head when someone would buy three or more balloons. I remember being exhausted when I finally went back to the balloon room after the fireworks that night and getting a lesson one more time from one of the room guys about how to keep the balloons and strings straight.
JK: I understand that at Disneyland you were famous for being able to inflate and tie 1,000 balloons an hour or roughly 16 to 17 a minute.
TH: There are two types of tying when you talk about balloons. The latex Mickey Mouse balloons were tied using what is known as the "spin-tie" method. This is accomplished by "spinning" the latex balloon around a piece of waxed thread held in both of your hands. (I learned recently that this method was introduced to Nat by Fritz Lauber who was a legend in the fair/carnival/circus industry himself) Once you worked with Nat long enough, you were able to advance into the coveted "room" position where inflating and tying balloons was not only required, but the skill and speed at which you could do it was a real badge of honor.
Each balloon boy had their own style when it came to the spin tie method but many of us worked at being the best—the fastest. Inflating a Mickey Mouse balloon is a real skill and spin-tying is a dying art—not too many around who still know how to do it. The reason it was done was to be able to easily open the balloons at the end of the day.
When we had balloons that were not sold at the end of the day—they were opened up, (thread removed from the neck) deflated and then put into a regular clothes dryer where the latex was then shrunk back to its original form. The balloons were then re-inflated and sold the following day. (They were known as "Re-blows.")
During the Christmas season, there was the big parade that started at "it's a small world" and ended behind Main Street. The finale of the parade was a circus train pulling six cars. Each car had a letter on it and all together it spelled out: "THE END". The cars were each filled with regular round latex helium balloons and during the parade an "elf" would come along and pull a cord releasing all the balloons. It was our job to inflate these balloons on a daily basis.
Nat would bring in other kids to do this in the backstage area back by the horses but there was always a few of the regular Disneyland "balloon boys" who were required to be there and help. None of us liked that job very much because we preferred to be working in the balloon room or "on stage." So, in an effort to get it over with quickly, we would challenge each other to see who could inflate and tie the balloons the quickest.
Bottom line—there were just so many balloons to inflate for each of the train cars—once the balloons were inflated, you were done. It was this training that led me to inflate and tie latex balloons so quickly—more than 1,000 per hour by myself—a "skill" that would eventually lead me to starting a business in the late '70s that in turn started an industry.
JK: What was Nat Lewis like?
TH: I remember that Nat Lewis was of average height, dressed impeccably and always had a cigar going. In the Balloon Room, there were two separate rooms—one an office with two desks (where Nat would be) and an outer room where the balloons were inflated and stored. This outer room also had a changing area with lockers where the Balloon Boys would change into their costume before starting work.
I don't recall ever seeing Nat handle any balloons. He would come in and sit in his office—many times talking with visiting friends or business associates. Sometimes he would come back into the Balloon Room and talk with us a bit—giving us a pearl of wisdom. He always had a manager who ran the day-to-day part of the operation and this person knew everything about inflating, arranging and selling the balloons.
Nat would also walk the Park on a daily basis and we would get word from the room crew when we were selling that Nat was "in the Park" which meant to be on our toes and not mess around. Nat had a very gruff demeanor about him that—I learned in later years—most likely came from his years with the circus.
One time when I was selling in Fantasyland, I remember an incident with Nat very clearly. In each of the selling areas, there was an exact spot/area we were supposed to stand. The Fantasyland position was in the very center Castle courtyard area.
As I mentioned earlier, when you stood in the correct spot, the downdrafts coming over the castle did horrible things to your balloons and it was also directly in the sun. I would move from time to time under the castle itself—just outside the candy shop on the right side which was both shady and protected the perfect balloon "umbrella".
The main problem with doing this is that it kept the balloons out of the sight-line of the guests which in turn lead to fewer sales. So I was standing there—in the wrong spot—one summer day when Nat suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
He didn't say a word to me—just grabbed me by my cheek and marched me over to the spot I was supposed to be. Taking the every-present cigar out of his mouth, he pointed to the ground and said, "this is where you're supposed to stand" and marched off disappearing as quickly as he had arrived.
I remember standing there in shock for a minute or so but before I could think more about what happened, I was busy selling balloons because standing in the correct spot definitely was better for business.
Nat also taught us the power of suggestive selling. When a guest would ask how much the balloons cost, instead of just saying the price, ask them what color they would like or point out the different colors to them.
Nat told me one time that when he first started with the circus, he worked in the concession stand selling hot dogs, cotton candy and Coca-Cola. If someone ordered a Coke, he was instructed to always say, "Large?" 90 percent of the time, the customer will just say "yes", which sells more large drinks—making more money. Simple thought but a great "life" lesson.
JK: Where did Lewis get the balloons?
TH: The balloons have always come from Pioneer Balloon Company. Pioneer actually was making the mousehead balloon in the '40s—long before Disneyland started. It was Nat Lewis who brought this balloon to the Park.
In the early days they sold both the Mickey Mouse balloon and also regular round balloons known as Agates. They also experimented with putting a mousehead inside another clear latex balloon. This is where the term glasshouse balloon came from as the guests called this balloon—a mousehead inside of a clear latex balloon—"Mickey Mouse in a glasshouse."
The problem with this balloon is what I spoke of earlier—oxidation. As the clear outside balloon would age in the sun, it would oxidize and make it hard to see the mousehead balloon inside.
When I started vending in 1969, we were selling only the Mickey Mouse latex balloon by itself—no balloon-inside-a-balloon. The mouseheads when I started were priced at 35 cents—then in 1970 when the larger Mickey latex was introduced, the price went to 50 cents.
I have never been a fan of the foil (mylar) balloons—maybe because I kind of grew up with the classic latex Mickey. In terms of balloon vending, the classic latex Mickey always outsold the foil balloons and still does.
It was my understanding that Nat had a handshake agreement to vend the balloons inside the Park although I never knew the exact details.
JK: What was the costume like that you had to wear?
TH: The costume I wore on my first day was a new prototype that was being considered as the costume for the balloon boys. I didn't realize this and just put it on and went out to sell. It was only later that I heard stories from the other balloon boys on how no one would wear this outfit and they all had a pretty good laugh seeing me in it. Wish that I had a picture but only wore it a couple of times. It was like a court jester's outfit with yellow tights, puffy pants etc.
Almost everyone started in the Fantasyland costume which was a real way of paying your dues while getting trained. The comments we would get were pretty funny looking back now and it took real guts to stand out there in those funny costumes with balloons no less.
In general though there were three types of outfits worn by the balloon boys in those early days:
- Fantasyland/ "it's a small world" wore the Pinocchio outfit—black tights, red short pants, white shirt with black vest and a hat with feather.
- Sub land (area between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland) and the two Main Gate areas—Good Gate and Bad Gate—wore the "Main Street" outfit: blue pants, pinstriped shirt, bow tie and straw hat.
- Room Crew wore blue pants and white short sleeve shirts.
I should mention here that the slang term the balloon boys used for the gates was Good Gate (Gate 1) and Bad Gate (Gate 2) because one sold more balloons than the other. The one near Bank of America/Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln was Bad Gate (Gate 2)—not as many people entered and exited this gate and the other gate on the City Hall side was called Good Gate (Gate 1). When exiting the Park, more people exited through Gate 1 so we sold probably two-to-one times the number of balloons at that gate.
The costumes were issued by Disneyland and we reported to the same costume-issue windows that other cast members used and Disneyland did maintain and wash the outfits. As mentioned before, we did have our own changing area in the balloon room.
I seem to remember that the costumes did change while I was working there— yellow pants and shirts—but I was a room person by then and we stayed with the blue pants and white shirts.
In Part Two: Treb shares what a typical day in the life of a Disneyland balloon boy was like and also tells how he created the glasshouse Mickey Mouse balloon and the light-up Mickey Mouse balloon that are so popular today.