The Story of the Mickey Mouse Helium Balloons, Part Two

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Last week, I shared part of an interview I did with Treb Heining, who is really the king of balloon décor. His love of balloons started with his working at Disneyland in 1969 selling the popular Mickey Mouse helium balloons.

Currently, he is the one responsible for the glasshouse Mickey Mouse balloons currently in the Disney Parks, as well as the light-up Mickey Mouse helium balloons. In this second part of the interview, he discusses how he developed those creations.

Jim Korkis: What was a typical day like for you as a balloon boy at Disneyland in 1969?

Treb Heining: I was usually driven to work by my family or friends and reported to work going through Harbor Gate entrance—under the railroad tracks and across the parking lot to the balloon room. (The Balloon Room was located back of the Monsanto ride.) There we clocked in and got dressed for going out onstage.

When you started at Nat Lewis Balloons, you worked as a seller and the first shifts—Fantasyland, "it's a small world" and Subland: 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and the second shifts were from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. The Fantasyland and "it's a small world" positions stopped after the fireworks, but the Subland position moved after your first break—7 p.m.—down to help out at the main gates, giving us three positions there for closing.

The gate positions started at 1 p.m. and also had two shifts ending at 1:30 a.m. (during the summer hours). I Believe we got a 15-minute break every two hours and, if you worked an 8-hour shift, you also got 30 minute break, too.

We had to take our balloons with us to a position backstage where we tied them up while we had our break.

We all started at $1.35 an hour (minimum wage back then) and believe I was making $2.00 or $2.10 an hour when I left in 1972.

We were not allowed to "hawk" the balloons and could only speak with the guests after they approached us first. The ability to handle a large number of balloons—arranged in a perfect umbrella—helped to attract attention and then questions about how much the balloons cost.

We learned to say the price first and then ask what color they would like, oftentimes pulling down each color to show them the different ones we had. By working this very simple spiel, we were able to take the conversation away from price and into a decision on color right away, which also helped to sell more balloons.

It was a sales technique that I did not fully appreciate until years later in life when someone (with a business degree from Yale) pointed out to me my ability to "bury the price" when I was doing a sales call.

When you were selling, you always wanted to "sell down" (or sell out) of balloons, as it was much easier to stand out there with just a few balloons to handle. It was the job of the room crew to keep us "loaded up" because the more balloons you had, the more you would sell.

Nat [Lewis, who operated the balloon vending at Disneyland as a lessee] was always kept on the room crew to keep the sellers loaded up, and it was not always easy to do that. In my days of selling, I can only remember one or two times when I actually sold out of balloons during the day (this did not include the "blow off" at closing).

We were responsible for every balloon that was delivered to us, and there was a great system that accounted for everything. When a balloon popped, we would save the "neck" part and throw the rest away. When we checked in at the end of the day, we counted the balloons that we returned, breakage, "re-blows" (balloons that we had to take down because of an ear deflating etc.), and any balloons we might have lost. This information was then used against the cash we turned in to balance each seller's sales. If a guest came up to us with a broken balloon, we always gave them another one.

Our routine was very similar to the "regular" cast members, but we were somewhat special in that the regular supervisors for the Park did not have immediate "control" over us. So we had a little more freedom than the other cast members, although things like haircuts and all the other rules definitely applied to us too. (Having your Disney-style haircut back then was a really big deal—it was the late 1960s!)

JK: Nat Lewis chose six of his boys to go to the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971? How were you chosen to be one of the six?

TH: The summer before the grand opening of Walt Disney World, Nat Lewis decided that six of the balloon boys would be sent to Orlando to help with the grand opening 50,000-balloon release, and had a contest to determine who would get to go. I cannot remember the exact details of the contest, but it had to do with being on time and basically "keeping your nose clean" for the entire summer. I was lucky to be one of the ones chosen.

The trip was like a dream come true from beginning to end. We got our flight information and instructions at the last minute. We flew out of LAX, and I remember my dad had to arrange to be late for work to take me up there. When we arrived at the gate, we started to notice celebrities mingling around the waiting area: Annette Funicello, Rock Hudson, Fred MacMurray, Fess Parker, Agnes Moorhead, Robert Stack, Jonathan Winters, Sterling Holloway, Sebastian Cabot, Andy Devine, and Hugh O'Brian, to name a few.

Seeing this, my dad went to a pay phone and called his work to say he would be even later—he wanted to see who else would show up for this flight. Turns out the Disneyland Balloon Boys had been booked onto the Disney charter plane taking all these celebrities down to Orlando for the grand opening.

Once the flight took off, it was like a giant cocktail party from beginning to end. Everyone was up and roaming the aisles. I recall Sebastian Cabot taking on the job of waiter—pouring champagne for everyone. Jonathan Winters took over the PA system several times, making hilarious announcements to the entire plane. I had a movie camera with me and took Super 8 film of the whole journey.

When we arrived in Orlando, there was quite a crowd at the small airport. I remember that it was fun for us balloon boys, having people look you over to see if you were "somebody." The rest of the trip was filled with exploring the new Park (we were all blown away by the size and scope)—meeting our counterparts in Orlando and, of course, helping with what turned out to be one of the most beautiful balloon releases ever done.

We didn't get to meet Roy Disney, but got to watch the rehearsals as speeches were practiced, etc. I believe we were only there for two or three days, and left to head home right after the opening ceremonies.

JK: You set up your first company, BalloonArt by Treb, Inc., in 1979.

TH: The things I learned as a youngster at Disneyland have served me very well in my business career. The most important I think was being professional in all that you do and showing respect for everyone you come in contact with.

Disneyland started using the services of BalloonArt By Treb in 1981. We were "tested" by doing many events outside the Park first before finally doing balloon work "on stage." We worked directly with the Entertainment Art Department (Clare Graham) and Disneyland became our most important accoun,t not only in terms of prestige, but because Clare was always pushing the boundaries of what we could do.

The work we did in and around Disney is still, to this day, some of the most spectacular things I have ever worked on. During grand opening events—re-opening of Alice In Wonderland, Splash Mountain, Captain EO… or anniversary events—Mickey's 60th, Disneyland's 30th etc.—the work was sometimes extremely exhausting as there were so many different parts to the event: actual "on stage" work as well as supporting parties and events in the hotel etc.

JK: You mentioned to me that for the movie Saving Mr. Banks, that the machine for making the two-tone Mickey Mouse balloons no longer exists, so that 750 balloons had to be hand-dyed for the movie.

TH: Yes—my office got the call from Disneyland and I in turn went to the manufacturer to see if the mousehead balloons could still be made like they did in the 1960s. Turns out the machinery had all be destroyed from back then so each balloon had to be hand-dipped to get the black ear effect. It was very time consuming and quite costly.

JK: How and why did you and Henry Unger come up with the idea of a glasshouse balloon in 1996?

TH: There was a product being used in Japan in the late 1980s called the "T" balloon. It was a small round plastic product that was used as a covering for 9-inch and 11-inch latex balloons. While very popular in Japan, it did not do well here in the United States.

I was working with Henry's company—Henry Unger & Associates—learning the distribution side of the balloon business, as well as teaching others what I had been doing in balloon décor and events for so many years.

Henry would drop a stack of these "T" balloons on my desk and encourage me to find something to do with them that would get sales going here in the United States. I had an idea one day that if we could make the "T" balloon bigger, we could inflate the 15M mousehead balloon inside. Henry and I then started up the almost daily dialogue via fax machine with the manufacturer in Japan.

They initially told us that the balloon could not be made in that size, but we kept pushing them with promises of big business if they could produce it. I also changed the opening of the balloon to make it easier to "stuff" latex balloons inside which also presented some problems with manufacturing.

Finally, we started getting initial samples and I was very excited with the results. It was not easy to inflate and seal the product, even for an experienced balloon boy like me. Once we had the initial run of product, we decided it was important to test it first before presenting to Disneyland.

I approached the L.A. County Fair folks about running a balloon concession that September and they loved the idea. That gave us a chance to test the product in all types of conditions including very hot temperatures. The glasshouse balloon performed very well. The outside plastic part kept the latex inside from oxidizing (getting cloudy) and the balloon itself would float for weeks and weeks—in most cases more than a month.

The name "glasshouse" came from a friend—Karen Lampson—who told me that guests at Disneyland used to call the Mickey Mouse inside the clear balloon (both latex back then) "Mickey Mouse in a glass house." It seemed logical then to call this new balloon: "glasshouse."

Henry set up the meeting with Disneyland and, once we walked in with an umbrella of 50 glasshouse [balloons], the only question was how soon we could deliver to the Park.

The new Tomorrowland was about to open and the Disney buyers thought the glasshouse balloon would be a good "retro" product to sell in Tomorrowland. I told them that it would really be a great product for the entire Park, but they wanted to start with just one vendor in Tomorrowland.

I mentioned to them that the glasshouse would sell better than the foil balloons they currently were selling—probably two to one. At the time, Disneyland was only selling foil (mylar) balloons as they had stopped selling the latex Mickey balloon. This meant that I had to teach the cast members not only how to inflate the latex Mickey Mouse balloon, but also do it inside the glasshouse product. It took me many, many long hours and days to teach all the production people how to do it properly.

On the first day, I remember that Outdoor Vending had indeed selected one spot in Tomorrowland to have a glasshouse balloon vendor. That meant that there were four or five foil balloon vendors scattered around the Park and one glasshouse vendor in Tomorrowland.

I shared my belief with the Outdoor Vending managers that the glasshouse balloon would sell two to one better than the foil balloons. When I returned to the balloon inflation room on the second day, it turns out I was wrong. The glasshouse balloon was actually selling better than three to one of the foil balloons. The production cast members even told me that they did not like the glasshouse balloons.

When I asked why, they said that, with the foil balloons, they could send out a vendor and not have to check on them for many hours. With the glasshouse product, the vendor kept selling out every 20 minutes. This was not what I considered to be a "problem." The glasshouse balloon took over the No. 1 spot in Outdoor Vending very quickly and remains the top selling balloon of all time.

JK: How and why did you come up with the light-up balloon stick for helium balloons that Disney began selling in 2002?

TH: Henry and I had talked for years about designing a light that would be bright enough and yet lightweight to float inside a helium-filled balloon. It took years and years of testing, prototypes and finally, new technology to make our dream come true—another case of never giving up and believing that anything is possible.

JK: How has making and selling Mickey Mouse balloons changed since you first started selling them?

The basic latex mousehead has remained the same over the years, just a few changes in the way it is imprinted. The big change, of course, is the outside cover (glasshouse part), which not only protects the latex balloon inside, but adds tremendous value to the product. When we were vending back in the 1960s, the balloons were only good for one day. Now they last for many weeks—sometimes even more than a month.

JK: What important things do you teach Disney park balloon sellers today?

TH: My teaching of Disney cast members centers mostly around the production of the glasshouse product and how to inflate and seal each one properly. In addition to that, I teach them about how having large quantities and standing in the proper place will help sales.

JK: What is it about balloons, in general, and Mickey Mouse balloons specifically that brought you such great joy?

TH: In the beginning, working with balloons was my ticket to getting a job inside Disneyland—as I described earlier. As I went through life, I noticed the reaction people had when I created large quantities of balloons and realized that the skill of producing balloons was something I was very good at.

I simply took that skill and put it together with some big ideas about what might be possible and went about creating a business where I could carry out my ideas and share with people the power of balloons. That is something that I have talked about extensively all over the world: "The power of balloons."

Some people might chuckle just seeing those words put together in a sentence but that power has taken me on quite a ride over the years. Balloons are happy and when done in the right way, create joy for both children and adults. Most people have difficulty with inflating and tying even one balloon so when they see hundreds or thousands perfectly inflated and arranged, it creates its own magic and takes them to a place that nothing else can. That is something I learned on my first day working at Disneyland and continues to be just as true today almost 45 years later.

JK: Anything else you would like to share about selling balloons at Disneyland or the future of balloons at Disney theme parks?

TH: As I mentioned in the beginning, I grew up with Disneyland very close by. There were times on a hot summer evening, when our windows were open, you could hear the whistle of the Mark Twain steamboat as it rounded the bend, or the train whistle announcing the arrival at Main Street station.

What young boy hasn't had a dream about running off and joining the circus? That is what I got to do while still remaining in the comfort of my family and friends. Having the opportunity to play a part in the greatest daily show on earth was truly a dream come true.

Having the Disney organization use my services of my first company was a continuation of that dream. It is hard to put into words the joy I feel now visiting Disney Parks around the world and seeing balloons I have created being enjoyed by so many.

Disneyland though is special to me and always will be. The streets that Walt walked taught me everything I needed to know about dreaming big and how to make those dreams into reality. It's been a wonderful ride.

JK: Treb, thank you for sharing the story of that ride with the rest of us.

There is much more to the interview and the complete version will appear in a future edition of the book series "Walt's People" edited by the amazing Didier Ghez