Remembering Ron Dominguez: An Exclusive Interview

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The New Year began with sadness for Disney fans with the announcement of the passing of Disney Legend Ron Dominguez (August 10, 1935 – January 1, 2021) early on New Year's Day at the age of 85.

Many tributes immediately appeared on the internet but, for the most part, just repeated the same blurb of information about his remarkable life. I have waited until today to write something so that I could gather my thoughts and all my notes and try to do a fuller perspective on his importance.

I had the pleasure of interviewing him in 1985 during Disneyland's 30th Anniversary when I was still living in Southern California. While he had told the story of his life many times, he was still gracious and enthusiastic when he shared it with me. I have included that interview at the end of this column.

He had been frail for quite some time and had been in hospice for the past six weeks following a fall in which he broke his hip.

His devotion to giving back to the Anaheim community earned him the title "Mr. Disneyland" among community leaders. He developed strong relations with the City of Anaheim, devoting hours of volunteer service to local organizations and helped pave the way with the community toward the creation of a second local theme park.

"Ron's greatest contribution to Disneyland is that he is Mr. Disneyland. He's the one who has promoted what we're all about. He's the image," said his long time friend Jim Cora, who at one time was Executive Vice President, Disneyland International.

"People know they can trust Ron and that they count on him to act openly, fairly, and honestly,: said Judson Green, one-time president of Walt Disney Attractions. "Ron is a sincere and straightforward executive who has effectively meant a great deal to Disneyland Cast Members who have benefited from his advice and counsel and a great deal to Disneyland, Anaheim and Orange County."

Ron Dominguez, right, was born and raised on the property that would become Disneyland.

In all my decades of interviewing people who were connected with Disneyland in different capacities, I never heard anyone at any time say anything bad about Ron Dominguez. Quite the contrary, everyone I talked to held him in the highest esteem.

In 1994, Mary Anne Mang, former public relations manager of Disneyland, said, "I remember meeting Ron and thinking at the time: 'This is the nicest guy'. You could tell there was a quality about him that was unique. He was nice, warm, sincere – all those things rolled into one – and he never changed. He was like that as he ascended the corporate ladder, and he is still the same person."

Scott Fleener, president of the Order of the Red Handkerchief, the oldest alumni club in Disneyland and made up of people associated with Mine Train Ride Through Nature's Wonderland, where Dominguez once worked said, "He was a natural leader who took the time to develop future leaders from cast members. Ron was very friendly and one of the things he said was, 'The higher I go up, the more I miss getting to know the people who work in the park.' If he or his wife were to look back now, I would say he had a great life. He was one of the nicest guys I've ever known. Sometimes 'nice guys' do finish first."

Richard Ferrin, chairman of the Disneyland Alumni Club, called Dominguez "the spirit of Disneyland. He was there from the very beginning and fully understood what Walt wanted in a cast member."

Dominguez was born and raised on part of the property that later became the Happiest Place on Earth. He attended Anaheim High School and the University of Arizona, where he studied business administration. He and his wife Betty were married for 41 years and met when they both worked at Disneyland. He started work at Disneyland at the age of 19 as a ticket taker on July 13, 1955, four days before Disneyland opened and about a month before he turned 20 years old.

Walt Disney had the Dominguez family's two-story Spanish style house moved behind Main Street to use as the first administration building for the park for the first three years, before it was demolished to make room for the Grand Canyon Diorama.

Walt had also promised to preserve The Dominguez Palm that still grows in Adventureland today.

By the end of 1956, he could brag that he had worked on every attraction the park had to offer. He helped open the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland attraction.

In January 1957, he became assistant supervisor of Frontierland and went on to supervise both Adventureland and Frontierland in summer 1957 before being named supervisor of Tomorrowland in 1962. That same year, he became general supervisor of the West Side of the park and was later promoted to its manager in 1963. By 1970, he was appointed Director of Operations, and, four years later, was named Vice President of Disneyland and Chairman of the Park Operating Committee. In 1990, he was named Executive Vice President, Walt Disney Attractions, West Coast.

The Dominguez Tree near the Indiana Jones attraction in Adventureland.

Over the decades, Ron rose in the ranks to become in 1990 Executive Vice President for Walt Disney Attractions for the West Coast. He retired in 1994.

He was the first Disneyland cast member to ever be honored with a limited-edition pressed penny that was produced when he retired. The Ron Dominguez CM0001 elongated coin was pressed in advance, on zinc cents, for distribution at the retirement event. However, for a time, coins could be pressed backstage by Cast Members on zinc or copper cents.

In 2000 he became a Disney Legend. He also was given a window on the theme park's Main Street.

Anaheim was not the first choice for Walt's Disneyland. Nor was it the second choice or really even in the original top ten at first. Land that was considered included a pistol range in Chatsworth, a coastal spot in Palos Verdes, a huge 440-acre plot in La Cañada, a parcel in Calabasas, the Golden Oak Ranch that Disney used for movies and even areas in Riverside and San Diego counties. Anaheim is a city in Orange County, California and is considered part of the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

The word Anaheim is a combination of "Ana" after the nearby Santa Ana River and "heim," a German word meaning "home" so it was a "home by the river". Anaheim was founded in September 1857 by 50 German-Americans who had all originally come from San Francisco. The city was later incorporated in 1878.

In the mid-1950s, Anaheim was a small, quiet, simple, rural community and before Disneyland, agriculture was the primary industry. The city jail had only two jail cells and police officers had to supply their own cars when on duty. A brochure from before Disneyland was built described it as "No better place to Live. Anaheim. The City of Beautiful Parks. In the Heart of the Southland."

In 1955, the city had a population of roughly 15,000 people. In the early 1950s, it was four square miles.

As Anaheim's city manager from 1950 to 1976, Keith Murdoch, remembered the situation at the time, the city was as interested in having Disney as much or more as Disney was in having a location in Anaheim because the city was looking to raise its profile and attract some major businesses.

"We were looking to improve the economic status of the city by attracting new industries," he said. "We looked at Disney as another industrial opportunity."

The orange growing business was going through hard times and the land owners welcomed this opportunity to get out. For the most part, they knew it was Disney that was buying the land and they felt they were getting a good price. The price for the land in 1954 would be relatively inexpensive at an average of $4,500 per acre. The total cost for just the land for Disneyland was $879,000.

According to Disney, construction on Disneyland began July 21, 1954 approximately one year before the park opened.

In 1985 during Disneyland's 30th anniversary celebration, I interviewed Ron Dominguez about his unique connection to Anaheim and Disneyland. With my questions removed, here is his story in his own words:

"In the late 1890s, my maternal grandfather came here from Perry, Iowa and purchased thirty acres of Orange County land. His name was Wyran Knowlton and at first, he planted a walnut grove, then, in 1910 changed the walnuts for oranges.

"In 1920, Knowlton's daughter, my mother Laura, married Paul Dominguez, who was part of the family that had the Bernardo Yorba enormous land grants in Southern California. My folks built a house there in 1925.

"I was born in that house in 1935. After I had spent years of weeding and tromping through my family's orange grove, I was surprised to hear my parents talk about selling the property to a man who had driven by in a convertible a couple of times. That man was Walt Disney. People had made offers for our land since 1951 or so but my mother was never interested.

"Selling those 10 acres was real emotional for my mom who had struggled to hang on to our house and land and make the groves pay after her dad died. She definitely did not envision that it would ever become part of a magical kingdom.

"The two real estate men who put the deal together were personal friends of the family. Ed Wagner and Frank Miller. They assured her that she was selling to a quality organization.

"Walt invited us all up to the studio to see a presentation so we could see it wasn't going to be a typical dirty amusement park. He was very convincing. She finally agreed to sign the necessary papers and we were the last of the original 17 families to move out.

"There was a man who was caretaker for one of the orange groves and Walt hired him for about a year to keep the trees watered until they decided what they needed to keep. The man lived in one of the houses that had been moved. Most of the land was cleared by August and some of the trees on our property ended up in the Jungle Cruise jungle.

"I can remember the bulldozers uprooting the nearby orchards starting in July 1954 and we didn't pack up until August because our new house wasn't ready yet. When we left, we were stepping around ditches and holes because work was already being done.

"They took our house and a house from the Callens estate and put the two together for the Administration building. Another Callens house was used as the personnel office on West Street for the first three years or so.

"Before we moved out, we met Earl Shelton, who was the Disney coordinator of construction, and I later contacted him to set up an interview for a job. He had been always gently pushing us to get out of the house so his construction crew could start some work there.

"I had graduated Anaheim High School and was at the University of Arizona and my parents kept telling me about all these lines of people along West Street where the personnel office was located looking for work at Disneyland. I think they began interviewing in January 1955.

"I told my parents to get in touch with Earl to see if he could get me an interview when I came home in early May. I got a job as a ticket taker at the front gate. I was 19 years old.

"The original plan on opening day was to stagger the arrival of guests so there would be a smooth and orderly flow. The tickets all had a specific time so we could spread out all the arrivals. I was told a crowd management firm had been hired to help but everyone all showed up early. Everyone wanted to come early to see the movie stars and to see what Walt had done after seeing it being built on all those television shows. It was exciting to see celebrities come in through the front gate, to have them come to my hometown.

"On that first day, several rides broke down and only a few restrooms were working. Walt himself was seen running rolls of toilet paper to some of them. But despite all the snafus, the magic feel of the place rubbed off on people at the very beginning. It was a really hot day and it was a madhouse.

"I was a 'Ticket Receptionist' at the Main Gate for only two weeks then I was transferred to the trains. After the summer, my boss 'Doc' Lemmon said to me, 'You ought to stick around. This place is here to stay. You should get in on the ground floor.'

"I am glad I took the risk. I spent the first winter working on the Mule Packs and the stagecoach in Frontierland. Within that first year of joining Disney, I was been trained on every attraction and was named temporary supervisor of Main Street, U.S.A.

"Somebody thought I looked a little like actor Fess Parker and I ended up playing Davy Crockett on the Mike Fink Keel Boats for awhile. They put me in a coonskin cap. We had real jousting contests on the boats, trying to knock the other guy into the water. I took my share of dunkings. It got to be embarrassing because I don't care for being in the limelight and guests would ask for autographs and to take photos.

"Our house was located near to where the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean is today. It was a large Spanish style two story house. We had a two-car garage behind the house and a workshop. They made so many changes to the main house like putting a wall down the middle of my old bedroom upstairs to create two offices that it didn't seem like my house anymore. It was a strange experience going in there for me. They had moved it backstage and it had to be torn down in 1958 because of the building of the Grand Canyon Diorama back there.

"They gave me a big sledge hammer and took some publicity shots of me pounding away on my old house. It was very solidly built and took a lot of effort by a construction crew to get it finally down.

"A house on The Disneyland Hotel site was moved behind the Park for use by the landscapers. The only house from the original property still standing is the one that the Popes lived in when they were handling all the horses at Disneyland for the Pony Farm.

"I'm glad my parents decided to sell. Business was always slow at the fruit stand anyway.

"There's something from my old orange grove, from that original property, that is still at Disneyland, a palm tree (over by the Indiana Jones Fast Pass; the fat tall tree that punches through the boathouse). For a long time it was in the queue for the Jungle Cruise. Walt agreed to save it as part of the deal for buying our property. He was a sentimental guy like my mom and he saw how important it was to her. Besides he needed all the trees he could get. It is a Canary Island Date Palm and it was planted in 1896 as wedding gift to my grandparents from the area's first horticulturist, Tim Carroll. Life is funny. My daughter married the great-grandson of the guy who gave my grandparents the palm tree. Today at Disneyland, it is called the Dominguez Tree."

He is survived by his wife of 41 years, Betty; three children from a previous marriage, Sheryl Ralston, Steve Dominguez, and Ronald K. Dominguez Jr; four grandchildren, Joby Ralston, Tim Ralston, Chase Dominguez and Reid Dominguez; and great-grandson Brooks. He had a brother, Paul, who had two daughters: Jonnie Jean Hofer, who resides in Iowa, and Melanie Harner, who was raised by the Dominguez family in California.

With the passing of Ron Dominguez not only do we all lose a very fine and decent man but one of the last connections to Walt Disney and the original Disneyland, making it a very sad start to a new year.