From Red Wagon Inn to Plaza Inn

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"Disneyland guests find tempting meals in the beautiful surroundings of Grandfather's day at this restaurant on Main Street's Plaza." — A Complete Guide To Disneyland, 1956

Red Wagon Inn at Disneyland was such a significant part of Disneyland that it even had its own attraction poster. It operated for a decade and then was transformed into the equally elaborate Plaza Inn.

Like too many aspects of early Disneyland, little has been documented about this popular restaurant.

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 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 food service subsidiary, Universal Paramount Theaters, operate most of Disneyland's food operations. This included three "buffeterias," one full service operation and various fast food stands. UPT had learned that the real money in a movie theater was not film rentals and ticket sales but concession sales.

Other famous name lessees handling Disneyland's food service included the Maxwell House 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 Jemima running a Pancake House and there was also a Casa de Fritos Mexican Cantina.

In the 1950s, Swift Foods (founded in 1855 so it was right at home on Main Street USA) 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.

A placemat from the Red Wagon Inn shows the dining locations sponsored by Swift's.

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.

The 1956 official "A Complete Guide to Disneyland" stated: "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 why Walt took over the operations: "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 at the public perception that the food at Disneyland was not considered top quality. By March 1965, Disneyland food operations were entirely controlled by Disney through the newly formed Disneyland Food Division.

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.

Earlier, 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 reminiscent of how the company originally delivered meats.

It was a 10,750 square-foot building and had the capacity of serving 500 guests per hour in its four dining rooms.

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.

The Red Wagon Inn sat right on Disneyland's hub.

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.

A Los Angeles newspaper advertisement from July 15, 1955 stated: "The Red Wagon Inn is one of several charming eating places in Disneyland. It is resplendent in the elegance of a by-gone area reminiscent of the famed eating houses of yesterday.

"All appointments are authentic mementos of the gay and glamorous 90's—including the stained glass ceiling, entrance hall and foyer taken from the St. James home in Los Angeles, one of the West's most noted old mansions. Atmosphere, however, is not confined to the building alone. The menu itself brings back visions of historic good eating—featuring steaks and chops."

That St. James mansion was built for Baroness Rosa Von Zimmerman around 1870 and originally bore the address 16 St. James Park. It once was a fashionably wealthy area near Adams Boulevard and Figueroa Street.

A 1955 "News From Disneyland" press release stated: "An old mansion in Los Angeles supplied part of the interior for the Delmonico-style restaurant at the Disneyland Plaza. The house was purchased and dismantled, with interior wood paneling and stained glass windows, crystal chandeliers and staircases receiving the utmost care, for most of the mansion's features were incorporated into Disneyland's Main Street."

A stained glass ceiling which had been used on the mansion's third floor solarium, hand-carved wood paneling, and newel posts from the mansion were prominent in the restaurant.

On the menu was Grilled Pork Chops with Spiced Crab Apple, Ham Steak with a Pineapple Slice, Roast Young Tom Turkey with Dressing, Candied Sweet Potatoes and Cranberry Jelly, Lamb Chop with Mint Jelly or Halibut.

Dinner included salad, potatoes, vegetables, rolls and a beverage. A Baked Idaho Russet was available for an additional thirty-five cents.

The children's menu for "young Americans" (children under 12) was options for a hamburger, roast turkey, scrambled eggs, spaghetti and meatballs, frankfurter on a bun, tuna salad sandwich or halibut steak. The Brer Rabbit plate was a vegetarian option featuring carrots, peas, potatoes, and a roll.

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 although some have claimed it was meant to indicate an area between on stage and off stage. 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. It was located at the rear of the Red Wagon Inn. It could hold a maximum of 250 cast members and was open until two in the morning.

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.

Officially it was known as the Palm Room and often hosted special groups and special guests. During his two and a half hour tour of Disneyland in November 1957 Harry and Bess Truman ate there. Cast members sometimes referred to it as the "Disney Room".

Guests found their way into the room 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 restaurant catered concessions for Holidayland, the Disneyland picnic area behind Frontierland, from 1957 to 1961. The Red Wagon Inn Restaurant offered complimentary toothpicks (in sealed paper packages) and souvenir matchbooks back in the day when it was common for people to smoke a cigarette after eating.

The restaurant served a lot of sandwiches at lunch 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."

The Red Wagon Inn closed in October 1964.

The restaurant closed in October 1964. Walt had Imagineer John Hench work on redesigning the Red Wagon Inn and it re-opened in July 1965 as the Plaza Inn, a buffeteria-style restaurant, because Disney research found they could turn the tables around in a half hour with self-service rather than a full hour with full service.

Walt spent $1.7 million dollars on the rehab. "This is California," explained Walt to the Los Angeles Times newspaper. "So we're stressing salads." And he lowered prices on the food as well.

Designer Emile Kuri remembered, "Walt told me, 'the average factory worker or truck driver can't afford luxury for himself or his family, so I want you to make the interior really luxurious, even our prices are going to be cafeteria prices.' Walt wanted the Plaza Inn to be absolutely the most luxurious things for the average family."

Kuri searched salvage yards and antique shops and obtained a circa 1840 hand-carved, gilded Louis XV clock from Versailles and matching barometer, a circa 1700 French fruit wood cabinet, an 1820 hand-wrought iron and marble console, and seventeen wall-mounted sconces and twenty-four basket chandeliers of Parisian bronze and Baccarat crystal.

A lamppost found in a New Orleans courtyard by Kuri was cast to create 17 seven-jet lampposts. There were 80 tables lit by a ruby-shaded lamp on a marble and bronze base with a "boy-and-dolphin" theme.

In addition were seventeen bronze and crystal sconces adorning the walls of the dining rooms, each crowned with a rosette, utilizing the world famous Baccarat Crystal (a line of very fine crystal produced in Baccarat, France.)

Twenty-four basket chandeliers, also of Baccarat crystal and bronze, were installed along with two specially designed rotisseries mounted on selected Norwegian rose-marble pedestals.

Each rotisserie featured a stained-glass canopy, a pair of highly ornate coffee urns with rosette spigots, custom made for the Plaza Inn. Centered in the foyer was a 200 year old French chandelier of bronze and crystal, found in a New Orleans antique shop at a cost of ten thousand dollars.

Swift's Plantation Chicken House sponsorship ended earlier 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 back of the Red Wagon 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."

The Red Wagon Inn was named for the logo of Swift Premium Foods.

"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.

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.

French Fries

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.

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.

Beets Piquant

Use this tangy fix-up, too, for canned julienne-style beets—drain, 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.

Springtime Peas

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
Dash pepper
Dash thyme
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
Dash salt
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.