Sully Sullivan Speaks

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Disney Legend Bill "Sully" Sullivan is an outrageous character and people who worked with him at Disneyland and Walt Disney World have a great many stories about his nearly 40 years with the Disney Company.

When Sully was 19 years old, he watched on television that historic broadcast of the opening of Disneyland on Sunday, July 17, 1955.

"I watched the opening ceremonies for Disneyland. The following Saturday I went down and applied for a job. On Monday, I quit Northrop Aircraft and Tuesday, I reported to work as a ticket taker at the Jungle Cruise," Sully recalled at the National Fantasy Fan Club (NFFC) convention in Orlando in 2007. Sully officially started working at Disneyland on July 27, 1955.

After almost three years working as a "jungle bunny" (an affectionate nickname used at the time for those cast members who worked on the Jungle Cruise attraction), he officially became a part of management and had the opportunity to participate in many of the special events with which the Disney Company was involved from the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley to the New York World"s Fair to the Mary Poppins premiere.

He was relocated to Florida to assist with the opening of Walt Disney World. Eventually, he became the director of Epcot Center operations. In 1987, he was named vice president of the Magic Kingdom and was responsible for the operation of the park.

Sully retired in 1993 after close to 40 years with the Disney organization and was made a Disney Legend in 2005.

To the best of my knowledge the only available printed interview with Sully was a transcript of a podcast done by Lou Mongello.

When I saw Sully at the NFFC National Convention in Orlando last year, I asked him about a story that Ron Heminger (who started his career at Disneyland working with his father in the Indian Village and rose to management roles both at Disneyland and Walt Disney World) told me. Since Coors Beers was only available on the West Coast and it was a favorite of some of the California people working on the Magic Kingdom in Florida that a guy arranged for it to be shipped out in boxes marked for Peter Pan's Flight.

"Yeah, Ron was right," Sully said with a laugh. "This guy brought out Coors Beer in boxes marked "small tools and parts." He almost got fired because he had used company trucks. We also had things like refried beans shipped out so we could have good Mexican food. Ron took that package that the company offered years ago and he is now in some double wide trailer in Colorado or somewhere. He was half-Sioux. Owen Pope [in charge of the horses at Disneyland] didn"t like Ron"s brother riding the pack mules because he rode too far back on "em and destroyed their kidneys."

Here are some excerpts from my conversation with Sully at last year"s NFFC Florida convention:

"I started as a ticket taker on the Jungle Cruise. Chuck Whalen interviewed me for the job. I think he had left Northrop Aircraft the weekend before I did. The Wardrobe mistress was upset because my shape didn"t fit the pattern for the costume but she took good care of me and adjusted my pants and stuff like that.

"I spent two and a half years in the jungle. We did about three boat trips an hour, each trip lasting seven minutes. We"d get a quick break unloading and loading guests before we made another trip. There was no formal script so we all wrote a script with all those gags that people love. They brought in a writer to make it more professional but we never followed it because we liked our stuff better.

"We were called "jungle bunnies" because we were all a little crazy. Don Weir was frail and had this big beard. He would come to work with this big wire chain around his neck and it had live chameleons on it. One time, as he shot at the natives, we were hiding in the bushes and shot back at him. It took him by surprise and a guest had to bring the boat back in to the dock.

"It was because of us that Walt started that "Disney look" policy of no mustaches and beards and such because we were so wild with ours. You had to be an extrovert to say the least to work on the Jungle Cruise.

"Walt would come down and shoot the breeze with all of us guys and ask our opinions. He talked to everyone. He didn"t want to be treated special or have special things done for him. He"d walk the park and he"d strike up conversations with the guests, asking them what they thought, their opinions on things at the park, what they liked and didn"t like.

"In New York at the Small World attraction, Walt came to see the attraction and the hostess was trying to back door him. Walt said, "No." The hostess just didn"t get it. The third time she tried, Walt growled and we had to tell her that Walt really wanted to stand in line. So we stood in the line for over an hour and people are whispering, "is that him?" "It looks like him." Walt knew how VIPs like presidents were being treated but he wanted to see how the guests were treated.

"In the old days Disneyland opened at 9 in the morning and closed at 9 at night. Walt would come out on Wednesday mornings and on weekends. He wore his Smoke Tree Ranch tie, blue suede suit if he was just out visiting the guests. If he was there to work, he had on his boondockers and his straw hat and blue pinstripe pants. He"d look things over and then go back and talk to the designers at the Studio. He really knew how to challenge people.

"He"d walk the park in the evening when there were no guests. At that time of evening, there was a California fog hanging on the ground. Walt would be walking down Main Street on those foggy nights and it was unreal seeing him that way.

"Often, we would get a call from the Studio that he was on his way. We had special codes. "Code W" meant that Walt was in the park. "Code R" was for Roy O. Disney. Dick Nunis was standing with Roy on Main Street and he had left his radio on and it starts to squawk "Code R. Code R." So, Roy turns to Dick and says, "What does that mean?" and Dick is embarrassed but finally says, "It means you are in the park." There is a pause and Roy just says, "Oh" and doesn"t say anything more. Roy was a quiet gentleman.

"Walt was a really warm individual. He had a great sense of humor and he loved people. He was an executive, but not what you perceive as an "executive." He was a real team guy. "When I was supervisor, I had to sign terminations and one time they brought up this one kid who they wanted fired. He had done the old trash can trick that we had done at the Jungle Cruise. He took out the liner in the trash can and crawled inside and when guests would throw trash in, he would say thinks like "thank you for keeping the park clean." I didn"t sign the termination

"It"s funny. I remember we were in a meeting talking about the Florida Project and half way through it, Walt slams the table and says, "You guys need to think beyond Disney World." He was always thinking years ahead.

"In 1969, I came out to Walt Disney World. I ran Epcot for two years and then another 10 at Magic Kingdom. One time I went on vacation and, as a gag, maintenance came by and pulled off my office door and put in this small door with a lock and handle. They took out my regular desk and put in a kindergarten desk. The gag was because I was so short that there was a 'Sully door' and then there would be a normal person"s door.

"I taught my son to surf on the wave machine that was at the Polynesian. I remember working early mornings at the Contemporary Hotel to get things ready for opening. Two weeks of working around the clock.

Here"s something people don"t know about the opening of Walt Disney World. For the raising of the flag, Bob Matheison got these two ex-military security guards to handle it. But on the day of the opening, they got stage fright and didn"t raise the flag all the way to the top. Matheison had gone up to the top of the railroad platform to check things out and when the crowd came, he was trapped up there and could just watch. Take a look at some of the photos from that opening day, You don"t see the top of the flagpole.

"On October 1, 1979, the area for Epcot was all still semi-swamp. A replica of Spaceship Earth hung from cranes. Spaceship Earth was to be the castle for Epcot. Dick Nunis called it the "visual target." Nunis was hard as nails on the outside but a big heart on the inside. He took care of his people. We have that lake at Epcot not by choice. he area was practically unbuildable.

"On October 1, 1982 there was a brief dedication and then every day afterward was a new ceremony to dedicate individual pavilions. It was new ideas and technology. Not just telling the story, but to utilize it in the pavilion. In the Universe of Energy, the concrete floor was too porous to hold up the floor. We had to break it up and put in an entire new floor.

"Jack Lindquist was responsible for using technology to link up the opening ceremony with board rooms of participants. Lindquist took out a full-page ad in 25 top newspapers and almost got fired because Disney had never paid for publicity before. However, 95 percent of people surveyed knew the day after that Epcot was open. Unfortunately, that same week the problem with Tylenol story broke and that dominated the news.

"Epcot was the birth of electronic journalism to cover the opening. People could come to Epcot and see a way of life they couldn"t see anywhere else. Over the years, it had changed from working area to demonstration area. Walt wanted to have ideas come to life. We had to differentiate Epcot the working community from Epcot Center, the core of the idea. For the opening, we were going to serve champagne in the streets. First-time cast members had to go out in the heavy rain to get champagne to serve in the shops.

"When Epcot opened, I talked to Diane Disney Miller to ask to interview her and Lillian [Walt Disney"s widow]. She was suspicious and said, 'Why?' I explained that it was a historic moment and she had something to do with all of this. So Diane said, 'Go ahead and ask her.' So I caught them in one of the golf cart pargos and asked Lillian. 'What is this for?' she wanted to know. I told her it was for historical purposes and to share with the cast members. She really didn"t do interviews. We set it up one morning about 8 or so in the gazebo in the UK pavilion. It was Lillian, Diane and the oldest granddaughter. Bob Allen did the interviewing and it runs almost 30 minutes. For years, it was lost but I recently got a copy of it.

"You know, I never heard Walt use the term "theme park." What makes Disney special? It"s the quality of people, quality of training, quality of construction, quality of design. It"s quality, quality, quality. It"s all put together.

"Being vice president of the Magic Kingdom was one of my favorite jobs. The Jungle Cruise is my favorite attraction. I miss my people. Even though I live here in Florida, I don"t get out to the parks much. It"s not the same park now, but if I had to do it all over, I"d do it all again tomorrow.