The Disneyland 1959 Mermaid Tale of Susanby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Today, I am going to share a mermaid’s tale—of her mermaid’s tail.
As a 17-year-old, Susan Musfelt (now Hoose) applied and was hired in the summer of 1959 as one of the original mermaids at Disneyland.
She was born in Waukegan, Illinois on July 7, 1941 and has lived a pretty amazing life. The full interview will appear in a future edition of the book series, Walt’s People, but I thought MousePlanet readers would like a little sneak peek at this never-before-told story that clears up a lot of the mysteries about Disneyland’s original mermaids.
For the dedication of the new Submarine Voyage attraction at Disneyland on June 14, 1959, the opening ceremonies had eight live mermaids performing a synchronized swimming ballet in the lagoon. They also frolicked underwater to the delight of eager guests peering through the submarine portholes.
Earlier that day, four of the mermaids appeared on a special float in the parade down Main Street USA where they tossed strands of pearls from King Neptune’s treasure chests to guests gathered on the curbs as King Neptune himself sat in a giant shell throne at the front of the float. These events were captured by movie cameras for an ABC television special, the live-action film documentary short Gala Day at Disneyland and in other Disney film publicity.
At the 4:46 p.m. mark at this link, the beautiful brunette mermaid popping up out of the Submarine lagoon is Susan.
When that summer ended, Susan left to attend college at Arizona State University.
Her son Todd was searching around the Internet for any information on the Disneyland mermaids and discovered a previous column I had written about the Disneyland mermaids in 1965.
He contacted me and arranged for me to interview his mother through a series of e-mails during March 2012. I asked dozens of questions and Susan formatted her answers as an essay filled with warmth, humor, and several never-before-revealed insights about Disneyland’s mermaids in the summer of 1959. With some minor editing for punctuation, grammar and spelling, as well as re-arranging some sentences for clarity, here are her memories of that moment in time.
Here I am, 71 years young and I’m flattered you find my history at Disneyland to be interesting enough to document. Although I’ve shared bits and pieces of these years with my family, at the encouragement of my oldest son Todd, I will attempt to put it all down for posterity.
I did work briefly at Disneyland in the summer of 1957, when I was a sophomore in high school. My sister had a part time job at the hotel on Main Street. (KORKIS NOTE: It was called the Carefree Corner from August 1956-1974 and was to represent a turn-of-the-century hotel lobby of the fictional Plaza Apartments, supposedly on the second floor. It was hosted by the Insurance Companies of North America INA and was the official Information Center of Disneyland.)
My sister stood behind the front desk of the hotel and acted as a hostess. When people walked in, she greeted them, learned what state they were from and pulled that ledger or sign in binder from the shelf along the walls, so they could sign into the one from their state. They would often look through the ledgers to see who had signed in that they knew.
It was just a lobby with no upstairs. It was not a merchandise or gift shop back then. We were dressed in clothes from the era of the 1800s. We wore long dresses with high necklines and long sleeves. [My sister's] boyfriend was the foreman of Main Street, so they sat out on the bench, facing Main Street, on her breaks. They eventually married.
Through some connections, my dad got me hired there, too. It didn’t take long for the employment office to find out I needed a work permit and they severely limited the hours I could work. I wasn’t fired, but as I recall, the job didn’t last all summer. They had too many other people who could work during the day and late into the evening. Perhaps I was just too young.
I did go to Disneyland on dates, mostly to dance at the Plaza Gardens Pavilion.
One morning in 1959, during my senior year of high school, I saw a Santa Ana newspaper notice that Disneyland was looking for “Mermaids.” How exciting to hear that as a 17-year-old? It went on to say there would be three days of tryouts. By the time I spotted the article it was the very last day of three. Requirements were something like: ages 17 to 25, long hair, and able to swim. Sounded like something I could do! That afternoon, when I got out of school, I jumped into my ‘53 Ford Fairlane, and drove the 10 miles to the Disneyland Hotel pool where tryouts were being held.
Upon arriving I mixed with about 300 other girls at the side of the pool. I didn’t know a soul. Numerous men and women in suits were milling about on one side of the pool, apparently watching the tryouts. We were greeted by a man with a microphone and told to face forward in lines of about 20. Three or four judges walked up and down each line looking into our eyes, greeting us briefly, then tugging at our hair. There was a lot of nervous laughter when one girl’s fake pony tail came off in the judge’s hands.
The ranks began to shrink as one after another of the girls were tapped on the shoulder, told “thank you for coming” and dismissed. The rest of us held our breath, not knowing what separated us from them. What seemed like hours later, there were only about 50 of us left. Although it was never verbalized, I imagine our looks and weight played a major part in the selection. We were soon directed to sit in a group at the edge of the pool until our name was called.
Most of the girls wore swimming suits. For some unknown reason, I went to tryouts in black shorts and a white summer blouse. My only explanation for the inappropriate clothing is that I probably left directly after high school gym class and didn’t have time to change. Anyway, it’s now easy to spot me in the 1959 pictures, because I’m the only one not in a swimsuit.
Each girl was individually told to stand at the deep end of the pool while her arms were tied with a soft cloth above her head in a diving position; her legs were tied at the knees, then the ankles. We were instructed to use the dolphin movement (up and down body movement with a huge kick) once we hit the water to propel ourselves underwater to the shallow end. Four lifeguards were positioned on either side of the pool to ensure our safety and to rescue the girls who panicked once they hit the water. Many of the girls simply walked away, before they got into the water. They refused to even try. By the time I was called I had witnessed about eight girls successfully complete the swim so I knew they wouldn’t let me drown. I thought “If they could do it…so could I”.
With false confidence, I strode to the edge of the pool, had my arms and legs tied and dove into the water. To my horror, I sank like a rock. The dolphin body movement propelled me forward, even as I sank and my stomach scraped along the bottom of the pools deep end. Still holding my breath, it was with relief that I soon began to rise in the water. Before I knew it, I was standing in the shallow end and being untied.
Lifeguards helped me out of the water and directed me to a card table where two women sat taking names. They asked my name and phone number, gave me a coupon book for Disneyland and said, “You will hear from someone within the week.” In essence it was, “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.”
I drove home and promptly put the experience out of my mind, having no idea whether I had been successful or not. I had no idea that I would soon be hearing directly from casting.
About three days later, my dad told me Disneyland had called. I had been one of the eight girls selected and "would I report to the Disneyland Hotel pool the next day, after school for practice?" Would I? Are you kidding? I walked on Cloud Nine for the next week!
The first day of practice, the eight of us met for the first time. I was the only one still in high school, so needless to say, I didn’t have much in common with the others, except for our new job with Disney. All of our practices were at the hotel pool, because the lagoon at the park was still under constriction. We found the next couple of months grueling. My waking hours were packed with swimming practice four hours a day, three to four days a week, school, cheerleading, prom, SATs, and, dating (not necessarily in that order). Our female instructor was a no-nonsense taskmaster and she let us know that missing practice was cause for immediate dismissal. I even went to practice the afternoon before my graduation. That evening I did make it to the ceremony with minutes to spare, even with bloodshot eyes, a dripping nose and wet hair.
We were paid about $45 a week in two-week increments. Minimum wage in 1959 was $1.00 an hour, so we thought we were millionaires…at least I did. This was my very first paying job and it sure beat babysitting and mowing lawns. Considering this was such a coveted job opportunity, I would have worked for free, wouldn’t you? Little did I know that riding horses and swimming for Disneyland would hardly prepare me for a job search in the real world. I don’t recall even being asked my future plans, because if I had been asked, I would have told them I had already been accepted at Arizona State University and planned to leave in the fall. This was strictly a fabulous summer job and I was looking forward to it.
We practiced diligently for weeks, long before the tails arrived. The tail and top were especially made to fit each girl. The fin and halter-tops matched the tail and were color coordinated. I wore kelly green. Many years later, I saw Daryl Hannah in the movie Splash and realized she was possibly wearing a fin made just like mine. The biggest difference was…in 1959 we all wore tops.
Daily practice consisted of synchronized swimming and hours of water ballet. By the date of the grand opening ceremony, each and every one of us was in top physical condition. We had to be, because we soon realized we were going to have to maneuver in a tight, 3-pound rubber fin and try to look make it look graceful. No easy task!
To put on the tail, we sat on the ground and put our feet into the tail, which were actually rubber flippers. Then we would flip over on our stomach, while one of the other girls would zip us up. The invisible zippers ran from our heels to our waist. At this point, we simply rolled over, off the edge, and into the water. To our amazement, the fin actually made us more buoyant. Once in the water we could maneuver with relative ease.
When Disney finally finished construction of the lagoon, we had about one week of practice before the grand opening ceremony. The water was freezing at about 50 F. We were told it was not cost effective to heat such a large body of water and that the submarine motors were more efficient in water this temperature. It didn’t occur to any of us to even question this explanation.
The hardest part of the job was the incessant cold. In 50-degree water you could never warm up, even on a sunny California summer afternoon. I think we worked Thursday through Sunday. I don’t remember what hours, but it was not after dark. We were cold enough!
We also had to contend with the danger of getting too close to the huge submarine propellers. Each propeller had a number of blades, each about 5-feet long. We were under strict instructions to time our ingress and egress carefully, so we didn’t get too close to the back of the submarine and inadvertently get sucked into the huge propellers. The submarines ran on a track and circled the lagoon about every 15 minutes.
When our hour was up, we would dive underwater, swim out of sight of the public and be lifted out of the water by two men stationed on the dock. The next two girls would be dropped into the water and replaced us in a smooth transition, hour after hour, until the park or the ride closed.
The largest rock in the lagoon (where we rested in the sun) was quite some distance from the crowd. We never experienced any inappropriate behavior or things being thrown into the water. In 1959, the public generally obeyed park rules and would never have thought to jump into the water and swim to us. Times have changed, haven’t they? My parents were very proud I had such an exciting summer job, but I don’t recall them coming to see me.
Although some of the girls got terribly sunburned, I had an olive completion and tanned easily. The chlorine turned the blondes’ hair green, but as a brunette it didn’t affect me at all. The chlorine bothered everyone but it was considered part of the job. The high chlorine content was necessary to keep the water pristine—and we accepted that.
On my breaks, I can recall going to the cast cafeteria and seeing lots of Disney characters in costume. It was magical to see Mickey with his costume head under his arm or a giraffe carrying his neck over his shoulder. Any cast member could eat in the cafeteria, and we took full advantage of this perk (another perk was that Employees had a special car sticker that gave access to employee parking close to our job sites).
Soon our 45 minute break would be over and we would rush back to our dressing room to get back into the tail. Once again we would slip our feet into the flippers, roll over and young men would zip us into the tail. Then the guys would cross link their arms under our hips and carry us to the edge of the dock where they unceremoniously dropped us into the lagoon.
In 1959, we didn’t have any props, such as shells, combs, etc. We sat on the rocks in the center of the lagoon and went underwater whenever a sub went past. Our job was unscripted. We could cavort in the water, wave at the occupants in the submarine, and swim upside down. We tried to synchronize our movements with the music. The windows were dark portals and we couldn’t see in; however the passengers could see us and we could all hear the music, which was piped into the submarines as background to the recorded narration. Our “performance” lasted about two to three minutes per submarine, then we surfaced and swam to the rocks to thaw out in the sunshine.
The distance the rock was from the public prohibited any communication. The water features made a lot of noise and the Monorail track went directly over a portion of the lagoon. We could see the people taking pictures of us, but they were too far away for us to hear anything specific. Naturally, out of the water, the other cast members backstage recognized us because we were the ones with wet hair. Years later, after I was married, we were at a friends’ house for dinner. The discussion turned to Disneyland and they learned I had been employed there. To my amazement this couple pulled out some home movies and there I was in their home movie…green fin and all.
The mermaids on the Submarine Voyage received a great deal of newspaper and television publicity. It was exciting to be a part of the production and an honor to work for Walt Disney. At the grand opening, two of us had our picture taken on the edge of the dock with Richard Nixon sitting between us. Richard Nixon was on the ticket for vice president at the time. I could never find a news clipping of that picture and imagine a presidential candidate’s press secretary did not think a picture with two half-clad girls was the kind of publicity they wanted in the newspaper. The two of us were also photographed with the television celebrity Art Linkletter.
Although I saw Walt Disney from a distance during the grand opening ceremony, I regret that I never had the opportunity to speak to him personally. His picture was frequently in the newspaper with other dignitaries and it was with great sadness that I read of his death in 1966, from lung cancer.
I imagine the parade was going on at the same time as the grand opening ceremony. I believe half of us girls were in the water and the other half rode on the float at the parade. I’m sure we were told where to be and when to be there; one never questioned our coach.
In 1965, I received notice about a mermaid “reunion,” but, at the time, I was very pregnant with my fourth child and couldn’t fit another activity into my schedule.
By the mid-1960s, I had four children and we lived in Redding, California (that is 500 miles away). We brought all the kids to Disneyland in the early 1970s and we rode the Submarine Voyage. My children really enjoyed it. I really liked it in the 1970s, with my kids. It was geared for young children.
Little did I know it would be another 40 years before the word “mermaid” would enter my vocabulary again. In 2011, my oldest son, Todd Hoose, knowing that I had once worked at Disneyland, but had no mementos, did some research on his own culminating with his contact with you and here we are today.
I’ve lived a magical life and know that my time as a mermaid was instrumental in giving me the confidence to take advantage of the many opportunities that came my way over years. It’s been fun reminiscing. I loved the glamour of working at Disneyland. It was a dream come true and an honor to work for Walt Disney.