Spinning Disney's World: The Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent Bring to Life the Halcyon Days of Promoting Walt Disney's Theme Parks in California and Florida

By Ridgway, Charles | USA TODAY, July 2008 | Go to article overview

Spinning Disney's World: The Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent Bring to Life the Halcyon Days of Promoting Walt Disney's Theme Parks in California and Florida


Ridgway, Charles, USA TODAY


THERE I WAS, less than a week into my new press agent's job at Disneyland, standing on top of a desk to reach photo files on shelves that stretched up to a 15' Victorian ceiling. It was Monday, the park was closed; there was no one around. The year was 1963, January. The door opened behind me.

"May we come in?" inquired an unseen voice. "[Heck], yes," I said. "It's not my joint" It was, however, his. That was Walt Disney himself asking permission for his staff to enter. I said, "Hello," too embarrassed to look at his face to see whether Walt was amused or annoyed. Perhaps intimidated by the clutter of an office barely large enough for two desks and a wall full of shelves, the "inspectors" left quickly without comment or conversation other than Walt's hurried, "Thanks."

Thus began, less than auspiciously, a 40-year career as a publicist for Disney parks in California, Florida, France, and, most recently, Hong Kong. It has become a cliche to say, "I loved my job," but I loved my years with the Disney organization and the opportunities I had to meet some of the 20th century's most interesting people, Walt Disney preeminent among them.

My love of Disneyland actually began before the official opening on July 17, 1955. As a reporter for the Los Angeles Mirror-News, I first became intrigued watching strange hills, buildings, and rivers take shape as I drove down Harbor Boulevard in 1954. Then, in April 1955, I wrote a feature with the hook "An Anaheim kid sneaks into Disneyland under the construction fence for a preview look." Disneyland publicity manager Eddie Meck was not too thrilled with the idea because he could visualize every kid in town trying to repeat the maneuver, but he let me try it. The article was a big hit.

Meck was an old-time Hollywood tack, a former "planter" for the RKO Studios, which distributed Disney films, in the days when they sent reps to local newspapers to "plant" stories and pictures for the publicity department. He developed a new strategy for Disneyland. "You can't plant Disneyland like I used to do with movies," he told Walt. "It's just too fantastic and different. They won't believe our stories." Walt asked, "What are you going to do?" The answer. "We'll get the press to come and see for themselves and the park will sell itself."

Bringing large numbers of news people to Disneyland still was a part of the basic publicity plan when Meck hired me as his one and only publicity writer. That is why we created the press-invited openings, the annual picnics, the press passes for media and families, the trips we took to meet and tell the press what we were doing. Meck taught me all of that. I soon developed a secondary specialty of setting up photographs of visitors and special events. It is a strategy that continues to this day--witness the recent year-long Disneyland 50th anniversary, celebrated in all the Disney parks. At Walt Disney World, upwards of 15,000 special guests were entertained for some major press events.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For me, the biggest and best press "party" was held in 1959, before I hired on, with the grand opening for the first multi-million dollar additions--Matterhorn with its racing bobsleds, the Submarine Voyage under the North Pole, the Disneyland Monorail system (later extended to the Disneyland Hotel), and a new Autopia. Vice Pres. Richard Nixon and his family dedicated the monorail. Meredith Willson conducted a 500-piece band playing "Seventy-six Trombones" with 76 trombones in the lead. Willson's hit Broadway musical, "The Music Man," from which the song was taken, had opened to rave reviews in 1957 and still was running. Skaters performed on an ice rink at the base of the Matterhorn; mountain climbers scaled to the top and giant toys marched in what was, I always thought, the best parade ever.

A similar parade was staged during the Christmas season that winter. A few years later, in a Disneyland souvenir book, the parade was pictured in a double-page spread showing the toy train passing through Town Square. …

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