Remembering Walt: A Labor of Love

It was your typical California summer day in the late ’50s. Dick May was taking tickets in front of the Casey Junior Circus Train in Fantasyland when a woman at the front of the line asked, “Does Mr. Disney ever come around here? Before May could respond, a smiling man with a mustache and a wide-brimmed hat spoke up from behind her.

“Yes,” said Walt Disney to the speechless woman, “I do.”

Walt may have surprised the woman in line, but to May and his Disneyland co-workers during the Park’s early years, Walt’s presence was a regular—and often unpredictable—occurrence. In fact, he would often appear and be gone as soon as he learned what he wanted.

“I was testing the Skyway one morning soon after the installation of the new cabins” May recalls. “I was watching them come in when Walt appeared and asked how they compared to the old models. I said that they were much better, and that our line was moving much more quickly. He said, ‘That’s why we spent the extra money,’ and then he was gone.”

“That was just his way,” explains May. “Most of the time he would walk through the Park alone—no security or anyone with him—with his hands in his pockets and his hat brim pulled down low. It was his way of getting a feel for how people were reacting to his park, and finding out what could be done to improve the show.”

Disneyland employees who worked in the Main Street area would often be the only ones with any advance notice of Walt’s visits. That clue was always his big grey Lincoln, which he parked backstage near his private apartment above the Disneyland Fire Station.

Many times he would use the apartment to spend the night in his Park. On those occasions, it was not uncommon to see him walking down Main Street after closing time, coffee pot in hand, en route to a casual meeting with the late-night cleaning crew to fill them in on his latest trip or project.

“Walt was so aware of people, so aware of quality,” stresses May. He gave the final approval on everything–from major construction projects right down to the portions served in the employee cafeteria. He could do this because he cared so much for everybody and everything at the Park.”

It was this facet of Walt’s personality that caught May’s attention, and more than any other, has stayed with him through his own career over the years: Walt’s desire to give the public what they wanted, and his insistence that they always came first.

“I was in charge of the Rafts one day,” May remembers, “and here came Walt through the area on one of his walks. As he was passing, a man recognized him and, after running to catch him, grabbed him firmly by the upper arm. Before Walt could utter a word, the man literally dragged him over to where his wife and child were sitting and said, ‘Here, Walt, I want my kid to meet you.’ And Walt knelt down in front of that little boy and made over him like he was the only child in the world.

“Walt really loved this park,” concludes May. “For him, it was nothing but a labor of love.”

– Originally published in the Disney News Magazine, Fall 1988 (Volume 23, Number 3). A Portion of it was also used in Howard Green’s wonderful book Remembering Walt (Hyperion 1999, page 44). Copyright TWDC. All rights reserved.

2 Responses

  1. Any time I find a new Walt story it reminds me of the devotion and eye for detail that characterized his work became a tradition for those of us privileged to carry on his creative efforts. From theme park operations (cleanliness, safety, and activities designed for the entire family) to design I learned that no detail is too small and no “guest” more important (or less) than a child. During my ten years at Disney, as an Imagineer, (plus six more as a consultant) we were inspired by Walt constantly. Thanks for sharing this, Craig.

    • McNair: Thanks for stopping by, and for adding your thoughtful and experienced voice to this story.

      I remember you at WDI…we even exchanged oval nametags at one point back in the day (when you rolled as CMW). I’m looking forward to reading “Hatch” when it is available (I’m a loyal but infrequent reader of “Tea”), and would love to exchange notes at some point, since we seem to have several levels of “experiential overlap.” 🙂

      Craig

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