How Vans shoes got a toe-hold at Disneyland

A local history lesson: Vans and Disneyland go way back

Before hosting the official launch party for the Disney and Vans collaborative Young at Heart shoe and apparel collection that we wrote about recently, Vans’ perennially young at heart 59-year-old vice president of events and promotions, Steve Van Doren, sat down to discuss the long, intertwined relationship between the two Southern California brands.

What is your earliest memory of Disneyland?

My dad had moved to California in 1964 for another shoe company. About six months after that, my mom flew out with the five of us kids. My dad picked us up at the airport at about 6 o’clock at night and took us back to Costa Mesa. The next morning, the very first thing he did was bring us all to Disneyland. I was like: “Oh, my God.”

Did you come to the park a lot when you were a kid?

My dad built his first factory -- where Vans shoes were first made in America -- one mile from Disneyland at 704 E. Broadway. It’s like three lights up. I remember as a kid working all summer long and, at the end of the summer, my dad gave me 50 $1 bills. Disney tickets were like $4 or something at that time. The next summer, my cousin Artie and I would work Monday through Friday and come to Disneyland every Saturday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., for five weeks in a row.

What was the beginning of the business relationship between Disney and Vans?

In the late ’60s or early ’70s, they reached out to us because they wanted shoes for the employees working in the parking lot -- which was a navy blue Authentic [low-top lace-up shoe]. That worked out, so later they reached out to us to make a shoe for the rides where there was water -- like the Submarine. For that we made navy blue boat shoes with a [non-skid] bottom. In the late ’70s, we made a shoe for working on the Monorail that was kind of like a black leather, mid-top chukka boot with a cold-cured black outsole that could be replaced. The employees were always standing on metal so they had to have grip and cushion, and they wore them out quickly, so we’d resole them. And in the ’80s, they started putting in Disney stores, and I was in charge of the private label program, so I made up some Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Winnie the Pooh shoes.

Was your dad inspired at all by Disneyland business-wise?

I know that my dad’s factories were inspired by what he saw [at Disneyland]. He would tell stories about how people would drop popcorn and, pfffft, it was gone! In his factories he always had a circle where all the trash cans went. If a trash can wasn’t in that circle, he’d kick it across the room. The factory was always just as immaculate [as Disneyland].

Do you have any favorites in the new collection?

[Van Doren takes off his Mickey & Friends trucker cap and taps his finger on Donald Duck.]

I like to talk like Donald Duck to my 19-month-old grandson. But I’m wearing a pair of the Mickey Mouse slip-ons -- the slip-on is my favorite shoe [silhouette].

How many pairs of Vans do you personally own?

Probably something like 120 pairs -- a lot of them I’ve had made during trips to the factories in China. My wife won’t let me keep them in the house, so they’re all in the garage.

Disneyland is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, but it’s Vans turn next year, when the brand turns 50. What are you doing to mark the occasion?

They’ve asked me to design eight shoes for the fall collection. One shoe has a sort of a caricature of me on the back of a SK8-Hi. I’m making some with one color side stripe on one shoe and a different color on the other. I’m really messing with the factories. And you know that skull pirate we have? I designed a pair with that skull pirate, but instead of a pirate bandana, I put a Santa Claus hat, and instead of the crossed swords, I have candy canes.

Twitter: @artschorn

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