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Opinion : A Birthday Worth Remembering

<i> Van A. France is president of Van Arsdale France Co. and a consultant to the president of Disneyland/Walt Disney World. </i>

Unless forcefully reminded, I regularly forget the birthdays of my grown children. But in 30 years, I’ve never failed to remember that Disneyland opened at 10 o’clock on the morning of July 17, 1955.

We are BIG about our birthdays, and well we should be. After all, almost everyone warned Walt Disney that Disneyland would be “a Hollywood spectacular--a spectacular failure.” Hardly anybody would have bet that we’d be celebrating our 30th anniversary this year. That would include me.

I first heard of this dream of Walt Disney’s when C. V. Wood called to say he’d quit his job with Stanford Research Institute to become the first vice president of something called Disneyland. I thought he was crazy to give up a secure job, but I was quick to accept his invitation to visit him at the Walt Disney Studio.

I expected a studio would be a room with skylights. My first shock was a walk down Dopey Drive and Mickey Mouse Avenue to Woody’s office. It looked more like a beautifully landscaped small college.

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Woody was telling me how there was $4 million to build this land when Walt Disney strolled in. Without taking his stocking feet off his desk, Woody introduced me. I expected the soft handclasp of an artist. Instead, it was the solid grip of a boy raised to work on a farm.

I had just about forgotten about the place with the funny name when I received another call. Would I be interested in a consulting job to create a training program? After checking my own sanity, we made a handshake deal on a week-to-week basis.

It was February of 1955. My work-life changed forever. I was in show business!

The studio was jumping with people and energy. “Lady and The Tramp” was in production. Mouseketeers were running all over. What was to become Disneyland was called “The Site.” I arranged for a tour in a Jeep. The calendar was in control. We had to meet the July 17 deadline. We were opening before a worldwide TV audience.

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Activity at The Site reflected the urgency. Earth movers were still creating The Rivers of America. Different craftsmen were working everywhere you looked. Obviously, there was no room for a training center.

I persuaded Woody to give me one of the last old and lovely homes on the property for what would become the University of Disneyland. It was away from the confusion of the building madness, across from the park on West Street east of where the Disneyland Hotel now stands.

The pace was frantic. Seven days a week were not enough. I needed help. I found it in a young graduate of USC. He was what studios called a “Go-Fer” . . . go-for this and go-for that. He was lightning fast. Within a few days he had that dusty old home transformed into an attractive training center.

Together, we presented our program to Walt Disney and his key executives. Walt bought the idea and we were in business.

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My “Go-Fer” took over the orientation program. He became indispensable, and there’s a moral here.

That young man, Dick Nunis, is now president of Disneyland and Walt Disney World and has been my boss for 25 years. Now I’m his “Go-Fer.”

With the training program under control, Woody assigned me to three jobs about which I knew absolutely nothing--road coordination, directional signs and traffic.

I needed help and I found it. The “experts” in Hollywood might not understand Walt’s revolutionary dream, but the people in Orange County did and believed in it.

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By the time of opening, that original $4 million had leaped to $17 million. Money was so short that Walt had to hock his insurance. There was not, he was to say, “any collateral in dreams.” But we’d made the deadline.

Mickey Mouse was adopted by Orange County and the county changed forever. A dream that was supposed to be a nightmare will entertain its 250 millionth guest this summer. About 150,000 people have attended our University.

Our Disneyland Alumni Club includes many notables. Steve Martin, the award-winning actor, started out at the Main Street Magic Shop. Ron Ziegler became President Nixon’s press secretary and would give his Jungle Cruise narration in the White House. Ronald Reagan, with Art Linkletter and Bob Cummings, hosted our exciting, confusing, memorable opening back there at 10 a.m. on July 17, 1955.

Yes, we deserve to celebrate our 30th birthday. Walt Disney won’t be there, but you and I will walk over every foot he walked and planned for to carry out his great dream and great gamble. Mickey Mouse will be there, 30 years older and a bit fatter, but still young at heart.

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After 30 years it is still an exciting, fun place to work. And speaking of birthdays, I hope my daughter will forgive me for forgetting hers--last January.


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