Disneyland's role in politics hasn't been all free tickets and feel-good trips to San Diego, said a former mayor, who recalled this week a bitter fight in 1975 over a proposed tax on amusement parks.
Former Anaheim Mayor William J. Thom said opponents of the so-called admissions tax--with Disneyland in the lead--were so vehement and so forceful that he "chickened out," changed his mind on the issue and cast the swing vote to kill it.
"It was a wild time," he said, looking back on what some Anaheim officials said was the last time that Disneyland and others in the local amusement business had to fight for what they wanted at City Hall.
"Those were very stormy days," recalled Orange County Supervisor Don R. Roth, a former Anaheim mayor and councilman. "Some very definite lines were drawn back then."
The same pressure that the Disney-led group brought to bear 16 years ago, Thom said, could be a preview of what City Council members are likely to feel in the coming months as the entertainment company attempts to gain the commitment of millions in public money to help pay for its proposed $3-billion Disneyland Resort development.
And, as in September, 1975, some council members have said an admissions tax at local entertainment venues, including Disneyland, may be needed to pay for some of the improvements planned for the company's expansion.
The issue first came to a boil during Thom's initial term as mayor when, he said, the city was facing a tough budget year and looking for more money for capital improvements.
"Rather than forestall the projects, we jumped on the idea of an admission tax like ugly on an ape," recounted Thom, now 60. "The bulk of capital improvements were being made in the Disneyland area, so we thought this would be a good thing to do."
The mayor said he took the lead on the proposal, which would have added a 5% levy on tickets to Disneyland, California Angels games, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. Then-council members Miriam Kaywood and John Seymour, now California's junior U.S. senator, joined him to form a council majority.
Just as quickly, an opposition group--Voters Opposed to Taxing Entertainment--was formed. Led by Roth, current Disneyland President Jack Lindquist and California Angels executive A.E. (Red) Patterson, the group began to apply pressure.
Thom said Lindquist was leading the Disney lobbying, while Patterson pushed the Angels' opposition.
"The ones who really got bent out of shape were Patterson and Lindquist," Thom said. "Patterson said (California Angels owner Gene) Autry would leave town if the tax was approved. I told them not to let the door hit him in the ass on the way out."
At the same time, Roth said, a "cross-section" of local business interests and the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce joined the opposition.
"I felt some of the pressure," said Kaywood, a longtime councilwoman who then helped to form an unlikely alliance with Thom. "You get that all the time if you are making good decisions. I felt that it (the tax) was a proper thing. He (Thom) had been so outspoken back then, I felt like he just wanted to sock it to Disneyland."
As a vote neared on the proposal, Thom said he began receiving "messages" carried by those he described as intermediaries for Disneyland and others, instructing him to back off his position--that a tax would "kill the goose that laid the golden egg for Anaheim."
"What most people don't know is that golden egg is boxed up and put on an armored car every night and hauled back to Burbank," Thom said.
Lindquist was unavailable for comment last week, but Disneyland Vice President Ron Dominguez said Friday that Lindquist was "heavily involved" in the opposition campaign.
Thom said the pressure mounted as calls and letters started coming in from "a lot of people" whose family members worked at various jobs inside the theme park.
The former mayor said there was talk that a recall campaign against him would begin unless support for the tax was withdrawn.
Thom said the campaign even provoked a call to a city staffer from Charlie Finley, then the colorful owner of the Oakland Athletics baseball club, who reportedly wanted to inquire about a possible lease on Anaheim Stadium should Autry decide to leave.
On the day of the vote, former Anaheim Chamber of Commerce official Joe White remembers how Disney and the Angels jammed the council chamber.
"There were at least two Greyhound buses outside," White said. "People came dressed in Mickey Mouse clothes. I imagine there were 100 to 150 there. This was at a time when we were not used to having that many people at council meetings."
With what Thom said was an uneasy feel for the position of his council colleagues and the continued political threats of a recall churning about, he finally withdrew his support.
White, who was inside the chamber that day, said: "Nobody could have beat Disney. They mine one hell of a lot of gold out of Anaheim."
Disney executives "are using money--a lot of money to elected officials," he said, adding that politicians "will tell you that doesn't have any influence, but if you eat with them, play with them and take their money, it's got to have some influence. These guys (council members) are only human."