Passing through a turnstile leading into Disneyland, David Koenig sees beyond the neatly kept grounds; the clean-cut, smiling employees, and the fairy-tale ambience--all the familiar ingredients that go into making the world’s most famous amusement park.
Instead of “the Happiest Place on Earth,” the Aliso Viejo resident sees a Disneyland that isn’t mentioned in the guidebooks and Disney-sanctioned park histories: a place that has been rocked by labor disputes, charges of discrimination, bomb threats, thievery, gang fights, a full-scale riot, shootings, stabbings, attraction malfunctions, fatal accidents and lawsuits.
It’s all fodder for Koenig’s book, “Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland” (Bonaventure Press, 1994), an unauthorized history of the American cultural institution Walt Disney fashioned out of a 160-acre orange grove four decades ago.
A Disneyland publicity spokesman says he’s aware of the book but hasn’t read it. But Dave Smith, the Disney studio’s director of archives, bought a copy of “Mouse Tales” and says he doesn’t view it as a negative.
Although he considers the book “much too detailed for the general reader,” Smith says “people that have worked at Disneyland will find it interesting. I’ve talked to cast members who have read it and they pick certain events and say, ‘Oh, yeah, it really happened that way.’ ”
From Day One--July 17, 1955--the Disneyland image has been as closely guarded as Snow White’s virtue. It’s a place where employees are called “cast members.” Their workplace is a “stage” and their job is putting on a show.
Through interviews with current and former employees and by reviewing court cases and newspaper accounts, Koenig scrapes the fairy dust off the theatrical facade to reveal that what Walt Disney envisioned as a place free from the evils of the real world can be all too real.
Disneyland is a place where Yippies--members of the countercultural Youth International Party--hoisted a Viet Cong flag over Tom Sawyer Island, chanted anti-war slogans and obscenities, knocked children over as they snake-danced through the park and turned Monsanto’s Adventure through Inner Space into a pot-smoke-filled drug den. The park closed six hours early that day in 1970 after riot police streamed in to quell a Yippie melee that broke out on Main Street, Koenig says.
Disneyland is also a place where Grad Nites end with employees finding underwear and other evidence of amorous escapades in the bushes and at the bottom of dark rides.
And it’s a place where a male guest once pulled a switchblade on Alice in Wonderland and demanded a date. When the Mad Hatter came to Alice’s rescue, the man stabbed the Hatter in his oversized rubber face.
Fortunately, as Koenig relates, “the actor was only cut on his knuckles and the White Rabbit arrived with security to apprehend the man.”
“Mouse Tales” is everything you ever wanted to know about Disneyland--and some things you may not want to know. Indeed, Koenig is like Dorothy finally arrived in the Emerald City only to find the all-powerful Oz is really just a little old man pulling levers behind a curtain.
Just follow Koenig on an unofficial, “behind-the-ears” tour of the Magic Kingdom and you get the idea.
Walking up Main Street, the scaled-down replica of turn-of-the-century, small-town America, he points to the Brer Fox character surrounded by a knot of children.
“That’s the guy that used to do karate moves--well, not that guy,” he said, referring to a different--and now former--employee who wore the Brer Fox costume: a black belt in karate who, unbeknown to his supervisors, would put on martial arts demonstrations in New Orleans Square. Crowds, Koenig says, would cheer as Brer Fox delivered flying kicks to Brer Bear.
Koenig strolls over to the “Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln” theater. “Somebody once stole Mr. Lincoln’s face, believe it or not,” he says, recalling the time someone pulled the face mask and right hand off the audio-animatronic Lincoln. Anaheim police caught the thief when he tried to sell Abe’s face at a nearby Disney memorabilia shop.
Koenig heads up to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, gateway to Fantasyland and home to what he considers the park’s least guest-friendly ride: Dumbo the Flying Elephant.
Not only is it a low-capacity ride--meaning a long wait for a short ride--but five years ago a support arm gave way, tilting an elephant and its passengers 45 degrees and dragging them along the elevated concrete walkway surrounding the ride.
When an identical accident occurred a year later, Koenig says, the park said the ride was too old and replaced it with a 1990s version.
“Unfortunately,” he says, “just a couple of months ago a support arm on the new Dumbo collapsed.”
Hang a right at Tomorrowland and look up at the People Mover, which Koenig calls Disneyland’s most disarmingly dangerous attraction. The tram’s 2 m.p.h. speed has prompted visitors--especially teen-agers--to climb out of the open cars or try to jump from car to car. The result, Koenig says: two deaths and numerous serious injuries.
Veering over to Frontierland, Koenig gazes across the Rivers of America to Tom Sawyer Island, which, he notes, was invaded by rats in the late ‘60s. The rats came out at night to feed on popcorn, potato chips and other treats dropped on the ground.
At first, hot dogs laced with cyanide were set out as rat bait, but Koenig says that was abandoned in favor of cats, which are still occasionally spotted late at night.
Sound like visiting the Vatican and bad-mouthing the Pope? Not to Koenig, 31, who insists that he remains a die-hard fan of Disneyland.
“I wanted to give a realistic perspective of what goes on there,” he says, “to show that there are unusual things that happen--just real-life things--because the public thinks real things don’t happen at Disneyland.”
But rather than his book shattering the illusion of Disneyland as “the Happiest Place on Earth,” “I think you can kind of appreciate it more because they try to be something so perfect, they shoot so high. Obviously, they don’t make it all the time, although they would have you believe they do. It’s one of the best companies around. I just appreciate them for trying to be so good,” he says.
Koenig has been fascinated with Disneyland since 1970, when he was 8 and made his first visit with his family. Growing up in Costa Mesa, he nursed a childhood dream of one day piloting a Jungle Cruise boat or working in the Main Street magic shop.
Koenig never did work at Disneyland, but plenty of his friends from Cal State Fullerton--where he majored in journalism in the early ‘80s--did. The campus was so close to Disneyland and so many students held part-time jobs there that they used to call it Cal State Disneyland.
“That’s where the thing first started hitting me: ‘Hey, there’s something here,’ ” says Koenig, whose friends would talk about the demands of their jobs and tell “stories and funny and unusual things” that happened at work--not only with unruly guests, but with high-spirited fellow employees.
Such as? Daredevil Matterhorn operators who would ride the bobsleds backward and upside down, Jungle Cruise operators who would race maintenance motorboats around the lagoon after dark, and amorous co-workers who would “get cozy” in private back areas of the attractions. In his book, Koenig refers to Disneyland as a “soap opera on steroids, where seemingly everyone is dating everyone.”
Koenig, a former free-lance writer and now editor of a Newport Beach-based trade magazine for home improvement centers, began working on “Mouse Tales” part time seven years ago.
He began his research by reading every book and magazine and newspaper article on Disneyland he could find. He then pored over the files of nearly 700 Orange County Superior Court cases involving Disneyland, including at least 10 death-related suits.
In fact, he says, more than 1,500 lawsuits have been filed against the park over the years. If the park knows it is at fault, Koenig says, it will usually try to settle quickly. And of those cases that do go to court, he says, Disneyland usually wins because its liability can’t be proven. Some lawsuits are simply frivolous, such as the woman who tripped on an exit ramp while getting off the Monorail. Her fall, she claimed, was the result of patrons being forced “to be brought out into the bright sunlight.”
Although Disneyland reserves the right to ask people to leave if officials think their appearance would be offensive to other park patrons, a judge recently awarded $250 to a teen-ager who was denied entrance because her hair was dyed pink and purple.
Disneyland’s most famous discrimination case, however, was filed by a gay couple during a Date Night in 1980. The two male teen-agers were ousted by guards after they tried to dance together at Tomorrowland Terrace. The young men filed suit, but a Superior Court judge ruled that the guards’ actions were allowable and reasonable to protect the interests of other patrons.
One of the young men, however, pursued the case to overturn park policy regarding same-sex dancing, and four years later a jury struck down the ban--but only as it applied to the plaintiffs. And about a year later, Koenig says, Disneyland quietly dropped its same-sex dancing ban.
But Koenig’s best material came from talking to about 250 past and current employees.
Most of those he contacted were willing to talk, he says. “The ones who did were very happy. It was sort of like a situation where I was giving the employee’s side of the story,” he says.
Those who didn’t talk--about 10--refused for a variety of reasons. Some simply weren’t interested. Others said, “Let me call Disney first” and never called him back.
Koenig, who visited Disneyland several dozen times while working on his book and has been back twice this year “just for fun,” says that curiosity more than anything spurred him to write “Mouse Tales.”
“It certainly wasn’t to do Disney any good or bad,” he says. “It was just to find out. I knew there were incredible stories just under the surface.”
Like the time a young man asked Chip and Dale to pose with his girlfriend. When Chip playfully put his arm around the girl and she started giggling, the boyfriend thought Chip was coming on to her. So he punched the lovable chipmunk in the mask.
As Koenig writes: “Chip fell back to the ground and the man started kicking it until he recognized the character’s cries were those of a woman.”