David Koenig Has Exposed the Disneyland Secrets Mickey Doesn't Want You to Know About
How's this for random? Credit goes to Danny Kaye and a labor strike for the public knowing the stories, incidents and dirt about Disneyland that the Anaheim amusement park would rather we not know.
David Koenig was studying journalism at Cal State Fullerton in the 1980s; several of his classmates were scoring book deals before they even graduated. One sold a biography on Steve Martin, another was published writing about the Three Stooges, and a third had Dustin Hoffman as a subject.
"These were all just college kids," recalled Koenig, who was born in Chicago but moved with his family at age 3 to Orange County. "Now, everyone and their brother writes books, but back then, to publish a book meant you had the stamp of genius on you."
Koenig knew he was as solid a storyteller as his published pals, so he tried to think of a famous person who had not been the subject of a recent biography and zeroed in on Danny Kaye. For those born after the Reagan administration, Kaye was a Hollywood actor, singer, dancer, comedian and UNICEF ambassador-at-large in the 1950s. Orange Countians of a certain age can recall Kaye's light romps The Court Jester and Hans Christian Andersen playing in heavy rotation on Tom Hatten's weekend Family Film Festival on KTLA-TV Channel 5.
"Nobody's ever written a good book about him," Koenig thought of Kaye at the time. For good reason, it turned out.
"No publisher would buy it," says Koenig, who at least learned how to write a book from that experience.
When a book agent asked Koenig the question agents always ask--"What else you got?"--the fledgling author thought back to "the crazy stories" friends working at Disneyland had told him over the years, yarns that few had ever heard. The tell-alls grew especially scandalous in the fall of 1984--three years before Kaye's death at age 76--when 1,800 cast members from Attractions, Foods, Merchandise and Custodial went on strike at "The Happiest Place on Earth."
After rejecting a wage freeze, workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Bakery and Confectionery Workers, and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union struck Disneyland on Sept. 26, 1984. (By sheer coincidence, that's the same day Michael Eisner became chairman and chief executive of Disneyland's parent company.) As cast members walked picket lines in front of the Magic Kingdom, supervisors filled in for cashiers, janitors and ride operators for what was the third and largest labor strike since Disneyland opened in 1955.
"Really, at Disneyland up until that point, there was a cone of silence around the place," recalls Koenig from an office chair on the other side of my desk. "They would not share their dirty laundry with the public."
Keep in mind this was not the Disneyland of today that pretty much prints money thanks to sustained large crowds and ticket prices at its two theme parks. The Disneyland of 1984 was beset by financial problems stemming from a three-year dip in attendance, including a sharp drop during that year's Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
The labor strife was a gut punch to people who still worked there, many of whom were proud "Disneyphiles" who loved the park, company and, especially, Uncle Walt. But it was not until sitting down with Koenig in my office that I learned the strike only lasted 22 days. It seemed at the time as if it had dragged on for months because it was that significant--and downright nasty. Heated confrontations were commonplace when guests and employees crossed picket lines.
"There was high drama for three weeks," Koenig recalls. "It was such a weird thing: These people loved Disneyland so much, and they thought Disneyland was mistreating them." The agent informed Koenig that the hidden side of the theme park would be "a marketable subject." It's hard to imagine now because of all the articles, websites and books that have come out since, but his 1996 Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland was the first behind-the-scenes book about a theme park. It's now in its 19th printing.
Little did Koenig know as he gathered materials for what would become Mouse Tales that he had embarked on a 30-year journey chronicling the secrets of Walt Disney Co. properties. He followed Mouse Tales with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation and Theme Parks (1997); More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999); Realityland: True-Life Adventures at Walt Disney World (2007); and The People v. Disneyland: How Lawsuits & Lawyers Transformed the Magic, released this June.
It was those initial strikers, heartbroken by the Mouse, who were willing for the first time to spill what they knew to the young writer, who was once told, "September 1984 was the month when Disneyland died."
"It never occurred to me to write a book about it," Koenig now says of Disneyland's secrets. "No one did. It was not a topic to think about then."
Most books on any Disney-related topic had been approved or put out by the company, including guidebooks, studio and animation examinations, and Walt Disney biographies.
"Even the Disney Co. did not view Disneyland as being history-worthy," Koenig says. "There was never a professionally distributed book about one of its theme parks."
That explains why the company did not know what to make of his project. "When they heard I was interviewing cast members, especially those who had recently quit or retired, they were very nervous," he recalls. "People I contacted who had just retired after 35 years started saying, 'Let me think about it.' They did not want to tattle and were very protective."
Clamming up grew more intense after the release of books such as Marc Eliot's Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince. "These biographies were filled with all this ridiculous stuff, like Walt Disney was a wife beater, an illegitimate child--all this crazy stuff that was verifiably false," Koenig says. "Then I started getting letters and phone calls from publicists and legal departments saying, 'We don't want you to do this.' First, they were suggestions, and then commands that 'We are not allowing you to write this book,' to which I would laugh."
Koenig was not out to grind axes, but he also had no interest in writing "an officially blessed, friendly, happy book on Disneyland's history."
Of the Disney Co., he says, "It took them 35 to 40 years to realize people are innately interested in the park and its history. One of the things people like most about Disneyland is its history. Magic Mountain lacks that foundation of 40 to 50 years of family memories when people visit Disneyland."
Mouse Tales begins with Koenig disclosing how much he loved the park growing up in Orange County and how that affection intensified when he realized much of the "magic" was manufactured and not real. He maintains this respect while divulging Disneyland's guest complaints, vermin problems, crimes, violence, accidents, lawsuits and horror stories he heard from cast members, especially while at Cal State Fullerton, which he called "a giant labor pool for part-time employees" in the book and what we around the park called "Cal State Disneyland." [Full disclosure: The author of this article once worked at Disneyland.] After the strike, job lovers-turned-disgruntled cast members referred to it as "Dismal-land," long before Banksy.
Mike Tribby wrote in his Booklist review at the time of publication that Mouse Tales was "a valuable addition to popular culture literature and to Disneyana," while Elizabeth Loftus offered in Library Journal that "the author comes across as an admirer rather than as someone blowing the cover on the magic of Disney."
The reception to Mouse Tales from Disneyland itself was muted.
"When the first book came out," Koenig recalls, "a Disney executive came by a signing and told me he'd been quoted by the Los Angeles Times saying, 'I've heard of it, but I haven't read it.' I saw this guy, a well-known Disney upper echelon figure, and asked him, and he said he swore that 'I read the book. Everyone read your book. But we've been told, if anyone asks, to say we haven't read it. They don't want to promote your book. I've got three copies on my office shelf. I love it and appreciate it.' I was more relieved."
The exec explained Disney's reluctance to publicly acknowledge Mouse Tales this way: "All the other books out there about Disneyland are produced by us; they are published by us. If someone goes into a bookstore and there are 10 Disney books on a shelf, nine are by us. So the 10th book, your book, cost the company $20."
It always comes down to money for the Mouse.
Buy it now!
As with print journalists everywhere, Koenig eventually took his act to the Internet. Told Mouse Tales was a Disneyland website before websites existed, Koenig was contacted in 1999 by the fine folks at the Mouse Planet online site, which covers all things Disney, and his first article for them went live in 2000. As Mouse Tales was to books, Mouse Planet was the only website keeping tabs on Disneyland at the time. Now there are hundreds. In their varied ways, the websites also erode the so-called magic of Disneyland.
The Magic Kingdom's clash with the tragic real world is the underlying theme of Koenig's latest book, The People v. Disneyland. It's a compilation of the hundreds and hundreds of lawsuits against the park the author gained access to. He acknowledged to me there are many more he could not get to because they've been buried, especially in the bowels of Orange County's court system.
What we do read are the suits that immediately sprang to my mind, such as the ones from family members of guests who died on the Matterhorn or Space Mountain or from a metal cleat that broke off the Columbia sailing ship. There is, of course, the one brought by the family of a young man who was stabbed and called an ambulance that the park would not let in so as to not spook guests. He died; Disney settled. There's the gay couple Disney security prevented from engaging in a slow dance at Videopolis (see our own "The Gayest Place on Earth," Oct. 1, 2014) and a woman who claimed a costumed Fiddler Pig fondled her breasts and called her "mommy," sinking her into such a deep depression she ballooned up to 240 pounds. That last case was dismissed after Disney proved in court that that particular costume had stumps for arms, making anyone incapable of pinching, and that the incident happened near a lost children center, where several kids were likely calling out for their mommies.
Many, many more of the cases Koenig exposes are not so well-known. There was the black janitor who got lousy shifts, was subjected to racist comments and, when he complained, got fired. Disney wound up paying him $100,000 and in lieu of hiring him back; the park agreed to recruit more minority employees. There was also a lesbian security guard who withstood sexual harassment from a male boss and was fired after exposing a prostitution ring involving the Main Street Electrical Parade. One you couldn't make up was brought by the African-American Black family (that's their last name), whose 6-year-old son got the cold shoulder from the costumed White Rabbit, who gladly gave out hugs to white and Asian kids. Disney settled after the Blacks produced photos that proved White Rabbit had shunned their child and embraced the others. Disney also settled a suit brought by actor and comedian Dom DeLuise, whose then-5-year-old son had three toes severed off while disembarking the PeopleMover in 1972.
At the end of sections of his book, Koenig drops asides on some of the magic lost through litigation. Did you know there was originally no height requirement on the Matterhorn or that kids were encouraged to run wild on Tom Sawyer's Island?
It's a given that we live in a very litigious society these days, but one surprising thing revealed in Koenig's latest book is the first lawsuit was filed against Disneyland three days after it first opened in 1955, and it has kept steady at about 50 suits per year against the park.
"They have been different types of suits, and attractions accounted for the most, but it's been fairly stable," Koenig says of the number of filings. "There is nothing they can ever do to eliminate [legal complaints] completely. There is always someone getting hurt."
These suits have been filed despite the Disney Co.'s well-crafted myth that it will fight every complaint to the end and avoid garnering a reputation as an easy target. It's true to some degree that the company in the early years would only settle when it was sure it would otherwise lose. This strategy changed during the cost-conscious Eisner years, when it was determined it was cheaper to settle early than drag out court costs.
"When I wrote my first book, it was the 1980s, and we had this conditioned response that Disney would fight everything and win everything, and if they did something wrong or feared they would lose, in that small minority of cases, they would settle," Koenig says. "Everything else they would fight to the death. They wanted the public to think Disney lawyers were brutes, but when they got before a jury, they were folksy attorneys and actually friendly."
Disney's lawyers often arranged to bus jurors to the park, ostensibly to prove points about the cases against the company and arguably to allow these deciders to get a sprinkling of pixie dust. Whatever the real reason, it often worked.
"Part of that legal mystique came from people who would certainly try to sue Disney, lose, and then people would publicize Disney was unbeatable," Koenig says. "They were very difficult to beat, but not impossible to beat. I was always amused by two dozen lawyers I talked to who each thought, 'I was the first one to ever beat Disney in court; no one ever beat them before I did.' Even the lawyers who fought Disney never thought they lost."
Barry Novack, who advertises himself as a "Mouse Lawyer" for having settled cases with Disney for millions of dollars, developed one strategy early: file Disneyland-related cases in Los Angeles County, based on the Burbank address of the parent Walt Disney Co., rather than Orange County, the home of the theme park, because LA judges and juries are inclined to be less enamored with the Mouse than their OC counterparts.
Settlements with Disney have been easier to come by since Eisner's group came to Burbank and asked, "Why are we spending $1,000 in lawyer fees when we can just settle for $500?" The answer that maintaining the hardline reputation had resulted in Disney being sued about 50 times per year instead of 500 times fell on deaf mouse ears. "Now they are much more amenable to settlements, especially if they can get off cheap," Koenig observes. "It's no longer the principle that it's never their fault. It used to be, 'Did you even get hurt? It's your fault you fell off the ride; it has nothing to do with us.' In the earlier years, there were enough corporate crusaders to protect Disney's good name. Now it's the numbers."
This has worked out today to "more of a 50-50" split between fighting and settling, according to the author.
"They are so aggressive handling guest complaints before they turn into lawsuits," he says. "At the same time, the employee base is so big, and they are so less enamored by the love for their boss. That's been happening for the past 20 years."
Koenig's chronicling of Disney litigation led to a short-lived career as an "expert Disneyland witness." Lawyers representing clients who'd been fired and alleged age discrimination hired Koenig to give rundowns on how Disney had done business over the years because someone in the park's employ was not going to provide that information.
"Whenever there was a deposition, they would send me a transcript and have me go over it to advise on answers their own clients gave or Disney's witnesses, who were usually supervisors. I would point out discrepancies," he says. "The plan was if any case would make it to court, I would testify, like an expert medical witness, on how Disneyland has historically worked and how it is working now."
This was the late '90s, when Disneyland was cleaning house and making a lot of changes.
"It was not just because these folks had been there a long time and were making more money, it was the park wanted to make a lot of changes, and there were people attached to the way things used to be," Koenig says. "Those people are so hard to change. Some of the people fired were 63, but one was 40 and had only been there five years, so you can't claim age discrimination. It was not so much physical age, but whether you were identified with the Walt way of doing things. The company didn't want any of those cobwebs around; it was easier to brainwash [new hires]."
Unfortunately, Koenig's reign as an expert Disney witness only lasted a couple of years. Disney's lawyers had objected, telling the judge such a role was ridiculous, that there is no such thing as an expert Disneyland witness.
"They were able to convince the judge," says Koenig, who understood the jurist's reasoning: The author had no firsthand knowledge about the specific cases before the court, other than what he could learn secondhand. "What I knew about Disney operations in general in the 1960s through '80s was not specific to one department or specific managers," he admits.
The lawsuits keep coming. As this story went to press, a woman sued Walt Disney Co. on behalf of her handicapped son, who fell out of his wheelchair and was injured on the Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue! ride at Disneyland.
It was filed in August . . . in Los Angeles Superior Court.
A bit of the old Disneyland magic was dusted off the month before, when a 44-year-old man was arrested for being a felon carrying a loaded weapon in the Esplanade, which is the name of the area with the ticket booths between Disneyland and California Adventure. The Disneyleaks blog reported that Disneyland staff claimed the fellow had seen the "ghosts of his dead father and grandfather" on a theme park ride and heard voices in his head telling him to do God-knows-what. Representatives of the Anaheim Police Department and Orange County district attorney's office would not confirm what the defendant allegedly told police.
Years of litigation, labor strikes (including the one involving Disneyland resort hotel workers that Koenig and the Weekly covered extensively in 2006) and an increasingly frightening world have all conspired to strip away the magic that Walt Disney worked so hard to manufacture in Anaheim.
"It's a shame is the best way to describe it," Koenig reflects. "You wish guests were not so stupid, that employees were not so devious. They are all poor traits of human nature; you wish people were better people enough that Disney could continue layering on the magic. "The whole idea behind the park was to be totally different than reality," he continues. "You were not even supposed to think it was possible something could go wrong. . . . That has now been decimated."
Of course, the modern Disney leadership has played a part in destroying that magic as well. Walt Disney wanted walls high enough and attractions positioned in ways that guests would not see the outside world from inside Disneyland. With the construction of Disney's California Adventure long after Uncle Walt's head was placed in a Futurama jar, that notion was abandoned as guests can see snarled traffic on Katella Avenue, hookers and homeless folks on Harbor, and much more mayhem that surrounds the Anaheim resort from the tallest California Adventure rides.
"It's nothing they care about anymore," Koenig says. "That is a shame."
On the other hand . . .
"Back in Walt's day, people were thrown off stage coaches, and Disney did not let ambulances in," he says. "So there's that."
The People v. Disneyland makes it clear that Disney's own lawyers pushed for changes, closures or rehabs of rides based on the lawsuits they were seeing, even if they ultimately prevailed in court. It makes one wonder if the lawyers had such sway before Disneyland opened in 1955, what would the park look like today?
"It would have closed within a year," Koenig says.
He goes further, offering up the "insane crowds and insane prices, 24/7" of Disneyland today. "It could not have survived in the 1950s if it was as it is today," he says. "They didn't have that built-in good will."
As we left my office, Koenig mentioned that he has also written non-Disney books, but none sell as well, so he is reluctantly pulled back in like Michael Corleone to dish more on the Mouse.
"I had a book signing where someone came up and said, 'I remember reading Mouse Tales when I was 6,'" Koenig recalls. "That's painful."
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