There could hardly be a more auspicious day to open a blog dedicated to the Disneyland of 30 years ago than January 11, 1990. I would like to say that I had carefully planned every detail of my visit that day, but that just wouldn’t be true. And I had no idea it would be as packed with detail as it was. In fact, I will be covering this single day in two parts.
First, some background. I had moved from Oklahoma City to Pasadena in late December, 1989. Although I had not yet purchased an Annual Pass (I bought my first Disneyland Seasonal Picture Passport on March 22, 1990), I had purchased a multi-day ticket and made the drive down the 110 and the 5 a few times. I knew how to get to the Happiest Place on Earth fairly quickly.
On the morning of January 11 I was awakened by my alarm clock radio playing KNX, the 24-hour news station. (Bear in mind, this was when we all still used alarm clocks on the side of the bed.) The newscast was live from Disneyland, and they were announcing that Ronald Reagan would be making his entrance and delivering a speech in less than an hour.
I had no idea there was even going to be an event at the park that day, let alone one with an original opening day host in attendance. (Ronald Reagan had been in the news all through the eighties, incidentally.) In this pre-internet era, every detail of every activity at the park was not readily available.
So, I leaped out of bed, pulled on some clothes, grabbed my camera (with extra rolls of film) and headed for the car. I flew down the freeway, threaded my way through the cavernous parking lot that lay just across from the entrance to Disneyland, and made it to Town Square just as the festivities were beginning.
Considering how late I had arrived, I had a pretty good vantage point. I was in a crowd stationed just in front of the Opera House. It is amazing to consider that in 1990 you could walk directly into Disneyland from your car in the parking lot, and end up within a few hundred feet of the former President of the United States. As the event unfolded, it became clear that it was not just Ronald Reagan who would be on hand; Art Linkletter was there too. And then came a very unexpected announcement that the third host of the opening day broadcast was also about to join us.
As Bob Cummings made his way down the steps from the train station, a statuesque dancer on each side, the crowd was momentarily stunned. Cummings had been out of the public eye for a good ten years, and most people recalled him as a handsome young man, full of pep and with a twinkle in his eye. The man being supported by the dancers was definitely old (79, actually), and appeared strained. But he did have a wide smile and a wave for the crowd. It would prove to be his final public appearance, as he died at age 80 in December, 1990.
The rest of the events of the day are now something of a blur. Ronald Reagan did deliver a stirring speech. I noted that there were a lot of men in dark suits scanning the crowd, as well as what appeared to be sharpshooters on the roofs. Reagan and the other hosts, joined by Roy E. Disney and Michael Eisner were then driven down Main Street USA in a cavalcade. They were accompanied by a somewhat baffling array of Disney celebrities, many drawn from the Disney Channel. Predictably, the men in dark suits marched along with Ronald Reagan.
As Art Linkletter’s open touring car pulled up near us, I recalled I had just seen him a month or so earlier at an event in Oklahoma City. His car paused in front of me, and I was able to tell him, “I just saw you in Oklahoma!” He smiled and replied, “I’m everywhere!”
The cavalcade was followed by the official debut of the 35th anniversary parade. But before that began, a very special, now forgotten vehicle slowly made its way down the parade route.
Mickey’s Mouse-O-Rail was a pretty amazing vehicle. It was a stretch limo made from the nosecone and tail of “Big Red,” the last Mark III monorail. The distinctive bubble, stainless steel sides, and fender skirts were still in place, but the whole thing was now street legal, complete with catchy graphics, interior amenities, and mouse-icon shaped rearview mirrors and taillights. Completing the ensemble were vanity plates simply reading “35 EARS.”
The Party Gras parade was vivid and exciting, with massive floats, hordes of colorfully costumed dancers, Disney characters, and an infectious theme song that was that summer’s second biggest ear-worm (it’s a small world still topped the list). The Mardi Gras theme was reinforced by the costumes won by the dance units and Disney characters. The biggest impression was made by the extremely tall floats, which featured inflatable characters that evoked the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade balloons. These were tethered to wagon units, however.
The Party Gras also created energy through participation with the public. Just as in New Orleans, dancers would engage the viewers, encouraging them to get up and join in the fun. Lucky members of the crowd caught beads and specially struck purple coins, tossed out by the performers. (I still have mine.)
If you didn’t want to beg for coins, you could seek out the Extremely Secret Royal Eternal Fraternal Order of Armadillos, a quirky krewe that could be found wandering the park (but mostly around New Orleans Square). After their street show was over you could give them a special hand sign (holding your pinkie and index finger straight up, extend your thumb, middle finger and ring finger together and then open and close the “mouth” of your armadillo) and they would surreptitiously slip you a coin. They also had an ID card that identified you as a member of their merry band.
After the parade had ended, I realized there was a great deal going on in the park that day. I had glimpsed some sort of Media Center out in the parking lot, and it seemed there was heavy news coverage here at Town Square. Little did I know what was in store as I made my way up Main Street toward the center of the park.
Watch for PART TWO in February, featuring celebrity cameos and a brush with Michael Eisner.