In 1969, Andrea McGann landed the most coveted job at Disneyland: tour guide. She escorted hundreds of groups through the park, from regular families to foreign businessmen to rock-and-roll superstars. Her story is a time capsule of Disneyland&and of our culture.
Anyone can visit Disneyland; but only the privileged can afford the luxury of a personal tour guide to lead them through the park. In Cream of the Crop, Andrea McGann pulls wide the curtain on the private world of Disneyland tour guides, and her acceptance into that exclusive club. Packed with behind-the-scenes stories of a much younger, more innocent park, McGann takes you back nearly four decades in Disneyland history where you will:
LET YOUR MOUSE FLAG FLY!
Prologue: Step Right This Way
Chapter 1: When You Wish Upon a Star
Chapter 2: A Degree from The University of Disneyland
Chapter 3: Tour Guide 101
Chapter 4: A Member of the Caste
Chapter 5: Caste Aristocracy … and the Rest
Chapter 6: Character Sketches and Sketchy Characters
Chapter 7: Our Three-Hour Tour
Chapter 8: Anything Your Heart Desires … on a VIP Tour
Chapter 9: Date Nite at Disneyland
Chapter 10: Muy Pequeño el Mundo Es—Very Small the World Is
Chapter 11: Hippies, Yippies, and Grand Floridians
Chapter 12: Disneyland Information, May I Help You?
Chapter 13: Ghosts of Attractions Past
Chapter 14: Our Daughter Pilots a Submarine
Chapter 15: Sweets for the Suite
Epilogue: Once a Tour Guide, Always a Tour Guide
We wore dark blue velvet riding caps, red Pendleton wool knee socks, Royal Stewart tartan-plaid culottes cut to look like pleated skirts, and red vests over long-sleeved white blouses trimmed in lace, even when the mercury soared above 100 degrees, and we carried actual leather riding crops from England.
How many times were we asked, “Where’s your horse?”
Well, how many hidden Mickeys are there in Walt Disney World?
I started working as a Disney tour guide and VIP hostess during Christmas break of 1969 when I was just eighteen, the youngest tour guide on the Disneyland staff, and I worked throughout my college vacations until I graduated and became a teacher who told Disney tales to generations of students eager to hear the inside story. It was a dream I’d had—to work for Disney—for as long as I could remember. I still have the kind answer letter received when I wrote as a young student myself, asking, “How many more years do I have to wait until I can go to work at Disneyland?”
At Disneyland’s 15th birthday party on July 17, 1970, we tour guides handed out carnations at the front gate to all the guests who visited that day. I saved my flower’s paper backing, the happy 15th birthday card, attached behind the flower long before I even knew the meaning of the word ephemera. In fact, I saved just about everything including the (gasp) official tour guide training manual, a sacred artifact I simply couldn’t bring myself to relinquish. I retained my eleven-page tour guide spiel in both English and Spanish, tour guide banquet program, the banquet’s skit script complete with gentle “roasts” of Disney higher-ups and cast members alike, unused tickets from the 1950s and 1960s, maps with rides now just memories (I was one of those unlucky enough to get a “flying” saucer that remained stuck to the ground throughout the entire length of the ride), copies of Backstage magazines, and Disneyland Line newsletters. If it was delivered into my hands, I held onto it! I loved everything Disney, and working at the park really was my dream come true.
The tour guides were made to feel very special from our induction into the University of Disneyland (now called Disney University) until we proudly led that first tour on our own. During the summer of 1970, we trained the Florida kids, those grand Floridians who would become the first employees at Walt Disney World the following year when it opened. They job-shadowed us for weeks learning the ropes.
I was there on August 6 when a mass invasion of Hippies and Yippies snaked down Main Street and staged a take-over of Tom Sawyer island, smoking pot in the island’s cave and Fort Wilderness, and running up the flag of North Vietnam on the island’s flagpole. They chanted slogans about Ho Chi Minh while some of the guests sang “God Bless America” back at them. Before things got out of hand, the Orange County police in full riot gear appeared to quell the rebellion. It was the only time to that point when the park had to be closed during regular business hours for an unplanned event. We tour guides were told to lie flat on the floor of the little tour guide office so that we couldn’t be seen through the windows by any stray, marauding hippies. It was incredibly exciting and very scary at the same time. We were hustled out the back entrance to the parking lot, but the next day it was back to business as usual.
The dress codes in those years were quaintly hilarious by today’s standards. I once had our lead girl, who would later head the whole department of Walt Disney World tour guides, stick a ruler into my Gibson Girl hairdo to be sure it was no higher than two inches! The guys’ sideburns could be no longer than mid-ear. One of my VIP tours with a well-known folk singer and her agent had to be held up while her too-scruffy-for-Disneyland date, also a singer but a lot less well-known, was forced to either leave or purchase a park-friendly T-shirt sans holes. He bought the shirt. Men were not admitted wearing sleeveless muscle shirts, either, although we often saw women sporting a full head of pink, plastic curlers. I always wondered where they were going after they went to Disneyland.
The guides were an elite group. One of our fellow tour guides had been crowned Miss Universe the year before joining our ranks, and many of the girls were veterans of the local beauty pageant circuits. Several went on to become Disney Ambassadors traveling the world representing the public face of the company. One perfectly delightful girl voted Tour Guide of the Year is still routinely featured in major business magazines for her acumen and expertise in the corporate world.
Out of every thousand applicants who wanted to work in the park, just one was granted the right to wield the coveted riding crop that marked her status as a tour guide. It took four interviews, the final one with the formidable Cicely Rigdon, the supervisor of Guest Relations, before you were inducted into that extremely select club, one even more exclusive than the park’s private Club 33 where we dined on lobster with our VIP guests.
It was a golden age when Disneyland and we were young, a time when working alongside six thousand other employees, half of whom were “seasonal” employees working through their college vacations like me, really was the best of times. Join me for a fond look at the way we did things at the park back when Walt Disney World was just a brilliant idea and 27,000 acres of Florida swampland. Come on folks, step right this way….
Andrea McGann Keech was born in southern California and visited Disneyland often, ever since it opened in 1955. She fulfilled a life-long dream of working at the park and became a bilingual tour guide and VIP hostess during college holidays from 1969 through 1972.
She and husband Ron met at Occidental College in 1969 and were married in San Francisco in 1970. Ron graduated from the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, and Andrea finished college at the University of San Francisco. They lived in Portland, Oregon, for six years and then moved to Iowa City where he was a professor of medicine and a surgeon in the Department of Ophthalmology at the University of Iowa for twenty-two years until his death in 2007. Their children, Elizabeth and Robert, made them incredibly proud and very happy parents. Liz is an attorney, and Rob is a dentist.
Andrea taught students in English and Spanish in grades K-12 during her teaching career. She was a member of the National Assessment of Educational Progress Committee, setting Writing Standards, 2011–2018, for students in grades 1–12. She has written for a variety of national educational journals and presented often at teaching conferences, but the most fulfilling aspect of her work, by far, was seeing her students succeed.
Andrea lives in Iowa City with Shadow and Sunny, two wild and crazy standard poodles. Her most fulfilling role is that of playing Mary Poppins to beloved grandchildren Katherine and Drew.
Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a guided tour, that started from this magic place, with this tour guide...
A guided tour was meant to last about two-and-a-half hours, but you could add an hour to that on very busy days. It included five attractions and one additional ticket good for anything else at Disneyland. In the Tour Garden just on your left past the left tunnel, you’d check in at the dispatch desk and meet your guide who would give you a triangular tag about three inches high. You could write your name on the tag and where you were from, but most people didn’t. There was a little hole in the top through which a loop of string was tied. You would use the string to affix it to a button or purse so that it was visible. It would match the color of the one your tour guide had attached through the leather loop at the end of her riding crop. Tags were yellow, red, blue, green, and orange. Each tour that went out got a different color.
You’d then take your seat in the Tour Garden so you would be ready to begin your gay tour of the Magic Kingdom. That’s just how the voice on the tape playing on loudspeakers at the main gate characterized it. Terminology changes. Very shortly after I started to work, the word “gay” was removed from the description of our guided tours.
“My name is Andrea, and I’ll be your guide today.”
I might ask you questions like, “Where are you from?” “How long will you be staying in southern California?” “Have you ever visited the park before?”
I liked hearing about all the different places the guests were from, and they were happy to tell me about them. Some, I had visited myself. I was always surprised at how very pale the legs were on people from colder climates. They’d be roasted lobster-red by the end of the day. Sunscreen was rarely applied. Nearly every guest I ever had on a tour was friendly and excited.
Guests, in turn, might ask me, “How long is the tour?” “What rides will we go on?” “Where’s the nearest rest room?” There were restrooms close by just outside City Hall.
The moms and dads might want to know where I went to college. By 1971, I attended the University of San Francisco. Once they heard that, a lot of guys wanted to talk about the Dons’ basketball team that had won the National Championship in 1949 and then again in both 1955 and 1956, thanks in large part to a young Bill Russell. It was still a strong program in the early 1970s when I was a student. Our hometowns, sports, current events, Disneyland history—there was always something of interest to chat about with guests. When about twenty people were waiting or ten or fifteen minutes had passed, we’d be off on our tour.
“Red tags? We’re ready!” I’d call. “C’mon, folks, step right this way!”
Somewhere just outside the Tour Garden, guides would usually step up on a planter so that everyone could see and hear better. There was sometimes a scramble to claim a prime spot. I’d always ask guests to let me know if they couldn’t hear me or if I were walking too fast or if someone needed to have something repeated. I always did my best to speak clearly and slowly, knowing that this was a lot of new information for them to absorb. I would always also tell guests to ask any questions they might have. In that way, it was a lot like teaching.
If you were a member of my tour, first, you’d hear a brief description about the opening day of Disneyland and a bit of background history. The story of those original orange groves, the plans and dreams of Walt Disney, and his words on the dedication plaque would be shared. I would tell you about the areas and lands we’d be visiting: Main Street, Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Bear Country (starting in 1972), Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Fantasyland.
The first attraction was the Main Street Train Station. Our tour would board a steam train for a “grand circle tour” of Disneyland. You’d hear about Walt’s long-time interest in trains and about his own little miniature railroad installed at the Holmby Hills estate. If we happened to be directed through the right side of the turnstile by a RETLAW conductor, we would pass by a display with Walt’s original, lovingly detailed Lilly Belle engine, the one named after his wife, Lillian. Each of the authentic steam trains in operation had been refurbished after years of service, and they now circled Disneyland up to 13,500 times a year.
If you take a VIP tour today, you may be able to catch a ride on the pretty Lilly Belle car, decorated by Mrs. Disney with personal memorabilia from the family collection. It is the only one from Disneyland’s opening day that is still running. The car is often only available at limited times and for limited groups, however, such as Club 33 members and special visitors.
As much as Walt Disney loved trains, I’d have thought the train ride itself might have been a bit more interesting. Mostly, what guests saw aboard the train was a series of tunnels interspersed with brief glimpses of the park, especially the undeveloped areas. The diesel fumes were strong. Every time I smell diesel, I’m transported right back to the Disneyland Railroad.
The first stop for guests boarding and departing was at Frontierland station. I would point out the beautiful New Orleans Square area and the “very spooky” Haunted Mansion with its “999 ghosts.” A main benefit of the tour was to show guests things they would want to come back to and enjoy on their own later. It would have been nice to be able to take our guests on more attractions, but you could only do so much in what was intended to be a two-and-a-half hour tour. The length depended upon the number of visitors in the park on any given day. A day with 25,000 visitors expected was just about right.
We’d ride past the back of the Rivers of America and sometimes see the Mark Twain or the Columbia sailing grandly by. We’d view the back side of the Native American village, the burning cabin, the motionless deer, and the Native American on his pinto pony with his hand raised in greeting.
After I returned to work from college in June 1972, I was shocked to see an entirely new land had popped up like a mushroom in my absence just past the Haunted Mansion. As the train my tour was riding emerged from the tunnel, there it was! Getting back to the Main Street station once again, I parked my people for a minute and dashed over to the Tour Garden.
“Aqua, what’s that land just past Frontierland?”
“Oh, yeah. It’s new. It’s called Bear Country, and you have to take your people over there to the Country Bear Jamboree. Can’t miss it. It’s at the very back of the area.”
“…and skip the Mark Twain!”
It was just that kind of bizarre experience that produced nightmares for me in the decades to come. I’ve never known anyone who has worked at the park who managed to escape having Disney nightmares. Mine often featured new lands inexplicably cropping up on a tour, completely unbeknownst to me. Other dreams were about lost shoes, shoes left behind in a locked car, having brought the wrong shoes to work. Those old Wardrobe bulletins about shoe requirements really played mind games. I dreamed of locker combinations forgotten seconds before I was due to lead a tour, of being on a ride that morphed into something entirely different like the time Small World became a submarine voyage through all the countries of the world.
For many years, I dreamed that I’d been called back to fill in because they needed more guides and didn’t have time enough to train them. I’d see guides I didn’t know, all of whom wore different costumes from those we had worn. I was supposed to lead a tour in German. The tour guide lounge had been moved. You name it, I dreamed it. Just as college students often dream they are in a strange classroom taking the final exam in a course they never signed up for and hadn’t ever attended or actors dream they are on stage in a play but had memorized their lines from an entirely different play, if you worked at Disneyland, you’d be reliving it all through distorted dreams long after you had punched your last time card.
Until just a couple of years ago, I kept a couple of new pairs of red Pendleton wool socks in my drawer “just in case.” It was like having tour guide post-traumatic stress disorder. Lots of the socks we checked out of Wardrobe were worn out and didn’t have enough elastic to stay up. It was so annoying to have to stop and pull up socks every couple of minutes. You didn’t want to get those, so I usually just bought my own. This all sounds uncomfortably like author James Clavell who had been interned in a Japanese concentration camp during World War II. For the rest of his life, he carried a little tin of sardines in his pocket because that was “enough to flavor a whole pot of rice.” Just in case….
Continued in "Cream of the Crop"!
In which we learn that not all cast members are created equal...
This chapter is going to sound decidedly elitist, so if that’s going to disturb anyone’s egalitarian sensibilities, please skip immediately to the next one. No, wait. Better skip on over to Chapter Six to be entirely safe. It honestly can’t be helped, because the hierarchy inherent among cast members truly was elitist, almost feudal in its rigid, long-standing codes of conduct, and just as in feudal times, Disneyland cast members rarely had much vertical mobility. Most people stayed firmly where they were placed on the day they were cast.
There were positions that represented park royalty (remember, we wore that Royal Stewart tartan), namely tour guides and VIP hostesses, Jungle Boat skippers, the guys at RETLAW, and perhaps a scant handful of others. Next came the aristocracy, bold and handsome knights like the monorail drivers, Matterhorn Bobsled crew, submarine or Mark Twain pilots. Then there were the townsfolk, the vast majority of the rest of the ride operators, perfectly respectable, hard-working individuals diligently going about their daily occupations.
Finally, at the margins of our little society were the serfs, legions of busy worker bees, with positions like the sweepers, retail clerks, and food servers. Within each level, however, even further, finely-graded segmentations existed. Okay, so you’re in retail. Did you work at the enormous Main Street Emporium or on some little cart stuck on a corner in Fantasyland selling post cards and pencils? You’re in food service? Were you a host in the new and decidedly upscale French Market Café in New Orleans Square or did you peddle popcorn from a mobile cart? Operations, huh? Do you load Alice in Wonderland or Autopia? Peter Pan or PeopleMover?
One summer afternoon, I was booking it through Fantasyland’s “semi-secret” shortcut gateway, my two-inch heels clicking sharply on the colored pavement, to where I had been assigned the role of area hostess for a few hours. I looked over, surprised, to see a childhood friend of mine stuck behind the counter in some nondescript quick-food place, the Carousel Corner, wearing a widely striped purple and white blouse that resembled nothing so much as a window awning. There was a tiny pouf of gathered lace pinned precariously atop her head. On what planet is that considered a hat? Sometimes costumes robbed you of any shred of dignity. Longish skirts, shapeless pants. No one took a lot of pride in those costumes. How could they?
It felt as though I had come upon Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Match Girl. I swear you could almost hear the bitter Copenhagen winter winds whistling down icy, cobblestoned streets. There was my old friend Judy, fallen upon hard times, grease and mustard stains on her apron-front. She might as well have been wrapped in a shawl standing in ankle-deep snow calling, “Matches! Please, sir, buy my matches.”
Veering over to say hello, it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen her in maybe seven or eight years. What could we possibly talk about? Math homework? Girl Scouts?
“Hey, Judy, didn’t know you worked here. How’s it going?”
She swept back a wisp of hair that had managed to escape from the pouf-hat with one hand and gave me a tired smile. Park guests surrounding the counter were hot and tired, three or four deep waiting for their ice cream, hot dogs, hamburgers, Cokes, fries.
“Hi, Andrea. Good to see you. I’m doing fine. Busy, though,” she observed, looking from side to side, stating the obvious. “We’re always busy.” She spread her hands apart, palms up, as if I couldn’t see the situation for myself. “You know how it is.”
Well no, I didn’t, actually. I had no idea what that kind of a job at Disneyland would be like. There was an uncomfortable pause, neither of us finding much to say. It had been a long time since her family had moved away from our little street.
“Okay, well, I’d better get going.” I gave a small wave, setting off for some shady corner of the Magic Kingdom to smile and hang out for a bit. The most taxing thing I’d have to do all afternoon would be to tell someone where the rest rooms were located, helpfully labeled Prince and Princess in Fantasyland, or possibly point them in the direction of Small World.
“Yeah. Well, see you around,” she said, turning back to her burgers.
I never did see Judy again, but that bittersweet moment has always stuck with me. It was nice to see her after so long, but it was also uncomfortably like seeing an old pal down on her luck, barely making ends meet. That wasn’t the case, of course, but that’s how it felt at the time. That job didn’t look like it was much fun at all.
My cousin Matt, a sweeper, might have held one of the lowest status jobs at Disneyland, but don’t get me wrong. Even the lowest man on the Disneyland totem pole, and there were some positions even lower than sweeper, was still widely considered by the average college student living in southern California at that time to be a really plum job. Instant social cachet, that’s what working in the park gave you. You had a wealth of insider information and access to backstage stories all your friends would envy. Not only that, there was that sweet little Friday night perk called Date Nite at Disneyland, a fond tradition which appears in greater detail in Chapter Nine.
Plus, you worked at the “Happiest Place on Earth.” My dad used to say with more than a trace of irony, “Welcome to the Happiest Place on Earth,” whenever we visited the park and passed a child howling to the heavens, rivers of tears and nasal discharge running down her face because she had let go of a Mickey Mouse helium balloon, or his ice cream cone had been unceremoniously dropped on the sidewalk, or the poor kid was just plain exhausted. How bad could it be?
Don’t forget that by the parsimonious Scrooge McDuck standards of the day, the pay was more than decent. Disneyland paid a lot more than flipping burgers, which is what my boyfriend Ron had done to pay for his college tuition. Working conditions were, for the most part, very pleasant, and extras like an Olympic-sized dating pool full of seriously attractive young people came with the job.
Still, there existed a clear hierarchy of positions within the park, and the uniform you wore put you firmly into a highly stratified caste system even a Brahmin might recognize. For anyone unfamiliar with the term hegemony, it means leadership or dominance, usually by one country or social group over others. In the case of park cast members, we’re talking about social group domination. A few synonyms for hegemony are supremacy, dominion, power, sovereignty, and dominance. It’s a word perfectly coined to describe what working at Disneyland was like in 1969.
As noted, tour guides and VIP hostesses were perched firmly and unshakably at the top of the cast member totem pole. Maybe it was a self-perpetuating myth, but it was also a widely-accepted one, and frequently observed by cast members of all castes, because it was accurate. Van Arsdale France, founder and Prof. Emeritus of Disney University, puts it this way in his fascinating book Window on Main Street:
A caste system had developed, with some groups feeling like they were far better than others. (And the tour guides felt they were better than everybody.)
Van might have been speaking tongue-in-cheek, but he was absolutely right, we did—and it wasn’t just us who felt that way. Everybody at the park acted like the tour guides were better than everybody else, and that is exactly how they treated us. Show me one official picture of cast members taken in those years where a tour guide isn’t in the front row, just one.
Our uniforms were seriously gorgeous, beautifully tailored from the finest-quality materials, both imported and domestic. No expense was spared from the tops of our navy velvet riding caps to the red Pendleton woolen socks on our feet. We had a spacious indoor lounge for our exclusive use filled with small, personal lockers, clean rest rooms just for us, couches, chairs, and mirrors (okay, there were lots of mirrors). This all might seem relatively ordinary until you did some area hostessing and spent time in other cast members’ “break areas.”
No air conditioning there. In fact, as Gertrude Stein once observed of the city of Oakland, California, “There is no ‘there’ there.” Some of the “break areas” were just a couple of chairs pulled up to a lopsided table in a sparse little patch of backstage shade. No wonder that kind of favoritism bred resentment! So how did tour guides maintain their social status? I can only say a lot of it had to do with the careful screening process before we were cast, which was tremendously selective. That was coupled with the supreme belief we all held that our job genuinely was the best of the best.
Continued in "Cream of the Crop"!