Journalist Chuck Schmidt has covered Disney for over three decades, attending lavish special event parties and enjoying access to Disney executives and Imagineers. He was first in line for new attractions, shows, even cruise ships. What's that like? Chuck's memoir tells all.
Being a newspaper reporter is not a life of glitz and glamour. But for a reporter like Chuck Schmidt, who was on the "Disney beat" for the Staten Island Advance, it means one-on-one time with Disney Legends like Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter; admittance to private, after-hours galas in the parks; and plenty of bling.
Now retired, Chuck tells the never-before-told story of how he and other journalists publicize the latest and greatest from the Mouse, taking you backstage to a side of Disney that guests never see:
With a foreword by Marty Sklar, and featuring exclusive photos and contributions from Disney Legends Sklar, Tony Baxter, Bob Gurr, and Charlie Ridgway, On the Disney Beat is your personal press badge to all things Disney!
Chapter 1: The evolution of the “press event” and lunch with Charlie Ridgway
Chapter 2: How I “discovered” former Walt Disney Company CFO Jay Rasulo
Chapter 3: Disneyland goes to the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair
Chapter 4: Deevy See: The ultimate Disney character
Chapter 5: Disneyland, in the beginning, through the eyes of some of the folks who were there
Chapter 6: Bob Gurr: “If it moves on wheels in Disneyland, I probably designed it”
Chapter 7: From weekend getaway to lifetime of memories
Chapter 8: Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Nah-ta-zu and the setting of some pretty wild adventures
Chapter 9: When Disney and Staten Island cross paths
Chapter 10: Tony Baxter: From ice cream cones to Thunder Mountain to Disneyland Paris
Chapter 11: Tony Baxter: From ice cream cones to Thunder Mountain to Disneyland Paris
Chapter 12: Catching up with Charlie Ridgway, who started me on my journalistic journey through Disney’s world
Chapter 13: Goofy about Disney and the blessing of so many story ideas
About the Author
Before sitting down to write this foreword, I was going to ask Leah, my bride of 58 years in May, to read Chuck Schmidt’s book and share a few thoughts that would help me get started. But once I had read Chick’s multiple pages and comments about me, I had a hunch about what Leah might say: “All you need is a crown and a cape and you’re all set for Chuck’s coronation of you. Please sit up straight when he places the crown!”
With that perspective, it would be hard for me to critique Chuck’s new book, On the Disney Beat. Fortunately, that’s not what he asked me to do. What he has done is given me the honor of introducing his latest deep dive into all things Disney. Presuming you have read Chuck’s blog, Goofy About Disney, over the years, you know how deep this dive will be. Sometimes I think Chuck has found the underground passage at the bottom of the Seven Seas Lagoon at Walt Disney World—the secret passageway that allows you to get to the bottom of everything! (Oooops! I wasn’t supposed to ever reveal that! Now I’ll bet Chuck’s already writing the story…)
Which brings me to how thorough Chuck Schmidt is in his reporting. In one of his “inside stories” about Disney—there are so many that I felt much of my 54 years at Disney was being lovingly dissected by a scientific journalist—Chuck reports on a panel of Disney Legends at the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World. According to Chuck’s report, I (as the moderator) began the session by welcoming guests to “The Liars’ Club”. After all, I am reported to have said, “Who can contradict us about what we say happened 40 or 50 years ago?”
So that’s my only caution for you, as you embark on this grand Disney voyage with Chuck to Florida and California and aboard the Disney Cruise Line somewhere at sea. You are in the hands of a man who loves his subject—its people you will meet, its events you will attend, its links to Staten Island you will savor. In writing On the Disney Beat, Chuck shares memories, pageantry, family trips, events, joy, fun, and so many connections with the Disney friends he and his wife, Janet, have acquired over nearly four decades of “journalistic living with the Mouse”.
It’s not just Chuck’s reporting and writing that we at Disney appreciate so much. It’s the trust that we place in Chuck—that through his knowledge and appreciation of what we have created and built, we will be treated fairly, respected for our passion and skill, and loved for “making the magic real”.
As Walt Disney said, “You don’t build it for yourself. You know what the people want and you build it for them.”
I think Chuck Schmidt knew “what the people wanted” when he started Goofy About Disney. And now, with On the Disney Beat, Chuck has done it again, going even deeper on that dive into the treasure chest of Disney places, celebrations, and just plain old good times!
Thanks for the memories, Chuck. And All Good Things for the Future!
During my 48 years in the newspaper business, I’ve worn many hats—which is one of those bygone expressions meaning I was pretty a versatile guy…a jack of all trades, if you will.
I started at the tender age of 17 in the Sports Department of the Staten Island Advance as a copy boy, a not-so-glamorous term for “newsroom gofer”. There was no lower rung on the journalism ladder. The job requirements included answering the telephone, monitoring the Associated Press wire, and writing short stories on rather insignificant sports events. It wasn’t much, but it was a start…for me, the beginning of a nearly five decades-long love affair with newspapers.
I still remember quite vividly the first day I reported to work at the Advance. A distinctive odor greeted me as I walked down the stairs toward the newsroom. As I learned, the smell was emanating from the composing room, where hot metal was smoldering inside gargantuan linotype machines. These were still the days of “hot type”, where physical labor was involved in just about every phase of production. The industry was still years away from “cold type” and a more computer-based system.
In those days—the late 1960s—newsrooms were grungy, male-dominated offices filled with cigarette smoke. They were loud, too, with reporters and editors tap-tap-tapping on manual typewriters, phones ringing constantly, and the drone of the police radio serving as a distracting, if necessary, backdrop. The Sports Department had its own separate corner of the newsroom; the rest of the office was manned—almost literally, as women had yet to make significant inroads in the business—by news reporters and editors. As I scanned the office on that first day, I couldn’t help but notice how old everyone seemed; most of the people working on the news side had to be at least 50, I thought, a sharp contrast from the teenagers I was used to hanging around with.
I was a junior in high school when my sandlot baseball coach—who also moonlighted as a sports reporter for the Advance—asked me arguably the most important question I’d ever hear in my life: “How would you like to work in the Sports Department at the Advance?” It was truly a defining moment…and my answer would chart the course of my professional career. “Sure,” I said without hesitation. And thus concluded my first job interview.
That coach, Jack Minogue, also was my high school history teacher. He apparently saw in me what I didn’t see in myself—a strong work ethic, an ability to perform well in stressful situations, and a positive attitude, all traits that would serve me well during my newspaper career.
Those first few months at the paper were a learning experience. Most of the people in the newsroom were college graduates who had majored in journalism; the best I could offer were a few honors English classes and a love of sports. My work “week” consisted of a killer 12-hour shift on Saturdays—noon to midnight—working on the Early Bird and Final editions of the Sunday Advance, and a shorter shift on Sunday evenings handling much of the local sports news during the busiest day of the week. I was no threat Red Smith and the other great sportswriters of the time, but it was apparent to me that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
From copy boy, I worked my way up to part-time sports reporter, covering a variety of high school and college events. I was barely 19 when I was promoted to assistant night sports editor, which meant I was now responsible for editing other writers’ submissions a few days a week. I also was writing headlines and photo captions and designing a few of the inside sports pages. It was heady stuff for someone who, two years before, didn’t have a clue what he wanted to do with his life.
When the night sports editor left the paper in 1970, I was promoted to my first 9-to-5 gig—9 at night to 5 in the morning, Sunday through Thursday—when I replaced him at 20 years old. I was still going to college full-time and was engaged to be married to my fiancé, Janet. In my “spare time”, I started writing a music column, covering Staten Island’s burgeoning rock music scene. If nothing else, the experience served to hone my interviewing skills, as I chatted it up with such famed Island musicians as glam-rocker David Johansen (aka Buster Poindexter), guitar hero Earl Slick, and country musician Hank DeVito.
In 1984, I left the fun and games associated with sports when I was appointed Sunday news editor. It was a culture shock, to be sure; I was entering a world often filled with death and destruction, murder and mayhem. Instead of touchdowns, curveballs, and jump shots, my work now centered around car accidents, burglaries, deadly fires, and other, decidedly more serious events than I was used to. But I quickly adapted.
My new job description also included handling the travel pages, which afforded me the opportunity to write an occasional travel feature. Since I also designed the page the story was to go on, I could play up text, headline, and photos as big as I wanted to. By now, I had taken Janet and our three young children—Gregg, Tracy, and Kelly—on multiple vacations to Walt Disney World, so it seemed a no-brainer that I’d write travel features on the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
Like most Baby Boomers born in the late 1940s or early 1950s, I was hooked on Disney at an early age. I had faithfully watched The Mickey Mouse Club during the week after school and later Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color on our black-and-white TV on Sunday nights. And I have photos of myself dressed in my official Davy Crockett garb, which included a coonskin cap and leather-fringed jacket.
Whenever I wrote something about Disney, I’d send tear sheets to the Walt Disney World publicity folks, just to let them know that there was a guy on Staten Island who was covering WDW on a fairly regular basis. Years later, I learned that some of those tear sheets found their way onto a “wall of fame” in the publicity department’s offices. I also found out that some of those clippings crossed the desk of Charlie Ridgway, who was Walt Disney World’s publicity director. Charlie retired in the late 1990s after an illustrious career at both Disneyland and WDW; as a sign of just how important he was to the success of Walt Disney World, a window is dedicated in his honor above the Arcade on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Among the most cherished Disney-related items I have collected over the years was a personal letter I received from Charlie, dated June 28, 1993:
Dear Mr. Schmidt:
Just a short note to thank you for sending along your excellent story and layout. It was thoughtful of you to send it.
We appreciate your interest in the Vacation Kingdom.
I had a long and rewarding association with Charlie and the members of his staff, as well as many other fascinating people, all of whom were integral parts of Walt Disney’s expansive world…a world I’m proud to say I’ve chronicled for more than three decades.
Although the names are a veritable who’s who of Disney Legends, they also include people who may not be as well-known, but who nonetheless have ties to the company and its penchant for creating magical memories. They all have intriguing stories to tell and have left a lasting impression on me. Hopefully, they’ll do the same to you.
Chuck Schmidt was bitten by the Disney bug at an early age. He remembers watching The Mickey Mouse Club after school in the mid-1950s. During his 48-year career in the newspaper business, he channeled that love of Disney as the Sunday News and Travel editor for the Staten Island Advance, writing a number of features and covering a variety of events involving the expansive world created by Walt Disney.
Since 2009, he has shared his passion for all things Disney in his weekly Goofy About Disney blog on SILive.com.
Chuck resides in Freehold, New Jersey, with his wife, Janet. They have three grown children and four grandchildren.
When Walt Disney wanted to put something in Disneyland that moved, the Imagineer he turned to most often was "Bobby"—Bob Gurr.
During the late 1950s, the Walt Disney Company was entering uncharted waters and a great, big beautiful tomorrow was just a dream away. Walt Disney was dreaming big and thinking very much outside the box. Creating Disneyland was nice, he seemed to be saying, but how can we make it better? Bob Gurr was often the man Walt called on to turn his seemingly impossible ideas into reality. “Bobby,” Walt would say when an idea was germinating in his fertile imagination, “see what you can do with this…”
Gurr said, “During the time of developing the little Autopia car, Walt wanted an antique car on Main Street, so I designed the first one in the first year Disneyland was open. Then he wanted to have a double-decker omnibus for Main Street, so I did that a little later in 1956. Then, in 1957, we built another antique car and another omnibus, then the following year, we built a fire engine.
“In 1958, I was trying to design yet another Autopia car and design the monorail and design the submarine and also do the Matterhorn, too. Walt would do that. He’d assign people to multiple projects.” All three major attractions, as well as the Autopia re-do, would debut in June of 1959. The three major projects “all kind of came in overlapping phases,” Gurr said. “The submarines were first. I got really far into that and then got into the Matterhorn. But the monorail, starting in October of 1958, consumed virtually all of my time.”
Gurr was given the task of designing a monorail for Disneyland after the Alweg Company from Germany developed a working prototype, which piqued Walt Disney’s interest. Disney worked out a deal with Alweg, using their basic concept while receiving significant input from his own creative staff, specifically Bob Gurr.
Gurr took drafting tools in hand and designed what is now the very familiar-looking rocket ship-styled nose with a bubble top in front where the driver sits. It looked like something out of the Buck Rogers science fiction genre, which was exactly what Gurr was shooting for. Curiously, Gurr doesn’t believe the monorail, a staple at just about every Disney park worldwide, is the answer to the world’s mass transportation needs. He believes standard rail cars and the newer Maglev technology are faster and more efficient.
“There’s all kinds of compromises with a monorail, but it certainly looks pretty,” he said.
In his book, Design: Just for Fun>, Gurr describes the day the monorail debuted at Disneyland. Vice President Richard Nixon and his family were on hand for the ceremonies. “The first monorail train, the red one, had been assembled on the beamway just two weeks prior to dedication day. Testing had resulted in daily failures followed by all-night fabrication of improved parts.” In fact, the monorail had made just one trouble-free trip around the track…and that was the night before the dedication.
Since there was no time to train monorail drivers, Gurr was the logical choice to be in the driver’s seat for the big day. He was fitted for a monorail driver’s uniform and was at the controls when Walt brought Nixon onto the train, presumably for a quick inspection and nothing else. “Walt described how he always drove the steam locomotives on special occasions, but that he ‘let Bobby drive the modern trains’. Whereupon Walt said “Let’s go!”
It took Bob by complete surprise. A very nervous Gurr—with Disney and Nixon as his lone passengers and the Secret Service agents left in a panic on the platform—pulled the monorail out of the station and began the train’s second trip around the track. In doing so, “Walt and I had kidnapped the Vice President of the United States!”
The monorail beamway passed over the submarine voyage, which proved to be the least problematic of the new attractions Gurr was involved with. The submarines, which gave the illusion of “diving” under the sea, actually move along a guide rail. The ships Gurr designed were made to look like U.S. Navy nuclear subs similar to the USS Nautilus, which had months before made its historic trip under the North Pole.
One of the most impressive attraction designs conjured by Gurr has to be the Matterhorn Bobsleds. As the story goes, Walt returned from the set of the Disney movie Third Man on the Mountain, being filmed in Switzerland, when he hit upon the idea of putting a roller coaster inside a replica of the Matterhorn. Gurr’s first assignment for the attraction was to design the bobsleds which would serve as ride vehicles. Ever the traditionalist, he made them look like authentic Austrian sleds. As Arrow Development was in the process of handling all the engineering aspects of the ride, Gurr’s boss, Roger Broggie, threw this interesting challenge at him: design two sets of coaster tracks to go inside the mountain, which was to be an exact, if scaled-down, replica of the fabled peak.
Take a moment to mull this over: Your assignment is to come up with a design for two coaster tracks inside a fixed mountain (meaning the exterior has to look exactly like the original and can’t be compromised). You have to do it without using a computer, since they weren’t in general use back in the 1950s. And your only experience to date was to design vehicles, whether they were autos, trucks, trains, monorails, or bobsleds.
Prior to the Matterhorn, roller coasters were designed to be outdoors, free of any restrictions; coaster designers of that era pretty much could do whatever they wanted in figuring out their wooden contraptions. Compounding Gurr’s task was that the Matterhorn would use the world’s first tubular steel track.
“We started working together with Arrow Development [Arrow Development was an amusement ride manufacturer located in Mountain View, California. In his book, Gurr explains: ‘The two founders of Arrow, Ed Morgan and Karl Bacon, were absolute design geniuses even though they did not have formal engineering training, but were self-taught machinists.’ Arrow Development had a hand in the design of many classic Disney attractions.] They were going to build the track and I would design the course line of the two different tracks and place them inside the shape of the Matterhorn mountain.”
These days, you can go to DisneyQuest in the Downtown Disney area in Florida or the Sum of All Thrills attraction in Innoventions in Epcot’s Future World and design your own virtual roller coaster with the aid of sophisticated software. Gurr should have been so lucky.
Continued in "On the Disney Beat"!
Having lunch with Marty Sklar is wonderful; having lunch with Marty Sklar in Disneyland's Club 33 is...magical!
On that cold and drizzly Friday, I have to admit, I was getting a little nervous. It was 1:20 in the afternoon. I was standing—actually, pacing back and forth—near the steps of City Hall in Town Square.
Rain was falling pretty steadily, as it had been since daybreak, and it was downright chilly, a far cry from the “warm California sun” we’ve been hearing about for decades. I was scheduled to meet Marty at 1:15 in front of City Hall, a place where his illustrious career is celebrated with a window in his honor on the second floor of the building where he once had an office.
I wouldn’t have blamed Marty if he begged out of lunch that day. He had flown in from Florida the night before, the weather was miserable, and he had a book signing scheduled later that evening at the Barnes & Noble in nearby Fullerton. But just when I was beginning to think he might not show—poof! as if magically conjured up with a wave of Tinker Bell’s wand—there he was, standing with umbrella in one hand, a cane in the other, at the curb in front of City Hall.
We exchanged warm handshakes and chatted briefly before we started to make our way up Main Street. It turns out Marty had made a reservation at the exclusive Club 33 in the New Orleans Square section of the park. Trailing behind us were my wife Janet and our friend Mike Splitstone, a big Disney fan and an even bigger Marty Sklar fan. Mike even presented Marty with a gift—a box of California pearl olives that his company produces.
I was feeling a broad spectrum of emotions as we walked along Main Street—it was a surreal experience, to be sure, and I was both elated and humbled that Marty would take the time to share the afternoon with us. After all, here is a man who walked this same street back on July 17, 1955, when Disneyland first swung open its gates…a man who became Walt Disney’s go-to writer on everything from speeches to scripts to presentations…a man who headed up Walt Disney Imagineering, the company’s heralded creative wing…a man who is universally loved and respected by legions of Disney cast members and fans.
As we made our way past the quaint shops on Main Street, I thanked him for braving the harsh conditions. He shrugged it off. “We don’t usually get this much rain,” he said. I asked him what runs through his mind when he finds himself on the fabled thoroughfare all these years later. “A lot of memories,” he sighed. “A lot of memories…”
I then asked him his thoughts on the passing of Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller, who died just a few days before. “Her health had deteriorated since she fell back in September,” he said. “She had devoted so much of her time and energy to telling her father’s story and preserving his memory at the Walt Disney Family Museum.”
Since November 22, 2013, was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, I asked Marty where he was when he heard the news. “Working on the World’s Fair,” he said, adding that everyone was working overtime to ensure that the four Disney shows in production would be ready by opening day a few months later, in April 1964.
When we finally arrived at Club 33, the restaurant’s elevator was out of service, which meant Marty (who turned 80 a few months later) had to make the long climb up the stairs. Undaunted, he left his coat and umbrella with the receptionist and began the trek.
We were seated in the center of the dining room. Needless to say, the staff knew who he was and there were more than a few friendly exchanges, like “How have you been, Marty?” and “Nice to see you again.” We touched on a wide range of topics during the nearly two-hour lunch—with most of the conversation, as you might expect, about all things Disney.
When I told him that he and I and former Disney CFO Jay Rasulo had a unique connection, he seemed very interested.
“I bet you didn’t know that Jay Rasulo grew up on Staten Island,” I said. “He delivered the Staten Island Advance when he was a youngster.” It was Rasulo who tapped Marty to become an international ambassador for Walt Disney Imagineering in 2009 after Marty’s retirement.
I asked Marty if he’d ever sailed on the Disney Cruise Line, and he responded: “Actually, several times. In fact, I’ll be on the DVC members’ cruise in August.” In keeping with DCL’s mission, Marty and his wife, Leah, brought along their entire family—kids and grandkids.
We talked about Club 33, which was conceived by Walt, but didn’t open until after his death. “At the New York World’s Fair, Walt saw how all those companies had private reception areas for their guests, so Walt wanted to build something like that here in Disneyland, so he could entertain VIPs.”
Marty mentioned how Club 33 would be closing soon for renovations. “The kitchen’s too small,” he said. “And it’s a long walk for the staff to get to the dining room.” Upgrades included a larger kitchen and a walkway over Front Street to make the dining room more accessible. Also, the fireplace was removed and a floor-to-ceiling window was installed, allowing guests a prime viewing area for Fantasmic! on the nearby Rivers of America.
At one point during the lunch, Marty pointed out a number of pieces of art on Club 33’s walls. “That one there,” he said as he gestured to a drawing, “and that one over there…they were done by Herb Ryman.”
Marty and Leah have devoted countless hours to Ryman Arts, a non-profit fine arts education program based in Los Angeles and named in honor of the legendary Disney animator, who died in 1989. It is one of southern California’s leading free arts education programs for underserved youth and was founded in 1990 by Lucille Ryman Carroll, Sharon Disney Lund, Harrison A. and Anne Shaw Price, and Marty and Leah Sklar. The organization celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015, honoring Marty and Leah at a gala fundraising event.
Needless to say, raising funds for the program is a daunting, but necessary task. The Sklars open their house every year to help generate donations. “I don’t play tennis anymore because of my knees, so we converted our tennis court into a reception area,” Marty said.
As the meal drew to a close, Marty tried to pick up the tab, but Janet was one step ahead of him—she made sure that our waitress knew to give her the check. “We women have to stick together,” the waitress told Marty, who laughed and graciously thanked us.
After lunch, we posed for photos with some of Herb’s works serving as a backdrop—priceless keepsakes on so many levels. On the walk back to Town Square, Marty pointed out several long-time residents of Disneyland—in fact, they were on the property even before the park opened. “That one over there,” Marty said as he pointed to a tall tree near the Swiss Family Robinson attraction, “was here on opening day.”
A few steps later, he showed us several other “opening day” trees and explained that many of them were rescued by Disney. It seems when land was being cleared for a nearby freeway, the trees were up for grabs. And since Walt was mortgaged to the hilt to finance Disneyland, “recycling” those trees before they were bulldozed made perfect sense.
“They even set up a tree farm where they could experiment with different types of soil to make sure the trees had the best chance of surviving,” Marty said. Once back on Main Street, Marty made a quick detour into a watch shop. “They have some great watches for sale here, and they’ll customize them any way you want,” he said as he scanned the glass case.
Continued in "On the Disney Beat"!