From Jungle Cruise Skipper to Disney Legend

40 Years of Magical Memories at Disney

by William "Sully" Sullivan | Release Date: July 2, 2015 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Four Decades with Disney

Young "Sully" Sullivan needed a job, and so in 1955 he applied for one at the brand-new theme park, Disneyland, where he was hired on the spot as a ticket-taker for the Jungle Cruise. Soon he was promoted to skipper, and then he met his future wife at Waltah Clarke's Hawaiian Shop across from the Jungle Cruise, and then he was assigned to projects ranging from the 1964 New York World's Fair and Epcot to Disneyland Paris, and then it was forty years later, and Sully was retiring as vice-president of Magic Kingdom in Orlando.

In his humorous, no-holds-barred style, Sully takes you on a whirlwind ride through his life, with stories coming at you faster than skipper jokes on the Jungle Cruise, including:

  • The raucous fraternity of Jungle Cruise skippers, and why they were known as "jungle bunnies"
  • Laugh-out-loud tales about dozens of Disney notables before they became notable
  • How Sully met the challenge of keeping Disney's attractions running smoothly at the 1964 New York World's Fair
  • Sully's integral role in the opening of three new parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disneyland Paris
  • A happy ending to a fairy tale career, with a window on Main Street and recognition as a Disney Legend

Sully's never-before-told stories provide a unique, often irreverent glimpse into the history and culture of Disney theme parks.

Table of Contents


A Note from Jim Korkis


Chapter 1: The Sully Sullivan Story

Chapter 2: The Sully Sullivan StorySully Before Disney

Chapter 3: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe Disneyland Jungle Cruise Story

Chapter 4: The Sully Sullivan StorySully in the Jungle

Chapter 5: The Sully Sullivan StorySully in Walt’s Disneyland

Chapter 6: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe 1960 Winter Olympics Story

Chapter 7: The Sully Sullivan StorySully at the Olympics

Chapter 8: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe 1964 New York World’s Fair Story

Chapter 9: The Sully Sullivan StorySully at the World’s Fair

Chapter 10: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe Birth of Walt Disney World Story

Chapter 11: The Sully Sullivan StorySully Comes to Florida

Chapter 12: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe Epcot Center Story

Chapter 13: The Sully Sullivan StorySully at Epcot

Chapter 14: The Sully Sullivan StorySully Tells the Rest of His Story

Chapter 15: The Sully Sullivan StoryIt Takes People

Chapter 16: The Sully Sullivan StorySully Remembers People

Chapter 17: The Sully Sullivan StoryThe Walt Disney Story

Chapter 18: The Sully Sullivan StorySully Remembers Walt Disney

Extra: The Lillian Disney Interview 1982

A few years ago my dad gave me a birthday card that he signed in three different ways. The first was Dad; the second, Pops; and the third was Sully. To this day it makes me smile. To my sisters and brother and me, he is Dad. To his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, he is Pops. But to many, many thousands more, he is Sully. Cast Members, colleagues, Disney fans, and the like all know him as Sully, the Sully who went from Jungle Cruise Skipper to Disney Legend. My father’s time at Disney was a key part of making him the man he is today and our family couldn’t be more proud that Bob McLain and Jim Korkis have recognised the value of his memories and made possible this collection of stories.

For as long as I can remember, Dad would tell us kids about Walt and what it was like being at Disneyland from the beginning. We grew up hearing the tales in this book and were even lucky enough to be a part of a number of them ourselves. We knew and loved many of the characters in these pages and our family memories are happily entwined with our Disney memories. Now, through this book, generations of readers, including our own children and grandchildren, will be able to share in the magic of some of Dad’s unique experiences in his own words.

What my Dad won’t tell you in this book, however, is that to this day, even after he’s been retired over twenty years, Cast Members at Walt Disney World still call and ask him to come out to the Park and personally present them with their Distinguished Service Awards. This is a real honor for Sully as his people meant, and still mean, the world to him. Walt was my father’s inspiration and my father became theirs.

So Dad, Pops, Sully…thanks for telling these stories. It has been a pleasure reading this book and hearing the tales once again, often through laughter and tears, but always with a smile in my heart knowing that it’s just the way you would tell it. These stories, and you, and all the fun we’ve had and the lessons we’ve learned, will never be forgotten.

I am more surprised than you that I am writing an introduction to a book of stories about my time working at Disney.

I love telling stories about the golden years at Disneyland and Walt Disney World and am proud as hell that I was a part of it all.

I never intended to write a book. Many of my friends and the people I worked with have done so and I thought that was enough. There are plenty of books out there telling the story of Disney that I lived.

When Theme Park Press publisher Bob McLain first contacted me about doing a book, I politely and firmly told him “no”. I explained that I didn’t have enough stories to fill a book, but that I might with some effort be able to supply enough stories to fill a short chapter in another book.

I never realized he would bring on board Disney historian Jim Korkis who came up with dozens of questions to jog my memory, and when I had answered those questions, Jim came up with more.

It never occurred to me that Jim would be able to take those rambling answers and weave them into a narrative supplemented by Disney history to help readers better understand my experiences.

Somehow there is now a book about my time working at Disney and I am writing this introduction.

It is not an autobiography. It is just a collection of memories and I hope someone finds them interesting in some way. Think of it as a long conversation.

Nobody can remember everything. Certainly not me. I remember the people, although sometimes can’t quite remember their names, and how much fun I had.

My fondest memory about working at Disney is that in 1955 I met the beautiful and patient woman who would become my wife of fifty-seven years. That is something I will never forget. Jackie is my greatest Disney treasure along with the wonderful four children she gave me who all ended up working for Disney.

To me it is scary as hell that there are only a few of us left who worked with Walt and his brother Roy.

Just this year we lost Jack Taylor. Jack and I worked on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. We were in Squaw Valley for the 1960 Olympics. He had some great stories and now nobody will ever hear them again.

So Bob and Jim convinced me I should get in print some of my memories so that others might enjoy a glimpse of what it was like in the old days.

We all had our own style of management and we’re not there anymore, but the guys running the place now are doing a hell of a job.

The boss is not running it anymore. He left in 1966 and it was up to us to keep things going the way he wanted.

The important thing is that as long as we are still taking good care of the guests, then that’s what it’s all about. Yeah, it’s different than when I was there, but that’s change. If there’s never any change, nothing will happen or go forward.

When I got a letter from Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner that I had been selected to be a Disney Legend in 2005, I was astounded. I looked at the Disney Legends as being like the John Henchs and the Roy Disneys. I was just a grown-up ride operator.

Yet, there I was getting this prestigious recognition for just doing my job for thirty-nine-and-a-half years.

I also ended up with two windows on the second floor of Main Street, U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

One of them says “Sully’s Safaris” in reference to my working on the Jungle Cruise attraction at Disneyland starting in 1955. The other has “Windermere Fraternal Hall” and I share the space with outstanding people and friends like Dick Nunis, Bob Matheison, Bill Hoelscher, Bob Allen, and Jack Olsen who made the Magic Kingdom a reality.

Some of you may not be familiar with those names. That’s why I am going to tell you some stories so that you understand, as Walt always knew, that it was people who made the Disney dream a reality.

We made mistakes, learned from them, and went on to make different mistakes.

I was really lucky. If I had to do it all over again, I would do it in a minute.

William "Sully" Sullivan

William "Sully" Sullivan got a job in the summer of 1955 taking tickets for the Jungle Cruise in Walt Disney’s brand-new theme park, Disneyland. Nearly forty years later, Sully retired as the vice-president of Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. This is the story of his life.

Sully tells how Jungle Cruise skippers dealt with the problem of kids falling into the river, and how Walt got shortchanged by skipper "Tex Ritter".

The Jungle Cruise boats were always on a track, so all you could control was the speed. They jumped the track all the time because of the way the guides were built. They would come right up off the rail, and so we’d have to re-set them. They cupped around a three-inch pipe, and if they jumped off, we were going too fast.

They’d raise up and that lip would hang up. We took the bottom lip off those rails and that solved a lot of our problems. Every once in a while, though, we would still get a derail. That’s why we put in a trough at Walt Disney World to fix that problem. An altogether different guide system, but it worked a whole lot better.

Nobody had ever done a ride like this before, so there were always these types of problems popping up. Animation would go out, but the skipper would still have to talk through it somehow. The revolving alligators were put together with three Model-A car rear ends. That’s the way the guys at the studio built them, and they worked…usually.

Bob Mattey did all that. He was a special effects guy at the Studio and he was very good. We had some great artists at the Studio that worked on the Jungle Cruise and it really showed. That’s one of the reasons it was so popular. Top quality all the way through.

These guys were actually building a movie set in an amusement park. Emile Kuri was a great guy who had done movie sets and he was always coming down and walking through the park to see how it was working and coming up with new ideas to enhance things. He was not just well-dressed. He was impeccable.

The big problem on the Jungle Cruise was that when we first started, the deck was lower than the boat and Walt came down there one evening and said, “How come we’re having so many accidents here? People falling.”

People were falling in. I remember one time a kid fell in and I had to jump in the water and pull him out. People were having trouble stepping over the gunwale to get into the boat.

We told Walt that if we raised the deck up to here, they’d step right in. He says, “Good idea,” and so he brought it up at the Park Operating Committee one morning. Walt always listened to his people working the rides. He figured they knew what wasn’t working and probably what should be done to fix it.

The next day they started rebuilding the dock. Then guests were able to step from the dock onto the gunnel and then into the boat. Much better and it cut down on problems.

You had to watch particularly the little kids because they’d want to run down there and jump into the boat. They’d get so excited that they just weren’t paying attention.

Every once in a while we had a kid fall in the water and we almost lost a kid one day because he fell in and floated up under the dock. A skipper named “Tex Ritter” jumped into the water after him and got him out.

If guests lost a hat or sunglasses or whatever, we’d try to get it back for them, try to fish it out of the water if possible. We had a net. We had a hook. We had divers we could call if it was something really expensive.

Originally, we only had one loading area for the boats. We put the back one on and we had to have two loaders and two unloaders to help guests in and out of the boats. That increased capacity and we were able to handle more guests.

I was working days because we were nine-to-nine and I worked three days and two nights. The nights were kind of quiet. There were days when we first started that there’d only be 750 people in the park. That was in the wintertime, but then it built after that.

When it was quiet, Walt would come out and sit with us and we’d talk and have a smoke.

One of the skippers was named Tex—we called him Tex Ritter and I don’t remember what his actual last name was—and he took Walt on a trip that was supposed to have been for seven minute trip but it only took four minutes because it was Tex’s last day and he wanted to leave early. He had already given his notice and wanted to wrap things up.

Walt called Dick Nunis, who was in charge of Frontierland and Adventureland, and said, “I went through the hippo pool and didn’t see a hippo in a four-minute trip. I want to see a seven-minute trip.” Walt chewed out Dick pretty good about that.

The next day, Dick was down there and he said, “Gentleman, this is going to be a seven-minute trip and here are the clocks you’re going to use to make sure it’s a seven-minute trip. I don’t want any more four-minute trips, because the boss paid a lot of money for that animation out there and he wants to see it!”

So Dick had to retrain the whole crew and weeks later Walt came back and got on a boat and it was seven minutes. He got off and got on another and it was seven minutes. He did that about three or four times or more so he could be sure that Dick hadn’t “stacked the deck” with the best people in the first two boats. Dick said Walt stepped off the last boat and gave him a thumbs-up so Dick knew things were okay. Dick made us always put clocks in the boat after that to keep us on time.

Continued in "From Jungle Cruise Skipper to Disney Legend"!

Dick Nunis vs the Yippies, Jack Olsen tries to sneak peace signs into the park, and other Disneyland cast member stories.

Dick Nunis wanted to be a coach or a teacher, and he was looking for a summer job. He was a friend of Ron Miller’s, who was Walt’s son-in-law. Dick went out to Disneyland to get a job for the summer and went to work for Van France at the brown house.

When the park opened, he became assistant supervisor in Frontierland. Doc Lemmon had to start cutting down on people, so he let Wayne Litehart go. Wayne was our original boss in Adventureland. Dick then took over Frontierland and Adventureland. He worked his way up to manager, and when Doc Lemmon left, he was promoted to director of operations and ended up being president of the parks.

You always knew where you stood with Dick. Always be fair, firm, and consistent with your people—that was his philosophy. Good guy, but hard-nosed.

We almost lost Dick when his daughter was killed in Colorado. He was off work for about three months until Card Walker went to him and said, “Get your ass back to work.”

Dick always wore his blond hair short. He didn’t smoke, he didn’t drink, he didn’t cuss (at least not in the beginning). That set him apart from all the guy from Texas, who smoked, drank, and swore.

The Yippie (Youth International Party) invasion of Disneyland was on August 6, 1970. They “captured” Castle Rock on Tom Sawyer Island, raising a Viet Cong flag and smoking pot. About three hundred of them made a nuisance of themselves on Main Street singing about sex and drugs, running between the Disneyland marching band, and trying to raise a flag in Town Square.

I still remember that day. Flyers had been distributed, so we were prepared. The police were there as well to keep things running smoothly.

Dick Nunis was running the park and Roy O. Disney had told him, “Don’t let them shut us down”.

During the disturbance, Dick grabbed one by his long hair and yanked him backstage and his wig came off! He was a Secret Service agent in disguise who was there to keep an eye on things.

Another time, Dick grabbed one in a headlock and pushed him toward one of the big heavy doors leading off stage. He used the guy’s head to open the door. Some other guy tried to pull down the American flag on Main Street and Dick punched him right in the face.

Ron Dominguez became a Disney executive. His family owned a portion of the land where Disneyland was built. His mom and dad were orange growers there in Anaheim and his house turned out to be the Administration Building for years and years and years.

When Ron was first hired, he played Davy Crockett in Frontierland for a while because he was this big, good-looking guy. Ron was the supervisor and manager of Frontierland and Adventureland for years, before becoming vice president, and then he retired.

When they were going to build the Grand Canyon Diorama, they had to get rid of the old Administration Building, which was Ron’s original house. They took a picture of him with a sledgehammer knocking it down. He and I used to go to high school together and when it came time for me to get my Disney Legends award, Ron was the one who introduced me.

Jack Olsen was director of merchandise. He was an artist in his own right, but he was a hell of a merchant—honest and straightforward, too. Jack used to live across the lake from us here in Florida. He loved to fish, loved to boat. The Cap’n Jacks seafood restaurant that used to be at Downtown Disney was named after him. In fact, he was the one who named it! He did the design on the back of a napkin.

Walt Disney’s philosophy was that everything had to be show. Not only the attractions, but the food and the merchandise all had to be show.

The antique shop in New Orleans Square was a show in itself. When I took over merchandise, I went into the antique shop at Magic Kingdom and said, “Look, this place is losing money. We’ve got to make a show out of it.”

So I started sending someone out buying unique merchandise. I stole that from Jack Olsen because the New Orleans antique shop was just that.

Olsen was a funny guy in some ways. When the peace symbols were out, everybody was hot about them. I saw he had put them in Fantasyland. I had the duty one morning and I walked by there and said this is not the type of merchandise we ought to be selling. I got one from Dick Smith and I took it to Dick Nunis and I said, “Dick, we shouldn’t be selling these in the park. It’s just not right.”

He said, “I agree with you. What do you want to do with it?”

I said, “I want to talk to Olsen about it.”

He said, “He’s right up there.” And Olsen could be a mean son-of-a-bitch some of the time. So Dick threw me into the lion’s den. I went up there and I told Olsen what I thought.

And he said, “Damn it, you caught me! I’m selling a gross a weekend of those things. Would you let me sell them out?”

I said, “Jack, I don’t think we ought to be selling them.”

He said, “Well, I can’t send them back!”

I said, “I’m sorry. You bought them, you ate them.”

He said, “Well, alright, you caught me. You caught me.”

Then I got on my high horse when I saw some figurines in the New Orleans antique shop and I thought they looked pretty cheap. I went up to Jack and he said, “Let me tell you something. Let me show you something.”

I’d never seen Jack out of his office, but we walked over to New Orleans Square and he said, “Show me which ones you’re talking about.”

“Those up there.”

He had one of the girls get one down and he said, “Let me show you something. These are porcelain figures. They are antiques. They are $150 a piece.”

I said, “Oh, shit! I just stepped in it, didn’t I?”

He said, “Yeah, you did. Now get the hell out of here!” Jack was an interesting, great guy.

Continued in "From Jungle Cruise Skipper to Disney Legend"!

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