Window on Main Street

35 Years of Creating Happiness at Disneyland Park

by Van Arsdale France | Release Date: October 26, 2015 | Availability: Print, Kindle

Lessons from the Man Who Created Disney University

Van Arsdale France, the founder of Disney University and author of its world-class "cast member" training programs, takes you inside the "berm" for a first-hand look at how Disney makes the magic that keeps its guests coming back for more.

Hired in 1955, several months before Disneyland opened its front gate, Van worked with Walt Disney, C.V. Wood, Dick Nunis (hired as Van's "gofer" who went on to become the chairman of Walt Disney Attractions), and other notables to create not only the best-trained workforce in America, but also enlightened principles of customer service envied and imitated worldwide.

Van's many, many stories include:

  • The construction of Disneyland, as seen from the office he shared with Dick Nunis on-site
  • The first Disneyland training programs, designed and conducted by Van himself
  • The evolution of those training programs into Disney University and its "Traditions" curriculum
  • The politics behind the scenes, and Walt Disney's surprisingly tough managerial style
  • The lessons learned at Disneyland brought east to Walt Disney World


Table of Contents

Publisher’s Note




Part One: From Dream to Reality, 1955

Chapter 1: I Meet Walt Disney

Chapter 2: A Handshake Deal

Chapter 3: Springtime in Burbank

Chapter 4: “A Friend in Need…Is a Friend Indeed”

Chapter 5: Learning “The Ropes at Disney”

Chapter 6: The Trainer Gets Trained

Chapter 7: I See “The Site”

Chapter 8: Why Anaheim?

Chapter 9: I Hire a “Gofer”

Chapter 10: Goodbye Burbank, Hello Anaheim

Chapter 11: “You’ll Create Happiness”

Chapter 12: From Happiness to Highways

Chapter 13: A Shotgun Marriage with 29 Unions

Chapter 14: Deadline Days

Chapter 15: ’Twas the Night Before Opening

Chapter 16: “The Site” Becomes “Disneyland, U.S.A.”

Chapter 17: “God Bless ‘Em—Let ‘Em Pee!”

Part Two: The Pioneering Years, 1955-1960

Chapter 18: The Curtain’s Up

Chapter 19: Off to Tomorrowland

Chapter 20: Back to the White House

Chapter 21: The Walt Disney School of Trial-and-Error Management

Chapter 22: Memories of Past Attractions

Chapter 23: End of the Wood Era

Chapter 24: I Get a New Boss

Chapter 25: The Jack Sayers Era

Chapter 26: Quitting Disneyland Is Hard to Do

Part Three: Outside the Berm, 1960-1962

Chapter 27: Off to Boston

Chapter 28: Back on My Own

Chapter 29: A Luncheon Deal

Part Four: Second Time Around, 1962-1966

Chapter 30: Re-Orientation, Nunis-Style

Chapter 31: “Tijuana Row” Days

Chapter 32: Three Heroines of Tijuana Row

Chapter 33: Birth of the University of Disneyland

Chapter 34: The University Branches Out

Chapter 35: The Disneyland World Spectacular Show

Chapter 36: New York World’s Fair: 1964

Chapter 37: Disneyland’s Vintage Years

Chapter 38: The Big 10th Anniversary for Pioneers

Chapter 39: 1966 – The End of an Era

Part Five: The Show Goes On, 1966-1970

Chapter 40: The Traditions of Walt Disney at Disneyland

Chapter 41: A Kick in the Teeth

Chapter 42: An Exciting New Career

Chapter 43: I Go Back to School

Chapter 44: The Magic Kingdom Moves East

Chapter 45: The University School of Resorts

Chapter 46: The Longest Ninety Days

Part Six: Back Inside the Berm, 1970-1979

Chapter 47: The Seventies

Chapter 48: Yippie Day at Disneyland

Chapter 49: Along Came Sixty Five!

Chapter 50: Happiness Goes to Tokyo

Part Seven: Mid-Life Crisis, 1979-1987

Chapter 51: Happiness Takes a Beating

Chapter 52: My Cronies Walk Out

Chapter 53: “The Friendliest Picket Line”

Chapter 54: From Main Street to Wall Street

Part Eight: The New Era, 1987-

Chapter 55: Everything Turned Up Roses

Chapter 56: A Trip to Walt’s Roots

Chapter 57: The Spirit of Disneyland

Chapter 58: The Disneyland Alumni Club

Chapter 59: And the Trees Grow More Beautiful Every Year

Photo Gallery


I was fresh out of college when I first received a call from your author. I found him in the mass confusion of the Disneyland offices at the Walt Disney Studios.

The interview lasted about ten minutes with much of that time used up while he lit and smoked cigarettes…which I detest.

I needed a job. He offered me one at $2.00 an hour. I accepted. That two-dollar figure turned out to be only $1.80, but I was already hooked. The ten minutes began an association and friendship which survived until Van’s death in 1999.

Van is a strange combination of Jiminy Cricket, Mary Poppins, and an angry Donald Duck. He believes in Walt Disney’s dream of Disneyland and has convinced thousands of us that our goal is to “create happiness for others”.

He goes into a Donald Duck fit if he thinks we lose sight of the dream when we have to watch costs and make a profit. To survive in this changing dream, he’s mixed pixie dust with the grist of corporate reality.

He sort of conned me into doing this book, but it may be one of the best investments I ever made. At least that’s what he told me.

For anyone interested in the history of Disneyland, Van’s book is fun to read, and a one-of-a-kind for any bookshelf.

I was born in Seattle, Washington, but moved to San Diego at the age of about 12 where my father wrote a column for the local paper, a political asset which helped me get my first decent job.

After graduating from what was then San Diego State College, I started work (at $21.00 per month) on a freighter going from San Diego to England and Canada and back. Then my grandmother helped me get a job as a dishwasher on a river boat going from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.

Coming home, a friend got me a job in a local kelp processing plant. I made 45 cents per hour, and that wasn’t too bad during the Depression. Fortunately, the government came up with an unemployment program called the National Youth Administration, and I became an administrator with that organization in various parts of California.

A couple of months before World War II, I was hired as a training director by an aircraft company for what was then Consolidated Vultee, in Fort Worth, Texas.

From that time, till I went to work for Disney, my average time on any job was less then three years. I went from the aircraft company to setting up training programs for the U.S. Army in Freckleton, England, and Heidelburg, Germany, to benefit returning servicemen.

I came back to the U.S. to be hired for Kaiser’s first aluminum reduction plant in Willow Run, Michigan, as a director of labor relations. Then I went back to a variety of consulting and organization jobs in southern California.

I had a dream, to set up an organization called Small Plant Management Company, which would bring my expertise to small business. A bit of a bummer. But, I made ends meet doing work for UCLA, the Navy, and—among many others—a brassiere factory.

The rest, as they say, is history...and DISNEYLAND.

About this book.

The story here goes back 35 years to 1954, but this book goes back 13 years, to about 1976.

Let me explain.

I had never thought of becoming 65 years old until I was 63. And here I was facing up to what at the time was Disneyland’s retirement age.

Retire! Drive around in an R.V.? (I’m a lousy driver.) Play golf? (I’m terrible!) Paint the house? (I don’t even own a house.) The mere idea was obnoxious to me.

Besides, I’d invested about a third of my life at Disneyland. Hell, no, I didn’t want to go! Some companies let “old-timers” (a term I hate) write a book before the inevitable retirement party. It was worth a try.

I went to my boss, Dick Nunis, with the idea. He agreed, as long as it didn’t interfere with my other projects.

At the time I was living on the beach in South Laguna, California. I completed my first draft, titled “Backstage Disneyland: A Personal History”, and gave it to Dick. After a month or two, he read it, and I asked for his opinion, which he gave me.

“Dammit, Van, there’s too much of me in it!” (meaning himself).

And I replied, “Hell, Dick, you’ve been essential to my career. How can I leave you out?” So I worked it over, and he took a few more months to read it, and this time he said:

“Dammit, Van, there’s too much of you in it!” (meaning me).

And I said, “Hell, Dick, it says it is a personal history. How can I leave myself out?”

And at that time the book went into retirement, and I managed to keep working by negotiating a part-time consulting contract.

Dick then got me involved in some exciting projects: Tokyo Disneyland Training, our Disneyland Alumni Club, a program called “The Spirit of Disneyland”, and other things. The book gathered dust for nine years. Then three situations caused me to think of it again:

First, at Disneyland’s 30th anniversary in 1985, radio and TV people looked for “old-timers” to interview…like old war veterans. They seemed interested in the “old days”.

Second, I was asked to give a eulogy for a Disney friend, which reminded me that we don’t all live forever.

Third, and most important, I needed a new project to prolong my own survival.

I went to Dick with a proposal which ended up as what you’ll read here.

I pointed out that most of the close friends I had made in 1955 had either died or retired, and that somebody should write a history to separate the myths from the realities.

Dick hates to think about people dying. And since he is an anti-smoking advocate, perhaps he thought I wouldn’t be around too long.

In fact, since I was getting up to age 75, the thought had been crossing my mind occasionally.

At any rate, he agreed to support me and my vices until I had reworked that old, dust-covered book.

At this time, more than 200,000 people have worked at Disneyland, and every one of them has a story about the experience.

This is only one of those stories…my story. I’m reminded of Bill Lindley, owner of Whiskey Bill’s in Newport Beach. Before beginning a joke, he’d say, “Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one: I want to hear it again myself.”

Happy reading.

Van Arsdale France

Van Arsdale France was hired in 1955 to develop a training curriculum for Disneyland cast members. He went on to found Disney University and became a Disney Legend in 1994.

Van recalls his first meeting with Walt Disney, in 1954, about a new project of Walt's called Disneyland.

It was a day that changed my life. It was the day I met Walt Disney.

It was in August of 1954 and I received a call from C.V. Wood. After the usual pleasantries, he told me that he was no longer with Stanford Research, but was now working for Walt Disney as vice president of something called “Disneyland”.

I asked him, “What the hell is Disneyland?”

“Why don’t you drop out to my office and I’ll tell you about it,” was his reply. We made a date.

You may ask, “Who is C.V. Wood?” To explain, I’ll have to go way back to 1941 and World War II.

C.V. Wood and I worked together for four years in Fort Worth, Texas. He was director of Industrial Engineering at the Consolidated Vultee Aircraft Corporation, and I was in charge of training. From deep in the heart of Texas, I’d gone overseas as a training specialist with the Army in England and Germany, and he’d gone west to eventually join the Stanford Research group. Our careers had occasionally crossed paths during that ten-year period, and I’d recently worked for him on a consulting job with a company which made the Whirlpool Brassiere – an interesting job.

The appointment with Wood was at four. I left my office on Wilshire Boulevard and headed out on the Hollywood Freeway to the Barham Boulevard off-ramp, and then down Riverside Drive to Buena Vista Street. At the entrance to Walt Disney Productions, a guard checked my name on a clipboard and passed me through.

Following the guard’s instructions, I parked in the visitor’s lot and set off on foot down Snow White Lane, past Dopey Drive, until I came to Mickey Mouse Avenue and the studio’s three-story Animation Building. I walked down a hallway where the walls were decorated with Disney memorabilia and finally found Wood’s secretary, who escorted me right into his office.

Always gracious, Wood got up to shake hands and then returned to a relaxed position behind his desk. Skipping the small talk, he launched directly into an enthusiastic description of how thing called Disneyland had landed him at the Disney Studio.

Woody has always been a bundle of energy wrapped in a deceptively laid-back personality. Without moving his stockinged feet from the desk top, he told me how he had come to Walt Disney from Stanford Research.

“Walt was thinking about his little Mickey Mouse Park he wanted to build across from the Studio when an architect friend suggested that he have Stanford Research do a study about the location.”

Wood was so animated that he got up and walked around. “Walt and his brother Roy liked the study, and we were enthusiastic about Walt’s dreams. Walt is a wonderful guy, Van, and this studio is nothing like any place you or I have ever worked. It’s like a family, and Walt treats me like a son.” He laughed when he said, “Roy hired me as a vice president and general manager, and when I told Walt, he said, “That doesn’t leave much room for advancement.”

Woody started taking off with his story. “We have FOUR MILLION DOLLARS to build this place called Disneyland down in Anaheim.” Since that time I’ve heard other figures told about the original financing. But for me, in 1954, four million bucks seemed like all the money in the world…and that’s the way I heard it.

He was just warming up about this thing called Disneyland when a dapper-looking fellow in a sport shirt entered the office and plopped down into a chair.

Without any introduction, I knew I was sitting next to Walt Disney.

With his stockinged feet still on the desk, Wood introduced me to Walt Disney. We shook hands.

I’ll always remember that handshake. Somehow I’d imagined that Walt Disney would have the soft, delicate hands of an artist drawing Mickey Mouse. But my hand met the firm grip of a man who had grown up doing hard farm labor and working for his father in construction.

I had been trained that when “The Big Boss” dropped in on a lesser boss, I should politely get the hell out. But as I stood, Woody waved me back to my seat.

Disney smoked a cigarette while I was dying for one, but I was afraid to light up. He talked about the problem of explaining Disneyland to some people at the studio…and even to his own wife.

Continued in "Window on Main Street"!

Van recalls the first time he trained new Disneyland employees about how to become "cast members".

Thursday, May 26, 1955, was a historic day for me and my Disneyland career.

It was the morning for me to present the orientation program for the people who would operate Disneyland on opening day, July 17. Assembled in a training program which had been converted from two upstairs bedroom was a jury of executives who could hang me at sunset.

We had “Disneyized” that old White House in every way we could. This was homey…not sanitized.

Walt’s brother Roy Disney was the brilliant financial genius who raised the money for Walt’s dreams. And he would be the final judge for this training program for a theme park.

He was right there in the front row, seated next to the vice president of the Bank of America and key executives from Eastman Kodak, Swift and Company, and others.

Wood was there, sitting next to Card Walker, vice president of Disney Marketing, and Donn Tatum, vice president for Legal Affairs.

In addition, I’d made certain I had some supporting friends in the group. I could count on Jack Sayers, Fred Schumacher, and Dorothy Manes to nod, smile, or laugh at the right points.

And Dick was there to make it a two-man show. Although he was young, he had a personality that exuded confidence.

Our visual aids were primitive by modern standards. We had beautiful cards which were about two by four feet in size. We had one carousel slide projector, and I had a large flannel board which was a piece of felt stapled to a large board. We used little pie-shaped cards with a bit of Velcro on the back to make them stick to the flannel.

To loosen up the group—and me, too—I asked everyone to stand up, tell their names, and where they were born. It was fun because no one in the group had been born in Anaheim and not many were native Californians, either. Roy Disney was a good participant and made it easy for the other top executives. Dick’s birthplace of Cedartown, Georgia, got a laugh, and when Jack Sayers mentioned his birthplace of Fairbanks, Alaska, people turned around to see if he was an Eskimo.

After the group relaxed a bit, I introduced Dick who gave a slide presentation of an artist’s renderings of what Disneyland would be. He may have been worried along with me, but it didn’t show. He brought these slides to life, and made a confident, motivational presentation. I was proud of him.

After Dick wound up his pitch, I moved over to my flannel board to describe the team work involved in the existing Disney enterprises of movies, TV, comic books, and merchandise, as well as pointing out the record number of Oscar awards and other Disney milestones and pioneering landmarks. Each of these activities was depicted on a round visual aid on round cardboard which looked like pie plates.

I gave the group a stand-up break and then prepared to present what would become forever Disneyland’s basic policy for serving those who would come to Walt’s dream park. I was worried more about this presentation than any I’d ever done before, or since, and the fear was justified.

In this group were men who had invested their careers and millions of dollars in what the experts predicted would be a financial failure. Money was not just a problem—it was a constant crisis.

I presented the first of our cards which depicted a dream castle with blocks showing Disney traditions of Art, Music, Adventure, and Fantasy. And then I pointed out that the entire history of Walt’s life had been to entertain and educate—a tradition of family entertainment. And now, as Walt’s twenty-year dream was to open in a few weeks, we at Disneyland were going to follow that tradition. And the theme of our joint effort would be: WE’LL CREATE HAPPINESS.

It was a risky approach, but that group of executives bought the idea. The thousands of people whom we would train bought the concept. Most important, Walt liked it. We still use the theme more than 30 years later. It is important enough in my history, and the history of the company, to deserve the background for the approach.

Continued in "Window on Main Street"!

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