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Disneyland Article
Reverent Flag Ceremony Endures Thanks To Gunny And Some Day The Kids Will Return
Dennis Mccarthy
”You can dream, create, design and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it requires people to make the dream a reality.” – Walt Disney

At sunset on Dec. 5 last year — Walt Disney’s 119th birthday — security officer Ernie “Gunny” Napper lowered the flag in Disneyland’s Town Square, and walked it over to a private apartment above the firehouse where Disney spent many of his days and nights staring out the window at the excited crowds rushing into his newly opened fantasy kingdom.

The retired Marine Corp. gunnery sergeant and a few other security officers, custodial and maintenance staff still working at the empty park began singing “Happy Birthday” to the man who gave children from all over the world the best day of their lives.

And, as he has five nights a week for the last 29 years, Gunny lingered a bit under Disney’s window with a lamp in it that never gets turned off, to tell his boss how the day went, and how sad it is in the happiest place on earth without those children.

“I talk to him a lot, I do,” Gunny says. “I see Mr. Disney in my mind clear as day standing at that window at sunset and watching the security officers bring the flag down and fold it.”

As we celebrate Black History Month and the many accomplishments of African-Americans in this country, I’d like to tell you a little more about this remarkable man who has received the highest honor cast members at Disneyland can achieve, the Walt Disney Legacy Award.

He was one of eight children born to alcoholic parents in a family without love or happiness, only arguments and neglect. When he was 5, the state of Virginia stepped in and sent Gunny and his brothers and sisters to different foster care homes. They would be adults before they saw each other again.

“I stayed almost two years with my first family before the state moved me again,” he says. “That mother was an evil lady. Mean, really mean. My second family was great. They gave me my faith, and taught me the difference between good and bad in life. The Marines gave me the strength, confidence, and endurance to overcome anything.”

Vietnam was slowly winding down when Gunny enlisted in 1971. He was going to stay in for two years. He stayed for 21, through the Gulf War, before moving on.

He had his faith and moral compass from his foster parents, and his strength and endurance from the Marine Corp. Now it was time to fill in the final blank in his life — happiness. He knew exactly where he could find it.

“I knew I wanted to go to Disneyland and work there,” Gunny says. “You know how they call it the happiest place on earth? Well, it is to me. I love it.”

Disney had already been gone 26 years when Gunny arrived in 1992 as a security guard at the front gates before being moved inside to take part in the park’s flag retreat ceremony at sunset.

It was one of Disney’s favorite times, but now only a few guests came to the ceremony — a boom box playing the National Anthem as security officers lowered the flag.

“It didn’t seem important to anybody, but it was important to me, and I know it was important to Mr. Disney, too,” Gunny says. What would the boss think now, staring down from that window? He wouldn’t be happy, that’s for sure.

But how do you get paying customers off the rides to spend 20 minutes watching a flag come down a pole? That’s when Gunny came up with a brilliant idea. He went to see Mickey and Minnie, Cinderella and Snow White, Alice in Wonderland and Donald Duck. Could they please come to the flagpole at sunset, he asked?

He knew what would happen next. Like the Pied Piper, the children would follow, taking their parents and grandparents with them in tow. Gunny put the boom box in storage and got the Main Street Band and the Dapper Dans to play patriotic songs as families lined up three deep to see the nightly flag retreat ceremony that had become like a free E ticket.

“When I looked into that crowd, I saw a lot of veterans saluting, and kids and their parents with their hand over their heart,” Ernie says. “I saw some tears and a lot of pride on faces, too.”

In his mind, he also saw Mr. Disney smiling down from his window, giving him a big nod and thumbs up. Nobody looked down the road and saw Covid coming.

Now, the boom box is back, and the crowd is only the skeleton crew still working as Gunny lowers the flag at sunset — waiting for the day the children come back and Mr. Disney’s dream becomes a reality again.

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