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Disneyland Article
My Sordid Disneyland Past Confessions Of A Magic Kingdom Popcorn Man

Tom Sawyers Island
Los Angeles Times
Richard Stayton
May 31, 2019
June 7, 2019
I really want to not care about Galaxy’s Edge. All the hype, all the lines, all the money.

The last time I was in Disneyland I couldn’t wait to leave. It was so crowded. I felt so old. I am a baby boomer, the real kind. I quit the football team after I read the Beats, protested Vietnam, fled to San Francisco. I lived next door to the Grateful Dead in the Haight, saw Janis before she was “Pearl,” met Tex Watson and the Manson girls. I smoked weed when it was pot, ate mushrooms and dropped acid with and without a guide (I recommend the former). Expecting to die before turning 30, I drank like there was no tomorrow.

But Galaxy’s Edge is the park’s biggest change since Disney California Adventure in 2001, and of all the addictions, including self-aggrandizement, that my generation bequeathed me, the one I can’t quit is Disneyland. Walt made damn sure of that.

I was born in a rural, poor town in southern Indiana. My father owned an “appliance store” on Main Street that sold the area’s first televisions. My mother guarded the cash register when Dad drove the country roads to deliver a TV to a farmer.

My first taste: Oct. 27, 1954. Many of my classmates didn’t have televisions yet, so a few bicycled to our house for the premiere of “Walt Disney’s Disneyland.” Our faces inches from the cyclops eye in the wooden Philco box, we watched Tinker Bell fly across the screen, sprinkling pixie dust, as Jiminy Cricket sang, “When You Wish Upon a Star.” Avuncular Walt invited us into his lair, promising “the Happiest Place on Earth.” Once inside the TV, we were enchanted by “The Disneyland Story.” All about a place that didn’t exist — yet.

The seeds of my addiction had been implanted.

Uncle Walt conceived the anthology series to fund Disneyland’s construction. Week upon week, we’d gather for glimpses of the Promised Land in progress. Through Frontier Land’s gates came “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter.” “Alice in Wonderland” emerged from Fantasy Land. (Only later would “fantasy” join the “land” and become Fantasyland.)

At last, the happy day arrived: Sunday afternoon, July 17, 1955.

Even more friends gathered in front of our TV. There was Walt, waving as lucky kids ran over the drawbridge and into the castle. Walt spoke like a general overseeing a conquered city. Not to worry, his Magic Kingdom would always be there for children of all ages. Snow White sang “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and Bashful blushed.

After that momentous christening, my family closed every week by watching “Walt Disney’s Disneyland.” My sisters, father, mother and I bonded into a unified whole. I learned about nuclear physics with “Our Friend the Atom.” Dad whistled “Whistle While You Work” on his way to work. Mom cut a faux fur coat into a Davy Crockett coonskin cap that I wore defending the Alamo. But after a couple dozen viewings of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” I began to question the Sorcerer’s motives and imagined Mickey in a mousetrap — a seed of doubt, an instinct for survival.

Finding home By 1960 Dad could no longer deal with the “deadbeats,” as he termed customers who insisted on paying with bushels of corn. A World War II veteran was set on trading a captured Japanese officer’s automatic pistol for a refrigerator. That “negotiation” evidently was the last straw. To my mother’s consternation and my jubilation, Dad sold the store and we took Route 66 west to “Tomorrow’s City Today” — Lakewood, California — 1,995 miles closer to Disneyland than our southern Indiana home.

Mom felt fear and loathing from the moment we arrived. So on our very first weekend, Dad drove 16 miles to “the Happiest Place on Earth.” Its magic worked … and not only on Mom. The moment we stepped through the gates onto Main Street, U.S.A., we were “back home again in Indiana.”

We sat on a bench near City Hall, and under the Disney trees my parents grew talkative, a rarity for those shy Midwesterners. When a Disney replica of a vintage Model A passed by, Dad revealed it had been his first car. Who knew? We ate at the Carnation soda fountain while a barbershop quartet sang. We watched the Old-Fashioned Automobile Parade, standing at attention as a small military color guard played taps while the American flag was lowered and homing doves were released. At night, we stood in awe when the biggest, loudest fireworks show we’d ever seen became a backdrop for a real, live flying Tinker Bell.

Dad, known for his frugal nature, announced as we trudged back to our Nash Rambler: “Now, that was worth the price of admission!”

Disneyland became our drug of choice. We went as often as we could, especially when a new ride opened. I’ll never forget watching my parents slow-dance in Plaza Gardens to the plaintive trumpet of Harry James playing with his orchestra.

But not even Disney could withstand the 1960s. I became, shall we say, a connoisseur of illegal fantasy substitutes, and anti-everything, including Disneyland. Like Marlon Brando’s motorcycle gang leader, when asked, “What are you rebelling against,” I answered, “What have you got?” Except for the occasional LSD plunge, I ceased pilgrimaging to the Magic Kingdom and made my way to San Francisco.

Where, inevitably, I found myself living in a two-story flat with 18 friends, relatives, draft dodgers, runaways and our personal drug dealer. On Ashbury. Half a block above Haight Street. Sound romantic? It was the winter after the Summer of Love. Yes, the Grateful Dead were neighbors, but they moved to the country within a month of our occupying the flat. Why? “Speed kills” became the counterculture’s mantra, and Haight shed its flower power. The street turned ugly and dangerous, crowded with skeletal methedrine addicts.

Our flat served as sanctuary and road stop. A squat fugitive from Long Beach State’s art department descended with a coterie of girlfriends. Tito had wild curly hair and Bambi eyes, and sought asylum to withdraw from amphetamine addiction. Between a vast variety of physical breakdowns, Tito helped us pass the cold, foggy San Francisco nights by acting out bizarre stories about his former part-time job at Disneyland as one of Snow White’s seven dwarfs.

Sneezy, to be precise. Tito would tremble and begin his trained sneeze. Ahhhhhhh… gradually standing, his little body shaking… ahhhhhhhhhhh… until a single leap straight up: chooooo! You didn’t need drugs to howl at his performance and be enchanted by his tales of backstage Disneyland.

Summer of paranoia I can only remember some of the remaining 1960s and none of the early 1970s, but recovering from pretty much everything, I headed back south in 1974. Straight to Disneyland, where I applied for a job as a dwarf.

“I’m sorry, but you’re too tall to be a dwarf.”

“How about the Big Bad Wolf? He’s my size.”

The Disneyland hiring executive courteously explained that all character positions had been filled. She offered me a job in Foods as a popcorn man in Fantasyland.

All summer I stood guard by my popcorn wagon, wearing a garish red, white and yellow striped costume, hoping to fathom Disneyland’s inexplicable power over all of us.

During breaks, I roamed “backstage,” envying those in character… until I saw how dangerous and demoralizing those roles became.

The moment the kids dropped that dwarf costume over their heads, they became prisoners of Disney mythology. The public arms were wires encased by cloth, ending with rubber “hands” — dangling, useless —while their own arms remained inside the rubber, conical head. Walking became a treacherous balancing act, since their only view was through a screen “eye” in their forehead. Lacking peripheral vision, they endured assaults from packs of kids: kicks, punches, curses. (Which is why you never see a character alone, without another staff member.)

I envied only one character: an actual dwarf who talked like a carny, cursed freely and loathed children. Even when he struck a rude guest with the baton, security chose not to reprimand Walt’s favorite Mickey Mouse.

My first week on night shift, I had gradually grown aware of an odd man circling my popcorn wagon eyeing me with an unnerving intensity. He claimed to be an employee on break and really needed a free bag of popcorn. He kept pleading, scaring customers, until I finally surrendered.

Immediately, he stood ominously still and silent.

Approximately a minute after he sauntered off into the night, my supervisor and assistant manager appeared and asked if I’d given a customer a free bag of popcorn. After their admonishment, my boss recited the “10 specific rules governing all members of the Disneyland cast.” He reluctantly allowed me “one last chance at probation.”

Later, a hostess from Foods said the popcorn addict was obviously a “Customer,” the name they used for security employees disguised as guests, assigned to roam the Kingdom and interact with staff. “You were lucky,” the hostess said. “He must have liked you or you’d be gone.”

My summer of paranoia had begun. My brightly striped uniform made me an easy target, so on breaks in the employee cafeteria, I discreetly investigated. I identified the Keystone Kop on Main Street, U.S.A., as an official undercover policeman. In Frontierland, it was the Cowboy. On Tom Sawyer Island, the Cavalrymen kept watch. All could escort anyone breaking the rules of Disneyland — drunks, spitters, kids who threw things from a gondola of the now-defunct Skyway — to the backstage Anaheim Police Department jail. What if security checked my job application? It had been nothing but an outrageous series of distortions, lies and delusions. Could lying to Disney be a federal crime?

Saving Tinker Bell A few hosts had a weird response to my persistent questions about security. They hinted that the big game I was hunting could be found on the roof of the Pirates of the Caribbean. So on a bright afternoon I climbed some ladders and followed a narrow-plank walkway zigzagging across the roof to a three-walled hut. The planks creaked when I paused behind the security host seated on a stool, his binoculars trained on the parking lot below — the “outer lobby.” He scanned cars for criminal acts — sex in back seats, boozing, doping, thefts, loitering.

He never gave me a glance. “Go ahead, it’s in focus,” he said, referring to a telescope on a tiny tripod to his right, aimed in the opposite direction. I peered through the lens and saw, in perfect focus, a maid in a Disneyland Hotel bedroom. I watched her make the bed and, after what seemed like a safe length of time, stood to leave.

“See anything? No? Too early. Come tonight during the fireworks. Honeymooners tend to get it on for Tinker Bell.”

After that, the fairy’s nightly flight drove my own flights of imagination. “If you wish hard enough,” the Voice From the Sky announced, “and believe strong enough, Tinker Bell may appear to light Fantasy in the Sky!” Her descent into the woods behind Sleeping Beauty Castle finally led me to seek a close-up of her actual landing.

I followed a path through underbrush and trees into a clearing. A nurse sat on a low wooden platform, reading a magazine. Several maintenance men stood with handled cushions for braking Tink’s landing. Security hosts stood guard. Instantly I realized my mistake and turned to flee.

“Hold it!”

I endured an interrogation. Security informed me that on one occasion Tinker Bell’s wire had been partially cut to make it snap during her flight. The supports on her pulley had been unscrewed. Other attempts at sabotage, too evil to name, had occurred.

“Why would anyone want to assassinate Tinker Bell?”

“I can’t imagine.”

“We keep her landing pad guarded 24 hours,” the chief of security said, as if warning me. “We’re always watching,” he added while peering at my nametag: “…Richard.” By the time I returned to my popcorn station, I knew he’d have interviewed my supervisor. First, giving away popcorn for free; now, I could become a suspect in the assassination of Tinker Bell.

Not long after that near arrest, I fled Disneyland, never to return… well, not for 20 years.

“Our most precious natural resource is the minds of our children,” Walt once said. Love, then marriage, then children… lured me back through the Magic Kingdom gates. You can’t say no to a child’s request to hold Tigger’s paw. Or to ride the Fantasyland merry-go-round.

I remembered my late mother’s face as she first stepped on Main Street, my father’s gaze at the antique automobiles.

Looking down at my son’s face in Frontierland, I saw my own.

Now I have stood for countless nights beside my wife and kids on Main Street, U.S.A., under the fireworks. And I’ve also privately thanked Disney for eliminating “the sparkling little spirit named Tinker Bell.” Better secure than sorry.

The Dwarfs now march with arms free in better-fitting costumes, and security shadows the “together seven,” discreetly led by Prince Charming. Did I again want to become a dwarf? Not only am I too tall, now I’m too old. But there’s still time for our 12-year-old daughter to wish upon a star.

I happily admit: Once a Disneyholic, always a Disneyholic.

So although I’d really rather not care about Galaxy’s Edge, I honestly can’t wait.
Attractions Referenced

Pirates Of The Caribbean


Sleeping Beauty Castle

Tom Sawyers Island

Restaurants Referenced

Carnation Ice Cream Parlor

Carnation Plaza Gardens

Lands Referenced


Main Street U.S.A.

Star Wars Galaxys Edge

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