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Disneyland Article
He Lost His Home To Disneyland Decades Later He Ran The Park
ID:
TMS-5572
Source:
SFGate
Author:
Julie Tremaine
Dateline:
Posted:
Status:
Current
There are Disneyland secrets, like secret Easter eggs built into rides. Then there are Disneyland secrets, hidden on the statue of Walt Disney’s tie or in decode-able clues left by Imagineers or in a nondescript building that's actually a private home hidden away at Disneyland. And then there’s the Dominguez Palm, a piece of history older than the park, with a story that starts long before Mickey Mouse was even a distant dream.

The tree is hidden in plain sight; thousands of people walk past it every day and have no idea what they’re seeing or why it’s important. It might just be a palm tree, but it’s a living relic of one of Disneyland’s most remarkable stories, the kind you’d expect to see in one of the company’s fantastical animated movies.

It all starts with an orange grove, a wedding gift, and a promise from Walt Disney himself.

After Disney settled on Anaheim as the place to build his theme park, the Walt Disney Company went to all the families who owned farmland in what’s now called the “Anaheim Resort” district. They were going to raze most of the structures, pull up what were primarily orange trees and build the “happiest place on earth.”

The Dominguez family was willing to sell their 10 acres, which had been in the family for three generations — but 19-year-old Ron Dominguez, who lived on the farm with his mother and brother, made a specific request. Disney had to preserve one very important tree on their land: a Canary Island date palm planted in 1896 as a wedding gift to his grandparents.

Disney agreed, leaving the tree where it was and factoring it into the construction plans for Adventureland. “Our house was located right about where the entrance to Pirates of the Caribbean and Cafe Orleans are today,” Dominguez once said, according to D23. “The day we moved out, in August of 1954, we were walking in ditches and holes. Things were popping up around us because construction had to move ahead. They built Disneyland in a year.”

Disney did keep some of the buildings, choosing to move them rather than build new ones. The Dominguez house was moved behind Main Street U.S.A. and used as office space, including as Walt’s first office at the park. Another, the 1,300-square-foot ranch house known as the Witherill Bungalow, became Owen and Dolly Pope’s home behind Frontierland after Linnaeus and Grace Witherill sold their property to the company.

At the time of the sale, Dominguez was a college student at the University of Arizona. The following year, just days before Disneyland’s July 17, 1955 grand opening, he took a job as a ticket taker at the front gates. Because he lived on property that became Disneyland, people referred to Dominguez as a “native Disneylander.” Maybe because he had such a personal connection to the place, he quickly took to working at the park. Within a year, he was a supervisor on Main Street, according to D23. By 1970, Dominguez was director of operations at Disneyland. In 1974, he became vice president of Disneyland and chairman of the park operating committee. When he retired in 1994, the “native Disneylander” was executive vice president of Walt Disney Attractions on the West Coast.

“Ron’s contributions to Disneyland are nearly incalculable,” Disney Parks chair Josh D’Amaro said on Dominguez’s passing in 2021. “He was well-known among the cast and community throughout his tenure at the park and continued to show his support long after his retirement, guiding and mentoring leaders, including me, for decades.”

Not bad for a kid who grew up in an orange grove.

Today, the Dominguez Palm still stands in the spot Disney placed the tree in 1955, next to the boat house for Jungle Cruise. If you step into the area that used to be the Fast Pass distribution for Jungle Cruise and Indiana Jones Adventure, now the Disability Access Service (DAS) waiting area, you can’t miss it. It’s not marked, but it’s a distinctive tree, towering above the others in the area, almost like it’s keeping watch over what used to be the family farm.

The tree is so legendary that it has even made its way into the “Tales from Adventureland” kids books, and plays a role in the lore of Disney’s secret society, the Society of Explorers and Adventurers. It’s not the oldest tree at the park — there are two others that predate the Dominguez Palm. The oldest “tree” is a giant hunk of 55 million year old petrified tree in Frontierland, which Lillian Disney purchased as a gift for Walt and then decided she didn’t want in her own house. The oldest living tree is a two-foot tall mugo pine built into the Pinocchio scene on Storybook Land Canal Boats, which D23 estimates is 150 years old.

It’s also not the only tribute to the Dominguez family in the park. When Ron Dominguez was named a Disney Legend, he was given a window on Main Street, the highest honor a Disneyland employee can receive. His is in Market House, where Starbucks is located. “Orange Grove Property Mgt.,” it reads. “We’ll care for your property as if it were our own. Ron Dominguez, owner.”

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