Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Disneyland - 1984 - Olympic Summer - Where is Everybody?

Hello, Jungle-teers! Bet you thought I died or something, right?

Let's say I have been fully engaged at work and unable to sneak even a few moments for posting for several weeks, and we will leave it at that.

Today, return with me for a moment to Disneyland 1984, the year the Summer Olympics came to Los Angeles. Those Olympics were, by most all accounts, a rousing success for Los Angeles and Southern California. The world's eyes were upon this region for the duration of the Games.

I remember the hype leading up to the Games as well. It seemed every inch of California was promoting the Olympics. Some of my fellow Disneyland cast members at the time were also (amazingly enough) Cal State Fullerton students and were in the band. They were invited to play at the L.A. Coliseum for the opening festivities. They participated in playing John Williams' now famous "Olympic Fanfare and Theme."

Local TV and radio stations warned for months about the traffic nightmare that would ensnare Los Angeles and Orange Counties as Olympic spectators flocked to the Southland from around the world.

At the Park, everybody braced themselves for a nightmare summer. Visions of 65,000+ guests per day swirled in our heads. Area managers beefed up the schedules, adding bodies wherever they could in order to meet the expected crowd with a sufficient number of cast members.

As summer neared and flights into LAX increased in volume with Olympics traffic, Southern California held its collective breath.


Everywhere you looked were the colorful---very 1980s---Summer Olympics flags, banners and logos. The Games were scheduled to run from July 28 to August 12, 1984. Los Angeles and its business community mobilized an unprecedented effort to accommodate an estimated 625,000 visitors. As May 1984 turned into June, the newspapers boomed about the coming onslaught.

Hal Fishman on KTLA Channel 5's evening newscast spoke often of the great preparations, the coming crowds and the fact that KTLA would be there with up to the minute traffic reports to help Angelenos navigate the freeways that were expected to crawl with higher than normal traffic for mid-to-late summer.

At the cinema, the megahit comedy of the summer was Ghostbusters, and Ray Parker, Jr.'s famous theme song to that movie streamed from radios as KIIS-FM and other popular stations were cranked up at beaches, pools and backyard barbeques: "Who you gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS! I can't heeeeaaar you! Who you gonna call? GHOSTBUSTERS! Louder!"

Among the cast members over at Disneyland, we waited for the post-Memorial Day Weekend crowds to swell.

The first week of June arrived. The Main Street Electrical Parade and Fantasy in the Sky kicked off the season and lit up the summer nights. I remember the first few parades seemded pretty full, but as the week went on, the crowd along the route wasn't as deep. Not nearly as deep as we expected.

By the second week of June, the fever pitch of pre-Olympics hysteria blazed across the Southland. Teams of athletes were arriving or soon to arrive, and TV news crews were providing location shots from all over the place---Chino Hills, Long Beach, the Coliseum, Santa Monica, Irvine, Santa Anita---you name it.

As we cast members clocked in at Harbor House to start our shifts during mid-June, we wondered what lay ahead of us "inside the berm." Was today the day were we going to get killed by a mass of guests trouncing our area of the Park?

Could Day Custodial keep up with the titanic amounts of trash?
Could Theme Park Operations and Adventure/Frontier Attractions maintain the attraction cycle times enough to avoid two-to-three-hour lines from forming in the bullpens?
Would Outdoor Vending run out of popcorn or frozen bananas at the worst possible moment? Heaven forbid, would there be enough Mickey Mouse balloons to satisfy the swarm of guests? Would the engines of the Disneyland Railroad blow their boilers from the strain of pulling passenger cars fully laden?

By the third week of June, we knew the time had to be coming. With the 4th of July weekend just around the corner, the inevitable was almost upon us.

Yet.

June was actually slow.

Like, eerily slow. Nowhere near the normal crowds for that time of year.

Now this was before Annual Passes were as common as drivers' licenses in California. Heck, we had only recently moved to full-day Passports, having scrapped the old ticket books. The So-Cal "locals" were an important part of our summer crowd, but they weren't believed to be the largest part. They were the ones who brought their family members to the Park every summer. The Aunts or Uncles or Cousins from Cleveland, Boise, St. Louis, South Bend, Pittsburgh, Naperville or such cities would make their summer pilgrimage to the West Coast and Sunny Southern California and their California relations would dutifully haul them all down to 1313 South Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim. So each "local" would usually bring four to six "visitors" with them to the Park during the summer.

With the Olympics, this trend was expected to be far worse, because not only were the locals and their visitors going to be hitting the Park, but hundreds of thousands of international guests were to be added to the mix. One could only picture a sea of heads and shoulders, clogging Main Street from Town Square to the Castle Forecourt and spreading from the Hub into each and every "land" of Disneyland. We could picture the line for Pirates of the Caribbean winding back and forth all the way to the Rivers of America, physically cutting off thousands of guests---who would then be trapped in Bear Country and the west side of New Orleans Square. Our vision was of wall to wall people filling in every open square inch of the Park---even Thunder Trail!

Hideous. Teeming. Almost unmanageable.

I worked the 4th of July in 1984 in Frontierland. I had a closing shift and was assigned "Popcorn Alley" between the River Belle Terrace and the mouth of Thunder Trail (so named because of the two Popcorn carts located within this area and the elbow-to-elbow crowd conditions that inevitably seemed to result in about 90 five-year-olds per half-hour dropping or spilling carton after carton of Orville Redenbacher's ® Gourmet Popping Corn along the riverfront and around the Mark Twain dock). It was another warm July night and I figured we were in for it.

I remember looking up from my pan and broom at about 8:15 p.m. and toward the entrance to Frontierland. Something struck me as odd: I could actually see the entrance to Frontierland. Not only that, but I could see the ground from the Mark Twain dock to the shooting gallery and beyond. Over by the shooting gallery, a handful of guests were walking slowly toward Big Thunder. Another three or four clomped along the wooden porch near the Golden Horseshoe. The Outdoor Vending cast member stationed at the popcorn cart nearby stared blankly into her glass bin---filled with recently popped popcorn. There was no one in line at her cart.

Heck, you could pretty much WALK ONTO Big Thunder.


What was up?


This was summer, not mid-February in the rain?


WHERE WAS EVERYBODY?


Where were our guests?


Let me tell you something. You will never in your lifetime see Frontierland as "guest-free" on a 4th of July evening at Disneyland as I saw it on that night back in 1984. I've never seen anything like it since. Indeed, the very next year, I worked what was then---(and may still be)---the busiest 4th of July in Disneyland history. Our "official" count was over 75,000, and that was IN-PARK (so the legend goes).

You want hell on earth? Try Disneyland on a hot summer day in July with over 70,000 people in the Park.

There is nowhere to run. Nowhere to walk. Nowhere to get out of line or out of the crowd. Nowhere to escape that over-tired four year old who is just now crashing from the sugar-induced acid trip he went on after digging into his brother's rock candy from the Candy Palace on Main Street (and downing half the little plastic box container of the stuff). Nowhere to escape from that kid's parents or siblings, either.


Hot.


Crowded.


Hell.


But not in Summer 1984!


Those pre-Olympics warnings of record-breaking crowds absolutely scared the locals Park-less! No local Southern Californian was going to be caught dead anywhere near Anaheim in the summer of 1984! And they sure as hell weren't going to take their family members there, either. In fact, many of their family members were told "wait 'til next year to come out; you're not gonna wanna be here with all the crowds and traffic from the Olympics!"


Among the sparse number of guests I recall spotting during that unusually uncrowded summer were members of several African nations' Olympics teams. They were tall and wore their t-shirts proudly. Few spoke English, but all were amazed and overjoyed by Disneyland.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Disneyland was empty that summer, but it was much, much slower that I had ever seen it before or since during the same time of year.


Call it the "Great Olympics Scare-Off" of 1984. Call it what you will. For me, it meant a summer of more elbow room. More room for the old pan and broom. More time to practice the "cigarette-butt-from-behind-the-back, around-the-front, between-the-legs-and-into-the-pan." It was a grand anomaly. Actually, it was one of the few (and nowadays almost non-existent) times when the Park was open (as in open space)---with just the right number of guests and cast members wandering through it.


To quote Archie and Edith Bunker: "Those. Were. The. Daaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyyyyssssss!"


I bid you all a good day (or night as the case may be) and wish each of you a "slow day" at Disneyland at least once in your life!

---Mike

5 comments:

Auckland property manager said...

Thanks for sharing so long article for us and I learnt a lot from it.Wish to see more articles from you.

joyiseverywhere said...

Yeah!!! I am so glad you are back! This site is my Disneyland fix. I NEED IT!!

I have been lucky enough to have experienced six "slow days" at Disneyland.

Heavenly.

Anonymous said...

I too lived those days of shoulder-to-shoulder crowds years earlier (read, when the Haunted Mansion opened in August '69). Your recollections evoked many a memory. Nice job!

Ken

Anonymous said...

I was working the Emporium gift shop on Main St. and it was dead! Especially the first week of the Olympics. Also the freeways were wide open during rush hour!! I had friends in Long Beach States marching band that were in the Olympic band. They had a blast. The Olympic band tuba players were responsible for all the missing TUBA STREET signs in the valley. We drove up the following fall and didn't see a single TUBA STREET sign. 52 tuba players, 52 sign poles with no signs. Known as the midnight sign supply.

Greg Kruger said...

I still have my Jungle Cruise Olympic Year Polo Shirt that was created I think by Ross Jones.....That was my first year working at the park.......eerie...quiet, I did get a number of pins from the teams that I gave JC tours to.