Being A Disneyland Tour Guide In The ’60s Led To Many Surprises

by Suzanne Hawley
Illustration by Valerie Valdivia

In 1964, I was a freshman at USC and worked as a Disneyland tour guide on breaks. Park visitors could spend $5 then for a half-day guided tour rather than $3.95 for a book of ride tickets. Those attending a tour would cluster around a girl in a red plaid skirt and blue velvet cap who held her riding crop high so you never lost sight of her and who could walk backward making you privy to the inside story every step of the way. The tour participants didn’t get to take in a lot of attractions, but they certainly felt special boarding the ones they did. With the guide, you went to the head of the line and you didn’t get lost.

Disneyland still has a staff of guides—which now includes men—referred to as “plaids,” and spending a day with one of them is considerably more expensive (nearly $3,000 for a group of 10). Expect the royal treatment, online billing promises. “Delight in Disney’s acclaimed hospitality … with your own personal guide helping with your needs and entertaining … with insider tips and stories throughout the day.”

I am forced to ask of my long-ago self: “Was I worth the extra money for the hundreds of dear souls I kept rounded up and amused?” And while tour guides were the ones revealing the surprises, we did experience some of our own, such as daily encounters with a future film star—and even a marriage proposal.

My fellow tour guides and I would divide the mostly foreign and elderly visitors into groups of 20, whisking them off to Tour Guide Gardens, assuring them that they were now among Disneyland’s elite visitors. I took their receipts and prided myself in the fact that I could learn at least half the names the first time around. By the end of the tour, I had learned everyone’s first name, a skill I practice to this day using word association. Was your name Bonnie? I paired you with Clyde. If you were Frank, I noted your hair was lank. Jill? I could see you rolling down the hill with Jack. It really wasn’t so amazing when I broke it down, but I didn’t teach the other guides my secret. Let ’em think I was a genius.

Once I was on a first-name basis with everyone, I could enjoy my newfound status as their favorite person at Disneyland. Maybe their favorite person period, for the next four hours. After I walked backward down Main Street dropping bons mots about life long ago, I whisked my group into Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, an assortment of noisy birds and crazy creatures powered by the new Disney invention: audio-animatronics. No one could believe these Tiki inhabitants were fake since they sang together as if they had practiced their whole lives.

We moved on to the Jungle Cruise, where I sat at the front with darling Roger, who wore a pith helmet and scared the bejesus out of my people, screaming caution every time we avoided a crocodile. We took leisurely trips around Tom Sawyer Island and rode the monorail. One day as we waited for the submarine, a guest named Bob (spelled the same forward as backward) asked if we could drop him off in Long Beach. “That’s where our hotel is,” he quietly explained.

I always squeezed in a few minutes at the Golden Horseshoe Revue, a lively theater where my dear Garden Grove High School classmate, up-and-coming Steve Martin, had been inspired to make balloon animals by the master Wally Boag. Since I had an in with the balloon impresarios, Steve and Wally made it a point to shoot any number of crazy things in our direction. A brush with fame was the least I could do, since the visitors had paid an extra $1.05 to take my tour!

Our last ride was always the train that romantically circled the park and offered “Grand Canyon Diorama,” scenes of one of the world’s greatest wonders. One time, I noticed that a guest, Lily (“of the valley”), had turned herself around and was gazing the wrong way at just a reflection of the diorama. She was oohing and aahing, and I didn’t want to rain on her parade, so I just let it go. Sometimes things happened on the tours that were best left untouched.

After I had rounded up my satisfied visitors to board the waiting buses, it was my happy duty to pose with every person on my tour, a friend using another’s camera to capture this young lady who had lavished her affection so willingly. At that point, I was brimming with pride, congratulating myself for going through the rigorous work to become a tour guide.

The job paid $1.65 an hour, the highest of any new employees, and 20 cents an hour extra to do tours in Spanish, which I spoke only passably. When I look back at all these memories, there is one day that stands out: the day I almost decided to leave behind life as I knew it.

At the end of the summer before my sophomore year, I was asked to take a special guest on a tour. He was the publisher of El Diario, a newspaper in Mexico City. Between my Spanish and his English, we did just fine. I pulled out all the stops wanting to make his day at Disneyland one he would long remember. He asked me to have dinner with him; though I had a date and wanted to get home, I agreed to eat with him at the only restaurant that served Mexican food. At the tiny Frito-Lay taco stand, munching on a taco and refried beans, he sweetly pulled my hands into his and in his best English asked me to come to Mexico City and meet his only son.

“I cannot leave you behind,” the publisher said. “I know my son will fall in love with you as soon as you meet. You will never have to work a day in your life. You will live in a mansion. You will have servants. All I want is that you have a few babies for me. Just a few babies.” He fumbled for his wallet and took out a picture of himself and his son.

I shook my head and said, “No. All my life I have dreamed of becoming a writer.”

“Well, just come and be a writer and then fall in love with my son,” he replied.

“I can’t leave everything I have worked for behind,” I said. Then I quickly kissed him on the cheek and said goodbye. “You have made me feel like a princess, and I will never forget this day.”

That was my last week as a Disneyland tour guide. When the next vacation rolled around, I had the job of my dreams. I had landed a feature writing position in the women’s section at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, a Hearst publication.

I sometimes think of that sweet man. What would it have been like to marry a man whose family controlled a newspaper empire in another country? Like my job at Disneyland, that was straight out of Fantasyland.

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