Categories: Disneyland Alumni Club.

Disneyland Railroad Man and More

by Mark Eades

The first time Ben Harris met Walt Disney was just after he started as a conductor for Retlaw on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad in 1958.

Forward! Ben Harris as a conductor on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Forward! Ben Harris as a conductor on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

“We were coming into the Main Street Station before opening, when I heard the engineer blow the whistle warning that someone was on the platform at the station, and slowed down a lot, as per procedure. I jumped down and ran forward and saw a man standing on the platform. I rushed up and said, ‘Sir, I’m sorry, you can’t be out here’ in my loud voice. His back was to me, he turned around and I realized it was Walt and was dumbfounded when he said, ‘You’re right’ and went back through the gate to the other side. I stopped and said, ‘It’s okay, Mister Disney. It’s your train.’ All he said to me was, ‘It’s Walt.’ The engineers in the locomotive were laughing. Walt then asked my permission to go to the engineer’s cab. I just nodded and opened the gate,” said Ben.

Ben Harris operates the Viewliner, an early attraction at Disneyland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris operates the Viewliner, an early attraction at Disneyland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben was only working summers then, while attending the University of Redlands to get a degree in Political Science and Business Administration. But after a couple of summers working the Railroad and the Retlaw-operated Viewliner, he became a permanent part-time Cast Member working weekends at the park year round.

Ben Harris (in conductor's costume) on the with a couple of Disneyland Supervisors on the platform of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris (in conductor's costume) on the with a couple of Disneyland Supervisors, Ken Kohler on the left and Jack Ater on the right, on the platform of the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

After graduating he became a full-time Cast Member in October 1961 as an assistant to Tommy Walker, who was both the USC Marching Band Director and the first entertainment director at Disneyland. It was Tommy who instituted the nightly fireworks during the summer at Disneyland and got Tinkerbell to fly down from the Matterhorn to launch them.

While working with Tommy, Ben added something to his résumé. “I became the park announcer and emcee for functions,” said Ben. “I think I was hired for that job because I did four years of high school and college debates.”

The film camera setup supervised by Ben Harris for shooting POV film of the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

The film camera setup supervised by Ben Harris for shooting POV film of the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

For the summer of 1962, he was the live announcer for the fireworks show five nights a week. He was also the show’s director, telling everyone when to start everything from his station above what is now the Photo shop on Main Street, U.S.A. That included the night the first Tinkerbell, Tiny Kline, got stuck on the wire. “She loved it. She just kept waving her arms around with that wand like she was launching the fireworks,” said Ben. “She dropped down her rescue line after the fireworks were over, and the crew pulled her the rest of the way.”

On behalf of Disneyland, Ben worked with the Al Dobritch Circus when they wanted to do a matinee festival with Disney characters. After a deal was signed and the circus started performing, Walt came and saw the show. “He liked it so much that many of the acts were used in the first ‘Fantasy on Parade.’”

Ben Harris' daughter Kiffi at Disneyland in the 60s. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris' daughter Kiffi at Disneyland in the 60s. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

By then Ben had an office on the second floor of City Hall, and his second happenstance meeting with Walt. “I had a key to Walt’s apartment. I would check it to make sure things were ready whenever it was going to be used. Walt would let some friends use it from time to time—people like Lucille Ball, Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor. One time I was checking to make sure it was cleaned and ready to go and was getting ready to walk out when Walt walked in.”

Of course, Walt was known for showing up unannounced at the park, particularly on Mondays and Tuesdays, the days the park was closed. But when Walt would show up, there were unofficial procedures in place that everyone followed. “You didn’t panic. You just kept right on working until he moved on, then you would call either on the radio or the phone and let others know he was in the park. You also didn’t go over to him unless he motioned you over,” Ben recalled.

Walt seemed to know everyone who worked at the park then, especially those working in management—complete with the orange tie they were required to wear. But one story Ben related showed that not everyone knew Walt Disney. “Walt came down to the park in a brand new Ford. It didn’t have any stickers saying it could drive in through the West Street Gate. The guard at the gate refused to let him in, and did not know Walt. Walt said, ‘I’m Walt Disney.’ The guard said, ‘I don’t care if you’re Mickey Mouse, you’re not getting in.’ Walt just drove on in. That guard was walked out that day and paid off. We were told to not talk about the incident, and of course we all did.”

Ben also worked on some of the scripts for the shows, and on the script for the Jungle Cruise after some big changes were made to the attraction under Disney Legend Marc Davis’ direction in 1962, including the addition of the Elephant Pool.

“I had a preliminary script, but it needed approval from Walt. So Dick Nunis, Marc and Alice Davis, Bill Evans and Walt came down to ride the Jungle Cruise. I was at the dock when Walt said, ‘Okay, young man, let’s go. Take us around, Ben.’ So I did and did the spiel. At the same time, I’m trying to make notes in my typed script of Walt’s comments as we slowly went around. I did three trips, making notes and changes on the fly. After the third trip, Walt said, ‘That’s it, it’s approved.’ Right after that I rushed up to my office and typed it up and sent it out to everyone.”

1963 brought one of the saddest things that Ben had to do. “I was there the day JFK was assassinated. Someone came upstairs from City Hall and told us about it. We went downstairs to the lounge and all watched television. We listened and when we heard the announcement that JFK was dead, we were all stunned. Card Walker apparently got on the phone with Roy Disney, and word came down for me to make a park-wide announcement. I was told to keep it short and to the point.”

Ben then went to a special locked panel located on the second floor of the Opera House, near the switchboard. He took a microphone with him. After unlocking the panel he hooked up a microphone and got ready to press a button that, at the time, would mute all the park’s audio. Ben watched out a window and waited until he could see a special squad of Security standing by the flagpole in Town Square. He pressed the button and keyed the microphone and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a special Disneyland announcement. Disneyland has just confirmed from NBC New York that President Kennedy has fallen victim to an assassin’s bullet. Ladies and gentlemen, President John F. Kennedy is dead. This has been a special Disneyland announcement.”

Editor’s note: While reciting what he said that day, Ben’s eyes welled up with tears.

Ben continued with his sad recollection of the day: “All the cars on Main Street stopped where they were. Employees and guests stopped where they were and people came out of buildings. I think everyone was stunned.”

Ben said a strange quiet came over the park as the security guards silently lowered the flag to half-staff in Town Square, “Nobody made a sound, and I had kept the switch turned so the music did not come back on throughout the park. For the flag retreat it was just a drummer and a bugler who played taps as they did the flag retreat at park close, with no characters. The senior security guards were also in the military, so they knew exactly the procedure for lowering the flag to half-staff, and for lowering the flag at the retreat ceremony.”

Before the retreat ceremony, Ben was given orders to create a sign that park guests would see upon exiting the park that day. “I was told to make some special signs to place at the exit, telling everyone the park would be closed the next day.”

Ben Harris (left) is congratulated for his work and donations to keep the steam train running on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris (left) is congratulated for his work and donations to keep the steam train running on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Eventually, Ben was promoted to Manager of Wardrobe Issue and General Service Division Planning Manager. He was also a member of the three-person judging committee for Miss Disneyland (now known as Disneyland Ambassadors) for seven years.

In his position he had to help with the preparations for the Yippie invasion in 1970. “We were ready. We had two buses out back. One was a judge’s chambers, the other was turned into a holding cell,” said Ben. “Things were fine most of the day, but after they took over Tom Sawyer Island, things started getting worse as some of them were trying to provoke things. So finally Roy makes the decision to close the park as some of them were running and knocking people down. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

As the construction got going for Walt Disney World, Ben was relocated to Florida to help out. He focused on getting the hotels operational, adding more to his résumé and leading to his eventual departure from the company in 1972. “I went to work for U.S. Steel, to help them develop and staff their new hotels, then became the General Manager for the Sheraton 418 in Portland’s Court of Flags when it opened. I also did similar duties for Fred Harvey, Holiday Inn and others. So many of them wanted to do things like Disney did, so I would consult for them.”

Ben Harris is honored by the Oregon Zoo for his donation and volunteer work on its Washington Park and Zoo Railway steam train. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris is honored by the Oregon Zoo for his donation and volunteer work on its Washington Park and Zoo Railway steam train. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben retired in 1996 to a small city near Portland, Oregon. He tries to get down to Disneyland at least once or twice a year, and remembers the perfection that Walt was always pursuing at his theme park, including a day Walt rode Pirates of the Caribbean in 1966. “One thing people don’t really know is that Pirates of the Caribbean opened for a few hours on the day New Orleans Square opened. But Walt closed it, as he rode it and declared that it wasn’t ready.”

Ben Harris in his conductor's uniform that he wears while working on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

Ben Harris in his conductor's uniform that he wears while working on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway at the Oregon Zoo in Portland. Photo by Ben Harris, used by permission.

In 1996 Ben rekindled his kinship with steam trains—similar to his first job he had at Disneyland in 1958. One day he was near the Oregon Zoo in Portland and heard what he knew was a train whistle coming from a steam-powered locomotive. He went in and found that they were running a steam-powered train on the Washington Park and Zoo Railway at the zoo, and immediately started helping them out, including making several donations to the non-profit foundation that owns and operates the engine. “I’ll still put on my conductor’s costume and punch tickets from time to time.”

In honor of the 60th anniversary year of Disneyland in 2015, the Disneyland Alumni Club is reaching out to former employees, whether retired or younger, who may not be aware of the organization. The Club was started in 1983 by Disneyland executives Van France and Dick Nunis as a way to help Cast Members stay in touch after moving on to other careers. Is that you? If so and you'd like to take part in the Club's private celebration next August—or participate in their many other activities and benefits, please visit www.disneylandalumni.org and join today.

Here are some previous stories about Disneyland Alumni:

A Lifelong Love Affair with Disneyland

From Accounting into Imagineering and Beyond

From Disneyland Balloon Boy to Balloon Businessman

This Disneyland Alumnus is an Oscar Winner

A Marriage Made in Disneyland Maintenance

Keeping a Secure Eye on Disneyland Fun

A Marriage Made in Frontierland

Former Cast Member Remakes Heavenly Music

All Cast Members Have Stories

John Waite Loves Theme Parks

Scott Zone: Caretaker of Walt's Family Film Legacy

A Real Disneyland Character

This article and some photographs are copyright 2014 by Mark Eades, all rights reserved. Used by permission. Photographs supplied by subjects are used by permission, all rights reserved.

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