John Waite Loves Theme Parks!
by Mark Eades
“I have always loved amusement parks,” John Waite told me. It’s a love affair that started when he was a kid growing up in Cleveland and stuck with him while studying theater at nearby Allegheny College—so much so that he worked at Euclid Beach Park (an amusement park on the southern shore of Lake Erie that opened in 1895 and closed in 1969) from 1947 until he graduated in 1951.
Near the end of his four-year stint in the Air Force (he was in the Intelligence field and cannot divulge exactly what he did!), John heard Walt Disney was building a theme park in California. “I told the family I was moving to California and was going to work for Walt Disney. I didn’t know what I’d do, I had no idea how the business worked out here,” he said.
He arrived in 1955 shortly after Disneyland opened. He took a temporary job at the post office for the Christmas season and sent his résumé to Walt Disney Productions. He got a call from the assistant personnel manager, who thought he knew John, but it turned out to be someone else with the same name. John got the job anyway.
“They had decided to hire college graduates into the Traffic Department,” John said.
The Traffic Department (where this article’s author also worked from 1979-80) delivered mail and messages around the studio lot. It was designed to give Studio personnel a chance to look people over and see where they might fit in, so for many it was the starting point of a Disney career.
John’s route was in the Animation Building, where he delivered mail to many future Disney legends, including to the office of the man himself—Walt Disney.
“My manager told me, ‘If you see Walt Disney, don’t say anything to him unless he says something to you.’ Well, my first day delivering mail I was walking down the hall and Walt was walking towards me, looking down at something with a scowl on his face. I just walked right by him. Then he whirled around and stopped, smiled and said, ‘Well, hello there.’”
John was soon transferred into Publicity when Card Walker—who would later become CEO of Walt Disney Productions—headed it up. John was put in charge of handling production stills. Often, John led tours of the lot for visitors, usually dignitaries or celebrities. This gave him the chance to peek inside some of the soundstages where Imagineers from WED Enterprises were doing mockups for future attractions at Disneyland.
While in the Studio’s publicity department he frequently worked with Van France, later the co-founder of the Disneyland Alumni Club, who was working in Disneyland’s personnel department organizing the training for new Cast Members.
When he learned that John really wanted to work at Disneyland, Van told him about the new Holidayland area they were creating for big corporate and other group events. The head of the studio’s personnel department thought John was making a mistake, but he still wanted to transfer to Disneyland and in 1957, John went to work for Van.
One of the first things he did was help put together the first event for Holidayland—an area in what is now New Orleans Square—for corporate and large events. The first event, a picnic for 5,000 people, featured a full meal, liquor, and a full slate of Disneyland entertainment, including the Disneyland Band, Indian dancers from the Indian Village (located in what is now Critter Country), Golden Horseshoe entertainers Betty Taylor and Wally Boag, and the Mickey Mouse Club. Attendees also got tickets into Disneyland. Despite all the entertainment and all the games set up, after everyone ate, no one stayed in the land. “They all went into the park to ride the rides,” John said.
Next Van volunteered John to help out with the first trial run of guided tours. They came up with spiels and costumes for a planned test run to see if people would like them, and more importantly, pay for them. “The first day they offered the guided tours, 90% of the gate paid for them. We were supposed to have 15 people in a group; we ended up having to have 50 people in a group,” John said.
Thanks to Van, John was also called upon to play Mickey Mouse out in the park at times. “They didn’t have a character department at the time. They did parades and shows, but when dignitaries came and wanted photos with Mickey and Minnie, they needed someone, I was one of the ones elected.” John also played Mickey Mouse at one of the first Disney nights at the Hollywood Bowl.
Van left Disneyland after a couple years to help Joe Fowler, another Disney legend, with Freedomland, a park Joe was building back east. John wasn’t happy when Van left, so he also left and went to work for UCLA’s Central Stage Management group, where they handled all the public events on campus. “My leaving Disneyland as a full-time employee was so sad.”
John worked at UCLA for 10 years, but during that time he worked summers at Disneyland on attractions like the Jungle Cruise, Matterhorn, and even a short stint on the Peoplemover. He did this until 1969. His heart was still with theme parks, and as John looked around for more opportunities, he found it in the new log flume technology being developed by Arrow Development for Six Flags. “I thought it would be great for Knott’s Berry Farm.”
John went to Six Flags Over Texas for several days to study the ride, then, while still at UCLA, developed a log flume concept that he planned to pitch to Knott’s. “It was a log ride concept, with a hydro-mining theme.”
John wrote to Walter Knott saying he had a ride proposal. A few days later Russell Knott, Walter’s son, called and asked John to come in for a meeting. “We met, and he told me that they didn’t do the designing of rides at Knott’s. He knew they were working on a log ride with Bud Hurlbut, but didn’t say anything.” (Editor’s note: Bud Hurlbut is a legend in the theme park business. His ideas and attractions even influenced Walt Disney, who spent several days studying the Calico Mine Train Ride and in Bud’s shop, which was located just north of Knott’s Berry Farm.)
Russell set up an appointment for John with Bud, who designed many of Knott’s Berry Farm’s rides. John showed Bud his idea. “Bud laughed and said he wanted to show me something. He took me into his shop and showed me the models of the log ride he was building for Knott’s. I had to laugh too, but then I asked him for a job.”
Bud wasn’t hiring at the time, but offered John a job as a skipper on the steamboat that plied the lagoon at Knott’s. But John really wanted to work on the log ride construction. So John resigned from UCLA after the 1969 commencement exercises and went to work for Bud. “I worked on some of the final preparations of the ride, sealing cracks and things like that.” John became one of the Timber Mountain Log Ride’s supervisors and worked on it, and for Bud, for many years.
Now retired, John still loves theme parks and their rides. At the age of 85 he has passes for Disneyland and Knott’s and can frequently be seen at both of the parks.
“I love the rides and the people that work there. It’s always nice to go, sometimes just to watch the people having a good time.”
This profile is part of a series featuring former Disney Cast Members being written for the Disneyland Alumni Club. These stories reveal the role working for Disney has played over the years in shaping the lives of the people who help "make the dream a reality," as Walt would say.
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:
This article and photographs are copyright 2014 by Mark Eades, all rights reserved. Used by permission. Photographs supplied by subjects are used by permission, all rights reserved.