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Charlie Ridgway's "Spinning Disney's World" is just ducky

Charlie Ridgway's "Spinning Disney's World" is just ducky

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Have you ever wanted to go backstage at a Disney theme park? Slip past that "Cast Members Only" sign and see how the magic is really made at the Magic Kingdom?

Well, if so, then you should probably pick up a copy of Charlie Ridgway's "Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent" (The Intrepid Traveler, March 2007). For this 240-page hardcover is your all-access pass to the inner workings of the Disney theme parks.

You see, Charlie ... He has a rather unique perspective on this aspect of the Walt Disney Company. Given that -- back on July 17, 1955 -- Ridgway was actually one of the reporters who had been assigned to cover the grand opening of Disneyland. So he was among the first to experience "The Happiest Place on Earth."

Though -- truth be told -- Charlie had actually been inside the berm a few months earlier than that. In his role as a feature writer for the now-defunct Los Angeles Mirror-News, Ridgway had persuaded then-Disneyland Publicity Manager Eddie Meck to allow that newspaper to use the still-under-construction theme park as the setting for a fun pictorial.


Copyright 1954 Delmar Watson Photography Archives

The photo story that Charlie wanted to tell here was that of a small boy who had supposedly snuck under the Disneyland construction fence and then gone on to sample some of the half-finished attractions. Meck liked the idea. So he agreed to give Ridgway, Mirror-News photographer Delmar Watson as well as young model David Potthast access to the Anaheim construction site.

So in April of 1955, Charlie, Delmar and David spent a day wandering around the not-quite-done Disneyland. With Watson staging fun photos like Potthast trying to fish in the half-finished stream outside of Frontierland.


Copyright 1954 Delmar Watson Photography Archives

Of course, the kicker to this story is that -- before Charlie's pictorial actually ran in the Mirror-News -- David went into school and told all of his classmates about what he'd just done. Which prompted this note from Potthast's teacher, which was then sent home to his parents:

"David is a wonderful little boy. And we really encourage imagination, but he came to school today with a completely unbelievable story. He may need psychiatric help. He claims that he sneaked into Disneyland, went fishing, rode a stagecoach and posed in front of the castle and he refused to admit that he is making it up."

Isn't that a great yarn? Well, that's the beauty of "Spinning Disney's World." It's loaded with stories like this. Written by the guy who was actually right there on site to witness all of this Disney history firsthand.

Mind you, Ridgway didn't become a really-for-real Disney employee until 1963, when Meck finally recruited him to come work for Disneyland Publicity. And Charlie didn't actually get to meet Walt 'til one fateful day in January of 1963.

Picture this: Ridgway is sitting in his cramped office at City Hall when there's a knock at the door. A voice outside says: "May we come in?" Not looking up from the press release that he's writing, Ridgway says "Hell, yes. It's not my joint."

So who should then come through the door but Walt Disney and the entourage that he's taking on a walk-through of his theme park. Ridgway turns beet red because he'd just cussed in front of his new boss. But Disney just motors on, leading his group through Disneyland's tiny PR department and then right back outside into the park again.


Copyright 1967 Orange County Regional History Center Archives

In spite of their awkward introduction, Charlie & Walt soon established a good working relationship. And Ridgway quickly became a valued member of the Mouse House's publicity team. Which is why in 1969 -- just as construction was getting underway on Walt Disney World -- Charlie was tapped to be that resort's first publicity manager.

And over the next 30+ years, Ridgway had a hand in a lot of Disney spectaculars. But if Charlie had to single out his proudest achievement while working for the Mouse ...

" ... the hallmark of my career (was) Donald Duck's Fiftieth Birthday Parade. I had absolutely nothing to do with the rest, but one element I will claim credit for is the fifty white Peking ducks we trained to follow Donald Duck down the street and to ride in the parade every day board a special float built just for them.


Photos courtesy of Google Images & waltdatedworld

Months before in brainstorming sessions I wondered out loud, 'Wouldn't it be fun if we could get fifty ducks to march down the street behind Donald -- the one who greets guests each day in the Magic Kingdom?'

There was kind of an amused silence, more like disbelief. But someone said, 'Do you think it can be done?'

We didn't know, but I called Charlie Cook, who was in charge of birds and such on Discovery Island. He had just trained a dove to fly on cue for a commercial. He didn't know about training ducks, so he called his veterinary friends.

'Yes,' they said, 'But you have to bond with them from birth.'

So we arranged for Donald to be in the Miami hatchery when they broke out of their shells as fuzzy little yellow ducklings. The pictures of that event were great and ran on NBC news. We brought the ducks to Fort Wilderness Campground and every day Donald would go out to their little barnyard and get the ducks to follow."

"Spinning Disney's World" is just loaded with fun behind-the-scenes stories like these. Where Ridgway reveals what really went on in order to make a particular theme park or event a success.

Sooo ... Is "Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent" a perfect book? Well, every so often, Charlie does leave out a detail. Take -- for example -- this anecdote from the 1960s, when ...

" ... 'hippies' and 'long hairs' were not welcome (at Disneyland). In fact, men with long hair were not admitted until a prominent Hollywood actor appeared one day. It took a call to Card Walker, Walt's Director of Marketing, to break the ban. The policy gradually changed after that."

That's a really interesting yarn, don't you think? But wouldn't this have been an even better story if Ridgway had actually revealed the name of that actor who forced Disneyland to change its "No Long Hairs" policy?

But -- then again -- that's not really Charlie's style. Ridgway's an old school PR guy. Which means that you never ever tell tales out of school. Do anything that might reflect badly on the company that employs you.

And back in the late 1950s / early 1960s, reporters (Particularly the working press out in Hollywood) understood this arrangement. They played by the rules too & didn't bite the hand that fed them. Which explains this telling tale from "Spinning Disney's World."

"Two wire service photographers were walking through the park with Eddie (Meck) when they all saw a horse drawn stagecoach over-turned. Some of the guests were slightly injured.

One of the phototogs turned quickly to Eddie and said, " What was that other picture spot you talked about in Tomorrowland?"

They left the accident scene without clicking a single shutter. I don't suppose that kind of reaction could happen today among the post Woodward and Bernstein press corps."

These are the sorts of stories that you can only get from someone like Charlie Ridgway who's actually been with the Walt Disney Company for over three decades. Who was on hand when history was being made.


Copyright 2007 Charles Ridgway Collection

Take -- for example -- that Associated Press Managing Editors convention that was held at the Contemporary Hotel back in 1973. This was the event where then-president Richard M. Nixon made his infamous "I am not a crook" comment.

Mind you, Charlie tried to help the troubled president. Ridgway knew that Nixon would receive an icy reception from all those editors. Which is why he told Nixon's deputy press secretary that the president should walk on stage accompanied by Mickey Mouse. Let the character warm up the crowd a bit before Nixon spoke.

As Ridgway tells the story, the deputy press secretary thought that this was a terrible idea.

"Oh, no," he replied. "The Presidency is entirely too dignified for that kind of thing."

"For crying out loud," I replied to a startled group of listeners. "He is not an emperor. He is just the President."

It's the stories like this -- or how 9-year-old Amy Carter broke free from her security detail, running through the crowd on Main Street U.S.A. in order to get to Mickey Mouse. Which then resulted in her Secret Service detail shoving tourists out of their way as they rushed back to the president's daughter's side -- that make "Spinning Disney's World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent" such a compelling read.


Copyright 2007 The Intrepid Traveler

So if you want a behind-the-mouse-ears view of how the Disney theme parks actually operate, you really ought to pick up a copy of Charlie Ridgway's entertaining & informative biography.

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  • Great book.  I finished it the other night after only a couple of nights.  Highly recommend it  - a great history by someone who was actually there.  

    I really liked the fact that he did not seem to have an agenda.  He told the stories as he saw them and did not lower himself to using his book to comment on the recent troubles of the Disney Company.  Very refreshing!

  • On the subject of books, Jim, how's yours coming along?  (I've resorted to public shaming until it gets published.)

    Len

  • Old guys everywhere!  There has been a real upswing the reporting about the "has beens" arond JHM recently.  

    Who are the young up and comers at within Disney that are going to excelerate Disney to the next level?

    Rich

  • I rarely comment here, but I have to respond to richbirch.  Rich, I hope you didn't mean that to sound so offensive, but it did.  "Old guys"?  "Has beens"?!?!  Anyone who knows Charlie wouldn't use that phrase, except in the context "he HAS BEEN everywhere and done more than I ever will in my entire life".  The problem isn't that Disney needs more "young up and comers" (like Paul P, Cynthia H, Ed & Meg, etc?) but that they need more people in charge who remember their history.  And whoever takes Disney to "the next level", I hope they know how to spell accelerate.

  • There's a younger guy named Lassetter that's got some power now. He's been getting called every name under the sun as he tries to get Disney Co back to where it was, and up to the next level.

  • Jim:

    Nice article.  I can't wait to read the book but I wish you would have created a mention and link to my site (that has the Donald Duck parade picture) instead of just crediting it to "Google Images".  When I checked Google images, that picture was on the first page and said it came from Walt Dated World and I did not see any other site that had it.  A mention would have enabled some new visitors to see my site.  I have links on my page to your site and would appreciate a mention in yours too.  

    Mouseketeer Alison

    Webmaster of Walt Dated World

    http://waltdatedworld.bravepages.com

  • I agree with skubersky!

    ...and I look forward to purchasing this book (right after I buy Gabler's).

  • Wow that looks great! I'll have to keep my eyes open for a copy.

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