animals, Disney, Pop Culture

The Feral Cats of Disneyland.

disney cats       Original publish date:  December 7, 2013

At last count, there were 35 official Walt Disney cats. Figaro, Lucifer, Cheshire, Bagheera, Shere Khan, Thomas O’Malley, Duchess, Tigger, Rufus, Oliver, Dinah, Mufasa, Simba, Nala, Scar, all of those Aristocats and who can forget Si and Am from Lady and the Tramp? “We are Siamese if you please.” There’s an ear-worm for the rest of your day. No doubt, some of those cat names sound familiar while others ring silent in your mind. But do you know about the feral cats of Disneyland?
Every night at the California Disneyland theme park, after the bedraggled parents head for the exits with their sunburned children in tow, after the exhausted employees (Disneyland calls them “cast members”) have headed for home, the park fills up again, this time, with some 200 hundred feral cats. Never heard of a feral cat? A feral cat is a domestic cat that has returned to the wild. A feral cat is different from a stray cat, which is defined as a cat that has been lost or abandoned, while feral cats are born in the wild. Although the offspring of a stray cat can be considered feral if born in the wild.
When Disneyland opened over a half century ago in 1955, the location was then a rural suburb of Los Angeles called Anaheim. An area best known for producing oranges for juice and grapes for wine with a population under 15,000 people. It quickly grew to over 100,000 by 1960 and today it’s population numbers over 350,000. As the town quickly became a city the pet population grew accordingly. Almost from the start, feral cats began to gather behind the gates of the Magic Kingdom. Many factors contributed to this frenzied feline phenomenon; safety, shelter, community, but mostly food.
In the earliest days of the park, things were quite different than they are today. True, the park employed dozens of “cast members” to pick up trash back in the day, but the emphasis was on ride cleanliness back then rather than the meticulous state of grounds keeping we can see today. During renovation of the Sleeping Beauty castle two years after Disneyland opened, more than 100 cats were found living in the unused portion. Worse yet, a colony of fleas permeated the area as well.
No doubt, these feral cats were first drawn to Disneyland by the discarded scraps of food left behind on park grounds by guests, but the cat population stayed for another reason: Mice. Ironic when you consider the entire Walt Disney juggernaut was built around a mouse. While Mickey Mouse may have put Disneyland on the map, a colony of feral cats helps keep the famous theme park rodent-free. The cats were first drawn to a long forgotten “lost” land of Disneyland known as “Holidayland.” Operating from 1957 to 1961, Holidayland was a 9-acre grassy picnic area located along the western edge of Disneyland, near the area that is now New Orleans Square.
SteveC_LgT_Holiday1Holidayland had its own admission gate into Disneyland and could hold up to 7,000 guests for large events. It featured playgrounds, horseshoes, a baseball diamond, volleyball courts and other activities. The centerpiece was billed as “the world’s largest candy-striped circus tent” which had previously been used by the short-lived.Mickey Mouse Club Circus and Keller’s Jungle Killers attractions inside the original Disneyland theme park. Food and concessions were available for purchase in Holidayland including beer, which was not available inside the gates of Disneyland.
Despite providing alcohol for the relief of sun-scorched adults, Holidayland floundered, and eventually failed, after only 4 years due to its lack of shade, absence of nighttime lighting and the unsettling thought that it had no restrooms. Did I mention they sold beer? Today, the former location of Holidayland houses part of the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean rides. But back then, when the picnickers left, the feral cats were now left to meander new regions of the Magic Kingdom.
Holidayland1  At first, the cats were considered to be a bit of a nuisance and a possible threat to the guests. Attempts to control, cajole or coax the cats proved futile. After all, these were non-paying guests and Uncle Walt was simply not going to stand for that. So, rather than try to evict them, Disneyland decided to employ them. Soon, the cats became an integral part of the park’s everyday operations.
But don’t expect to spot one on your next visit as they hide during the daytime. The cats are free to come and go as they please, but only at night. The cats join the 600 custodians, painters, gardeners and decorators who work through the night to ensure that the world’s best known theme park meets the squeaky-clean ideals that Walt Disney himself extolled so many years ago. The cats work alongside a human crew that works 365 nights a year, toiling under portable floodlights sprucing, fixing and adjusting this city that never sleeps.
Siamese Cats             Just as the feral cats of Disneyland have their own specific job, every nighttime worker has his own specific task. Three workers are responsible solely for repairing and replacing the 800 umbrellas, 25,000 chairs and about 7,000 tables in the restaurants and snack bars in Disneyland and neighboring California Adventure Park. Four certified divers collect submerged trash and make repairs on water attractions like Finding Nemo and the Jungle Cruise. The work can often be tedious and occasionally bizarre.
All of the recorded music and sounds heard in the rides and throughout the park runs continuously on a loop. Seems that it is more costly for Disneyland to shut the sound off then to restart the system every day. The only time the sound is shut off is when there is an Emergency such as a massive power loss or emergency shut downs. For example, in “It’s a small world” the dolls stop moving, but the music plays on. Inside the Haunted Mansion, the doom buggies stop but the animatronics still move and the voice-over continues. Luckily the cleaning and maintenance crews can turn it down so they won’t go mad, but the feral cats don’t seem to mind.
Seven years ago, reportedly at the urging of former “Price is Right” host Bob Barker, animal care staff at the park took it upon themselves to do right by their feline employees by instituting a preventative health program of Trap-Neuter-Return”. Aided by local organizations including FixNation, Disneyland developed a lasting protocol for the humane care of the resort’s cats. Although Disneyland doesn’t monitor the total number of cats, the program has been quite successful at adopting out kittens and maintaining a balance between cat population and their Disneyland environment.
After the cats are neutered and returned to the park grounds, they receive continuing managed care. Its a pretty good gig to be a Disney-employed mouser. During the day, the feral cats of Disneyland lounge around and dine at five discreet feeding stations hidden throughout the resort strategically situated to minimize interaction with resort guests. During orientation Disney cast members are instructed to never pet the cats.
It’s nice to see such a high-profile park treating all its visitors and employees humanely-not just the human ones. California Disneyland’s “TNR” program proves that organizations and feral cat colonies can not only peacefully share the same property, but also work together in a mutually beneficial relationship to improve conditions for both parties. You may wonder, does Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida have the same problem? Well, although there have been occasional cat sightings at the Sunshine State’s Magic Kingdom, Disney Orlando has one thing Disney California doesn’t: alligators.
A story circulates that Disneyland changed its stance on the interloping cats based on an incident from those first couple years of operation. Those first original Disneyland feral cats supposedly migrated from an adjacent trailer park. During this time there was a sweet cat that hung out at the ranch in Frontierland. Employees nicknamed the female cat “Roofie” as she often hung out on the roof and surrounding landscape of the “Crockett and Russel Hat Co.” storefront. Employees would routinely bring canned cat food for her and she would come out of the tall grass, sometimes even dropping a mouse she had caught since she liked the canned food more. One day employees noticed that roofie was very ill. After work, they placed her in a box and rushed her to a nearby vet’s office. She died on the way. The vet examined her and said she died from eating poisoned mice. Word got back to Uncle Walt and the policy was changed.
Finally, proof that feral cats can be useful and worthy of life; not simply un-tamable animals for our overtaxed shelters to destroy. Many shelters in the Western US give them to ranchers and farmers for use as barn cats and back in the day police stations and college campuses kept a few around to keep their rodent population down without resorting to the use of chemicals and rodent traps everywhere. Maybe in 2014, the world will take the lead of Walt Disney and his feral cats of Disneyland.
If you would like more information on the feral cats of Indianapolis, please contact the good folks at Indy Feral. Give them a call at (317) 638-3223 or check out their website at Their Mission is to reduce the stray and feral cat overpopulation of our fair city through the non-lethal Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) method. They could use your help and support, or they would just love to hear from you.DisneyCats

Disney, Politics

Walt Disney Meets LBJ.

WaltAndLBJOriginal publish date:                October 29, 2014

Mid-term elections are over, so I figure it is once again safe to write about politics. Well, sort of anyway. One of my favorite political stories involves a pair of baby-boomer heroes on the eve of the seminal 1964 Presidential election. On September 14, 1964, Walt Disney received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States’ highest civilian honor, from Lyndon B. Johnson. The award recognizes those individuals who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”
There can be little doubt that Walt Disney deserved the honor, but controversy revolves around what Mr. Disney was wearing when he received the medal from President Johnson that day. Controversy from the man who brought us the happiest place on earth. What could that possibly be? Well, when Walt met Lyndon, he was wearing a Barry Goldwater for President button on his lapel. The lapel opposite the one that LBJ would pin the distinguished medal to.
The White House announced on July 3, 1964, that Walt would be a recipient of the Medal of Freedom. It was during the Goldwater campaign, and Walt Disney and his entire family were all united in their enthusiastic support of the Conservative Arizona Senator. Walt felt that it was all a ploy to surround the incumbent Democrat LBJ with people judged to be outstanding Americans for a powerful photo op during the campaign. The invitation came at a time when Walt Disney had bigger things on his mind: the New York World’s fair opening, the first death at Disneyland (Mark Maples on the Matterhorn) and the United States Lawn Bowling Championships. Wait, what? Lawn Bowling?
Betcha didn’t know that Walt Disney was one mean lawn bowler did ya? The White House ceremony was scheduled the Monday after the U.S. Lawn Bowling Championships at Buck Hill Falls, in the Pocono Mountains of eastern Pennsylvania near Scranton. The White House ceremony came at the end of a cross country journey Walt had arranged to take his Beverly Hills lawn bowling team back east to play in a few tournaments. Disney was passionate about lawn bowling at this time in his life. Walt bowled in the championships at Buck Hill Falls surrounded by, and competing against, just plain folk less than a week before he would meet the President of the United States.
At some point during his bowling sojourn, Walt decided he wanted to wear a Goldwater button to the White House. He asked an aid to get him a Goldwater pin. They got him two; a large 3″ pin with the slogan “Go-Go Goldwater” and a small tie-tac sized metallic gold metal lapel pin that combined the letter “G” and the numerals “64” as shorthand for “Goldwater in ’64”. Walt wore the big button on the plane going to Washington and joked to friends that he was going to wear it to the White House, although no-one really thought that he would.
Here’s where the story gets a little confusing. Some say that Walt wore the small “G ’64” pin in full view on the front of his lapel while others say he wore it pinned upside down under his lapel. Some of Walt’s friends say that he left the larger pin in his pocket while still others claim that he wore it pinned under his lapel. The very lapel that LBJ would pin the medal onto.
When Walt went to the podium to receive the medal from the President, he in some way tried to let Johnson know that he was wearing the Goldwater button. One account has LBJ discovering the pin while pinning the medal on. At the point of feeling the obstruction under the lapel, Walt flipped the lapel up to show the President the pin. Another states that LBJ saw the smaller tie-tac pin while initially pinning the medal onto the opposite lapel. Still another account claims that while Walt was on the podium and at a point when he and the President were face to face, Walt flipped up his lapel to reveal the pin.
For decades, this episode was viewed as an urban legend. It’s only recently that accounts from eye witnesses have surfaced confirming the incident. Although the exact details may remain fuzzy, the event itself has not been denied. Some members of the Johnson administration came forward to admit that LBJ “was not very happy about it…but I don’t think anything was said between them” and that “Johnson did not take Walt’s political commentary with good grace at all.”
One account of the incident comes from Emile Kuri, a longtime set decorator for the Disney live-action films. Kuri was a regular travel companion of Walt’s in the 1960s. Kuri recalls: “Walt didn’t like Johnson at all and he was wearing a Goldwater button. I was wearing the same button. But before I entered the White House, I took the button off. Walt didn’t. When he went into the White House, the aides to Johnson said, “Mr. Disney, please take that off.” He said, “Why should I? I’m voting for him.” You know he had the courage to do that. I didn’t. I had to take my button off. That man had such tremendous courage.”
2013GoldwaterLine-1x10Back in Los Angeles, Walt told his daughter that he had worn the small button openly and that he had worn the larger “Go Go Goldwater” button on the underside of his lapel. He explained this double placement as “So if anyone said anything about it [the small button], I’d flash this [the larger button]… as if to say, ‘which one do you prefer I wear?’ Wearing an opponent’s button visible to LBJ would seem to have been a slap in the President’s face, a rude gesture difficult to reconcile with the Walt Disney legend.

Walter Elias Disney, was born in Chicago and grew up in Missouri. He was a very devout Congregationalist Christian, the religion of his family, and was named after the family minister. Walt’s political leanings are well-known to be conservative, anti-union, and vehemently anti-communist. Disney was a close ally of “Red Scare” zealot Joe McCarthy. Walt even testified against some of his Hollywood peers in McCarthy’s infamous House Un-American Activities Committee hearings. But was Walt Disney a boorish, ungrateful guest in the People’s House receiving an award so prestigious that- like the comparable Congressional Medal of Honor- it must be bestowed by an act of U.S. Congress?
Whatever the exact nature of Walt’s gesture, it was not defiant or insulting. It was more of an expression of Walt’s Midwestern sense of humor. If Walt said anything to LBJ about the incident, it would have surely been in jest. LBJ was well aware of Disney’s support for Goldwater before he bestowed the honor upon him. The subject of Walt’s support for Goldwater came up in one of LBJ’s recorded telephone conversations on September 6, 1964, eight days before the Medal of Freedom ceremony.
Disney was by nature an enthusiast, and in 1964, politics had become one of his enthusiasms. He had gotten to know General Dwight Eisenhower on social occasions at Palm Springs, and in July 1964, just a few days after the Medal of Freedom announcement, he visited the GOP national convention in San Francisco and was photographed there with Ike and his son, John. By wearing a Goldwater button, Walt may have been sticking up for his friends. Probably a mix of motives was at work: loyalty to fellow Republicans, sharp political differences with Johnson, and, perhaps most importantly, a once in a lifetime opportunity to pull the ultimate prank.
Years later, Walt’s daughter Diane said, “It was in bad taste not to remove it when he was received by the President. Dad did not respect Johnson, but did have great respect for the office he held. I was uneasy about what he said he’d done, but I did not let on. Rather, I probably said, ‘Good for you!’ or something like that. Alas, your animated man was not a perfect man. But he was not a coarse man. He did like to do the little unexpected ‘cute’ things like the bride and groom he designed for our wedding cake [the bride figure, representing Diane, was dressed in Levi’s, and the groom figure, representing Ron Miller, was dressed in Bermuda shorts and bare feet—and a football helmet]. He was the consummate gag man.”

Whether you believe Walt Disney was making a political statement or just pulling a gag, this little known episode from the real life of a man whose name, like Ford, Hershey or Firestone, has become an iconic American brand, must surely make you smile.