The date: August 6, 1970. The location: the Happiest Place on Earth.
Richard Nixon was president, the Kent State massacre occurred three months earlier, and the O.C. was still a deep-red bastion in Southern California. John Schmitz, a poster boy for the John Birch Society, represented Disneyland’s district in Congress. The liberal-leaning students of UC Irvine, where I went to school, maintained a frosty detachment from the stolid citizens of Newport Beach.
And it was in the Magic Kingdom, just about 50 years ago, that cultures clashed, generations collided, and the combined law enforcement forces of five Orange County towns faced off against an army of long-haired provocateurs. The protagonists, or antagonists, depending upon one’s perspective, were members of the Youth International Party, or Yippies, founded in 1968 by Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman and given to pranksterish “protests” like threatening to levitate the Pentagon. Their mission in Anaheim was to completely take over Disneyland. Their demands included free admission, the “liberation” of Minnie Mouse, a wage hike for Frontierland’s Native American dancers, and the conversion of Aunt Jemima’s Kitchen into a Black Panthers-themed breakfast joint.
As it happened, I, too, was at Disneyland that day, not as a Yippie but as an 18-year-old with a summer job selling ice cream next to the Sleeping Beauty Castle. (Earlier that summer Secret Service agents stormed my concession to clear a path for two youngish charges: The husband stammered trying to select a flavor, leaving his wife to command “two double chocolates.” They were David and Julie Nixon Eisenhower.)
By then Walt Disney had been dead nearly four years, but Disneyland was holding fast to everything it believed he stood for—so much so that the departed boss was still spoken of in the present tense. Facial hair was strictly verboten for “cast members” unless you were assigned a period role on Main Street.
“We have the 1950s Ivy League look here,” commanded Disney’s dour personnel director. Those who strayed from it were summarily dismissed to work at Taco Bell, or even worse, Knott’s Berry Farm.
Word of the Yippie invasion first started in late July when notices appeared in the Los Angeles Free Press announcing an International Pow-Wow at Disneyland. A tuxedoed Mickey was pictured brandishing a rifle, as if accessorized by the Chicago Seven. Among the Yippies’ grievances, they took issue with Bank of America, one of Disneyland’s sponsors, for its apparent role in financing the Vietnam War—not to mention underwriting the It’s a Small World ride.
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August 6 looked like a typical day as I drove into the cast parking lot for my shift—then spotted wooden barricades piled high and security patrols lurking outside the administrative building and atop the structure housing the Grand Canyon diorama. A smattering of tie-dyed T-shirts and ripped jeans were at first the only signs that anything untoward was afoot. Police later estimated that over 300 Yippie infiltrators breached the park that day, mingling with 30,000 “regular” Disneyland visitors.
Minor outrages such as the unfurling of a Viet Cong flag were quickly quelled by the 100 or so riot police that were deployed throughout the park. Anyone under the age of 30 and not pushing a stroller was eyed with suspicion. Reaction inside Carnation Plaza Gardens, where I stood guard over the tubs of ice cream, was a bit tense. “Tom Sawyer Island has been shut down!” the hot dog cook alerted the staff around 4 p.m., as if announcing the British invasion.
The standoff that resulted in the park’s complete shutdown took place on Main Street at around 5 p.m., after a column of Yippies gathered to advance on the park’s Bank of America branch. A BofA outpost near the UC Santa Barbara campus had been torched in an earlier antiwar protest, so a wall of Disneyland riot cops mobilized to greet the Yippies with billy clubs drawn.
Heated words were exchanged, a Yippie tried to yank down the American flag in Town Square, and much shoving and fisticuffs ensued. Soon after, a loud sheriff’s helicopter from Anaheim City Hall was hovering over Main Street, as a cop with a bullhorn ordered everyone below to immediately evacuate. I headed to the movies to see, appropriately enough, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, set against the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the Yippies’ Festival of Life protest helped goad the cops into what was later adjudged a police riot.
The Yippies’ August incursion marked only the second time in Disneyland’s now-64-year history that the park closed early. The previous was the assassination of President John Kennedy; the next would be after the 9/11 attacks. In the wake of the 1970 dustup, a strict dress code went into effect not only for cast members but also for guests: Males were forbidden to sport long hair or beards, and tie-dyed or slogan-bearing T-shirts on either sex were banished for several years.
Back at school I recounted the incident for the student newspaper. Copies of my story spread like wildfire through the Disneyland locker rooms and cast-member rest areas, prompting former colleagues to get in touch to inform me that I’d been blackballed from working at Disneyland forever.
Still, before we parted ways, I received a thick envelope from my employer. Inside was a thank-you letter, a book of ride tickets, and a reprint of a highly charged editorial that had appeared in the Santa Ana Register the day after the August 6 contretemps, praising the police and park top brass for their adroit handling of the situation.
Among its florid declarations, the piece contained a line I still can recite a half century later—and love to share at parties: “The Communist organizers of the revolution made a grave strategic blunder when they decided to take on Disneyland!.”
Stephen M. Silverman’s latest book is The Amusement Park: 900 Years of Thrills and Spills, and the Dreamers and Schemers Who Built Them.
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