A Conversation With Charles Ridgway, Legendary Press Agent for Walt Disney and Author of Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor& Publisher of Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as our guest, Charles Ridgway the legendary press agent for Walt Disney.
Charles is also the author of Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a MagicKingdom Press Agent. He is so famous and loved that his name is actually on one of the windows on Main Streetat Walt Disney World, the biggest honor Disney gives to anyone!
Good day Charles and thanks for participating in our interview.
When and how did you become the press agent for Walt Disney? How long did you work for Disney?
I had been a reporter for the Los Angeles Mirror-News (a tabloid owned by the Times Mirror Company) since 1952 and was the only reporter on any of the LA metropolitan dailies living in OrangeCounty at the time.
I saw Disneyland growing in an orange grove beginning in late 1954 and knew it was something very unusual.After several months, I finally convinced my city editor to allow me to do a picture feature story on the park in April 1955 four months before its opening.I borrowed a neighbor boy, David Potthast, 6, and posed him in front of a half finished castle, on a stagecoach without horses, fishing in an empty river in front of a half finished Frontierland.
My photographer, Delmar Watson, was a former Our Gang Comedy star.The story ran on May 5, 1955, exactly 50 years to the day before the beginning of the park’s 50th anniversary which I attended.On July 17, 1955 I was one of many reporters who covered the opening day which proved be disastrous with rides breaking down, pavement getting so soft high heels sunk in a gas leak which caused a short-term evacuation of Fantasyland – all this in the midst of doing a live TV show.
My wife and I – all dressed up – arrived at 9 a.m. because e lived close although the invitation was for noon.Instead of an expected 15,000 invite4d guests, 30,000 turned up.It was a mob scene.My wife and I got a head start on lunch and had a great meal surrounded by many Hollywood celebrities.Later they ran out of food and had to serve bread with a slice of cheese, instead of prime rib.When the mob got so huge, my wife went home saying she would come another day.
I watched the dedication in Town Square but spent a lot of time in the press tent watching it all on TV.Later I went onto Main Street about 5 p.m. and it was virtually deserted.People had gotten hot and tired and gone home.I called my wife to come back and ride all the rides – all of those broken down earlier were fixed and we had a great time.But it took Walt ant the Disneyland publicity people six months to regain the respect of the news people who were there on opening day.
During the next eight years I covered many events at the park (because I lived nearby it saved money on mileage) including Eisenhower’s visit and annual summer premiers of new attractions.When the Mirror-News folded at the end of 1961, I went to work on the Long Beach Press Telegram and a feature writer.I pretty much picked my own subjects and knew when I needed a good human interest feature I could find it at Disneyland so I became very well known by the marketing people at the park.
Finally, at the beginning of 1963 they offered me a job as a publicist. I was not sure I wanted to leave newspaper work but thought if there were any PR jobs in the country that I could stand for more than a week, this might be it.I was right.
My primary job was writing press releases and taking visiting news people on tours of the park.I became well acquainted with the entertainment writers and editors of the major papers in the LA and OrangeCounty area.I made a specialty of working with our park photographers and getting good publicity shots of the park and setting up the shots at the opening of many new attractions beginning with The Enchanted Tiki Room, the Columbia Sailing Ship, New Orleans Square, It’s a Small World, New Tomorrowland and much more.We brought travel writers and other newsmen from all around the country to tour the park spreading its reputation.
It was also an inspiring and memorable opportunity to work with a genius like Walt Disney. What exactly were your duties as press agent?
“Press agent” is an old fashioned term that goes back to the days of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley but I think it is a more colorful word that public relations specialist, publicist etc.Actually my title initially was “publicist”.Our department was called “Publicity” a term commonly used in Hollywood movie studios.My boss was a veteran movie planter who did not write for himself so initially I was totally responsible for producing press releases, fact sheets and other publicity materials.
We were not involved with advertising or promotions.We also oversaw the development of pictures which would go into our press kits.Later I became a publicity supervisor with one or two other writers working under me.In 1969 I was offered a chance to become the publicity manager for the forthcoming Walt Disney World and after some hesitation decided to make the move.I began touring magazine, newspaper and radio-TV shops around the nation laying the ground work for the new vacation resort in Florida.
What was it like to have covered the grand opening celebrations of the opening day of Disneyland?
I may be the only one who was there who remembers the day as wonderful and exciting.I avoided the traffic jam getting there, much of the crowd during the day and was totally enthralled with the imagination and quality which has been the hallmark of Disney parks through the years.While other reporters were fighting the crowd and criticizing the park for being unfinished –lack of drinking fountains and son on. I was thrilled with everything I saw and experienced..
Has the way Disney is publicized today changed and if so how?
In the early days and until Frank Wells and Michael Eisner came to the company we did almost no advertising and only relatively limited promotions so publicity was the main way of selling the park.Obviously we had the great advantage of having the Walt Disney television show on the air each week with many of the programs centering on the park and its new developments.
Word of mouth was of course extremely important.The basis of the publicity efforts was getting journalists to come and visit and enjoy the park for themselves – not trying to sell the park but to give the writers and broadcasters a chance to experience personally the fun and unique adventures for the entire family.
We spent much time visiting with the news-people to interest them in coming and then seeing they were well entertained when there.We organized gigantic press events to attract a maximum number of the press.That is still a basic part of the publicity effort but of course many things have changed radically in the way we do it and the make up of the media we approach.
When I started we were still preparing our press released on mimeograph stencils and running off copies in the mail room.We used an old addressograph machine to address or envelopes.There were no computers, no fax machines, and no cell phones.Print media was by far the most important to us.We hired a cameraman with a 16mm film camera to record our major press openings and deliver it to the local TV stations in time for airing the following day.
Now of course we have satellite uplinks in place so that local reporters for all around the country can come in do live stand ups during the opening. Since a small being with one satellite truck at the opening of Epcot in 1982 when we discovered the effectiveness of live reports, we have had as many as 150 TV stations, 14 satellite trucks and 350 radio stations reporting of the opening of a new park or attraction.The main additions in recent years have been the posting press pictures and stories on the Disney websites where they become immediately available.
How important do you feel is the role of a cast member of the various Disney parks? How are they trained and what is expected of them?
Cast members have been a vital part of the success of the parks since the earliest days.Initially the managers at Disneyland were going to hire people with experience in amusement parks, carnivals and circuses.Walt called a decisive halt.He wanted bright, friendly, smiling people – typical all American young people – that could be trained not as employees but as hosts and hostesses playing special roles in a massive outdoor theater.He created the DisneyUniversity to teach the history and philosophy of the Disney organization—showing them traditional Disney animated films – teaching them the friendly words that make all the difference – treating the people who come as guests – not customers—truly enjoying the parts they play.Cast members wear costumes, not uniforms.
Everything is designed to fit into and complement the scene around the – music, color, artistic design and the smiling faces the cast members all go to make up a rare experience for guests.
If you had to choose one or more of the wackiest experiences you had as a press agent, which one would it be and why?
There were lots of them of course but my favorite was training 50 white ducks to follow Donald Duck down Main Street for his 50th anniversary.We found that for the ducks to bond with Donald he had to bond with them at the beginning so we sent him to Miami to the hatchery and got great pictures of him down on the floor with the little yellow fur balls.
Later he went out to Ft.Wilderness every day or two throwing lettuce to get the ducks used to following him.Later we built a little shed behind my office in city hall so they could go onto Main Street every morning before opening and follow Donald.I thought if they were going to a birthday party they ought to have on party hats, so our costumers designed little cone shaped hats for them.The only trouble was when we tried to put one on the first duck, all the others immediately got jealous and attacked.We solved the problem with a divider in the pen, put the hat on a duck, and put him on the other side of the divider, then a second third and so on.As long as they all had on hats they were fine.We also named them for Disney characters like Goofy, Dopey, Snow White, etc, and then put a ribbon round their necks with name tags like other cast members.We also built a float with a little picket fence around it so the ducks could rid in the parade every day.
You have met many celebrities over the years. Who are your favorites and why?
First of all there was Walt Disney himself.He was always so enthusiastic and inspiring, hard working.I remember one night in particular before I went to work at Disneyland; he spent an hour telling us about this new attraction he was planning to build called “Pirates the Caribbean.
”The way he told it, it was the most exciting story I ever heard.And I was lucky enough to be on had with it became reality.One of my favorites was actress Helen Hayes –the most gracious lady I ever knew.We got to know each other during the first Love Bug Days at Disneyland around 1965 and renewed the friendship when she frequently came to Disney World.I remember standing with here in a top floor suite at the Contemporary Hotel looking out over the Seven Seas Lagoon and the MagicKingdom one evening at dusk.“I’ve been all around the world,” she said, “but there is no sight quite like this.”
Bob hope was another favorite who would call me every year or so and ask to see what was new. On several visits he agreed to serve as grand marshal of our parade or some opening we were having at the time.He had grate affection for Walt and his memory.
Among favorite contacts among writers, editors and TV journalists were David Brinkley, Tom Brokaw, Walter Cronkite, Joan Lunden, and Charlie Gibson Peter Jennings.Walter Anderson at Parade Magazine, travel writers Steve Birnbaum and Horace Sutton who both wrote wonderful things about Disney parks and both died during the same year.All of them were fine writers and always very kind to me.
How would you compare the Disney parks in North America with those abroad?
Disneyland Paris is probably the most grand of all the parks with great attention to detail and design.The Disneyland Hotel sits across the opening of the MagicKingdom providing a grand vista down Main Street and a magnificent icon for the entrance.
I liked Hong Kong Disneyland because it is an almost exact replica of the original MagicKingdom in size, scale and number of attractions which brought back many fond memories of the original park.Tokyo Disneyland is also much like the original but bigger and different mainly because of the pane-glass roof over
Main Street Tokyo DisneySeas is different than any the other parks but quite well done.All of them show the same spirit of imagination and quality and fun.
How did your book Spinning Disney’s World: Memories of a Magic Kingdom Press Agent come about? Will you share with us a little bit about your book? What motivated you to write the book? What are your hopes for this book?
The book is made of informal tales of the good old days at Disney which I told through the years over lunch or dinner with my journalist friends.Some are humorous –all are personal remembrances.
Frequently my friends would end the evening saying – ‘You should put those in a book.”I tried a time or two through the years but they didn’t seem to come out right until after retirement, one of my writer friends suggested instead of trying to write it, get a tape recorder and “tell” it like I had to them.That got me started and it just sort of flowed out from there.
I made no attempt to try to include everything or everybody who were a part of it but just told it like I remember.I finished it in about three months.As usual my first attempts to find a publisher hit a brick wall until a friend, former co worker, who had published a guide to Orlando restaurants, suggested the Kelly Monaghan at Intrepid Traveler might like to take a look.I sent the manuscript.A week later, he called back and said, “I want to publish it.”The book took very little editing.I had some of my Disney friends check it for accuracy and with minor changes away it went.I have been most pleased by the reviews from Disney fans around the country.
What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?
Outside of what I have said above, once I got started it just gushed out.
Will there by any unique ways you'll be marketing your book that is different from how others authors market their books?
Pretty normal except I have the advantage of several years’ contact with the National Fantasy Fan Club and its hundreds of Disney fans.Intrepid Traveler had done a super job of letting the Disney fan clubs and internet sites know about the book.I have enjoyed book signings, particularly at Barnes and Nobel Stores in mid Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and look forward to selling the book at July’s NFFC show in Anaheim.
Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered and what is next for Charles Ridgway?
I expect to continue traveling extensively and continue with digital photography which gives me an excuse to travel.I have really enjoyed taking pictures for the past six years since I bought my first digital camera.I have my own website at www.travelphotoridgway.com which has given me a chance to display photos from trips to Europe, South Africa, China, South Africa and Walt Disney World.I just got back from a great trip to Rome and Sorrento, Istanbul, Athens and the GreekIslands.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
DISNEY ON A DIME: Money-Saving Secrets for Your Walt Disney World Vacation
Authors: Chris & Kristal CarlsonPublisher: The Intrepid TravelerISBN: ISBN-10: 1-887140-57-3The following review was contributed by: Jennifer Brown : Click Here To View Jennifer Brown's ReviewsThink you live too far away to take a trip to Walt Disney World? Heard horror stories about how expensive it is to mingle with Mickey? Think there’s no way you’d ever be able to plan a vacation like Walt Disney World with your multiple children and tight budget? Think again!Chris and Kristal...
HIDDEN MICKEYS: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World’s Best Kept Secret
Author: Steven M. BarrettPublisher: The Intrepid TravelerISBN: 1-887140-56-5The following review was contributed by: Jennifer Brown : Click Here To View Jennifer Brown's ReviewsPerhaps you thought that Mickey Mouse can be seen everywhere around Walt Disney World. Maybe you even thought that he’s front and center wherever you go. True, but did you also know he’s well hidden throughout the parks, hotels, and restaurants, too?For those who dare to get bored during their whirlwind, fun-filled...
Florida-There is a Lot More Than Disney & The Beaches
Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel.com and Bookpleasures.com is pleased to have as a guest, travel author, Bruce Hunt, expert on Florida Travel. Bruce is the author of Visiting Small Town Florida Revised Edition, Florida’s Finest Inns And Bed & Breakfasts, and Adventure Sports In Florida. Norm: Good Day Bruce and thank you for participating in our interview. Norm: Could you tell our readers something about yourself and what prompted you...
What The Press Had To Say About Lily's Art Work
ARTICLE PUBLISHED AUGUST 14, 2003CJNGoldman goes places with watercolours By HEATHER SOLOMON Special to The CJN Lily Azérad Goldman, who has a solo exhibit at Pavillon des Arts de Sainte-Adèle, is also partners with her husband Norman on the Net. Just give Lily Azérad Goldman a bottle of water and a glass, and she’ll soon have her paper filled with summer blooms, lakeside scenes and open markets. The water isn’t for drinking but to slake her creative thirst in the production of...
There Goes A Mermaid! A Norfolktale (Pre-Press Copy) by Lisa Suhay: Illustrated by Sam Hundley
The following review was contributed by:
LILY AZERAD GOLDMAN CHILDREN'S BOOK AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR LIVING IN MONTREAL CANADA
There Goes a Mermaid! A NorFolkTale authored by Lisa Suhay and illustrated by Sam Hundley is really a whimsical guidebook for children visiting the mermaid sculptures of Norfolk, Virginia.
Kevin Gallup, who created the basic sculpture form for all the Norfolk mermaids, as well as the artists who created the designs on the Mermaids, are listed on the back...
Thanks for the Memories: Love, Sex and World War II
Author: Jane Mersky LederPublisher: Praeger PublishersISBN: 0-275-98879-1 The USA’s official involvement as a combatant nation in World War II lasted just over 3.5 years. During that period, approximately 16 million young adults, males and females, enlisted in the various branches of the US armed forces. They trained in military bases scattered across the USA. They served in Europe, Africa and the Pacific. They left loved ones behind and met loved ones abroad. Their lives we
Writer’s Guide To Hollywood Producers, Directors, and Screenwriter’s Agents-2002-2003 by Skipp Press
If you have ever written a book, magazine article, or screen play, you know how difficult it can be to have your “brilliant” work of literature published. At least you thought it was “brilliant!” Fret no more; Skip Press has come to our rescue with his extremely helpful guide entitled Writer’s Guide To Hollywood Producers, Directors, and Screenwriter’s Agents-2002-2003. Although the book concerns itself primarily with screenwriting and which doors to knock on in order to sell your script,...
Hotel Stories: Legendary Hideaways Of The World
Author: Francisca Matteoli Publisher: Assouline ISBN: 2843233429The following review was contributed by: NORM GOLDMAN: Editor of Bookpleasures &CLICK TO VIEW