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And Then There Was One

With the retirement today of Ray Van De Warker, Bob Penfield will be the last original Disneyland employee.

August 30, 1996|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ray Van De Warker and Bob Penfield had just graduated from Anaheim High School and were out looking for summer jobs when they drove by a sign that said Disneyland was hiring. It was June 1955.

The two 18-year-old former high school football teammates drove up to the old Anaheim farmhouse serving as Disneyland's personnel office and applied for jobs as ride operators. Across the street, an army of workers was scrambling to complete Walt Disney's dream park in time for its grand opening, less than four weeks away.

Van De Warker and Penfield were hired on the spot.

"We were just looking for something part time because we were going to go to college," Van De Warker recalled. "We ended up going to work and never leaving."

Van De Warker and Penfield were among the approximately 600 workers hired for Disneyland's maiden summer season.

They are the only two original employees still working at Disneyland. And when Van De Warker begins retirement at the end of his shift today, after 41 years, there will be only one left, his old friend Penfield.

"He'll be the last one, the last of the Mohicans," said Van De Warker, 60, who says he's receiving an attractive retirement package from Disneyland and is ready to retire.

"I feel good about leaving, I really do," he said, sounding as upbeat as old Mickey himself. "But I'm going to miss the place, there's no doubt. When you go to work at the same job for 41 years, it becomes a part of your life. You don't just turn and walk away from a part of your life that easy."

Van De Warker is manager of key control in the security division. (Disneyland, which now requires a 12,000-member peak season work force, has at least 1,500 doors "and for every door you've got 10 keys at least," he said.)

But that's only Van De Warker's most recent title.

As he said, he's "worked in just about everything there is to do here at Disneyland." He's been in attractions, merchandise, food and security. He also supervised the behind-the-scenes pony farm where all the park's horses are boarded, managed the Disneyland-owned Heidi Motel on Katella Avenue and managed Disneyland's since-demolished Gulf gasoline station at Katella and West Street.

"I was even Santa Claus one year for the employees' Christmas party," said Van De Warker, who was dubbed "Catfish Jones" by a fellow keel boat operator when they raced their boats for a segment of "The Mickey Mouse Club" filmed at the park.

The nickname stuck, he said, though only old-timers know him as Catfish Jones.

During his decades as a Disneyland cast member--as employees are called--Van De Warker says he never considered working anywhere else.

He and Penfield are members of Disneyland's exclusive Club 55, whose membership is open only to employees who have been working at the park since it opened on July 17, 1955. About 130 original employees were still working at Disneyland in the early '70s when the club was formed. Although Van De Warker and Penfield are the last two members at Disneyland, it has three other members--all at Walt Disney World in Florida.

"The company's been really good to us over the years," Van De Warker said. "It's a fun place to work. There's always something different going on."

It was that way from the start.

Both he and Penfield started as ride operators on the carousel in Fantasyland, working six days a week at $1.55 an hour.

When they started work four days before the park opened with a star-studded, invitation-only extravaganza that was broadcast live by ABC-TV, Main Street hadn't even been paved. In the days leading up to the opening, he said, "this place looked like an ant farm. There were workmen everywhere."

The night before the grand opening, Van De Warker and other Fantasyland ride operators were still being trained on the Snow White and Peter Pan rides.

"We literally spent the night at Disneyland," he said. "I remember going inside the Peter Pan attraction at one point to grab a few hours' sleep, and the Chicken of the Sea pirate ship wasn't even painted. When I came out two or three hours later the whole thing was painted."

Van De Warker remembers that when Fantasyland was unveiled on opening day, the drawbridge of Sleeping Beauty Castle was lowered and several thousand schoolchildren stormed through.

"It's probably the one and only time the castle drawbridge has been up," he said, recalling that the carousel had to be shut down several times that day: There was only one strand of chain around the ride, and kids would duck under it and jump on while the carousel was moving.

Both Van De Warker and Penfield were captured briefly on camera riding with the carousel's first load of passengers.

But they share a more enduring claim to fame at the Magic Kingdom.

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