Who is Bob Woodham you say? The name may not ring a bell, but if anyone has ever gone to a Disney park, you met him, or actually met many people like him…For Bob was a Disney Cast Member. Disney’s Cast Members are what I call “Disney’s Ambassadors.”
Most guests will never meet Bob Iger or Al Weiss or Meg Crofton, but all guests’ perceptions and opinions of Walt’s parks, his dreams, and ideas–everything that encompasses the Disney Company–is gleaned from meeting hard-working and dedicated cast members. They are the front-line of Disney, everyone from servers to ride attendants, performers, photographers, and even the guy who sweeps the street will set the mood and convey the Magic to all guests who encounter them. Walt himself knew the importance of his employees… “You can design and create, and build the most wonderful place in the world. But it takes people to make the dream a reality.” And these people are why Disney is such a magical and special place to millions.
But what makes Bob a little different? Well, he is a 30 year retired Cast Member and, most importantly and most interestingly, Bob was hired for opening day, October 1st, 1971 and was the FIRST Monorail Pilot hired at Disney! His reminiscences and stories are a priceless look back to the beginnings of Walt Disney World. I hope you enjoy this trip back through time…
MN…Where were you born?
BOB…I was born in Apopka Florida. A lifelong Florida resident
MN…Did you love Disney as a Kid?
BOB…As a kid growing up, I didn’t know a thing about Disney. Not until I got older
MN…How old was that?
BOB…It had to be in my early 20s
MN…Did you ever go to Disneyland?
BOB…No. I was not much of a world traveler. I pretty much stayed in Florida my whole life.
MN…Have you always wanted to work for Disney?
BOB…Not always. I was a Police Officer in Winter Park when I started learning about Disney. That’s when my passion for Disney started.
MN…When did you decide to work for Disney?
BOB…I learned that Disney was going to open here in 1971. In 1970 I started putting applications in so I could get in on the ground floor.
MN…Did you ever meet any Disney Dignitaries?
BOB…Ironically, while still in the Police Department, there were a group of Disney people staying at the Langford Hotel and I was in the honor guard that guarded the Disney Entourage here. I met Roy O Disney and Card Walker and several others but I can’t remember their names. I never had the chance to meet Walt before he passed.
MN…Where did you go to apply?
BOB…I just drove down interstate 4 got off at 535, there was an employment center setup, and I went in and filled out the application.
MN…Did you get to pick your job?
BOB…In my first interview, they found out I was a Police Officer and they said they could put me on right away as a security host. I then thought I put my foot in my mouth, I said…”I’ve done 5 years police work, I’m really looking for something else to do” They said…”Well, we appreciate you coming out, obviously you don’t want security work. We’re not hiring for anything else at this time. But a few weeks later I got a call to see if I was interested in another interview. At that time, a man named Pete Crimmings was director of Transportation, and Tom Nabbe, Manager of the Monorails, sat down and said I would be a good candidate for the Monorail. I answered… “What’s a Monorail?” He explained what it was and I said… “That sounds interesting”
MN…When did you decide to Make Disney a career?
BOB…When I first started working, I went with the attitude I’m going to give this a shot and see where it goes. The longer I stayed, the more I enjoyed it and the more I believed in the philosophies of the company. And the people were great to work for.
MN…How many jobs did you have in your career?
BOB…Oh boy! There were several different departments such as parking lots, buses, and watercraft. I went back as manager for the Monorail for a while. In the Magic Kingdom, I was manager of Main St., Adventureland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland. Disney’s Vice President of the Magic Kingdom at the time, Bob Matheison’s philosophy was that your first two years, year one was a learning experience. In year two, you would take that experience and see if you could change things for the better, then it was time to move to another area.
MN…Tell us about your first Monorail job
BOB…I was actually hired on August 2nd. Our first training was because the beams were not completed all the way around the park. Back then, you’re talking from the Ticket and Transportation Center to the two hotels, the Contemporary and the Poly, and the front of the Magic Kingdom. Some of our first duties were we would get a punch sheet and go check each of the stations and see how they were progressing. We would actually walk some of the beams to see how they were coming along. We were inspectors first.
MN…So before the Monorail was running, you learned how they operated?
BOB…The Monorails were built in California, disassembled and shipped to Martian Marietta Co. who put them together. When we started there was no Monorail on property. The first part of the beam completed was from the Monorail shop to the spur line, and later connecting to the main line. When the first Monorail train was delivered, you could operate them from both ends. You needed a key to open the console to get power. One person would get in one end of the Monorail and another in the other end, drive it from the shop out to the spur, turn it off, get on the radio and say “Ok, it’s yours” then that person would drive it back to the shop.
MN…So the Monorail is like a big electric train.
BOB…Correct! And we would drive it back and forth, that’s how we started.
MN…Then the Monorail was completed before the end of 1971.
BOB…We got three delivered, and opened with three. The beams were done, but the Contemporary Hotel was still under construction. There were big cranes hauling up big buckets of concrete. We found that driving through the hotel; the concrete would splash on the Monorail. We had to quit driving through and set up a shuttle program from the TTC through the Poly to the Magic Kingdom, unload, back that train out, sit; let the second one come in, unload and return to the Ticket and Transportation Center.
MN…How long where you a Monorail Pilot before your next job?
BOB… I believe it was In March of ’72 when I was promoted into supervision.
MN…Was it easy for Cast Members to receive promotions?
BOB…Disney would come to you. I think they observed us, how we functioned, got along with people, that type of thing and you were asked to come for an interview. And quite frankly, in 1971-72, many of the positions you could move up pretty quickly if you were dedicated and really understood what Disney was all about; and agreed with the philosophy that the guest comes first.
MN…What was your favorite job at Disney?
BOB…There were two that came real close. One was the manager of Watercraft. Because if you were having a bad day for whatever reason, you go out and ride a boat in Florida and meet the guests, that’s just hard to beat. The other was when I was loaned out to Market and Publicity for the opening of EPCOT and I got to do lots of interesting things with celebrities and people all over property and helped get EPCOT going.
MN…What was your least favorite?
BOB…That’s a tough one. All jobs were fun. There was a change of philosophy after Eisner came into the organization. At that point it was not that the job was bad, but the philosophy that I grew up with as part of the Walt Disney World cast original, it just changed.
MN…What was your goal at Disney?
BOB…When you start, you want to see where it’s going to go. I started enjoying it so much. I was blessed that I was not shy, I loved talking with people. It was a great place to be to speak to people from all over the world. After the first three or four years, I realized this is where I want to be, I don’t want to be anywhere else.
MN…So your goal was to stay with Disney, because of what Disney stood for?
BOB…Right. Actually the Police Chief of Winter Park called me on the phone and said… “I would like to hire you back” I told him I am going to stay with Disney.
MN…What were your thoughts on Opening Day?
BOB…For me personally, I was very nervous. This was a Monorail system different than in California. The system had to get some of the bugs out. We were all excited about getting it opened. Seeing all the guests coming up the North-South road, parking in the lot and getting them to the park was exciting. They were still painting the building at the TTC because things were still not 100% complete. Even the asphalt in front of the station was still being poured.
MN…So how did opening day go?
BOB…I think it went pretty smooth. I don’t remember any major glitches. A Monorail may have broken down for a few minutes, but maintenance was right there. It was smoother than when Disneyland opened up.
MN…What were the biggest changes you noticed over your thirty year career?
BOB…I could definitely see the line in the sand when Eisner came in. It became more “Bottom Line” “How much money was taken in?” “Did you meet your budget?” “If not, why?” We had more meetings than I can remember when Eisner came in. Before that it was…”Get out with the people” Obviously as a manager you needed time in the office to plan, but they still insisted you get out among the guests. Under Eisner, they never insisted you get out in the area. They wanted you in the office, going over your spreadsheets, and balance sheets.
MN…So the guests and their interests sort of got lost in the shuffle?
BOB…Yes, most definitely. To give an example…We had two side-paddle live steam boats; The Southern Seas and the Ports of Call. They were the only two live steam boats traveling on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon. They did not necessarily produce revenue. But you realized how important they were because people would come up to you and say… “I remember those boats” and “I love Steam Engines”. People just loved those boats. Since they were not profitable, they got rid of them.
MN…So the guests that Walt always said were the heart of his parks, were placed second in the name of profit?
BOB…Walt understood when he was designing Walt Disney World. He said those boats would be built and be operated. He was told they would not make a profit. Walt said he did not care. “Look at the aesthetics of those boats” he said. “Running around Bay Lake and Seven Seas lagoon, people would come just because there were live steam ships in central Florida”
MN…Do you think Disney has improved over the years?
BOB…I think Disney went through a period that they went backwards, I still have a lot of friends that still work there. Under the new management, I won’t say its back to the way it was, because that’s going to be hard because the Corporation is so big now, but they are trying to head in the right direction. When Eisner came in, everything that could be was outsourced because it was cheaper. These vendors did not have to go to the Disney University as vendors today do. That is another big change. A Cast Member feels part of the company, and going to the University gives these vendors a sense of belonging.
MN…If you wanted to advance at Disney, could you just ask?
BOB…Sure, you could go and tell your boss that you want to move up. They in turn would tell you what to work on to help you get where you want. I hate to harp on the Eisner era, but if you had a finance degree you were a lot better off than if you had a business or any other degree.
MN…What’s your fondest memory at Disney?
BOB…I’m a people person. One day at work, I saw a lady, probably in her 80s sitting on a bench on the Monorail platform. A half hour later she was still there. Another half hour, still there. There was no one with her, so I went down and said… “Ma’am, do you need any help?” She said… “No, my family went into the park, I’m just waiting on them” I said… “You’re sitting here and have no idea when they are coming back?” She said… “No” We did all kinds of things for her. We took her into our break room, got her some drinks. We told everyone about her and we all spoke to her and just tried to make her comfortable. We had a great time with that lady, I’ll never forget that.
MN…Did you ever want to be an Imagineer?
BOB…No, no. I never wanted to be an Imagineer
MN…What’s your favorite attraction?
BOB…Pirates of the Caribbean
MN…What attraction were you sorry to see go?
BOB…The subs. 20,000 Leagues under the sea subs
MN…What is the hardest job for a Cast Member?
BOB…I think the hardest is what they do today, they have to do tomorrow but not with the same people, it’s a different group. You have to be up; you have to be lively, friendly and aspiring. That’s hard to do day after day. You have to remember that all guests are different, they are not the same. Every day you give the best performance you can to the new people.
MN…How do you feel about Disney today?
BOB…I think it’s a great Company. A lot of people say you bounced around a lot and yes I did. But you learn so much from a different area at a time. And if they need help in another area, you have that experience; you don’t become bored. You always have something fresh going in your mind and fresh to learn and challenge you, it keeps your mind active. I love the Company for doing that.
MN…Before we finish, can you tell us a story about the early days at Disney?
BOB…The one story I tell that people find hard to believe is after we opened, we had three Monorails. At the TTC there was no cafeteria; the nearest was in the Polynesian. Only one Monorail was on the Hotel beam, the interior beam. You had a choice, either bring your lunch or go over to the Poly. I was never good at bringing my lunch, so I ate at the Poly a lot. So if the Monorail came in around my lunchtime, I would get on because the next stop was the Poly. But if it didn’t the one Monorail with all its stops took about 45 minutes to come around. So if I just missed it, I would actually just step on the beam and walk to the poly for my lunch. Of course, you can’t do that today.
MN…That’s a great story! One last question, would you do it over again?
BOB…In a heartbeat!
MN…I want to thank you so much for your time in sharing with all of us your memories and stories of the beginning of Walt Disney World. You must feel very special to have been a part of Walt Disney World from the start. I envy you! I hope we can get together again one day and talk more about Walt Disney World and its beginnings.
Bob…You’re welcome, I had a great time!
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.