Al Hunter is on vacation. This is a re-run of a column from February, 2014
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 earworm 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. 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 the 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 groundskeeping 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.
Holidayland 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 four 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.
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 up, fixing and adjusting this city that never sleeps.
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 than 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 voiceover 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 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. It’s 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 occassional 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 untamable 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 resortng 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.
Al Hunter is the author of the “Haunted Indianapolis” and co-author of the “Haunted Irvington” and “Indiana National Road” book series. His newest book is “Bumps in the Night. Stories from the Weekly View.” Contact directly at Huntvault@aol.com or become a friend on Facebook.