Michael Schwartner, left, and his cousin Christine Vess, right, were recognized as the first official children to visit Disneyland on opening day, July 18, 1955.
BY JOSEPH PIMENTEL for the Ocregister.com
They were supposed to be in Mexico that day, not at the opening of some amusement park.
But 7-year-old Michael Schwartner persuaded his parents to take a detour.
And then his cousin Christine Vess tripped and skinned her knee.
And that’s how Michael and Christine became the very first official guests in Disneyland 60 years ago this week and unexpectedly received a lifetime of privileges.
That’s how they were escorted past 15,000 people, how they met Walt Disney, and how they posed with Disney for a photograph beamed around the world.
“It’s something I will always have forever,” says Schwartner, now 67, looking at the photo at his home in Fresno. Schwartner smiles, reminiscing about that long-ago time, his gray hair, bushy eyebrows and mustache far removed from the cropped blond hair and crooked smile of the little boy in the photo.
His speech is slowed by a stroke – quiet, like the sound of a radio turned down low – but he still plans to enjoy Disney’s 60th anniversary celebration today – 60 years and 750 million visitors after his first visit.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” he says.
CHANGE OF PLANS
One thing was clear on Sunday, July 17, 1955, the day before Disneyland opened to a public crowd of 29,000 people.
“We had no intention of going,” says Michael’s mother, Mildred Schwartner, 90.
The Fresno woman, her husband, Bill, and son, Michael, were on their way to Mexico to play golf.
Michael, an avid fan of the weekly “Disneyland” TV show, had followed the transformation of this 160-acre plot of orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim into an amusement park. He knew the park had opened that morning to VIP guests and some of their children, and that it would open the next day to the public, Now, if he could persuade Mom and Dad to go.
Being 7, he also knew this: If you want something, you ask. And ask. And ask again.
So as Dad drove the family Buick along the highway from Bakersfield, Michael popped his head up from the back seat, like a jack-in-the-box.
“Disneyland opens today! Disneyland opens today!” he exclaimed, knowing the VIP preview day was underway.
In North Hollywood, the family stopped briefly to say hello to Bill’s sister.
It was there that Michael persuaded his cousins Christine, 5, and Donna, 11, to join the family. Within minutes, three voices were begging to go to Disneyland the next day, when the public could get in.
“I didn’t know anything about Disneyland’s opening,” Mildred Schwartner says. “Michael, being the only child, you know how that is, he got whatever he wanted.”
Mildred and Bill made a quick change of plans.
MAKING A RUCKUS
The next morning, the Schwartners hit the road with Michael, Christine, Donna and the girls’ mother, Carol.
The two-lane I-5 freeway was so packed that a California Highway Patrol officer at the time told the Register: “You could have walked on top of the cars halfway across Orange County.”
By 8 a.m., when the family arrived at Disneyland, more than 15,000 people stood in a line that had begun forming six hours earlier.
Mildred Schwartner recalls wilting under the sun.
A heat wave hit Southern California that month, says Marty Sklar, who at that time was editor of the Disneyland News, an in-park newspaper.
“It must have been 100 degrees,” says Sklar, who eventually rose to become the vice chairman of Walt Disney Imagineering.
“There was no shade,” Mildred Schwartner says.
While her husband and sister-in-law waited in line to pay the admission price – $1 each for the adults and 75 cents or 50 cents for each of the kids, depending on their age – Mildred Schwartner stepped under a wooden awning near the entrance where early visitors had gathered.
Nearby, Michael performed flips off the turnstiles. His cousin Christine ran around, and tripped, scraping her knee.
“I remember falling and crying and having someone put a bandage on me,” she recalls.
Her crying, perhaps, caught the attention of a Disneyland employee.
“The kids were making such a ruckus,” Mildred Schwartner says. “I thought they were going to kick us out.”
Instead, the employee asked if she could take the kids – to meet Walt Disney.
‘GO GET YOUR FAMILY’
Mildred Schwartner grabbed her sister-in-law from the line, and they both agreed. But after several minutes spent staring from behind the chain-link fence that divided the entrance from the park, Mildred grew worried.
“I didn’t have any idea what was going on,” she says. “She didn’t ask us to come in. She could have just run off with the kids.”
Michael remembers meeting Disney for about 45 minutes and taking pictures with him. Disney flipped him around and had him sit on his lap.
“I was just a kid, but he talked to me like a real person,” he says. “He asked me if I could wiggle my ears. I said, ‘No, can you?’ He said, ‘Nope, but I can wiggle my nose.’ And he did – mustache and all.”
Fifteen minutes before the park opened at 10 a.m., Disney walked to the front entrance with Michael and Christine in tow. He thanked Mildred Schwartner and asked her to step to the front of the line. “I told him we didn’t have a ticket yet because my husband was still in line,” she says.
“Go get your family,” Disney said.
She ran back and grabbed her husband. Disney continued taking pictures with the kids.
“We were in complete shock,” Mildred Schwartner says. “He came over and introduced himself to us and said, ‘Come on in.’” Michael wanted to walk in first, but Christine received the honor.
“Ladies first,” Michael told her.
As they entered, Disney knelt and greeted them as the first boy and girl to officially set foot in Disneyland.
Disney took the children by the hands, and they posed for pictures in front of the Mickey Mouse floral display. Then he invited the family aboard the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad for a tour of the new park. The family sat in front, listening to Disney describe his $17 million park in detail.
“He talked about the different areas that we were going to see that day and what we were going to do,” Mildred Schwartner says. “He was very excited.”
Disney gave the family a free pass to all of the rides and for all of the food and drinks they wanted. At the time, after paying the entrance fee, guests typically paid from 10 cents to 35 cents for each ride as well.
“We went wild,” Mildred Schwartner recalls. “We went from ride to ride to ride. All we had to do was get up and get on. We didn’t have to wait in line for anything.”
Christine remembers the train ride and the Rocket to the Moon ride. Michael remembers the Jungle Cruise and the stagecoach in Frontierland, which had real horses. “I mostly remember the feeling of happiness,” she says.
The cousins stayed until the park closed at 10 p.m. And they knew they would return, because Disney had promised them each one more gift – lifetime passes.
That day in 1955 shaped two lives. You could say Michael Schwartner and his cousin, now known as Kristina Graef, became minor Disney celebrities.
“Being the first girl in Disneyland is something I hold dear to my heart,” says Graef, who is 65 and living in Valley Springs, a community in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
A glass cabinet holds her Disney memories, and on a shelf sits the 5-by-7 iconic black-and-white photo of her in a white flowery dress, squinting from the bright sunlight, with her cousin Michael and Walt Disney.
Throughout the years, Graef would visit the park as often as possible. She visited when the Matterhorn Bobsleds opened in 1959, and again when the Pirates of the Caribbean opened in the late 1960s. She remembers meeting TV personalities like Art Linkletter and listening to President Ronald Reagan during one of the anniversary celebrations. She met Tony Danza when he was the star of “Who’s the Boss?” while waiting in line at the Jungle Cruise.
Throughout the decades, her divorces, and her work as a cashier at a bank and later at a casino, she has always found a haven in Disneyland.
Recently, she saw the new “World of Color: Celebrate!” show online – it includes, on a water screen, the 1955 picture of her, Michael and Disney on opening day. “I teared up,” she says. “It brought back a lot of memories.”
Her fondest memories are visiting the park with her husband, three children and six grandchildren. They have traveled to Anaheim as a family every couple of years, but her bad heart and money have become an issue. She hopes to make it to the anniversary celebration – but there’s a question mark in her voice.
“You never know,” she says. “Disneyland is a special place. I tell my grandchildren and everyone to enjoy every minute they are there. …
“The memories that are made there last a lifetime.”
Michael Schwartner lives with his mother in a quiet, manicured neighborhood in a gated community in Fresno. An Army veteran, he is five years removed from a stroke. He speaks slowly. He’s hard of hearing, having lost most of his hearing in the service.
Disney memorabilia fill their house. One wall holds framed animated cells of Mickey Mouse, Goofy and Donald Duck that once sold in stores along Main Street, U.S.A., for as little as $1. A box holds Michael’s annual passes, sent every year since 1955.
“We want to thank Disney for everything,” Mildred Schwart-ner says. “It’s been wonderful fun and unreal when I think about it. It’s been quite an adventure.”
On a recent day, Michael Schwartner wears a gold Mickey Mouse watch that his mother bought for him during the 30th anniversary. Being the first boy in Disneyland is like wearing a badge of honor, he says.
When he joined the Army during the Vietnam War, he told his military buddies that he was the first boy to enter Disneyland. They gave him a good ribbing.
“Some of them doubted it for a long time,” Michael Schwart-ner says. “But I got a couple of buddies in, and we had fun.”
Once he came home in the mid-’70s, he moved to Anaheim and visited the park daily. At night, he’d listen to the live bands in New Orleans Square. He befriended Disney Imagineers who gave him the scoop on how rides were built. Mostly, though, he’d walk around to watch the people – the kids with smiles on their faces holding their Mickey Mouse balloons.
“Those were some of my fondest memories,” he says. “I liked to watch the kids having fun. … You can see a lot of life and living.”
As the park grew, he even became a minor celebrity. During some anniversary celebrations, Disney would fly in him and his cousin. They’d stay at a Disney hotel, sign autographs and give interviews to media from around the world. “I feel blessed all the time,” Schwartner says about being the first boy chosen to enter Disneyland.
These days, he spends much of his time reading and caring for his mother. They can’t drive to Disneyland – his health and her age forbid that. So they’ve asked a family member to drive them the 250 miles to the park for today’s 60th anniversary celebration.
This time, Michael’s head won’t be popping up from the back seat like a jack-in-the-box. But his heart will be pounding, like it always does.
Staff writers Tom Berg and Mark Eades contributed to this story.
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