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How Counterfeiters Nearly Ruined Opening Day at Disneyland

Disneyland Resort
Disneyland Resort

When ABC television host Art Linkletter greeted viewers from Disneyland on July 17, 1955, he marveled that 15,000 happy visitors were in attendance. Beaming and resplendent in his suit, Linkletter was unaware of the seven-mile gridlock backing up the Santa Ana Freeway, that children who had been trapped in cars for hours were relieving their overtaxed bladders in the parking lot, or that Disney die-hards were so desperate to get in they were literally climbing the walls and fences.

More than 28,000 people laid siege to the meticulously-planned theme park on its opening day, many of them navigating the invitation-only affair by either sneaking in or handing in counterfeit passes when the gate opened at 2:30 p.m. Overcrowded and baking in the blistering 100-degree heat, so much went wrong when Disneyland opened its doors that Walt Disney himself would later label the affair “Black Sunday.”

Disneyland Resort

Though Disney had been plotting a park for decades, its actual construction took place over 365 frenetic days. Built over 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, California, Disneyland upended the conventional approach to a carnival atmosphere: it would be educational, inventive, and magical.

“For it the appellation ‘amusement park’ is inadequate,” The New York Times wrote, "for it has no such banalities as roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and dodge-’ems in a milieu of honky-tonk.”

The park would instead attempt to transport guests to a variety of exotic landscapes. Main Street, which welcomed the guests, hosted a variety of shops and attractions circa 1900; Tomorrowland imagined a future in 1986 where trips to the moon were a common occurrence; Fantasyland hosted Disney’s trademark icons like Cinderella and Snow White in a 70-foot-tall castle. At a cost of $17 million, the company had leveraged every financial resource it could—including ABC, which planned to broadcast its opening live, creating an immovable deadline.

Money grew so tight that bare patches of land were covered with weeds and given exotic-sounding names in Latin; the Dumbo ride, which was tested with sandbags, wasn’t operational in time for the opening; character costumes were borrowed from the company’s Ice Capades tour; a two-story high pile of dirt was dubbed Lookout Mountain.

In addition to Mickey and Peter Pan, wet paint and freshly-laid asphalt greeted visitors that day. Reports circulated of women having to abandon their high heels in the molten streets; food and drink inventories at the various concession areas weren’t sufficient for the traffic and depleted quickly; water fountains were in high demand, but a plumber’s strike had limited their number. The swollen population never eased up: Even though the 2:30 p.m. passes expired to make room for guests with a 5:30 p.m. time stamp, no one wanted to leave.

The gate-crashers were only part of the problem. A gas leak closed portions of the park. The night before, someone had cut the power cable to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, an apparent act of sabotage from disgruntled electricians. And the maiden voyage of the Mark Twain riverboat was complicated by the fact that no one knew its maximum capacity. (They found out in a few days, when 500 passengers nearly capsized it.)  

Disneyland Resort

Disney himself wasn’t clued in until later; he was busy with the ABC special, which had an astonishing 90 million people tuning in. Despite some glitches—Linkletter announced a rifle-wielding Davy Crockett as “Cinderella”—the production was surprisingly smooth, with 29 cameras capturing throngs of children running to their favorite attractions and dutifully ignoring any footage of mishaps. Ronald Reagan was a co-host; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. buzzed by riding small cars in Autopia. ABC, which had been airing the Disneyland variety show, had essentially beamed a 90-minute commercial to a large chunk of the country.

When Disney learned of the mishaps, he invited members of the press back to make up for any shuttered attractions. To ward off counterfeiters, tickets used special backgrounds and patterns that made them harder to replicate. By its seventh week, Disneyland had welcomed over a million guests. It was no honky-tonk milieu but one that enthralled children and fed into the burgeoning automobile-obsessed society. Calling it a magic kingdom wasn’t an exaggeration—provided you didn’t drink too much water before coming.   

Additional Sources: “Disneyland Gets Its Last Touches,” The New York Times, July 9, 1955 [PDF]; “Disneyland Had Nowhere to Go But Up After Debut,” The Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1999; Untitled, Independent Press-Telegram, July 15, 1955.

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Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
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Pop Culture
The Computer Virus That Brought Down Whac-A-Mole
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Walk inside any pop-up carnival, amusement park, or retro arcade space and you’re likely to find a rodent infestation so stubborn that visitors are expected to bludgeon the pests to death with a mallet. Despite receiving thousands of concussive blows, these creatures are virtually guaranteed to continue being a nuisance—and for the game’s operators, their seeming indestructibility is a lucrative source of revenue.

Whac-A-Mole, first introduced in 1976 by the Bob’s Space Racers (BSR) amusement company out of Florida, is a cabinet game that features plastic-molded moles raised and lowered on mechanical sticks to be walloped by players wielding a foam club. Despite all of the moving parts, it’s generally understood that the games will require only minimal maintenance: a new washer every now and then, and maybe a cleaning.

That’s why the sudden failure of several Whac-A-Mole machines beginning in 2008 was so strange. BSR began fielding calls from unhappy customers who complained that their units were malfunctioning. After working fine for days or weeks, the units would power down without warning.

Some of them opted to deal directly with Marvin Wimberly, a computer programmer and contractor working for BSR who was able to diagnose and fix what appeared to be a defective module that was infected with a virus.

Before long, both BSR and local authorities would come to believe the repair came easily to Wimberly for a simple reason: They suspected he was the one who infected the modules in the first place.

A Whac-A-Mole game in Cedar Point, Ohio
Sam Howzit, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

According to a 2011 report in the Orlando Sentinel, Wimberly, then 61, had been with BSR since 1980 as an independent contractor. For 22 years, Wimberly wrote the computer programs that told Whac-A-Mole and other games how to interact with players. Wimberly believed his software was his property; BSR believed they owned it—a point of contention that would soon come into dispute.

The work wasn’t always steady, and Wimberly was apparently unhappy with his wages. Following a breakdown in negotiations for BSR to buy his software outright for $500,000, in 2009 he asked that his fee per chip be raised from $60 to $150.

A few months prior, in September 2008, modules began surfacing that were infected with a virus—or what some programmers call a “logic bomb”—that would render the machines useless after a set number of games: sometimes five, sometimes 50, sometimes 511. BSR bought equipment to examine the chips, found the virus, and became convinced that Wimberly had gone rogue. They told police he had sold them 443 infected modules for $51,000, then sat back as the company began to field complaints from operators. When BSR approached Wimberly with offers to fix the chips, he would—and then, according to police, promptly install a new virus that would begin the countdown all over again.

The authorities also believed Wimberly fielded inquiries from disgruntled customers who didn’t want to bother going through BSR for repairs, and even registered a website, bobsupgrades.com, that sought to solicit repair work from amusement operators.

The cabinet art for the Whac-A-Mole arcade game
Nick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Feeling they had sufficient information from BSR, Orlando authorities arrested Wimberly in February 2011 on charges relating to offenses against intellectual property. He was released after posting $15,000 bail. BSR CFO Michael Lane told the press that Wimberly’s actions had led to roughly $100,000 in losses for the company.

The news media found a lot of humor in poisoning the well of Whac-A-Mole, but Wimberly, who was accused of a second-degree felony, wasn't laughing: He faced 15 years in prison.

Except Wimberly wouldn’t be swatted away so easily. According to court records kept in Volusia County, Florida, Wimberly asserted the virus was a software bug that was a result of new diagnostic procedures, not sabotage. In April 2012, Wimberly argued before a judge that, as the owner of the software under question, he couldn’t be accused of tampering with it—as he owned it outright.

“He is essentially accused of modifying his own software,” read the motion to dismiss, which noted that Wimberly hadn’t been paid for the repairs and was therefore failing to profit from the alleged wrongdoing. The court agreed, and the criminal case was dismissed in April 2013.

But Wimberly wasn’t satisfied. In September 2013, he sued Bob’s Space Racers for misappropriation of trade secrets, accusing them of continuing to sell Whac-A-Mole and other games containing Wimberly’s codes after parting ways with him and without paying any licensing fees. He also alleged that BSR had failed to come to him with news of the virus’s discovery, preferring to build a case against him with local police instead; BSR countered that Wimberly had “intentionally programmed the [chip] software to include a virus” and that he was paid to repair the malfunctioning chips.

The case dragged on for more than two years, inching toward a jury trial. In November 2015, the parties finally reached a settlement with undisclosed terms. A spokesperson for BSR declined to comment to Mental Floss on the matter; Wimberly could not be reached.

If there was an attempt to sabotage Whac-A-Mole, it couldn't be proven to a criminal court's satisfaction. If Wimberly did indeed own the software, his argument that he was free to do with it as he liked would have been weighed against the harm done to BSR's reputation for having to service defective modules. But Wimberly insisted he did not write or install a virus: The accusation that he had, he claimed, was unfounded.

The next time you play, it may be a good idea to remind yourself that the people behind the game often have worse headaches than the moles.

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entertainment
The One Phrase Disney Theme Park Characters Aren't Allowed to Say
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images
Matt Stroshane, Disney/Getty Images

The 14 Disney theme parks located around the world attract so many attendees each year that the company recently decided to increase admission for peak times by 20 percent to help decrease crowd congestion. Anaheim’s Disneyland is such a popular tourist attraction that some days the park is actually at capacity.

What keeps visitors packed in like sardines? The promise of a suspended reality—one that treats the various Disney characters as though they had just stepped out of a movie. There’s a laundry list of employee policies to help sustain that illusion, and Travel + Leisure recently uncovered one of the most interesting ones: Actors dressed as Disney characters are never allowed to say “I don’t know” to guests.

The motivation is understandable: Disney never wants people to feel as though they need to wander around looking for information. If they pose a question to, say, a Disney Princess, the actor is expected to communicate with other employees or areas of the park in order to find the answer. If Elsa doesn't know where the nearest restroom is, she's tasked with finding out before your kid's bladder gives up.

If a guest is looking for general directions, there’s also protocol for how to point. Performers are not allowed to use their index finger by itself. Instead, they use it in conjunction with their middle finger. In addition to index finger-pointing being considered rude in some cultures, legend has it that the gesture was partly inspired by Walt Disney himself, who once roamed the park grounds pointing at structures with two fingers that pinched a cigarette.

[h/t Travel + Leisure]

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