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Walt Disney Vs. The Air Pirates

Walt 'Nickels' Disney's Gulfstream 1, preparing for combat. Not pictures: Nickels!

During the 1970s, Frank Stanek lead planning efforts at WED Enterprises and headed the development of Tokyo Disneyland, but back in 1964 he was a young cast member managing the business affairs of Disney’s “it’s a small world” attraction at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair. Walt Disney had visited the fair several times, but Stanek wouldn’t have his first real conversation with Walt until an coincidental encounter on the tarmac at LaGuardia resulting from – of all things – a shortage of nickels.

In the early 1960s the nation was experiencing a coin shortage. Depending on region, various denominations of coinage became difficult to obtain in bulk, making things hard for operations like Disneyland that required lots of cash-on-hand on a daily basis. In California, nickels in particular became scarce. This wasn’t an issue in New York, and Roy Disney had befriended the manager of a bank near the fairgrounds who made sure Stanek had everything he needed.

Carl Freeberg, who ran the cash control department at Disneyland, grew tired of the situation and made a call to New York. “We’re having trouble getting nickels,” Freeberg told Stanek. “If you can get me nickels, I talked to the company aviation department, and they will fly the nickels back to me in California.”

Walt never flew himself, but was an aviation buff and had been an early adopter of planes for corporate purposes. The studio had been operating a Beechcraft Queen Air, which Walt had used to scout sites for “Disneyland East,” but before the fair opened in 1964 Disney upgraded to a Grumman Gulfstream 1 twin-engine turboprop.

Recalls Stanek, “He set up a shuttle system, and every week or thereabouts he would fly a load of Disney executives, creative people, whatever, sometimes with their wives, and he would fly them to New York for the fair.” Landing at LaGuardia Airport, Walt and his guests would be just a short drive from the fairground in Queens.

With Disney’s jet shuttling back and forth almost weekly, it gave Stanek an easy way to supply Disneyland with nickels. Carl Freeberg consulted with the aviation department, who said that there was room on the airplane to carry an additional 200 pounds of weight, and Stanek became, in his words, “the logistics expert on shipping nickels to California.” A bag of nickels straight from the bank is $200, and weighs forty pounds. Five bags of nickels, worth $1,000, weighs 200 pounds and was therefore equal to one passenger on the Disney aircraft.

So, Stanek put in an order for extra nickels from the bank and drove them to the airfield. The pilot said that they needed to distribute the weight throughout the craft, so, says Stanek, “we would stick them underneath the seats and spread them all throughout the aircraft.” The system worked well; Disneyland got their nickels, and everyone was happy. Every now and then a call would come in from California, and another batch of nickels was sent westward.

“One day,” recalls Stanek, “I get a call and Carl needs the nickels again and he says the plane’s in town. It was, I don’t know, Saturday morning or Sunday morning.” The plane was to take off early – 7:30 or 8 in the morning – so Stanek picked up the nickels at the bank the night before and, before the fair opened the next morning, took them in the company station wagon down to LaGuardia. The Disney craft was parked in the section of the airport devoted to private planes, separate from commercial aviation operations.

The pilot was there preparing for the flight, but, says Stanek, “What am I? I’m 24 years old. I say to myself, ‘I’m not leaving this money – it’s my money until that plane gets in the air.’” The nickels were loaded on the plane, but Stanek lingered on the tarmac waiting for it to depart. “And the next thing I know,” recalls Stanek, “Walt Disney is standing next to me.”

“He’s an early riser, so he got there with his wife before anybody else did. He had three or four other executives and their wives with him. I said, ‘Good morning, Walt,’ and he said, ‘Good Morning.’ He says to me, ‘What model aircraft is that over there?’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ And then he says to me, ‘Who owns that aircraft? Is that Frank Sinatra’s aircraft?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know.’”

Stanek was starting to get worried. “Now I’m thinking to myself, he’s going to ask me another question and it’s going to be three strikes and I’m out. And so I said to Walt, ‘I’m sorry Walt, I don’t really work here and I know nothing about aircraft – I work for you!’ He said, ‘Oh! You work for me!’ I said, ‘Yep, I’m out at Small World and here’s what I do,’ you know. I introduced myself of course, and he said, ‘Well what are you doing here?’”

Stanek filled Walt in on the situation with the nickels, and his unique way of keeping Disneyland stocked with coins. “Of course he knew Carl Freeberg,” says Stanek, “because everybody at Disney knew everybody at that time. I said, ‘I’m sending Carl some nickels.’”

Most of us, at that point, would probably not have a lot to say about the nickel situation. That’s why we’re not Walt Disney.

“He listens to this story,” remembers Stanek, “and he called his wife over. He said, ‘Lilly, come over here. This is Frank Stanek, and guess what he’s doing? He just put $200,000 dollars worth of coins on the airplane!’”

So, $2,000 had become $200,000 dollars. Just a little exaggeration, right? Hardly.

“Now we’re going to fly off with this money on our airplane,” said Walt. “Can you imagine if we’re over Las Vegas and we get attacked by air pirates?”

Stanek laughs as he remembers Walt’s excitement. “He’s spinning this story right there to both of us, but he’s really addressing his wife. It was the most interesting, tremendous experience – you saw how Walt was thinking all the time about some kind of a storyline, about some creative thing.”

At eight in the morning, even. Inspired by a story about currency shortages.

“He had this whole plane attack,” says Stanek, “and they were under attack by air pirates and he was developing this whole storyline.” Eventually the rest of Walt’s party arrived, everyone said their goodbyes, and the plane departed. It was, no doubt, an interesting flight. Says Stanek, “I’m sure he spent the rest of the flight back thinking about that story and telling everybody on the plane about it.”

Walt Disney Versus the Air Pirates – that’s a movie I would watch.

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2 comments to Walt Disney Vs. The Air Pirates

  • Drew

    Interesting story and definitely not what I was expecting (Dan O’Neil).

  • Eilonwy

    Great story! I love hearing about Walt. It always fascinates me to hear the stories people told of him and how charismatic and imaginative he was in person. Sometimes I feel like I met him just by how other people talk about him.

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