PROVO — Now it can be told. Terry O'Brien sank the ship at Disneyland.

If you read accounts about the opening of the park 50 years ago, you might read about how the Mark Twain paddle-wheel boat sank on one of its maiden voyages, but no details or the reason are ever given, because O'Brien didn't talk — until now.

"Now, I figure, what can they do to me? They can't fire me."

O'Brien grew up in Fullerton, Calif. He remembers as a teenager hearing about a new amusement park that was going to open. He had graduated from high school and was awaiting an LDS mission call, so he was looking for a job for a few months. He had worked at Knott's Berry Farm and enjoyed that, so he decided to try Disneyland.

"I remember going to a trailer parked in an orange grove to apply for a job." The park "went up in a hurry," he says. Two weeks before it opened, he reported for work.

It was fun to watch, he said, how all the employees "came in grubby off the streets. They'd go to the dressing rooms, and then you'd see an array of cowboys and Indians and riverboat pilots" all spiffied up.

The first two weeks they got to ride the rides and eat the food. "It was a wonderful job." On opening day, O'Brien got to meet Walt Disney and Art Linkletter, and lots and lots of other people. "They had hoped that 15,000 people might show up. But it was double that. People were lined up eight-wide to get into the park." It was a hot day, and drinking fountains were scarce. "Things really weren't quite finished. The landscaping wasn't done."

And everyone was still learning how it all worked — including O'Brien, who quickly learned that he needed to pay less attention to all the people and more attention to his job.

One of O'Brien's first assignments was to tend the "holding pen" for the Mark Twain, the area where people waited to board the boat.

"They gave me a clicker and told me to let people in until the pen was full. The boat would come in and let one group off and we'd put the other group on. No one was sure just how many people would fit, so they said to try and keep it between 200 to 300."

After a few times, it got kind of boring, so O'Brien started talking to the people and the other workers as he clicked people into the pen, not paying much attention to how many there were. The boat came in, and the next group got on.

"Pretty soon, we heard the toot-toot signal that meant disaster. And everyone wondered what had happened." What had happened was that the boat, which actually made its way around the lagoon on a rail, had sunk off the track and into the mud. There were too many people on board.

"It took about 20 to 30 minutes to get it fixed and back on the rail and it came chugging in. As soon as it pulled up to the landing, all the people rushed to the side to get off, and the boat tipped into the water again, so they all had to wade off through the water, and some of them were pretty mad."

His boss came to ask O'Brien how many people he'd put on the boat. "And I said about 250. And he said, 'Well, better keep it at about 200.' Then I remembered I had the clicker in my pocket. I looked and was shocked to see I'd put 508 people on the boat. I never told anyone until now." But he did make sure it never happened again.

O'Brien worked at the park throughout the summer. He had a lot of interesting experiences there, he says. His jobs included taking tickets for the train and working as the pilot of the Mark Twain and finally on the Jungle Boat. His mission call came for Guatemala, and he left in the fall.

When he piloted the Mark Twain, he remembers, "Walt used to come into the cabin a lot to get away from the crowds. The first time, I was scared to death. I'd heard he liked things to be just so and he wasn't afraid to let people know it. But he found out I was going to Guatemala, and we talked about how hard it was to learn Spanish. He talked about an article he had read on Guatemala."

In those days, a lot of Hollywood stars came to the park. O'Brien remembers talking with Irene Dunn. When he was driving the Jungle Boat, Debbie Reynolds brought Carrie Fisher on the ride. "Carrie cried and screamed the whole time, and Debbie kept telling her to be quiet so I could give my spiel. I thought about that years later when I saw Carrie in the 'Star Wars' movies."

Jerry Lewis rode his Jungle Boat — and fell off, quite on purpose, to get some laughs.

But celebrities weren't all O'Brien had to contend with. "One time, two guys who were stark naked jumped into the river and swam out to the rhino. Another time, as we passed the natives' camp, some guy had taken off his clothes as he was dancing, so you never knew what to expect."

The worst part about the job, he says, is "that the spiel got awfully old and tiresome. So, I started changing it. Every now and then Walt would come and ride the ride to make sure it was going well, and they wanted to put him on my boat because they'd been getting good feedback. But I said, 'No, I've changed the script so much, I don't know what's right anymore.' But Walt would, and he wouldn't like it."

Despite a few times like that, O'Brien grew to like and respect Disney. "He was a great guy. His language could be rough at times, but he knew us all by name." And he paid pretty good wages for the times. "I got $1.75 an hour."

O'Brien left after his first summer. But after he got back from his mission, he worked at Disneyland again for several summers while he attended Brigham Young University.

Eventually, he ended up teaching pre-Columbian art at Cypress College in Fullerton. He has since retired from that career and has moved to Provo.

He still goes back to Disneyland any chance he gets. "I still love it. All those memories. All the stories."

He has only one regret. "When it first opened, they had all the cels that were used in Disney's cartoons and didn't know what to do with them. So, they put them in frames and sold them for $1 a piece. Some of them are now worth thousands. I should have bought tons of 'em."


E-mail: carma@desnews.com