Flight Circle

BACKSTORY (1955–1965): Young pilots gave demonstrations of U-control aircraft hourly, doing some fancy flying and teaching others how to fly. Leroy Cox managed quite an advertising coup when he got his aircraft and employees chosen for these demos, seen by hundreds of thousands of Disneyland guests. The “Flight Circle” had operated initially by flying club members and then by the Wen-Mac company, but Cox’s reputation as a more reliable manufacturer got them into the premium Tomorrowland space starting in the summer of 1958 until it closed in 1965. The young flyers would sometimes fly two or three aircraft at a time or bring people from the crowd in to try their hand at flying Cox aircraft. Tether cars ran in circles and powered boats also ran in a pond. Many thanks to “Cox Pilot” for the information, stories, photos, and movie on this page. This section would not have been possible without him! For more information about Leroy Cox, visit The Craftsmanship Museum website; it’s an excellent resource!

Cox Pilot and the Flight Circle

My father was a tax assessor for the State Board of Equalization. In 1955 he was charged with evaluating how much Disneyland should be paying in State sales tax; he worked in an upstairs office in downtown Santa Ana above Frank Palmer’s Hobbies and Toys. Keith (his son) was a good friend, and he was recruited by Wen-Mac Hobbies to work at the Flight Circle in Tomorrowland. Walt expressly asked for some sort of hobby oriented center, and he had WED approach a local hobby club (L.A. Hobby and Model Club, as they had a great variety of aircraft, boats, and cars, most of which were custom) to put on demonstrations. (Little known: Walt tried to market a gas model engine as one of his efforts. An extremely rare item in hobby circles.) The hobby club quickly failed because of the lack of scheduling of the demos, and because of the unreliability of the model engines. People would not wait around to watch someone failing to start a motor. You can see in some of the other photos a model carrier deck they would land on. The Model Club and Wen-Mac wore those plastic hats that were used by the Autopia people. When Cox took over, they said to hell with the hats. Wen-Mac people were recognizable by the boots (same as Autopia) which they tucked their pants into. You can see a guy out in the circle starting a gas powered car with a pole in the photo below. This was an accepted method of the day. You would run behind the car until it started (self contained ignition). The newer engines had to have a battery connected and later removed, and you would spin the rear wheels with your hands. You can also see a model boat in the pond which looks like a tug. These all would be custom built by the Club. Also; notice the “Flight Circle” logo on the fence in the lower right (Flight Circle . . Air / Land). Another one is on the fence towards the Rocket to the Moon Attraction. Also; notice the shiny surface of the work counters. They were made of aluminum and look new. In my day they had become dull and had to be cleaned constantly.

Tomorrowland Satellite Flight Circle, 1960Later, Wen-Mac hobbies was approached because it was believed that they would be more reliable since they were a nationally distributed company. They would also absorb the cost of operation. That failed because Wen-Mac was less reliable than the hobby club. (This was when my friend Keith was hired by Wen-Mac). Finally, around 1957 or 1958, L.M.Cox Manufacturing Co. (because of national recognition in the hobby industry) was approached. The deal was that Disney would supply the area rent free, and Cox would provide everything else. After graduation from Santa Ana High School in June of 1959, Keith got me the job with Cox at Disneyland. Thus laid the groundwork for a crew of disruptive rascals with their noisy model airplanes, totally outside the rules and regulations that normally restricted the majority of the Cast Members. I saw Walt go by the Circle several times a week (before opening) and was always impressed by the attention to detail he was able to accomplish. Early on my very first day on the job, before the Park opened, I was being taught how to fly a model plane by my friend Keith. As I struggled to keep control (and not get dizzy while constantly turning in a circle), I finally started to feel the groove of it. The plane ran out of fuel in it's usual 5 minutes and came in for a “somewhat” smooth landing. As I struggled to keep my balance, and look cool, I noticed a group of men standing in front of the Astro Jets. It was then that I realized Walt & group had stopped to watch. Just at the time I realized WHO was watching, he gave me a thumbs up, and proceeded on with pointing “here” and pointing “there,” while the people behind him quickly jotted down notes on their clip boards. The very next day, that which was pointed out was fixed or repainted. That moment is burned into my visual memory as if it happened 5 minutes ago. And I can remember Walt’s easy way with the people that worked for him. The banners in this pic say Thimble (horizontal) and Drome (vertical), and were only up for the first year of operation after Cox took over from Wen-Mac until they could make better signage. According to Cox history records, they took over in late 1957. Their first “real” season was summer of 1958, when the banners went up. They were removed when the area was re-painted and upgraded. When I started there (I remember seeing them stored in the cabinets) they were not up. You can also see in the various photos of the circle the change in the “tower” on the center cabinet. Wen-Mac had a chair half-way up for the announcer (you can see it in this Sept. 1956 photo just below the mushroom light on the building to the right, and the tower included the wind sock. Cox had their mini thimble (gold) with a small plane going around their Cox logo. Later, the circle had small display platforms around the inside the fence, with various planes, cars and boats. Another thing that was deleted from the circle was the benches. They were too much trouble to clean around. By about 1960, they just had chairs. The Circle was always difficult to keep clean, and we were always requesting hose-downs at night, and re-painting of the slurry. The planes used castor oil in the fuel as a lubricant, and it was everywhere. Maintenance would always tell us that it was a financial problem, and that our company (L.M. Cox) would need to pay for it. It alway seemed to be a stand-off. We took to using a lot of ammonia and got complaints over that. That last summer we did get a complete paint and scrub before the summer season, but then nothing after that. We all knew that it was the last year.

In this photo it seems to be between shows. According to the clock in the center, the “next show” will be at either 1:15 or 2:00. That tells me that it’s one of those times when we moved up one of the shows, and set back the next one (normally it was every hour on the half-hour). This would give us extra time (not the usual 20 min) between shows. Something special must have been going on for us to have an extra block of time. We would go see a special guest (past President Ike was a good example), or maybe a special parade. We even did it to go out of the Park for supplies. You can see in the photo a plane on the ground (Curtis Pusher) between the cabinets, with orange wings, and a P-40 Flying Tiger on the far left cabinet in a state of repair, with various red rags around for cleaning. The tower shows the gold thimble with the red wording of "Thimble Drome", and the reverse lettering (seen from the back) saying "DISNEYLAND FLIGHT CIRCLE". On the top of the thimble is an air speed indicator (non-working), and the chair that the announcer would never use because it was to likely that he would be hit by a plane. Also included: a aluminum engine mount for testing engines (looks like a silver microphone mounted to the right side of the center cabinet with the tower), the red model display mounts around the inside of the circle, and the thimble drome flags. About the flags: I'm surprised to see them up with the display mounts. I remember helping put up the display mounts, and I THOUGHT I'd remembered that we took down the flags because they had become ragged and faded. It just goes to show that memories are not always dependable. I'm also surprised that the circle was left in such a mess between shows. Keith Palmer was supervisor after Don Hatcher (and then I was after Keith went to Sales in the Cox plant in Santa Ana), and none would have allowed this. It must have been one of those days that we were not around. We all worked 10 hours per day, 4 days a week, so the schedule was always a jumble (sometimes working weekends, sometimes not). You can also make out some race cars out in the center, with tire tracks (we had 4 cars early on, and later 8) mounted on a peg and wire. It seems a lot of people are hanging around the Hobby Shop under the canopies on the left just beyond the circle, and that usually happened just AFTER a show, and not before. This is where Bart Klapinski got a job after the circle closed in '65, and worked his way up to a merchandising supervisor in the Main Street Emporium. Once Benny Goodman was playing in Tomorrowland in front of the 20K exhibit and we were tasked to do some shows at night (had never done that before). After a couple of shows of pulling the crowds from the band performance, Mr. Goodman’s people “requested” that we not fly our planes during the time his band was performing; instead, they would take a required break every hour for 15 minutes. So, we timed our airplane show during that break. It was fun to see ALL the people move in mass from the bandstand area to our Flight Circle. Then, when the show stopped and the music started again, they all moved back in mass like a giant group hug. Needless to say, after Goodman complained, we never flew a show after dark again. That area in front of the 20K Movie walk-thru was a major site for big bands (even larger than Carnation Plaza). I remember Jose Feliciano’s early debut at that same place. We didn’t have ropes or waiting areas to control the crowds (or exit areas for sales of the models); the crowds just descended on us when the noise of the engines came on. The people at WED did not like the noise either because it masked the “canned” tapes from the other attractions, and was disturbing to some entertainers (a good example of that was the Benny Goodman incident). The only thing that kept the Flight Circle and the model demo's going was Walt himself; he was always a hobby nut.

Disneyland Flight Circle photoDisneyland Flight Circle photo(Photo at left) In this November 1963 photo, it looks like rather late in the day because of the shadows. I remember the Flying Saucers attraction having the big sign on top, and as I recall it rotated too. Regarding the Circle: If you look at the little lagoon where we would run the boats, you will notice there is NO water in it. Also notice the lack of seating around the circle (chairs, benches, etc.), and the lack of seating inside the circle where we would usually have several chairs for ourselves and the "guest pilot". Another little item; NO "next show" clock anywhere. Also the cabinet door is wide open, and this was where the amplifier for the mic was. They would take it away during the off season. All this evidence would lead me to think the Flight Circle was closed for the winter season. It was usual policy for the circle to close for the winter, with some exceptions. November would have been the winter season, and they would empty out the circle and remove the gold thimble to keep it clean, and then put it back again. The circle would not open again until summer of 1964, and thenit would stay open year round until final closing. Also, they forgot to take away the red fiber glass matt we used for the starting line. You can see it leaning up against the fence on the far left. You can see it in an old publicity photo from one of the model mags of the day (photo at right, with Keith Palmer, George Molitor, Don Hatcher). During a couple of years around 1962/1963 they would have weekend shows only. During this time, I went to College and also served time in the Naval Air Reserve. Later; Keith became supervisor and convinced Cox that it was a lost opportunity, and we again started winter shows in 1964 (12 to 6 week days, and full days on weekends). This allowed us to continue school full time in the mornings while working. We also ran some shows at night until 9 on Friday and Saturday during the summer, but that proved to be more of a problem with the bands and such, and it was hard to see the planes at night so it ended rather quickly.

I believe I'm the young man in this shot. By August of 1965 when this photo was taken, Bart Klapinski and I were the only ones working the Circle. The company (L.M. Cox) had informed us that Disneyland would be ripping out all of Tomorrowland, so they cut the crew down. Keith Palmer had already transfered into the sales department at Cox (Santa Ana, CA), and I was to transfer to the research and development lab after September (we called it the skunk works because it was sealed off with special combination locks). The security there was better that when I worked at Hughes Aircraft Co in Fullerton. In this photo Bart Kapinksi is shown back stage on our last day after the last show, playing with one of the animals from the Submarine Voyage attraction.

Disneyland Flight Circle photo, 1965Disneyland Flight Circle photo, 1963Shortly after this photo on the left was taken (on June 28, 1963), I went active in the Naval Air Reserve. HS-772 Helo Anti Submarine Squadron needed my services. I didn't return to the Circle until the following summer in '64. If you look REAL close at Keith kneeling down, you can see another arm (just under the elbow of the girl in green). That, most likely, would have been Bart Klapinski. You didn't include a couple of things in your close-up that would have told me the time of day. The triangle "next show" clock just to the right and would have displayed the time of the show we were performing. The airplane I'm flying would have been the very first, the "Lil Stinker". A very small biplane patterned after the famous Pits Special racer of the '30s and '40s. This would have been less than 5 minutes into the show. The sound of the first plane gathered quite a crowd. I know it was early in the show because the Mercedes Benz race cars have their hoods up, ready to be started. This happened after the Lil Stinker, Curtis Pusher and Piper Comanche were flown. The next step was to power up the boats, and then the cars. The Comanche was flown low and slow because it was very large and to dangerous to fly at full speed on such short lines, and we wanted to keep it below the fence for safety. The Curtis was design to go slow (just like the original) and was not flown at such a high angle. I see a lot of girls in green. Maybe it was Girl Scout Day. I can smell it now. The combination of hot slurry, castor oil in the airplane fuel, and the compressed air of the Astro Jets. I could still give the full spiel: "Good afternoon everyone, and welcome to the Thimble Drome. This demonstration is brought to you by the L.M. Cox Manufacturing Company of Santa Ana, California . . . the world's large maker of ready to fly powered models. The plane you see in the air now is . . . . "

This badge was issued to me by mistake because they were in such a rush to get me signed in and off to work. Normally, only WED employees were issued these badges. The backside has a pin, and a loop for a lanyard. The badges and ID cards were to be turned in upon leaving employment at the park, but since we really didn't work for WED, Bart Klapinski and I just left at the end of that last day in September (I never wore the badge while working). We all wore the wings along with a very small tie pin made from Cox’s smallest engine which was tied in with a promotional film called “Wally Wins His Wings.” It played on TV a little. I was in the film teaching “Wally” how to fly. Email Daveland if you know how to get a complete unedited copy of this! In this photo Keith Palmer is at left) and George Molitor at right. The plane is a Piper Commanche and Whittier Narrows was the location. The film was shot there and at the Pomona Fair where we had the same show for two weeks. Disneyland would not let them film in the park. Below, you can see the movie: