When your demo accidentally kidnaps Richard Nixon

Richard NixonEngineering is a tough thing and can mean a lot of trial and error. Just when you get things barely working and your system is still incredibly fragile, your boss invariably brings in some VIP by and asks for a demonstration. You worry the whole time that the thing won’t work given that it is figuratively held together with chewing gum and Popsicle sticks, but do the best you can in what can be a very stressful situation.

What if you did all that and accidentally kidnapped the Vice President of the United States?

That happened to Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr in 1959.

A few months ago I ran an article on the new Disneyland Monorail and the trouble they had with the newest trains that got traced to a documentation error. Those problems have been solved and the attraction is running again and to commemorate the return of this classic ride, a recent Official Disneyland Podcast featured an interview with Mr. Monorail, Bob Gurr who was the original designer of the ride when it debuted in 1959. Gurr told a great story about the maiden voyage of the first train that included the family of then Vice President Richard Nixon, a long time friend of Walt Disney’s who came to officially dedicate the ride.

Like a lot of complex engineering projects, the Disneyland Monorail had a lot of problems upon its installation. It had been an idea in Walt’s head just 9 months before it was christened and Gurr’s team had been tinkering and patching the various subsystems each night after running tests during the day. The evening before the live television broadcast of the dedication by the Nixon family, Gurr finally coaxed the train to its first round trip journey without a mishap. Knowing that the complex machine had to only go as far as the TV camera shot could see it the next day, he parked it at the Tomorrowland station and thought it was ready to go.

That is, until his boss had other ideas.

When everyone arrived that morning and the TV cameras were getting set up, Walt suggested that the Nixon family have the first ride before the ceremony started. This paralyzed Gurr with fear, but he knew he had to do it because of who asked. As the train slowly crept away from the station, Gurr noticed that Nixon’s Secret Service protection was caught off guard by the change in plan and unsuccessfully scurried to get on board.

Not only was Gurr not confident they would make it all the way around the track for this demo, but he realized he’d accidentally kidnapped the Vice President of the United States.

On the bright side, the train worked and made the trip without a problem. It went so well that Nixon’s daughters asked to keep going on a second loop. Gurr didn’t slow the train down as it went through the station again, but that didn’t keep Secret Service agents from running along and jumping in anyway.

Bosses have a way of surprising us when we aren’t ready for them. Most of my demos work when I show them to my wife, but a much lower percentage of them do the same when my boss gets me in front of upper management. The best thing to do is to be as prepared as possible, have “slideware” as a backup, and cop to it when things don’t go well. No matter how bad it gets, you probably won’t get the Secret Service mad at you.

As a bonus, like everything else, the dedication ceremony for the Disneyland Monorail is on YouTube:


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