By Catherine Ramirez
On May 22, 1998 at the mere price tag of $100 million, the new Tomorrowland was rededicated at Disneyland with special guests in attendance, including astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Tomorrowland opened with a new esthetic, attractions and exhibits like Rocket Rods and the American Space Experience. Although these additions no longer exist today, including most of Tomorrowland’s 1998 makeover, there is one special item that also appeared in Tomorrowland around this time, and not only does it continue to exist today, it has flourished. It is an invention so magical in design, that it includes a 15” Mickey Mouse head shaped latex balloon incased inside of a round film that protects the latex Mickey balloon from oxidizing on the hot summer days. If inflated correctly, it seals the helium filled balloon in such a way that it can remain airborne for well over a month. I am of course talking about the Glasshouse balloon which remains as vibrant, new and exciting today as when it first graced Disneyland’s Tomorrowland back in 1998.
When I worked on film production at the Disneyland Resort during that time, the Glasshouse balloon was one of the highest demanded props for commercials, B-Roll and still photo shoots. On one occasion, I remember being told to pick up these important props from the balloon man who just so happened to be at Disneyland that day. I vaguely remember retrieving these special balloons from a nice dressed man who was backstage in the balloon room. The term “balloon man,” I would learn many years later, would be a severe understatement. For Treb Heining is more than a balloon man, he is THE man, a visionary, who would ignite a balloon industry and invent the bestselling balloon of all time.
To understand Treb Heining, you first have to learn about his origins. His father, a native Californian, was a paratrooper in the U.S. Army stationed out of Fort Bragg. His mother was born and raised in the village of Babylon on Long Island, New York. On one fateful trip, Treb’s father and his Army buddies went on leave to the Big Apple, and it’s here, in New York City where his parents would meet and fall in love.
The Heinings got married in 1953 and decided to purchase a home in Garden Grove, California. One of their deciding factors to purchasing the home was its proximity to a new park Walt Disney was going to build in the neighboring city of Anaheim. They had envisioned it as a nice place to take their children, a park complete with swings and slides. Unbeknownst to them what Walt Disney’s term of a “park” truly meant, and that of course, was the park we know today as Disneyland.
Because of their close proximity, Treb’s parents would often take both he and his brother to The Happiest Place on Earth.
The below home movie is Treb Heining as a youngster leading the Disneyland Band in 1957.
A Glimmer of Hope
By the time Treb entered high school in 1969, he joined the high school band. Being in the band meant that Treb had many upper grade friends, most of whom were 18 years of age and working at Disneyland. Treb wanted to work at Disneyland too, in the worst way. But at the age of 15, he could not be hired as a Cast Member.
And then, one night, a glimmer of hope for Treb. His father came home with a phone number on a piece of notepaper. His father had a friend who knew that Nat Lewis, who had been running the balloon concession at Disneyland since Walt hired him in 1956, hired workers as young as 16 years old to work in the balloon department. Nat was able to do this because his company was a lessee, a third party vendor. Still only 15 years old, Treb Heining was on a mission to work at Disneyland any way he could. He immediately called the number his father had given him, and informed the person who answered the phone that he was available immediately.
Treb said, “They told me they weren’t hiring now so to call back in a couple months. So I called the next day and they told me that, yes, we got your call yesterday but we’re not hiring now so just give it some time and we’ll call you back.”
Would you like to take a guess what happened on the third day? You’re right, Treb called once again, except this time, Treb was invited to come in and fill out an application. Treb was certainly excited that his persistence payed off.
The Day Treb Heining Filled Out an Application
Treb’s parents drove him to Harbor Gate at Disneyland. Back then there was a parking lot right in front of Disneyland where he could be dropped off. He made a phone call to the balloon room from the Harbor Security Gate and was instructed how to walk backstage. Treb ended up walking underneath the train tracks and over to the balloon room, just past where the People Mover tracks and parts were stored. He walked in and sat down, nervously filling out his application. Shortly thereafter, Treb began to hear communications go back and forth between the managers over the phones about someone not being able to show up for work.
One of the managers then turned to Treb and said, “You wanna work today?”
To which Treb quickly replied, “Yes!”
After telling his parents they would have to come back and pick him up later, Treb went out that very day as a balloon vendor to sell balloons. He was now an official Nat Lewis Balloon Boy making $1.35 per hour. It was a whole 15 cents less per hour from the previous job he was working at, but Treb didn’t mind. He was working at Disneyland!
An Official Disneyland Balloon Boy
Treb’s first day out as a Balloon Boy was a rite of passage, in that he had to wear an outfit no other Balloon Boy would wear. The Costuming Department had given Nat Lewis several costumes for the Balloon Boys to try out, and none of the other boys would wear this one.
Treb remembers that his costume was a “Yellow thing with fluffy pants and yellow tights and I remember all the other senior balloon boys were coming out during that evening just to come by and look at me and laugh. I didn’t care because I got to be working at Disneyland. I will never forget that first time of walking past the Inn Between (the backstage lunch cafeteria for cast members) to the entrance that lets you out just past the north side of Plaza Inn with my balloons. It was the first time in my life of walking into Disneyland that wasn’t through the Main Gate (Treb laughs with a fondness I can hear in his voice).”
Treb shared that his feelings were of nothing more than pure excitement to be in THE PARK, and as we continued the interview he said, “That’s how it all began.”
Five Balloon Boy Positions
There were five positions where a balloon boy would sell the balloons. They were Fantasyland, Small World, Good Gate and Bad Gate (near the front of the park’s Main Gate) and Subland (located in-between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, the pathway just past Matterhorn Mountain). The term Good Gate was derived because guests would often pass through the Emporium and then exit the park towards the right tunnel entrance, so that side of the gate would always have many more guests exiting, therefore more balloon sales. Bad Gate was on the opposite side of the street, towards where Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln is located.
Treb said that “It was very advantageous to work either Subland or the Gates as you got to wear the really cool outfit. Which was the blue pants, striped shirt, the vest and the straw hat. But, you only got to wear that after you worked there for a while.”
Treb first started his role in Fantasyland and he further explained that in Fantasyland and Small World, the balloon boys had to wear the not as cool Peter Pan costume.
The Art of Selling
Treb learned from Nat Lewis that “bending the balloon,” having a large quantity, is important. To this day, the different concessions that Treb works with at the various Disney Parks around the world, he stresses how important it is to keeping the “umbrella full.” A huge umbrella of balloons causes people to stop and look at them.
Treb explained that after a guest stops to look at the beautifully arranged balloons, they might say, “Woah, that’s cool, hey how much are these? Boom. That’s the opening you get. A very basic marketing technique that was taught to me back then. Once you get someone to ask a price of something, it opens a door to talking to them.”
Walt Disney did not want a carnival atmosphere at Disneyland, and the selling of balloons was no exception. Unlike carnivals, where a balloon vendor may yell, “Here, here, come get your balloon!” Disneyland’s balloon vendors are not allowed to approach the guest. The guest must come to the vendor. A way to entice the guest would be to keep the balloon umbrella perfectly flat, arranged and even, to the point where the balloon boy would be able to hold up to 100 balloons.
Another technique Treb learned, which he uses to this day, is how to sell by burying the price. “We were taught that when a guest asks about the balloons and ask the price, I would say, my balloons are 50 cents, and I don’t know what color you like, but I have a green one, a red one, a blue one, oh, this is a new one, it’s the white one and I would talk about the product and then…” Treb asks me, “What happened to the price?” Treb goes on to share that, “It’s a basic marketing strategy of burying the price. I wouldn’t say it’s 50 cents and then stand there, because then people would complain and say that they can buy a whole packet of balloons for 50 cents.”
When Treb first started to sell balloons, the Mickey Mouse head balloon was made of latex and smaller than today’s version.
“We sold them for 35 cents. Which was always hard to make change if someone ordered three. About one year after I worked there, in 1970, they went to the larger mouse head and charged 50 cents. That is the same size they sell today, but without the glasshouse.”
The vendors always wanted to sell as many balloons as they could, as it was much easier to stand with less balloons, because if you had a lot, and it became windy, the balloons became very hard to keep arranged.
The room crew, under Nat Lewis’ guidance, would always keep everyone loaded up with balloons, especially if the crew heard that Nat was going to be in the park that day.
Treb explained that everyone had to be on their best behavior when Nat Lewis was around. “If you weren’t standing in the right spot or if he saw somebody who didn’t have enough balloons, there was hell to pay.”
“After you worked there for a while, you would eventually move up to the room position,” Treb said. “In the room position, you would fill the balloons and deliver them to the sellers in the park.”
Working your way up into the balloon room, which is where the balloons were inflated was a place Treb learned a great deal. He explained that the balloon boys took a great amount of pride in what they did and they did things as quickly as they could.”
It’s here in the balloon room where Treb learned the spin-tie method, where you would spin around thread to tie off the balloon. The spin-tie method was important, because if the balloons weren’t sold by the end of the night, the balloon boys would have to return to the balloon room to untie them. The spin-tie method enabled the vendors to quickly untie the balloons, let the helium out and then toss the balloons into a dryer for a few minutes. The heat from the dryer would cause the balloon to shrink back down to its original size so it could be re-blown the next day. Treb and the other boys hated re-blows, because they weren’t as fresh as the other balloons, so they often tried their hardest to sell out their balloons each night, which they often did.
I asked Treb how fast he could tie a balloon.
He responded by saying, “Spin tying was one thing, but actually tying a latex balloon came about when we used to do the Christmas Parade.” Treb went on to explain that the finale unit of the Christmas Parade had six cars. Each car had a letter spelling out T.H.E. E.N.D. and throughout the parade there would be an elf that would pull a string to one of the boxes and a balloon release would occur for the parade two times a day. Nat Lewis would always bring in extra boys to help with the parade.
“So, there was a few of us regular Disneyland Balloon Boys, as we called ourselves,” Treb explains, who would have to go back there and help out. I remember we didn’t like it so much. We wanted to work in the balloon room or back out on stage, so we would challenge each other. We knew we had so many balloons to inflate. We got to the point where we could inflate and tie these balloons so fast. Back in those days they were 9 inch balloons and we could do 17 to 20 per minute. It’s mind boggling to watch.”
Treb told me he could inflate and tie about 1000 balloons in one hour and posted a YouTube video of just how he used to it. Click on the link below.
“That’s where I learned the skill of being able to inflate and tie balloons really, really fast. This was a skill that was comical to us back then, but we were just trying to get back to doing what we wanted to do.” Treb and the other Disneyland Balloon Boys always looked at the guys that Nat brought in seasonally to help during the Christmas season as not really being folks they wanted to associate with.
“They didn’t have the haircuts we had, I mean we were very proud of the fact that we were Disneyland Balloon Boys,” Treb continues by saying, “When I say Disneyland Balloon Boys, that’s because there were no girls in the operation at that time. It was the 60’s and this group of Balloon Boys was this tightknit group of guys, very much a hierarchy of seniority, and who could do it the best, but ultimately just some of the best days of my life.”
The Opening of Walt Disney World
Nat Lewis announced a contest during the springtime of 1971. He informed the Balloon Boys that six would be chosen to go and help with the balloon release at the grand opening of the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971. Treb tells me that they really had to mind their “P’s and Q’s.” The boys were all on their best behavior hoping to be chosen; and ultimately, Treb Heining was one of the boys awarded with the opportunity to be on the balloon crew for the opening of Walt Disney World.
The Flight of a Lifetime
“We got a last minute letter delivered to us, telling us where to be at LAX,” Treb explains, “My dad drove me, and he was saying good-bye and then my dad started noticing Annette Funicello, Forrest Tucker, and Agnus Morehead…my dad goes to the payphone and calls his work to tell them he’s going to be late. Somehow, Nat had arranged for all us balloon boys to get on the Disney charter plane. Everybody that was on that plane was a who’s who of Hollywood. Everybody who had basically been in a Disney movie before was on that plane. The plane took off and then Jonathan Winters gets up and takes over the mic and was making funny announcements in the voice of Mickey Mouse. Frankie Avalon, Fess Parker and Sterling Holloway, who I grew up to listening narrate “Peter and the Wolf,” and he’s sitting in the seat behind me! Then people started to ask what we did.” Treb then says, with great laughter, “We’re balloon boys!”
When the plane landed, the stars went off to their fancy accommodations, and the balloon boys got into Nat’s van. Treb was so excited that he was able to be there for the opening.
Treb said, “It was a beautiful balloon release of 50,000 balloons, a very heady experience. Of course, not knowing at that time that I was going to make a living in balloons.” The skills Treb first learned while working at Disneyland at a very early age he says, was to “dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Those skills and beliefs not only helped him to start his own business, but it ended up starting a worldwide industry, turning Treb’s dream job into a job that would last a lifetime.
A Disneyland Balloon Boy, The Treb Heining Story To be Continued…