Written by Catherine Ramirez Photos Credit Treb Heining (unless noted)
Treb Comes Home
In 1984, twelve years after Treb Heining left his Balloon Boy job at Disneyland and now a successful entrepreneur with his own company, BalloonArt By Treb, folks at Disney began to take notice of his prolific balloon art installations and designs. None more so than Disneyland’s Art Director Clare Graham. Graham first began to try out Treb on smaller jobs outside of the Park before he would be invited to lend his artistic expertise inside the Happiest Place on Earth.
Treb says, “We did our first event at the Children’s Museum in Los Angeles and a couple other events before Clare finally scheduled an event for us inside the park, which was at the Tomorrowland Stage.”
“Then we started to do more and more events with Disneyland. It got to the point where I would call Clare at his extension and ask what he needed. Clare would tell me, for example, about the Splash Mountain Opening, he’d tell me what he needed, providing me with a list. I’d work on a bid, and Clare would approve it, and so by 10 A.M., my day had been made; I had just made my biggest sale.”
A lot of exciting projects began to happen for Treb within the park for various attraction openings like Captain EO and Disneyland’s grand yearly birthday festivities (which will be a huge chapter in Treb’s upcoming biography).
Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration
Treb’s previous training at Disneyland lent specific principles that he held on to in life and instilled at his own company. Which according to Treb, were to “Dream big, work hard, show respect to all those you work with and always be professional.” Clare would observe this disciplined work ethic and talent in Treb and his crew while on events at Disneyland. Perhaps that is why Clare thought Treb’s hard working crew, with phenomenal skills, was up to a very specific challenge. The Disneyland Art Director’s new idea for Treb would be extreme and perhaps one of Treb’s greatest challenges, up to this point anyway. This new challenge would be a balloon design for Disneyland’s 30th Birthday Celebration.
Treb recalled the following conversation to me:
Clare said, “Treb, what about the idea of getting 30 birthday cake candles, 75 feet high all the way down Main Street?”
Treb Said, “Ok, Clare, Ok.”
Clare Continues, “Then we can put 10 foot spears on the top of each one.”
Treb responds, “OK. Alright.”
Clare finishes, “Work out the price…and all these have to go up while the park is still open to the guests.”
Treb continues, “So in other words the party started that night on the 30th Anniversary at midnight (July 17, 1985). The idea was the party was going to go from midnight on that night all the way until midnight the next day, a 24 hour party. Everything had to be set up by 9am on the morning of the 17th. We did all the columns of balloons in the rehearsal halls, back where the horses were kept (back of house Circle D Ranch). We did the columns in there one day and then the next day we touched them up. We then had a huge crew that marched them in, through the backroad from Small World towards the back of Main Street.”
Treb explained that crews were placed on the rooftops of the buildings all along both sides of Main Street U.S.A. Yet, even with the pictures Treb provided, it is difficult for me to fathom how this was pulled off. I worked on the Main Streets rooftops for confetti drops and TV production filmings, I understand the layout, and yet I have little understanding of how the 75 feet long balloon columns went from one roof to the next while guests were in the park.
Well, somehow Treb’s crew would do just that. They installed the thirty 75 feet long balloon (columns) candles, plus the added 10 foot sphere (to represent the candle’s flame) from one side of a building’s rooftop to another rooftop located across the street. By the time they were done, a canopy of 30 beautifully spiraled columns covered Main Street. Now all they had to do was wait until midnight.
Treb tells me the following about the moment his columns were transformed into something most memorable. He said, “At the nighttime ceremony at the Wish Upon a Star moment at midnight, the extraordinary happens, the canopy of balloons open up and all these perfectly placed columns rose up and transformed into 30 birthday candles.”
Treb gets choked up as he explains this to me and says, “It’s hard for me to talk about. It was pushing us to the limit.”
Treb had to bring in an extra crew of 100 people to do what Treb says was, “Beyond impossible.”
“Well…it didn’t go off without a hitch,” Treb says, “Someone let go of a column too quick and two columns got wrapped, so going down Main Street all of the 85 foot tall columns of balloons were standing straight except the two. We had to race up to the roofs and undue the two columns and when the two finally went up perfect, the whole crowd down below cheered.”
Contributing to the 30th anniversay of Disneyland was certainly a huge and momentous accomplishment for Treb. At 1:00 A.M. that night, on July 18, 1985, Treb trudged back to his hotel room at the Disneyland Hotel with his wife. He had been working nearly 48 hours straight by this time, with very little sleep in-between. Treb explained that as he looked out of his hotel room’s window he could see the 30 balloon columns, in the shape of birthday candles brightly lit from inside, standing 85 feet high with their flame sphere, and he just sat there on the edge of the bed and wept.
Treb recalled, “I just wept. I thought that this would be something that Walt Disney would be very proud of.”
Treb is Introduced to the “T” Balloon
It was around this time, in the mid to late 1980’s when Treb was introduced to several people based out of Japan from the Takara Kosan Company. Henry Unger, the West Coast Rep for the Pioneer Balloon Company (maker of the balloons Treb uses) had invited Treb to his office to meet with them. They showed Treb their “T” balloon that they had created. It was used in Japan for balloon decorations as a way of making balloon décor outdoors last for days and even weeks.
The Japanese company was able to put a 9” latex or an 11” latex balloon inside of the “T” balloon, which was a clear film-like product. When the balloon was blown up it would be the round balloon encased inside of that clear “T” balloon. In other words, a balloon within a balloon-like object. It was unique because it made the balloon that was encased inside last for so long.
As Treb continues to explain to me the details of the “T” balloon, I can hear his excitement begin to grow in his voice as he says, “I remember going to Clare Graham and saying, remember those columns that we did across Main Street for the 30th? Well we could do those columns now but they would be in the “T” balloon and they would last for a week! Instead of just one day! Of course Clare said give me a price but it was astronomical and he turned it down.”
Though Treb thought the product was very interesting and pitched the idea to Disneyland in different ways to use it for décor, the cost was always too high, making it prohibitive, even for Disney. The “T” Balloons ended up going into a drawer at Henry Unger and Associates, and were not seen for a very long time.
From the start of Treb’s business in 1979, not only did Treb coin the phrase “balloonart,” he also invented the balloon arch in 1979, and the first balloon sculpture in 1981. By the 1980’s Treb was working on some stellar projects. In addition to working with the Walt Disney Company, he also worked on more than eighteen Superbowls for NFL, five Academy Award shows and he worked on the 1984 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
Treb has also worked on the infamous balloon drops for both the Democratic and Republican Presidential National Conventions for many years…
…with the exception to the Democratic National Convention Balloon Drop of 2004, that was the one time Treb’s company wasn’t used, if they had, well, it would have been a much different balloon drop.
Oh, yes, I mustn’t forget to tell you that Treb also set three Guinness World Record Professional Balloon Releases during this time, utilizing Pioneer Balloon Company’s Made in the USA balloons, which is the only balloon company Treb has ever used, as their balloons are 100% biodegradable. The world record releases helped raise over $500,000 for charity in one instance, and more than $50,000 for high school music programs; Treb has always believed strongly in giving back to the community.
One of the professional world record releases occurred in Anaheim, California on what would have been Walt Disney’s 84th birthday. On December 5, 1985, volunteers consisting mostly of high school band students and Marines from the once El Toro Marine base, arrived as early as 3:30 A.M. to fill 1,200,000 balloons, though Guinness official’s record states 1,121,448 with helium rose to the sky that day.
Treb recalls, “I talked to Clare about being able to do the million balloon release and we finally got to do it for Skyfest. It was on Katella, between West Street and Harbor, we had 1,200 tubes of balloons each, which was a monumental feat. During that time I met a man named Bob Gault, he was a great guy and a supervisor of Main Street and we worked on Sky Fest together.”
Treb continues, “I also met a man named Pete Clark that ran merchandise at the time. I sent a letter to him back in 1980 when I first started my company. I let him know I was interested in going back and working the Balloon Department and run it like Nat Lewis (Treb’s first employer at Disneyland back in 1969). I always wanted to come back and run the balloon concessions at the park I started at, for one reason or the other it went by the wayside.”
Once a Balloon Vendor, Always a Balloon Vendor
Although Treb doesn’t currently run Disneyland’s balloon department, he did start balloon concessions at Knott’s Berry Farm, Mall of America, and State Fairs all across the country. Treb tells me that he always kept his hand in balloon vending. Back in 1983 he also started balloon vending at a popular mall in Orange County called South Coast Plaza. His balloon concession stand is a staple at the high-end shopping complex that all children look forward to seeing, while parents, on the other hand, try to steer them away. I myself remember getting my ears pierced at the mall when I was in the 6th grade. Afterwards my mom bought me a ride on the carousel as well as a Treb Heining balloon.
Treb Takes a Break…Sort Of
By 1993, 14 years after Treb first started his company BalloonArt By Treb, he explained to me that the balloon industry had “grown up.”
He said, “The balloon industry itself had changed dramatically. People don’t do things on the scale that we did them back then. That’s what pioneered the industry, yet with all industries, they change and become different. People sit at the balloon conventions and look at my work and they love the history, but they are afraid to attempt stuff like that. We did things in front of people on stage, like the Olympics that had never been done before. People are very reluctant to do that nowadays, even TV Producers. They are reluctant to do something that has not been tried and tested. People like Tommy Walker and Bob Jani (who replaced Walker in 1966 as Disneyland Entertainment Division Director, but is most remembered perhaps for his conceptual idea of the Main Street Electrical parade), loved doing that kind of stuff, it was a little bit dangerous, not to the public, but dangerous if it was going to work or not, but it always made a very spectacular effect for the show. It’s something I am very proud to be a part of what were really first time deals.”
Treb continues, “When I look back at one of my favorite bands, the Beatles, they were only around for 6 to 8 years, but the amount of work they did was unbelievable. Not to put myself in the same category or even the same class as the Beatles, but in the Balloon Industry, the amount of work we did, and the size and scale of the work, was spectacular to the point that when I was approached by Pioneer Balloon company (the company who made the balloons both Disney and Treb worked with) to see if I would teach more people about what I did, that’s what I finally decided to do.
Everybody knows that a baseball player can only pitch baseball for so long, and nobody knows how long you can do the type of work I was doing, and it was exhausting work. I always worked weekends on Special Events, so when I finally went to work for Henry Unger and Associates (Pioneer’s sales rep on the West Coast), people asked what I liked most about it, and I said weekends off! A Saturday and Sunday off for the first time in 15 years!”
With Treb no longer doing his spectacular inventive balloon art installations, it was the end of the great balloon era in terms of balloon décor on the massive and momentous scale Treb was creating. But it certainly was not the end of the great Treb Heining nor his balloon designs.
Henry Unger & Associates
In 1994, Treb began to work at Henry Unger & Associates. Henry Unger was well connected in the toy business and went to Asia quite a bit for the annual toy shows in Hong Kong. Henry had many contacts including buyers at Disneyland where his company was already selling many different items in the Park. When it came to balloons, Henry knew the business side of Pioneer’s distribution system.
One day in 1996, while Henry was cleaning out his office, he stumbled upon the “T” balloon samples the Takara Kosan Company had given him nearly a decade earlier. With THE balloon guy now in house, Treb tells me that Henry walked to his office and plopped the balloons on his desk, telling him to make another stab at coming up with a way to make them work in the U.S. Being the hands on balloon guy, Treb began to think, how could this product translate to being used in the U.S.?
A Flash of Genius
Flash of Genius doctrine states that an invention must indicate the flash of creative genius, not merely a skill of the calling.
Treb said, “Henry’s office was in Santa Monica. I was commuting, which I did not like. One day going home while stuck in traffic, all of a sudden….I was like, wait a minute…wait a minute…if they could make that balloon larger…big enough that we could put a 15” Mickey Mouse balloon inside ohhhh… So next morning I went in and told Henry. I did the initial drawings which showed how I wanted to increase the size as well as make the neck portion of the balloon different to make the stuffing of the Mickey Mouse latex easier.
Henry helped draft the faxes (that’s how communication was happening then) and we started sending faxes back and forth to the manufacturer in Japan.”
Treb recollects the following conversation, via fax…
First fax came back from Takara Kosan Company: “NO. Not Possible. Film is not wide enough.”
Henry and Treb reply: “Fax back if you can do it, we are thinking if you can do it, then we can sell to the Walt Disney Organization.”
Takara Kosan Company: “I think we can make it work.”
When I asked Treb what the exterior film of the balloon was made of, he wouldn’t provide specifics, but he did inform me that the exterior clear film protects the latex balloon inside from oxidation which makes the overall product last for a very long time. He further informed me that this balloon is put into the toy category because children can play with the product for weeks and even months and it can then be re-inflated to last for weeks and months again.
Treb Begins to Test
After samples were sent back and forth between the Takara Kosan Company and Treb over the next year, Treb thinks it’s perfect and he begins to test the product.
Treb tells me, “I initially tested at my house where I would mark the balloons and leave them outside in my backyard to test how long they lasted and also if prolonged exposure to the sun would make a difference. I wanted more adverse conditions before showing to Disneyland so I contacted the LA County Fair in Pomona to set up a meeting to pitch a balloon concession. It just so happened that the person who used to run South Coast Plaza, Jim Henwood, had just taken the head position with the LA County Fair. He was thrilled to see me and connected me with the right people to set up an operation for the Fair in 1997. This gave me the opportunity to work with thousands of pieces of the new balloon as well as see how it performed in the challenging heat and winds of Pomona. The latex balloon inside of the film that was sold at the L.A. Fair were not the Mickey shaped balloons, regular oval latex balloons were used, as I didn’t want to do anything that Disney would be upset about. All went very well and I then felt confident to bring it to Disneyland.”
What’s in a Name?
Treb’s friend, Karen Lamson told Treb that he should name his new creation the Glasshouse Balloon. When he asked her why, she had explained to him that in the early 60’s Disney sold a latex balloon inside a clear latex balloon. In the summer, the clear latex would fog up and it didn’t look good. But everybody used to call it mickey in a glass house back then, so Treb thought that was a perfect idea and said, “Let’s call it the Glasshouse!”
Armed with testing and a great name for Treb’s product, Disney’s approval of the Glasshouse Balloon would be the final step Treb needed to bring his newest creation through the gates of Disneyland.
Henry setup a meeting in 1997 with Sarah Quinn, Disneyland Resort’s Product Development Coordinator.
Treb explains, “A lot of sales calls usually go back and forth trying to get something going. But when we walked into this meeting with 25 different colored Mickey Glasshouse Balloons, we were asked when we could get this into the park. It was just like that. In the meeting I told them that I thought this balloon would outsell the other balloons 3 to 1.”
Sarah told Treb that she thought the Glasshouse should be sold in the new Tomorrowland that was to open the following year. Although Treb thought his balloon could sell in all the lands, he was ecstatic that HIS balloon would be sold at Disneyland, the place where he himself once sold balloons at the age of 15.
The Glasshouse Balloon is sold at Disneyland…Back to the Balloon Room
By May 22, 1998, the New Tomorrowland had been rededicated at Disneyland. Now no longer working at Henry Unger and Associates, in order to concentrate on his Glasshouse balloon and his new deal with Disneyland, Treb returned to the balloon room. Twenty-five years after he left Disneyland as a balloon boy, Treb finds that he not only needs to train the cast members how to fill the glasshouse balloon, but the Mickey shaped latex balloon as well.
Treb explained, “By this time, Disney sold only foil balloons, the Mickey shaped head balloons were completely phased out. It’s now my job to go into the balloon room and teach the balloon department not only how to blow up a Mickey Mouse balloon but how to blow it up inside this Glasshouse balloon. So I go there the first day and I spend 8 to 10 hours working with the department and training the staff. It was going very well. I remember saying to the crew that I’d see them tomorrow. More than half of them said they weren’t on balloons tomorrow because they rotated positions.”
Unlike in 1969 when Treb was a Disneyland Balloon Boy, balloon vending is now lumped into the Outdoor Vending Department, so the cast members are also required to perform other tasks like selling popcorn or cotton candy, etc.
That first day the Glasshouse was sold in Tomorrowland must have been such an exciting day for Treb. Returning to the room where he first met Nat Lewis in 1969 and learned how to tie a balloon really, really fast must have felt incredibly nostalgic. Though it was exciting for Treb, some balloon vendors were not so happy with the new balloon.
We Need More Balloons!
Treb returned the next day to Disneyland to train more Cast Members on how to inflate the Glasshouse.
Treb recalls, “I go back the next day and some of the balloon vendors that had been there the previous day cornered me and told me that they didn’t really like this product.”
“Why, it didn’t sell?” Treb asked them.
“Oh…no, no, no,” they responded. “We are used to the foil balloon. When we send the vendor out with the foil balloon we normally don’t have to worry about them for 3 to 4 hours because they have enough product but when we send them out with the glasshouse balloon we have to give them more product in like 10 minutes, we can’t keep up.”
“And that’s why you don’t like it?” Treb said.
“Well Ya, it’s really hard to keep up with the sales.”
After the first month with only one vendor in Tomorrowland, the glasshouse was outselling not Treb’s original 3 to 1 prediction, but was outselling the other 5 foil balloon vendors combined, by 5 to 1. The Glasshouse became a fixture, and pretty soon the foil balloons began to fall by the wayside. It was a roaring success, but with any new product there are kinks that eventually need to be worked out.
Treb tells me that, “With any new product, there are lots of glitches that happen and that was very much the case with the glasshouse balloon. I worked very closely through the early structure of that product because we had lots of problems in the beginning because it was a new process for Japan. I baby sat it every step of the way. I’d get these phone calls from Disneyland, saying this is happening, and boom I’d be over there and I would help them. I was always vigilant and was at Disneyland often in solving problems and working to make the product better and better. Without those efforts, I doubt the product would have survived.”
The Glasshouse Balloon Takes Over the World
Hong Kong Disneyland
Treb said, “Hong Kong Disneyland was the next park to start using the Glasshouse balloons. I trained the department and was there for the opening day on September 12, 2005.”
Walt Disney World
Treb continues, “I then investigated Rubio Arts, owned by Nat Lewis’ friend Jess Rubio, who ran Walt Disney World balloon concessions in Florida. I had been trying to get his production guy, David Johnson to bring the Glasshouse to Florida. They wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it…wouldn’t do it for years! And then I get a call from David saying that Jess is having his high school reunion at the Santa Ana Country Club and asked me if it was possible that I could do some balloons for Jess’s reunion. I said, DONE! Where is it, when is it? I went over there and was experimenting with the “Light up Stick.” That’s another product that we invented. So, for Jess Rubio’s reunion, not only did we do Mickey Mouse Glasshouse Balloons, but they also had light up sticks in them.” Treb continues with huge laughter as he continues to tell me, “The next day, I get a call from David that they were bringing in the Glasshouse balloons to Walt Disney World!”
David Koo, Director of Merchandise at The Walt Disney Company, contacted Treb asking if he would consider running the operation in Shanghai. Treb shared with me that he had been trying to do that for all the parks so was excited to take on Shanghai. Treb started two new corporations, one in Shanghai called Magic Glasshouse Umbrella LTD and TNH Amusements LTD which is based in Hong Kong.
Treb tells me that his son Damon Tieu moved to Shanghai and has been running the companies for the last five years.
Damon Tieu and Treb Heining at Shanghai Disneyland
Just as Treb taught Damon the art of balloon vending, Damon in turn taught Treb what balloon vending was like in a foreign land in terms of weather, environment and preferences for Disney characters. Disney Princesses for example aren’t as big a draw as the most popular character in Shanghai, Donald Duck.
Treb says, “Damon is running the Shanghai operation on a level that I don’t think even I could do.”
Treb explained that it was a lot of work to go to China and train everyone, but their sales have been phenomenal.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea
I asked Treb about his experience in getting his Glasshouse balloon to Tokyo Disneyland. I myself was a Cast Member who worked at the Tokyo Disneyland Resort on five separate contracts between the years 2001 to 2005. There is just something so magical about the Tokyo Disney Resorts, that can’t truly be explained, unless you yourself experience it. During my time working for the Oriental Land Company, which owns the Tokyo Disney Resort, I never remembered seeing the glasshouse balloon at the parks in Japan and I was curious how difficult it was to break into the Japanese market.
Treb tells me, “For years we tried to figure out the Japanese market. Henry helped, knowing the Asian market. We took the bull by the horns and scheduled a trip over there and learned everything we needed to know about what went on in Japan. It was a very hard process and it took me 10 years of many meetings. The Japanese people want to make sure that you’re going to be there. You aren’t just going to come in and sell something and go. I was scheduled, meeting after meeting, every three months for ten years.”
The turning point was when Shanghai Disneyland opened in 2016. The Tokyo Disney representatives would visit Damon at Shanghai Disneyland to see how the balloon operation was run on several occasions, resulting in the formation of a strong business relationship.
“Damon had a huge influence on Tokyo Disney bringing the glasshouse balloon to their resort,” Treb said.
Damon worked shoulder to shoulder with Treb on the final meetings at Tokyo Disney, leading up to the Glasshouse Balloon’s debut. And then finally on April 15, 2019, the Glasshouse Balloon made its first appearance at Tokyo Disneyland.
Treb says, “It was one of the proudest moments of my life. It was absolutely incredible for me now to look back and think about how it all transpired, but the fact that I get to do something in some place that I love so much. And Tokyo Disney, I gotta tell you, because you know having worked at Tokyo DisneySea yourself, but I consider that to be one of the finest theme parks in the world. I really believe, that the Japanese do it the way Walt would. He would be so thrilled walking those parks. All the Cast Members they are always on, they’re doing it exactly the way it’s supposed to be done. The Japanese Market, I just love the way they treat our products and our history. Sometimes I would wear my name tag from ’69 on my coat and when we went to lunch we would get into these talks, and I would start talking about my experiences, just like I’m telling you, and oh my gosh, everyone would just stop and ask questions and what about this, and this, they want to know so much. They love the history of Disney and when you can tell them… in 1970 when I… they just loved it, and I loved it too.”
22 years later, Treb’s most magical balloon of them all, the Glasshouse Balloon remains the best selling balloon of all time and is now sold at nearly all Disney theme parks around the world, with the one exception of Disneyland Paris, but don’t worry, Parisians, Treb is working on it.
Hard Work is Good For You
I asked Treb about his success and his never give up attitude and he tells me the following, “My success was formed by the very things I learned at Disney. It’s absolutely true. Dream Big: because I used to sit and think, how did Walt think of this? The same way that people would ask me sometimes how I came up with this glasshouse balloon idea. The answer, you have to dream. You have to spend so much of time every day dreaming, you know, just thinking. Sometimes I sit for long periods of time doing nothing, but just thinking. And then ideas will come to you. For a while, when I’m on the freeway driving back and forth it gave me time to think.
You have to Dream Big, Not Be Afraid to Work Hard, and Always Be Professional. Those 3 things that Disney taught me. And hard work…come on! Unless we’re born as a prince or something, we all have to work, right? Working hard I never minded, I don’t believe anything is worthwhile, unless you work for it. Find something you like to do because you’re going to work and working hard isn’t bad. It’s good for you. I say to people now, I built my own house, I am living the greatest life, and my only worries is that I’m not going to live long enough. I don’t want it to end. If I can do this in this country of ours, with balloons, come on! Is this not the greatest country in the world? If you are willing to just apply yourself and work hard you can do whatever you want. I don’t care what your idea is, you just have to be willing to work hard.”
What’s Happening Now?
In addition to working on new balloon designs with the Walt Disney Company, and creating new products utilizing his MyOwnPet Balloon Company, Treb is also co-writing his biography, which I am certainly very excited to read.
Treb shares, “My thrill now, I have thousands of pictures from Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo. The thrill of the kids when you see them and they want a balloon so bad, I love it. At South Coast Plaza when you see a kid go walking by and you see the parent says no no no, they go around the corner, and next thing I know, here comes the child dragging that parent saying OK, OK!” Treb continues with a robust laughter, “If it were up to me, we’d be poor because I’d give all the balloons away!”
Returning to the Melody
When Treb was first hired as a Disneyland Balloon Boy in 1969, I don’t think his 15 year old self could have possibly imagined that his dream job would have lasted a lifetime. Treb told me that a Dixieland Musician once told him, that in Jazz, it’s always important to return to the melody. Treb’s melody is balloon vending. His hope is to return to Disneyland to run the balloon concessions where his balloon vending first began. I can’t see anyone more perfect or more destined for that role. Can you?