25 years ago tonight, Disneyland Park traded its “Happiest Place on Earth” reputation for one that stressed security. Which is why – as you approached the perimeter of this famed theme park on the evening of February 27, 1992 – you’d have then encountered guards armed with flashlights & German shepherd dogs stationed at 50 foot intervals.
“Why the extra security?,” you ask. Because this was the night when all of Hollywood had driven down to Anaheim to help Elizabeth Taylor celebrate her 60th birthday by attending a private party at Disneyland Park.
To be honest, one of the main reasons that this theme park went over-the-top when it came to security for this after-hours affair was because of what had happened four months earlier. Which was when Taylor had married her seventh husband, construction worker Larry Fortensky, in a lavish ceremony at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch on October 6, 1991.
No expense was spared at this $1.5 million affair (which Michael – as his wedding present to Elizabeth & Larry – covered the entire cost of). And while all sorts of A-listers (including former First Lady Nancy Reagan) had driven on out to California’s Santa Ynez Valley to witness this event, in the end, what people talked about afterwards wasn’t Taylor’s $25,000 pale yellow Valentino gown. But – rather – the 17 helicopters that had continually circled over Jackson’s 2,700-acre compound while this ceremony was going on. Each of them carrying papparazzi who were determined to get shots of Elizabeth & Larry’s wedding. Which they then hoped to sell to the Tabs for upwards of $50,000.
Jackson tried to get these copters to clear off by launching several hot air balloons up into the skies over Neverland Ranch just as this ceremony was getting underway. But that didn’t deter one particularly determined paparazzo. Who actually jumped out of a small airplane and then parasailed into the ceremony.
According to Donald Spoto’s 1995 bestseller, “A Passion for Life: The Biography of Elizabeth Taylor,” this airborne interloper – one Scott Kyle Harris -- just missed Gregory Peck’s head before touching down a mere 20 feet away from the bride & groom. And though Taylor’s Israeli-trained private security team immediately pounced on this parachuting paparazzo and then had Harris tossed out of Neverland Ranch, the damage was already done. As Spoto recounted:
“Those sons of bitches!” cried Elizabeth, before calming down. “The hell with them. They can’t touch us. This is our day.”
Jackson felt terrible that the tabloid press had intruded on Taylor & Fortensky’s big day. Which is why – just a few weeks later – right after Liz & Larry had returned from their honeymoon (which – to be blunt – had been something of a dud. Largely because Taylor had had to spend much of that same time on a promotional tour for her new fragrance, White Diamonds), Michael proposed a make-good party. One that would celebrate Elizabeth’s 60th birthday at a venue that she was sure to enjoy: Disneyland Park.
And since Taylor had a long & happy history with The Happiest Place on Earth (Elizabeth visited that theme park in January of 1959 with Eddie Fisher and her two sons, Christopher & Michael Wilding Jr. In 1967, Taylor insisted on taking her then-new husband Richard Burton on a tour of her happy place. And then – in the Summer of 1973 – Elizabeth treated her family to a dinner at Disneyland’s most-exclusive eatery, Club 33), she immediately agreed to this idea.
Mind you, not everyone can reserve an entire theme park for a private party (Back then, the cost of staging an after-hours event like this at Disneyland Park started at $8,000. Since that time, this price has skyrocketed). But what with being the star of “Captain EO” and all, Jackson did have some pull with the Mouse House. More to the point, given that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner realized that making the Company’s Anaheim theme park available for Elizabeth Taylor’s 60th birthday celebration would generate millions of dollars of free publicity for the Disneyland Resort, he quickly agreed to this proposal.
That said, Eisner wanted to make sure that this private party wouldn’t have a repeat of what had just happened at Neverland Ranch. Which is why he had Company officials petition the FAA to declare that the airspace over Disneyland was restricted during Elizabeth Taylor's 60th birthday celebration. And Federal Aviation officials in Southern California actually complied with this request. Which is why – on the night of February 27, 1992 – the only thing that was allowed to repeatedly fly over Disneyland Park was the Goodyear Blimp. And that was only because this lighter-than-air vehicle continually ran a ticker message which wished Mrs. Fortensky a very happy birthday.
Speaking of February 27, 1992 … To make sure that the thousand people who had been invited to this oh-so-exclusive bash would have Main Street, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland and Videopolis all to themselves, Disneyland Park closed to the public at 6 p.m. that day. The park’s crack security team then swept the entire place looking for would-be party crashers. They even went so far as turn on the sprinkler system that keeps the forests that border Adventureland & Frontierland so lush & green. Which – according to what I’ve been told by several Disneyland veterans – then flushed out a handful of would-be papparazzi who were already dressed in tuxedos.
As I said at the very start of today’s story, security outside of Disneyland Park was ridiculously tight that night. As Elizabeth’s invited guests began arriving in Anaheim at 8 p.m., no one was allowed to enter that theme park unless they could first produce a copy of the exclusive invitation that had been created for this after-hour event. And since each of these invitations featured a special security code, there was just no way that a forged party invite was going to pass muster.
Partygoers (which included the late Carrie Fisher, old friends from Taylor’s MGM days like Esther Williams, not to mention musical superstars like Joni Mitchell, David Bowie and Elton John) were transported up Main Street, U.S.A. aboard antique cars. And once they arrived at Sleeping Beauty Castle and entered Fantasyland, they then encountered a medieval-themed affair that featured jugglers & strolling musicians as well as loads & loads of Disney characters.
At 9:30 p.m., the birthday girl finally made a fashionably late appearance. Arriving in a white horse-drawn carriage with her new husband and Michael Eisner by her side, Elizabeth first cut the cake and was then serenaded by Barry Manilow.
“Why Barry Manilow instead of Michael Jackson?,” you query. Well, the man who made this party possible was a no-show. Largely because Michael had a bit of a PR problem at this time (The month previous, Jackson had visited Africa and had received a lot of negative press. It seemed that – because the King of Pop constantly held his nose as he toured this huge continent – African officials were insulted. They believed that what Michael was inferring was that Africa smelled. But what these officials didn’t realize was that Jackson had recently had rhinoplasty. And the reason that he constantly held his nose while touring Africa was because Michael was concerned that this recently-rearranged piece of cartilage might collapse), he opted out of this event and maintained a low profile for the next month or so.
But even though Jackson hadn’t been on hand, Taylor still had a terrific time at her 60th birthday celebration. Elizabeth & Larry stood with the rest of her party guests and watched as a special fireworks display exploded over the park. And then at midnight – after everyone else had been sent home with a swag bag (Among the goodies that had been stuffed in this bag were a commemorative bottle of Taylor’s White Diamonds perfume as well as a sweatshirt emblazoned with the portrait that Andy Warhol had done of Elizabeth) – Taylor asked a favor of Eisner.
“After everyone went home, I asked [Michael] if they could keep it open [for an hour] for Larry and me,” Elizabeth revealed in a March 1992 interview with Oprah Winfrey. “They did, and we went on every ride [in Fantasyland] and had a ball.”
Which – assuming that no one parachuted in on them while these two were experiencing “Peter Pan’s Flight” – must have been a nice change from what Taylor & Fortensky went through during their wedding at Neverland Ranch.