The Modern History of Disneyland's Morse Code
Hams love a good mystery - especially a radio mystery.
So when the author uncovered a cipher in Mickey Mouse's backyard, he just had to uncover its hidden message. As it turned out, one mystery led to another...
Several years ago I was standing at the New Orleans Train Station at Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Echoing in my ears was the sound of a telegraph. I, like every other ham that has visited Disneyland, listened intently to the clicks and clacks and tried to decode the message that was coming from the telegraph sounder.
As a practiced CW operator on the ham bands, my first thought was that it wouldn't be too hard to decode the content. Rather than listening for tones, I'd have to think in terms of the electromagnetic sounder, which produced a "click" when energized and a "clack" when released. Thus a dit (dot) would be "click clack" and a dah (dash) would be "click (pause) clack."
This sounded good in theory, but in practice it was a little more difficult than I expected. My CW gray matter just hasn't been trained for listening to the clicks and clacks in place of tones! And another thing concerned me: The rhythm of the elements wasn't quite right. In particular, I could hear a "click (pause) clack" that was much longer than the rest. At that moment I decided to return with a tape recorder and investigate further. I wasn't going to stop until I had successfully decoded the message!
A Little Detective Work
When I got home I searched the Internet for any reference to the Disneyland telegraph message. I found one reference that claimed the message was Walt Disney's inaugural speech, given at the opening of Disneyland in 1955. The telegraph message repeated every 49 seconds, however, and even at 25 words per minute it would be about 20 words, so I didn't think it could be the whole speech.
As a Disneyland annual pass-holder who lives only 12 miles from the theme park, it wasn't long before I returned with a tape recorder. Actually, it was the evening of Friday, September 5, 1997. I taped about five minutes of the "code" while enduring strange looks from the other guests who were waiting for the train. I took my recorder and headed home to start the task of decoding the message.
The first thing I did was to play the tape at half speed. This made it much easier to hear the clicks and clacks. It also made it easier to hear code elements that didn't correspond to Morse code (at least the Morse code that we use as hams). I remembered seeing a table in the Callbook that listed various telegraph codes. I opened up the Callbook and, sure enough, the Continental Code (used in ham radio) was listed next to the Morse Code (used on land lines in the United States and Canada).
I was surprised by the differences between the two!
The letters C, F, J, L, O, P, Q, R, X, Y and Z are different. The figures and punctuation marks are different. And the elements C, O, R, Y and Z are composed of dots and spaces. T is a short dash and L is a longer dash. No wonder I was having trouble decoding the message!
At this point I decided to enlist the aid of my computer. I played the tape into my computer's sound card and digitized the audio. I could then display the waveform and see the clicks and clacks. This was much closer to Samuel F. B. Morse's original telegraph.
Morse's original invention had a clockwork that moved a paper tape. The electromagnet pressed a pencil against the tape, making a sequence of dots and dashes on the moving tape. The paper tape was visually decoded to decipher the message. Telegraph operators soon found that they could decode the message just from the sounds, however, so the paper tape became an instant antique.
I soon had the message decoded: "WHO COME TO DISNEYLAND, WELCOME. HERE AGE RELIVES FOND MEMORIES OF THE PAST, AND HERE YOUTH MAY SAVOR THE CHALL"
The message repeated with what sounded like a splice between the "CHALL" and "WHO". Did the message start with "ALL WHO" and end with "CH", or did it start with "WHO" and end with "CHALL"? Obviously, there was a problem with the message.
A Call to the Magic Kingdom
I called Disneyland and asked to speak with someone about the damaged message. I was afraid that I might get a brush-off, but the Disney staffers were courteous and did their best to locate someone who could help me. When it became clear that no one at Disneyland could help me, they referred me to the WED studios in Burbank.
I called WED and was routed to the media department - the folks there handle the sound effects at the park. I left a message explaining the damaged telegraph message. A couple of days later I received a call from media engineer Glenn Barker.
Glenn explained that Disneyland is very serious about keeping things correct and was interested in getting the message fixed. He guessed that the message was accidentally truncated when it was moved from an endless loop tape player to the solid-state digital player used today. I surmised that the media engineer had listened for a repeat in the pattern and keyed in on the distinctive "LL" combination. Unfortunately, he failed to realize that the pattern "LL" occurred twice in the message.
Glenn said he'd try to dig up the original tape and call me back. A couple of weeks later I got a call from Glenn saying he had found the original tape - but there was a problem. On the original tape the message repeats several times, but because Glenn didn't understand telegraphy, he couldn't tell where the message started or ended.
I offered to decode the message and mark the beginning and end points. Glenn played the tape into my voice mail, which I downloaded onto my computer and decoded as before. I edited the sound clip so it contained just one copy of the message and played the clip into Glenn's voice mail. Glenn was able to update the digital player at the New Orleans Train Station so that it plays the correct message. He even added a pause at the end of the message to make the repeat more obvious.
It's interesting that we used modern technology to send and decode a telegraph message. I'm sure Samuel Morse never expected that someone would one day use a computer to decode a telegraph message. I had achieved my goal of decoding the message and had an interesting adventure in doing it. I hope my tale has entertained you enough that the next time you hear telegraphy you'll make an effort to decode the hidden message.
And the corrected message?
"TO ALL WHO COME TO DISNEYLAND, WELCOME. HERE AGE RELIVES FOND MEMORIES OF THE PAST, AND HERE YOUTH MAY SAVOR THE CHALLENGE AND PROMISE OF THE FUTURE."