So I’m sitting there on my mandatory thirty minute lunch break, my mouth completely stuffed with a bacon breakfast burrito from a food truck, when I locked eyes with the one and only Kobe Bryant.
He seemed to smirk at me as he walked past, while I tried to comprehend what had just happened and not choke on my food.
I asked my coworker next to me, “Was that…?”
They nodded and continued a conversation I was not a part of as if nothing notable happened. Because working at the most magical place on earth, the extraordinary was the everyday for cast members, and basketball superhero Kobe Bryant was just a normalized part of the experience.
In fact, many who work at the parks have a similar tale or two — albeit maybe less awkward — because if the basketball court was the happiest place on earth for Bryant, Disneyland may have been a close second.
The former Lakers star loved visiting the theme parks and resort in Anaheim, California, serving as one of the park’s most frequent celebrity guests. His tragic death last weekend, along with his 13-year-old daughter and seven others in a helicopter crash, rocked the entirety of Southern California and much of the world.
It hit the Disneyland community particularly hard, with current and former employees flocking to social media to remember the version of Bryant that they saw. Not the basketball player who thrilled millions, but the doting father and friendly, smiling park guest who always remembered their names and was happy to strike up a conversation.
Celebrities don’t visit Disneyland the same way you or I would. For the uber-famous, walking around the parks normally may not be realistic without getting mobbed by eager fans. For Bryant, this was the case, and as a result he would often get around using a guest relations escort, or as they’re known in slang terms, “plaids” (owing to the plaid vest they wear). These special guides can get celebrities in and out of attractions quickly and the to the front of lines, all while bringing them through shortcuts used by employees to get around quickly in what’s known as the “backstage” area.
It’s in this area where James Jacobs, who currently works at the parks in the attractions department, met his favorite player while eating lunch.
Jacobs had just finished texting his dad to tell him how excited he was that he had just seen Bryant in the parks earlier, when a plaid asked him to delete a photo of Bryant and his two oldest daughters on Splash Mountain from the screens where ride-goers can buy their photos so that people wouldn’t know the family was in the parks that day.
Starting to eat his lunch, still riding high off of just the opportunity to be near the star he grew up watching as a Lakers fan, Jacobs heard a voice behind him ask if he could join him at the table. Assuming it was just another employee who he hadn’t met before — it’s a huge staff, after all — he said sure without thinking twice.
A moment later, he looked up to see Kobe Bryant sitting across from him, eating a snack.
“My jaw didn’t drop, because it was full of food. But if it wasn’t, it definitely would have,” said Jacobs, who has worked in the parks for nearly five years, and interweaves Disney language into his everyday speech.
“I was just like, wow, what a small world after all. I’m really just sitting here and one of my favorite players of all time is having lunch.”
After a minute to collect himself, Jacobs struck up a conversation with Bryant, who he found out was waiting for his daughters and wife to go on another ride that was too out in the open for him to not get swarmed just days after his unforgettable, 60-point final game of his career.
As the two ate, Bryant talked about what finishing his career on such a high note was like, and shared what the process was like to design his signature shoes. Jacobs, a sneakerhead, was blown away by how happy Bryant was to talk with some stranger he’d never met, and even more so when he ran into him months later and Bryant remembered his name again, impressing one of Jacobs’ co-workers while recalling their conversation and calling it a fun time.
”It’s honestly one of my favorite memories of meeting a celebrity,” Jacobs said.
Not everyone’s stories are so memorable. But most park employees remember similar qualities. Bryant was always quick to give them a smile, to take the time to ask them how their days were going. Telling them about his favorite restaurant in the parks (Plaza Inn) and which rides he was enjoying (Soarin’ was a favorite).
Most of all, they remember a family man who was happy to pose for cheesy, lovey-dovey photos with his wife, Vanessa — even when he had a hard time fitting in a boat to take a photo during an after-hours Disneyland event due to his height.
They remember Kobe, the girl dad. How big his smile was when he was with his daughters while taking them on all their favorite rides — even if in an interview from a decade ago, Kobe recalled that his kids weren’t always old enough to appreciate every ride in the parks.
“You seen that big ferris wheel they have?” Kobe said in a 2010 clip from a Nike Live event, referring to the giant one in Disney California Adventures. “My wife and I, we didn’t realize how big the thing was... We thought child services was going to be waiting for us as soon as we got off.”
He was joking, but such an impression couldn’t have been further from how employees saw him.
”I’m grateful to have the relationship that I have now with my father, but growing up I didn’t have that. So any time I really see men really love their children and spend that intimate time, and put their family first, it has a special place for me,” said attractions attendant Johnell Johnson. “I definitely saw that with (Kobe).”
Sam Carter, a former art specialist at Disneyland who now does freelance theme park design work, saw the same quality while helping Kobe and his wife Vanessa design a special, Alice in Wonderland-themed birthday party at the Grand California Hotel at the resort for their daughter Gianna, who was four years old at the time. He recalls how gracious Vanessa and Kobe were, how grateful they were when their vision was executed.
He also remembers when he first met Bryant, the night after the Lakers won the NBA title in 2009, how he was the only Laker to show up for the parade just a few days after the finals were over. How Bryant joked around with the dancers and characters before getting on the float that Carter had painstakingly designed, and been worried no one on the team would show up for.
But then Bryant stepped out of his limousine, happy to chat for a few moments with a fellow Disney obsessive.
”He said, ‘man, I’m so tired,’” Carter recalled, but Bryant wasn’t going to miss an extra chance to spend time at the parks with his family.
“He said ‘of course I was going to be there for this,’” Carter remembers. “He loved Disneyland so much.”
The parks, like the rest of the world, didn’t get to say goodbye to Kobe and Gianna. Several current or former cast members described hearing the news and hoping it was fake, their brain not willing to accept reality even as confirmations kept pouring in.
“When they said that his daughter was on there, I was like ‘please don’t be Gianna. Please, please, please.’” Carter said. “Then I just remembered everything that we planned for this little girl.
“When I think about the pictures of them sitting courtside, and then seeing that, I’m like ‘oh yeah, that’s the little girl.’ I still remember her more from being like a little girl at her Alice birthday, rather than this amazing, phenomenal future basketball player. I’m like, that’s a little four-year-old girl that loves Alice and Wonderland.”
Johnson, who had several smaller encounters with Kobe, remembers the last time she saw him, just months before his untimely death. Kobe was getting off of Space Mountain with his family, and she greeted him by making peace signs with both hands.
Kobe mirrored her, holding the two peace signs back for a moment before walking away.
Kobe won’t ever roam the parks again. But in some ways he’ll never leave. His kindness to employees will live on in their memories, and maybe a bit in their actions, too.
In the days immediately following Bryant’s death, the No. 8 Dumbo for guests to ride on was down while the others were airborne, draped with a gold blanket. A malfunction that made it appear as though the park itself was mourning Bryant.
Video circulated of Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Daffy Duck, Pluto and Goofy coming out to greet guests. They huddled, as they often do, but they way they broke this one was different.
The five characters all turned to each other in a circle, put their hands together and bounced them up and down, one, two, three times. When they brought them up to break, they held their arms up, wrists snapped forward, pantomiming one of Bryant’s patented fadeaways.
A small gesture. Maybe just a bit of magic. The happiest place on earth, celebrating a man who was at his kindest within its walls.
Editor’s note: During the editing process for this story we discussed the potential impact to survivors of sexual assault and others who might take notice of the positive attention paid to aspects of Kobe Bryant’s life without also addressing the allegations from 2003. These are difficult matters to balance and in the end we decided this was primarily a story about the Disney employees. To the degree it paints Kobe Bryant in any light we recognize it’s only one piece of his entire life. Further, in the spirit of disclosure, writer Mia Agraviador is a freelance journalist who used to work at Disneyland and has a personal relationship with Silver Screen and Roll’s Harrison Faigen. For this reason, I took on the role as primary editor for this article. - Seth Pollack, NBA Editorial Manager, Vox Media, Inc.