A Brief History of Disneyland, An American Classic

“The thing will get more beautiful year after year. And it will get better as I find out what the public likes; I can’t do that with a picture it’s finished and unchangeable before I find out whether the public likes it or not.” – Walt Disney on Disneyland.

Walt Disney found different reasons to build his seventeen million dollar Magic Kingdom in Anaheim in 1955. The idea had originally stemmed from his dissatisfaction with Los Angeles amusement parks in the late 1930s. While his two young daughters would ride the merry-go-round, Walt would look at the tawdry surroundings and wonder why the place couldn’t be better. Also he was receiving letters from people who wished to take tours of the Disney Studio–what would they see, guys bent over drawing boards? Walt had flirted with the idea of a small park across the street from the studio, and then put it aside bowing to opposition from the city of Burbank, plus financial setbacks largely due to the initial failures of Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi.

On a personal note, in 1948 Walt built his own personal miniature railroad in his backyard. The one-eighth scale Carolwood Pacific was a fun hobby that allowed Walt to escape business pressures, but his wife Lillian wasn’t thrilled with her grown husband spending long days riding on a choo choo train through her begonias. Disneyland would eventually provide him with a bigger train to ride in without the spousal disapproval. But perhaps most important to Walt, Disneyland gave him a unique opportunity for a never-ending project.

For a perfectionist like Walt Disney, filmmaking was often a frustrating experience. Even when one of Walt’s pictures did well he sometimes lamented that they could have been better if he hadn’t faced a deadline or had a chance for a do over. After the short cartoon The Three Little Pigs (1933) became an enormous hit, Walt had been pressured by bankers and distributors into making sequels, which had not been nearly as successful. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) had made eight million dollars at a time when movies cost 25 cents for adults and a dime for kids, yet Walt fretted about a scene where the prince seemed to shimmy and years later complained about not being able to improve on it. Other features that Walt personally loved such as So Dear to My Heart (1946) and Pollyanna (1960) did not do well at the box office.

Walt had taken a shot at an ongoing task with Fantasia in 1940, the multi-segmented classical music cartoon could have theoretically, if Disney had his way, played forever with new sequences replacing others every few months. But Fantasia bombed at the box office in it’s first release and plunged Walt into debt. As Walt’s enthusiasm for pictures diminished, the idea of Disneyland took on a greater allure.

Walt spent many sleepless nights trying to figure out how to raise the money for Disneyland. His wife and business partner brother Roy were against the idea from the start. Lillian wondered why did he want to build an amusement park when they were so dirty, Walt’s reply that his would not be did not curb her unease. She stressed even more when he mortgaged their house, borrowed against his life insurance policy, and was still way short of what he needed. Roy Disney had no initial liking for the carnival business; the Walt Disney Company was still struggling to get out of debt after losing the European market during World War II. Hits such as Cinderella (1950) were offset by flops like Alice in Wonderland a year later. But the always-innovative Walt turned his fortunes around with the decision to get into television, a medium that most of the moguls in Hollywood hated and feared. ABC, who in the early 1950s was a distant third to CBS and NBC, was anxious for Disney to develop original programming. In return the fledgling network provided the loan guarantees to build the park, Roy and Lillian changed their minds and got on board, and “Uncle Walt” overcame his initial camera shyness to become a beloved TV star when he hosted the hit show Disneyland, later known as The Wonderful World of Disney.

For twenty years Walt employed two writers of whom it was said had never come up with a good idea. When asked why, Walt explained that every time they made a suggestion then he knew what not to do. He used a similar line of thinking towards Disneyland. Unlike other parks, Disneyland would only have one entrance so everyone would have the shared experience of walking through Main Street U.S.A, representing an idealized version of Walt’s often-hard childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Rather than have the traditional all-the-rides-on-one-side design which Walt felt led to unnecessary human traffic jams, Disneyland had a central hub surrounded by four distinct themed lands allowing the paying guests to move from scene to scene like they themselves were in a movie. Located in car-dominated Southern California, Disneyland would provide boats, trains, rafts, horse drawn carriages, and later rockets and flying saucers. Instead of the usual bumper car ride kids could simulate freeway driving with Autopia. During construction one of the Disney Imaginers told Walt that what he asked was too difficult. Walt replied. “We set our sights high. That is why we accomplish so many things. Now go back and try again.”

Despite the deadline pressures and alarming costs, Walt had a ball designing Disneyland. Constantly the fifty-three-year-old heavy smoker would crouch down so he could look at the buildings through the eyes of a child. He decided Sleeping Beauty’s Castle would look friendly, unlike like some of the intimidating structures he’d seen in Europe where he had driven an ambulance for the Red Cross during World War I. Walt personally drew out the sketches for Tom Sawyer’s Island and was insistent that Disneyland have no visible power lines, water towers, or administration buildings. Disdainful of other Coney Island style amusement parks Walt pooh-poohed the idea of hiring people with experience, choosing instead to go younger with an enthusiastic staff that would learn from their mistakes. Walt loved testing out the dark storytelling rides of Fantasyland: Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, and the gravity defying Peter Pan’s Flight, the latter by most accounts was his personal favorite attraction (Conversely Peter Pan (1953) was not a movie Disney particularly cared for; Walt felt that the title character was hard to root for and almost as mean as his adversary Captain Hook).

Had Disneyland been a movie, it may have been pulled out of theaters after a short run. On opening day, July 17, 1955, ten thousand invitation-only tickets were sent out. They were easy to forge and over three times as many people showed up. A man stood on the side of the park with a ladder and charged five dollars to climb over the fence until the police caught him. Just a few days before, there had been a plumbers’ strike. Walt chose to sacrifice the drinking fountains so that the bathrooms worked; several of his guests passed out due to the heat, which went up at one point to 101 degrees. Pepsi Cola sponsored the event; many of the enraged thirsty patrons assumed the water shortage was a cynical attempt to sell soda. The asphalt on Main Street was not dry; women who walked on it wearing high-heeled shoes got stuck and sunk.

The restaurants and concession stands ran out of food early. A gas leak shut down Fantasyland. Tomorrowland, which Walt originally had a difficult time conceptualizing, was covered with balloons and pennants and could not absorb any of the crowd. Nearly half the rides broke down. As the afternoon wore on, fights broke out between the ride operators and customers. Disney himself had been busy running around his 160-acre Magic Kingdom filming a TV show and wasn’t aware of all the mishaps until he read about them in the newspaper the next day. He immediately returned to Disneyland to fix things.

Over time Walt found out what worked and what didn’t. Mule rides were discontinued because of several biting incidents. A circus was aborted after a trapeze artist lost her top in midair while performing, camels kept spitting into the crowd, a lama got loose and ran down Main Street scattering customers, and nearly every performance was poorly attended. (Before the park opened, zookeepers had warned a very disappointed Walt that he couldn’t have live animals on The African Queen inspired Jungle Cruise ride because they’d never behave consistently.) Tomorrowland came together by 1959 with the Monorail and Submarine Voyage. And there were endless opportunities for Walt to exploit his interests. He was fascinated reading about the Columbia, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe and built a near perfect replica for the already busy park waterway The Rivers of America. Walt and Lillian were world travelers; on a trip to Switzerland they had been impressed by the breathtaking beauty of the most famous mountain in the Alps which leading to the development of the Matterhorn Bobsleds ride in 1959. The couple enjoyed buying antiques in the French Quarter, which inspired the 1966 creation of New Orleans Square (Walt had many great qualities but tact was not one of them. When the mayor of New Orleans came to visit the cartoon maker at Disneyland, he remarked that New Orleans Square looked just like the real thing. “Actually, it’s cleaner,” Disney said.) In the late 1950s, the Disneys heard a story from a tour guide on a boat cruise about buccaneers hiding treasure near Cuba, which may have sparked the Pirates of the Caribbean ride in 1967, an attraction that took so long to create Walt sadly didn’t live to see it completed.

Disney never tired of walking through Disneyland trying to fix things. Often in a hurry, the TV icon would occasionally disappoint a fan by not taking the time to sign an autograph. But whether adding a few minutes on a ride, lavishing extra money on a parade, or putting fancy furniture in a medium priced restaurant, Walt always tried to put himself in the mind of his patrons when he made changes to the park. The crowds kept coming, he was finally able to pay off his debts by 1961 and Walt’s attempts to improve Disneyland continued for the rest of his life.


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