How it all Began
Disneyland is a beloved icon of fun and Disney magic known around the world. But the dream of Disneyland almost never became a reality. Walt Disney was advised by virtually every amusement park operator in the country that the park he envisioned would fall flat on its face. Following the park’s chaotic opening, most media commentators declared the park a likely candidate for a quick and early demise.
Walt Disney, of course, ignored the bad press the same way he ignored all self-appointed experts. The idea of a “magical little park” unlike any other had been in the back of his mind for at least 20 years before it became a reality.
“Saturday was always ‘Daddy’s Day’ with the two daughters,” Walt recalled in a 1963 interview. “So we’d start out and try and go someplace . . . I’d take them to the merry-go-round and I took them different places and as I’d sit while they rode the merry-go-round and did all these things - - I felt that there should be something built, some sort of amusement enterprise, where the parents and the children could have fun together. So that’s how Disneyland started . . . it all started from a daddy with two daughters wondering where he could take them where he could have a little fun with them, too.”
Walt Disney once recalled, “It was something I kept playing around with. I'd bring home plans and work on them over the weekend, and then I'd go and get a draftsman to lay it out and plan it for me. He worked on my personal payroll, and I had to reimburse the Studio for him.”
For all of Walt Disney's early planning, his business partner and older brother Roy didn't take it very seriously. To one correspondent in 1951 he wrote: “Walt does a lot of talking about an amusement park, but really, I don't know how deep his interest really is. I think he's more interested in ideas that would be good in an amusement park than in actually running one himself.”
“Whenever I'd talk about the idea of the park to Roy,” Walt reminisced, “he'd always suddenly get busy with some figures. I mean, I didn't dare bring it up. But I kept working on it, and I worked on it with my own money. I borrowed on the insurance I'd been paying on for 30 years, and sold my house in Palm Springs to get Disneyland to a point where I could show people what it would be. My wife complained that if anything happened to me, I would have spent all the family money.”
In order to make his dream a reality Walt established WED Enterprises (WED, an acronym for Walt Elias Disney and now known as Walt Disney Imagineering) in 1952, his privately held creative think tank chartered with creating Disneyland. The team of skilled writers, architects, draftsman, artists, engineers, sculptors and special effects experts were dubbed “Imagineers.”
In the fall of 1953 Roy Disney had the unenviable job of going to New York City to try and sell his little brother’s big dream to the bankers. Unfortunately he had nothing to show the bankers, nothing like Disneyland had ever been done before, and Roy knew from experience that bankers were not an easy audience. Walt later admitted, “Dreams offer too little collateral” to bankers.
Over the weekend of September 23, 1953, Walt spent a marathon 48-hours at his studio with artist Herb Ryman creating the first true visualization of what we now recognize as Disneyland. The 43 x 70 pen and ink conceptual sketch, created under Walt’s direct supervision, combined all of the disparate ideas that had been generated by the Imagineers and presented a groundbreaking layout of five themed “lands” centered around a central plaza “hub.”
Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute in 1953 to find the best possible site for his park. After researching 40 different sites throughout Southern California SRI recommended the wide open spaces of Anaheim in Orange County, California (predicted to become the future population center of Southern California) just 40 miles south of downtown Los Angeles (today the actual geo-population center of Southern California is a mere four miles from Disneyland!).
In August of 1953 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees, comprised of parcels owned by 17 different families, were selected as the future home of Disneyland. News of the land purchase was kept quiet until the news was broken on May 1, 1954 by the Anaheim Bulletin newspaper.
To fund Disneyland Walt and Roy embraced the new medium of television (much to the dismay and chagrin of the rest of Hollywood) and entered into a seven-year programming arrangement with the fledgling ABC television network, all in exchange for backing Disneyland. Walt felt that a weekly TV series would be the ideal way to share his excitement about Disneyland with millions of viewers nationwide.
On October 27, 1954, the Disneyland TV series premiered, featuring a weekly rotation of shows emanating from such subjects as Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, etc. In the show’s first episode Walt explained how Disneyland the place and Disneyland the park were one in the same. With money secured, work began on Disneyland in earnest.
From July 21, 1954 to opening day the actual building of Disneyland had consumed over 2 million board feet of lumber, a million square feet of asphalt was laid, 5,000 cubic yards of concrete poured, 35,000 cubic yards of dirt moved to create the park’s surrounding earthen berm and virtually every nursery from Santa Barbara to San Diego was depleted in an effort to complete the park’s landscaping! Work on the park continued right up to the morning of opening day.
History was made on Sunday, July 17, 1955. Disneyland, the first Disney theme park ever created, officially opened to a curious world. Six thousand special guests had been invited and by day’s end 28,000 people had packed the park (the opening day invitation was so prized that counterfeit tickets proliferated). Attractions broke down, there was a gas leak in Tomorowland, a power outage in Fantasyland, restaurants ran out of food and the freshly poured asphalt on Main Street was so soft that it stole the high-heeled shoes right off many a female guest. The day would become known in Disney lore as “Black Sunday.”
The thrill (and chaos) of opening day was carried live on ABC Television via a star-studded TV special. Covered by 29 cameras, the show was the most elaborate live TV broadcast produced to that point in time (three cameras were the norm), viewed by an estimated audience of 90 million. Hosted by TV stars Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan, the show is full of miscues and mistakes but accurately conveys the sense of excitement surrounding the opening of this entirely new form of outdoor entertainment.
After that shaky start in 1955 start, the public and media's enthusiasm for “Walt's new toy” quickly grew. To date, Disneyland has welcomed over 500 million guests from all corners of the world and has evolved into a complete family vacation destination resort. The dream that started with a daddy and his two little girls now extends beyond California to Florida, Japan, France and soon Hong Kong.