“To all who come to this happy place: Welcome.” With those words, Walt Elias Disney officially dedicated Disneyland on July 17, 1955. But Disneyland almost didn’t happen, and its opening day was nearly a total disaster. If not for Disney’s indomitable will and savvy deal-making, “The Happiest Place on Earth” would never have succeeded.
Walt Disney was a man always on the lookout for “the next big thing.” He had burst onto the entertainment scene in the 1920s with the first sound-synchronized cartoons. He then pioneered the first color cartoons, and, thanks to the invention of the multi-plane camera, the first cartoons with visual depth. Then, of course, in 1937 he produced Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first feature-length animated film and a spectacular technological and artistic achievement that became a world-wide sensation. By the late 1940s, however, Disney was growing tired of animation: the stock studio characters were growing stale, the shorts were increasingly formulaic and uninspired, and the feature films paled by comparison to his great achievements of Snow White and Fantasia (1940). Moreover, Disney’s controversial foray into war-time propaganda cost the studio financially and hurt his reputation as an innovative artist.
Disappointed and bored, Disney turned to a different kind of entertainment: amusement parks. Since boyhood, he had always been fascinated by magic, theater, and public fairs. His father Elias had been a construction worker on the famed Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, and it is not too far-fetched to imagine that young Walt heard many tales of that Fair’s fantastical wonders. As early as the 1930s, Disney had toyed with mechanical “flea circuses” and miniature attractions that depicted scenes from American history. After World War Two, though, the tinkering became more serious. Disney selected his favorite animators, design artists, and story writers to form a separate company: WED Enterprises (taking the name from his initials). Under the leadership of engineer and retired navy admiral Joe Fowler, these teams of “Imagineers,” as Disney called them, produced concept art and attraction designs for the would-be park.
Simultaneously, Disney delved into live action films, and the Imagineers who worked on them gained valuable experience with set design and staging. Highly stylized cinematic successes such as Treasure Island (1950) became templates for the park. Disneyland, as Disney envisioned it, would essentially be an immersive experience in which guests would participate in a live-action show. Employees would be “cast members,” and time on the job would be called “on stage.” Even the entrance to the park was designed to be theatrical, with attraction posters, popcorn, and “red carpet” concrete.
Crafting concept art and set design were easy, but actually building the park presented enormous problems. In July 1953, Disney hired the Stanford Research Institute to study the park’s potential profitability and to scout possible locations. After an exhaustive search, the team concluded the venture would make money and should be located in sleepy Anaheim, California, near a new freeway. Next up was getting the cash to begin construction. Walt’s older brother Roy, who handled the studio’s finances and who had a knack for finding ways to fund Walt’s dreams, was deeply skeptical – there would be no big brother bailout this time, as there had been for past projects. Instead, Disney had to turn to outside investors, namely ABC Television, TWA, Richfield Oil, Monsanto, Kodak, Carnation, and Pepsi. ABC would front the initial cash in exchange for producing and airing a new weekly Disneyland television show, while the other corporations agreed to sponsor individual attractions. With impressive ease and speed, by July 1954 Disney had assembled the deals and the money needed to break ground.
Construction was frantic. Before the first shovel touched soil, Disney had agreed to an opening date of July 17, 1955, and every episode of the phenomenally successful Disneyland show reinforced that deadline and built tremendous anticipation around the world. The hectic pace and the unprecedented nature of what was effectively a massive urban planning project (entailing a 160-acre city with a main street, town hall, shops, and restaurants; a river with passenger boats; a castle; and four unique “lands”) resulted in a plethora of problems: money shortages, labor strikes, scarcity of asphalt, and rivers that would not hold water, just to name a few. As the summer of 1955 neared, construction crews were operating round-the-clock. Men, material, and money were exhausted to meet the deadline.
Finally, the day arrived. Disney, along with his entertainment buddies Art Linkletter and Ronald Reagan, went on the air for an unprecedented two-hour live broadcast of Disneyland. A smashing 90 million viewers tuned in, enthralled by the combination of live television and Disney magic. The audience never saw the disastrous failures of that momentous occasion. The reality was that the park was barely finished. The asphalt had been so recently poured that women’s heels sank into the streets; “Tomorrowland” was incomplete, and banners had to be hung at the last moment to hide the construction; gas leaks temporarily shut down “Fantasyland”; restaurants ran out of food; there were not enough drinking fountains and restrooms; and forged tickets resulted in suffocating crowds that outstripped the park’s capacity.
“Black Sunday,” as it was known by cast members and Imagineers, was a day of crises, but in the following weeks and months, Disney and his crew patched up the problems, finished the park, and set about creating new, even more exciting attractions. Influential urban planner James Rouse would soon call Disneyland “the greatest piece of urban design in the U.S. today,” and millions of visitors from around the globe flocked to see Disney’s marvel. Even celebrities and world leaders were eager to experience the excitement: Vice President Richard Nixon and his family visited a month after Disneyland opened, with Nixon chirping, “This is a paradise for children and grown-ups, too. My children have been after me for weeks to bring them here.” In 1957, the King of Morocco loved the park so much he snuck out of his hotel for a second visit, and that same year, former president Harry Truman joined the fun, joking that he would not ride the Dumbo attraction since elephants were a symbol of the Republican Party. Two years later, Senator John Kennedy and King Hussein of Jordan made the trip. The list goes on and on. And it is worth noting that the park itself has changed dramatically from those early days, improving (“plussing,” in Disney’s words) old attractions, adding new rides, and debuting cutting-edge technology, such as the Matterhorn Bobsleds in 1959, the world’s first metal-tubing roller coaster.
Disneyland today is both the same park of Disney’s dream from 1955 and a very different one. Visitors can still feel the special touch and presence of “Uncle Walt,” but park attractions and the technological innovations now surpass anything Disney could have imagined. Just as important as the thrills and pixie dust, however, is Disneyland’s role in Disney’s growing interest in urban planning and evolving partnership with major corporations. The park’s tremendous success (financially and logistically) gave Disney and his studio the momentum and money needed to delve into an even bigger project: an entire “city of the future” in central Florida. There, Disney, along with corporate backing and unprecedented political autonomy yielded by the state, would build more than a Disneyland, he would build a Disney World.