Search form

Disneyland: From Dream to Reality

Katie Mason relates Disneyland's history from Walt's dream to an attraction which has drawn over 400 million visitors since its opening day, July 17, 1955.

© Disney. All rights reserved.

Walt Disney was a dreamer. From animated films to amusement parks he was always an innovator. Disneyland had been in his head years before he could make it happen, and when he did it would change family centered entertainment forever. Walt, the father of two children, saw a lack of quality family entertainment in Southern California. When accompanying his daughters to amusement parks, he noted the parents' boredom and the filthy and unfriendly atmosphere. Years later he said, "I felt that something should be built, some kind of family park where parents and children could have fun together." Many people felt Walt was bored with animation. The park, as he always referred to Disneyland as, combined his interests in furniture, railroads, and robotics. Biographer Leonard Mosley comments: "It had become the only thing in life that mattered to him, and animated cartoons -- any kind of films, in fact -- had totally, if temporarily, lost their savor for him."

Early Visions

Walt's initial inspiration came from a trip to the Chicago Railroad Fair with animator Ward Kimball in 1948. Among his earliest visions was for "Disneylandia," a traveling train show, with each car carrying a moving miniature scene. Walt's dream was that the train would run across the country and stop in small towns, where people would come and see the miniature sets, which would be coin operated. Walt even took animator Ken Anderson off the company payroll and sent him to work on this secret project, paying him out of his own pocket. However, the cost of the exhibit proved prohibitive and he realized that he would have to make it part of his larger amusement park plan.

Walt Disney's lifelong fascination with trains eventually led him to build his own fully-functioning mini-railroad in the backyard of his own home. © Disney. All rights reserved.

In 1948, Walt sent a memo detailing his plan for "Mickey Mouse Park." He described Main Street, a cowboy town, and a carnival section. But, his brother Roy, who managed the studio's finances, wouldn't hear of it. The studio had a large debt to the Bank of America since none of Disney's postwar films had produced profit. In 1951, Walt commissioned Harper Goff to draw inspirational sketches based on his dream. The original plans called for the park to be on a small plot of land across from the Burbank studio. Soon Walt's imagination outgrew this space and he began looking elsewhere. He ordered two studies from the Stanford Research Institute, one to determine whether the venture could make money, and another to find the best possible location. After studying a myriad of factors, the Stanford Research Institute recommended a 160-acre orange grove in Anaheim, California and an investment of US$11 million. Walt would personally study all sorts of amusements: parks, fairs, circuses, zoos, from Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen to Coney Island in New York. These trips helped him determine what appealed to the public. Walt envisioned a highly pedestrian park, with model examples of public transportation -- trains, boats, and eventually, a monorail -- which Los Angeles lacked. Each land, Adventure-, Fantasy-, Frontier-, Tomorrow-, would have an obvious landmark, a "weenie," which stood taller than the other buildings and served to draw people further into the park. The heart-shaped park would surround a castle, a landmark visible from every side.

Gathering the Financing

In 1952, Roy Disney allowed a budget of US$10,000 to develop Disneyland. Walt realized that this would not be enough and borrowed against his life insurance to set up WED Enterprises, an acronym for his initials Walter Elias Disney. He would also sell his vacation home in Palm Springs in order to finance his dream. He sought out friends to invest in the venture, and they reaffirmed that his project was a good idea. By 1953, Roy Disney consented to involve Walt Disney Productions in the theme park project. With many banks unwilling to lend more money to the Disney company, Walt turned to television. The idea had come to him on a sleepless night. After Walt convinced the board of directors of his plan, they decided that Roy would head east to talk to the networks.

But there was still no master drawing of the proposed site, and Walt knew that this would be critical in convincing the networks. He called illustrator Herb Ryman one morning and told him of his amusement park plan. Roy was due in New York on Monday and so a drawing had to be produced immediately. Walt and Herb spent the entire weekend working on the drawing with Ryman translating Walt's words into images. The sketch was hastily copied and sent to New York with Roy.

Roy spent several months negotiating with the major networks, CBS and NBC, but neither would commit to the theme park plan. Finally, Roy turned to the up-and-coming third network, ABC, who expressed immediate interest. Realizing what the Disney name could do for their network, ABC spent several weeks working out an agreement. Under the terms, ABC would become 35 percent owners of the park, in exchange for a weekly one hour television show and live coverage of the opening day.

masondisneyland03.jpgDesigning Disney's Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance, edited by Karal Ann Marling, takes an in-depth look at Disneyland's evolution from one man's personal dream to a multinational enterprise. You can order this book through the AWN Store.

Building the Dream

Walt worked with several architectural firms while trying to design the park, but none could put his ideas into plans. Walter Becket, architect and friend, told Walt: "No one can design Disneyland for you; you'll have to do it yourself." The Stanford team suggested that Walt would find his best help within the studio, and this proved to be true. Fortunately, Walt knew his animation staff and their hobbies well. Like he had assigned Ken Anderson to the project earlier, he assigned others to sculpt models. Walt called his designers imagineers; people with the needed combination of imagination and engineering skills to build a theme park. Imagineers were innovators and artists who refused to say what was impossible.

With cash to finance his dream, an unceremonious ground breaking was held about a year before the park opened. Working six days a week the construction crew could not make enough progress on the park to permit a July 1955 opening. So soon, teams were working 24 hours a day in order to finish a majority of the park. Strikes by plumbers, and a shortage of asphalt, almost prevented an on-time opening.

Meanwhile, Walt was also planning and filming his first regular series on television, Disneyland. The show was not, however, Walt Disney's first foray into television, since there had been two Christmas specials produced before Disneyland premiered on October 27, 1954. The first episode related the plans for the park and overviews of upcoming shows. In addition to providing glimpses of the forthcoming park, the television show served as a vehicle indicating all that was forthcoming from the Disney empire. The show introduced "Davy Crockett" and showed the studio filming 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and drawing Sleeping Beauty.

Animator Art Scott recalls a plane trip with Walt just before the park's completion. "As we take off Walt is saying, 'I spoke to the pilot, I hope he remembers, I asked him to fly over the park. There's nothing like seeing a park from the air.' Then he went over to the window and said, 'He's doing it! He's doing it!' He pointed out all the stuff, there's this, there's that, like this little boy with his giant toy down there."

Walt explained to a reporter why he was so determined to build a park: "It's something that will never be finished, something I can keep developing and adding to. When you wrap up a picture and turn it over to Technicolor, you're through. It's gone. [The park] will get more beautiful every 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."

masondisneyland04.jpgmasondisneyland05.jpg

The renovation of Tomorrowland, on right, is reassurance that Walt's ideology still lives today and that Disneyland will never be fully completed.

Opening the Happiest Place

With construction working around the clock until opening, the park was getting ready for television. The unfinished Tomorrowland was given a banner and balloons to mask the work waiting to be done. Camera crews worked alongside construction crews who were putting finishing touches on the park. The park opened to invited guests on July 17, 1955, and 33,000 people poured into the park. The ABC television crew ushered Walt from site to site and kept a positive spin on the preview.

Off camera, chaos ruled: ladies' heels sank into still hot asphalt on Main Street; rides broke down; concessions ran out of food and drink; and a gas leak was discovered in Fantasyland closing it down. Opening day would come to be known as Black Sunday, because of all of its problems. Despite critical reviews from print media, Walt encouraged his crews to handle the problems. He held media dinners to amend relations with the press. Within a few weeks, problems had been wrinkled out and Disneyland's crowds were far exceeding estimates.

Walt always believed, "Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world." Walt and his successors have carried out this promise with changes and additions like Mickey's Toontown and the New Tomorrowland. Walt's dream has been brought to many parts of the globe as well with Tokyo Disneyland, Disney World, and Disneyland Paris. Since Walt's vision and imagination will never die, his dream parks will live on forever as very special places, the magical reigning champions of quality theme parks.

Katie Mason was an editorial assistant at Animation World Magazine. A longtime animation reader and fan, she watches cartoons each Saturday morning and is currently studying toward her university degree.

randomness