When the Anaheim theme park opened July 17, 1955 — with cranky Southern Californians fanning themselves on a sweltering hot day — toilets clogged, the food ran out and women's high heels sank into wet asphalt. Disney officials still call it Black Sunday.
But from the start, there would be no denying the world's infatuation with Disneyland, a rite of passage for millions of vacationing families. In the 50 years since Walt Disney leveled Anaheim orange groves, the park has left an oversized imprint on American culture, influencing family entertainment, shopping malls, corporate branding and more.
"There's still nothing to compare it to," said Jamie O'Boyle, senior analyst for the Philadelphia-based Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis. "It is a cultural magnet for people . Walt didn't build an amusement park. He really built the first virtual reality."
Others are less flattering, saying the park is too artificially controlled and idealized. Italian author Umberto Eco suggested that Disneyland is "the Absolute Fake." After facing tooth-baring alligators on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise, Eco was disappointed at seeing none while taking a paddle-wheel steamer down the Mississippi.
"You risk feeling homesick for Disneyland, where the wild animals don't have to be coaxed," Eco wrote in the 1975 essay, "The City of Robots."
Indeed, no one has masterminded — and capitalized on — fantasy and illusion like the Walt Disney Co., a $30-billion entertainment powerhouse that has transformed theme park rides into top-grossing movies and a hockey flick into a sports franchise.
The original Anaheim park alone attracts more than 13 million tourists annually and last year generated $1.9 billion in spending. More than 78.6 million pairs of Mickey Mouse ears have been purchased by fans — enough to adorn every child in America.
Disney constructed his dream in less than a year, turning 160 acres of orange and walnut trees into Sleeping Beauty Castle, a jungle river and rocket ships that people ride to the moon.
A resident who left Anaheim in the spring of 1954 and returned a year later "would have beheld one of the most amazing changes during his life," recalled Anaheim's former Chamber of Commerce manager Earnest W. Moeller in a 1980 historical paper for the local library's archives.
"No distinguishable landmark remained, the neighborhood was obliterated . And if he were to enter the gate, walk into the park hidden by an earth-filled berm, he would have been shocked to learn the world's most advanced amusement park had risen."
The accomplishment was all the more remarkable because amusement parks were a struggling industry. Even the biggest ones, such as Coney Island, still mostly targeted young people hoping to steal a kiss on the Ferris wheel.
"They were, as Walt thought of them, sort of run-down places with very scary people," O'Boyle said.
Disney elevated the amusement park into a "theme park," the next step in family entertainment.
"Disneyland captured everyone's imagination and really revolutionized the leisure industry all over the world," said Phil Hettema, former senior vice president of attraction development for Universal Studios.
"They added that layer of story and experience above and beyond nicely designed pavilions and rides that had bright lights . Whether you wanted to be a spaceman or go to Tom Sawyer Island and be a frontiersman or imagine battling pirates, you could do that — all in one day."
Disney wasn't the first to do this. A few miles away, Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park transported people to the Old West. But Disney's park was grander and more technically advanced, with an unprecedented marketing punch that used a television show to bring people behind the scenes of Disneyland's construction.
Disney cashed in on the happy days of the 1950s. He benefited from post-war prosperity, the baby boom and the creation of interstate highways that put Disneyland within reach of the rest of the country.
In the years since, others have followed Disneyland's template: Sea World, Universal Studios — even Las Vegas, which adopted themed hotels and beckoned families with roller coasters and magicians. But none duplicated Disneyland, which set the gold standard for the industry. Nearly 500 million people have poured through the gates, making it the most popular amusement park in the world.