Disneyland Had Nowhere to Go but Up After Debut


When the $17-million gamble called Disneyland opened July 17, 1955, Walt Disney was too busy rehearsing and broadcasting a live special from the park to realize the day had become a debacle he would later call “Black Sunday.”

The news also escaped Walt’s brother, Roy, who had borrowed against real estate, movies and life insurance to finance the park. Sitting outside in his Cadillac, admiring the throngs that crashed the invitation-only event with forged tickets, Roy Disney was told that kids who had been stuck in traffic jams were relieving themselves in the parking lot.

He just grinned and said: “God bless ‘em. Let ‘em.”

As Roy smiled and Walt played to the cameras, high-heeled shoes sank deep into Disneyland’s fresh asphalt, and food and drinks ran out. Long lines formed at toilets, visitors searched in vain for drinking fountains, and a power outage stalled Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. Bunting hid unfinished rides; water washed across the overloaded deck of the Mark Twain steamboat.


Advisors had urged Disney to lengthen the one-year construction period because of pre-opening snags. Sand beneath the Rivers of America sucked up water, and the attraction had to be lined with clay. Strikes disrupted schedules. Frontierland was rebuilt again and again to get the scale right. And still Disney insisted on the opening date he had promised.

“The Disney TV show had gone on ABC the year before, and it was used shamelessly as a trailer for the park. So there was great anticipation. And the opening was a fiasco,” recalled Bob Thomas, an Associated Press Hollywood reporter who chronicled the opening in biographies of the Disneys.

It was also clear, though, that Disney had created new standards for amusement parks. The cleanliness, landscaping and architectural details were unparalleled; the staff were trained as “cast members” to delight and serve the customers (always “guests” in Disney parlance). And the “lands” and rides told stories instead of merely boosting adrenaline levels--a formula for attracting whole families instead of just thrill-seekers.

The Times’ story the day after the opening was positive, describing how Disney had created a new world where children’s dreams and adults’ aspirations came to life; Thomas also wrote favorably of the new park.


But most accounts ran under headlines like “Disneyland Shatters Illusions,” and one columnist suggested that the drinking fountain shortage was intentional, a way to boost beverage sales. Actually, a plumbers strike had forced Disney to choose between finishing the bathrooms or the fountains.

“They said the reason he didn’t have drinking fountains was to sell more drinks and coffee,” said Bob Penfield, who began a 42-year Disneyland career as an 18-year-old ride operator that day. “But that wasn’t true. There just wasn’t time” to put them in.


“Half of Tomorrowland wasn’t ready,” he said. “And a good percentage of the other attractions didn’t operate either.” On Canal Boats of the World, later re-christened Storybook Land, “all they had was the flume and the boats, and the rest was grass and weeds. . . . They put up signs with the Latin words for the weeds in front of a lot of the plants.”

Walt Disney, who spent the day rushing from site to site for the 22-camera ABC special, did not hear about the magnitude of the problems until the next day. Angry, he ordered his staff to fix the problems, then reinvited the press.

“He was outraged” over opening day, said Harrison Price, a consultant who found the Anaheim site for Disney. “He raised hell. But within a month, he worked out the bugs.”

In a study that many considered overly optimistic, Price had estimated that park visitors would average $3 in spending, and predicted attendance of 2.5 million to 3 million a year. What some called “Disney’s Folly” instead generated per-capita spending of $5, Price said, and drew 4 million visits its first year.

Nowadays, it costs adults $39 and youngsters $29 to get in, plus food, parking and souvenirs. Attendance in 1998 was 13.7 million, according to Amusement Business magazine--impressive, but a lesser draw than Tokyo Disneyland (16.7 million visits) and Walt Disney World in Florida (41.7 million at four parks, including 15.6 million at the Disneyland-like Magic Kingdom).

The original will gain back some ground in 2001 with the opening of Disney’s California Adventure, a second, separate-admission park in Anaheim.


These days, themed amusement park attractions are the norm, mall and restaurant developers tout “immersive experiences,” Disney parks are found on three continents, and most people can’t recall what an amusement park meant before Disneyland.