Disneyland got off to a nightmare start in 1955, but ‘Walt’s Folly’ quickly won over fans
Disneyland’s opening day, July 17, 1955, was a nightmare.
Rides broke down. Restaurants ran out of food and drink, and a plumbers’ strike meant drinking fountains were in short supply. Long lines formed at bathrooms. Bunting hid unfinished attractions. Women’s high-heeled shoes sank into the fresh asphalt.
All in front of a national audience of 90 million, then the largest live broadcast in television history on a day that would be known in Disney lore as Black Sunday.
But Disneyland’s story actually starts two decades earlier with what Walt Disney called “Daddy’s Day.”
On Saturdays in the 1930s and ‘40s, Disney would take his two daughters to ride the Griffith Park merry-go-round, which they’d enjoy while he sat on a bench eating peanuts and dreaming of ways for families to have fun together. Disney despised the amusement parks they often visited, seeing them as dirty, unimaginative places run by surly employees.
He thought he could do better.
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In 1939 he asked two animators at his movie studio to work on a plan for an amusement park.
The pair spent six weeks visiting parks around the country before drafting a proposal that included many elements that would ultimately end up in Disneyland, including a carousel, a Main Street promenade, a train circling the park’s perimeter and a Snow White ride.
The advent of World War II, as well as studio priorities, put the plan on hold.
In 1948, Disney laid out his vision for a Mickey Mouse Park on land adjacent to the Burbank studio. The plans called for an old-fashioned town square, a city hall, a fire station, an opera house, a movie theater and historic vehicles plying a main thoroughfare.
By 1952 the idea had expanded into a $1.5-million amusement park proposal that he presented to Burbank officials. The 16-acre park would feature rides on a spaceship, a submarine and even a paddle-wheeler.
The City Council, which feared such a project would create a carny atmosphere, rejected the proposal.
Disney counted the rejection as a fortunate setback. By now, his dreams for a theme park had exceeded the space available in Burbank.
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He scouted locations throughout Southern California before turning to the Stanford Research Institute to find a site within a far-flung area bounded by Chatsworth to the northwest, Pomona to the east and Tustin and Balboa to the south.
The ideal spot would be along the ever-expanding Santa Ana Freeway with at least 100 acres of flat land and access to utilities. An initial survey of 43 sites was narrowed to four: two in modern-day La Mirada, one at a Santa Ana golf course and another in an Anaheim orange grove.
The 160-acre orange grove with 12,000 trees, 22 miles south of Los Angeles, was soon selected. Now all Disney needed was money. A lot of it.
Before his brother Roy headed to New York to secure a $9-million loan, Disney asked artist Herb Ryman to devote a weekend to drawing a 4-by-6-foot rendering of Disneyland to help persuade bankers to fund the project.
A second source of financing came from the ABC television network, which offered $5 million in loans and investments if Disney agreed to produce and host a one-hour weekly show called “Disneyland.” The deal amounted to months of free advertising for the park and allowed Disney to introduce TV audiences, particularly kids, to Fantasyland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Tomorrowland.
Groundbreaking took place in July 1954. Disney promised to open the park within a year, a pledge most called impossible — if not downright crazy. The project was plagued with problems almost from the outset. Costs skyrocketed to $17 million. Hollywood dubbed Disneyland “Walt’s Folly,” and amusement park operators predicted a spectacular failure.
Disney walked the site daily to offer direction and encouragement, often spending the night in a furnished apartment above Disneyland’s fire station as opening day drew nearer.
By the final month, 1,200 workers were toiling at breakneck speed to complete the project on time — if not on budget.
Disneyland wasn’t ready on opening day, but Disney decided to open the gates anyway to the media and invited guests. Traffic was backed up for seven miles on the Santa Ana Freeway, and the 5,000 expected guests mushroomed to 28,154, thanks to scores of counterfeit tickets.
Carpenters, landscapers and painters worked right up until the beginning of the 90-minute live television broadcast. The chaos was captured by 22 cameras spread throughout the park.
Tempers flared as TV crews cordoned off areas for remote broadcasts. Flames licked at Sleeping Beauty Castle because of a gas leak. Water washed across the overloaded deck of the Mark Twain Riverboat. Areas were roped off with signs that read “To be open soon.”
Ronald Reagan, who was one of the television broadcast hosts, was forced to scale the wall of Frontierland to make one of his scheduled appearances.
At one point, Disney got locked in his apartment above the fire station and couldn’t get out.
After the madness of opening day, Disney and his new park were roundly criticized in the press. Newspaper headlines declared: “Walt’s Nightmare.” The media predicted a quick and early demise.
The public didn’t listen.
Visitors arrived in droves, and within weeks Disneyland was a success. A slew of rides that weren’t ready for opening day, such as Rocket to the Moon and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, soon were open, with many attractions coming online within the first year.
Within two months, the park had welcomed its 1 millionth visitor. By its first anniversary, attendance stood at 3,642,597.
Sixty years later, Disneyland’s popularity continues to grow, with total overall attendance topping 750 million and showing no signs of slowing down.
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