The history of Disneyland: How Walt Disney created the 'Happiest Place on Earth'
Walt Disney had a singular vision for his theme park – the eponymously named Disneyland. Teething problems and last-minute construction may have made 17 July 1955 better known as ‘Black Sunday’, not that the thousands of (mostly young) visitors seemed to notice. It was a feat, writes Richard Snow, that only a man of Disney's ambition could have achieved
One Saturday morning, on 22 September 1953, Herb Ryman was at work on a painting when his phone rang. He answered and heard the instantly recognisable voice of Walt Disney say: “Hi, Herbie. I’m over here at the studio.” On a Saturday? Ryman remarked. That made Disney testy.
“Yes, it’s my studio and I can be here anytime I want.” Then he changed his tone. “I wonder if you could come over here. Just come the way you are.” Ryman “was curious and flattered that he picked up the phone and called me. I had no idea what he wanted”.
He also had reason to be a bit nervous. A first-rate illustrator who painted with dash and sparkle, he could create moody evocations of fantastic places: fairytale forests, future cities, enchanted castles. Disney had hired him away from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in 1938, but after nearly a decade in his studio Ryman had decamped for 20th Century Fox.
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“I had deserted Walt, which was a very criminal act (or at least he thought it was).” Still, a summons from Walt Disney was not easily flouted. Ryman went at once. Disney met him and shook his hand. “Hi, Herbie,” he said. “We’re going to build an amusement park.”
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“That’s interesting.” Ryman said. “Where are you going to build it?”
“Well, we were going to do it across the street, but now it’s gotten too big. We’re going to look for a place.”
“What are you going to call it?”
“I’m going to call it Disneyland.”
“Well, that’s a good name. What is it that you want to see me about?”
The birth of Disneyland
Disney explained that the project had been germinating in his mind for a long time. Disneyland would be wholly unlike any other amusement park ever built. And it would cost plenty – far more than Disney could afford – but he’d had an idea of how to raise the money. While the obstreperous new medium of television had alarmed most moviemakers, Disney saw valuable possibilities for advertising, and raising capital.
On Monday, Disney’s brother Roy was going to New York to pitch a Walt Disney television series. He expected a warm reception as there had been a good deal of interest in a Disney TV show, but there was a catch. Any station that signed on for the show would also have to pay for the park.
Disney fully realised that TV executives would not be eager to enter the faded and ramshackle outdoor amusement industry. Still, the show was bound to be good, and Roy would have with him an impressive, powerfully persuasive rendering of an aerial view of the proposed park.
Intrigued, Ryman asked to see the drawing. “You’re going to do it,” Disney replied.
The artist was appalled. “No. I’m not. You’re not going to call me on Saturday morning at 10am and expect me to do a masterpiece that Roy could take and get the money. It will embarrass me and it will embarrass you.”
Disney started to plead, according to his visitor, “like a little boy who wants something”. With tears in his eyes, “Walt paced back and forth. Then he went over into the corner and he turned his head around with his back to me and said coaxingly: ‘Will you do it if I stay here with you?’”
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Ryman gave in. He started to draw and Disney started to talk. "This is a magic place. The important thing is the castle [the studio was in the early stages of filming Sleeping Beauty]. Make it tall enough to be seen from all around the park. It's got to keep people oriented. And I want a hub at the end of Main Street, where all the other lands will radiate from, like the spokes in a wheel.
“I’ve been studying the way people go to museums and other entertainment places,” Disney pushed on. “Everybody’s got tired feet. I don’t want that to happen in this place. I want a place for people to sit down and where old folks can say: ‘You kids run on. I’ll meet you there in a half hour.’ Disneyland is going to be a place where you can’t get lost or tired unless you want to.”
Ryman sketched a rough triangle on a big sheet of tissue — 109cm by 178cm – and started to fill it in with hills and rivers. He added Mississippi riverboats and an ancient high-sterned square-rigger on the waterways, a castle with a carousel in the courtyard, and, running from the park’s single entrance to the castle, a broad street lined with fanciful late-Victorian buildings. He blocked out various ‘lands’ with their potential names: Frontier Country, Holiday Land, Mickey Mouse Club, Fantasy Land, Lilliputian Land, World of Tomorrow, True-Life Adventure Land.
Fuelled by milkshakes and tuna fish sandwiches, the two worked through the weekend in the blue haze of Disney’s Chesterfield cigarettes, until, 40 hours after Disney’s phone call, Ryman set down his carbon pencil. The two men looked at the finished work.
What they had conjured from Disney’s vision and Ryman’s patient skill was remarkably close to what, two years and many millions of dollars later, would rise from a patch of farmland to tease the imagination of the entire world.
Frontier stockade and space port, jungle river and caravel, they were all marshalled together within a steel border demarcated by the salient instruction Disney had given his artist at the outset: “Herbie, I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.”
Disney's radical amusement park is the subject of several creation myths, but it indisputably began with a steam train. By the late 1940s, Disney had brought animated cartoons from a coarse novelty to a powerful new art – an industry really – but he had grown increasingly tired of them, still embittered by a 1941 strike at his studio and worn down by the four years of World War II he'd spent producing films with titles like Four Methods of Flush Riveting. He began spending time with an elaborate miniature railroad he'd built in the yard of his home, only to one day abruptly walk away from it. He was going to do this, as he put it, "for real".
Disney had spent his first million dollars, and hocked his life insurance, on the park before a single ride had been designed
For real meant the intricate city state he had Ryman conjure up. Disney found it a hard sell, especially since it kept growing. At first he’d envisioned the park as occupying an acre or so next to his Burbank studio and costing perhaps a million dollars. But all too soon it was looking like 10 million, and he’d hired a firm called the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to find a site. SRI had lit on 160 acres of orange groves in a backwater city called Anaheim, some 30 miles south of Los Angeles. Disney had spent his first million, and hocked his life insurance, before a single ride had been designed.
Ryman’s bravura drawing failed to move either of the two major television studios, CBS and NBC, but the struggling American Broadcasting Company (its rivals claimed its initials stood for ‘The Almost Broadcasting Company’) needed Disney as much as he needed it. They struck a deal, which demanded a killing forced-draft schedule: just a year from ground-breaking in July 1954 to opening day, which would be heralded with the largest live TV special yet produced.
Every attraction had to be made up out of whole cloth – no familiar off-the-shelf rides – and all of them presented unique problems. The Jungle Cruise, for example, required that two brothers, Bill and Jack Evans, who prospered selling exotic plants to movie stars, whip up a patch of greenery that looked as if it had stood since the last Ice Age. When away from the site, the brothers spent their time chasing the new highways creeping south from LA in order to snatch trees away from the bulldozers.
Disney had to choose between drinking fountains or toilets: he opted for the latter
The cruise, of course, also required a river so there was another difficulty. The soil, said Bill Evans, “was sand, it was almost ball-bearing sand,” and it drank up water as soon as it was poured. This problem was solved by Disney’s construction boss, the formidably capable Rear Admiral Joe Fowler, who had run all the West Coast shipyards during the war. He came up with a mixture of clay that sealed the Jungle Cruise riverbed and the Rivers of America, for which he supplied a five-eighths scale Mississippi sternwheel riverboat, a craft that hadn’t been built in the US for half a century. It joined the newly built steam trains that would circle the park.
Everything was delayed by Disney’s obdurate perfectionism. One day, he was walking the tracks of the railroad growing increasingly dissatisfied. Something was the matter, and he couldn’t figure out what. Then it suddenly struck him: the ballast. The tracks would be carrying three-fifths-scale locomotives, but the rocks of the roadbed were full size. The effect may have been only slightly disorienting, yet that was enough for Disney. He ordered the ballast re-crushed.
The same restlessness afflicted him on Main Street, the exuberantly ornamental turn-of-the-(last)-century thoroughfare that led to Fantasy, Tomorrow and all the other lands. Something was unwelcoming. This time it turned out to be the street corners. They were cut at right angles, which he considered to be too severe. He had all of them rounded.
The work went forward in a welter of revisions, complicated by trade union troubles. As time ran short, a plumbers’ strike meant that Disney had to choose between installing drinking fountains or toilets. He opted for the latter: “People can drink Pepsi-Cola,” he said, “but they can’t pee in the street.”
What was Walt Disney like?To his adoring public he was Uncle Walt, but he was a shrewd, sombre businessman through and through
The amiable, avuncular Walt Disney that millions saw on television was quite different from the austere figure that his employees knew. A reporter interviewing Disney not long after the park opened was surprised to find “a tall, sombre man who appeared to be under the lash of some private demon” and “was about as whimsical as Michelangelo”.
He was stingy with praise, hated a joke, and was close to only a few of his lieutenants. Everyone who worked for him came to dread a particular storm warning: “We all knew,” said one, “if he raised that left eyebrow, you knew your ass was in trouble.”
A demanding and irritable boss, Disney nonetheless was open to suggestions, which proved invaluable while improvising his park. He was capable of acts of true generosity and kindness, but his screen personality in actuality chimed more closely with that of his brother, Roy. Walt, said one executive, “could relax and laugh, but he was always driven. Roy could laugh real quick.” An animator remembered that “you could put your arm around Roy’s shoulder, too, and did. Not with Walt.”
Disney is survived by a reputation darker than one of mere authoritarian crankiness, though: that he was an anti-Semite. Whatever the genesis of this rumour – it may have been born in the brief yet ugly studio strike of 1941 – there is scant evidence to support it. Disney fired some of his lawyers when he overheard them disparaging a pair of his songwriters for being Jewish; he was happy to have his two daughters date Jewish boys; and he was the 1955 choice of the Beverly Hills chapter of B’nai B’rith as ‘Man of the Year’.
When his brilliant Jewish head of merchandising, Kay Kamen – who laid the absurdly successful Mickey Mouse watch on the altar of civilisation – heard the rumour, he scoffed. Disney’s company, he said, “had more Jews in it than the Book of Leviticus”.
When did Disneyland open?
As opening day – 17 July 1955 – approached, the army of workmen was then joined by dozens of television cameras borrowed from stations all across the country. Construction and film crews were mutually hostile, what with getting in each other’s way. The workmen moved already laid cable to put down track for rides; cameramen set up shop in half-finished buildings. When a segment director berated a worker for interfering with his vantage point the man replied: “Don’t worry. You’ll have plenty of action to shoot. We’ll be pouring cement.”
They were still pouring it when Disney went to bed at four in the morning on opening day — doubtless worrying about possibly facing the greatest public humiliation in show business history, and the fact that his park had ended up costing $17 million ($160 million, or £125 million, today).
The TV special, Dateline Disneyland, aired on the afternoon of 17 July 1955. The US contained 169 million citizens at the time, and 90 million of them watched it. That was 54.2 percent of the population, a larger proportion than would see the Moon landing 14 years later. Disney played the relaxed and affable host, and the immensely complex show went off with few visible mishaps.
Behind the cameras, it was a different story, an event that every employee who was there would forever remember as ‘Black Sunday’. To start, while the park had issued 11,000 invitations, more than double that number showed up. The temperature climbed to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit and stayed there. The newly poured asphalt sucked the shoes off women’s feet. Food started to run out before noon. Every single ride save the Jungle Cruise broke down. Disney himself was spotted running an emergency supply of toilet paper to one of the restrooms. The press was savage. One headline set the tone when it decried “THE $17 MILLION DOLLAR PEOPLE TRAP THAT MICKEY MOUSE BUILT,” where “irate adults cursed Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Snow White and all the Seven Dwarfs”.
Food started to run out before noon. Every single ride save the Jungle Cruise broke down. Disney himself was spotted running an emergency supply of toilet paper to one of the restrooms
Disney set about damage control with all the stubborn vigour and imagination that got Disneyland built in the first place. His efforts were immeasurably helped by the park itself. Never mind Black Sunday, the nation was fascinated by this new attraction. People were flocking in: 161,657 in the first week, half a million during August, and the millionth visitor had stepped onto Main Street before September was out. The park’s success was not in doubt.
Disneyland’s impact on the national conscious was immediate, and lasting. It had its detractors (one critic called its closely monitored pleasures “a small-scale model of a perfect fascist regime”), but many agreed with the developer James W Rouse when he gave his keynote address to the Urban Design Conference at Harvard. “I hold a view that may be somewhat shocking to an audience as sophisticated as this: that the greatest piece of urban design in the United States today is Disneyland I find more to learn in the standards that have been set and in the goals that have been achieved in the development of Disneyland than in any other piece of physical development in the country.”
To date, more than 750 million people have gone to the original Disneyland. There are now 12 parks worldwide, but Anaheim’s is the only one Walt – who died in 1966 just after turning 65 (killed by all those Chesterfield cigarettes) – ever saw. And while the rest are larger and more elaborate, it is only in California that you can get a sense of the man.
The other parks are scrupulously planned and maintained. Yet the Disney touch is hard to find. The Main Street in Florida, for instance, has the same exuberant Beaux-Arts buildings with exaggerated architectural details, but they are larger than their West Coast predecessors – fun to look at, but lacking a playful intimacy.
The Latin inscription on Christopher Wren's monument in St Paul's reads: "If you seek his monument, look around you." So it is with the original Disneyland. If visitors are looking for the most enduring monument to Walt Disney, they have only to stand at the foot of Main Street, under the pastel ramparts of the Sleeping Beauty Castle, a building arguably as recognisable as the Eiffel Tower, and look around.
Disneyland in numbersWalt Disney’s park had an impressive first year, and it only got bigger from there...
18Attractions on offer at the park on opening day – there are now 51
84 millionMickey Mouse ears sold since opening – at least!
14Of the original attractions are still running
11,000Lightbulbs outlining the buildings on Main Street
200Feral cats said to roam the park, mostly at night
4Babies born in Disneyland
$1Adult admission fee when Disneyland opened
23 metresThe height of the Sleeping Beauty Castle
$10 millionRevenue in Disneyland's first full year
800Mostly non-indigenous species of plants in the park on opening day – from as far away as Australia, New Zealand, China and Japan
Richard Snow is an American author and historian. His book Disney’s Land: Walt Disney and the Invention of the Amusement Park That Changed the World (Scribner, 2019) is available now
LISTEN: Hear memories of Disneyland's opening day on an episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service
This content first appeared in the April 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed