Disneyland was created from a combination of Walt Disney’s innovative vision, the creative efforts and technical genius of the team he put together, and the deep emotional connection the park elicits with guests when they visit there. Walt Disney himself claimed, “There is nothing like it in the entire world. I know because I’ve looked. That’s why it can be great: because it will be unique.” Here’s the story of how Walt created Disneyland, the first true theme park.
Disneyland is much like Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Florida, but it’s smaller and more intimate. To me, it seems more “authentic.” It’s like you can almost feel the presence of Walt Disney everywhere because he had a personal hand in things.
Walt Disney posing the Greenfield Village Tintype Studio, 1940. THF 109756
In creating Disneyland, Walt Disney challenged many rules of traditional amusement parks. We’ll see how. But first…since he insisted that everyone he met call him by his first name, that’s what we’ll do. From now on, I’ll be referring to him as Walt!
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Do you know where Walt Disney’s inspiration for Main Street, USA, came from? ANSWER: Born in 1901, Walt loved the bustling Main Street of his boyhood home in Marceline, Missouri. Marceline later provided the inspiration for Disneyland’s Main Street, USA.
Map and guide, “Hollywood Movie Capital of the World,” circa 1942. THF 209523
After trying different animated film techniques in Kansas City, Walt left to seek his fortune in Hollywood.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Valentine, 1938. THF 335750
There, he made a name for himself with Mickey Mouse (1927) and—10 years later—the first full-length animated feature film, Snow White. Walt innately understood what appealed to the American public and later brought this to Disneyland.
Walt claimed the idea of Disneyland came to him while watching his two daughters ride the carousel in L.A.’s Griffith Park. There, he began to imagine a clean, safe, friendly place where parents and children could have fun together!
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: That carousel in Griffith Park was built in 1926 by the Spillman Engineering Company—a later name for the Herschell-Spillman Company, the company that made the carousel now in our own Greenfield Village in 1913! Here’s what ours looks like.
1958 Edsel Bermuda Station Wagon Advertisement, “Dramatic Edsel Styling is Here to Stay.” THF 124600
The decline of these older amusement parks ironically coincided with the rapid growth of suburbs, freeways, car ownership, and an unprecedented baby boom—a market primed for pleasure travel and family fun!
Young Girl Seated on a Carousel Horse, circa 1955. THF 105688
Some amusement parks added “kiddie” rides and, in some places, whole new “kiddie parks” appeared. But that’s not what Walt had in mind. Adults still sat back and watched their kids have all the fun.
Chicago Railroad Fair Official Guidebook, 1948. THF 285987
Walt’s vision for his family park also came from his lifelong love of steam railroads. In 1948, he and animator/fellow train buff Ward Kimball visited the Chicago Railroad Fair and had a ball. Check out the homage to old steam trains in this program.
After the Railroad Fair, Walt and Ward visited our own Greenfield Village, where they enjoyed the small-town atmosphere during a special tour. At the Tintype Studio, they had their portrait taken while dressed up as old-time railroad engineers.
Walt Disney and Artist Herb Ryman with illustration proposals for the Ford Pavilion, 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. THF 114467
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Walt Disney used the word Imagineers to describe the people who helped him give shape to what would become Disneyland. What two words did he combine to create this new word?
ANSWER: Walt hand-picked a group of studio staff and other artists to help him create his new family park. He later referred to them as Imagineers—combining the words imagination and engineering. This image shows Walt with Herb Ryman—one of his favorite artists.
Postcard viewbook of Los Angeles, California. THF 7376
Walt continually looked for new ideas and inspiration for his park, including places around Los Angeles, like Knott’s Berry Farm, the Spanish colonial-style shops on Olvera Street, and the bustling Farmer’s Market—one of Walt’s favorite hangouts.
Times Square – Looking North – New York City, August 7, 1948. THF 8840
Walt also worried about how people got fatigued in large and crowded environments. So, he studied pathways, traffic flow, and entrances and exits at places like fairs, circuses, carnivals, national parks, museums, and even the streets of New York City.
Studying these led to Walt’s first break from traditional amusement parks: the single entrance. Amusement park operators argued this would create congestion, but Walt wanted visitors to experience a cohesive “story”—like walking through scenes of a movie.
Another new idea in Walt’s design was the central “hub,” that led to the park’s four realms, or lands, like spokes of a wheel. Walt felt that this oriented people and saved steps. Check out the circular hub in front of the castle on this map.
Disneyland cup & saucer set, 1955-1960. THF 150182
A third rule-challenging idea in Walt’s plan was the attractor, or “weenie” for each land—in other words, an eye-catching central feature that drew people toward a goal. The main attractor was, of course, Sleeping Beauty Castle.
To establish cohesive stories for each land, Walt insisted that the elements in them fit harmoniously together—from buildings to signs to trash cans. This idea—later called “theming”—was Walt’s greatest and most unique contribution.
DISNEY INSIDER TRIVIA: Which came first, Disneyland the park, or Disneyland the TV show?
ANSWER: To build his park, Walt lacked one important thing—money! So, he took a risk on the new medium of TV. While most Hollywood moviemakers saw TV as a fad or as the competition, Walt saw it as “my way of going direct to the public.” Disneyland the TV show premiered October 27, 1954—with weekly features relating to one of the four lands and glimpses of Disneyland the park being built.
Disneyland, the park, opened July 17, 1955, to special guests and the media. So many things went wrong that day that it came to be called “Black Sunday.” But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and soon turned things around.
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom guidebook, 1988. THF 134722
Today, themed environments from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores owe a debt to Walt Disney. Sadly, Walt Disney passed away in 1966. It was his brother Roy who made Walt Disney World in Florida a reality, beginning with Magic Kingdom in 1971.
Torch Lake steam locomotive pulling passenger cars in Greenfield Village, August 1972. THF 112228
DISNEY INSIDER INFO:In an ironic twist, a steam railroad was added to the perimeter of Greenfield Village for the first time during a late 1960s expansion—an attempt to be more like Disneyland!
Marty Sklar speaking at symposium for “Behind the Magic” at Henry Ford Museum, November 11, 1995. THF 12415
In 2005, The Henry Ford celebrated Disneyland’s 50th anniversary with a special exhibit, “Behind the Magic: 50 Years of Disneyland.” The amazing and talented Marty Sklar, then head of Walt Disney Imagineering, made that possible.
DISNEY INSIDER INFO: Check out this blog post I wrote to honor Marty’s memory when he passed away in 2017.
During these unprecedented times, Disneyland has begun its phased reopening. When you feel safe and comfortable going there, I suggest adding it to your must-visit (or must-return) list. When you're there, you can look around for Walt Disney's influences, just like I do.
Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
June 1955 magazine advertisement for the release of Lady and the Tramp. THF145583
Although this animated feature film received mixed reviews when it was first released on June 22, 1955, Walt Disney’s Lady and the Tramp has since become a classic. It is beloved for its songs, its story, its gorgeously rendered and meticulously detailed settings, and its universal themes of love and acceptance—not to mention that scene with the spaghetti! Numerous story artists and animators contributed their talents to creating this film, but it would take years before Walt Disney would finally give it his nod of approval.
Unlike other Disney animated films of the time, Lady and the Tramp is not based upon a venerable old fairy tale or a previously published book. Its origins can be traced back to 1937, when Disney story artist Joe Grant showed Walt Disney some sketches and told him of his idea for a story based upon the antics of his own English Springer Spaniel named Lady, who was “shoved aside” when the family’s new baby arrived. Walt encouraged Grant to develop the story but was unhappy with the outcome—feeling that Lady seemed too sweet and that the story didn’t have enough action. For the next several years, Grant and other artists worked on a variety of conceptual sketches and many different approaches.
In 1945, the storyline took a drastic turn, which ultimately led to its final film version. That year, Walt Disney read a magazine short story called, “Happy Dan, the Cynical Dog.” Here, in the story of a cynical, devil-may-care dog, Walt found the perfect foil for the prim and proper Lady. By 1953, the film had evolved to the point that Walt asked Ward Greene, the short story’s author, to write a novelization of it. It is Greene—not Joe Grant—who received credit in the final film. Walt couldn’t resist adding a personal tidbit to the story. According to his telling of the story, the opening scene came from his own experience of giving his wife a puppy as a gift in a hat box to make up for having forgotten a dinner date with her.
Interestingly, the spaghetti-eating scene was almost cut, as Walt Disney initially thought it was silly and unromantic. But animator Frank Thomas had such a strong vision for the scene that he completed all the animation for it before showing it to Walt, who was so impressed he agreed to keep in the now-iconic scene.
1955 charm bracelet of the dogs in Lady and the Tramp, likely a souvenir obtained at Disneyland. THF8604
Since the dogs were the main characters of the film, it seemed only natural to both show and tell the story from the dogs’ point of view. The animators studied many real dogs to capture their movements, behaviors, and personalities, while the scenes themselves were shot from a low “dog’s-eye-view” perspective.
A depiction of Main Street, U.S.A. at Disneyland from the 1955 Picture Souvenir Book to the park. THF205154
The film’s setting—early 20th century small-town America—referenced Walt Disney’s own return to his roots, particularly his growing up in the small town of Marceline, Missouri. As the setting was coming to life on film, a real live 3D version of it was being constructed at Disneyland, Walt Disney’s new park in Anaheim, California. Disneyland opened a mere three weeks after the film was released.
Although the setting hearkened back to the past, the filmmaking technique that Walt chose was typically state-of-the-art. As Walt marked the growing interest in widescreen film technology, he decided this would be the first of his animated films to use CinemaScope. To fill in the extra-wide space of this format, the animators extended the backgrounds—resulting in settings that are unusually breathtaking, detailed, mood-setting and, when the story called for it, filled with dramatic tension. Unfortunately, many theatres were not equipped with CinemaScope, so Walt decided that two versions of the film had to be created, forcing layout artists to scramble to restructure key scenes for a standard format as well. CinemaScope ultimately proved too expensive and did not last past the early 1960s. But its influence on Lady and the Tramp lives on—a testament to Walt’s commitment to filmmaking innovation.
Although souvenirs related to Lady and the Tramp are hard to come by these days, I was thrilled to find these salt-and-pepper shakers and collectible pins over several visits to Walt Disney World.
I saw Lady and the Tramp when it was re-released in theatres in 1962. I was nine years old at the time and I was completely enraptured. The details and setting—from the frilly ladies’ dresses, dapper men’s suits, and overstuffed furniture inside Lady’s house to the horses’ clip-clopping down the cobblestone streets—seemed like old photographs come to life. Taking in these details on the big screen as a girl, I was transfixed. Is this where my interest in history began?
After seeing Lady and the Tramp at the movies, I also became obsessed with wanting a dog. Not just any dog. I wanted Lady, or a cocker spaniel as close to Lady as I could get. I dreamed of her, drew pictures of her, transferred her personality onto the stuffed dogs I inevitably got as presents. When I was in eighth grade, my parents finally relented. One day my Mom surprised us and took us kids down to the animal shelter to get a dog. It wasn’t a cocker spaniel. But we did find a little golden-haired puppy that was a fine substitute.
I don’t know that I thought much of Tramp when I was a girl. He was wayward, a nuisance, too different. But from my older perspective, I see that Lady meeting, and ultimately falling for, Tramp was really a symbol of what happens in your life. Forced out of your comfort zone, broadening your horizons, seeing things from new perspectives, taking life’s curves with grace until, rather than resisting it, you accept it—even embrace it.
Who knew, when I was a girl, that this movie was not just about dogs but about life?
Note: The complete story of the making of Lady and the Tramp, including Joe Grant’s contributions, can be found in the bonus feature, “Lady’s Pedigree: The Making of Lady and the Tramp,” in the 50th Anniversary DVD of Lady and the Tramp.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Mary Blair was the artist for this hand-pulled silkscreen print, used in a guest room at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Walt Disney World, 1973 to early 1990s. THF181161
When Disney’s Contemporary Resort opened at Walt Disney World in 1971—coinciding with the opening of Magic Kingdom—guests almost immediately complained about their rooms. The rooms seemed cold and hard. They lacked personality. Guests couldn’t even figure out how to operate the new-fangled recessed lighting. So, within two years, the rooms were refurbished with new textiles, fabrics, traditional lamps, and high-quality prints of Mary Blair’s original design. These prints were adapted from the individual scenes of a massive tile mural that she had created for the Contemporary Resort’s central atrium. The hand-pulled silk-screened prints, framed and hung on the walls over the beds, brought much-needed warmth, color, and a sense of playful exuberance to the rooms. More importantly—but probably unbeknownst to most guests—they reinforced Mary Blair’s deep, longstanding connection to Disney parks, attractions, and films that ultimately dated back to a personal friendship with Walt Disney himself.
Mary Blair was born Mary Browne Robinson in 1911 in rural Oklahoma. She developed a love of art early in her childhood and went on to major in fine arts at San Jose State College. She won a prestigious scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles (which later became the California Institute of the Arts) and studied under the tutelage of Chouinard’s director of illustration, Pruett Carter. Carter was one of the era’s most accomplished magazine illustrators and stressed the importance of human drama, empathy, and theatre in illustration. Mary later recalled that he was her greatest influence.
By the late 1930s, Mary and her husband, fellow artist Lee Blair, were unable to survive off the sales of their fine art and began to work in Los Angeles’s animation industry. In 1941, both were working at Disney and had the opportunity to travel with Walt Disney and a group of Disney Studio artists to South America to paint as part of a government-sponsored goodwill trip. While on this trip, Mary grew into her own as an artist and found the bold and colorful style for which she would be known.
Mary Blair became one of Walt Disney’s favored artists, appreciated for her vibrant and imaginative style. She recalled, “Walt said that I knew about colors he had never heard of.” In her career at Disney, she created concept art and color styling for many films, including Dumbo (1941), Saludos Amigos (1942), Cinderella (1950), Alice in Wonderland (1951), and Peter Pan (1953). She left Disney after her work on Peter Pan to pursue freelance commercial illustration, but returned when Walt Disney specifically requested her help to create the “it’s a small world” attraction for the 1964-5 New York World’s Fair (later brought back to Disneyland and also recreated in Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World).
Before Walt Disney passed away in 1966, he commissioned Mary to produce multiple large-scale murals, including the one for the interior of the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World in Florida. The mural, completed in 1971, was her last work with Disney. Entitled “The Pueblo Village,” it featured 18,000 hand-painted, fire-glazed, one-foot-square ceramic tiles celebrating Southwest American Indian culture, prehistoric rock pictographs, and the Grand Canyon. (Because Mary’s depictions of Native Americans admittedly lack attention to the serious study of indigenous people in that region, they might be criticized as racial stereotyping).
When the guest rooms at the Contemporary Resort were renovated again in the early 1990s, the high-quality prints were removed. But the massive tile mural stoically remains at the center of the Resort’s ten-story atrium—a reminder of Mary Blair’s exuberant artistry and her many contributions to Disney parks and films.
Suwanee Park, a turn-of-the-century-style amusement area, opened in Greenfield Village in 1974—featuring an authentic, hand-carved wooden carousel made by the Herschell-Spillman Company. While this carousel may have seemed quaint and nostalgic in 1974, it harkened back to a time when amusement parks were new and novel, delighting young and old with their promise of escape, entertainment, and thrills.
American amusement parks had their roots in European pleasure gardens—large park-like settings in which people relaxed, strolled, and socialized. Over time, pleasure gardens—like Tivoli in Copenhagen, Denmark, and Vauxhall in London, England—added refreshment stands and sporting activities like tennis and shuffleboard, then noisier features like balloon ascensions, concerts, plays, and crude mechanical rides. Lights were installed to keep the parks open at night. Fireworks displays became eagerly anticipated nightly events.
The World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, was the first international fair in America to offer a distinctive amusement area in addition to the formal exhibits. This mile-long “Midway Plaisance” included an international village of restaurants and entertainment, along with a variety of concessions, side shows, and mechanical rides. The crowd-pleasing Midway inspired the creation of American amusement parks.
Riders began their journey on the Magic Skyway by passing through a glass tunnel around the outside of the Ford pavilion (lower left), affording a unique bird's-eye view of the fairground. (THF201987)
Some people called the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair the greatest fair ever, while others denounced it as a nostalgic look backward. Either way, no one could miss the mega-attractions that were staged by American corporations. Among these display “giants” was Ford Motor Company, who brought in Walt Disney to ensure that its corporate pavilion would be a blockbuster hit at the fair.
A Partnership is Formed
Ford and Disney both had their reasons for making a big splash at the New York World’s Fair.
Ford Motor Company executives wanted to tell their corporate story, showcase their products—including a special highlight on the new Ford Mustang—and provide a “unique and memorable entertainment adventure” that would outshine their competitors at the fair.
Walt Disney, by now internationally recognized for his success at Disneyland, was planning for the future. He looked to the fair as a place to try out new ideas and refine new technologies, obtain corporate funding to create new attractions, and test the receptiveness of East Coast audiences to his most recent dream—building a spacious new theme park in Florida. The Ford pavilion was one of four major attractions that Disney and his Imagineers at WED Enterprises would produce for the New York World’s Fair. (The other three attractions were Progressland for General Electric; Great Moments withMr. Lincoln for the State of Illinois; and it’s a small world for Pepsi-Cola.)
Using this detailed model, Walt Disney shows Ford Motor Company CEO and Chairman of the Board Henry Ford II some of the features that he and his Imagineers had dreamed up for the Ford pavilion. (THF114505)
Ford recognized that Disney represented not only “the greatest pool of creative talent available” but also had years of experience with crowd movement and control. Indeed, when Walt Disney brought in architect Welton Becket from Los Angeles to design the Ford pavilion, he directed Becket to provide space for two simultaneous shows, queuing areas, and product displays—allowing for a capacity of 4,000 guests per hour. Ford Motor Company executives were particularly interested in their pavilion taking on a rotunda form, in keeping with their previous structures at world’s fairs and to commemorate the loss of their beloved, recently-burned-down Ford Rotunda in Dearborn.
This page from a souvenir brochure shows the two distinct structures that made up the Ford pavilion: the so-called “Wonder Rotunda,” inspired by previous Ford world’s fair buildings, and the building that housed most of the Magic Skyway ride. (THF114832)
A Ride on the Magic Skyway
Disney Imagineers brought to the Ford pavilion all the experience they had gained in developing attractions at Disneyland.
As guests entered the Ford pavilion through the monumental Rotunda building, they encountered a series of colorful exhibits focusing on Ford’s history, global influence, and current products. The topics were Ford-related, but the treatment of virtually every element had the unique Disney touch. For example, the miniature villages of the International Gardens display were reminiscent of the miniscule settings at the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction in Disneyland. Great moments in Ford Motor Company history were represented by several humorous, Disney-designed dioramas as guests took moving “speed ramps” to the upper level for the Magic Skyway ride. Near the ride queue, a Disney-created “animated orchestra” was comprised of ingeniously rigged Ford automobile parts.
Representing Ford Motor Company’s global reach, the Disney-designed International Gardens display featured miniature buildings, landscapes, and settings of 12 countries. (THF114465)
The “Auto Parts Harmonic Orchestra”—comprised of Ford automobile parts—really played music! (THF115025)
The climax of the Ford pavilion was, of course, the Magic Skyway ride—billed as “an exciting ride in a Company-built convertible through a fantasy of the past and future in 12 minutes.” It is quite possible that the idea of using real cars for the ride was Ford Motor Company’s, inspired by the “Road of Tomorrow” feature at its 1939 New York World’s Fair pavilion. There, guests had ridden in current car models along a “highway of the future.” But, this time, the cars were fixed in place, attached to a track that moved them along at evenly spaced intervals. Perfecting this ride track technology was, in fact, a major goal for Disney and his Imagineers at the fair.
Convertibles were chosen for the ride because they were easy to climb into and out of and because they afforded the greatest visibility for the show. Through most of the planning process, the choice of convertibles had included examples from all the regular Ford and Lincoln-Mercury lines—Falcon, Ford, Comet, Mercury, Lincoln-Continental, and Thunderbird. But, with mere months to spare before the fair’s opening on April 22, Ford realized the marketing potential in adding several of its new Ford Mustangs to the ride track as well.
Once settled inside their cars, guests used the push buttons of their car’s radio to hear sounds, music, and—after a brief welcome from Henry Ford II—the narration for the show in a choice of four different languages.
The ride began with the cars slowly gliding along outside the Rotunda building through a transparent glass tunnel. This idea, conceived by legendary Disney Imagineer John Hench, both afforded riders a perfect view of the fairground from the upper level of the pavilion and allowed fairgoers to glimpse the new Ford models from below.
Twin tracks can be seen here in the loading area of the Magic Skyway ride, where friendly attendants helped guests quickly and efficiently get into the next available convertible. Story has it that the Ford Mustang was so popular that guests would wait out their turn until a Mustang came along. (THF114475)
Guests enter the glass tunnel overlooking the fairgrounds in anticipation of their “Adventure through Time and Space.” (THF67946)
Back inside the pavilion, the cars picked up speed and the ride truly began. Rainbow-hued strobe lights flashed past while sound effects created the illusion that riders were hurtling through a “time tunnel,” racing across millions of years toward a far distant past.
Emerging from this time tunnel, guests found themselves in “a dim primeval place of strange sounds and sights.” Their cars moved past several gatherings of “prehistoric monsters”—some engaged in mortal combat, others combing the rugged and swampy terrain for food. But, within moments, climate and plant life shifted and Man made his appearance. Groups of cavemen could be seen discovering fire, painting on cave walls, fighting off vicious beasts, using stone as a tool, and—in a final vignette—using the wheel.
Riders on the Magic Skyway intently watch this primeval scene from the comfort of their Ford convertible. (THF114507)
For the scenes of the primeval past, Walt Disney had wanted to create an adventure “so realistic that guests will feel they have lived through a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience.” To accomplish this, Disney Imagineers “brought to life” both the prehistoric creatures and the cavemen with their newest storytelling technology, Audio-Animatronics®. They had introduced this technology only recently—at the Enchanted Tiki Room in Disneyland in 1963, and they had much they wanted to refine on its details here at the fair.
Guests left these scenes behind and entered a second time tunnel, speeding past flashing, spinning, and twirling wheels that symbolized the progress of thousands of years. After their journey through time and space on a “Highway in the Sky,” they were dropped off at “Space City”—a “spectacular, impressionistic city of tomorrow.” Guests disembarked here, as the voice of Walt Disney—speaking through the car radio—invited them to enter a world “where tomorrow is created today.”
Returning to the real world of corporate exhibits, guests encountered five “Adventures in Science” displays, which highlighted Ford’s and Philco’s (a Ford subsidiary at the time) current research in the fields of space, electronics, power sources, fuel, and new materials.
Taking moving “speed ramps” back down to the first level, guests were encouraged to explore on their own the many Ford products and presentations on display in the elegant Product Salon. A final Disney-produced exhibit—featuring moving scenes of city and countryside—provided the backdrop for a Ford “Product Parade”—an “endless stream” of current Ford-built cars, trucks, and tractors.
After the Fair
The Ford pavilion and its Magic Skyway ride were, as hoped, a huge hit with the public and an unqualified success for both Ford and Disney.
For Ford Motor Company, millions of people riding the Magic Skyway experienced a ride in a Ford car for the first time. In addition, Ford’s idea to introduce the Mustang at the fair was a stroke of marketing genius, as the Ford Mustang would go on to become one of the best-selling automobiles in American history.
With its sporty look, reasonable price, and endless number of options, the Mustang hit a sweet spot in the market—appealing to a wide range of buyers. Ford was able to boast that it was a “show stopper” at the New York World’s Fair in this August 14, 1964 Time magazine advertisement. (THF77007)
With four top-ten attractions at the New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney established an impressive record working with large corporations. His Imagineers achieved in record time what might have otherwise taken years to accomplish. Their experiments with ride track technology would be further refined at Disneyland to become the WEDway People Mover, while their refinements with Audio-Animatronics® would find their way into many new attractions. inally, Disney knew that his dream for a new theme park in Florida could proceed as planned. But for now he was happy to bring back all three non-Ford attractions from the New York World’s Fair back to Disneyland.
The Ford pavilion almost came back to Disneyland too. Walt Disney proposed to Ford Motor Company a re-envisioned attraction that would house a 1,000-seat theatre with a new, product-oriented stage show employing Audio-Animatronics® techniques, as well as a showroom for corporate products. The real cars of the Magic Skyway ride would be replaced by the new WEDway People Mover, circulating through the interior of the pavilion on its route around Tomorrowland. Ford Motor Company debated the pros and cons of Disney’s proposal but, in the end, declined his offer.
Ironically, only the dinosaurs of the Magic Skyway ride survived “extinction,” taking up residence in the Primeval World diorama along the Disneyland Railroad in July 1966.
Donna R. Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.
Walt Disney World in Florida is certainly a fun place to visit. It opened in 1971, after Walt Disney realized the huge potential of an East Coast market at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. But if you want to experience the place where it all began, then go to Disneyland. Considered America’s first theme park, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, in Anaheim, California.
To really “get” Disneyland, you must take a trip back in time to Walt Disney’s boyhood. Walt grew up during the rapidly changing years of the early 1900s. His boyhood experiences in Marceline and Kansas City, Miss., especially, inspired his later work in filmmaking and television, as well as his creation of the Disneyland park. Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. is, in fact, a microcosm (albeit a cleaned-up one) of Walt’s boyhood memories of Marceline.
As Walt Disney relates it, his first interest in creating Disneyland dates back to the days he spent watching his daughters ride the carousel at Griffith Park, in Los Angeles, Calif. His wife credits the idea for Disneyland to Walt’s long-time fascination with the steam-powered trains that passed through Missouri when he was a boy.
Whichever legendary “origin story” you want to believe, both of these strongly influenced the several-year evolution of his plan for the park. One of his early inspirations even included a visit to Greenfield Village.
While most Hollywood moviemakers thought television was a passing fad, Walt Disney used it to his advantage. Disneyland the television show, which premiered in October 1954, helped fund Disneyland the park. The show featured live and animated features from each of four lands, with periodic peaks at the park construction. While tuning in to weekly episodes of Disneyland, American families were assured that Disneyland the park was going to be safe, wholesome, and predictable.
Special guests and the media were invited to Disneyland’s Opening Day on July 17, 1955. But things didn’t go quite as Walt Disney had planned. There were so many problems, in fact, that Walt later called it “Black Sunday.” Freeways were gridlocked, tickets were counterfeited, rides broke down, restaurants ran out of food, drinking fountains broke down. It was so hot that women’s high heels sank in the melting asphalt. Finally, a gas link almost shut down Fantasyland, the land in which most of the 22 attractions had been completed. On the next day, when the park opened to the public, things didn’t go much better.
Needless to say, the first reviews were quite negative. But Walt was determined to fix the glitches and by the end of the seventh week, more than a million guests had passed through Disneyland’s entrance. Visitation continued to exceed estimates from that time on.
With the consummate skill of a filmmaker, Walt’s vision for Disneyland was to have guests actually walk through popular American themes and stories. To accomplish this, he inspired his staff—Imagineers, he called them—to reduce these themes and stories to their essence.
For each land and attraction, the stories were unified through architecture, landscaping, signs, characters, food, merchandise, costuming, and even trash cans. This later came to be called “theming.”
Today, every themed environment—from theme parks to restaurants to retail stores—owes a debt to Walt Disney. And although The Henry Ford engages visitors through authentic artifacts and historically accurate stories, we can’t help but appreciate Walt Disney’s far-reaching vision, persistence in the face of obstacles, and genius for storytelling.
Good job, Walt! And happy 58th anniversary, Disneyland!
Donna R. Braden, Curator of Public Life, is looking forward to her family’s trip to Disneyland later this summer.