Saturday, July 17, 2010

Happy Birthday, Disneyland!

Today, July 17, is the anniversary of the day Disneyland opened. NOT ONLY THAT, but Disneyland opened in 1955. It is now 55 years since that day! So it's sort of like the park's Golden Birthday, but not. (There's gotta be some term for that, though.)
So this is the perfect day for a brief history of the park.

The idea for Disneyland started one day when Walt had taken his daughters out. Saturdays were his day to spend time with the girls, and he started wishing there could be some place he could take them where the whole family could have fun together, rather than the parent waiting while the child plays. People had been asking for him to arrange tours of the Disney studios, but he thought tours of animation studios would be relatively boring. He wanted people to experience something more interactive, and a park would be the perfect thing.

At the time, amusement parks were in existence. But they were dirty places with gum all over the ground, grumpy employees who would bark instructions at the guests, and the same set of rides-a tunnel of love, a ferris wheel, roller coasters, a ball toss. When Walt tried to describe what he had in mind for Disneyland, people didn't understand what a "theme" park would be. They were shocked he intended to have no tunnel of love or ferris wheels, and told him no one would come. But Walt in his mind saw an ideal place, where the employees treated each guest with enthusiasm, and everything was clean and visually appealing. For this reason, gum has never been sold in the park. Walt had the curbs on Main Street all rounded, as it's more pleasing and comforting than 90 degree angles.

Walt was determined to make his dream a reality. Walt and his brother Roy made many personal sacrifices in order to finance the park. Walt sold his vacation home at a loss, borrowed against his own life insurance policy, and mortgaged his home.
In the 50s, Annaheim, California was not the major city it is today. The land on which Disneyland stands was originally orange groves, surrounded by open farm land. Walt wanted it this way-he didn't want the area around Disneyland crowded with cheap motels and diners. Ironically, the success of Disneyland has made Annaheim a crowded city and detracted from the "escape from reality" concept Walt wanted, but the inside of the park is blocked off from viewing the outside.

Walt was determined not to push back the opening date. Unfortunately, that meant that some shortcuts were taken and opening day was a disaster. The asphalt had been poured only hours earlier than the opening and was so hot still that ladies' heels sank in. A power outage stopped Mr. Toad's Wild Ride. A gas leak led to early closing for Fantasyland, Adventureland, and Frontierland. No fault of Disney's were other contributing factors, like the unbearable heat. A plumber's strike meant Walt had to either have functioning bathrooms or drinking fountains. Walt wisely chose operational bathrooms, saying that people could "buy Pepsi, but they can't pee in the street." The lack of drinking fountains, though, caused people to suspect that they were being forced to spend money on drinks.

In addition, the crowds were more than anyone expected. The premiere was an invitation-only event, with 11,000 passes sent out. But between counterfeit tickets and people climbing over the walls, the attendance count was 28, 154. The heat and the crowds made the day very uncomfortable.

Not only that, but the day was recorded live on camera. To increase support for the park, Walt had created a Disneyland t.v. show. But the live filming was full of bloopers, which are funny now, but were embarrassing at the time.
Because of the disastrous opening day, and because the next day, the 18th, was the day the park opened to the public, sometimes the 18th is called Opening Day. So, it's like a two-day birthday celebration! I read somewhere that employees all wear black ribbons on July 17th to commemorate that first day.

Yet, obviously, despite the problems with the original park, Walt and his team-and later the Disney company-have continually changed and expanded the park, continuing to make it better and better. Walt's death in '66 was a huge shock to the world, but especially to the Disneyland team. Walt intentionally wanted the atmosphere to be like a family. He was often in the park, observing the guests to see what their experience was like and how to make it better. But he also cared about the employees-from the lead operators to the janitors, and would often ask for their opinions about certain ideas he was contemplating. Those who knew him say that his heart was primarily concerned with the guests, and giving them a good experience. Money was secondary, although necessary. After the Disney company came into other hands, the priorities got switched. Make the people happy so that they'll pay more.

But Disneyland has been well-loved by many people-from employees to guests, who range from people all over the world to locals, from families who save for years to be able to afford their trips to royalty and Presidents. Author Ray Bradbury (one of my personal favorites) said of his visit to Disneyland, "I've never had such a day full of zest and high good humor...I found in Disneyland vast reserves of imagination before untapped in our country."

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