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How Disneyland was Built in a Single Year

Written by Robbie Hadley



            It is hard to imagine a world without Disney. Today, the entertainment juggernaut is so ubiquitous that it is hard to not be a fan of at least one of their dozens of franchises. In fact, in 2019, Disney owned nearly a third of the entire box office market share of North America. One out of every three dollars spent in the cinema went back to Mickey Mouse.

            However, the film industry is just one arm of the company. In fact, the bulk of Disney’s income, over 60%, comes from operating their parks. Disney owns five different resorts around the world which see millions of visitors a year. The largest of these, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida,  is the largest single-site employer in the entire world with over 75,000 cast members to run the parks, hotels, and shops that all make up one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations. Just about everyone has either visited one of their parks somewhere in the world or if not, they probably know someone who has.

            What many don’t realize is that not even a century ago, when Walt Disney first started to form the idea of a happy place where children and adults could have fun together, he was called a madman. Basically the whole world thought that Walt had gone insane when he poured every single dollar he had, and the dollars of many friends and associates in his hair-brained scheme of a Mickey Mouse Theme Park. Even when the park opened, many were skeptical if it would even be open a year later.

The rest, as they say, is history. Disneyland park became one of the symbols of America, almost as iconic as the Statue of Liberty. However, the gawking public was not entirely wrong to be skeptical of Walt’s vision. There were so many roadblocks, obstacles, and difficulties, that the park almost failed on numerous occasions before it even opened. The most amazing fact? The entire park went from fantastical dream to magical reality in one year and one day. On the morning of July 16th, 1954, there was an empty lot in Anaheim, California and on July 17th, 1955, TV presenter and future President Ronald Reagan broadcasted the opening live to the nation as Walt’s dream was real and there for the taking.


One Little Spark

Picture Walt Disney, sitting on a park bench. He’s reading the paper casually. The delighted sounds of children playing are in the background. He looks up to see two young girls, his daughters, on an old timey carousel. The carousel was right between Walt’s house and his Burbank studios which made it the perfect place to meet his daughters during lunch.  As the carousel slows, the two girls beg to go again. Walt smiles, hands the attendant a few coins, and sits back down with his paper. With the release of his smash hit feature film, Snow White, money was no longer an issue and he would happily let them have one more ride.

He loves his daughters dearly and was thrilled to allow them to have some fun. Unfortunately, he was also horrifically bored. His young daughters were incredibly entertained by the up and down motion of the horses and their circular path, but Walt could only watch for so long. He would keep going for them, to be sure, but it was a pain. Why did it have to be like this? Why were there places that children could have fun and other places for the adults to enjoy themselves? Why wasn’t there anywhere where the adults and the kids could have fun together?

This nagging thought stuck with Walt. However, there were other things on his mind. Between the wartime production, a number of feature films, and a writer strike, Walt didn’t have time to act on these thoughts. As the post-war heights finally started to settle off, the idea came back into Walt’s mind. What about that place he had thought about so long ago?

It was in 1948 that Walt picked up the idea seriously. He thought that a park, then called Mickey Mouse Park, could be a good place for his vision to come to life. However, this park would hardly be recognized as the Disneyland of today. At first, he simply wanted to offer a studio tour like the tours that Universal Studios had been giving since 1915, but that idea was quickly shelved. He didn’t think that it would be interesting enough to see the success he wanted to see.

This was the first time his dreams would be scaled up, but not the last. From a small studio tour, he now wanted an 8 acre park across from the studio. The early plans of this Mickey Mouse park show some play areas and themed areas along with a boat ride and a train that circumnavigated the park..

As Walt scoured the nation and the world looking at how other theme parks operated, his vision blossomed again. He didn’t just want a small park across from the studio. He wanted a full theme park. Another of his inspirations to expand this idea was his love of the World’s Fairs. He was greatly inspired by the 1939 New York World’s Fair and his father was a carpenter on the famous Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. He grew up hearing the tales of the amazing exhibition and the wonders from around the world that it showcased. With all of this in mind, he had to think bigger. He thought of his park as a permanent World’s Fair.

Imagineering the Happiest Place

As Walt’s plans for his park blossomed, the concerns did as well. Walt’s brother, Roy O. Disney, ran the finances for the studios. While Walt was the ideas man, Roy was the number cruncher who made sure that his brother’s schemes could work. However, at this, he drew a line in the sand. The amount of money that Walt wanted for the project was enough to bankrupt the studios. They simply couldn’t take the risk that Walt’s park would fail.


Walt Disney was not a man who liked to hear the word no. When he had an idea, he was going to try and make it happen nomatter how risky that idea might be. In 1952, ignoring the frequent protests of his brother, Walt formed a new company which he named WED Enterprises. WED Enterprises was formed mostly from Walt’s personal wealth along with taking out as many loans as he could get. He even took out a second mortgage on his home and cashed out his life insurance. The three employees he brought over from the studio were jacks of all trades who worked on all kinds of different aspects of the park. Because of this, Walt thought they needed a new name. They weren’t architects or even engineers. What they were doing was bringing Imagination into reality. Therefore they were dubbed the Imagineers.

With top imagineers on the task, a plan for Disneyland started to come together. He wanted a trip to Disneyland to be a journey across the world and across time. To do so he wanted to divide the park into a number of themed lands where park goers could feel like they were going from one place to an entirely different place in only a few steps. True Life Adventureland was an exciting trek across all the world’s undiscovered places. Fantasyland would plop visitors down into the world of Disney’s famous cartoons. Frontierland would be an homage to Disney’s love of America and the settlers who trekked across the country. Lastly, The World of Tomorrow would showcase all of the cutting edge technology that would shape the future.

However, the most impressive of the lands was to be the entrance, Main Street USA. This entrance to the park would replicate Walt’s memories of his hometown by having a classically American main street lined with shops in a turn of the century style.

All of these lands were laid out on a classic but still innovative design called the hub and spoke layout. Although used sporadically across some cities, it was mostly a concept in logistics in order to move goods from place to place as quickly as possible. Walt thought it would work great for the park. With a hub in the middle, all of the lands radiated out from the center and were all connected by easy to navigate walkways. Although the visitors would go from one far flung land to another, they would never be lost.

Walt picked out a plot of land in nearby Anaheim that would be perfect and he set out on acquiring the land. The plans were coming together. Ride technology was starting to be conceived and even occasionally tested, and the public excitement around this new bizarre idea was starting to build. There was only one issue. Walt was completely out of money. Paying a team of Imagineers and acquiring land had completely bled his coffers dry. He had to find some way to get an influx of cash and keep the dream alive.

            After shopping around Hollywood and pulling as many favors as he could, Walt found his salvation in an unlikely place, television. Walt had been very reluctant to enter the television market up to that point. He believed that producing any content for television would cheapen Disney’s brand and detract away from their proven strategy of cinematic releases, but it’s amazing how money can change one’s outlook.

            The party most interested in funding Walt’s plan was the television network, the American Broadcast Company, better known as ABC. They first offered $500,000, about $5.4 million accounting for inflation, for a 34.48% stake in the park. They also promised to guarantee another $4.5 million, around $49 million today, in loans. With this liquidity, the park could finally continue.

            However, that wasn’t the end of the bargain for Walt. He also agreed to produce a number of shows and specials for ABC including the Mickey Mouse Club, but the program that was to receive the most attention was The Magical World of Disney. The program went through a number of name changes through its run, but the concept was quite simple. Every week, Walt would highlight the progress of Disneyland and show one aspect of the park to ABC’s viewers. It also gave viewers a glimpse into the animation studio as Walt would show their creative process for the studio and the park. The show was a smash hit. It was a perfect arrangement for both parties. ABC had exclusive rights to arguably the most popular entertainer in the world and inside access to his brand new, highly anticipated park. Disney and WED Enterprises were paid to run advertisements to huge swaths of the American public. Because of this, the public had week by week updates on the park and its constructuction. While once thought as a pipe dream, it was now a dream shared by millions of Americans who tuned in.


366 Days to Open: Construction Begins

            While Walt was sorting through all of the financial dealings, work on the park began at a breakneck pace. Since Walt didn’t know how long the funds would hold out, his plan was to open the park and start earning back the money as quickly as possible. As much as this is a logical plan, it was also a logistical nightmare. Work continued basically 24/7. Walt was frustrated that they weren’t working faster and harder. This inevitably caused conflicts with the workers, but Walt was no stranger to labor disputes. As he always managed to do, he sorted it out and work continued.

             One of the most important parts of Disneyland isn’t what you see, it is what you don’t. He wanted the park and the lands within the park to be all encompassing. The very first thing to be built in the park was a 20 foot berm. A berm is simply a raised mound of dirt or material that separates one area from another. Most importantly for Walt, it separated the sightlines. Wouldn’t be on Main Street USA and look into the parking lot or the freeway. You should never be able to look into Tomorrowland from Fantasyland. This simple engenious design ensured that the sightlines would remain unblemished. Disney continues this practice today and has only expanded it for more immersive theming.

            One of the first rides to be crafted was the centerpiece of Adventureland. Walt wanted a boat ride that took guests through all of the greatest rivers of the world. The Jungle River Cruise, now simply called the Jungle Cruise, included the most technically advanced animal animatronics of the time. Despite it being originally envisioned as a serious ride with real animals, it was very quickly realized this was not realistic. When the animatronics didn’t look as life-like as they thought, they decided to reimagine it with a different tone that fit the less than real looking animals. Although they haven’t necessarily held up against the test of time, the corny and campy tone of the ride makes it work. The Skippers, the title of the cast members who MC the attraction, get to pick from an assortment of the worst, knee slapping dad jokes imaginable and make this slow moving cruise into a staple for classic Disney fans. This opening day attraction is still open today telling eye rolling jokes and proclaiming the immaculate spectacle that is world famous Backside of Water for any who ride it.


            One of the most difficult areas of the park to design for was Tomorrowland. Now recognized as the Tomorrowland problem, the issue is actually pretty simple. Tomorrow is going to come some day, and it probably will be soon. In order to make a land that has all of the cutting edge technology of the future, parks need to be constantly updating, overhauling, and rebuilding the land, usually at great expense. This did not occur then and has not now. This is why some of the attractions, especially the early ones, seem very out of place in Tomorrowland but make more sense in their original context. The prime example of this is the Autopia. This ride sees a series of vehicles in the Mid Century Futurism style zip around a course designed like moden interstates. It was basically a go kart track. Although still a popular ride today, many wonder why it is alongside rocket ships and time machines.

            Well, the answer is simple. The interstate was a fledgling project. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was astounded by the German Autobahn when he was part of the invasion of the country in WWII. He was also concerned at how long it took to mobilize troops across a country as massive as the USA. He made it one of his primary goals as President to establish an interstate system across the country. He didn’t start on the project until 1956, a full year after the opening of the park. At the time of its inception, the idea of a system of roads that connected the whole country was almost as much of a pipe dream as landing a man on the moon. Thus it was included in the land and remains there today. We have done a whole post on the US Interstate system on this channel so check it out if you want more information on that.

            Disneyland needed an icon. One of Walt’s visions that he was completely unwilling to compromise on is that every land needed to have its own icon to draw people toward it. Also, there needed to be an icon for the whole park to draw them down Main Street USA, into the hub, and eventually into the other lands. For Walt, the decision of a park icon was simple. He believed that every kingdom needed to have a castle, and although Sleeping Beauty was just in early development, he was sure it would be a hit and that the castle would inspire all those who saw it. Sleeping Beauty Castle was created. Although it stood at only 23.5 meters tall, the Imagineers used a number of clever tricks to make it seem larger. Forced perspective is when the dimensions of something are manipulated to distort the viewer’s sense of size. For one, the further along Main Street USA you go, the shorter the buildings get. This makes the castle seem taller in comparison. Also, the turrets and other aspects of the castle were stretched and contorted to make them look like they reached high into the sky. Based off of Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany, the castle succeeded at looking much larger than it actually was. However, in comparison to the castles in other parks today, it does seem a bit Lilliputian.


Black Sunday and Beyond

            A year and a day after ground was broken, the park was opened on July 17th, 1955. ABC had a live broadcast of the opening ceremony and of the activities of the first day. However, it was an unmitigated disaster. Who would have guessed that a park that was rushed together so quickly would have had issues? For one, the blacktop across the park had just been poured a few days previously, but in the scorching Southern California heat, it didn’t dry. Women wearing high heels found themselves sinking slowly into the asphalt.

            There was also the issue of capacity. The first day was supposed to be a preview day and not open to the general public. Disney had issued approximately 15,000 tickets for fans to get a sneak peak at the park. However, they were counterfeited prolifically. Although no solid numbers exist, Disney claims that over 30,000 guests showed up that day.

            There was also the issue with plumbing. One of the most frustrating labor disputes for Walt was with the plumbers’ union. They were on strike and there were few to be found around in the final days of the park. Not long before opening, he was given an ultimatum. Do you want toilets or water fountains? You can’t have both. Walt picked the toilets. Despite being an understandable choice, that scorching sun saw many people suffer from heat exhaustion with no water in sight. Some accused Walt of trying to sell more CocaCola.

            Along with all of that chaos, guests ran rampant across the park. There were practically no organized lines and guests would push each other out of attractions as soon as it was over to try and get in the next go around. The teacups literally fell apart and welders were called to swiftly piece them together. The Mark Twain Riverboat was so overloaded that it sank into the artificial river.

On top of all of that chaos, Tomorrowland was almost entirely empty. With the exception of the Autopia, there were no major rides leaving guests very confused on what the land was even supposed to be and how an empty lot represented the future.


            Despite all of these missteps, the park opened again the next day, and the next. Slowly but surely, the kinks were worked out and the park started to work more smoothly. Eventually, it was a well oiled machine moving guests in, out, and through the park with amazing efficiency. Walt had done it. Despite all of the hardships, tribulations, and numerous nonbelievers, Walt’s park was a reality. When media outlets complained that the park felt unfinished, Walt quipped back with one of his most famous lines of all time. “Disneyland will never be completed, as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

            The park has stuck to that legacy even long after Walt has gone. New rides, new attractions, and even whole new lands have been built into the park. They even opened a second gate with Disney’s California Adventure in February of 2001.

 Walt was never satisfied. He always wanted to build something grander, more amazing, and more innovative. The most amazing part of it is that he usually somehow managed to pull success from the jaws of defeat. Disneyland shouldn’t have worked. It was too expensive, too rushed, and too ambitious. However, here we are three quarters of a century later and Disney parks are a foundational part of theme park design and culture. Even though Walt moved on to a more ambitious project soon after, Disneyland was always one of Walt’s most proud achievements, even above his movies or the studio. His next plan, however, would make Disneyland look like the Griffith Park Carousel. He planned to build an entire Utopian city called EPCOT, or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. We also have a post over that project, so check that out when you are finished, here.

            There are few aspects of American culture that have stuck quite like Disneyland has. For many, a trip to the Disney parks is as much of a pilgrimage as it is a vacation. Especially for Disney diehards, going to “Walt’s Park” is going to connect with Walt and his vision for a park and his outlook on life. He was always looking to the future to create a better, and Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.

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