Jul 17, 2007

Happy Birthday Disneyland

The first day of Disneyland's operation was an invitation only event. The idea was to have a light day of 10 to 12 thousand guests to break in all the new rides and attractions. During this light opening, Walt and a few celebrities would host a live 2 hour television show to introduce the American public to Walt's new park. It sounds simple enough, but when Mother Nature, Father Time and Murphy [the guy with the laws] conspire against you, the best laid plans of a man and his mouse will often go awry.

Disneyland's race to completion was as dramatic as it could be. For the last two weeks, temperatures hovered near three digits. Crews working round the clock were being slow roasted as they finished "Walt's Folly". An earlier plumbers strike had forced Disney to choose between finishing all the water fountains or finishing the bathrooms. Walt chose bathrooms saying "Folks can drink a Coke but they can't pee in the streets." [Unless it's in the parking lot as you'll see a little later.] Now with only days to go and with temperatures and temperments soaring, asphalt workers were going on strike as well.

It was nothing personal, the strike was two counties wide. Disney and construction boss Joe Fowler made an impassioned plea and asphalt workers agreed to finish the park. Problem was, the truck drivers who delivered the asphalt refused to cross picket lines to pick it up so Disney had it hauled up from San Diego a hundred miles to the south. Just what every big project needs near the end is a big expensive delay. Legend has it, workers were laying the black stuff the morning of the grand opening. New blacktop and hot weather. You can see where this is going to go, right?

The guests were employees from the studio, the families of those that built the park, sponsors, a thousand reporters and a few hundred celebrity friends. Food & drink was free, compliments of Disney. The new food service department was busy preparing meals for the crowd of 10,000.

What they hadn't anticipated was just how many people wanted to see Disneyland. It seems, the way the tickets were worded, people thought you could bring your whole family with only one ticket. It's also been said that the tickets were easy to forge. I'm sure you can see where this is going as well.

Dateline Disneyland was going to be the largest live telecast ever. TV cameras of the day were massive pieces of machinery that didn't move easily. Twenty nine cameras were placed around the park to cover the event. Where ABC got 29 cameras on the west coast in 1955, I don't know.
To emcee his live show Walt called on his friend Art Linkletter. Art was a radio and television vet with many live broadcasts to his credit. He had been a master of ceremonies for at least two world's fairs and the opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. Linkletter picked Bob Cummings and some guy by the name of Ronald Reagan as his co-anchors. Unfortunately history has lost all track of anything Reagan did after the TV special. [Lighten up people, I'm just kidding].

The show wasn't scripted. Where the emcees were going to go was planned in advance, with only a general idea of what they were going to say when they got there. All three hosts were playing it off the cuff, which is part of the reason the show is still fun to watch over 50 years later.

Disneyland's opening was on a Sunday. Even in a Devils playground like Southern California, most people had started their Sunday morning attending church. Dressing up on Sunday was still a national habit. Add to that a live taping where people might be seen by friends and relatives across the country and the crowd dressed to impress. It's going to be over 90 degrees and yet men were in ties and coats and women in high heels and slips. High heels at Disneyland. You gotta love the 50's fashion ethic.

Walt's brother Roy was driving to Disneyland from his Los Angeles home. When he got close to the park, the traffic on Firestone Blvd was pretty bad. Since traffic in So Cal wasn't a big surprise even in 1955, it didn't dawn on Roy that the problem was caused by folks coming to see Disneyland. Traffic to the park was backed up for two miles in every direction, a new phenomenon for Anaheim and it's 43 man police force. The traffic jam was avoided by a few people who had slept in their cars overnight.

Once he parked, Roy was approached by a panicked new parking lot employee who didn't know what to do about kids relieving themselves next to the cars. These kids had been in the traffic jam for hours. Roy's solution to the problem? "God bless 'em, let 'em pee"

Disneyland opened around noon just as the temperature was starting to peak. The "official" main gate numbers set the crowd at over 28,000 guests and that didn't include those that paid a guy 5 bucks to climb over the back fence on his ladder (true story). The hot weather combined with new asphalt meant sticky streets and women in heels walked right out of their shoes

The food & drink that had been planned for 10 thousand begin to dry up and the lack of drinking fountains meant even getting a drink of water had a line. The hot, thirsty and irritable mob began to swarm the rides and overwhelm the fresh faced new ride operators. Ride capacities were set on the spot and some rides were shut down over & over, stretched to their new limits.

The stories of opening day are legend. Fantasyland was closed down for a while when they thought they had a gas leak. Exhausted animator Ken Anderson had had been painting rides all night and fell asleep backstage missing the official opening. Crowds almost flipped the Mark Twain as they swarmed on board and ran from one side of the ship to the other looking for points of interest. Kids used the Autopia like a demolition derby and left a nearly weeping Bob Gurr to fix the automotive mess before the public opening the next day. For a few hours, it was a complete madhouse.

By 5 o'clock the new park had quieted down. Heat, lack of food, long lines for the drinking fountain and rides breaking down had sent most people packing. Charles Ridgeway who was a reporter at the time called his wife back to the park to ride the new rides. She had gone home when she realized what kind of a day it was going to be. Those that stuck it out were able to truly enjoy what Disneyland had to offer. They were able to see the park the way Walt had seen it in his dreamy little skull. The funny part is, Walt had no idea what was happening. He was busy running from place to place to dedicate each of the lands on live television. Getting to each site to make his speeches was his main job.

The Disneyland that 90 million people saw on television thaty day [that's over half of the US population at the time!] was closer to what Walt envisioned than what was actually going on in the park on opening day and while it didn't take very long for the Disney company to get the two images to match, the opening day damage had been done. Many reviewers slammed Disneyland.

After the opening, Walt kept shaping his dream. He wasted no time improving his park and he invited reporters back explaining what had gone wrong and showing them how much had already changed. In spite of the first day reviews, most of the general public believed in what they saw on TV and came in big numbers. Seven weeks into the unseasonably hot summer, Disneyland had topped one million guests, a surprising milestone of success.

Now at the beginning of it's 53rd year of operation, Disneyland has survived critics, political dignitaries, occasional bad management and a love-in. It is the rally point for American celebrations and occasionally, it suffers it's own tragedies. Disneyland's castle is an iconic image eternally burned into the brains of baby boomers and one of the most photographed structures in the world. Disney's little theme park is an American Institution.

We here at the treehouse want to say happy birthday and tip our souvenir Disneyland hard hat in gratitude. We hope 'The Happiest Place on Earth" gets to live up to it's motto for many generations to come

This photo is probably from opening day. It shows a group of local kids who were hand picked to run across the drawbridge into Fantasyland. You know it's a rehearsal because there are kids above the castle looking down, the guys on the right of the photo are caught off guard and my favorite part of the photo is Alice sitting and the construction guy smoking next to her. [close-up below]

If the photo is from opening day, the myth of the drawbridge being opened only twice is malarkey. [It's malarkey anyways. They ran it up & down for local commercials for the "New Fantasyland" in the 80's.] I also wonder how many times they ran the kids through the tunnel. Was it just for a camera test or were they burning the energy off the kids? Did they get to ride the carousel while they waited for their turn on television?

The rehearsal brings up another question I have. You've may have seen the opening day newspaper photos of kids running through those very gates to ride the rides. Were those pictures taken during rehearsals, during the live TV show or were they taken the next day when the park opened to the public? If you were one of those Anaheim kids chosen to run through the castle on opening day, or a newspaper photographer, let me know what you remember.

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