These Photos Of Disneyland In The 1950s Will Take You Back To Its First Golden Age

Nowadays, Disneyland serves as the late Walt Disney’s lasting monument to fantasy and nostalgia. And as these photos show, it’s been that way since it opened its gates in 1955. However, while the attraction has since been described as “The Happiest Place On Earth,” not everyone was left smiling on its opening day.

It’s believed that Walt Disney first conceived his plan for Disneyland during the early 1950s. By that point, he’d established himself as a pioneering figure in the cartoon film industry, having built on the success of his breakout short Steamboat Willy in 1928. As well as introducing the world to Mickey Mouse, the movie was the earliest animated film with sound.

Steamboat Willy captured the public’s imagination and made viewers hungry for more animated films. The Disney studio catered for this new demand, delivering such classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, Pinocchio in 1940 and Dumbo a year later. But while Disney had defined the cartoon film genre, he wasn’t one to rest on his laurels.

In 1940 the Disney movie Fantasia set animation to classical music, in the first work of its kind. The studio also ventured into live-action films during the 1950s as well as movies about the natural world. And whereas many in the movie business were apprehensive about the rise of television, Disney decided to embrace the new medium.

But while Disney certainly didn’t lack vision, his company wasn’t exactly flourishing financially when he dreamed up Disneyland. At the start of World War Two, in fact, Disney staff had gone on strike, which compounded the firm’s spiraling money problems. The business took time to recover, but Disney’s decision to take a chance on TV would eventually reap dividends.

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It was actually thanks to the success of TV series such as Davy Crockett and The Mickey Mouse Club that Walt amassed the funds to get Disneyland off the ground. As the popularity of Disney had increased throughout the years, the company’s founder started to receive letters from fans asking for studio visits.

Disney himself thought that, in reality, his company’s workmanlike film studios were unlikely to be of much interest to visitors. As a result, he started to think of what would appeal to visitors. These included a tour of his studio’s backlot, which involved a train journey amid an artificial “village.” Meanwhile, he also planned an amusement park that his staff and their families could enjoy.

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These plans gained further traction in 1952 when Disney established WED Enterprises. It was intended to construct a park next to Disney’s Burbank Studios on an eight-acre plot. However, Disney’s grand ambitions for the attraction soon outgrew this relatively small space.

In the end, Disney purchased 160 acres of land in Anaheim, California, that had previously been used for growing orange. But even with a new site for his ambitious plans, Disney would still need to secure the funding to make his dreams a reality. And for that, he had a plan up his sleeve.

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Before Walt could pitch the idea of his amusement park, of course, he first needed to design it. To do so, he collaborated with illustrator Herb Ryman, who’d worked for Disney for almost 10 years and created many eye-catching landscapes for the company. Though he’d since moved on to 20th Century Fox, it was Ryman whom Disney enlisted to put his Disneyland dream onto paper one weekend in 1953.

Before Ryman started sketching the amusement park, Disney outlined his vision for the illustrator. In March 2020 Ryman recalled this exchange in an interview with the History Extra website. He explained that Disney had told him, “I’ve been studying the way people go to museums and other entertainment places.”

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Based on his observations of other attractions, Ryman revealed how Disney had concluded, “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.”

Summing up his vision for Disneyland, Disney had explained, “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.”

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So when Ryman came to sketch Disneyland he began by outlining a triangle, inside which he then drew rivers and hills. To create the magical, nostalgic world that Disney desired, he put in special touches such Mississippi watercraft and a castle that had a merry-go-round in its grounds. Furthermore, the main thoroughfare through the park took the form of a picturesque Victorian street.

In turn, this principal avenue – Main Street – led to other whimsical worlds that Ryman and Disney dreamed up. Some provisional names of these areas included Frontier Country, True-Life Adventure Land, World of Tomorrow and Fantasy Land. It would be a couple of years before their vision would be achieved in real life. But when Disneyland was built, it looked very similar to the drawings the two men had originally hashed out.

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To get his park off the ground, Disney raised some money from his life insurance. But a large proportion of the funds came from the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), which coughed up the money in return for the exclusive rights to a live television broadcast from the park’s opening. The deal came with a further catch, however.

The deal between Disney and ABC required that the park was finished within just 12 months of construction beginning in the summer of 1954. This being Disney, of course, the build would be far from straightforward. Indeed, each attraction was made bespoke for Disneyland. And with that came a whole set of issues that had to be overcome within the already ambitious timeframe.

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Another source of pressure came from Disney’s perfectionist tendencies. In one example, he had the full-sized ballast used on the railway that circled Disneyland re-crushed so that it matched his three-fifths-scale steam train. Elsewhere, he had all the street corners on Main Street rounded after concluding that right-angles were too harsh.

Work to finish the park was still going on right up until the opening day and, in fact, beyond. Nevertheless, Disneyland was inaugurated on 17 July 1955. It had eventually cost $17 million to construct, which is more than $150 million in modern money. And with fundamental parts of the park still unfinished, there was no telling if it would be a success or a failure.

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When Disneyland was finally completed, it was an ode to the kind of sentimental fancifulness that Disney was known for. Main Street evoked memories of the turn-of-the-century Midwest and was said to be inspired by the town in which Disney grew up: Marceline in Missouri. Sleeping Beauty’s castle, meanwhile, was based on the real-life fairytale Schloss Neuschwanstein in Germany.

Elsewhere in the park, there was Fantasyland, which was inspired by various Disney movies. Frontierland was modeled on western movies, while Adventureland recreated a jungle landscape,. And although many attractions found inspiration in the past, Tomorrowland had a sci-fi theme.

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The opening of Disneyland was marked with a TV special called Dateline Disneyland. At the time, there were around 170 million citizens of the U.S. and, of them, 90 million tuned in to watch. They represented 54.2 percent of the overall population, which was more than would see the Moon Landing of 1969.

Among the hosts of Dateline Disney was Ronald Reagan, who was then an actor but of course later became the president of the U.S. And he wasn’t the only celebrity to grace the park on its opening day. Many famous faces were invited to attend the event, including – it seemed – Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., who both appeared in the TV special.

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However, while the launch of Disneyland seemed to get off more or less without a hitch to the millions of viewers of Dateline Disney, off-camera it was an altogether different story. In fact, it would become known as “Black Sunday” as a result of the large number of issues that beset the opening day.

For a start, in the rush to get Disneyland finished on schedule for its televised opening, a plumber’s strike caused further strife. With the clock ticking, Disney had to prioritize completing either the park’s restrooms or its drinking fountains. In the end, he chose the former, but his decision wasn’t without controversy.

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According to Ryman’s interview with History Extra, regarding his toilets-or-fountains dilemma, Disney apparently concluded, “People can drink Pepsi-Cola but they can’t pee in the street.” However, when the park’s opening day rolled around, temperatures soared above 100° F. And with Pepsi sponsoring the event, the dry drinking fountains were taken as a deliberate ploy to make people buy more soda.

Things went further awry when more people attended Disneyland’s opening than had been expected. The inauguration had been intended as a kind of preview event, with only a select number of people invited. Those on the official guest-list were due to be welcomed by Disney himself, in fact. But things soon got out of hand.

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Joseph Van Arsdale France worked at Disneyland for more than two decades, fulfilling many roles at the park over the years. And he was present at the ill-fated opening of the attraction in 1955. Later, he would reveal, “Our official records indicate that there were 28,154 guests in the park that day, and I’m not one to tamper with somebody’s estimates.”

The guests at Disneyland’s opening day vastly exceeded the number of official invitations that had been sent out. In fact, only 11,000 people were officially asked to attend, but twice as many turned up on the day. Apparently, a large number of guests gained entry to the attraction through forged passes.

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Not only was Disneyland twice as full on opening day as organizers had expected, but they also encountered a number of other unforeseen issues. When Disney had retired to bed at 4:00 a.m. on the morning of the big day, construction workers had still been busy cementing the park. The asphalt that had been laid on Main Street still wasn’t dry when guests arrived, leading to a woman losing a shoe to the sticky substance.

And the problems didn’t end there. It became increasingly clear that Disneyland wasn’t ready for the influx of visitors it experienced on its opening day. As a result, food and drink supplies began to run dry within hours, with some vendors even selling out completely, which no doubt led to there being some very unhappy guests.

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Elsewhere, there were problems with Disneyland’s bespoke attractions. The now-famous Mark Twain Steamboat almost sank as a result of having too many people on board. Furthermore, the Jungle Cruise was the only ride in the park not to fail at some point in the day.

For the most part, it’s believed that Disney himself was unaware of the fiasco his park’s opening day had become. That’s because he was reportedly kept busy by the Dateline Disneyland special. However, this being said, there are reports of the animation mogul restocking toilet paper in one of the attractions restrooms himself amid the chaos.

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When reviews of Disneyland’s opening day hit the press, they weren’t kind. A particularly cutting headline described the park as “THE 17 MILLION DOLLAR PEOPLE TRAP THAT MICKEY MOUSE BUILT.” An accompanying line described how “irate adults cursed Mickey, Minnie, Pluto, Snow White and all the Seven Dwarfs.”

Off the back of the negative press Disneyland’s opening day received, Disney embarked on a process of damage limitation. However, it seemed that the public found the park beguiling regardless. More than 160,000 people flocked to the attraction in its first week. And by the end of September that same year, it had welcomed its one millionth visitor.

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The park was an undeniable triumph. Soon Disneyland had brought in enough money for Disney to be able to pay off his debts. It remains an important part of the company and fans continue to delight in the fantasy world so painstakingly created by its founder.

Over the years, various additions to Disneyland have increased its popularity among families, while special events and new attractions coax people into revisits. It’s little wonder, then, that Disney wanted to recreate the success of the park on an even bigger scale. And in 1965 the company began work on Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

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However, Disney wouldn’t live to see the Florida amusement park completed. He died of lung cancer in December 1966, almost half a decade before Walt Disney World opened. As a result, the original Disneyland in California is the only one he guided from its inception to its opening.

As of March 2020, over three-quarters of a billion people had visited Disneyland. That’s not to mention the guests to have frequented the other 11 Disney parks across the planet. Although the newer attractions may be bigger in scale, it’s felt that the original Anaheim site is the one that captures the true essence of Disney himself.

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For its creator, Disneyland was no doubt a labor of love, for which he agonized over every tiny detail to make it magical for visitors. With that in mind, the park stands as a lasting testament to the man who was Disney. After all, anyone looking along Main Street and out over the attraction can understand his unique and inimitable vision.

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