Disneyland Amusement Park Opens

By opening the first major amusement theme park in the United States, Walt Disney created an internationally known tourist attraction and established new standards not only for theme parks but also for entertainment.

Summary of Event

The founding of Disneyland transformed the American amusement park industry and established a new standard for interactive entertainment. Prior to the creation of Disneyland, Coney Island in New York constituted the typical enclosed amusement park. [kw]Disneyland Amusement Park Opens (July 17, 1955)
[kw]Amusement Park Opens, Disneyland (July 17, 1955)
Disneyland (theme park)
Amusement parks
Disneyland (theme park)
Amusement parks
[g]North America;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[g]United States;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[c]Travel and recreation;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[c]Popular culture;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[c]Business and labor;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[c]Entertainment;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
[c]Architecture;July 17, 1955: Disneyland Amusement Park Opens[04910]
Disney, Walt
Disney, Roy O.
Eisner, Michael

Walt Disney had gained a reputation as a cartoon genius capable of elevating animated films from cartoon shorts to full-length feature films. His Mickey Mouse character, who debuted in Steamboat Willie in 1928, captured audiences because the talking character—still somewhat of a novelty—appealed to children and adults alike. In 1934, Disney and his animators started work on a revolutionary animated feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Disney)
Animation Within five years of the film’s 1937 release, Disney had expanded his studio to 750 employees. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs brought in more than $8 million and established that animated features could excite the public. More important, the popularity of cartoon characters gave Disney the idea that they could serve as the basis for an amusement park.

Disappointed with existing parks as dirty, unsafe, and generally lacking a consumer focus, Disney nurtured a vision of a new type of park where the entire experience was controlled by design, mood, space, and the rides. He sought to make the customers “guests” and to promote a spirit of optimism, patriotism, and fun. He pursued this concept alone at first. Unable to convince his brother Roy—who had served as the financial mastermind behind much of the Disney studio success—of the potential for such a park, Walt cashed in his insurance policy to finance a field survey of existing parks in the United States and abroad.

In 1952, Disney created WED Enterprises WED Enterprises as a financial vehicle for Disneyland, as he decided to call it. A survey by the Stanford Research Institute suggested the ultimate site, and with Disney’s team of designers, he arrived at the basic criteria that characterized Disneyland and the other subsequent Disney theme parks: an ordered, sequenced layout of attractions that complemented each other; a single entrance; wide, leisurely walkways; extensive landscaping; attractions unique to Disneyland (which blended nicely with his animated films, from which characters and experiences could be supplied); and cleanliness. Most important, Disney envisioned continuing change at the park: “The park . . . will keep growing. The thing will get more beautiful year after year,” he told a reporter.

Disney had bet his last dollar on the park. Based on the Stanford study, Disney thought he needed $11 million, but by opening day the costs had risen to $17 million. Disney wisely had defrayed some of the costs by selling space in restaurants and exhibit pavilions to large corporations such as Monsanto, Kodak, and Pepsi, on five-year leases with the first and last years paid in advance. To raise the remainder of the money, Disney approached the American Broadcasting Company American Broadcasting Company
Television;ABC-Disney deal[ABC Disney deal] (ABC) with an idea for a weekly television show to emanate from Disneyland. ABC paid $500,000 in cash for the rights to the show Disneyland, Disneyland (television program) and guaranteed $4.5 million more. ABC purchased more than one-third of the Disneyland Inc. stock, whereas Walt Disney himself held only 17 percent. Disney sold 14 percent more to Western Printing and Lithographing Company Western Printing and Lithographing Company (also known as Western Publishing), as well as the rights to print all Disney books, comics, and other matter, and Walt Disney Productions purchased slightly more than one-third of the stock.

Orange groves in Anaheim, California, provided the location for the park, which benefited from the proximity of the Santa Ana Freeway (Interstate 5). Once completed, the freeway brought visitors from Los Angeles in less than half an hour. As construction on the 160-acre park began, behind a twenty-five-foot-high embankment that kept outsiders from seeing the work in progress, another source of Disney magic took to the airwaves. In the fall of 1954, the Disneyland television show provided a steady source of inspiration for new lands and characters as well as convenient advertising for the park.

Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955, with national television coverage and with minor disasters of all sorts. The park projected that ten thousand people would show up, but double that number appeared, many getting in free. Water fountains were in short supply because of a plumbers’ strike, and water in the rivers and lagoons dried up quickly, causing the park engineers to rebottom the rivers with clay. When Fess Parker Parker, Fess , Disney’s star of the Davy Crockett episodes of the Disneyland show, rode in on horseback, a malfunctioning sprinkler system drenched him. The Mark Twain riverboat nearly capsized because of overcrowding, and other rides’ capacities proved inadequate for the crowds. High temperatures further jeopardized the park’s success, and local critics in the press sharply attacked Disneyland. “A nightmare,” one called it, “a giant cash register, clicking and clanging.” The verdict on Disneyland’s success remained in the hands of the public. By 1990, Disneyland still held the position of the second-highest tourist draw in the United States—behind Walt Disney World in Florida.

Walt Disney continually sought to transfer the ideas of his motion pictures to the amusement park. Engineers knew better than to tell Disney that something was impossible and would exhaust every possibility before telling Disney that they could not find a solution. Disneyland featured a full-scale train that circled the entire park. After passing the Disney Railroad, visitors entered Main Street, a replica of a “middle America” street with shops and a theater. Much of the front remained exactly that—movie lot-type fronts that gave an impression of a movie lot. Main Street featured a U.S. post office and a fire department, complete with Dalmatians. Visitors exited Main Street to a circle that led to one of several “lands,” each with its own theme.

Frontierland was designed to capture the flavor of the Old West and tied in to the popularity of the televised Davy Crockett character. Visitors could take a raft to Tom Sawyer’s island or ride a Mike Fink keelboat. In Adventureland, realistic mechanical animals surprised passengers on a jungle cruise, while Tomorrowland offered a trip to Mars. The heart of Disneyland was Fantasyland, a section devoted to rides aimed at younger children—Dumbo’s flying elephants, Peter Pan’s boats, and Mr. Toad’s wild carriage rides. The centerpiece of Fantasyland was Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, a replica of a castle complete with turrets and passages that visitors could explore. A lowered drawbridge always offered a view of the carousel, presenting a magical image as the horses circled endlessly through the castle entrance.


Disney never stopped improving his park or expanding his vision at Disneyland. The park always offered the attractions common to other parks, such as musical acts, food, and souvenirs, but unique attractions separated Disneyland from competitors. The Swiss Family Robinson Tree House invited people to climb through a huge replica of the tree house from the film The Swiss Family Robinson (1960).

Disney introduced people to the first operating monorail system in the United States, and the Matterhorn roller coaster, opened in 1959, gave passengers the thrill of racing through the Alps in a high-speed toboggan. As new rides were added, Disneyland offered a look under the sea on the submarine ride, a chance to experience a pirate raid on New Orleans in the 1600’s (Pirates of the Caribbean), or a ride through space in Space Mountain. Attractions added later included the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster and It’s a Small World, a World’s Fair attraction that celebrated the children of the world singing the title song in a number of languages. That same World’s Fair featured the introduction of Mr. Lincoln, a lifelike talking figure of Abraham Lincoln.

Lines developed at the opening of Disneyland because of problems with ticket sales. Disneyland quickly introduced different grades of tickets for different rides. Visitors then could frequent rides or attractions of their choice. Years later, however, Disney adopted a single-price scheme, whereby one ticket at the gate covered all park rides. Special attractions such as the Golden Horseshoe Saloon Show often required reservations, but all other park features were available to all on a first-come, first-served basis. Later, the Disney parks adopted multiday passes.

Perhaps the greatest advantage the Disney parks had over any competition was their source of ideas and material, namely the Disney films. On taking control of the Disney empire in 1984, Michael Eisner realized that one reason Disney had stagnated was that it had not made hit movies in several years. He immediately began revitalizing the animated feature component of the Disney studios. He met with rapid success, and markets untapped for a decade in records, sheet music, toys, and stuffed animals suddenly sprang to new life.

At the end of only ten years, Disneyland had grown from twenty-two attractions to forty-seven, and it had seen forty-seven million people pass through its gates. Why had Disneyland become so popular in so short a time? Disneyland made it clear that a good theme park not only provided fun but also transported the visitor into a land of imagination and fantasy. Every element of the Disney parks—with Disneyland joined by its Florida cousins, Walt Disney World in 1971 and the Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow (Epcot Center) in 1982, Tokyo Disneyland in 1983, Disneyland Park (Euro Disney) in France in 1992, and Hong Kong Disneyland in 2005—controlled the guests’ experience, while the company made every effort to reduce the unpleasantness of waiting for rides or food. Imaginative winding fences guided crowds back and forth at popular rides, never leaving visitors without something to look at or experience. “Waiting” became “watching” while one waited.

Walt Disney and later managers, particularly Eisner, who became chief executive officer in 1984, dwelled almost to excess on cleanliness and fantasy. An army of custodians groomed the grounds around the clock, and chewing gum and cigarettes were never sold in the park. For years, Disney attempted to enforce a dress code, although it proved impossible in the 1960’s to maintain that practice. The parks have been virtually free of violence and major accidents.

The focus on fantasy involved every detail, from appropriate period clothes worn by the staff of each themed “land” to the downsized buildings that give the appearance of a storybook yet are large enough to contain guests comfortably. Only appropriate souvenirs are sold in each “land,” and staff members are encouraged to act out their parts as Cajuns, jungle guides, or astronauts. The ultimate attempt at realism appeared at the canoe ride in Frontierland, where only American Indians worked as canoe guides. Such practices have been adopted almost universally by entertainment parks.

At night, while the fireworks displays attract attention, visitors seldom notice the tiny lights in the trees or hidden in the buildings—just enough to add a glow. Appropriate music filters into every part of the park yet never is loud enough to overwhelm conversation or attract attention.

By the time Walt Disney World opened, robotic engineering had developed enough that mechanized figures could do almost anything. In the late 1980’s, technological advances associated with the simulator effects used to train pilots and combined with realistic motion pictures gave the effect of flying backward in time or through a meteorite shower. Creative engineers found that tying rides and attractions to popular films and television shows gave them an endless supply of material with which to work. It was Walt Disney, however, who pioneered almost every practical breakthrough of those technologies. Disneyland (theme park)
Amusement parks

Further Reading

  • Adams, Judith A. The American Amusement Park Industry: A History of Technology and Thrills. Boston: Twayne, 1991. A thorough examination of the amusement park industry from Coney Island to Walt Disney World. Adams examines the theories of theme parks and leisure, with an eye toward the culture of amusement parks.
  • Bright, Randy. Disneyland: Inside Story. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1987. A look behind the scenes, from Disneyland University to characters “on stage.” Includes a foreword by Michael Eisner. Map and illustrations in color.
  • Marling, Karal Ann, ed. Designing Disney’s Theme Parks: The Architecture of Reassurance. New York: Flammarion, 1997. Published in conjunction with exhibitions held in Canada and the United States in 1997-1999. Essays analyze and discuss the aesthetics of Disney’s theme-park architecture, its “imagineering,” its “placeness,” its fantasy making, and the parks’ general ambiance. Also includes an essay on years of critique and criticism. Photographs, bibliography.
  • Sammond, Nicholas. Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Making of the American Child, 1930-1960. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2005. An encyclopedic, well-researched study of how American children are shaped through a symbiotic relationship between media, entertainment, and culture industry giants such as Disney. Argues that Disney would not have been able to influence children’s development so profoundly had society not had in place a “vision” of normalcy for children before Disney’s arrival on the cultural scene.
  • Starbuck, James C. Theme Parks: A Partially Annotated Bibliography of Articles About Modern Amusement Parks. Monticello, Ill.: Council of Planning Librarians, 1976. A somewhat dated source that nevertheless provides good early source material.
  • Taylor, John. Storming the Magic Kingdom: Wall Street, the Raiders, and the Battle for Disney. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1987. Although focused on the takeover attempts on the Disney enterprises, this source provides considerable insight into the post-Walt Disney corporate interpretation of the parks. Especially useful for the chapters on Michael Eisner and his vision of the Disney future.
  • Thomas, Bob. Walt Disney: An American Original. 1976. New ed. New York: Disney Editions, 2004. An excellent treatment of Walt Disney the animator and his dream. Portrays Disney as an optimistic visionary who nevertheless had a solid grip on what people wanted. Weaker on how Disney expected to run a separate community within the laws of Florida and the nation.

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