How Counterfeiters Nearly Ruined Opening Day at Disneyland
When ABC television host Art Linkletter greeted viewers from Disneyland on July 17, 1955, he marveled that 15,000 happy visitors were in attendance. Beaming and resplendent in his suit, Linkletter was unaware of the seven-mile gridlock backing up the Santa Ana Freeway, that children who had been trapped in cars for hours were relieving their overtaxed bladders in the parking lot, or that Disney die-hards were so desperate to get in they were literally climbing the walls and fences.
More than 28,000 people laid siege to the meticulously-planned theme park on its opening day, many of them navigating the invitation-only affair by either sneaking in or handing in counterfeit passes when the gate opened at 2:30 p.m. Overcrowded and baking in the blistering 100-degree heat, so much went wrong when Disneyland opened its doors that Walt Disney himself would later label the affair “Black Sunday.”
Though Disney had been plotting a park for decades, its actual construction took place over 365 frenetic days. Built over 160 acres of orange groves in Anaheim, California, Disneyland upended the conventional approach to a carnival atmosphere: it would be educational, inventive, and magical.
“For it the appellation ‘amusement park’ is inadequate,” The New York Times wrote, "for it has no such banalities as roller coasters, Ferris wheels, and dodge-’ems in a milieu of honky-tonk.”
The park would instead attempt to transport guests to a variety of exotic landscapes. Main Street, which welcomed the guests, hosted a variety of shops and attractions circa 1900; Tomorrowland imagined a future in 1986 where trips to the moon were a common occurrence; Fantasyland hosted Disney’s trademark icons like Cinderella and Snow White in a 70-foot-tall castle. At a cost of $17 million, the company had leveraged every financial resource it could—including ABC, which planned to broadcast its opening live, creating an immovable deadline.
Money grew so tight that bare patches of land were covered with weeds and given exotic-sounding names in Latin; the Dumbo ride, which was tested with sandbags, wasn’t operational in time for the opening; character costumes were borrowed from the company’s Ice Capades tour; a two-story high pile of dirt was dubbed Lookout Mountain.
In addition to Mickey and Peter Pan, wet paint and freshly-laid asphalt greeted visitors that day. Reports circulated of women having to abandon their high heels in the molten streets; food and drink inventories at the various concession areas weren’t sufficient for the traffic and depleted quickly; water fountains were in high demand, but a plumber’s strike had limited their number. The swollen population never eased up: Even though the 2:30 p.m. passes expired to make room for guests with a 5:30 p.m. time stamp, no one wanted to leave.
The gate-crashers were only part of the problem. A gas leak closed portions of the park. The night before, someone had cut the power cable to Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, an apparent act of sabotage from disgruntled electricians. And the maiden voyage of the Mark Twain riverboat was complicated by the fact that no one knew its maximum capacity. (They found out in a few days, when 500 passengers nearly capsized it.)
Disney himself wasn’t clued in until later; he was busy with the ABC special, which had an astonishing 90 million people tuning in. Despite some glitches—Linkletter announced a rifle-wielding Davy Crockett as “Cinderella”—the production was surprisingly smooth, with 29 cameras capturing throngs of children running to their favorite attractions and dutifully ignoring any footage of mishaps. Ronald Reagan was a co-host; Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. buzzed by riding small cars in Autopia. ABC, which had been airing the Disneyland variety show, had essentially beamed a 90-minute commercial to a large chunk of the country.
When Disney learned of the mishaps, he invited members of the press back to make up for any shuttered attractions. To ward off counterfeiters, tickets used special backgrounds and patterns that made them harder to replicate. By its seventh week, Disneyland had welcomed over a million guests. It was no honky-tonk milieu but one that enthralled children and fed into the burgeoning automobile-obsessed society. Calling it a magic kingdom wasn’t an exaggeration—provided you didn’t drink too much water before coming.
Additional Sources: “Disneyland Gets Its Last Touches,” The New York Times, July 9, 1955 [PDF]; “Disneyland Had Nowhere to Go But Up After Debut,” The Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1999; Untitled, Independent Press-Telegram, July 15, 1955.