(L-R) Walt Disney, C.V. Wood, Buzz Price. Image Credit: Disney Revue
In August 1955, Vice President Richard Nixon visited the former orange grove fields that had been meticulously cleared and packed with towering rocket ships, flying Dumbo carts, and a castle. With cameras going off, Nixon was given the key to Disneyland by the park’s own Vice President and General Manager, Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood.
An engineer who had been hired away from the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) the year prior, C.V. Wood had selected the site in Anaheim, purchased the land, and supervised construction. He was Disneyland’s first employee; Walt Disney was known to refer to him as a “son.”
Six months later, Wood was gone—not just from the park, but from Disney’s official history.
Possibly the biggest influence on Disneyland next to Disney himself, Wood studied petroleum engineering at the University of Oklahoma. He met Disney when the animator began consulting with SRI on the logistics of his long-planned theme park. Wood proved so adept at solving problems—and so enamored with the concept of a fantasy landscape—he was brought on full-time to supervise the project’s frenetic construction.
The park opened in July 1955 and was an immediate success. Wood had a one-year contract, but in January 1956, trade papers announced his departure from the company. That he’d leave a job he was so fond of so abruptly immediately raised questions. (Embezzlement was one popular theory.) Though there’s never been a definitive answer, Van Arsdale France, a Disneyland employee who knew both Disney and Wood, believed the two men were so fiercely independent that their relationship wasn’t going to last.
“In one week, Wood was holding his regular meetings as usual, with an office crowded every minute of the day,” France was quoted as saying in The Disneyland Story. “Just about overnight, he was out.” According to employee Dick Irvine, Disney had his brother, Roy, fire Wood after a heated argument.
But Wood was still fascinated by the amusement industry. With severance pay in his pocket, the year he separated from Disney Wood he started Marco Engineering, which specialized in the design and execution of attractions. Wood was a one-of-a-kind talent for investors who wanted to try and replicate Disney’s success. He hired away several key Disney staffers; to promote his fledging business, he even started to bill himself as “The Master Planner of Disneyland.”
Marco got off to an auspicious start. They opened Magic Mountain in Golden, Colorado in 1958, but construction delays bogged down business and the park was operational only during the summer. He also developed Pleasure Island, a Boston park that opened in 1959. Both ventures soon dissolved.
By this point, Wood was invoking his Disney ties a little too often for his former boss' liking. When he opened Freedomland in the Bronx in 1960, he billed it as “The Disneyland of the East.” Lawyers for Disney sued in order to protect the brand's copyright, and the matter was settled out of court.
While Wood had high hopes for Freedomland—which tried to recreate historical cities and events—a series of incidents garnered the wrong kind of press. A stagecoach toppled over, breaking a guest’s spine; robbers made off with over $28,000
Freedomland closed in 1964, unable to compete with the neighboring World’s Fair and its stockpile of Disney-endorsed attractions. Wood later became famous for moving the London Bridge to Arizona, piece by piece, for a tourist attraction in 1968. He also founded the International Chili Society before ending his career at Warner Bros., where he worked until his death in 1992.
There is no account of Wood ever reconciling with Disney. While the company has received criticism for not acknowledging his contributions to Disneyland, not everyone got the memo. In 2011, an official Disney travel magazine innocently offered a bit of trivia about the relocated London Bridge in Arizona and one of the men responsible for it: C.V. Wood.