Walt Disney's Disneyland provides an inside look at how the iconic theme park came to be.
Disneyland is an American institution, and it’s hard to imagine a world in which the California theme park doesn't exist. Six decades after it opened, it’s now one of the most popular theme parks in North America—behind only Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, one of its spinoffs—with 18.3 million visitors in 2017 alone. Yet Walt Disney had to fight to get it built, after spending more than a decade tinkering with the concept and trying to get banks, local officials, and designers on board. The effort obviously paid off. "Disneyland may be a real place," Chris Nichols writes in the new book Walt Disney’s Disneyland, "but it has revealed itself to be so much more, a statement of who we are as people, a cultural touchstone every bit as unifying as Carl Sagan’s Voyager Golden Record or Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”
Walt Disney’s Disneyland provides an incredible visual history of just how the park came to be the cultural juggernaut it is today. Here are nine historical images from the book.
Walt Disney began dreaming of opening a theme park long before Disneyland opened in 1955. He mentioned the idea as early as 1937, when he spoke about it to one of his animators at the premiere of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The idea of what the park would be went through many iterations, though. At one point, for instance, he envisioned “Disneylandia” as a traveling display of miniatures that would traverse the country by train. Later on, he decided to build a small park next to Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, but he realized his ambitions were bigger than the lot would allow.
For years, his dream seemed out of reach. “He had to fight for his vision every step of the way,” Nichols writes. “The Burbank City Council didn’t trust that the park would be reputable. Banks didn’t like the risk of an unproven concept. Architects weren’t able to capture the expanse of his imagination. The amusement-park industry thought Walt’s extravagance would bankrupt the endeavor.” Finally, he purchased 160 acres filled with orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim for what would eventually become Disneyland.
In 1954, he launched a TV series to promote the park, also called Disneyland, and appeared on the show to describe his vision. The shot above comes from that appearance.
Walt broke ground on Disneyland on July 21, 1954. Building the park was no fairy tale. In just a year, workers had to raze the orchards and farmhouses that dotted the property, lay sewer pipes, excavate the lake and rivers, and build a railroad, among many other tasks. As many as 2500 construction workers were employed in the final lead-up to the park’s public debut, and even then, it was barely finished in time. There was no water in the drinking fountains and the asphalt was still a little soft when Disneyland opened on Sunday, July 17, 1955. Some attractions were still closed, and some rides had mechanical difficulties that led to interminably long lines. (The latter would be a problem patrons would still be wrestling with decades later.) "Disneyland was a disappointment," syndicated newspaper columnist Sheila Graham wrote of the opening, "but don't be discouraged, boys and girls—Walt Disney has always been a smart trader, and I'm sure there'll be some changes made."
Despite the pitfalls, opening day visitors did get to experience at least one exciting Disneyland feature that later guests would not. That day, the working drawbridge to Sleeping Beauty Castle was lowered, for what would be the only time for many years to come. It has only been lowered once since then, during the opening of the redesigned Fantasyland in 1983.
To create Tomorrowland, Walt hired Gabriel Scognamillo, an Academy Award-nominated Italian art director who had recently worked on the children's sci-fi movie Tobor the Great designing futuristic elements like robots and ray guns. The Clock of the World stood at the Tomorrowland entrance, displaying the time in 24 different zones. Exhibit halls showcased corporate technology, like the 40-foot telescope in the Kaiser Hall of Aluminum Fame, the Crane Company’s Bathroom of Tomorrow (there was a swimming pool), and the nearly all-plastic Monsanto House of the Future (which also featured a proto-video chat system).
Walt described Tomorrowland as a “living blueprint of our future.” Fourteen years before the moon landing, kids could take the Rocket to the Moon, see what Earth might look like from 500 miles above the ground on Space Station X-1, and pilot their own rockets on the Astro-Jets. He wanted it to feel as realistic as possible, even hiring astrophysicists to consult on the rides.
Tomorrowland continued to expand in the years following the park's opening, adding futuristic elements like the Submarine Voyage—in which guests could ride on an authentic 52-foot sub designed by one of the Navy's own submarine suppliers—and the Monorail, which was the first transportation system of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. Tomorrowland's Autopia is one of the only opening-day Disneyland rides that visitors can still enjoy today.
Mary Blair, a Walt Disney Studios color stylist and designer in the 1940s and 1950s, had gone on to become a graphic designer and children’s book illustrator by the time Walt was creating the “it’s a small world” attraction for the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Inspired by the drawings she made for 1944’s The Three Caballeros, Walt decided to bring her back to help design the attraction in the same style. Walt and his designers built four World’s Fair attractions—Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, “it’s a small world,” the Carousel of Progress, and Magic Skyway. All were constructed in California, shipped to New York for the fair, then shipped back to California to be installed at Disneyland. (Though it didn’t become a full Disneyland attraction in itself, parts of Magic Skyway were used to create the Primeval World Diorama along the Disneyland Railroad.)
Almost all the rides in Fantasyland were custom built by art directors at WED Enterprises (the Disney development arm now called Walt Disney Imagineering) with a California engineering firm called Arrow Development. In the process, Disney’s artists had to become de-facto engineers, too, becoming experts in things like track design. Together, the collaborators created groundbreaking roller coaster technology, like two of the world’s first dark rides—Snow White’s Adventures and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Not all the attractions were so technologically complex, but they did still feature incredible detail. Monstro the Whale from Pinocchio stands at Fantasyland’s east entrance as part of the Storybook Land Canal Boats, an attraction that features tiny scale villages inspired by movies like Pinocchio, Cinderella, and Alice and Wonderland, with miniature houses made with real thatched roofs and stained-glass windows. Monstro features a blinking eye and a spouting blowhole that occasionally startles unsuspecting guests posing for photos.