Before Disneyland, there was a man with a dream
Amazonian tribes and Antarctic nomads know what Disney means. It means talking animals, clean humour, a pure distillation of visual imagination and entertainment with a big E – which is precisely what a trip to Disneyland might leave you feeling you’ve swallowed. Disney has become so much part of the global cultural capital,
it somehow exists outside of history – even though its origins might be said to lay quite precisely in a one-time orange grove in Anaheim, California. It was here, in 1955, where Walt Disney, then 54 and already acclaimed a
genius of animation, opened his first theme park.
This was a place that simultaneously looked nostalgically to a past that never was, and excitedly to a future that never seemed to come, via the recent America of railroads, riverboats and romance. It’s a place documented, too, in Taschen’s new Walt Disney’s Disneyland, a pop-coloured ride through the story of the creation of the iconic theme park.
Disney had what he called ‘a good hard failure’ when his first animation studio, Laugh-O-gram, went under. That’s what prompted the move to the west coast. The weather must have been good for him, though he seemed to have a habit of finding success in perseverance. Learning, in 1928, that he’d lost the rights to a popular cartoon character of the time, on the train home he created Mickey Mouse. By 1937 he’d released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – which won him a special Academy Award (he would become the recipient of 26 Oscars, the greatest number in history).
The premiere also prompted the building of a temporary, miniature ‘Dwarfland’ – and it was looking at this that caused Disney to tell animator Wilfred Jackson that one day he’d like to build an entire theme park scaled to the size of children. It would also have a full-sized steam train that Disney, he said, could operate himself on the days the park was closed. Clearly, that Disney never abandoned the big kid inside was crucial to his world view. His park would be, as he put it, ‘a great, great playground… a place of hopes and dreams, facts and fancy, all in one’.
It was all going to happen, too – while ground-breaking animation production continued apace, a world war interrupted plans for ‘Disneylandia’, as it was originally slated to be called. The postponement, at least, gave Disney more research time; once the war was over, he visited just about every major theme park still standing or newly built, cherry-picking ideas, identifying ways he wanted them improved on, a task that fell largely to the park’s main designers Claude Coats and John Hench.
Disney was a perfectionist. The park entrance went through some 129 renditions before one was settled on. At the train station, he had rock ballast re-crushed to match the 5:8 scale of the railroad. Trees with six-tonne root systems were moved six feet because, Disney insisted, they didn’t look right in their original position. Roy Disney, Walt’s brother and the financial mastermind behind the coming empire, initially allocated $10,000 to the project. It eventually cost $17m.
Half the US population tuned in to the live opening of Disneyland and to what was at the time the biggest ever TV production. The other half seemed to be trying to get into the park. It wasn’t perfect at first – rides faltered, queues grew longer, setting a familiar scene for theme parks around the world to this day. But Disney was right in his hopes. ‘We hope,’ he said, ‘that this will be unlike anything else on this earth.’ His presence at Disneyland is still felt more than 60 years later. Disney, who died aged 65 in 1966, had an apartment built on top of the fire station on the park’s famed Main Street, so he could sleep over while supervising the building. And a lamp still burns in that window today, in honour of this mastermind of wonder.
Walt Disney’s Disneyland is published by Taschen and is available now. £40, taschen.com