Disneyland marks 40th year

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Forty years. Has it really been that long since the original Disneyland opened and forever changed the way we take vacations?

1955. The year Chuck Berry gave blues a new rocking sound, the year Marilyn Monroe stood over a subway grating and let the wind blow up her dress. It seems even more unbelievable that most reviews of the park, when it opened that year in July, were negative.

"Walt's Dream a Nightmare," one headline read. "Park Can't Handle Opening Day Crush," blared another.

True, opening day was not the best of times for the park. The water fountains didn't work. The pirate ship was only half completed. Rides broke down and the refreshment stands ran out of food and drink. It was so hot that women's heels got stuck in the softening asphalt on Main Street and some reporters accused Walt Disney of turning off the water deliberately so that guests would have to buy soft drinks.

"What they didn't know is that the plumbers had just come off strike, and they had given Walt a choice: He could have either the water fountains working on opening day or the restrooms, but not both," recalled Marty Sklar, president of Walt Disney Imagineering, the Disney division that dreams up and builds all the attractions. "Walt chose the restrooms."

Despite those problems, as we all know, the world's first theme park went on to become a huge success. It inspired not only the building of many other theme parks, but created a whole new kind of vacation.

Before Disneyland blazed the trail into that fantasy universe we now know as "the theme park," most amusement parks were grungy places with a few rickety rides, ring-the-bottle games, cotton candy and sleazy reputations. They were often dirty; many who worked in them were drifters or worse.

Walt Disney changed all that.

"He put color, excitement and fun in a family environment," said Tim O'Brien, Southeast editor of Amusement Business, who tracks the nation's amusement parks. "He made family entertainment viable again."

In Disney's new park, daydreams and fairy tales came true.

Want to fly like Peter Pan? Disney put you in a chair that flew over London.

Want to relive the happy times of the turn of the century? Disney put you in a horse-drawn streetcar and drove you down a Victorian Main Street.

Always longed to explore the African jungle? Disney put you on a jungle cruise and confronted you with bellowing elephants, malevolent crocodiles and hippos with mouths big enough to swallow a cow.

It was all movie magic, of course, but visitors loved it.

They still do. For American vacationers, theme parks rank right up there with the beach or the mountains as favored destinations. Last year, about 10.3 million people visited Disneyland and 28.9 million came to Walt Disney World, Mr. O'Brien said. And millions more are visiting other theme parks such as Universal Studios, Busch Gardens and Sea World.

But in the beginning, there was only one such park, Disneyland, and I remember that on my first visit there, in 1958, I was entranced. Here was an amusement park unlike any other. I was mesmerized by the illusion of an oncoming locomotive on Toad's Wild Ride. Boarding a raft to go to Tom Sawyer Island, I felt as if I had stepped into the pages of a Mark Twain novel. Pirates of the Caribbean took me into a rollicking world of buccaneers.

Every adventure possessed something I could relate to -- a theme, if you will. Forget Ferris wheels and log flumes, here was a place that combined fun and meaning.

Disney had created moments you could experience nowhere else. Still, it was not an easy sell. When Disney first broached his ideas to possible investors, he did not get encouraging responses.

"I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral," Disney once said.

"Walt got the idea for the park when he took his two daughters out on local rides," Mr. Sklar said. "There was nothing they could do together; he just sat on a bench and ate popcorn."

That was in the early 1950s. Disney began looking for a site in 1953, and -- with the help of a Stanford University survey -- he chose Anaheim, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles.

"But when he first told Mrs. Disney about his idea for a new kind of amusement park," Mr. Sklar recalled, "she said, 'That's not a place to take children.'

" 'That's exactly my point,' Walt replied. 'My park's not going to be like that.' "

And it wasn't, though there were times -- even within his own organization -- when people still didn't grasp Walt's idea. To them, it was just another amusement park.

"At first, Walt's people were going to hire people from carnivals, like they do in other amusement parks," said Charles Ridgway, Disney's director of publicity. "But Walt said 'no.' He didn't want those kind of people. He told them, 'You train young people to work there.' "

And even after the park opened, Disney never let his staff get too distant from the people who visited Disneyland.

John Hench, senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering, who has worked for Disney since 1939, remembers Disney telling the staff: " 'You go out there at least twice a month,' he said, 'and stand in line with them.' He wanted us all to know firsthand what the visitor was experiencing."

Disney thought his new park would cost $4 million or $5 million, but the final cost went well beyond that, to $17 million.

"With opening day approaching, Walt found he was $6 million short," Mr. Ridgway said. "So Roy [his brother] went to ABC and got them to co-sign a note because they wanted Walt to do a television show for them."

That infusion of money enabled Disney to open the park.

The rest is history.

Though the first reviews of the park were negative -- reporters concentrated on the opening-day snafus -- Disneyland recorded its one millionth visitor after only seven weeks of operation. Disney knew he had a success, and not long after he began thinking of building another park.

As a test, he built four pavilions at the New York World's Fair of 1964-1965 to see if his concept of an amusement park would work in the East. Among the pavilions were It's a Small World, Great Moments With Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress, attractions in Disney parks today. When these, too, proved successful, he began buying land in Florida, acquiring 27,000 acres.

In 1971, that land became Walt Disney World, now the biggest entertainment complex in the world, with three gated theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney/MGM Studios), three water parks (River Country, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), a nightclub sector, 33,000 hotel rooms and five championship golf courses.

Tokyo Disneyland followed in 1983 and EuroDisney in 1992. The Japanese park was an instant success. EuroDisney, after a difficult two years, is starting to emerge from the financial woods.

What about the next 40 years?

"I think we'll be expanding into other places in the world," Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman and chief executive officer, said. "We're looking at other locales . . . [though] we're not ready to announce yet."

In the year 2035, the Disneylands of the world probably will have attractions and rides none of us has even dreamed of. Some, you can be sure, will mirror life in the long-ago 1990s.

Another thing you can be certain of: They'll all carry the spirit of Walt Disney.

"To all who come to this happy place, welcome," Walt Disney said in his dedication speech 40 years ago. "Disneyland is your land."

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