Theme Park History: July 17, 1955 and the original '...And something goes terribly wrong'

December 3, 2013, 10:23 AM · On the evening of July 17, 1955, Walt Disney sat down to dinner with friend Art Linkletter in his apartment above the Main Street Fire Station. They sat on the patio and watched the fireworks display signaling the end of the first night for his brand new playland. The grand opening of Disneyland, the park that would forever change the industry and permanently embed itself into the American lexicon had not gone smoothly at all.

In fact for Walt, the embattled first day was nothing new. The whole project had been a struggle from the start. Practically everyone thought that he had lost his mind. Critics and friends dismissed the idea. The amusement industry predicted it would be a colossal failure. Even his brother Roy thought he was nuts, so much so that he flatly refused at first to support Walt's project. But Walt had grown weary and somewhat discontented with the company he had founded 30 years before. He was tired…not as inspired as he once was, he was participating less in studio projects, missing the old days of creative collaboration, and growing more and more indifferent. The idea of opening an amusement park rekindled the fire. It had been with him since he was a boy visiting Electric Park in Kansas City and listening to his father's tales of working the 1893 World Columbian Expo in Chicago. All throughout his life the idea had stayed, through visits with his children to the Griffith Park carousel and other amusements, to train rides, to his plan for a small park in the back of the Disney studio. Now it had grown to something much bigger and grandiose, and he was ready to see it through.

The inception of Disneyland was a battle. Faced with going it alone, Walt Disney formed his own company and set to work. Using his small reserve of resources and mortgaging himself to the hilt, he founded WED Enterprises, rented a bungalow, and hired a small staff to work on his dream. He borrowed from his past, his hometown, his films, and other parks, obsessing about three things…control, cleanliness, and immersion. In place of the chaotic boardwalk would be an orderly, family friendly environment. Buildings were designed to make the children feel taller; rides were designed to completely remove people from reality. Everything, down to the trees, flowers, and grass, would be part of the story. Walt had earned a reputation for success in the past, so his plan eventually won some allies. After learning that investors were taking interest, Roy Disney jumped on board, and together they fashioned a deal with the brand new ABC television network to help finance the project. In May of 1954, the official Disneyland announcement came, and ground was broken two months later in July. The TV show that promoted the park for months began airing in October, and shot to the top of the ratings.

Construction of the park was a battle. It was frenzy of activity, brought on by Walt's highly ambitious one-year deadline and one of the wettest spring seasons in years. Walt the perfectionist made the deadline even tougher. He was constantly tinkering with, expanding, and changing things, sometimes after they were already built. On one occasion he ordered an already planted giant tree moved just a few feet because he thought it was too close to the walkway. Other times it was a fence being moved a little to improve the view, or changing details on a Main Street building after the buildings had been framed. There were also problems with several of the union crews. Some would strike; others sabotaged finished work so they could redo it themselves. Even the soil wouldn't cooperate. The Rivers of America kept running dry because of the sandy bottom.

As time passed and the project grew, so did the budget. It ballooned from about 5 million dollars into 12 million. To help pay for it all, Roy enlisted several major corporations eager to get in on the action to act as investors and sponsors for the rides. True to form, Walt didn't hesitate to quickly spend every penny coming in. His uncompromising vision had no room for sparing expense. As opening day approached though, the 12-million dollar budget had long since been passed, eventually topping out at 17 million. They were almost out of money and running short on time. In the end, Disney had to leave details out and some of the attractions unfinished for the sake of the deadline. Weeds were left to grow in some places, and other places encouraged by water in order to cover barren land. Tomorrowland was unfinished, leaving a path to nowhere that would confuse guests for a short time. A plumbers strike towards the end of the project left him in a particular bind. He had to make a choice between having running toilets or water fountains for the opening. Up until the last minute, Walt was working. On the eve of the opening, he stayed up all night with a crew with a spray paint can in his hand, helping to finish the giant squid.

And then there was opening day. July 17th, 1955 was a hot one. Invitations printed for the media, celebrities, and other chosen ones had been sent out. The printed tickets however, had also been counterfeited by someone. Instead of the park's designed capacity of fifteen thousand, a crowd of almost thirty thousand people showed up. Almost immediately the problems began. Uncured asphalt was still steaming from the 100 degree temperatures, and high heels became trapped. The hot temperatures also shed light on the lack of drinking fountains, as hot and thirsty customers were led to buy sodas instead of going thirsty. The overloaded Mark Twain vessel nearly tipped over on its first run. With twice the anticipated crowd, food shortages inevitably happened. A gas leak that afternoon closed much of the park. People tripped over the giant runs of cable from the TV cameras covering the event. The live TV broadcast was also full of glitches and miscues. At one point, co-host Bob Cummings was caught on camera kissing one of the dancers. At another point, Walt's Tomorrowland dedication had a false start. The magic that Disneyland would later become famous for wasn't there yet.

Some of the critics were pretty harsh. One reporter's account:

Walt's dream is a nightmare…I attended the so called press premiere of Disneyland, a fiasco the like of which I cannot recall in thirty years of show life. To me it felt like a giant cash register clicking and clanging, as creatures of Disney magic came tumbling down from their lofty places in my daydreams to peddle and perish their charms with the aggressiveness of so many curbside barkers.

Others who were unaware of the plumber's strike pointed to the lack of fountains as a money making scheme. Some weren't pleased with paying an admission price only to be charged again for the rides. Still others complained about the park was too clean and absent of real life. The crowd and the heat coupled with all the problems surely would have made for some unhappy guests. One wonders what a website such as this one would have written about what was later called "Black Sunday” by Walt and the management. Not all of the press was negative though. Many saw through the problems and looked to the potential and the ideas that were represented.

For his part, Walt was full of pride and joy the first day. During the opening festivities, he had a giant grin on his face and a tear running down his cheek. Oblivious to most of the chaos happening around the park, he was cool headed and carefree as he hurried from one location to the next for the cameras. His daughter Diane later remarked that she had "never seen a happier man.” Perhaps it was just the emotions of realizing a childhood dream, or maybe because he knew what his creation would become. In any case and despite the mess, the park known as the "world's biggest toy for the world's biggest boy” was open. As Walt sat with Art watching the show that evening, he was back to work taking notes, counting the number of fireworks being shot off to make sure they were all there. The rest as they say is history.

Replies (5)

December 3, 2013 at 2:31 PM · I think Walt set a dangerous precedent though...I feel many parks/expansions/attractions open before they should. I know they are losing lots of money by waiting until something is working well and thoroughly tested but still. What is a few weeks? Ok...millions of dollars are on the line and they need that revenue to repay the loans, etc. But still...Walt could have just as easily laid the groundwork for theme park excellence. You will open no wine before it's time...still childlike enthusiasm is a cornerstone in this business.
December 3, 2013 at 2:33 PM · This would make a very interesting movie.
December 4, 2013 at 7:57 AM · What an amazing article. This is one I will share. These are the reasons I come to your website everyday and encourage others to do so as well. You guys rock!
December 4, 2013 at 9:16 PM · Thanks for this great article !! I was aware of the circumstances that occurred opening day, but did not know most of the story behind Walt's vision and construction of the park. Really enjoyed portions of the ABC broadcast.

Makes one wonder... What if the overloaded riverboat tipped over on that maiden voyage ? How would that first day of Disneyland have been remembered ? Would that have been a black mark that could have doomed Disneyland to early failure ?

December 5, 2013 at 7:16 AM · Great article! It really is an amazing story and would make a fascinating movie. About the plumbers strike and the bathroom vs fountains conundrum...I read elsewhere that Disney was quoted as saying that the guests could always buy Pepsis but he couldn't have them urinating on the paths! Hehe...that's good-ole midwestern practicality! :)

I think to say he set a dangerous precedent isn't fair...if Disney hadn't taken such a leap...with warts and all...we wouldn't be having this discussion at all. He invented the high-end theme-park. Thank you, Walt!

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