For the past 18 months, I've been consumed with the Disneyland of 1955. For a newly updated Golden Anniversary Special Edition of my book Mouse Tales, for countless online and print articles, in interviews, speaking engagements, and even my firstand lasttour of the park, I've dwelled on little else but what the Magic Kingdom was like 50 years ago.
My focus has been on what's missing and what's still here, a half-century later. To be sure, much of the Disneyland experience remains the samethat extra bounce you get in your step while strolling down Main Street, amid a day of bedlam that calm you find on the sun-drenched decks of the Mark Twain, the 90-minute wait for 90 seconds on a flying elephant.
Yet a walk in the park has changed drastically since Walt first invited us in. And it's not just all the attractions that have been added and subtracted over the years. More so, it's how we visit the park.
Here then are 15 events of the last 50 years that, in my way of thinking, have most transformed how we experience Disneyland:
Ten years ago it would be unthinkable to set an appointment to ride rides. Now guests regularly plan their day around those magical one-hour windows provided by the Fastpass ride reservation system.
On the plus side, we finally have a way to enjoy rides like Splash Mountain without a two-hour wait. On the other hand, the pace of adjacent stand-by lines has been seriously slowed, and Disney has unwittingly created a class system among its gueststhe Have Fastpasses and the Have Nots. Fastpassers may also miss out on immersive queues such as on Indiana Jones Adventure that help set up a ride's storyline. And, worst of all, with so many people freed from waiting in lines, there are thousands more visitors on walkways and in common areas, increasing overall congestion without higher attendance.
Within three years of opening Disneyland, Walt had pretty much exhausted every vacant acre inside the berm (with the exception of the backstage complex between Main Street and Tomorrowland). Heck, even the mega-expansion of 1959 occupied primarily land that was already being used. (As the March 1959 Disneylander cast member magazine asked, Why did Walt Disney go to the expense of $7 million and tear up an operating area which seemed to be doing OK as it was?)
At this rate, anything Walt added would mean having to take something away. He could only push the train tracks out so far. Then came a brainstorm: Walt could place attractions around the perimeter of the park and by tunneling under the berm (Pirates, Mansion, Indy) or running the railroad through the attraction (Small World, Splash Mountain), he could enlarge the park without continuously extending its boundaries. Part of Disneyland's charm is that it doesn't feel as big as it really is.
For the first several years of its operation, nobodynot cast members nor visitorswere quite sure how long Disneyland would last. There was always the fear, lurking in the back of each employee's mind, whether or not this latest paycheck would clear.
Guests, too, were used to carnivals and county fairs that tore down the tents and the Ferris wheels after a few days and moved on.
Then, in 1959, Walt added the Monorail, Submarine Voyage, and Matterhorn Bobsleds and upgraded the Autopia, Skyway and Motor Boat Cruise. It wasn't until this huge expansion that he removed all doubt that Disneyland wasn't going anywhere.
In the early 1970s, the company removed animatronic Abraham Lincoln to make room for the Walt Disney Storyand was shocked when the public loudly demanded his return. The outcry made Disney realize for the first time that guests had actually become emotionally attached to some of its attractions, and it couldn't just yank out long-time favorites willy nilly (as Walt would often do).
Now that usually means suddenly closing attractions with no warning (PeopleMover) or making bold promises, sometimes false (Submarine Voyage), that something bigger and better is on its way.
Fortunately, the Internet is around to help keep management honest.
Who would have thought someone could get killed standing in line at Disneyland?
Along with the Roger Rabbit CarToon Spin accident (September 2000), the accidental death on the Mark Twain dock has turned upside down how the company and guests view safety at Disneyland. As a result, Disney has changed the way it maintains attractions, documents its safety program, and trains employees.
So many of the safety devices and procedures we now take for grantedstation gates, extra warning signs, seating diagrams, recorded spiels, seatbelt checkswere direct results of these accidents. Whatever it takes, Disney and its lawyers reasoned, to protect guests from the environmentand from themselves.
It's made us all become a little more aware of our surroundings and keep our kids a little closer in hand.
As unique as Disneyland is, it became a little less so with the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida. (Disney University founder Van France used to complain about the dangers of opening little franchise Disneylands all over the world.)
The Florida project took much of Marketing's attention off of Disneyland. Initially, all advertising and promotion east of the Mississippi would be for Disney World, everything west for Disneyland. But as Orlando evolved into a more profitable, multi-day destination, WDW marketing went national. (How many of you noticed the big newspaper supplement a few months ago presumably about Disneyland's 50th anniversary, with page after page about WDW and one small item about Anaheim?)
The success of WDW also provided the blueprint of what the Disneyland Resort would years later hope to becomea destination where visitors were held captive on Disney property for their entire vacation.
In the meantime, the failure of the Disneyland Paris resort burst Michael Eisner's bubble that the theme park division was not a money spigot that never ran dry. Although the beautiful park is one of the continent's most popular tourist attractions, the company sorely overbuilt hotels and has been paying for the mistake ever since. Certainly, Disneyland has been shy about taking too many risks ever since.
It took 18 solid months of round-the-clock refurbs, but Disneyland today has never looked better. It's helped that the acknowledged architects of the park's deterioration have long since fallen into The Gap. The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad tragedy sealed the fate of the old regime's last hold-outs and created an opening for Matt Ouimet. He, fortunately, recruited from the thinned ranks of show-minded executives like Greg Emmer.
Fortunately, the new team quickly recognized that at the time Disneyland only seemed to be in the headlines when something went terribly wrong. And, in less than two years, the eyes of the world would be focused on Anaheim.
Without the change in management and their 18-month-deadline, we might still be surrounded by peeling paint, burned-out lightbulbs, attractions constantly breaking down and operating at minimum capacity, and a lifeless Eastside with no sign of a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.
Originally, the only place you could buy park merchandise was at the park. The rapid expansion of the Disney Stores would change all that. Out-of-towners could now get a little taste of Disneyland at their local mall. For some, it fed their love of Disney; to others, Disney became oversaturated.
Then came the Internet. Disneyland was no longer this faraway place. We could now immerse ourselves in park experiences and conversations, 24/7. Consequently, Disneyland has few secrets these days. We've all become walking, talking Birnbaum guide books. Best of all, thousands of fellow park visitors are now friends because they could connect online.
Not that long ago, a quick trip to Disneyland used to be a lot less trouble. You could drive in off Harbor Boulevard (or, on really crowded days, Katella), pay the nominal parking fee, and park your car often within walking distance of the front gate. But even from the farthest edges of the lot, you could see the Magic Kingdom looming in the distance, pulling at you like a magnet. Nowadays, we seem to park a world away.
Yet while things are a whole lot less convenient, they're also a lot more interestingthere are a spectacular hotel, a great dining and entertainment district, and a whole 'nother theme park. The companion entertainment options have allowed Disneyland to adjust its hours and offerings, knowing it doesn't have to keep guests inside its gatesjust on Disney-owned propertyto make money.
Unfortunately, all too often they also divert the resort's attention, dollars and qualified manpower away from the original theme park next door.
When I was growing up, a trip to Disneyland was a special occasion that came, at most, once a year. No one ever thought about going every monthlet alone every day. That would have been like eating nothing all day but dessert.
The marketing of inexpensive annual passes has resulted in a half-million people who visit Disneyland all the time, all through the year. While more frequent, those visits are also shorter. And a little less special.
It's also made the park more crowded, 12 months a year. Along with the seasonal day pass discounts for locals, APs have basically eliminated the off-season.
Sure, Walt had the Matterhorn. But, remember, it's the only thrill ride he ever built and for decades it didn't have a height limit. It was Space Mountain, itself a reaction to the roller coaster craze of the 1970s, that paved the way for all the 40-inch attractions. Now the most elaborate, most expensive, and most hyped attractions are all thrill rides.
Most significantly, the addition of Space Mountain marked the beginning of separating families. Before, every ride was designed for everyone in your party to enjoy together. Now Disney parks are filled with attractions designed purely for thrill-seekers or for toddlers.
Can you remember the last epic attraction built at Disneyland that didn't have height restrictions?
The A through E ticket books used to be the compass of our Disneyland visits. We'd clutch them protectively in our hands and use them to tell us where we would spend our day. Only four E-tickets? We had to make some hard choices. But that was okay, because it added excitement and more value to deciding what rides to enjoy each day.
Now you can ride Jungle Cruise 50 times in a row, if that floats your boat.
The old system also had the wonderful effect of dispersing crowds evenly through the park; ticket books had A, B, C and D tickets, too, so you felt obliged to use them.
Plus, having ticket takers at every attraction provided constant points of personal contact between visitors and cast members, sorely missing today.
The current unlimited use pass also diminishes the incentive for Disney to (a) have as many rides as possible, (b) have them operating as often as possible, and (c) get guests through the lines as quickly as possible.
It's also, in a sense, made it easier for Disneyland to raise its prices. How anxious would Dad be today to buy you an extra E-ticket if they cost him $9 a pop?
Contrary to popular legend, the Enchanted Tiki Room wasn't the first attraction with audio animatronics; it was, however, the first in which animatronics were the attraction. And, it set off a decade in which the most celebrated attractions (Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Country Bear Jamboree, Carousel of Progress, America Sings) were AA showcases.
Although the novelty has long since worn off, audio-animatronics have become arguably the most iconic component of the trademark Disney attraction.
Almost everything that we see in Disneyland today that would seem taboo 25 years ago was in some ways brought about or at least facilitated by the executive shakeup of 1984. Even after Walt's death in 1966, his loyal lieutenants remained committed to operating Disneyland exactly as the boss would have wanted. Eighteen years later, new leadership arrived that saw the mantra What would Walt do? as a challenge to do the opposite.
For the guest, that's meant some good changes (fresh ride concepts and themes with non-Disney owned characters) as well as bad (constant price increases, corners cut, underpaid cast members).
Until the early 1960s, W.E.D.the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI)primarily consisted of studio craftsmen and engineers hijacked by Walt to re-theme existing carnival rides and contraptions. There was some research and development of new technology, but the amount of money it generated didn't justify more.
That is, until multi-million dollar contracts were signed with Pepsi, General Electric, Ford and the State of Illinois to build attractions for the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York. Now, Roy had no choice but allow brother Walt and his Imagineers to invest time, money and brainpower in designing epic attractions and, at least as importantly, ride systems to move guests by the thousands.
Disneyland exists as we know it today because of this Golden Age of Imagineering and its corporate benefactors.
(Send an email to David Koenig)
David Koenig is the senior editor of the 80-year-old business journal, The Merchant Magazine.
After receiving his degree in journalism from California State University, Fullerton (aka Cal State Disneyland), he began years of research for his first book, Mouse Tales: A Behind-the-Ears Look at Disneyland (1994), which he followed with Mouse Under Glass: Secrets of Disney Animation & Theme Parks (1997, revised 2001) and More Mouse Tales: A Closer Peek Backstage at Disneyland (1999) (All titles published by Bonaventure Press).
He lives in Aliso Viejo, California, with his lovely wife, Laura, their wonderful son, Zachary, and their adorable daughter, Rebecca.