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|Magic Kingdom Chronicles |
A look back at Disney history
At its opening, Disneyland was very much the realization of one man's dream - Walt Disney's greatest gift to the world of fun, laughter and entertainment. The innovative design of the next-generation theme park reflected the creator's fascination with trying new things.
Walt's passions are evident throughout the Park - the True-Life Adventures in Adventureland, the American west in Frontierland, escape from reality in Fantasyland, and the world of the future in Tomorrowland. To best understand where Walt was coming from, let's go back in time, back to Walt's childhood - specifically, to his days in Marceline, Missouri.
Walt was born on December 5, 1901 to Elias Disney (a contractor) and his wife, Flora. Initially, the family lived in Chicago but the city was deemed too hectic by Walt's parents and in 1906 they packed their bags and moved to a farm in Marceline. Later, Walt admitted that he remembered nothing of his early days in Chicago - but the years he spent in Marceline would be important later on as he was dreaming up Disneyland.
Here was Midwest America at the turn-of-the-century, a simpler time in a simpler place (sound like any theme park you know?). But Walt's recollections of his time spent on the Missouri farm weren't completely real - they were an idealized version of what life should have been like. In fact, all of Disneyland is reality at its finest - in other words, fantasy.
It was also at this point in Walt's life that he began to fall in love with railroads. He frequently trekked to the railroad tracks running near the family farm and put his ear to the track to find out if the train was coming - something that would hopefully signal the impending arrival of a favorite uncle of his.
In 1910 the family moved to Kansas City and Walt was thrust into big-city life. His grueling schedule at this point in time involved waking up at 3:30 AM to help deliver newspapers for his father, attending classes in school, and then delivering the evening edition of the paper.
With that kind of schedule, it's no wonder Walt was later able to work incredibly long hours during Disneyland's construction! This period in Walt's life also saw him get a job with the Santa Fe Railroad, as a news butcher. His fondness for the rails only increased during this time as he was finally able to live his dream of riding the rails day in and day out.
There were, to be sure, momentous events in Walt's life between his childhood and first ideas for Disneyland, but we're going to take a shortcut to the 1940s and gloss over the intervening years. To appease those who may not be well-versed in Walt's life (which, I admit, I am one of), here are some of the highlights:
· World War I ambulance driver in France
...and that brings us to the '40s, as promised! The Studio was now established but its financial footing was not yet completely firm. Even though Snow White exceeded even Disney's expectations, he was notorious for sinking everything he made right back into new projects - something we will find later on with Disneyland.
It was during this time in Walt's life that his boyhood interest in railroads was rekindled. To explain this, we have to look back to those years we skipped (gee, why did we skip them again?).
In the early 1930s Walt took up playing polo as a way of taking out frustrations from a long day at the Studio. Unfortunately, he wasn't the most skilled of players and ended up suffering a painful injury (are there any other kinds?) to his back in the 1938 and had to give up the sport altogether.
But this left Walt with no way of venting pent-up anger - nothing he could pour his energy into. After the condition had been bothering him for several years, the Studio nurse (Hazel George) suggested he get a hobby. It was under these conditions that railroads once again became a focus in Walt's life.
Walt was not the only one at the Studio with a fascination for trains - several animators had an active interest in railroads and had even built them in their backyards!
Ward Kimball had the full-scale "Grizzly Flats Railroad" at his house (and continued to operate it into the 1990s). Ollie Johnston was the proud owner of two railroads - one a 1/12th scale set-up in his backyard and one considerably larger railway near Julian, California.
It was in 1948 that one of the first milestones in Disneyland's creation happened - Walt asked Ward if he wanted to attend the Chicago Railroad Fair. The two rode out to the Fair on a train (of course!) and ended up getting to know one another very well. (The long train trip gave Walt a chance to reveal some little-known private information about himself.)
The Fair itself was fabulous - Walt's two great loves of railroading and Americana were combined - and gave him the time of his life. Walt and Ward were even able to run some of the steam locomotives on display. To Walt, this must have been like thrill we get when we're transported back with the pirates of the Spanish Main or sent hurtling down a mountain on a bobsled. But the most important part of the trip was yet to come.
Located on the Henry Ford estate in Dearborn, Michigan, Greenfield Village was a collection of actual buildings where American history was made. For instance, the Wright Brothers' bicycle shop and Thomas Edison's laboratory were part of the impressive collection that Ford had assembled.
After seeing this amazing group of historical artifacts, Walt began envisioning something that he himself could build.
On that very train ride back to California he jotted down notes of what he had seen, then issued a memo on August 31, 1948 detailing his "Mickey Mouse Park." We'll come back to this concept soon and hear it described it in more detail, as well as find out how it was transformed into the much larger and grander idea of Disneyland. First, however, let's turn our attention to Walt's very own backyard railroad.
Inspired by his animator's hobby rail lines, Walt soon began work on one for the backyard of his Holmby Hills home. Of course, Walt was only following the nurse's orders of finding a hobby - and, as we shall see time and again, when Walt got a hold of a new idea, he ran with it and explored it as fully as he could. His backyard railroad was no exception.
As the Evans brothers (who we'll meet in greater detail later on) were landscaping his backyard for the coming railroad, Walt was hard at work in the Studio's machine shop, crafting an engine with his own hands. Roger Broggie taught Walt how to use all the different tools necessary and the studio-head-turned-machinist proved particularly adept at mastering their use.
Walt proudly named his engine the Lilly Belle (after his wife Lillian) and was anxious to test it out on his backyard property. The Carolwood Pacific Railroad was born on May 15, 1950 and proved a smash with Walt and his railroading buddies. Lillian, however, had lost any right to complain when she signed a faux "right-of-way" allowing Walt's train to traverse through her garden. Walt took special delight in showing off the railroad to visiting guests - happy to see that his handiwork had turned out just as he had hoped.
The Lilly Belle turned out to be an important link to the Disneyland Railroad. When designing that attraction for the Park, the engineers simply took the blueprints for Walt's train and blew them up! The engine and caboose that Walt built were on display at the Main Street Station for many years - nowadays only the engine remains; the caboose is showcased at Walt's former backyard railroad barn in Griffith Park.
Walt's railroading hobby wasn't the sole inspiration for Disneyland - other experiences also influenced him to begin work on an amusement enterprise for entire families. Years after Disneyland's opening, he would remember "Daddy's Day," where he would take his two daughters (Sharon and Diane) to a local park and sit on a bench as they went 'round and 'round on the merry-go-round. Sitting there, eating his peanuts, he wondered why there were no places where families could go for a good time - together.
That is not to say that there weren't amusement parks at the time - there were, but the quality and atmosphere was generally something that one wouldn't associate with good, wholesome fun. Coney Island is a great example of what Walt was trying to shy away from. The traditional midway games, barkers and Ferris wheels were all things Walt was adamant about leaving out of Disneyland. (Though, as we will see, some 35 years into its history Disneyland came to have Ferris wheels scattered throughout the Park for "State Fair." Later still, the carnival atmosphere was recreated for Paradise Pier in Disney's California Adventure.)
Walt eventually sent some of his theme park planners around the world asking for advice from the operators of those parks. They, of course, told him that his Park would be a failure without certain classic amusement park rides. (I wonder how many of them are still in business now?)
Another reason for planning a "Mickey Mouse Park" next to the Studio was to give people visiting the Hollywood area something to see. In Walt's words: "You know, it's a shame people come to Hollywood and find there's nothing to see. Even the people who come to the studio. What do they see? A bunch of guys bending over drawings. Wouldn't it be nice if people could come to Hollywood and see something?"
And what a "something" Walt had in store for Southern California!
Questions about this column or about Disneyland history in general? Send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
The True-Life Adventures were nature documentaries produced by the Walt Disney Studios. These films garnered the Studio several Academy Awards.
Ward Kimball was a Disney animator and one of Walt's "Nine Old Men." Ward shared Disney's love of trains and the future; in the 1950s, he produced the "Man in Space" special for the Disneyland television show. The Firehouse Five Plus Two - a jazz band composed of Disney animators and Studio employees - was assembled and led by Ward for many years.
Ollie Johnston was also a Disney animator and one of the "Nine Old Men." He contributed to Disneyland through his work on the animated features and his passion for railroading.
The Chicago Railroad Fair was a one-time event held in 1948. It's ostensible purpose was a celebration of the railroad's fascinating history; in reality, it was more of a showcase of new technology and an attempt to revitalize the struggling industry.
The Evans brothers (Jack and Bill) first met Walt when they were asked to landscape his backyard. It was quite a task, but it paid off when they were asked to help with the landscaping of Disneyland.
In terms of landscaping, the Park was something completely different than anything tried before. Bill Evans later wrote a book on Disneyland landscaping: "The World of Flowers."
Roger Broggie was influential in the design of many major Disneyland attractions, though his work for Disney began much earlier. He joined the Company in 1939, helping make the newly-constructed Burbank Studio suitable for movie production.
In 1950 Roger became department manager of the machine shop and was forced time and again to find innovative solutions for the things Walt wanted for his Park. After the New York World's Fair he attained a management position at MAPO (the manufacturing and production arm of WED Enterprises), eventually leaving that post to work on EPCOT Center for Walt Disney World.
In 1990 his years of hard work for the Company were rewarded when he was honored as a "Disney Legend." He passed away in 1991.