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Magic Kingdom Chronicles
A look back at Disney history
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Jason Schultz

Once Upon a Time in Anaheim...

When last we left Walt, he had just completed work on the Carolwood Pacific Railroad and had plans for something bigger. Of course, the small park adjacent to the Studio eventually multiplied in size and found a location 35 miles south, but that planned small park is important in understanding the fundamentals of what Disneyland is.

Our timeframe has now shifted back to 1948...after returning from the Chicago Railroad Fair, Walt sent out a memo describing what was to be in this 8-acre "Mickey Mouse Park." Hindsight will help us pick out the portions of the park which would be significant for Disneyland, so let's take a look around!

It is immediately apparent that much of Walt's little park survived in the eventual Disneyland.

One of the main features of this Park was the railroad station, situated next to what is similar to Disneyland's Town Square. This area would have featured a bandstand, trees, benches, shrubs, etc. and was described by Walt as "cool and inviting." While this seems like a very general description, one of the hallmarks of Main Street, U.S.A. is just how relaxing and comfortable it is. Whereas an area like Tomorrowland is meant to convey the feeling of energy and kinetics, Main Street is a remembrance of Walt's boyhood days - characterized by a lack of the hustle present in big cities.

Disneyland Fire Station
Disneyland's Fire Department

Like Town Square, this Park had a residential section complete with a City Hall and Fire and Police Stations. Though it hasn't been used as such since the Park's early days, the Police Station adjacent to City Hall did at one time serve the role of carrying out traditional police functions. Other ideas from that first park which found a home in Disneyland include:

Opera House (though it didn't see use as a real theater until 1965)
Hobby Shop (Hobbyland in Tomorrowland)
Music Store (Wonderland Music Store on Main Street)
Horse Car (Horse-Drawn Streetcars and Horse-Drawn Surreys)
Western Village (Frontierland)
Stage Coach (attraction of the same name in Frontierland's early days)
Donkey Pack Train (while not donkeys, pack mules did find a place in Disneyland as part of the Rainbow Ridge/Nature's Wonderland area)

It's amazing to think of how many ideas Walt had after that first brainstorming session that made it into the finished Park - for example, there was a place for "Skull Rock" along the river. However, not everything mentioned in that memo came to pass:

Movie Theatre (while the Main Street Cinema has shown movies or Disney shorts since Opening Day, it is not in the sense Walt described in 1948)
Doll Store
Kids' Furniture Store
Carnival Section (it's interesting to see this mentioned - as we know, Walt was vehemently opposed to the carny atmosphere!)

Not only did Walt's dreams soon outgrow that tiny location, but the city went ahead and built a freeway there! (In all fairness, the freeway caters to more people per day than the little Park would have done.)

And so the search for a new location began. Walt did have some definite ideas about what to avoid in a location - notably, it shouldn't be near the beach. To Walt, the beach conjured up images of the tawdry amusement parks he wanted to get away from. He didn't want that kind of crowd in his Park.

In July 1953, the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was commissioned to find the ideal location for such a Park. They took into consideration such factors as freeway accessibility, smog, future population growth, and government support. The search was conducted over the entire Southern California area - sites as varied as Chatsworth, Balboa and Tustin were considered but were all passed over for one reason or another. As word started to spread and Walt's plans became known, it became more critical that they purchase land quickly - before prices per acre became grossly inflated.

And what location did the SRI finally decide on? Anaheim, California. In those days, Anaheim didn't consist of anything really exciting - you certainly wouldn't travel there on vacation! In fact, at Disneyland's opening there were only 5 hotels, 2 motels, and a total of 87 rooms. By 1990, the numbers had jumped to 150 hotels and motels and over 17,000 rooms. A "spectacular failure" indeed!

One of the main things in Anaheim's favor was SRI's prediction of the greatest future population growth - it was understood that without visitors Disneyland would collapse. Today it is locals who make up much of Disneyland's estimated 13 million annual visitors. The predication of the Southern California population center being located near Anaheim was dead-on - today, that center is just four miles from the Park!

Walt's use of the SRI didn't end with finding a location for the Park. They stayed on the project for another year trying to figure out how to make the project feasible. This task included soliciting advice - most of which turned out to be bad - from current theme park owners, coming up with attendance estimates and making an estimate on an initial construction budget. While the budget estimate was low compared with how much was actually spent ($4 million recommended, $17 million spent by Park Opening), the one day attendance predictions were fairly accurate: the maximum one day capacity was estimated at 87,000 (eventually reached on July 4, 1987) and a recommendation was made for a parking lot capable of handling over 11,500 cars - both estimates that have served Disneyland well over the years!

Now that we know where Disneyland was to be physically located, what was happening with the concepts being dreamed up back at the Studio?

By this time, Walt had set several designers to work on what was to become Disneyland. Ken Anderson was the first Disney employee to start working on the Park full-time, but it was Harper Goff that Walt commissioned to do the initial renderings for the Park adjacent to the Studio. While we know this Park didn't come to be, Goff's influence can be found in Disneyland today - he was influential in the design of Main Street.

Ken had been working on a different project for Walt - a secret project by the name of "Disneylandia." Walt had become fascinated with a little mechanical songbird he had purchased in New Orleans while on vacation with his wife Lillian. Fresh off his success at hand-crafting the Lilly Belle, he wanted to start constructing mechanical miniatures - perhaps something that could become part of a traveling exhibit on Americana. Ken was given an office for use on this project, with he and Walt holding the only keys to it.

Project Little Man
Project Little Man

Ken made 24 renderings in all for the project, though only a few of the designs made it past the concept stage. The first project was a dancing figure modeled after Buddy Ebsen. To give the designers a lesson in human movement, Ebsen came into the Studio and was filmed performing in front of a grid pattern. Roger Broggie and Wathel Rogers were drafted to start figuring out the mechanics of the project. It turned out to be incredibly costly and time-consuming - in other words, something not financially feasible. Part of the problem was that such a traveling exhibit could only hope to reap small change - perhaps quarters - from each visitor while the project costs were several orders of magnitude higher. Walt gave up hope on the "Disneylandia" project itself, but we'll see that the idea of mechanically animated figures never left his mind (think singing birds and swashbuckling pirates).

It is important to note that Walt's main concern was entertaining the public, but not by playing to the lowest common denominator. He felt that if something excited him it would excite the public at large - which proved true time and again. Walt's interests were varied, but it is impossible to overlook his fascination with the future and innovations. "I can never stand still. I must explore and experiment. I am never satisfied with my work. I resent the limitations of my own imagination," Walt once commented. His theme park ended up being quite an innovation and the concept has proved viable in locales the world over.

Main Street Station
By sitting above its surroudings, Main Street Station beckons visitors into the Park.

Because Walt had been initially been in the movie business, elements of motion picture design are evident in the Park today. The Train Station functions as a marquee to draw people into the Park and onto Main Street - the ultimate red carpet experience. Incidentally, George Whitney (the only person on the Disneyland design team with any sort of experience in running a theme park) saw the proposed plans and thought it was a terrible idea. He felt that people would never walk up the steps to ride the train and get to the station. Walt, however, was adamant that the designs stay the way the way they were. Today, the Train Station (along with the Floral Mickey) is the most frequently photographed location in Disneyland. Take that, Mr. Whitney!

As stated earlier, Main Street functions as a red carpet for the Park - it introduces the public to Disneyland. The large earthen berm - atop which the train runs - serves to shut out the outside world, much like theater doors at a movie theater. The Castle at the far end of Main Street is what Walt termed a 'wienie,' or something to draw Guests in a particular direction. The concept of something to grab the audience's attention is still in use today at the Magic Kingdom. The Astro Orbitor is Tomorrowland's marquee; the Castle still sits as the entrance to Fantasyland; "it's a small world" lures Guests down the parade route from Main Street; the Mark Twain can be seen from the Frontierland entrance; and Splash Mountain is successful at moving Guests to the far end of the Park.

Preserving the "Disneyland Show" is paramount to what Disneyland is all about. One of the fundamentals taught to incoming Disneyland Cast Members is that everything about the Park is a "show." The Guest-accessible part of Disneyland is "onstage," with costumed "Cast Members" making the magic happen. This goes hand-in-hand with keeping the outside world truly out - anything that would remind Guests of the real world would also destroy the theming that was so carefully crafted.

Before leaving this discussion on Disneyland's underlying approach to entertaining Guests, it is important to mention John Hench. Joining Disney in 1939, John is still employed by the Walt Disney Company and has had an enormous influence on the design of all the Disney Parks. He often refers to the "language of vision" when talking about Disneyland's design. This is a reference to the subtle visual details that make Disneyland a comforting and reassuring place to be. The different elements throughout the Park would have to complement each other - Main Street had to be the idealized version of small town main streets because that's what comforted people. This aspect of theme park design is still crucial to achieving the right effect.

We've met a few of the artists involved in projects leading to Disneyland's creation...but certainly there have to be more people involved. Who would create all those attractions that populate Disneyland? Stick around!

Questions about this column or about Disneyland history in general? Send them to me at!

NEXT UP: The WED Imagineers


Did you know... that the Stanford Research Institute actually suggested four sites for Walt's consideration? In order of preference, they were:

1. Anaheim: the one chosen
Willowick Country Club: just outside the Santa Ana city limits
La Mirada: five different locations were selected within this area
Leo Harvey site: near where the I-5 (Santa Ana) Freeway and Valley View Avenue meet

Did you know... that the Mickey Mouse Park in Burbank was to be non-profit?

Before working on Disneyland, Ken Anderson was a Disney animator, working on several of the early animated classics, including Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. He became the first employee to work on the Disneyland project via "Project Little Man." He also worked on the full-scale Park, contributing mainly to Fantasyland.

Harper Goff's involvement with the Disneyland project began when he was commissioned by Walt to create a rendering of the "Mickey Mouse Park" in Burbank. His work on early Disneyland concepts was temporarily brought to a halt when he became involved in the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, resuming once the film was complete. Main Street's design - something he contributed to - was inspired in part by his home town of Fort Collins, Colorado.

Buddy Ebsen had a unique association with the Disneyland project. He was first associated with it through "Disneylandia" - he was the model for the first figure animation attempted by Walt Disney. He later portrayed George Russel on the Davy Crockett TV show, appearing in character on Disneyland's Opening Day television special.

Roger Broggie was the head of the Studio's machine shop at the time of Disneyland's construction.

Wathel Rogers was another early Disney employee, joining the Studio in 1939. His skills in sculpting would later find him at the WED model shop, creating new attractions in miniature before they were constructed full-size at Disneyland. Wathel was honored as a "Disney Legend" in 1995.

John Hench's involvement in Disney theme park design cannot be overstated. His first involvement with Disneyland came in 1955 when he was assigned to work on Tomorrowland. Now with the Company for over 60 years, he is still active at Imagineering.

Thanks go out to Jim Hill, Ross Plesset, The Walt Disney Archives and an anonymous friend for their contributions to this article.



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