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Magic Kingdom Chronicles
A look back at Disney history
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Jason Schultz

Construction Nightmares

The official tale is that Disneyland was built in "a year and a day," a cute catchphrase that is most likely a historical fallacy. Dates for the beginning of Disneyland construction are almost as numerous as the various books out there on Disneyland history. There was to be an official groundbreaking on August 25, 1954, but that was cancelled in the face of a threatened protest from angry neighboring residents. And who could blame them? Would *you* want an amusement park to open next door to you?

Construction site
The Disneyland construction site Disney

We've already seen how a colorblind bulldozer operater wreaked havoc with the attempts to save trees extant on the construction site. That turned out to be a very minor problem - in the process of taking the amusement park experience to an entirely new level, the people building Disneyland ran into a whole slew of problems, some requiring some very innovative solutions.

After designing the Park, the next step was obviously getting it built. Walt originally wanted to contract out the design and construction of the Park to a firm by the name of Luckman & Pereira, but he found they weren't living up to his expectations. Nobody could! He was attempting something that hadn't been tried before, and the team had to design and build everything themselves. Obviously, this led to problems - what could they use to model the construction of Disneyland?

The answer, it seems, was found in trial and error testing of what would work and what wouldn't. Take, for example, the filling of the Rivers of America basin. The river had been dug and it was all set to be filled. When the big day arrived, the water was poured in and promptly soaked through the topsoil! The construction men were aghast - if they couldn't fill the river, all their hard work would be for naught! The problem was in the thirsty citrus soil; once it was covered by a layer of clay, the river was filled and the problem was solved.

When buildings started to rise above the site, Walt had to alter his perception of the construction. Because of his background in motion pictures, he was familiar with the temporary - sometimes shoddy - construction of film sets. These were obviously not designed to last very long and were signficantly cheaper to construct than real buildings. Walt was initially expecting these kinds of structures to be built at Disneyland; he was in for quite a shock when he was introduced to the world of building regulations! He was upset over having to use more of the limited funds to get things constructed, but he realized that the building code had to be met.

Bill Evans
Bill Evans and Jungle Cruise foliage Disney

Of all the lands, Adventureland progressed the best through the construction process. Indeed, it was the main subject of two of the "progress reports" that were shown on the Sunday night "Disneyland" TV show that introduced the Park to families across the country. The biggest problem was assembling a collection of plants - given the time and money constraint - that could come close to resembling something a Guest might expect an idealized jungle to look like. Bill Evans did a fine job of creating such an environment - most of the current trees in the Jungle Cruise jungle have been there for 45 years!

Fantasyland was one of the more problematic areas of the Park. The Fantasyland dark rides - a term encompassing Snow White's Adventures, Peter Pan's Flight, and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride that simply requires a vehicle moving through a darkened show building - necessitated that the animators become painters and set builders! Because of a shortage of time and money, some of the original animators from the films - including a few who would become Imagineers - designed, painted and built the sets and backgrounds that graced those dark rides from 1955 until 1982.

The Mad Tea Party was designed and constructed by Arrow Development in Mountain View, California. The first test of the attraction didn't happen until June, 1955 - and then the attraction had to be shipped down to Disneyland and have final testing done!

The Casey Jr. Circus Train track had to be changed after it was found that the first grade was too steep and the engine that "thinks it can" really couldn't. There was, in fact, a very real concern that the engine would tip as the train ascended the hill, toppling over backward! Because of the necessary re-grading of the slope, it didn't debut until several weeks after the official opening of Disneyland.

Dumbo also had its share of problems - namely, the original motor that drove the attraction couldn't handle the first elephants tested on the attraction. They simply weighed too much! After some reworking, the system did begin working, but it did not debut until August of opening year.

The most nightmarish construction problems of all originated from Tomorrowland. Construction on the area didn't even begin until six months before the Park's opening! It was obviously part of the original plan to have Tomorrowland, but when construction problems mounted and the money in the coffers dwindled, it was easiest to just cross Tomorrowland off the list. The intention was to build and open it after the Park had opened and was firmly on its feet, money-wise. Walt and others realized, however, that Disneyland would only work as a whole and Tomorrowland would be there...somehow.

As we're going to see later, Tomorrowland wasn't much when it opened. Many of the corporate sponsorship exhibits weren't ready for Opening Day; the only two attractions of note were the Autopia and Circarama, predecessor to Circle-Vision 360. One of the displays - that of sets from the award-winning motion picture "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - looked like it might be ready for the Park's opening on July 17th, but never quite made it. Nevertheless, the night before the grand opening saw Walt himself helping out - painting the backgrounds behind the giant squid in a desperate attempt to get it open on time. The best thing that can be said for Tomorrowland was that it was open to Guests on Disneyland's opening day! Habitual viewers of the television program were no doubt familiar with the land and it was an important part of the whole, even if it wasn't in working order.

While each individual land was having its own unique set of problems, there were things happening on grander scale which would affect construction. For starters, it was the wettest season in the history of the Anaheim area. This was obviously detrimental to the building of Disneyland - how could they build when it was pouring rain? (This would later be compounded by the fact that it was one of the hottest summers in memory, and the crowds stayed away in droves.)

There was also the little matter of the local plumbers and asphalt layers striking. This is an oft-told story that resulted in the famous "bathrooms vs. drinking fountains" debate. Because there weren't enough workers to get enough of both built, Walt was asked which he would prefer to have prioritized. He of course had them concentrate on building restrooms. At opening, he was accused of trying to goose sales of Pepsi and Coca-Cola by not providing enough drinking fountains. As Walt explained, "People can buy Pepsi-Cola, but they can't pee in the street!"

The well-known story of women's heels sticking in the freshly laid asphalt on Main Street is also worth mentioning; it results from the strike by asphalt workers. The Main Street roadway was laid just hours before the Park's premiere to the world and as a result it was still more than a bit moist for the first visitors. Women, dressed in their finest, came to Disneyland in high heels, which resulted in several instances of the heel sinking into the soft asphalt and staying put. Their shoes got stuck in the street itself! While this is good story fodder, it hasn't had an impact on Disneyland through the years, unlike the budget crunch that hit Fantasyland and Tomorrowland especially hard.

At home, television viewers were unaware of the various challenges and hurdles plaguing the construction efforts at Disneyland. This audience of the "Disneyland" TV show know only what Walt let them knew through the program. And just what was that? Stay tuned for a progress report on the construction of Disneyland, hosted by Walt himself!

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

NEXT UP: A Glimpse at the Site


Bill Evans first met Walt when he 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."

The word Imagineer is one uniquely Disney and refers to the blending of imagination and engineering; these are the people who create the new attractions that go into Disney Parks.


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