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Magic Kingdom Chronicles
A look back at Disney history
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Jason Schultz

A Hollywood Spectacular

The big day had finally arrived. Sunday, July 17, 1955 was the day that Walt Disney would finally unveil his creation to the world - or at least to the press and other invited guests. July 17 was set aside as the press preview day, with the public opening scheduled for the following day. Concerns that nobody would show up to see Disneyland were quickly alleviated - and how! All of the stories you'll read below have been told before, but because Opening Day was such a milestone in the history of The Walt Disney Company, they deserve to be told again.

Understandably, it was a frantic day for everyone involved. The day began for Walt Disney in his apartment above Disneyland's Fire Station. After an exhausting day dealing with last minute construction problems, Walt retired to his apartment to get a good night's rest before opening Disneyland. As more problems arose through the night, Walt was constantly awakened by those seeking solutions. Frustrated, Walt locked the door and went back to sleep. In the morning when he woke up - somewhat refreshed - he found that the door was stuck! He ended up having to yell for help to get out.

The gates to the Park opened at 10 A.M.; people started arriving at the Park EARLY to be the first to experience the new theme park. The roads leading to Disneyland were all jammed with cars from the morning on. The backup even extended onto the still-uncompleted Santa Ana Freeway! As Walt's brother Roy was driving down from the Studio area he figured it was normal traffic; the freeway system was, after all, still in a state of becoming. But as he neared Anaheim - and Disneyland - it quickly became clear that the gridlock was caused by all the guests coming to Walt's little park. As Roy arrived in the parking lot, a parking attendant who recognized him came running over. The young man was frantic - after sitting in traffic for hours, the youngsters were relieving themselves right there in the parking lot! Roy's response? "God bless 'em, let 'em pee!"

The opening was, of course, televised. In fact, it was the biggest live telecast to date! There were somewhere between 22 and 29 television cameras sprinkled throughout the Park - far more than the handful that had previously been used when covering live events. The ABC broadcast - seen by an astounding 90 million viewers - was hosted by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and Ronald Reagan. As the show went on the feed switched off between the three, offering different vantage points for the festivities. Walt also made appearances, but only when he was reading dedication plaques for the various lands.

According to legend, 10,000 tickets were printed for the media event. Official records indicate that 28,154 people attended that day, but other estimates place it at varying points between twenty and thirty thousand Guests. Whatever the number was, the Park was CROWDED. The small Park could barely accommodate all those who had come to find out what it was all about. As we shall see, rides broke down and pandemonium ensued as people tried to take advantage of the few attractions that were operable. And just what debuted on the 17th? Twenty attractions in all, including three free attractions:

Main Street, U.S.A.
· Fire Wagon
· Horse-Drawn Streetcars
· Main Street Arcade
· Main Street Cinema
· Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad
· Surreys
Adventureland
· Jungle Cruise
Frontierland
· Golden Horseshoe Revue
· Mark Twain
· Mule Pack
· Stage Coach
Fantasyland
· Canal Boats of the World
· King Arthur Carrousel
· Mad Tea Party
· Mr. Toad's Wild Ride
· Peter Pan's Flight
· Snow White's Adventures
Tomorrowland
· Autopia
· Circarama
· Space Station X-1

Now, let's turn our attention to the cost of Disneyland. On the press day, everything was free. As founder of the Disney University Van Arsdale France pointed out, "The cash was flowing one way - OUT." In the weeks to come, folks would have to dig into their pockets each time they went on an attraction; each attraction had to be paid for individually, with prices ranging from ten to thirty-five cents. It wasn't until October that Disneyland began offering "ticket books." Because each attraction cost money, admission was much cheaper - one dollar at opening. The first ticket, purchased by Roy O. Disney, is now safely stored at the Disney Archives in Burbank.

The live television coverage began at 4:30 P.M. with comments from reporter Hank Weaver: "For the past year, this signature has announced the opening of Disneyland, the show. Now, it announces the opening of Disneyland, the place. The people and eyes around the world are focused on these one-hundred-and-sixty acres here in Anaheim, California. This afternoon, Disneyland, the world's most fabulous kingdom, will be unveiled before an invitation world premiere, and you our guests. Art Linkletter will be your host, and with ABC crews and cameras, he will guide you through this truly magic land."

Next, Art Linkletter was shown in front of the Main Street Station, welcoming the television audience and explaining to them that it's "all in fun" and that mistakes might occur. The other co-hosts, Bob Cummings and future president Ronald Reagan, were introduced before they had to run off to their positions. As they began to get ready to cover the festivities, viewers were treated to a brief glimpse at the different lands around Disneyland while waiting for Walt Disney to show up aboard the E.P. Ripley.

As a tour of Main Street began, the Disneyland Band could be heard playing in the background. They were borne out of the mind of Tommy Walker, Disneyland's first entertainment director. Initially, they were signed to only a two-week contract; it's now forty-five years later and they're still going strong! When it came time to choose a conductor for the band, Tommy selected his father Vesey, a man who was experienced in the field. Tommy was instrumental in the creation of several Disneyland entertainment legacies, including Fantasy in the Sky fireworks.

Art Linkletter is a source of one popular myth on Disneyland, that everything is built at 5/8 scale. He was correct in explaining that the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad had been constructed at that scale, but he seems to run at the mouth and call everything 5/8 - even the Disneyland horses! He assured us, however, that the people are "full-size people, they were not made by Walt Disney."

Riding along with Walt Disney in the E.P. Ripley were the then-Governor of California, Goodwin Knight, and the President of Santa Fe Railroad, Fred Gurley. Walt seemed to take a special joy at the helm of the train as he was able to indulge his love of railroading and finally open his little Park to the world. Art greeted them as then entered the station, but the three men soon had to run off and get ready for the dedication. As the train rolls away in the background, one wonders where it's going and, indeed, who is in control?

Walt Disney
Walt Disney dedicating Disneyland © Disney

Ronald Reagan introduced the dedication ceremony; it's amazing to watch there ceremony and realize how completely silent it was before Walt stepped forward. Applause could be heard as he approached the microphone and delivered his famous dedication speech: "To all who come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world."

After the ceremonies concluded with the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, it was time for the parade! Led by the United States Marine Band, the parade was certainly lively. All the various lands were represented in the parade, including Fantasyland through characters and Frontierland through horses, stagecoaches and covered wagons. The parade is also notable as being the first appearance of the Mouseketeers. While their television program wouldn't debut until October, it was a good move on Walt's part to introduce them to the American people while they sat captivated by the Opening Day program.

When the parade finished, the special began to tour the park. First up: Frontierland. As he would for the other lands opened that day, Walt was shown reading the dedication plaque: "Frontierland. It is here that we experience the story of our country's past. The color, romance and drama of frontier America as it developed from wilderness trails to roads, riverboats, railroads and civilization. A tribute to the faith, courage, ingenuity of the pioneers who blazed the trails and made this tribute possible."

Art Linkletter was given the task of introducing Frontierland to the world. As all the children asked, "Where's Davy Crockett?" he had to look around frantically and feign ignorance. Once the signal was given for Davy to come riding in (a shot fired in the air), the camera panned up to show... an utterly barren riverbank. It took a little while for Davy and his sidekick George Russel to make it to Art, but the show they put on was very entertaining.

Golden Horseshoe
The exterior of the Golden Horseshoe stage © Disney

The next attraction given its premiere was the Golden Horseshoe Revue. As the special cut to the interior, viewers saw the can-can taking place onstage as Bob Cummings described the interior of the building - including the "five-eighths" scale ceiling! The singing of Betty Taylor and Donald Novus was cut short as the Mark Twain signaled that it was just about ready for its maiden voyage.

"A sternwheel riverboat, something most living Americans have never seen," was how Art introduced the Mark Twain - and he was right. A boat this type had not been built in the United States in a half-century; the designers conducted extensive research to make sure every detail was as authentic as could be. Hollywood actress Irene Dunne was on hand to christen the ship. "My, it's listing!" she noted to Art as the boat became overloaded with Guests anxious to finally experience part of Disneyland.

After dedicating the ship and showing a few shots of it in action, the show transitioned back to the mainland and the Firehouse Five Plus Two. The musical group was performing in the original New Orleans section of Frontierland, approximately the area between the Stage Door Café and the River Belle Terrace. The dance number that went along with the music was rather lengthy, then the show cut to the Frontierland Station along the Disneyland Railroad's route.

Walt Disney
Walt Disney reading the Tomorrowland dedication plaque © Disney

Next up for dedication was the world of tomorrow. Again, Walt was present to read a dedication for the land: "A vista into a world of wondrous ideas signifying man's achievements. A step into the future, with predictions of constructive things to come. Tomorrow offers new frontiers in science, adventure and ideals: The Atomic Age, The Challenge of Outer Space and the hope for a Peaceful and Unified World."

Tomorrowland was pretty barren-looking; besides having only three operating attractions, the area was practically devoid of plants! This goes along with a rather well-known, though probably untrue, story: Walt Disney knew that the chief Disneyland landscaper, Bill Evans, wasn't able to acquire all the plants he wanted and needed to have the Park the way he wanted it. He also knew that come July 17, it was going to be obvious where they had run short of funds. To try and counteract the problem, he had Bill place fancy-sounding Latin names on all the weeds around the Park! The story was first told by Walt at a ten-year reunion for Opening Day Cast Members and may be more wistful remembrance than actual fact.

Following a brief look around the land, the show cut to Dr. Heinz Haber, who was permitted to give a brief demonstration of atomic power, using ping-pong balls. The idea was that one ball, when thrown into a blanket of mousetraps (each holding a ping-pong ball), would create a chain-reaction and free all the balls. The first attempt was a complete failure, but the second try seemed to do the trick. Overall, it doesn't fit in with the celebrating and partying going on throughout the rest of the Park!

Autopia
The Autopia and Tomorrowland © Disney

The Autopia, really the only Tomorrowland attraction open that day, was shown next. It served as a showcase of some of the various celebrities visiting that day; Art greeted several people as they drove by, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Don DeFore (who later operated a restaurant in Frontierland). Also of note is a certain comment made by Art about female drivers: "Of course, women drivers are given a little extra space, just as they are on the highway." I'd like to see him get away with that comment in this day and age!

Even though the Rocket to the Moon attraction didn't open for another week, it was still shown on the Opening Day special. The only footage they could really show is the film footage used in the ride itself - which is just what they did. It's an interesting look back at an attraction that survived in one form or another until 1992!

"Here is a world of imagination, hopes and dreams," began Fantasyland's dedication. "In this timeless land of enchantment, the age of chivalry, magic and make-believe are reborn and fairy tales come true. Fantasyland is dedicated to the young and the young-in-heart. To those who believe that when you wish upon a star, your dreams do come true."

Once the Sleeping Beauty Castle drawbridge was lowered, it was a free-for-all with the anxious children running as fast as they could across the bridge. From the footage of Fantasyland, it's very apparent the carnival-like atmosphere the original incarnation had. It's doubtful the kids cared, however, because they had seen nothing like it before! The announcers take the television audience around the land, to the front of each of the dark rides, but never inside. The Casey Jr. Circus Train is also shown, despite the fact that it wouldn't open for two more weeks!

The Mouseketeers were again showcased in Fantasyland, this time introducing the Fantasyland Theatre, which didn't open until August of that year. Also shown are the early Mickey and Minnie walk-around characters - simply terrible looking when compared with today's versions!

Walt Disney
Art Linkletter and Walt Disney at the conclusion of the Opening Day special © Disney

It seems as though one land was forgotten... Adventureland! Like its placement tucked in the Hub, Adventureland seems to be the land that's always forgotten. Bob Cummings gave it a quick intro and then showed a few shots of the Jungle Cruise. And with that, the tour came to its conclusion. The show ended with Walt and Art Linkletter in front of the Castle. "Walt, you've made a bum out of Barnum today!" remarked Art. After Walt thanked all those who helped make his dream come true, the two walked off toward the Castle, bringing the television special to its conclusion.

What was the media's reaction to all of this? They hated the place. While not everyone disliked it, much of the press certainly provided unfavorable coverage on the following day. It was called "A Hollywood Spectacular - A Spectacular Failure" and "Disney's Folly." Walt himself referred to it ever after as "Black Sunday." 

What the television cameras didn't show were many of the problems that happened that day, like restaurants running out of food and refreshments or Fantasyland closing due to a gas leak. (Some reports place that closure on the public opening day, July 18, or weeks afterward.)

The public, however, loved the place! It began making money its first week in operation. Only seven weeks later, on September 8, Disneyland celebrated its one millionth guest.


Questions about this column or about Disneyland history in general? Send them to me at jason@mouseplanet.com!

 

EXTENDED INFORMATION

It is widely acknowledged that Roy O. Disney was the financial brains behind Walt's dreams. Roy was sometimes reticent about Walt's projects, but when he saw that they would work - as with Disneyland - he gave the venture his full backing. After Walt's death in 1966, Roy saw to it that Walt Disney World was built and opened to the public.

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