When Is a Disneyland Birthday NOT a Disneyland Birthday?

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"A lot of people didn't believe in what we were doing… my brother had the worries of getting this money and fighting the bankers and things… but we ran out of money… a lot of people don't realize that we had some very serious problems here, keeping this going… getting it started… "But at this time, 10 years after opening, I want to join my brother in saying, 'Thanks to you people who have been here with us, and have been part of making this thing come across'… But I just want to leave you with this thought… that it's just been sort of a dress rehearsal, and we're just getting started. So if any of you start resting on your laurels, just forget it."—Walt Disney at the Tencennial Celebration at the Disneyland Hotel Magnolia Room, July 17, 1965

"We were the inheritors. We inherited the traditions established by Walt and Roy Disney… the many brilliant people at the studio and the dedicated Disney people at WED. We have been fortunate in being a part of extending these traditions at Disneyland… and then carrying them across the country to Walt Disney World. "It's a time to remember that Disneyland was the Disney organization's first venture in a totally new concept of person-to-person family entertainment. We accepted that challenge and established a worldwide reputation for our friendliness and cleanliness and very unique brand of showmanship. "You'll remember that at the 10th anniversary, Walt gave us a challenge. Those words said in 1965 are just as important tonight July 17, 1975 as we look forward to preserving and extending our great Disney heritage." – Donn Tatum, Disney Company chairman of the board, at the dinner honoring the first Disneyland cast members, July 17, 1975, on the park's 20th birthday.

As Disneyland salutes its 59th birthday this month and makes preparations for the big 60th birthday next July, I wanted to take a brief look back at how Disneyland used to celebrate its birthday.

There was no big 5th birthday celebration in 1960, because the celebration had already begun the previous summer with the "Second Opening of Disneyland" and the appearance of the first "E" Ticket attractions: the Monorail, the Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn.

However, by the time of the 10th birthday celebration in 1965, it was time for the big Disneyland Tencennial (a term coined by publicist Charlie Ridgway). It had everything from a one-of-a-kind large comic book from DELL Publishing, where Mickey and his friends celebrated the event, to a special park parade and theme song, which were later showcased on The Wonderful World of Color, January 3,1965, episode titled "Disneyland's Tenth Anniversary." (On Thursday, August 12, 1965, Disneyland's 50 millionth guest, Mary Adams entered Disneyland.)

That special television show reminded viewers not only of the World's Fair attractions that would be coming to Disneyland, like Mary Blair showing off the new facade for "it's a small world," but the new attractions in development, like the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion.

In fact the publicity demands were so great for the Tencennial that a "Miss Disneyland" was chosen to help Walt Disney with all the events. Yes, the very first Disneyland Ambassador was also known as "Miss Disneyland" in the publicity, and it was intended as a one-year job. There were no plans to continue that role after the festivities, but the first Disneyland Ambassador proved to be so outstanding and valuable that the program has continued to this day.

That first Ambassador was a college student from Long Beach, California, named Julie Reihm, picked from Guest Relations. She had been a tour guide at Disneyland during school vacations and weekends for the previous two years. Born in Galveston, Texas, Julie and her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Philip Reihm, moved to Long Beach when she was 3 months old. She lived there for more than 20 years before becoming the first "Miss Disneyland."

At the time, she had a younger sister, Susie, and younger brother, Ryan. The official publicity declared that Reihm was "5-feet, 4-inches tall, with hazel eyes and dark brown hair, and weighs 117 pounds. In addition to her friend-making personality and smile, Julie has an excellent record in scholarship, music and public speaking. She hopes to become a teacher."

She studied piano for 10 years and won a gold certificate of merit from the Music Teachers Association of California. She sang in school choruses and in the Disneyland Tour Guide Glee Club. According to the publicity release, she also loved "outdoor sports, such as swimming, tennis, surfing and bicycling."

When she received the honor of being the first Disneyland Ambassador, Reihm said, "I've learned so many fascinating things about so many places from the Disneyland tours I have conducted for visitors from all parts of the world, that I can hardly wait to see them for myself. I feel I've traveled everywhere because of the wonderful people I've met in Disneyland."

Disneyland's 25th birthday party in 1980 was celebrated with a 25-hour party and a special "I Was There" button. Most Disney fans forget that in the 1970s and 1980s, Disney fans collected buttons, not pins, especially for Disneyland special events like this one. That 25- hour party lasted from 12:01 a.m. July 17, 1980, to 1 a.m. July 18th.

Disneyland's 30th birthday in 1985 saw a television special hosted by John Forsythe and a very young Drew Barrymore. One of the things showcased in the special was the Gift Giver Extraordinare machine at the front of the park. The machine offered prizes to every 30th guest. Some were minor prizes like pins and free Disneyland passes.

However, once a day, the machine gave away a free General Motors GEO automobile. If you got a winning ticket, you went to the Hub at Disneyland where a huge cake (and fortunately the GM GEO was small enough to fit in the oversized cake) was displayed. The event host had the guest pull a lever to see what prize the guest had won. like a plush Mickey and Minnie.

For Disneyland's 35th birthday in 1990, the Disney Company had seen how successful that Gift Giver Extraordinaire was, so it installed the "Dream Machine." This time there were lots of minor prizes, like free popcorn or ice cream so there were more winners.

Often winners with minor prizes never collected them because the tickets featured different Disney characters, and those tickets were wildly collected and traded in an attempt to get a complete set. Yes, more cars were given away, as well as airline tickets on Delta, Disney's official airline.

In addition to the Disneyland birthday buttons, there were now also collectible pins that you could win from the Dream Machine, and they reflected the various lands of the park. (However, there was some controversy that some of those pins like Donald in a spaceship and the pointed sheriff's badge had sharp edges that might hurt children, so they were replaced with a different version with rounded edges.)

There was a "Party Gras Parade," complete with a Latin beat and a Mardi Gras theme, featuring 45-foot-tall balloon sculptures of favorite Disney characters. (The parade moved to Walt Disney World for its 20th birthday celebration the following year.)

And there was the ever present television special, this time hosted by actor Tony Danza, that would often showcased now-forgotten celebrities, rather than the park and its history.

Disneyland's 40th birthday in 1995 no longer emphasized the "magic" in its catch phrase. It was now "40 Years of Adventure" to take advantage of the opening of the new Indiana Jones attraction. In fact at the official celebration, Indiana Jones slid from the top of the Matterhorn to an area off stage while singer Randy Travis at the top of the Matterhorn led the crowd in a rendition of "Happy Birthday."

A time capsule in the shape of Sleeping Beauty's Castle (so it was referred to as a "Time Castle") was buried in front of Disneyland's Sleeping Beauty castle to be opened on Disneyland's 80th birthday in 2035. It contained a good deal of 1995 merchandise.

Some of the 62 items included:

  • A "40 Years of Adventures" cast member nametag, with the name "Mickey"
  • Early photos of Disneyland
  • An aerial photo of the Disneyland resort
  • Various Disney logo merchandise from 1995
  • Photos and documentation of the just completed Disneyland attraction, Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye
  • A 1995 Disney press kit, and a copy of "Disney Magazine"
  • A scroll of thoughts and quotes from Michael Eisner, Roy Disney, Marty Sklar, and others.

Marking the spot is a plaque reading:

"Placed beneath this marker on July 17, 1995 – THE DISNEYLAND 40TH ANNIVERSARY TIME CASTLE. A Time Castle containing Disneyland memories, messages and milestones, lies beneath this spot. The Disneyland Time Castle is dedicated to the children of the 21st century, who may unlock its contents on the 80th Anniversary of Disneyland: July 17, 2035."

For Disneyland's 45th birthday? Well, there were a lot of pins including a special lapel pin recreating Sam McKim's map of Disneyland from the 1950s, and there was some free birthday cake at various locations.

Some of you may remember the 50th celebrated in 2005, but there was a major difference. Having written some publicity pieces for the Disney Company at the time, I can tell you that we were strenously coached that it was not Disneyland's birthday. It was, instead, a date to commemorate 50 years of the "idea" of Disney theme parks so that guests could celebrate at any Disney theme park worldwide.

The Disney Company put a stop to celebrating the birthdays of characters, like Mickey Mouse and Snow White, celebrations that were much beloved by guests and lasted roughly 16 to 18 months (known at the time as a "Disney Year") and generated increased attendance and soaring sales for related specific edition merchandise.

At the same time, the edict came out that there would be no more "local" celebrations at theme parks celebrating their individual anniversaries, but only "global" celebrations and the Disneyland 50th birthday was the first example.

That is why when Epcot, Disney Hollywood Studios or Disney Animal Kingdom celebrated an anniversary recently, the ceremony is limited to a budget-conscious 15 minutes with limited edition merchandise only available on that day.

However, guests were not fooled in 2005.They flocked to Disneyland and eagerly purchased anything with a Disneyland 50th logo. Even the media ignored the "global" celebration concept and concentrated on the half-century mark for Disneyland Park.

"The Happiest Homecoming on Earth" began on May 5, 2005 and ran through September 20, 2006. On May 5, there was a dedication by Disney CEO Michael Eisner followed by fireworks, speeches from Julie Andrews (who was the official ambassador for the 50th "celebrations around the world") and Art Linkletter. There was also a live video conference with celebrities at the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and the construction site of Hong Kong Disneyland.

The original attractions that opened with the park also had one of their ride vehicles painted gold for the celebration. Former Disneyland cast member and comedian Steve Martin opened the "Disneyland: The First 50 Magical Years" exhibition and film.

Disneyland debuted a new fireworks show called "Remember," saluting past and present "E ticket" attractions. A new parade called "Walt Disney' Parade of Dreams," featuring floats themed to Beauty and the Beast, Pinocchio, The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, and The Lion King.

Finally, Disney redecorated the exterior of Sleeping Beauty's Castle with tapestries, banners and crowns. Those are quite extensive additions for a park not celebrating its birthday.

The plans for Disneyland's 60th next year are still in somewhat a state of flux. No new attractions will debut, although Magic Bands might appear.

So the answer to the question "When is a Disneyland birthday not a Disneyland birthday?" According to current Disney Company policy the answer is "not since the turn of the century."

However, old fogey rebel that I am, I celebrated Disneyland's 59th birthday and fully intend to celebrate the 60th next year….and the dark force of Magic Bands will not deter me.



  1. By carolinakid

    I think it's just stupid that they will no longer celebrate each park's anniversary or birthday individually. I don't get the mentality.

  2. By josephbandrews

    They've been saying this for some time now, but its not exactly strictly enforced...We were at EPCOT during its 30th in 2011, and they still had a few celebrations going on despite this same rhetoric at the time.
    There was a number of guest speakers, a tribute at the American theater, and lots of merchandise to commemorate the time. People were waiting in long lines for pins and T-Shirts.

    By the time Nick and I got around to it, there was only 2 or 3 designs to choose from--not that I don't like the one I got.

    Hopefully it will continue for these more significant 10s of years, official or not.

  3. By currence

    My favorite part of the 40th birthday celebration was the $40 40-day pass, where you could go and collect a unique trading card each day for 40 days (with a bonus card for the opening of Indiana Jones on day 41.) I still have all the cards I collected during that time. One of my girlfriends had a limited annual pass, and opted to get the 40-day pass so that she could get all of the cards. I can only imagine what the crush of humanity would look like if Disneyland did that promotion - or one of the prize promotions - in today's annual passholder heavy environment.

    It's interesting that having so many passholders probably does affect how they celebrate birthdays and such. I can't imagine the gift-heavy promotions for the 30th and 35th being repeated today, but passholders are probably more willing that one-time visitors to buy merchandise commemorating "events" and it seems like Disney is leaving money on the table by not acknowledging them at all. I don't think this year's 59th Birthday needs to be any big deal, but 10s and 25s seem worthy of celebration - and an excuse for Disney to get folks to there parks without opening a whole new land.

  4. By Dave1313

    I was sort of wondering why I didn't see too much for animal Kingdom's 15th last year.

    I wasn't expecting it to be like a higher year for other parks (I was at DL 35th right after high school and thought it was really nice, didn't make it to the 50th DL celebration, wish I had), but I was just thinking like a tee shirt or special magnet sort of acknowledgement. Wasn't sure if it was my timing (was there in May) or something else. Maybe it was a combination of my timing and the official policy. I know I wasn't there too close to the actual AK opening day anniversary.

  5. By Tinker44

    My first trip to Disneyland happened to coincide with the 30th birthday celebrations, and while I do remember the "gift giving machine", I was too young and too awestruck to really understand. I was a much more worldly 14 year old the next time I returned and by chance, it was the 35th birthday celebration. I remember we got a LOT more in the way of merchandise! The silver buttons, the sweatshirts and I have a plush Mickey in this satiny outfit that is somewhere between a track suit and a disco outfit! I remember the Party Gras parade which was WONDERFUL! I can still remember the music! By that point, my family had decided that there was clearly something to this 5-year cycle, and we decided that it would be our new goal to be there for the Disney birthdays!!

    Fate intercepted us from returning for the 40th... and when I met my fiance, I told him in no uncertain terms that we were going to Disneyland sometime in 2000... no ifs ands or buts about it. Good thing he was as much of a Disney-nerd as I was! And so we made our trip a second Honeymoon and celebrated Disney's 45th! As we packed up that last evening of that trip, we had already agreed to return for the 50th, with kids or without, it didnt matter! And luckily, we DID return for the 50th, and we brought our 4.5 yr old Princess back with us! That Happiest Homecoming concept was probably the most brilliant thing I have ever seen Disney pull off! I still cry when I hear the soundtrack for "Remember... Dreams Come True". I cried when my daughter outgrew the shirt I bought her... but I laugh now because I thought ahead and bought a ladies x-small of the royal blue v-neck with the embroidered Mickey/Minnie on the chest (I had one in my size). So on our Disney days, my now-13 year old Princess and I wear matching 50th shirts!

    The Princess and I returned for Disney's 55th, and I was quite shocked at the utter lack of merchandise (then again, this was Dec 2010). It was almost like there was no acknowledgement of the birthday! I saw one hat with the 55th logo, and it was on someone's head, not in the shop. After reading the article above, now I understand why. (I don't like it, but I understand it). Having only ever visited during anniversary years, I thought that dated merchandise was saved for "special occasions". Since our trip in 2010, I have now learned that every year gets its own logo and special merchandise. I don't know when this practice started, but again, I do understand it! I loved the 2013 merchandise, but looking at the 2014 merchandise, it feels a bit "recycled". It will be interesting to see what they come up with for 2015, and if it will mention the 60th anniversary AS WELL.

  6. By brassplayer

    There was also a 24-hour party for Disneyland's 30th Birthday on July 17, 1985. That party still sets the "Gold Standard" of what a Disneyland party should be, IMO.

  7. By Jimbo996

    Sorry, Birthdays are celebrated for people. A park does not have birthdays. They have anniversaries.

    I am never excited to celebrate the "birthday" of an inanimate object.

  8. Discuss this article on MousePad.