Roy E. Disney Remembers Disneyland

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I was living in the Los Angeles area when Disneyland celebrated its 30th birthday in grand style. The party was such a success that Disney devised an even more elaborate celebration just five years later for the 35th.

At one minute after midnight on July 17, 1985 , Disneyland opened for a 24-hour party to celebrate the official 30th birthday of the park. Although the park celebrated the anniversary all year with special events and $12 million in giveaways, that Wednesday was the actual day Disneyland opened three decades earlier.

One amusement industry consultant interviewed by the Los Angeles Times newspaper called it "the most successful promotion in the history of the theme park business."

There was a special admission price of $30 for the entire 24 hours, with thousands of guests buying the special event tickets through Ticketmaster. Regular guests paid $16.50 for the regular operating hours.

During the special late-night celebration, each guest received a meal ticket good for a Breakfast Brunch at multiple locations.

In addition, the special event ticket holders received a limited edition lithograph poster of Mickey and Minnie in front of the castle by legendary artist Charles Boyer (24,000 were printed) "this beautiful poster is a perfect keepsake of our historic occasion."

Also, there was evening-long entertainment in the form of rock bands (Animotion, Sister Sledge, Papa Doo Run Run, Krash, Gazette) at different locations, and a special 4 a.m. Main Street Electrical Parade down Main Street.

Disney spokesman Bob Roth told the press that the usual clean-up of Disneyland that takes place between midnight and sunrise will be squeezed into a half-hour period between 11:30 p.m. and midnight on Tuesday night.

"We'll do as much as we can," Roth said. "Thirty is a turning point in a person's life. Now that we're [Disneyland] 30, people want to see if this place is still wild and fun like it's supposed to be."

Without adding a single new attraction, Disneyland enjoyed its all-time best year up to that point.

Disneyland spent more than a year carefully plotting the celebration and reaped the benefits in the form of record breaking attendance that reached roughly 12 million guests.

"You've gotta give them credit," said Steve Clark, president of Management Resources Inc., a Tustin, California consulting firm. "This whole year, Disneyland has been right on the button from a marketing standpoint."

Since the beginning of the 1985 year, Disneyland gave away more than 200 cars (40 percent of which had been won by people too young to drive), 2,000 watches, 20,000 stuffed animals and 200,000 admission tickets, according to Roth.

Even Disneyland's local competitor, Knott's Berry Farm, marveled at those numbers.

"I don't think that any park has ever given away the kind of prizes that Disney has this summer," said Jim Hardiman, a Knott's spokesman.

At 2:30 p.m., the park was rededicated in a ceremony that culminated with 30,000 balloons released, while, overhead, planes skywrote "Happy 30th Birthday."

In 1985, Roy Edward Disney was vice chairman of the Board of Directors of Walt Disney Productions, and headed the studio's animation department. He was the son of Roy O. Disney, Walt's older brother.

Michael Eisner and Frank G. Wells had just come on board as the new management team for Disney and the future looked bright. Some of that optimism was indeed reflected in Disneyland's 30th Anniversary celebration.

Someone in the Disney publicity department thought it would be nice to have Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney, share some of his memories of Disneyland and its early years.

Working with writer Sal Manna from TIME Inc., Roy crafted the following essay to be used to drum up attention to the celebration. It has never been reprinted and was seen by a limited audience in 1985.

Most Disney fans today are also unfamiliar with this essay titled "Growing Up With Disneyland: 30 Years of Magic" that got lost in all the other promotional material.

So much has been written about Disneyland over the decades that it is often difficult to find something new or a new perspective. To celebrate Disneyland's 59th anniversary this month, I want to share Roy's original essay, and maybe future writers will find some quotes or insights that they will be able to use.

I will say there are a couple of things in here that I had never heard before, from Roy Patrick Disney getting lost on Tom Sawyer's Island to Don DaGradi's impromptu design of the Disneyland Band uniforms.

So here is how Roy E. Disney remembered Disneyland 29 years ago:

"While Walt Disney became known as Uncle Walt to generations of children, I was the only person for whom he really was Uncle Walt. Just like everyone else, though, I've always regarded Disneyland as the Magic Kingdom.

"As an ocean racing sailor, I know that often the greatest adventures don't start off very well. That was true of Disneyland. Opening day was a disaster. Walt called it Black Sunday. Cars were bumper-to-bumper for seven miles on the freeway. The asphalt was still soft on Main Street and the spiked heels of women's shoes would sink into it. Paint was wet. Workmen were still planting trees. Rides broke down. Restaurants ran out of food.

"We didn't know how to handle such a huge crowd. The lines for each ride were so long they snaked around and crossed with other ride lines. And it was awfully hot—close to 100 degrees.

"Opening Day's crowd of 28,154 was joined by a television audience of 90 million for a live show emceed by Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings and an actor named Ronald Reagan.

"My father bought the first ticket to Disneyland, for $1. After only seven weeks, the millionth visitor passed through Disneyland's gates. This year we will host our 250 millionth guest.

"A great deal of what happened in those early days came into being rather haphazardly.

"About two weeks before Disneyland's opening, Walt was walking down a hall and suddenly stopped one of his artists, Don DaGradi.

"'What do band uniforms look like?' he asked.

"Don said, 'I don't know. I guess something like this.' He pulled out a piece of paper and drew a figure with epaulets on the shoulder and stripes down the pants.

"Walt grabbed the sketch and ran. Opening Day, Don stood on Main Street, U.S.A. watching the Disneyland Band marching down the street—in exactly the same uniforms he had sketched.

"I expected Disneyland to be wonderful and it was, once the bugs had been worked out. There were just an incredible number of incredible problems.

"On Opening Day, Walt promised, 'The park will continue to grow, to add new things as long as there is imagination left in the world.' And that's what we're doing. For instance, Disney has agreed to develop a ride with Star Wars director George Lucas. At this point, we don't have any idea what it may involve, but teaming with Lucas is a natural. We're all interested in fantasy.

"At the opening, there were 18 attractions, compared with 55 today. Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland and Main Street, U.S.A were in place. Visitors went on the Jungle Cruise; the King Arthur Carousel; and the Stage Coaches, Mule Packs and Conestoga Wagons.

"There have been a lot of changes over these 30 years. For me, the debut of the Monorail in 1959 was really exciting. Walt's notion was to develop a genuine urban transportation system. He sincerely hoped to do something beyond entertaining, by experimenting with useful things. That impulse, of course, was where many of the ideas for Epcot, in Florida, came from.

"Perhaps the place where most changes have occurred, appropriately, is Tomorrowland. Originally, the area was supposed to illustrate what life would be like in 1986, the year of the next passage of Haley's Comet. There was a 76-foot rocket to the moon and a space station. That had to change after, in fact, man did reach the moon. Now, there's a Mission to Mars at Disneyland.

"Disneyland isn't the only Disney celebrating a 30th anniversary this year (1985). Thirty years ago, I proposed to my wife, Patty, on the maiden voyage of the Mark Twain paddlewheel steamboat in Frontierland. It was just a few days before Disneyland officially opened. So, like many families, some of the happiest moments of our lives are associated with Disneyland.

"Thirty seems to be a magic number at Disneyland. We were at the park one Wednesday, July 1955, for a party my Uncle Walt and his wife, Lillian, were throwing for their 30th anniversary. That night, the only rides operating were the Disneyland Railroad train. Uncle Walt loved trains, so he even had a working scale model in the backyard of his house.

"After dinner at the Golden Horseshoe, we saw the very first revue, with the Can-Can girls and Pecos Bill. The Golden Horseshoe now holds the Guinness Book of World Records as the longest running stage show ever, with over 42,500 performances –and we were there for the very first.

"Disneyland is a place to get away from it all. To tell the truth, even though I'm a Disney, my family is just like your family when we go to Disneyland. Well, almost.

"Many years ago, our son Roy Patrick got lost on Tom Sawyer's Island. We couldn't find him in the caves or anywhere else for about 20 minutes. Finally, a security guard reunited us and smirking said, 'He's been telling us his name's Disney.'

"'That's right, it is,' we told him. He wouldn't believe it.

"My cousin Diane tells a story about how, one day when she was just a child, she looked up at her father and exclaimed, 'You're Walt Disney!' She hadn't realized until that moment that he was the Walt Disney people were talking about.

"Disney is a good name to live up to. I grew up watching Snow White, Pinocchio, Bambi and Cinderella come into being. My mother was inking Mickey Mouse while she was pregnant with me!

"One of my earliest memories, as a kid, was getting the 'You must've posed for Goofy' line. But I must say, I'm more in awe of the name now and understand better what wonderful things it means to people all over the world—especially children.

"Disneyland exists because of how Walt Disney felt about families. Saturday was Daddy's Day for Walt's two daughters, Sharon and Diane. He'd take them to the merry-go-round in Griffith Park and sit on the bench eating peanuts. Eventually, he got tired of the sleaziness of carnivals and decided that there should be a place where parents and children could be together and have a good time.

"At first, he imagined two acres next to the studio in Burbank, with singing waterfalls and life-size statues of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and other characters.

"But the idea grew too big, and Walt and my father finally found the land in Anaheim. I was familiar with the property because, when I was in college in Pomona, my friend and I would drive right by it on our way to the beach. It was just an orange grove with a few acres of walnut trees. All flat land. I remember remarking that it was a rather long way from town, but my father assured me there'd be a freeway there soon.

"Nobody, except perhaps Walt, thought Disneyland would be as successful as it became. He had sold his vacation home in Palm Springs and borrowed against his life insurance policy to help finance it. It cost $17 million initially, but Walt Disney Productions' revenues were only $11 million.

"Sure, my father worried, but he knew that Walt had a great sense of what the public wanted. That was always true, whether you talk about the 1930s or the 1960s. Remember, these two brothers started the studios on $40 and a cartoon mouse.

"I was 25 years old when Disneyland opened, so my children really grew up around the place. Patty and I have four children—Roy Patrick, Susan, Abigail and Timothy—all in their 20s now. We took Roy Patrick to Disneyland before he could walk. And now that Roy Patrick and his wife have just had their first child, I'm looking forward to taking my first grandchild there.

"Walt wanted Disneyland to be 'a happy place where adults and children can together experience some of the wonders of life, of adventure, and feel better because of it.'

"I remember he used to walk around the park in the early mornings, before it'd open. I've occasionally wandered around when Disneyland is closed, too. The marquees aren't working and the park is empty. It's eerie. After all, it's the people that make Disneyland 'the happiest place on earth.'

"I can't help but be happy when I think about people leaving Disneyland with smiles on their faces. That's what it's been about, these last 30 years."