Dell and Disneyland: When Disneyland Sold Comic Booksby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
As a kid, the very first Uncle Scrooge comic book that I ever bought and that introduced me to the storytelling skills of artist Carl Barks was purchased at Disneyland.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, and for many years after that, Disneyland had a small book store near the Emporium that sold not only Disney comic books, but other comic books that featured the Dell logo. That location no longer exists.
However, the story of why Walt allowed comic books to be sold in his theme park is an interesting look at the early history of Disneyland.
Disneyland, Inc. was incorporated in the State of California on December 16, 1952. At that time, Walt was considering building the park in Burbank, but the City Council would not approve the construction.
By 1954, Disneyland Inc. was a jointly owned venture of Walt Disney Productions, Western Publishing, Walt Disney himself, and the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) to build and manage the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California.
The investment pool consisted of 34.485 percent by ABC (at a cost of $500,000 and guaranteeing up to $4.5 million in bank loans), 34.48 percent by Walt Disney Productions ($500,000), 13.8 percent by Western Printing and Lithography Company ($200,000), and 16.55 percent by Walt Disney ($250,000).
As a provision for the joint ownership, Walt Disney Productions had the option to repurchase the shares of the other investors within seven years. With the initial success of the park, the company was able to buy back early the shares held by Walt Disney and Western Publishing.
By 1958, Walt Disney Productions reported a profit of $2.9 million, primarily attributable to its by then 65% interest in Disneyland, Inc. Additionally, Walt Disney Productions stock had grown to around $60 per share thanks to the profitability of the park.
In June 1960, Walt Disney Productions completed the repurchase of ABC's share of the company for nearly $7.5 million, and the theme park became a fully owned part of Walt Disney Productions.
While most Disney fans are familiar with ABC investing in Disneyland in order to have Walt produce a weekly television series for its network, few are knowledgeable about Western Publishing and why it invested in Walt’s dream.
Western Printing and Lithographing is often just referred to as Western Publishing and was based in Racine, Wisconsin. Western had a successful, long-standing relationship with Walt Disney Productions.
In 1933, Disney's legendary merchandising executive Kay Kamen signed the initial contract granting Western the license to exclusive book rights to all the Walt Disney characters for a series of children’s publications.
In 1937, Kamen negotiated for Western to take over the production and publication of the Mickey Mouse Magazine, a popular periodical.
That magazine evolved into the comic book Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories in October 1940. Western produced the material (writing, artwork and printing) for the comic book as well as other Disney comic books but that division was financed and the comics distributed by Dell Publishing, so the comic books are referred to as Dell comics by comic book collectors.
Besides Disney, Western licensed other animated cartoon character properties from other companies including Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Tom and Jerry) and Walter Lantz (Woody Woodpecker). In addition, Western had a line of comic books with Wild West themes including Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, and The Lone Ranger, as well as adaptations of current movies and television shows.
Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories was the highest selling comic book of its time, with a circulation of more than 3 million copies per month in 1953. Western paid Disney 1/4 of $0.01 for every issue printed, not sold.
In a special June 1954 ceremony, Walt Disney himself purchased the 2.5 billionth Dell comic for $0.10 cents. The 1955 output of Dell comics represented more than 50 percent of all comic books printed that year.
However, in 1954, a book titled Seduction of the Innocent by Dr. Fredric Wertham was released condemning comic books. A few weeks later, a United States Senate subcommittee opened a hearing in New York (the home of comic book publishers) on the reported connections between juvenile delinquency and comic books.
The end result was several comic book publishers going out of business and the surviving publishers forming the Comics Magazine Association of America that administered the Comics Code Authority that reviewed all comic books for objectionable material before publication.
Dell was one of three publishers that refused to be part of this organization. The other two publishers were EC and Gilbertson (Classics Illustrated). Dell created its own even higher standards that “eliminates entirely rather than regulates objectionable material.” The slogan “Dell Comics Are Good Comics” appeared in each Dell comic book.
Because of its long association with Disney, Western Publishing didn’t hesitate to invest $200,000 (a considerable figure in the mid-1950s) in Disneyland, Inc. giving them 13.8 percent of Walt’s new theme park.
Western considered it an outstanding partnership because in the process it provided the rights to unlimited merchandising potential of the Disneyland name for its own products as well as providing the benefit to Disneyland of using Western’s printing presses and expertise to produce high-quality press kits, guide maps, brochures, menus, premiums and much more for Walt's new park, with the added benefit of refreshing some of that material on a frequent basis.
In addition, Western ran the Story Book Shop, sometimes referred to as the Arcade Bookstore, on Main Street. It provided a “billboard” that Dell comics were tied directly to the family friendly wholesome world of Disney at a time when comic books were coming under heavy scrutiny and reduced sales.
It was a small space located in the Crystal Arcade just behind the Upjohn Pharmacy. There was an entry through the Emporium and also from West Center Street across from the Carnation Ice Cream Parlor and the Flower Mart.
The store had a huge assortment of Western-produced publications and when it came to comic books, it was not unusual to see the current issue of Tarzan or Gene Autry next to a copy of an adaptation of Lady and the Tramp.
Today, that location is considered an extension of the Emporium and is just another area with the usual Disney merchandise. In the early years, Disney comic books were also sold at the newsstand out by the ticket kiosks entrance.
As the opening of Disneyland drew near, Western Publishing's editors and artists readied items for release that July to be available not only in the park, but in newsstands, drug stores and book shops across the country.
Western produced coloring books, sticker books, Little Golden Books, story books, and more that related to Disneyland. In addition, they also did specialty material like the mini-comic “Adventures in Disneyland,” about a family visiting the park from outer space, for Richfield Oil who were one of the original sponsors of attractions like the Autopia ride in Tomorrowland.
The regular newsstand Dell comic books showcased a “Win a Trip to Disneyland” contest for several months not only to promote the park but to get demographic information from its young readers.
Between 1955 and 1960 Dell produced ten giant-sized Disneyland comic books containing hundreds of pages of new, original content. By 1960, the Disney Company had reacquired Western’s shares in the park so there was no longer a priority to aggressively promote Disneyland and to pull off writers and artists from regular titles to do Disneyland specific titles.
The 10 giant-sized issues were Donald Duck in Disneyland No. 1 (1955), Mickey Mouse in Frontierland No. 1 (1956), Mickey Mouse in Fantasyland No. 1 (1957), Uncle Scrooge Goes to Disneyland No. 1 (1957), Walt Disney’s Christmas in Disneyland No. 1 (1957), Donald and Mickey in Disneyland No. 1 (1958), Walt Disney’s Vacation in Disneyland No. 1 (1958), Disneyland Birthday Party No. 1 (1958), Walt Disney’s Vacation in Disneyland Dell Four Color 1025 (1959, only 36 pages), Walt Disney’s Disneyland U.S.A. (1960).
Through its Whitman line, Western continued to create coloring, story and activity books and puzzles featuring Disneyland.
The first Dell Giant was titled Donald Duck in Disneyland and was available for sale at the park on opening day, even though its official on sale date was July 19, two days after the press preview.
Of course, since the book had to be produced at least three months before July, the artists only had concept sketches and maps to use as reference of the park so several things depicted are not as accurate as they might be (such as attractions that didn't exist yet).
It had a cover painting of Donald Duck riding on a magic carpet photographing Disneyland from overhead. The back cover is a painting of Mickey, Goofy, Huey, Dewey, and Louie riding on Dumbo (holding a “D” flag with his trunk) high over Disneyland where they can see the castle, the TWA monorail, the Autopia, the Jungle Cruise and part of the Mark Twain steamboat.
Artwork in the comic book was drawn by Tony Strobl and Al Hubbard.
Inside front cover of “Welcome to Disneyland” is a picture of Donald pointing to a map featuring Tinker Bell and the layout of Disneyland with a listing at the bottom. “Let Donald point out some of the wonderful things to see and do at Disneyland, kids. He’s numbered each one so you’ll know just where to look.”
Four pages of Donald and Daisy Duck, Huey, Dewey and Louie, Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Goofy, Grandma Duck and Uncle Scrooge arriving at Disneyland to meet a special blue-suited and capped guide wearing a black tie and looking like a bus driver tour guide who tells them that “[Walt Disney] thought you should have a special preview of the park before it officially opens. You’ve got the whole place to yourselves.”
Mickey decides since they all want to see something different that they should break up into separate groups and go to the different areas and then meet back up at the end of the day.
Donald and Daisy board the Congo Queen Jungle Cruise boat and Donald recounts an African adventure he had in the Belgian Congo with Uncle Scrooge and his nephews. However, Daisy is so entranced by all the sights to see on the attraction that a disappointed Donald discovers as they end the ride that she was not paying any attention to his tale.
Grandma Duck and Huey, Dewey, and Louie visit Frontierland where they find a picture of Davy Crockett hanging in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon. Grandma tells the boys about how Davy Crockett fought Big Foot Mason and his two cronies who were stealing land from the Indians. As she starts to tell the story, the artwork becomes more realistic and is done by Jesse Marsh who was doing the Crockett stories in the other Dell comic books.
Goofy, Minnie Mouse, and Pluto go to Fantasyland and ride the Mad Tea Cup ride, Dumbo, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, and then finally hook up with Jiminy Cricket who takes them on the Snow White attraction. Unfortunately, Goofy and Pluto get lost on the ride and end up in Wonderland where they anger both the Red Queen and the Old Witch from Snow White, but thanks to help from Peter Pan and Tinker Bell, Goofy, Pluto, and Jiminy safely rejoin Minnie on the ride by the end of the story.
While on Peter Pan’s Flight, Minnie assures Pluto that “Just remember…in Disneyland no matter how exciting and thrilling everything is…it’s always perfectly safe!”
Mickey Mouse and his nephews Morty and Ferdy go to Tomorrowland and board the Rocket to the Moon. The nephews got up so early because they were anxious to go to Disneyland that they are very tired. They drift off for a short nap and dream that they and Mickey accompanied by inventor Gyro Gearloose all go to the moon for real and foul a dastardly scheme of Pete.
Uncle Scrooge is missing all day because he was searching for a dime he lost in the Hub, but he still had a good time because he not only found the dime but also a nickel and two pennies.
At the end of the comic book, they all have only one question for the guide who is still back at the train station: “What time does it open tomorrow morning?”
There were also nine pages devoted to puzzles, activities, and games in the back of the book, a common practice in the Dell Giants.
Western also released in 1955 a Little Golden Book titled Donald Duck in Disneyland about Donald taking his over-eager nephews to tour the park. Story was by Annie North Bedford and illustrations by Campbell Grant.
The cessation of Dell Disneyland comic books in 1961 was probably related to the fact that Walt Disney Productions had bought out Western Publishing’s share of the park.
Western used those significant profits to break off from Dell Publishing and start their own imprint called Gold Key. While Gold Key still published Disney related comic books, they were not Disneyland related except for one comic featuring earlier reprint material. That book celebrated Disneyland’s Tencennial anniversary in 1965.
The following list are the Disney Dell comic books most likely sold at Disneyland from July 1955-January 1956:
Regular Dell comic books
These comics cost $0.10 each and were 32 pages long.
- Mickey Mouse Nos. 2, 43, 44, 45
- Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories Nos. 179, 180, 181, 182, 183, 184, 185
- Walt Disney’s Donald Duck Nos. 43, 44, 45
- Walt Disney’s Uncle Scrooge Nos. 11, 12
- Walt Disney’s Chip’n’Dale No. 44
- Dell Junior Treasury No. 1 (Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, $0.15, 48 pages)
Cost $0.25 cents and were 96 pages. Those pages also included games, cutouts, and puzzles.
- Walt Disney’s Donald Duck in Disneyland No. 1
- Mickey Mouse Club Parade No. 1
- Walt Disney’s Christmas Parade No. 7
- Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies No. 6
- Lady and the Tramp No. 1
Dell had a series called “Four Color” where each issue featured a different one-shot series. If sales warranted it, these characters were later given their own continuing series. This series was also used for comic books that did adaptations of television shows and feature film movies. These comic books cost a dime and were 36 pages long.
- Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett King of the Wild Frontier No. 1
- Walt Disney’s Duck Album No. 649
- Walt Disney’s Pluto No. 654
- Walt Disney’s Goofy No. 658
- Walt Disney’s Daisy Duck Diary No. 659
- Walt Disney’s Davy Crockett in the Great Keelboat Race No. 664
- Walt Disney’s Dumbo No. 668
- Walt Disney’s Robin Hood No. 669 (live-action feature film)
- Walt Disney’s When Knighthood Was in Flower No. 682 (an adaptation of the 1953 Disney live action film The Sword and the Rose, which would air in 1956 on the weekly television show)
In addition to Disney comic books, Disneyland sold a variety of other Dell comic books including characters that were the property of Disneyland hotel owner Jack Wrather: The Lone Ranger, Lassie, and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. All of these characters were currently in television series and made public appearances at Disneyland as well.
Other comic books that were at the bookstore included issues of I Love Lucy, Rex Allen, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Annie Oakley, Rin Tin Tin, Tarzan, Little Lulu and cartoon characters from Warner Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Walter Lantz, as well as a host of Wild West related titles.
Dell Comics Distinguished Achievement Award 1956 was presented to Walt Disney on January 15, 1957 “in appreciation of his continuous and significant contributions in combining so successfully the fields of entertainment and education for American youth.” Among those Disney comic books that specifically combined entertainment and education were Man in Space and The Nature of Things.
That plaque is on prominent display today in the lobby of the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco as a reminder of the time when Dell was part of early Disneyland.