Disneyland 1957: Sixty Years Ago Part One

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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When Disneyland opened in July 1955, it was incomplete. Tight deadlines and financial restrictions had prevented Walt Disney from doing everything he wanted but he realized that the park was a living entity that he could constantly change.

"The Park means a lot to me in that it's something that will never be finished," said Walt to writer Pete Martin in an interview June 1956 for the Saturday Evening Post.

"Something that I can keep developing, keep 'plussing' and adding to," he said. "It's alive. It will be a live breathing thing that will need changes. I wanted something that could grow. Not only can I add things but even the trees will keep growing. The thing will get more beautiful each year."

Almost immediately, Walt began adding things, as well as enhancing things that were already there. In 1956, he added 13 major new elements, including the Storybook Land Canal Boats, Rainbow Caverns Mine Train, the Skyway, Tom Sawyer Island, and more.

For 1957, he expanded with eight more major additions. Some of those things still exist today in some form while others have faded into fond memories.

It wasn't just new attractions that were introduced, but enhancements to existing things. For instance, 1957 saw the addition of two new rafts, the Becky Thatcher and the Injun Joe, to take guests to Tom Sawyer Island.

On the Jungle Cruise, Walt put in a couple of huge but stiff gorillas who moved their arms in a limited fashion like the other electro-mechanicals in the time before Audio-Animatronics, native dancers moved around a dance circle (originally built by Bob Mattey and then quickly re-built by Bob Gurr), a war party with upraised spears threatened from the underbrush and, famously, Trader Sam, the head salesman of the jungle ("He'll trade you two of his heads for one of yours."), made his first appearance.

Walt sought to include amenities for the guests, not just things that required spending more money, so the Baby Care Center opened off of Main Street U.S.A. to assist mothers with their infants. The location included a "Hopper" that looked like a combination of a sink and a toilet. Before disposable diapers, this device was used to wash and rinse soiled cloth diapers.

Early the next year, Ken-L-Land Pet Motel would open, as well, for guests to leave their pets in good care while they visited the park. The Tinker Bell Toy Shop opened in Fantasyland. The second Main Street U.S.A. Omnibus was put in operation to ferry an additional 35 guests. The first Christmas in Many Lands parade debuted that holiday season. Disneyland welcomed its 10-millionth guest, Leigh Woolfenden, on December 31, 1957. The first New Year's Eve Party was held in Disneyland, with 7,500 people attending.

An adult ticket book with admission and 10 attraction tickets was $3 (a $4.15 value). A child's ticket book was $1 cheaper. The attractions each required the appropriate ticket: "A" ticket ($0.10) "B" ticket ($0.25) "C" ticket ($0.35) and "D" ticket ($0.50).

Disneyland Hotel "in the heart of America's favorite playground" advertised that "a planned trip is a more pleasant trip" and offered single rooms from $10-$15. A suite would run $22-$25. While the Disneyland Hotel had a huge, distinctive marquee sign, Disneyland itself would not get a similar one until 1958.

With the growing popularity of the park, Walt was desperate to increase capacity so several well-loved attractions premiered although some of them were already considered temporary and only lasted a few years or at most a decade.

Viewliner

Walt had initially wanted a monorail in Tomorrowland, but neither the money nor technology existed to provide him that dream. Eventually, it would materialize in 1959 and become a historic icon.


Disneyland's Viewliner was the predicted future of train travel, although this attraction was only open for 15 months.

Walt had a keen awareness of anything new that was being developed and experimented. General Motors was promoting a new type of streamlined, lightweight train dubbed the Aerotrain that could average speeds of 100 miles an hour. It was hoped it would encourage travelers who were being lost to airlines and their own personal automobiles to return to train travel.

In 1956, one ran from New York City (and later Philadelphia) to Pittsburgh, while a second ran between Cleveland and Chicago and a third from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.

It seemed as if it would be the train of tomorrow, or at least of the immediate future. The Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad presented the old steam trains of the past but Disneyland's Viewliner (also sponsored by Santa Fe) was the predicted future of train travel.

The half-scaled version of the actual Aerotrain was done for Disneyland by Imagineer Bob Gurr who had ridden the Las Vegas to Los Angeles route. It was described as "a prototype interurban express train of the future."

The Viewliner consisted of an "engine," four coaches, and an observation coach at the rear. The Viewliners were designed, engineered, and assembled at the Disney Studios in Burbank.

Each of the coaches measured 16 feet, 10 inches in length, with a capacity of 32 passengers each, and weighed 1,980 pounds. The bodies were constructed out of aluminum on steel frames and had conventional railroad wheels that operated on a 30-inch gauge track. The Disneyland steam locomotives ran on a 36-inch gauge track.

There were two Viewliners: a red one that operated out of Tomorrowland (with the station about where the Monorail station would later be) and a blue one that operated out of Fantasyland (with the station near where the Matterhorn would later be built). They both manuevered around a track loop that at one point paralleled the steam trains. The Viewliners passed over the Motor Boat Cruise and glided by both the Tomorrowland Autopia and the Junior Autopia.

The names of the Fantasyland cars were Alice, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Bambi, and Tinker Bell. The names of the Tomorrowland cars were Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Mercury, and Saturn. One Imagineer joked that Walt should make a spare car named Pluto so it could be used on either train. The Viewliner cars were permanently coupled together so adding an additional one was impossible.

The engine was unique because it was a 1954 Oldsmobile 88 coupe. There was a 14-inch section in the center of the dashboard for a radio that had to be removed so that the chassis was not too wide for the track. That's why examining photos of the front of the train show a seam down the middle of the windshield.

It had a steering wheel (that Gurr moved over to the other side), automatic transmission, reverse gear, and brakes. It operated on gasoline and ran on a standard Oldsmobile Rocket V8 engine. The engine was 18 feet, 10 inches in length and weighed approximately 5,000 pounds.

On its opening day in June, electrical wiring shorted out and smoke billowed out from the front. Gurr had to pop open the front hood (since it was a car) to make adjustments so he and Walt could pilot the inagural run.

Walt, always the great storyman, had the two speedometers calibrated to the scale of the train so when it reached its top speed of 30 mph, the speedometers showed 120 mph.

The actual trains in use in major cities turned out not to gain favor with anyone (especially since the savings of using them were not passed on to the passengers) and eventually ceased operations.

The Disneyland attraction lasted only 15 months until September 30, 1958, and then disappeared to make room for construction of 1959's first three "E" Ticket attractions: the Submarine Voyage, the Matterhorn Bobsleds, and the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail. During its short career, the vehicles carried 1,452,870 guests and required a $0.25 "B" ticket.

Walt attempted to donate the vehicles to be used as parking lot trams for the new Dodger stadium and, when that offer was turned down, he suggested that they be used as a shuttle between the stadium and Griffith Park. That suggestion was also rejected. The two Viewliners were actually kept in a storage shed behind Fantasyland until the late 1970s when they were eventually scrapped. Animator Ollie Johnston took some of the railroad track home for his backyard railroad.

It was obvious that the design of the first blue and red monorails were directly inspired by the rocket-ship style of the Viewliner especially the coaches with their passenger door mechanisms and sidings that were virtually identical. The original monorail track before the extension to the Disneyland Hotel was roughly the same track area as the Viewliner.

Motor Boat Cruise

When Disneyland opened, it had a Tomorrowland Lagoon where the Tomorrowland Boats (later renamed the Phantom Boats) operated. The poorly designed fiberglass bodies resulted in the outboard motors overheating and stalling and eventually required a cast member as the captain. There were officially retired in the summer of 1956.

Walt saw that guests liked the idea of a boat ride and eventually came up with a fleet of motorboats from Arrow Development with the steering wheel in the center so everyone on the bench seat could have access to it. The wheel was basically non-functioning but in the early years could be moved slightly, sometimes resulting in the boat getting stuck because it had slid off its rail.

The boats were made out of mahogany plywood and painted white with one additional solid color of red, blue, green or yellow on the hull.

The attraction was on a pipe rail track, so there was no danger steering into the rocks or bridge pylons along the way. A gas pedal did not increase the speed but did produce a louder sound.

There was landscaping and a chance to glimpse some other operating attractions but no storyline and nothing unique to see. However, it was popular for children because "young skippers can pilot their own private yachts on a cruise through narrow straits and white water rapids with rock-filled currents". This attraction required a $0.25 "B" ticket and lasted for approximately 35 years.

Frontierland's Petrified Tree

By the edge of the Rivers of America, not far from the entrance to the Mark Twain Riverboat, is a plaque in Frontierland that states:

"Petrified Tree from Pike Petrified Forest, Colorado. This section weighs five tons and measures 7 ½ feet in diameter. The original tree, estimated to have been 200 feet tall was part of a sub-tropical forest 55 to 70 million years ago in what is now Colorado. Scientists believe it to be of the Redwood or Sequoia species.

"During some prehistoric era, a cataclysmic upheaval caused silica laden water to overspread the living forest. Wood cells were changed during the course of time to sandstone. Opals were formed within the tree trunk itself. Present to Disneyland by Mrs. Walt Disney September 1957."

The story that has been told for decades is that in 1956, for his 31st wedding anniversary, and while vacationing in Colorado, Walt purchased this fossilized tree stump as an anniversary gift for his wife, Lillian. When it was shipped to their home, Lillian found she did not care for the oddity and so gave it to Disneyland the following year because it "was too large for the mantle at home" the press was told.

Disneyland was preparing to open a merchandise shop called Mineral Hall in Frontierland in summer 1956 to display rare rocks and minerals, just like a museum, and to sell examples to guests. During that same summer, Walt vacationed with his wife in a hotel at the foot of Pikes Peak.

On the evening of July 11, 1956, Walt and Lillian visited Pike Petrified Forest, now part of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado. Lilly was much less interested in the experience and stayed in the car but Walt decided he wanted to buy "a small specimen." The price was $1,650 negotiated with Jack Baker who bought and sold fossils through his company Pike Petrified Forest Fossil.

Those petrified redwoods are estimated to have been 500 to 700 years old at the time they were buried by a volcanic mudflow from the Guffey volcanic complex located 15 to 20 miles away.

The tree was never sent to the Disney home or was Walt's actual wedding anniversary gift to Lillian. It was merely another of the many antique curiosities that Walt delighted in displaying in the park and the basis for a "good story" that made people smile.

The 10-foot-tall stump and 1 ton of small pieces of petrified stone were sent directly to Disneyland's Mineral Hall in late July-early August. The moving of the stump was left to B & R Construction Company of Colorado Springs.

A few months later, the Pike Petrified Forest Fossil company wrote to Walt to let him know that a whole petrified forest had now come available for purchase if Walt wanted to display it at Disneyland. Walt had other plans. One large tree stump was enough.

Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Thru

In those early years, Walt frequently visited Disneyland during the week specifically to talk with guests.

It was definitely clear that the guests wanted to go inside Sleeping Beauty Castle but the interior was nothing but a framework. As Imagineer Ken Anderson told me, "Walt came to me. Walt said, 'There's nothing in the castle, no room in the castle at all but I want you to look at things.' He wanted something in the castle and wanted me to come up with something."

To help explain the story of Disney's interpretation of the fairy tale Sleeping Beauty to the guests, to promote the upcoming Disney animated feature film, and to allow guests an opportunity to go inside the castle, a narrow walk-through series of dioramas of miniature scenes was designed by Anderson.

Since the film wasn't complete, some of those scenes bore no resemblance to the final film even though production art designer Eyvind Earle, responsible for the distinctive look of the film in production, himself did some of the artwork for the dioramas. Sadly, Earle's work was replaced when the exhibit was re-designed in 1977.

This "A"-ticket walking tour costing a dime took guests up narrow winding stairs in the dark to view miniature dioramas concentrating on key moments in the story. Illuminated manuscripts in leather bound volumes helped guests follow the storyline as they walked from one end of the castle to the other over the archway. There was music and sound effects including an "echo" effect at one point.

The dioramas were dimensional plywood cutouts that had some elements of movement. For instance, Maleficient had Diablo the Raven on her shoulders and his wings slowly flapped thanks to a small motor mechanism. It was very similar to the sets and figures in the original Fantasyland dark rides.

There were almost a dozen scenes including "Burning of every spinning wheel in the kingdom," a series of flats with a lighted burning effect down in the courtyard similar to an effect later used in Pirates of the Caribbean; "Three fairies watching over the little princess night and day," where the fairies would appear to float over the cradle using the "Pepper's Ghost" technique later used in the Haunted Mansion ballroom scene); "Meet Maleficient's demons," where the guest could peak through keyholes to see the goons (a last-minute addition since the original plans indicate that the guests at this point were to wander outside onto the rear balcony for a view of Fantasyland but that never happened); and "Love's First Kiss" (when the prince leaned over and kissed the cut out of Aurora she fluttered her eyelids and opened her eyes)

To fit in all of these scenes and more, interior space of the two Fantasyland shops on the ground floor of the castle were reduced and portions of their ceilings lowered to help accommodate the stairwells. Cast member access had to be redesigned since it was still necessary for special celebrations to have costumed cast members and trumpeters appear on the battlements for events.

Imagineer Dick Irvine told Imagineer Randy Bright that he felt the dioramas looked like department store window dressing but praised Anderson for "great illusions and beautiful sketches". At this time, Anderson was working on a proposal for the Haunted Mansion and incorporated some of those effects that he was researching into the displays.

The official dedication of the new walk-through took place on Sunday, April 29, 1957 at 3 p.m. with the Disneyland Band playing "When You Wish Upon a Star" in the courtyard. Walt escorted actress Shirley Temple Black through a pathway created by the band led by Vessey Walker to the entrance of the walk through.

Walt, of course, was there to give the dedication speech written by Jack Lindquist, who would later become the president of the park but at the time was involved in marketing.

The other person dedicating the new attraction was Mrs. Black, dressed as a princess wearing a gold crown and a floor length red velvet cloak, accompanied by her three children: oldest daughter Linda, son Charles Jr., and youngest daughter Lori. They stayed at the Disneyland Hotel and apparently enjoyed some time together at the park earlier that day before the dedication ceremony.

After Walt spoke to the crowd briefly, he introduced Black and she told the story of Sleeping Beauty. Then, with Walt, she cut the chest-high ribbon to open the attraction and went inside. Later, she waved to photographers and guests from the upper balcony.

To tie-in with the new attraction, Disney produced a lavishly illustrated $0.25 cent booklet telling the story of Sleeping Beauty that could be purchased at the park. Inside the booklet, Walt wrote, "We hope the magic spell of these scenes and sounds will revive in every beholder's heart some image of his own most precious dreams—the dreams from which all enduring fairytales are made."

This was the first time in Disney history that an attraction based on a film opened prior to the film's debut. The castle opened four years before the release of the film and the walk through two years before the film debuted.

Next time: Part Two returns to those thrilling days of 1957 Disneyland with a look at the Monsanto House of the Future, Frontierland Shooting Gallery, Midget Autopia, Don DeFore's Silver Banjo Restaurant, and more!

Comments

  1. By danyoung

    I really love reading about the early days of Disneyland. I'd always thought the "Lillian's birthday gift" story was true! Keep the good stuff coming, Jim!

  2. By Dave1313

    Very nice article!

    Ditto what Dan said on the petrified tree, I didn't know that legendary story about it being an anniversary or birthday gift wasn't true either.

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