The Real Story of the Mickey Mouse Park

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I recently wrote a book called Disney Never Lands: Things Disney Never Made that details theme parks, lands in the parks, television shows and animated films that Disney announced but never made.

As you probably suspect, for every project Disney actually did, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of others that were developed but never finished. I have written about some of them here in previous MousePlanet columns.

Today, I am including a story I wasn't able to include in the book because of lack of space but that I feel should be shared.

Mickey Mouse Park is often cited as a short footnote in the creation of Disneyland with the implication that it was just a brief, insignificant flirtation by Walt Disney.

It wasn't.

Walt was intensely serious about creating the amusement venue across the street from his Disney Studio in Burbank and developed many ideas and hired several people that would later be vital in the building of the Happiest Place on Earth in Anaheim.

In 1911, Walt's parents moved the family to Kansas City, Missouri, that had the amusement park called Electric Park, located about 15 blocks north of the Disney home, and Walt often walked there and looked through the fence. Sometimes with his best friend, he would crawl under the fence to get in and walk around.

Electric Park was illuminated at night by 100,000 lights. A train ringed the park and there were daily fireworks at closing time. There was a wide variety of entertainments from concerts, alligator farm, penny arcade, scenic railway, boats, circle swing, shooting gallery, carousel, fortune telling booths and more.

A decade later, when he was operating the Laugh-o-gram Studio in Kansas City, he told animator Rudy Ising, "One of these days I am going to build an amusement park—and it's going to be clean!"

Many of the plans for the Mickey Mouse Park were later incorporated into Anaheim's Disneyland.

Walt Disney again mentioned the possibility of his seriously building a small amusement park at the premiere of the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at Los Angeles' Carthay Circle Theater in December 1937.

For publicity purposes, during the movie's run at the theater, a small "Snow White Island" approximately 900 feet long, had been built in the median of a nearby street. It featured a mill wheel, a diamond mine, a wishing well, a forest, and a cottage all inspired by the popular film with small actors costumed like the Seven Dwarfs going about their tasks.

Walt told animator Wilfred Jackson that one day he would like to build an amusement park with the same small proportions for children to enjoy. In 1940, Walt told director Ben Sharpsteen about wanting to create some type of amusement venue for visitors to his animation studio where they could meet "Disney characters in their fantasy surroundings".

World War II delayed any further discussion of the project, but it didn't stop Walt from thinking about it.

For more than a decade, Walt studied other entertainment venues, from Knott's Berry Farm to the Los Angeles County Fair to even many smaller areas, like Dave Bradley's Beverly Park, with rides designed primarily for children where he sometimes took his two young daughters.

After World War II, tourism to California began increasing, with studies showing that the top three things tourists wanted to do were put a foot in the Pacific Ocean, pick an orange and visit a movie studio.

"You know, it's a shame people come to Hollywood and find there's nothing to see," Walt Disney said to animator Ward Kimball. "Even the people who come to the [Disney] Studio. What do they see? A bunch of guys bending over drawings. Wouldn't it be nice if people could come to Hollywood and see something?"

After a summer 1948 visit with Kimball to the Chicago Railroad Fair, followed by a stop at Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan, Walt had more thoughts about building some type of amusement area at the Disney Studio in Burbank.

At first, he had thought of using the two and half acres of land at the studio that was designated to be used for storage. He kept visiting the space for roughly two months to see if it could be utilized. He pictured a playground that would have things that didn't necessarily exist at nearby Griffith Park.

Walt wrote a memo dated August 31, 1948 to Disney Studio production designer Dick Kelsey with his ideas for a concept for a "Mickey Mouse Park."

Walt had deliberately selected the name not just because of the popularity of Mickey Mouse. The name suggested that it would be a welcoming place for children and families with all the elements associated with the Mickey Mouse brand and that unlike other outdoor entertainment venues, there would be a lot of well-kept greenery like nearby Griffith Park.

Walt wrote:

"The Main Village, which includes the Railroad Station, is built around a village green or informal park. In the park will be benches, a bandstand, drinking fountain, trees and shrubs. It will be a place for people to sit and rest…mothers and grandmothers can watch over small children at play. I want it to be very relaxing, cool and inviting.

"Around the park will be built the town. At one end will be the Railroad Station…at the other end…the Town Hall. The Hall will be built to represent a Town Hall, but actually we will use it as our administration building. It will be the headquarters of the entire project. Adjoining the Town Hall will be the Fire and Police Stations. The Fire Station will contain practical fire apparatus…scaled down.

"The Police Station will be put to practical use. Here the visitors will report all violations…lost articles…lost kids, etc. In it we could have a little jail where the kids could look in. We might even have some characters in it."

That memorandum also listed these following ideas that Walt had for additional things: a drugstore with a soda fountain; an opera house and movie theater; toy, book, hobby, doll and children's clothing shops; a doll hospital and toy repair shop; a candy factory and, next to it, a store selling old-fashioned candy; a magic shop; a store selling dollhouse furniture; ice cream and hot dog stands; a restaurant featuring rooms for birthday parties; a functioning post office; a horse-drawn streetcar; a general store; a pony ring; a donkey pack train; a stage coach; a singing waterfall and statues of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and other famous Disney animated characters.

Later, Walt even seriously considered including his backyard home miniature railroad known as the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. At first, he thought of having it traveling through the studio backlot sound stages and then decided to include it in his Mickey Mouse Park.

Imagineer John Hench recalled:

"I lived on Riverside Drive in Burbank in the 1940s, quite near the studio. I remember several Sundays seeing Walt across the street in a weed-filled lot, standing, visualizing, all by himself. He was stepping off something, measuring the space. He had a paper in his hand and I thought that was where he was going to put his park.

"We had heard rumors about a park at the studio and I thought, 'well, that's where it is going to be'. I think he really thought he could get it all in there but when you knew Walt you knew the idea wouldn't stay that small. The longer Walt thought about the park, the more ideas he got, and suddenly the weed-filled lot wasn't big enough. "

Hench saw Walt constantly crouching down so he could see from the perspective of an average child where things should be located.

"His conversations about it at home became so sweeping that I didn't take it seriously anymore," said Walt's oldest daughter Diane Disney Miller.

Animator Milt Kahl remembered, "Every time you had a meeting with Walt on something else, why the park would come up."

Walt was focused on the 16 acres of land across the street from the studio that the Disney Studio owned. Mickey Mouse Park would have been located approximately where the sorcerer hat-shaped Disney Feature Animation Building and ABC Studios building is located today.

In December 1951, Walt contacted the Burbank city manager about the possibility of, according to the Park and Recreation board minutes, building "an eight-mile railroad in Griffith Park with a terminal point" to be on that 16 acres of land. Walt's vision was that the train would connect with the Griffith Park carousel with the track following alongside a golf course where Walt would build "a chain link fence to make sure people in the train don't get hit by golf balls".

The board considered this plan favorably, so Walt continued to develop his idea for a Mickey Mouse Park. But financing such a venture proved to be a challenge.

His older brother Roy was not just disinterested but actively opposed to the idea. He wrote a letter stating, "Walt does a lot of talking about an amusement park but I think he's more interested in ideas that would be good in an amusement park than in actually running one himself."

The Disney Studio was still struggling with debt after the end of World War II and Roy suggested putting the idea aside for a few years. Walt still continued although he realized he would need to find financing outside of the studio he had built.

Walt thought of perhaps building a soundstage disguised as an opera house or theater as part of the park to do live television broadcasts to help offset the costs. When not broadcasting, live shows would be performed or cartoons screened.

Feeling that he might somehow be able to find the financing, he hired Charlie Luckman and Bill Pereira, who had an architectural firm and were in the process of designing Marineland of the Pacific that would open in 1954. They told Walt that the space he had picked was much too small, but Walt felt, with proper planning, that it could be worked out and urged them to try.

For a month, the firm worked out a preliminary concept where seven acres would be used for the park with the rest of the acreage necessary for parking. Walt told them that was not enough and he would find parking elsewhere and to expand the area for the park.

The final version showed the placement of buildings, water, sewer and electrical lines among other things. The firm did point out that there should be only one entrance to the park.

Disappointed by the lack of magic in the plan, Walt decided to hand the assignment to his own studio artists. Dick Irvine was originally brought in to serve as a liaison with the architectural firm but he also researched ride manufacturers. Harper Goff who was hired in 1951 came up with a detailed aerial view in full color. Walt sent Jack Cutting to look for a suitable antique carousel in Europe to purchase.

Bordering the L.A. Flood Control Channel used for the Los Angeles River on one side and Riverside Drive on the other, the entrance would have been at the crossroads of Riverside Drive and South Buena Vista Street, where the administration and maintenance buildings would be built.

The park would have a large, oval, man-made lagoon with a long, thin island in the center that would house a wild bird sanctuary. A scaled down version of a Mississippi Riverboat would dock at a boat house at one end of the lagoon and would cruise around the island. Skull Rock from Disney's Peter Pan would be at the far end and further around the bend would be a lighthouse.

In addition, there would be a picnic area, turn-of-the-century town square with shops, a small carousel, space for a carnival or fairgrounds, a scaled down steam train with its turn-of-the-century depot, horse drawn street cars, surreys and buckboards that would take guests from the Town Square out to Granny's farm, a Riverside Café, a space ship mock up, a submarine and more.

At the far end of the property would be Granny Kincaid's Farm (from the 1948 Disney live action film So Dear to My Heart) that would have livestock, a stagecoach attraction that would pass by an Indian village, a flow canal boat attraction through a Lilliputian Land, and a creek with a covered bridge.

Nearby would be a vintage Western town with shops and an old mill with a mill pond. Walt later added plans for a possible donkey ride on the same stagecoach trail and perhaps a frontier museum. Obviously, the popular Knott's Berry Farm was a primary inspiration for this area.

Penciled in the margin of the aerial view was a circled notation for a castle. Other sketches for the park included a haunted house, a petting zoo, a museum displaying Walt's miniature collection and perhaps the scenes intended for the Disneylandia concept as well as even a small child-friendly roller coaster over a broken bridge that was inspired by The Little Dipper coaster at Beverly Park where a parent and a child could ride together over gentle curves.

Walt placed stakes in the ground to mark where the paths and buildings would be located for the Mickey Mouse Park. The turn-of-the century Town Square and Western village and farm were important to Walt because as he said, "I don't want to just entertain kids with pony rides and swings. I want them to learn something about their heritage."

As his ideas continued to expand, Walt hoped that 10 acres of land directly to the north of his property and another 10 directly to the south that were both owned by the city might be leased to him at a modest price. After all, the park would increase tax revenues and the prestige of having a Disney outdoor attraction would certainly benefit the city in other ways as well. However, that land usage had to be approved by the Burbank City Council.

On March 27, 1952, in the Burbank Daily Review newspaper, it was revealed in a front page headline for the first time to the general public that "Walt Disney Make-Believe Land Project Planned Here".

Architect John Cowles had done some architectural drawings based on Goff's ideas and storyman Don DaGradi had also made some sketches for the project. Marvin Davis had made some gradation layouts as he would later do for Disneyland and Walt Disney World. The venue was now called "Disneyland," a shortened version of Walt's "Disneylandia" project that he was abandoning.

The article mentioned the park would have "various scenes of Americana, rides in a Space Ship and submarine, a zoo of miniature animals and exhibit halls" and would cost $1.5 million to build.

According to the article, "Designed primarily for children, Disneyland is not intended as a commercial venture, park board members (Burbank City Board of Parks and Recreations) have been assured. The facilities are to be 'instantly available' for youth groups, Parent-Teacher Associations and other organizations devoted to civic and social welfare.

"The development Disney said, 'will focus a new interest upon Burbank, Los Angeles and Southern California through the medium of television and other exploitation. It will give meaning to the pleasure of children and pleasure to the experience of adults'. A complete television center with theater, stages, sets and technical equipment are planned. Disneyland and its activities will be transmitted throughout the country."

The Parks and Recreation board helped Walt and his team prepare the proposal for the City Council. They also pressured on Disney's behalf the city of Los Angeles to approve lease terms for Walt's proposed miniature railroad to go through Griffith Park to the carousel.

Los Angeles agreed to lease the land for the railroad at $1,000 per month, but were willing to reduce that rate if Disney made some additions of new trees and landscaping along the proposed route.

In September 1952, the Burbank City Council rejected Walt's proposal. It had expanded significantly from just a miniature railroad and a few rides into a full-scale amusement facility.

As Walt told the council, "A word may be said in regard to the concept and conduct of Disneyland's operational tone. Although various sections will have the fun and flavor of a carnival or amusement park, there will be none of the pitches, games, wheels, sharp practices and devices designed to milk the visitor's pocketbook. No roller coasters of other rides in the cheap thrill category."

The council feared it would indeed be just another noisy carnival attracting the wrong type of people and behavior. At the time, kiddie parks were small, unkempt and crude and larger amusement parks like Coney Island had been neglected during the war and had become seedy spots inhabited by vagrants, pickpockets, prostitutes, drug dealers and worse.

Walt had requested the meeting to pitch his idea and to explain how it would be different than those other amusement parks. Illustrations were presented on an easel as Walt explained how child friendly and clean the location would be and would also educate children about their national heritage.

He emphasized that he intended the enterprise to just make a small profit to maintain and improve the project and that it was not designed to be a sizable money-making operation.

That was true. Walt was more interested in having his dream realized than in establishing a major source of new income.

However, Walt felt that the council had somehow been poisoned on the whole idea, maybe even by some people at his own studio. Goff who also attended the meeting remembered that some of the councilmen seemed to sneer at them.

A councilman stood up and looked at Walt and said, "We don't want a carny atmosphere in Burbank. We don't want people falling in the river, or merry-go-rounds squawking all day long."

Instead of arguing, Walt with Goff quietly packed up their presentation materials and left the room. In the dark, Walt drove home.

Without the additional 20 acres supervised by the council, there would not be enough room for Walt's attractions and parking. Some of that land Walt needed became part of the Ventura Freeway. Walt had spent tens of thousands of dollars developing the park.

Walt was not defeated because, as Hench had surmised, Walt's dreams had gotten much larger than the small acreage across the street from the studio. If nothing else, the project had convinced Roy that Walt was deadly serious about building an amusement venue and that a larger piece of less expensive land might be the solution.

Many of the plans for the Mickey Mouse Park were later incorporated into Anaheim's Disneyland, and a new form of entertainment was created.