Happy Anniversary Disneyland!by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
Disneyland's anniversary is coming up on July 17, but have we been celebrating the wrong day for decades?
Disney is notorious for making mistakes from calling Mary Oceaneer's parrot Duncan at Typhoon Lagoon instead of Salty as he is known on the Disney Cruise Line, claiming that Medfield College's rival is Rutledge on the arrival/departure board underneath the Main Street Train Station rather than the actual Rutland in the films, and many other notable slips.
Don't get me started on how many different official birthdays Mickey Mouse celebrated during various fall months until Disney Archivist Dave Smith in 1973 officially set November 18, 1928.
For over forty years, the Walt Disney Company and international media have touted that Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955. That date appears in books, newspaper and magazine articles and is used as the key date for the beginning of all the Disneyland anniversary celebrations in the last few decades.
Yet that was not always the case. For the first twenty-five years, the Walt Disney Company and Disney fans acknowledged that July 18, 1955 was considered the official opening of Disneyland.
My friends and fellow Disney historians Todd James Pierce and Werner Weiss have both written extensively about this topic and I devoted an entire chapter to it in my book The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion that documented the creation of the Happiest Place on Earth and its first two years.
The July 17th event was merely an Invitational Press Preview and Dedication for non-paying personal guests of Walt Disney. It was certainly the date the park was dedicated with much fanfare but a dedication ceremony did not signify that it was the official opening day of the theme park.
After all, the dedication of Walt Disney World and Magic Kingdom was held on October 25, 1971, nearly three weeks after the park and the surrounding resorts and activities opened to paying guests on October first. We don't celebrate the elaborate three day dedication of the Most Magical Place on Earth but the day when the first paying guests entered through the turnstiles.
The dedication of Epcot Center was on October 24, 1982, again nearly three weeks after the park opened to paying guests on October first.
In Walt Disney's experience, one of his films might premiere early but it was not "official" until its general release date in America. That was Walt's intention with the July 17th Disneyland press preview. It was a "sneak peek" to generate good publicity for people to get excited to come and see the final product.
In addition, Walt would not have opened a major entertainment venue on a Sunday initially because he realized that people, including his own family, might be attending church services, which is why the July 17 event did not start until later in the afternoon. Audiences would have been at church during the early part of the day and not watching television.
July 17 was not the first day that guests visited Disneyland. Walt escorted a handful of visitors, primarily reporters like Bob Thomas, through the park to show them what it was going to be like. However, Walt also invited large groups to enjoy the park as it approached that fateful day.
On the fourth and top floor of the Animation building at the Disney Studio in Burbank was an exclusive club known as The Penthouse Club, where the higher paid artists could spend time working out in a gym, playing cards, socializing, and more. There was an expensive membership fee, so not everyone who worked at Disney had access.
On July 4, 1955, members of the club, along with their wives and children, were invited to a special preview of Disneyland for a total of roughly 90 people.
Walt arranged this preview specifically to see how children and families would react to the park. Up to that time, it had been primarily a handful of adults who had experienced Disneyland.
The shops and businesses were closed and construction was still going on non-stop to reach the approaching deadline. Most of the attractions were not operating, but the guests did get to ride on the Mark Twain Riverboat, the Jungle Cruise, and on a short run on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad.
Walt put up a tent and served barbeque and three barrels of beer to the crowd, something Walt would not offer to regular guests once the park opened to the public.
Some of the iconic elements throughout the park were still unfinished including landscaping. Fantasyland was boarded off from the group as was Tomorrowland. Most of the day was spent in Frontierland and Adventureland.
On July 13, 1955, Walt Disney hosted roughly 300 guests for the "Tempus Fugit Celebration" of his 30th wedding anniversary to Lillian at Frontierland's Golden Horseshoe saloon and on the Mark Twain Riverboat.
Horse-drawn surreys transported the guests down the glittering lights of the almost-completed Main Street and through the open gates of the wooden fort entrance into Frontierland. The guests were directed across the Frontierland Square to the Mark Twain Riverboat for what was considered its official maiden voyage.
Afterward, the guests gathered in the Golden Horseshoe for dinner and the first full performance of what would become the longest-running musical stage show in history with tens of thousands of performances.
On Saturday, July 16, 1955, there was a special performance of the Golden Horseshoe Revue show at Disneyland for representatives of its corporate sponsor, Pepsi Cola, and some other invited guests.
Although not all of the things in the park were up and running during these visits, with many things still to be completed, the same thing could also be said of July 17 where many of the key attractions were not operating, and wouldn't officially do so until days or weeks later.
For instance, Rocket to the Moon didn't open until July 22 and Dumbo was not operating until August 1955 although both are considered original attractions for the park.
On July 17, Disneyland was supposed to open at 2:30 p.m. after early morning in-park preparations for the afternoon television broadcast. Expecting perhaps 11,000 guests, the tickets were color-coded to stagger the amount of guests entering the park at any one time. Silver tickets were given to people to enter at 2:30 p.m.
Green tickets were for people to enter the park at 5:30 p.m. and white tickets for people to enter after 6 p.m. So, unlike a regular day at Disneyland, the park was not open the regular full operating day. Guests ignored the times on the tickets and rushed in early to the park. Some Guests had counterfeit tickets. An entrepreneur leaned a ladder against a fence and charged people without tickets five dollars each to climb inside. Even invited guests brought more "family members" with them than expected.
Disneyland announced to its invited guests that the park would close at 8 p.m. so it "could get the park ready for the opening the next day." So, on July 17, the park opened late and closed early, not a full operating day. For the remainder of the summer, beginning July 18, Disneyland would be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
To prepare for the special, all attractions closed at 4 p.m. and were reopened as each land was dedicated by Walt.
On July 17, no admission tickets were sold and all the rides were free to the invited guests, so it was a much different experience than a "normal" Disneyland 1955 day. In fact, it was quite an out-of-the-ordinary type of day.
Advertisements in newspapers as well as radio broadcasts urged people to stay home and enjoy the television show because the park was only open to invited guests and not the general public.
This date was distinguished by a live ABC 90-minute television broadcast that featured the memorable dedication speech by Walt Disney and happy people filling the park, so everyone watching at home on their TVs naturally assumed that the park was open for business.
However, July 18 was advertised as the official opening day.
A Disneyland advertisement in the Los Angeles Times newspaper on Friday, July 15, 1955, had this information: "OPENING—Disneyland, Walt Disney's Magic Kingdom, will officially open on Monday, July 18th, and remain open every day during the summer from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Beginning in the Fall, Disneyland will be closed on Mondays."
There was also a short paragraph that encouraged people to watch the preview of the park at home to be broadcast on July 17, the day that was always referred to as a preview and never an opening in all the publicity from the Walt Disney Company.
On Sunday, July 17, 1955, a Los Angeles Times article titled "Dream Comes True in Orange Grove: Disneyland, Multimillion Dollar Magic Kingdom, to Open Tomorrow" started its article with this sentence: "A dream comes true tomorrow—Disneyland opens." Of course, the "tomorrow" is referring to July 18 and this may be one of the first times that Disneyland was referred to as the "Magic Kingdom".
The Los Angeles Times newspaper for July 19, 1955, stated: "Plagued by opening-day jitters, Walt Disney's fabulous Disneyland yesterday threw open its gates to an eager and waiting public. Fittingly enough, the first two customers were a 7-year-old boy and a 5-year-old girl."
The New York Times newspaper for July 19, 1955, reinforced that July 18 was the opening day with 15,000 guests and waiting times of up to an hour for attractions, purchasing merchandise or eating.
In the press packet put together by Eddie Meck, the head of Public Relations for Disneyland Inc., which was given to the media before the press preview, there is a fact sheet and, at the top, just under the address, it states: "Opening: July 18, 1955 at 10 a.m."
Another sheet in the packet titled "Building A Dream," an essay on the building of the park, begins its second paragraph with this sentence: "With this July 18 inaugural, Walt Disney realizes a life-time dream in offering Disneyland to the young of all ages."
"We don't even mail a postcard out of here without [Walt's personal] 'OK'," Meck told newspaper columnist James Bacon, so Walt approved the notion that July 18 was the official opening day.
The July 1956 Disneyland press release prepared by Meck stated: "Disneyland concludes its first year of operation this week with attendance at the Magic Kingdom in Anaheim nearing the 4 million mark.
"At the end of the day on July 17 of this year, 3,642,597 persons had toured Walt Disney's playland, making it the largest single private enterprise attraction in the Western Hemisphere and "a complete success" according to the Park's management.
"Guests from the government have included Vice-President Nixon with his family who toured the Park soon after the July 18 opening."
Studying the release it is clear that the end of the day on July 17, not the beginning of the day, marked the close of the first year of operation that had begun on July 18. In addition, the release clearly states that July 18 was the opening day.
In a Los Angeles Times article for July 19, 1960, "5th Birthday Mark Set For Disneyland" began its story by stating "Disneyland celebrated the fifth anniversary of its opening yesterday with another new record for attendance."
The attendance for the year ending July 17 was 5,238,415 (a 43.6 percent increase in attendance over its first year and a 15.5 percent increase of the previous 1958-1959 year). The new year for counting attendance began July 18.
The first issue of The Disneyland News sold by newsboys in the park that summer declared in its lead story: "More than 50,000 visitors were attracted to Disneyland on Monday, July 18, when the Park officially opened its gates."
Some of the confusion over the years has been that things that happened on both days blended together in people's memories.
For instance, on July 18, many of the things that happened on July 17 were re-staged, including the lowering of the Sleeping Beauty Castle drawbridge for the opening of Fantasyland.
Roughly an hour before this was to happen a natural gas line broke under the recently poured asphalt in the castle courtyard. A construction worker, who was still finishing up things, casually threw down his lit cigarette and the ground ignited. The Anaheim Fire Department was called in. The gas was shut off, workers dug up the asphalt, and finally capped the pipe.
There was debate about whether Fantasyland should open that day at all for fear that there might be other leaks. The land was closed for a few hours and then opened and operated normally without further incident.
Disneyland General Manager C.V. Wood actually went from building to building carefully testing each area with lighted matches.
How many reports about a gas leak in Fantasyland refer to it as happening on "opening day"? It did if you consider July 18 as the opening day.
Walt's brother, Roy O. Disney arranged to pre-purchase the first Disneyland ticket sold on July 18, 1955, from Curtis Lineberry, the manager of admissions from ticket booth No. 2. The ticket was always referred to as the "opening day" ticket even today.
A publicity photo from July 18 shows Walt Disney, broadly smiling and squatting next to Christine Vess (age 5 of North Hollywood) and her cousin Michael Schwartner (age 7 of Bakersfield) who were proclaimed the first guests to enter the Happiest Place on Earth.
David MacPherson of Long Beach is credited with being the first actual guest to buy a ticket to get into Disneyland and that took place on July 18.
On July 18, the Long Beach Press-Telegram ran a photo of MacPherson at a Disneyland ticket booth giving an "OK" sign with his fingers to the photographer.
"Purchase of the First Ticket to Disneyland was made today by a Long Beach man, Dave MacPherson of 2312 Iroquois Ave. He achieved the distinction by getting in line at 2 a.m. By dawn, almost 6,000 others were in line behind him."
Roy O. Disney always considered July 18 as the opening day because that is when people paid to get into Disneyland and paid to ride the attractions. The preview was more like a party for friends where everything was paid for by the host. The experience on July 18 was like every other day that guests would enjoy at Disneyland in 1955.
At a Club 55 reunion party in July 1968, Roy told the following story much to the discomfort to his wife Edna who was also in attendance:
"The Studio's every dollar was tied up in Walt's Disneyland dream. What if we opened the gates and nobody came? Well, on opening day (July 18), I left the Studio and headed down the Santa Ana Freeway. I was worried. After getting out of Los Angeles, the traffic began to get heavy. It could have been people going to the beach. Because the freeway was not completed, it was stop-and-go most of the way. It must have taken more than an hour to finally get to the Disneyland parking lot, which was jammed.
"A young man working there recognized me and came up in a bit of a panic. He wasn't familiar with our first-name policy. 'Mr. Disney,' he said, 'people have been stalled on the freeway and getting into our parking lot. Children are peeing all over the lot'. I looked around at all of these people who were coming here to pay to get in. With a great sense of relief, I said, 'God Bless 'em, let 'em pee!'"
With the death of Roy O. Disney at the end of 1971, that affirmation that July 18 was the official opening date gradually faded with people mistakenly remembering the striking July 17 TV event as Disneyland's opening.
It wasn't until Disneyland's 25th anniversary in 1980 that Disneyland's opening was officially declared forever as July 17, with a special 25-hour party that began at 12:01 a.m. PST at Disneyland on July 17 and ending the following morning on July 18.
The souvenir program for the July 17 event stated:
"Twenty-five years ago today, a dream became reality. A dream that lived in the heart of Walt Disney for most of his adult life. He nurtured and developed it, but most of all, he believed in it.
"Today we're celebrating 25 years of making dreams come true for the almost 200 million people who have passed through the gates of our Magic Kingdom. Thank you for being such an important part of our family and for sharing in the proudest moment in Disneyland's history."
Dates in Disney history can be fluid. It is clear why the July 17 date eclipsed the actual opening date of Disneyland as the years progressed. It was that unforgettable Dateline: Disneyland ABC broadcast that stuck in people's minds with Walt dedicating the park.
At the beginning of the broadcast, host Art Linkletter standing at the train station proudly affirmed that the day was "the opening of the 8th Wonder of the World!"
Later host Bob Cummings standing at the Hub looked directly into the camera and earnestly said, "Standing here has been one of the most exciting moments in my life. I think, ladies and gentlemen, that anyone who has been here today will say, as the people did many years ago when they were at the opening of the Eiffel Tower, 'I was there!' I am proud to say I was at the opening of Disneyland. It's a fabulous thing to happen."
Despite their authoritative proclamations, it is important to realize that both of these hosts were hired because of their ability to improvise, and neither of these statements is in the official script notes.
Linkletter's ad-libs were the source of much misinformation about Disneyland over the years, including the fact that the train, the buildings on Main Street and Walt's miniature horses in Frontierland and more were all built to a 5/8th scale.
Bob Cummings, taking his cue from Linkletter, told the television audience that the interior of the Golden Horseshoe saloon was also built to a 5/8th scale. It wasn't.
Linkletter also told viewers that Mr. Toad's Wild Ride was on a monorail beam and called Captain Hook "Captain Crew" among other things. These are just a few of the whoppers and flubs generated under the pressure of the live broadcast but for decades were accepted as facts by Disney fans.
In the classic John Ford western film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), one of the premises is that a legend can become so appealing and engaging to people that it eventually supersedes all the facts that contradict it.
"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
That is the case with the answer to the question "When did Disneyland open?"
The answer now and in the foreseeable future is July 17, 1955, even if that is not the answer that Walt or Roy Disney would have given to the question. It is the date that everyone "knows" must be correct, including those working at the Disney Company.
So to be on the safe side, I celebrate both days…and every other day as well. Maybe you should do so as well.