Starting a Historyby Don Ballard, contributing writer
Editor's note: While we were preparing our piece about Don Ballard's new book (Disneyland Hotel: The Early Years, 1954 – 1988), we learned that the book started off as an article that Don had planned to submit for publication, but which never made it to press. We immediately offered him the opportunity to publish his article here—and what you see is pretty much what Don wrote over three years ago. [Go back and read our review of his book here.]
During the spring of 1954, Walt Disney approached the Texas oil wildcatter and television pioneer Jack Wrather concerning the possibility of building accommodations for the many guests that Walt hoped would flock to his innovative “theme park,” then under construction in Anaheim, California. Since the “imagineering” and building of Disneyland was taking nearly every penny that he had, Walt approached Jack, hoping that his long-time friend would be willing to take such a huge risk. Wrather was the producer of Lassie, The Lone Ranger, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon, popular 1950s television programs.
Originally, Walt had approached Hilton executives and other well-known hotel chains, hoping to convince them to finance the construction of a first-class hotel next to Disneyland. However, the general consensus was that such a venture was too risky. No one was certain that what was quickly becoming known as “Disney's folly” would be successful.
In 1954, Anaheim was a little-known community, largely consisting of orange groves. The entire city had only seven small motels and hotels, accommodating only a total of 87 guests. Wrather admitted at the time that he was somewhat skeptical about building in such a small community (of approximately 30,000), next to an experimental and yet unfinished theme park. His doubts were further increased by the fact that the risky venture had already been turned down by more than one major hotel chain.
Wrather spent several days with Walt Disney, looking into the area's potential for expansion. Legend has it that Walt had tears in his eyes while describing his dream of Disneyland to Wrather. With a sense of adventure, Wrather became convinced that the idea just might be a success. Also, with Walt showing such emotion for and dedication to his project, how could Wrather have resisted?
One of the first discussions between the two friends was where the hotel should be located. Wrather first talked of locating it near the entrance to Disneyland. Walt said, “Jack, our guests aren't going to be thinking about a hotel when they begin their visit to Disneyland. They'll start looking for a room when they leave the park. The best place to build your Hotel is near the Disneyland exit.” Wrather agreed with Walt's logic and leased 60 acres of Disney-owned land on West Street directly across from the Disneyland exit. There he built what was to become known as the “Official Hotel of the Magic Kingdom."
On March 18, 1955, Jack Wrather, Bonita Granville Wrather (his wife), and Anaheim Mayor Charles Pearson, using a three-handled shovel, officiated at the groundbreaking for the Disneyland Hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel opened on October 5, 1955, nearly three months after Disneyland's live televised grand opening on July 17, 1955. The first guests registered at a hotel having only 104 guest rooms located in five two-story complexes, built at the southeast corner of the leased property. These were the South Garden rooms, later to be known as the Oriental Gardens. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Arnone of Inglewood, California were to be the first guests at the newly opened hotel.
The Disneyland Hotel was the first major resort to be built in Southern California since the early 1940's. However, the number of available rooms quickly proved to be insufficient for the unexpected demand, and 96 more units of the same type were added the following year on the property's northeast section. Built by Hodges and Vergrift Construction Company, this new addition was called the North Garden rooms, later renamed the Garden Villas.
During the first year, room rates ranged from $9 for a standard room to $22 for deluxe quarters. Rooms were advertised as accommodating four people. For an additional adult, there was a $3 charge.
At the same time that construction had begun on the additional garden rooms at the northeastern corner of the property, construction was under way on the Administration Building, which would house a lobby, restaurants, shops, and meeting rooms. The Gourmet Restaurant was opened in a converted ranch house on the property, redesigned by C. Tony Pereira. This converted ranch house had been the original Disneyland administration building.
The original hotel design, by the architectural firm of Pereira and Luckman, called for 300 motel and hotel rooms, suites and garden apartments. Also included were plans for three swimming pools, tennis courts, a golf course, cocktail lounges, and four restaurants. The original blueprints designated a total of 10 buildings in the South Garden or Oriental Garden section. However, only five buildings were actually built.
The opening of the Administration Building (which would later become the Travelport), and the “official” grand opening for the hotel was on August 25, 1956. It was a star-studded grand opening celebration that resembled a Hollywood movie premiere. Celebrities in attendance included Walt Disney, Art Linkletter, William Bendix, Alan Ladd, Sue Caroll, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Jeanne Crain. Also in attendance were as many as three hundred enthusiasts, observing the ribbon-cutting and taking a grand tour of the facilities.
By 1956, there were 204 guest rooms and suites at the Disneyland Hotel. As an added attraction, each garden patio had its own orange tree, a reminder of what the original property had been only a few short years earlier. This had been a part of the original plans when the grounds were being cleared to build the hotel. An additional amenity at this time was the Coral Club which included a huge 45-foot by 75-foot completely tiled and heated swimming pool, wading pools for children of all ages, fountains, sandlots, and a cabana area. The pools were surrounded by lounge furniture for guests' relaxation and so that they might acquire a Southern California tan. One-day laundry and dry cleaning services were available, and a physician and nurse were on call. An 18-hole putting greens and shuffleboard courts were also early inclusions at the Disneyland Hotel.
Guests were able to register for a hotel room from their car or they could go into the lobby for a more traditional method of registration. There were parking spaces for 1000 cars, and parking was free. Also, limo and bus service was provided. Richfield Oil (also the Disneyland sponsor of Autopia) offered full automotive care. Even in the 1950s, every room was equipped with a television set and air conditioning.
During these early years, the attendance at Disneyland was beyond the most optimistic expectations. Even Walt had to be amazed by the overwhelming success of his dream. As a result, the City Council of Anaheim began reviewing plans for other motels and restaurants. Disneyland had proven all the skeptics to be wrong, and Disneyland was destined to bring major changes to what once had been a sleepy, orange grove community.
From the beginning, the Disneyland Hotel was one of the outstanding showplaces of Orange County. Celebrities such as Jack Benny, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Billy Graham, and Cary Grant were often spotted at the hotel. These and other celebrities enjoyed bringing their families for a stay at the hotel and for a trip to Walt's park. Also attracted were business people, coming for luncheons, meetings, and conventions. The Disneyland Hotel quickly had become the place to see and the place to be seen.
Room rates in 1957 were advertised from $10 to $19. SuitesÊwent for between $22 and $25. The hotel's brochures boasted of an assortment of shops, air conditioned rooms, television in every room, pools of all sizes, restaurant and cocktail facilities. Also touted was tram service to Disneyland every five minutes, transportation via a Disneyland station wagon, playgrounds, childcare facilities, barber and beauty shops. Doctor, nurse and even dental facilities were available on the grounds. The brochures further emphasized a private sundeck or patio for every room. Best of all, the Disneyland Hotel was billed as the only hotel right at the Magic Kingdom of Disneyland. Also in the late 1950s, the concept of “seasonal” and “non-seasonal” rates first appeared. Typically, it would cost a dollar or two more for a room during the holidays and summer months (late May through mid September).
By 1959, over 25 hotels and motels had crowded around Disneyland to take advantage of the Park's spectacular drawing power. By 1960, Anaheim had established itself as Orange County's largest city, with a population in excess of 100,000. People were traveling from all areas of the world to visit the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Indeed, Anaheim had magically grown from a quiet, small agricultural community into a mecca of tourism, and the boom had only begun. As Walt had promised on opening day, the park continued adding attractions (the Monorail, the Submarine Voyage, and the Matterhorn all opening in 1959); and the hotel continued to grow, having more than 300 rooms by 1960. A 13,000-square foot convention center was also added at that time.
Rates for rooms in 1960 ranged from $10 to $26 a night during the off-season and from $16 to $29 in season, the holidays and the summer months.
At a press conference held in 1960, Jack Wrather and Walt Disney announced plans for the extension of the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System to link the park to the hotel. Walt had long envisioned a rapid transit system for major U.S. cities, and this addition to the Monorail would provide a working model. Dick Nunis, who worked his way up from a summer job in 1955 to become the president of Disneyland in 1980, stated that Walt saw the Monorail as more than just an attraction; Walt saw it as aÊworkable transportation system. He wanted to demonstrate its potential as urban rapid transit, and so he envisioned the monorail's extension to the hotel.
The park's monorail was closed for construction on April 10, 1961. Disneyland also had to closed Autopia to facilitate the installation of new pylons through its grounds. The original 8/10th-of-a-mile track would be extended by 12,300 feet, making it nearly a two-and-a-half mile round-trip journey between the park to the hotel. The cost of the extension was $1.9 million ($500,000 more than the original cost of the Monorail when it was installed at Disneyland less than two years earlier). The construction required more than 118,000 hours of labor, 10,760 tons of sand, 66,700 bags of cement and 702 tons of steel. New style Mark II trains were introduced for the extended Monorail including a new gold colored train. The Monorail, with its extension to the Disneyland Hotel, reopened on June 1, 1961.
Other major expansions were planned for the hotel in the early 1960s. They included a new golf complex featuring an 18-hole, par-three course, a 50-tee driving range, and a miniature golf course with the individual holes named after Disneyland attractions. One of the course favorites was hole #5, which featured a mini replica of the Matterhorn Mountain. Also added at this time was a helicopter landing pad, linking Los Angeles International Airport with Disneyland and the Disneyland Hotel. The new facility provided an efficient transportation link for both business people and tourists. Soon, LAA Airways was operating an average of 12 flights per day to and from the airport in its 28-passenger, turbo-jet copter liners.
In 1961, the Wrather Corporation went public, offering 350,000 shares of common stock. President and Chairman of the Board Jack Wrather and the Wrather Corporation had grown to include four major divisions: Television and motion pictures, the Disneyland Hotel, the Muzak Corporation (the often satirized elevator music), and Stephen's Marine, Inc. The company also was involved in management services for various other marine based businesses.
The Anaheim skyline was also about to undergo a major change in 1961 when the concept of “building up” replaced the concept of “building out.” At the Disneyland Hotel, an 11-story, high-rise tower was built. This added 150 new guest rooms to the hotel complex. At that time, it was the county's tallest building and the nation's tallest building constructed utilizing the post-tension, lift-slab method. Another exciting innovation was an external, glass elevator, one of only a handful constructed at the time in this country. Its designer, architect Kurt Weber, recalled that the glass elevator offered a dramatic view of the growing community of Anaheim. It also took guests to the Top of the Park Lounge, which featured breathtaking views of Disneyland. The Lounge offered alcoholic beverages and nightly entertainment in a decidedly blues motif. Constructed for the less adventurous was the Monorail Lounge which was located next to the Monorail station on the second floor level. Ground had been broken for the new tower building in October of 1961. The project was completed less than a year later in September of 1962. At that time, two additional Garden structures were also added to the hotel.
In 1962, rates ranged from $17 for a room with a twin bed to $53 for two deluxe and medium adjoining rooms during vacation and holiday seasons, $10 to $47 during off-season. There were new rates for the tower building. A twin-bedded room was priced from $24 vacation rate up to $35 for a room with two double beds. Off-season, tower rooms were priced from $20 to $26.
Orange County celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1964. At a press conference held at the Disneyland Hotel, the announcement was made that Major League Baseball was coming to Anaheim. The Angels would continue to play in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium until their new Anaheim stadium was constructed in approximately two years. During their first year in Anaheim, the Angels would lead the American League in attendance, attracting over one million fans.
By 1964, during vacation and holiday season, room rates were $17 for a single room, $53 for an adjoining deluxe room with a medium room, and $30 for a deluxe room alone. Winter rates were advertised from $10 for a single small room to $49 for an adjoining deluxe with medium room. The Tower rooms were priced from $24 to $35 during peak-season and $20 to $28 during off- season. Peak-season now was being defined as from June 1 to September 15, December 11 to January 3, and April 9 to April 24.
Both the Disneyland Hotel and Disneyland celebrating their “Tencennials,” 10-years of successful operations, in 1965. The hotel announced plans for the Tower Annex, an expansion to the existing tower, which would now give the hotel 616 guest rooms. An additional six conference rooms (bringing the total to 28) would be added to the complex. These conference rooms would be designed to hold from 15 people to two thousand people.
A new shopping plaza building was also constructed on the hotel grounds. It was described as having glass walls and graceful grillwork, gleaming in a lush garden setting. It was further described as resembling a necklace on green velvet,Êcontaining the beautiful and unusual in a score of smart, avant-garde specialty shops. Here one could buy aromatic tobaccos from Turkey, candles from Mexico, leathers from London, toys from the U.S., Germany and Japan, and here one could select from fashions inspired in Paris, Rome and Carnaby Street. The Plaza also featured a beauty shop, a travel agency, and a dental facility. Both the Tower Annex and the Plaza Shopping Center cost $5.5 million as part of the Hotel Expansion Program. At Disneyland, “it's a small world” was added after its successful run at the New York World's Fair.
Rates in 1966 for what was billed as wintertime ranged from $15 for a queen-sized bed up to $30 for a deluxe room. During vacation times, the rates were $20 and $35 for the same rooms. The Tower now had a North and South designation, with the South side being the more expensive. The North side rates were priced from $20 for a queen-sized bed up to $28 for two double beds. The South side went for $22 to $30 for the same bed types.
By 1966, Orange County had become the tourist hub of America, producing tourist income greater than any other U.S. county. Anaheim now had 125 hotels and motels and a population of over 150,000. Sadly on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney, one of the most influential men in Anaheim's history, passed away. Walt had been a lifelong smoker and had developed lung cancer. It was reported that Jack and Bonita Wrather were devastated upon hearing news of Walt's passing. Half of the two pioneers of tourism in Southern California was now gone. These two had plotted a course in the 1950s for the future of tourism and conventions in Orange County, thereby forever changing Anaheim's destiny. Jack Wrather would also succumb to cancer in 1984.
Shortly after Walt's death, the Walt Disney Company began numerous attempts to purchase control of the hotel. Finally in 1988, 33 years after the original groundbreaking, the Disneyland Hotel would become a portion of the empire that Walt had founded.
In just a little over 11 years, the Disneyland Hotel had grown from 104 guest rooms and a smattering of amenities into a major tourist facility with 616 guest rooms, ample dining and shopping facilities, a full golf complex, and a full range of convention and meeting facilities. The hotel also helped introduce a futuristic mode of rapid transit in the form of the Monorail, and the hotel was instrumental in changing the previous agricultural economy of Anaheim into the major tourist destination that it is today. What appeared to be a questionable area for development in the early fifties turned into one of the most dynamic areas in the country. A large portion of this change and growth had been stimulated by a man with a mouse and a Texas oil wildcatter.
Kaleidoscope: The In-Room Magazine of Disneyland Hotel and Inn at the Park: Spring 1980, summer 1980, and fall 1980.
Disneyland Holiday Magazine: various issues from 1957 and 1958.
Disneyland Vacationland Magazine: various issues from 1958 to 1966.
Disneyland Line: Vol. 22, No. 40, October 5, 1990.
The Disneyland Hotel Employee's Handbook, 1989.
Disneyland Hotel advertising brochures: 1955, 1957, 1960, 1962, and 1966.
Disneyland Guidebooks: 1955 to 1965.
Disneyland Hotel Postcards: 1955 to 1964.
The Handbook of Texas Online: The Jack Wrather obituary.
Dreams to Reality by Bret Colson and Geoff Black. A brief history of modern day Anaheim, 1997.
Disneylander: The magazine for Disneyland employees, various issues from 1959 to 1961.
Check In Magazine: Various editions from 1965 to 1967.
All sources came from my personal collection of Disneyland Hotel items with the exception of the Jack Wrather obituary and the book Dreams to Reality. The wonderful Kaleidoscope magazines and several articles from Holiday and Vacationland magazines came from other collectors. All photos also came from my personal collection except where noted. I requested access to the Disney Archives for research purposed but was denied access.
Go out and buy Don's book. It will provide you with endless hours of interesting reading, recollecting of happy memories, and enough facts about the hotel that you can share and boast with all your friends and neighbors (as if they don't already think you are a Disneyland fan).
In the meantime, if you can't wait for the book to arrive, Don has a Web site, called MagicalHotel.com (link). You can view sample pages, as well as look at some really nifty collectible items from the hotel. The book is also available for direct purchase with free shipping.
Do you have some special memories from your stays at the Disneyland Hotel? Send us a message!