The First Disneyland Party

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

During the early Summer of 1955, approximately 300 people, including celebrities like Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Louis B. Mayer and Joe Rosenberg, received the following invitation:

“Tempus Fugit Celebration

Where: Disneyland…where’s there’s plenty of room…
When: …Wednesday, July 13, 1955, at six o’clock in the afternoon…
Why: …because we’ve been married 30 years…
How: …by cruising down the Mississippi on the Mark Twain’s maiden voyage, followed by dinner at Slue-Foot Sue’s Golden Horseshoe!

Hope you can make it—we especially want you and, by the way, no gifts, please—we have everything, including a grandson!

Lilly and Walt”

Although he was physically and mentally exhausted from the preparation for the opening of Disneyland (just four days after this party), Walt Disney decided to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary at that very special location.

It was a warm July evening. After a long day of inspecting the park with his small flip notepad where he dutifully made notations of things to be changed or addressed, Walt ended his day by waiting cheerfully at the front gate to greet his guests to his new magic kingdom.

An unexpected traffic snarl had delayed some of the guests and Walt nervously smoked a cigarette or two as he impatiently waited for them to arrive. 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 mighty steamboat, the Mark Twain.

Admiral Joe Fowler, who was in charge of construction at Disneyland, had arrived more than an hour early to make a final inspection of the Mark Twain paddle wheeler and make sure the evening would run smoothly. The boat had never been fully tested on the river and Fowler later confessed to friends that he had had a nightmare the previous night that the artificial river bed had once again sprung a leak and gone dry.

He was taken aback to encounter a woman on deck who was frantically sweeping away at the sawdust and dirt with a broom. She handed him a broom as well and said, “This ship is filthy. Let’s get busy and sweep it up.” That woman was Walt’s wife, Lillian, and the boat was swept clean by the time the first guests got there.

It was all shiny and white and new with twinkling old-fashioned light bulbs outlining the decks. A Dixieland band played lively New Orleans-style tunes. Appropriately attired waiters wandered the decks with trays full of mint juleps.

A blast from the ship’s whistle and it gently pulled away from the dock and began its journey in the approaching dusk around the Rivers of America. There was no distraction from anything on the darkened Tom Sawyer’s Island since it would be another year before the location came to life. It was a festive mood as the boat glided effortlessly through the man made waterway transporting guests to another time and place and providing a brief preview of what people would experience in a few short days.

Walt had a couple of mint juleps to join in with the festivities and the mixture of a small amount of alcohol combined with a massive wave of tiredness and a sense of relief made him a little more playful than usual at this private party of friends and associates.

After the leisurely cruise, the guests were ushered into the interior of the nearby Golden Horseshoe Saloon designed by Imagineer Harper Goff. It was styled more as a typical turn-of-the-century Opera House than a rip-roaring Old West saloon. With its gilded wallpaper, ornate light fixtures and carved wooden accents it was a luxurious setting for the wedding anniversary celebration.

The event included dinner and the cutting of a four-tiered cake as Walt and Lillian’s two daughters, Diane and Sharon, smiled broadly near their parents.

“Mother and dad were not seated up in the balcony box, but down with their guests,” Diane wrote to me recently. “Dad was so happy, and roamed around the room, which the photos indicate. All the invited guests were people he and mother liked. Everyone enjoyed him, and vice versa. I had come down from Monterrey for the event, with our infant son, Chris. Ron was in the Army stationed at Fort Ord. Mother had bought my dress. As I told you, everyone, my parents and their guests, were sitting at tables awaiting dinner and the show. I forget which came first. Dad was circulating throughout the room, greeting and schmoozing with his guests, which were all people he liked, longtime friends and family.”

The stage show changed little over the decades, becoming the longest-running musical stage show in history with tens of thousands of performances according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Hostess Slue Foot Sue sang and introduced her dancing can-can girls. There was even a traditional Irish tenor. However, the heart and spirit of the show was the talented comic Wally Boag, who performed a hilariously corny vaudeville routine as a traveling salesman, and then re-appeared in the finale as the wild cowboy boyfriend of Sue, the famous Pecos Bill. With blazing six-guns (later supplemented with water pistols to squirt the audience), Boag and the entire cast filled the stage and brought the show to a raucous memorable ending.

Walt’s daughter, Diane, was interviewed by journalist Pete Martin during the preparation of a series of articles for the Saturday Evening Post about her father. In the summer of 1956, one year after the anniversary party, Diane shared these memories with Martin:

“The guests would come and they would ride around in their surreys which would bring them around to the steamboat dock. Then, they would ride around the river on the Mark Twain drinking mint juleps, or whatever they wanted to drink, and then we would all have dinner at the Golden Horseshoe.

“Dad had been out in the park all day prior to this. It had been a dream for so long and here it was. Everything was almost done. The planting was not quite in yet or anything and it was still a little dusty, but it was there. It was very concrete at that point.

“So when he got on the boat, I was with him most of the time and I don’t think he’d had much to drink. I really don’t. I think he had maybe two or three mint juleps at most on the boat. But he was completely relaxing mentally, physically, everything. He was so stimulated by this thing and by the hundreds of people that were there saying what a wonderful thing it all was. Everyone was surrounding him telling him what a wonderful thing he had. That stimulating response from everyone who was there plus what he was feeling himself, that just combined to have a very bad effect. Well, I don’t know if it was good or bad. It was just very entertaining in retrospect.

“It was very entertaining for everyone there but disastrous for the family, I think. The finale of the floor show is Pecos Bill shooting off his guns and all the chorus girls are kicking up their heels and everything. So it is loud and chaotic and for a minute neither I nor my mother knew where daddy was. And all of a sudden, we see him hanging over the balcony trying to get down to the stage.

“You see, by this point Pecos Bill was shooting his guns and daddy was using his fingers to form a gun and he was shooting back. ‘Bang! Bang!’ like that. And people noticed him and they shouted, ‘There’s Walt!’ There was a little applause and general recognition from the audience and that just spurred daddy on. I thought he was going to fall off the balcony but he made it to stage. He was just standing there and sort of beamed. Everybody stared saying ‘Speech! Speech!’ or there was the clear expectation that he should say something. I just remember him standing there looking happy and pleased.

“Then everyone applauded and shouted, ‘Lilly! Lilly! We want Lilly!’ So mother got up and walked up the stairs to the stage thinking ‘If I get up there, maybe I can get Walt down’. Well, that wasn’t the case. Mother dragged Sharon and I up there on stage as well and nothing was happening. My dad was firmly planted there just basking in the moment, loving every minute of it. I guess someone must have sense our plight because the band started to play and Edgar Bergen came up on stage and started dancing with me. Someone came up and danced with mother and Sharon. Everybody started dancing on the stage and my father was gently elbowed off into the wings. He was quite content to just stay right up there. He loved every minute of it. He was just going to stand there and grin at the people, I think.

“Everyone was so worried about him. They were worried about him driving himself home. Some people had chartered a bus to get to the park and they wanted Walt to go back with them on the bus. Somebody else volunteered to drive him back home. But I was going to drive him. It was fine with me. I didn’t think daddy was that bad off but everybody was asking as if he was being belligerent and everything. ‘We’ve got to sneak the car keys out of his pocket’ sort of thing. They were really, sincerely worried.

“But I just went up to him and I said, ‘Daddy, can I drive you home?’ ‘Well, sure, honey!’ he said. No problem at all. He was just as meek and mild and willing. So he went out to the car and some people were still worried that he would try to abscond with the car himself. But he just climbed into the backseat of the car. He rolled up these plans, I guess it was a map of Disneyland, and he was tooting through it and into my ear like a little boy with a toy trumpet. Then he was singing a song or something. Before I knew it, all was silent. So I looked around in the back seat and there he was like a little boy with his makeshift trumpet sort of folded in his arms and sound asleep. It was really sweet. But I know he hadn’t had too much to drink because the next morning, he didn’t have a hangover. He bounced out of the house at 7:30 a.m. and down to Disneyland again.”

The following evening was a salute at the Hollywood Bowl honoring Walt Disney. Performers included Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen, Sterling Holloway and Cliff Edwards. At the end of the night’s selection of Disney music, Goodwin Knight, the governor of California who would be an important guest speaker at Disneyland’s opening in just a few days, declared Walt to be California’s honorary governor and presented him with a Davy Crockett coonskin cap that had been dipped in silver.

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 that many have considered the first official performance of the show.

Boag remembered clearly that wedding anniversary performance:

“Folks saw him [Walt] up there [in the upper-stage-left balcony box] and they started calling for him to come down to the stage. So he climbed out of the box and down onto the stage during the finale. I shot my final two rounds, and with his hand in the shape of a pistol, he ‘shot’ back at me. Lilly joined him, but she went around to the stairs and walked down. She wasn’t going to climb down the way he had done. Lilly loved to dance and Walt didn’t. However, when the band began playing, he took her hand and danced around the stage. She didn’t know it but he had taken some dancing lessons because he knew how happy that would make her. I don’t remember exactly what he said once he got on the stage, but it was along the lines of finally realizing his long-held dream of an amusement park for the whole family. All of us there that night knew we were going to be part of something that was very special and wonderful, and that the adventure was just beginning.”

Diane added recently in a communication to me that, “It was a humorous, comic situation, not really an embarrassing one. The story was just as I told it. I thought it was sweet the way he just handed me the car keys. It was a ‘silly old dad’ kind of thing.

“It was during the show, when Wally Boag made his entrance, guns blazing, that we noticed dad up in the balcony. He exchanged fire with Wally… thumb and forefinger ‘bang bang bang’ … do you know what I mean? And then decided, apparently, that he'd like to be down there sharing the stage with Wally, and began his descent which, I found, was well documented by the photographer. It was good theater, actually. One must remember that dad began his career that way, on the vaudeville stages of Kansas City, with his pal Walt Pfeiffer.”

This July 13th would have marked the 85th wedding anniversary of Walt and Lillian, and while there have been many special parties and celebrations in Disneyland over the decades, I don’t believe that there was any that were as magical and heart-warming as that very first party in Frontierland. So as we celebrate more than half a century of Disneyland, let’s not forget that very first party that reminds us that the true story of Disneyland is about families coming together with friends to laugh and celebrate life.