On July 17th, 2000 the world’s first “Theme Park” will celebrate it’s forty-fifth birthday. In the years since it’s unprecedented opening on July 17, 1955, more than four-hundred million guests have entered its gates. From adventures in a pirate’s cave, to a speedy bobsled ride on the Matterhorn Mountain, millions have encountered an experience only available at Disneyland.
However, an idea for a park by Walt Disney existed before 1955. First, we must begin with Walt Disney’s fascination with trains. As a young boy Walt worked on the trains, going back and forth in Missouri.
As years passed by, Walt began his own business, the Laugh-O-Gram Company, in partnership with Ub Iwerks. This was Walt’s main turning point; this is where he began his animation career.
Years after this, Walt owned his own company, the Walt Disney Studios, now in California. After the huge success of the first feature length animated production, Snow White, the studio was ready to expand even further. Walt invested in a huge piece of property in Burbank, California. His new studio would have new animation buildings, sound stages, and recording rooms.
With this new studio, Walt wanted to maintain it as if it was a city. This is the first evidence of Walt’s own “fantasy” type world. He wanted to create an environment for his employees that would be better than outside life.
Walt was serious with his work. To take out some of the frustration in his work, he played polo. However, one day, while playing, he injured his back, causing him excruciating pain for the rest of his life. So, in 1938, he had to give up playing polo. So, without a sport to vent his anger, gained from his strenuous work, Hazel George (the studio nurse) suggested to Walt that he obtain a hobby. This is where the railroads come back into Walt’s life.
Walt wasn’t the only person at the studio who was fascinated with trains, Ward Kimball had a full scale “Grizzly Flats Railroad” on his property. Ollie Johnston had his own railroad as well. Actually, Ollie had two. Walt became even better friends with these animators, and helped out with their trains often.
In 1948, the Chicago Railroad Fair attracted the attention of Walt. He invited Ward Kimball to join him. During this trip, Walt told stories and revealed a bit of information about himself. Ward Kimball recalled a memory from the trip:
“While in Chicago with Walt he asked if there were any places I wanted to go. I told him of a jazz place, and he said ‘You can do that anytime! Let’s go ride the El.’ So we rode that elevated train half the night and he was looking out the window reliving his childhood.”
On the way back from Chicago, Walt wrote ideas down of his own “magical little park,” which he labeled Mickey Mouse Park. A memo came from his office a few weeks after his return, detailing the idea of a park across the street from the studio. The park would have a western village, a Main Street, and more.The 1948 Chicago Railroad Exposition must have been exciting for Walt Disney. Hundreds of train displays were available. Ward and Walt were even able to run some of the new locomotive displays. Also, during this trip Ward and Walt traveled to the Thomas Edison estate, in Greenfield Village, where they saw some of America’s most historical buildings; such as the Thomas Edison laboratory, and the Wright Brothers’ bicycle shop.
Soon after this railway excursion Walt built his own railroad, in the backyard of his Holmby Hills home. Walt used the craftsman of his own studio to help create his Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Roger Broggie helped instruct Walt on how to maintain the trains, and work them properly.
Walt hired the two Evans Brothers, who later helped landscape Disneyland, to furnish his railroad with plants and trees. His backyard railroad opened May 15, 1950, with the first engine, the Lilly Belle (named after his wife, Lillian) running around the back of his Holmby Hills home. This is where ideas emerged, and were invisibly being put together in Walt’s mind, for his own park.
As the famous story goes, Walt used to take his two daughters to a park in Los Angeles. As he watched his girls, he would sit in a bench observing the filthy conditions. Walt used to say, “there needs to be a park where families can have fun, together.” He didn’t like the current amusement parks, “They’re so honky tonk, with a lot of questionable characters,” he’d say.
Walt’s idea began to grow, beyond the limits of the “Mickey Mouse Park,” across the street from the Studio. He planned to search for a park that would be like his. He sent a few people off looking for something similar, but they found nothing. Walt even traveled himself. He used to say “There’s nothing like it in the world! I know….I’ve looked.”
Now the ideas began forming into reality. He formalized a plan: the park would have a town square, a train station, a fire department, a police department, and a western village.
One weekend in 1952, Walt called Herb Ryman, an artist who worked at the studio. Walt asked Herb if he would drive down to the Burbank Studio. This is where Disneyland was finally given a look. When Herb came down, Walt described Disneyland, and had Herb create renderings of his descriptions
Herb Ryman recalled the historical weekend:
“Walt described Disneyland. ‘Roy has to go to New York on Monday to get the money for this. We need a plan to show what it will look like. You know those bankers don’t have any imagination.’
I said: ‘Who’s going to do this plan?’ And Walt said, “You are, Herb.” So the first drawings of Disneyland were done that Saturday and Sunday.
Location was a top priority. The property would have to be within the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and accessible by freeway. It would also have to be affordable: Walt’s pockets were only so deep.In 1953, Walt had the Stanford Research Institute conduct a survey for a 100-acre site, somewhere outside of Los Angeles. He needed space to build rivers, waterfalls, and mountains; he would have flying elephants and giant teacups, a fairy-tale castle, moon rockets, and a scenic railway; all inside a magic kingdom he called “Disneyland.”
The search for the best spot finally ended in rural Anaheim, California with a purchase of a 160-acre orange grove near the junction of the Santa Ana Freeway (I-5) and Harbor Boulevard. Interstate 5 was still being built at the time of Disneyland’s construction. This is one reason Disneyland would be built so close to it.