On this date in 1955 Disneyland opened for the first time. I remember the date well because my late wife was born on that date. Disneyland is the first of two theme parks built at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. It is the only theme park designed and built under the direct supervision of Walt Disney. It was originally the only attraction on the property; its name was changed to Disneyland Park to distinguish it from the expanding complex in the 1990s. I visited in 1965 when my family was en route to England from Australia by ship – a memorable visit on a memorable trip. As a youngster I had watched The Mickey Mouse Club which frequently featured Disneyland, so I was well familiar with the park before my visit. In many ways it was like the original park (including the fact that the staff were mostly white and Asian – I don’t recall any African-American or Hispanic employees). At the end of The Mickey Mouse Club episodes there was a tribute to the young viewers referring to them as the “leaders of the 21st century,” which I thought of at the time as an incredibly remote era.
Walt Disney came up with the concept of Disneyland after visiting various amusement parks with his daughters in the 1930s and 1940s. He initially envisioned building a tourist attraction adjacent to his studios in Burbank to entertain fans who wished to visit; however, he soon realized that the proposed site was too small. After hiring a consultant to help him determine an appropriate site for his project, Walt bought a 160-acre (65 ha) site near Anaheim in 1953. Construction began in 1954 and the park was unveiled during a special televised press event on the ABC Television Network on July 17, 1955.
The concept for Disneyland began when Walt Disney was visiting Griffith Park in Los Angeles with his daughters Diane and Sharon. While watching them ride the merry-go-round, he came up with the idea of a place where adults and their children could go and have fun together, though his dream lay dormant for many years. He may have also been influenced by his father’s memories of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (his father worked at the Exposition). The Midway Plaisance there included a set of attractions representing various countries from around the world and others representing various periods in the history of humans; it also included many rides, notably the first Ferris wheel, a “sky” ride, a passenger train that circled the perimeter, and a Wild West Show. Another likely influence was Benton Harbor, Michigan’s nationally famous House of David’s Eden Springs Park. Disney visited the park and ultimately bought one of the older miniature trains originally used there; the colony had the largest miniature railway setup in the world at the time. The earliest documented draft of Disney’s plans was sent as a memo to studio production designer Dick Kelsey on August 31, 1948, where it was referred to as a “Mickey Mouse Park”, based on notes Walt made during his and Ward Kimball’s trip to Chicago Railroad Fair the same month, with a two-day stop in Henry Ford’s Museum and Greenfield Village, a place with attractions like a Main Street and steamboat rides, which he had visited eight years earlier.
While people wrote letters to Disney about visiting the Walt Disney Studios, he felt that a functional movie studio had little to offer to visiting fans (he was wrong), and began to foster ideas of building a site near the Burbank studios for tourists to visit. His ideas evolved to a small play park with a boat ride and other themed areas. The initial concept, the Mickey Mouse Park, started with an 8-acre (3.2 ha) plot across Riverside Drive. He started to visit other parks for inspiration and ideas, including Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, Efteling in the Netherlands and Greenfield Village, Playland, and Children’s Fairyland in the United States; and (according to the film director Ken Annakin, in his autobiography ‘So You want to be a film director?’), Bekonscot Model Village & Railway, in Beaconsfield in England. His designers began working on concepts, though the project grew much larger than the land could hold. Disney hired Harrison Price from Stanford Research Institute to gauge the proper site to locate the theme park based on the area’s potential growth. Based on Price’s analysis, Disney acquired 160 acres (65 ha) of orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim, southeast of Los Angeles in neighboring Orange County. The Burbank site originally considered by Disney is now home to Walt Disney Animation Studios and ABC Studios.
Difficulties in obtaining funding prompted Disney to investigate new methods of fundraising, deciding to create a show named Disneyland. It was broadcast on then-fledgling ABC. In return, the network agreed to help finance the park. For its first five years of operation, Disneyland was owned by Disneyland, Inc., which was jointly owned by Walt Disney Productions, Walt Disney, Western Publishing and ABC. In addition, Disney rented out many of the shops on Main Street, U.S.A. to outside companies. By 1960, Walt Disney Productions bought out all other shares, a partnership which would eventually lead to the Walt Disney Corporation’s acquisition of ABC in the mid-1990s. In 1952, the proposed project had been called Disneylandia, but Disney followed ABC’s advice and changed it to Disneyland two years later, when excavation of the site began. Construction began on July 16, 1954 and cost $17 million to complete. The park was opened one year and one day later. U.S. Route 101 (later Interstate 5) was under construction at the same time just north of the site; in preparation for the traffic Disneyland was expected to bring, two more lanes were added to the freeway before the park was finished.
Disneyland was dedicated at an “International Press Preview” event held on Sunday, July 17, 1955, which was only open to invited guests and the media. Although 28,000 people attended the event, only about half of those were actual invitees, the rest having purchased counterfeit tickets. The following day, it opened to the public, featuring twenty attractions. The Special Sunday events, including the dedication, were televised nationwide and anchored by three of Walt Disney’s friends from Hollywood: Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan. ABC broadcast the event live, during which many guests tripped over the television camera cables. In Frontierland, a camera caught Cummings kissing a dancer. When Disney started to read the plaque for Tomorrowland, he read partway then stopped when a technician off-camera said something to him, and after realizing he was on-air, said, “I thought I got a signal”, and began the dedication from the start. At one point, while in Fantasyland, Linkletter tried to give coverage to Cummings, who was on the pirate ship. He was not ready, and tried to give the coverage back to Linkletter, who had lost his microphone. Cummings then did a play-by-play of him trying to find it in front of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
Traffic was delayed on the two-lane Harbor Boulevard. Famous figures who were scheduled to show up every two hours showed up all at once. The temperature was an unusually high 101 °F (38 °C), and because of a local plumbers’ strike, Disney was given a choice of having working drinking fountains or running toilets. He chose the latter, leaving many drinking fountains dry. This generated negative publicity since Pepsi sponsored the park’s opening; disappointed guests believed the inoperable fountains were a cynical way to sell soda, while other vendors ran out of food. The asphalt that had been poured that morning was soft enough to let ladies’ high-heeled shoes sink into it. A gas leak in Fantasyland caused Adventureland, Frontierland, and Fantasyland to close for the afternoon. Some parents threw their children over the crowd’s shoulders to get them on to rides, such as the King Arthur Carrousel. In later years, Disney and his 1955 executives referred to July 17, 1955 as “Black Sunday”.
After the extremely negative press from the preview opening, Walt Disney invited attendees back for a private “second day” to experience Disneyland properly. The next day, crowds gathered in line as early as 2:00 am. The first person to buy a ticket and enter the park was David MacPherson with ticket number 2, as Roy O. Disney arranged to pre-purchase ticket number 1 from Curtis Lineberry, the manager of admissions. However, an official picture of Walt Disney and two children, Christine Vess Watkins (age 5) and Michael Schwartner, inaccurately identifies them as the first two guests of Disneyland. Both received lifetime passes to Disneyland that day, and MacPherson was awarded one shortly thereafter, which was later expanded to every single Disney-owned park in the world. Approximately 50,000 people attended the Monday opening day.
As part of the Casa de Fritos food concession at Disneyland, “Doritos” (Spanish for “little golden things”) were created at the park to help use up old tortillas that were being discarded. The Frito-Lay Company saw the popularity of the item and decided to sell them regionally in 1964, and then nationwide in 1966. The Frito-Lay website has a recipe page for Doritos here:
The most obvious dish to celebrate a theme park is nachos. There’s nothing to it. You layer a large dish with corn chips, top with a generous layer of your favorite melting cheese, melt it under a grill, then add the toppings you want such as sliced black olives and jalapeños (my usual standbys).