The First Day Disneyland Opened Was a Disaster
When Walt threw open the gates on his brand new magical kingdom in Anaheim, California, it was July 17, 1955. He could have never have imagined the chaos that would unfold that first day.
Controlled chaos was germane to the culture of Disney, at least back when Walt was in charge, at least behind the scenes. Walt pushed every opportunity for greatness. It was the way he drove his films, and the same way he drove his brand.
Disneyland obviously survived the craziness, which we’ll get into in a minute, but without Walt behind the wheel, it could have been another Wonderland or Luna Park.
Wonderland was the beachfront amusement park in San Diego which failed in 1916 after three years. Luna Park was another failed Park, up near the San Francisco Bay also closed in 1916.
The state of California alone is home to over two dozen failed amusement parks. But, none of them had Walt behind the scenes.
Walt Disney was the great captain who sailed Disneyland through roughest seas so that future leaders could take the brand further.
Walt Disney’s reputation was for driving success. It wasn’t enough to make a good animation called, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” It had to be the best, untouchable, the same way as his first cartoon “Steamboat Willie.”
That film was the first to implement sound into animation. Snow White took three years to make, but when it launched, Disney owned the box office. He owned animation, at least for a minute.
When Walt set out to open Disneyland in 1955, it was in 1954. He would spend one year and one day, personally overseeing the design and construction of the park. (Later parks would not have as much involvement from Walt if any.)
Walt was so determined, he ignored the advice of the bankers, and that of his own brother. At that point, he had something to lose.
The Disney brand was already success. He banked it all on that reputation. A failed park could bury him, the same way parks had already ruined so many before him.
But, Walt knew how to push for success. It was the same way he pushed his animators to develop new techniques that he pushed park developers to make his park as he saw fit.
He’d spent two decades planning it, and it opened on time and prepared or so it seemed.
In 1953, Walt Disney scooped up a plot of land in Anaheim, California, a former orange grove. He immediately set about transforming the idea in his head into a park layout on his newly acquired plot.
In short order, that purchase and the subsequent flood of opportunities would overhaul that city like nothing else. Decades on, the city would struggle to stay ahead of the growth.
For anyone who’s been to Anaheim, other than the Angel’s Stadium, it’s all about Disneyland. In fact, Disney once part-owned the Angels baseball team.
Anaheim may have started as farmland, but today it’s freeway-to-freeway hotels and restaurants. Every road through Anaheim bends towards one goal; coax traffic from the airports in an orderly fashion to the front gate of Disneyland.
What Walt did, not only changed Anaheim forever, but all of Southern California. Every hub into California had to grow too in the wake of Disneyland. But, on day one it seemed the bakers and Walt’s brother were right.
It was gonna bankrupt him.
There was a public opening day for the park on the 18th, but there was an invite-only event scheduled for July 17th. Walt limited access to his $17-million project on day one to only 6,000 guests.
What he didn’t expect was that someone would counterfeit those passes.
Actor Ronald Reagan hosted a 90-minute opening day special for the park on ABC. Estimates at the time were that viewers for that show exceeded 165 million. That was only the TV viewers. To give context, ABC expected around 70-million of them.
At the park itself, the 6,000 tickets ballooned into over 28,000 attendees, way more than the venue could handle. Walt let them all in.
He didn’t, however, agree to the ones who scaled the wall using a ladder. Those folks made it in by way of a guy charging $5 apiece for use of his ladder.
All hell broke loose. The food vendors ran out of food and drinks. The throngs of traffic into Anaheim clogged roadways so much that special guests couldn’t get to the gates.
A plumber’s strike forced Walt to make a choice, toilets or fountains. He went with the toilets; smart.
What was worse, it was hot. The asphalt was so hot, women broke and lost heels in the tar. Mark Twain’s riverboat listed from the excessive weight.
That day was so bad, Walt had to submit a formal apology via the press. For years, folks at Disneyland referred to the 17th “Black Sunday,” but Disneyland did recover.
Walt made it work. He proved the investors and his brother wrong. Seven weeks after Black Sunday, Disneyland marked its millionth guest.
In 2016, Disneyland admitted 18.2 millions visitors. Los Angeles County hosted 47.3 million that year, and while many of the visitors to Disneyland were likely from California, many of those 47.3 million were in Los Angeles to visit the park.
It was all because Walt was at the helm.