ANTICIPATING THE BIG DAY
Walt Disney began envisioning Disneyland when he visited amusement parks with his daughters in the 1930’s and 40’s. He noticed that those parks catered primarily to children, and imagined a park that would be as entertaining for adults as it would be for their kids. When he began conceptualizing Disneyland, Walt realized he would not have enough room to build the park beside his studios in Burbank, so he purchased 160 acres of land in Anaheim. Crews broke ground on Disneyland in 1954, and Opening Day came approximately one year later.
In total, initial construction of Disneyland cost over $17 million, and affected the growth of the entire city of Anaheim. Highway 101, the major interstate under construction in the 1950’s, built two additional lanes in anticipation of new traffic after Disneyland’s opening.
On July 17th, 1955, after a full year of construction and design adjustments, Walt officiated the opening ceremony for Disneyland. ABC broadcast the ceremony live at 2:30 pm, and at the time it was the biggest live telecast in history. After being introduced to the crowd by actor (and future president) Ronald Reagan, Walt gave a speech to over 28,000 guests. In his speech, Walt invited guests to share in his dream:
“To all who come to this happy place: welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past, and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”
Finally, the gates to Disneyland opened to the public, and anxious visitors flooded into the park. Famous guests on Opening Day included Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Jr., Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, and Danny Thomas.
After making his speech and leading the dedication ceremony, Walt seemed to disappear when the gates finally opened. But he hadn’t gone far; Walt watched the crowds arrive in Main Street USA from his private apartment above the Fire Station. On Opening Day, he saw his dream become reality.
Although Opening Day introduced Disneyland to decades of success and widespread popularity, the park’s first day did not run smoothly. In fact, many cast members dubbed July 17th 1955 “Black Sunday” due to the vast number of technical and logistical problems within the park.
Last minute preparations the night before Opening Day cut a little too close to the ceremonial opening. Some of the paint and poured asphalt had not fully dried, making the ground horribly sticky. To make matters worse, temperatures that Sunday reached over 100 degrees, leaving tons of guests very hot and uncomfortable.
Several of the rides broke down throughout the day, including the Storybook Land Canal Boats and Autopia. All of Fantasyland actually closed for a few hours due to a gas leak. And Disneyland came close to a disaster when the vastly overcrowded Mark Twain Riverboat nearly sank.
However, Opening Day’s biggest problem was the sheer number of curious visitors. Walt and his staff anticipated major crowds for the park’s open, so they sold special tickets with designated entry times to stagger crowds. But this plan didn’t work, since the earlier guests never left, and the park became more and more crowded. In fact, the combination of all-day visitors and counterfeit ticket sales led to twice as many park visitors as anticipated. As a result of the overcrowding, restaurants and food stands quickly ran out of snacks and beverages.
THE HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH
Although the media were less than impressed with Disneyland’s Opening Day, the general public clearly understood and identified with Walt’s vision. Walt and the Imagineers quickly repaired the issues that plagued Black Sunday, and before long Disneyland became a renowned national treasure. Though the park has undergone incredible transformations and expansions (including a brand new park – California Adventure), Disneyland stays true to its original charm and character. Since 1955, Disneyland has captured the imagination of guests young and old, and has now become a world famous American icon.