LIFE Inside the Disney Parks: The Happiest Places on Earth

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Transcript of LIFE Inside the Disney Parks: The Happiest Places on Earth

LIFE Inside the Disney Parks: The Happiest Places on Earth - PDFDrive.comTwilight descended over Spaceship Earth, the 180-foot-tall geodesic sphere that forms the centerpiece of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park.
Contents Introduction: Walt’s “Screwy” Idea The Beginnings The California Years The World After Walt Tokyo and Beyond Just One More
The World of Color nightly light and water show at Disneyland’s California Adventure, built on the site of the park’s former parking lot.
Walt’s “Screwy” Idea By J.I. Baker Walt Disney spent his life dreaming
impossible dreams—and usually realizing them. In 1928, he created the first animated short with synchronized sound (Steamboat Willie), which turned Mickey Mouse into an international superstar. Less than a decade later, Disney released the first full-length animated feature (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), which became the most successful American film up to that point. And in the early 1950s, Walt
dreamed the most impossible dream of them all: an amusement park to end all
amusement parks. He would call it
Disneyland. Though it’s hard to believe now, the park’s success was anything but certain. In fact,
Roy Disney—Walt’s brother and financial partner—thought it was yet another one of “Walt’s screwy ideas,” and bankers refused to lend the company a dime. “When he started Disneyland, he didn’t have a friend in the world,” one colleague said. But Walt persevered, as always. “Sometimes I wonder if ‘common sense’ isn’t another way of saying ‘fear,’” he said. “And fear too often spells failure.” In the face of enormous obstacles (record rainfall, labor strikes), a ballooning budget
(total price tag: $17 million), and a disastrous opening day (women’s high heels sunk in Main Street’s still-drying asphalt), Disney prevailed. His “screwy idea” quickly became an enormous hit—and eventually changed popular culture forever. Of course, he kept dreaming, making plans for an even more ambitious park (Walt
Disney World) that would include a place that he felt would transform the country’s future (EPCOT). Sadly, he didn’t live to see these become a reality, but the spread of Disney parks throughout the world (Tokyo, Paris, and Shanghai among them) and the astronomical ongoing success of the company he founded proves beyond a doubt that Disney’s “impossible” dream endures.
The Mad Tea Party ride, inspired by Alice in Wonderland, in Disneyland’s Fantasyland, circa 1955.
The Beginnings How Walt Disney’s midlife obsession with miniatures and trains led to the creation of the world’s greatest theme
Walt Disney crossed the drawbridge that serves as the entrance to Sleeping Beauty Castle in the heart of Disneyland, circa 1955. The original site of the castle proved to be overrun with feral cats, which animal
lover Disney took pains to save.
It was June 1955—only six weeks before Disneyland was scheduled to open—and Walt Disney was worried. His risky new park in Anaheim, California, was still a work in progress—hardly more than the orange groves it had been built on. From the start, construction had been plagued with problems, including a record deluge of rain. Now Main Street wasn’t paved; Sleeping Beauty Castle—the centerpiece of the park— wasn’t finished; and Tomorrowland barely existed. Plumbers told Disney that, because of a strike, they couldn’t make both the drinking fountains and the bathrooms work. Walt, of course, opted to fix the bathrooms. “People can buy Pepsi-Cola,” he said, “but
they can’t pee in the street.” The project itself had repeatedly gone over its original budget of $4.5 million. Two
months after construction began in July 1954, the cost had risen to $7 million. Then it skyrocketed to $11 million. “We were still talking $11 million in April when I was walking down Main Street with [Disney’s older brother] Roy and a representative from Bank of America, who scanned the project and said it looked closer to $15 million,” said Joe Fowler, the former Navy rear admiral who had been put in charge of the park’s construction. By opening day, the investment had risen to a whopping $17 million—largely
because Disney himself was never satisfied, a personal characteristic that led to a process he called “plussing.” As he did with his films, the 53-year-old wanted everything to be bigger, better, more surprising, and more innovative. At the last minute, for instance, he decided that he wanted to create an attraction featuring the giant squid from his 1954 hit 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which he helped spray- paint on the night before the opening—even as he continued to micromanage everything else. At three a.m., he was demanding new murals: “Get me an artist!” he shouted. But Walt ultimately let go—well, he had to—and on the morning of July 17, 1955,
Disneyland opened to an overflowing crowd of 28,000 people. Despite the considerable flaws, it was a revolutionary moment in American culture—and the fulfillment of a dream that had begun less than a decade before with, of all things, a model train.
On December 8, 1947, Walt wrote a letter to his sister: “I bought myself a birthday present—something I’ve wanted all my life—an electric train . . . I have set it up in one of the outer rooms adjoining my office so that I can play with it when I have a spare moment. It’s a freight train with a whistle, and real smoke comes out of the smokestack —there are switches, semaphores, stations, and everything. It’s just wonderful!” The filmmaker had been fascinated by trains ever since his boyhood in Marceline,
Missouri, the small town where his father, Elias, moved his family in 1906, having failed as a carpenter in Chicago. Little more than a whistle stop between the Windy City and Kansas City, Missouri, Marceline was nevertheless a bucolic paradise for little Walt, who spent his four short years there prowling Main Street, sketching the animals that populated the family farm, and, not least, marveling at the locomotives. The experience exerted an enduring influence on nearly everything Disney did—from homey films like Pollyanna to Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. It was, in fact, “the most important part of Walt’s life,” his wife, Lillian, later said. The youthful idyll didn’t last. Times were hard, and Elias was not cut out for farming.
In 1911, he once again uprooted his family and moved to Kansas City, where he was reduced to running a paper route. His principle employees were, not surprisingly, his four sons. Little Walt, the youngest, would rise in the predawn darkness and work all day—often in freezing cold and snow so deep it sometimes reached his neck. Now and then he fell asleep, exhausted, in apartment foyers. But the beleaguered boy nurtured big dreams that reflected the two things that would end up defining his life: escape and control. Eventually he found both of them in Hollywood. In the 1920s, having embarked on
an unsuccessful career as an animator, he traveled west—by train, of course—to join his brother Roy, who had sought relief from chronic respiratory ailments in the warm desert air. “I packed all of my worldly goods—a pair of trousers, a checkered coat, a lot of drawing materials, and the last of the fairy-tale reels we had made—in a kind of frayed cardboard suitcase,” Walt said later. “And with that wonderful audacity of youth, I went to Hollywood, arriving there with just $40.” He and Roy, his business partner, found little opportunity at first, but after years of
struggle, he finally hit upon the idea that would make his career—a creature that one of his colleagues characterized thusly: “Pear-shaped body, ball on top, couple of thin legs. You gave it long ears and it was a rabbit. Short ears, it was a cat. Ears hanging down, a dog . . . With an elongated nose, it became a mouse.” At first Walt called his new character “Mortimer Mouse,” but Lillian Bounds, the
Disney studio worker who had become the boss’s wife in 1925, thought the moniker was “too sissy.” Instead, she suggested “Mickey.” The plucky little rodent became an instant star—thanks to Steamboat Willie, the first
cartoon short to use synchronized sound. But Disney quickly sought new challenges— notably the creation of the first animated feature-length film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in the 1930s. The project was so audacious, so expensive, and so risky that it came to be called “Disney’s Folly.” Like Disneyland nearly two decades later, the project kept going over budget, but after the film opened on December 21, 1937, it became the most successful American film to date. Things mostly went downhill from there—financially, at least. Of Disney’s first five
classic cartoon features, only two (Snow White and Dumbo) were hits (the others were Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi). By the late 1940s, the Disney brand was in the doldrums—defined by pleasantly unexceptional fare like Fun and Fancy Free (1947) and Melody Time (1947). There were a few high points (commercially, at least) in the years that followed. In 1948, a faked live-action documentary, Seal Island, became the first in a series of successful True-Life Adventures—a precursor to today’s reality TV.
And 1950’s Cinderella was an unexpected hit, but Walt could only see what was wrong with it. “I’ll never make anything as good as Snow White,” he said. Disillusioned and depressed, Walt was losing interest in the movies. Instead, he
became obsessed with trains. Enlisting his employees to build a scale-model locomotive, he spent more and more time supervising it—until he finally rolled up his sleeves and started building it himself. The obsession only grew after Walt bought a new home in Holmby Hills in 1950.
There, he had a replica of his father’s Marceline barn built in the backyard, where it became home to what he called the Carolwood-Pacific Railroad. (The barn can still be seen in Los Angeles’s Griffith Park.) He called his 1:8-scale train the Lilly Belle, after his wife, who, in spite of the tribute, refused to let Walt lay tracks through her garden. Rather than stopping him, it spurred him to build a tunnel underneath it. Even that wasn’t enough for Disney, who insisted that it be built with an s curve to give its riders twisty thrills in the dark. “Walt, it’d be a lot cheaper if you built the tunnel straight,” his foreman told him. “Hell, it’d be cheaper not to do this at all,” he replied. Walt’s growing obsession with trains merged with his interest in the creation of
intricate miniature worlds. This had begun in 1939 when he toured the collection of tiny scale-model post-16th-century European interiors created by Mrs. James Ward Thorne at San Francisco’s Golden Gate International Exposition. A decade later, Walt started working on a 1:8-scale model of Granny Kincaid’s cabin from his 1948 film So Dear to My Heart. For a while, Walt toyed with the idea of creating a touring exhibition of miniatures
called Disneylandia, but when that proved logistically and financially prohibitive, he incorporated them into his trains instead. The Lilly Belle’s yellow caboose, for instance, featured a small potbellied stove. “I had a pattern made up, and it turned out so cute with the grate, shaker, and door, and all the little working parts, I became intrigued with the idea,” Walt wrote. “I had a few made up: one was bronze, another black, and I even made a gold one! Then we made more and started painting them in motifs that fitted the period at the turn of the century.” Though Walt was a dreamer, he was also a practical midwestern boy, and in 1952
Lillian began to suspect that his obsession was becoming much more than mere boyish regression. He had, for instance, sold their Palm Springs vacation home and borrowed against his life insurance policy. “It was one of those moments when Walt’s imagination was going to take off into the wild blue yonder, and everything will explode,” she said. This time, the explosion took the form of an amusement park.
During World War II, American amusement parks were mostly tawdry affairs, offering
“dime-a-dance and beer halls and burlesque theaters,” Jim Hillman, author of Amusement Parks and a director of the National Amusement Park Historical Association, tells LIFE. “Since the servicemen brought cash, a precious commodity in war years, the parks attracted an element of crime and seediness—drugs, pickpockets, even prostitutes. After the war, the parks were seen as eyesores—dirty, morally corrupt, seedy—because they had yet to adapt to the renewal of family seen in the wholesome 1950s.” When Lillian told Walt that amusement parks “weren’t safe,” he responded, “Mine’s
not going to be like that.” In 1953, Walt hired Harrison Price and the Stanford Research Institute to find an
ideal spot for his park. After analyzing population data and other harbingers of success, they recommended 160 acres of orange groves and walnut trees in Anaheim, California. For one thing, the nearby Santa Ana Freeway was rapidly expanding, allowing easy access to the park. The bad news? It would cost about $11 million. “Where am I going to get that kind of money?” Disney asked. A good question—particularly since success was far from certain. Even loyal Roy
thought the park would bankrupt the studio, but Walt kept his own counsel as always. “Sometimes I wonder if ‘common sense’ isn’t another way of saying ‘fear,’” he said. “And fear too often spells failure.” Still, he was dependent on the “common sense” of bankers—he dismissively called them “the sharp-pencil guys”—and they predictably balked at his plans. “I could never convince the financiers that Disneyland was feasible, because dreams offer too little collateral,” Walt said. Eventually Walt found an unlikely funding source: television. In 1953, Walt and Roy
took their idea for a new anthology television show called Disneyland to market, on the condition that the acquiring network invest in the park. (The price tag: a whopping $15 million, in return for 35 percent ownership of Disneyland.) When the two established networks, CBS and NBC, balked, Walt and Roy approached the struggling ABC—then the least successful of the three broadcasters. “ABC needed a television show so damn bad that they bought the amusement park,” Walt said. On October 27, 1954, Disneyland premiered on ABC. It was an immediate hit,
becoming the first ABC show to enter the Nielson Top 10. Though the Disneys lost money on the program, it had not been designed to generate profits but rather as an hour-long weekly advertisement for the upcoming park. Since Walt’s concept for Disneyland involved five distinct “lands” (Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Tomorrowland, and Main Street, U.S.A.), every Disneyland episode showcased at least one of them. Not surprisingly, Disneyland’s themed areas all reflected their creator’s various
passions. Frontierland, for instance, represented Disney’s romanticized vision of America’s past—not to mention an idealized version of his own childhood. Featuring rides on Conestoga wagons, pack mules, and the Mark Twain Riverboat, the area “reminds me of my youthful days in Missouri,” Walt said. “I put into it all the things I wanted to do as a kid but couldn’t, including getting into a ride without a ticket.” He was referring specifically to Tom Sawyer Island, which featured Injun Joe’s Cave and Huckleberry Finn’s Fishing Pier, an idea that would literally stink. (More on that later.) Adventureland embodied the exotic fantasies that young Walt had nurtured as a poor paperboy. The land’s highlight was the Jungle Cruise, inspired in part by the 1951 film The African Queen. “To create a land that would make this dream reality, we pictured ourselves far from civilization, in the remote jungles of Asia and Africa,” Disney said. Walt’s enduring belief in progress and the possibilities of technology was reflected in
Tomorrowland, though it was the least fully realized of the lands. It was also the last to be finished—partly because Walt found it difficult to keep up with the future he was supposed to be celebrating. (This in the days before the Internet and smartphones!) The heart and soul of the park—indeed of the Disney brand itself—was Fantasyland. “What youngster hasn’t dreamed of flying with Peter Pan over moonlit London?” Walt said in full-blown promotional mode. “Here in the ‘happiest kingdom of them all,’ you can journey with Snow White through the dark forest to the diamond mine of the Seven Dwarfs; flee the clutches of Mr. Smee and Captain Hook with Peter Pan; and race with Mr. Toad in his wild auto ride through the streets of old London Town.” The most important aspect of Fantasyland was Sleeping Beauty Castle. Inspired by
the 19th-century Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, it was the focal point of the whole park. Though it had initially been planned as Snow White Castle, the name was changed by Disney to cross-promote the 1959 film Sleeping Beauty, which was still in production—the sort of commercial and artistic synergy that defines the Disney brand to this day. Attempting to learn from the best while avoiding the mistakes of the worst, Walt and
his Imagineers (the name eventually given to the movie studio creatives he brought in to develop the theme parks) traveled all over the world, studying carnivals, county fairs, zoos, and such parks as Knott’s Berry Farm and Rye Playland. (He was depressed by New York’s Coney Island but cheered by Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens.) “Walt brought the best parks’ best practices under one umbrella,” Hillman says. “So it wasn’t so much entirely new ideas but a synthesis of all that was good.” Construction on the park began in July 1954, with opening day a mere year away—an
impossibly ambitious schedule, given that Walt was doing something that had never been done before. Actually, he was doing many things that had never been done before
—beginning with the park’s layout. “I’ve been studying the way people go to museums and other entertainment places,” Disney said. As a result, Disneyland was designed with a single entrance (most parks at the time had more than one) and was built around a central hub, helping focus and streamline visitors’ experiences. At the center of the hub is Sleeping Beauty Castle, which towers over the far end of
Main Street. Lured in that direction, guests arrive at the convergence of avenues to the various lands, which radiate from the castle like spokes on a wheel. “Today the hub- and-spoke model is so prevalent in parks that it’s almost hard to imagine it as an innovation, but at the time it was a design revolution,” Disney expert Rob Pimentel tells LIFE. Eventually it influenced not only other theme parks but Delta Airlines’ terminals. To help direct visitors’ movements, Disney employed what he called “weenies”—a
term that came from a game he used to play with the family’s poodle, Lady. According to his daughter Diane, Disney “would go to the refrigerator and pull out two uncooked hot dogs, one for himself and one for the dog. He would play with her, wiggling the hot dog around and she would go wherever he moved around and was so happy when she finally got her treat.” The train station was both the entrance to the park and the centerpiece of Main
Street, with its locomotives circling the park’s perimeter. Tomorrowland was defined by a world clock and a TWA rocket, while the Mark Twain Riverboat was the focal point of Frontierland. Sleeping Beauty Castle was, of course, the gateway to Fantasyland. The only area without a weenie was Adventureland, and this was a deliberate omission, according to Pimentel. “Imagineers wanted to preserve the sense of mystery that Adventureland was supposed to evoke,” he says. “You were meant to be drawn in by what you couldn’t see.” The innovations didn’t stop with the layout. The galleries of shops along Main Street
influenced the development of shopping malls, for instance, and Disney created a college for employees, who were called “cast members.” They were onstage, Disney emphasized, so they had to remember that they were playing happy people in the Happiest Place on Earth. “Visitors at Disneyland were considered guests of the Kingdom,” says Hillman, “not just gullible customers.” Eventually Disney introduced other revolutionary concepts—name tags, switchback queue lines, and ticket tiers among them—all meant to help streamline visitors’ experiences. Many of these innovations stemmed from Disney’s background in cinema. “No one
had ever tried to tell a story in an amusement park before,” said Marty Sklar, an Imagineer who was one of the “Disney Legends” and the only employee involved in the opening of all 12 of the existing theme parks. (He died in 2017 after giving one of his
last interviews to LIFE.) “And here Walt was inventing a whole new genre again.” Though Walt initially hired an architectural firm to design the park, the real work was
eventually done by the Imagineers, who brought a cinematic sensibility to the park. “Walt had a high sensitivity, I think, for timing and the way things relate to each other —and this, of course, came from the film work,” key Imagineer John Hench has said. “This is what film is all about, connecting ideas so they relate to one another. A motion picture is an act of communication. It consists of ideas—sometimes very complex ones —that you want other people to understand, and you want them to understand them the way you intended them to, without wandering off on their own . . . With the background we had, this was a very easy thing to apply to the third dimension.” One of Disneyland’s most important filmic devices involved the use of forced
perspective: buildings on Main Street, for instance, are wider at the top than they are at the bottom, making them seem taller than they really are, while such attractions as the Mark Twain Riverboat and the trains are scaled down to create a more intimate atmosphere. The dynamic colors that animated—literally—the Disney films were brought to the park by veteran set designer Claude Coats. As with any story, Disneyland was defined as much by what was excluded as what was
included. This involved shutting out all reminders of the “real” world. An elevated berm that surrounded the perimeter of the park, for instance, both blocked offending vistas and served as the railroad track. Disney also forbade alcohol—including at Frontierland’s Golden Horseshoe (which had been inspired by the Golden Garter saloon in the 1953 film Calamity Jane), where ice cream sundaes were served instead of firewater. As usual, nothing escaped Walt’s attention. “The lake is too small,” he would say. Or
“Let’s see if we can move that train wreck over another 50 feet.” Or “I need a jungle.” He was particularly obsessed with trees, which largely defined the various areas: Palms salvaged from the ongoing construction of the Santa Ana Freeway filled Adventureland, while pine forests were planted in Frontierland. (Disney himself selected wood he had found in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, because he liked its “unusual burls,” he said.) As opposed to the reduced scale of the riverboat and trains, Walt wanted his trees to be as big as possible. “Where’d you get the bushes?” he asked when one employee showed him trees that weren’t big enough. He even rejected one tree for being “out of character.” “He was a stickler for the details,” Hillman tells LIFE. “Even after the carousel horses
had been built, Walt had them redesigned to look like they were jumping, not merely galloping.” And when Walt insisted that the windows of the cottages that were featured in the Storybook Land Canal Boat ride be made of leaded glass, one of the builders
asked, “Who’ll know the difference?” “I’ll know the difference,” Walt snapped. The bottom line: Walt didn’t want anything fake in the park—even though the park
itself was nothing if not fake. To this day, many of the props found in and around attractions are authentic antiques gathered from auctions, swap meets, private collections, and abandoned towns and houses, according to Disney expert Jim Korkis, author of Secret Stories of Walt Disney World. “This all started with Walt himself purchasing vintage items for the Penny Arcade and Red Wagon Inn back in 1954,” he says. The park was also filled with what video game players call “Easter eggs”: For instance,
the names on the windows along Main Street, U.S.A. reflect people who are significant to the Disney story. (Disney’s father is featured in a window sign reading “ELIAS DISNEY, CONTRACTOR EST. 1895.”) Some fans search obsessively for the Mickey Mouse faces that are hidden throughout the park (look for three round rocks that represent his face in the Rivers of America). Less well known is the fact that Donald Duck faces are also waiting to be discovered. (“Look for his face on the chair near the never-ending hallway in the Haunted Mansion,” Korkis says.) As construction progressed, Walt grew more obsessed. “He knew where every pipe was,” Lillian once said. “He knew the height of every building.” Just as he used to stay for nights at the movie studio, Walt now practically lived in the apartment he had built over the Main Street firehouse—and he couldn’t have been happier. At last he had found a project that he could work on until it was perfect. “It’s something that will never be finished, something I can keep developing, ‘plussing’ and adding to . . . When you wrap up a picture and turn it over to Technicolor, you’re through . . . I want something live, something that would grow.” There were more than a few growing pains, however—from glitches in rides that
never seemed to be fixed (the Casey Jr. Circus Train almost jumped the tracks) to projects that were never completed. Consider the Rock Candy Mountain, which began as a small-scale model covered with real chocolate and marshmallows to represent rocks and snow. As the Imagineers worked on the project in a building without air conditioning, the candy began to melt. “It was positively nauseating,” said Hench. “It was like a dying candy factory.” The sticky project was soon abandoned. Despite—or because of—Walt’s fanatical attention to detail, the opening of the new
park wasn’t merely problematic. “It was a disaster,” said Sklar.
Disney oversaw the preparation of railroad tracks running through Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A., with Sleeping Beauty Castle in the background. The whole park stemmed from Disney’s obsession with model
Disney’s boyhood home of Marceline, Missouri (shown here in 2001). According to biographer Bob Thomas, “Walt Disney remembered nothing of his early years in Chicago, but the memories of Marceline
stayed with him throughout his lifetime.”
The animator who was chiefly responsible for the design of Mickey Mouse, Ub Iwerks, worked on a drawing of the character, who became an international superstar with the release of Steamboat Willie (following) in 1928. The black-and-white animated short was the first to utilize synchronized sound—one of Disney’s
many groundbreaking innovations.
Little Secrets The names on the windows of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. reflect people who were important to Disney (his
father, Elias Disney, is featured as a “contractor”). There are also many
references to the 1963 film Summer Magic, a personal favorite of Disney’s.
COURTESY EVERETT The titular characters from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, clockwise from center: Doc (on bass), Dopey,
Bashful (under Dopey), Snow White, Sneezy, Happy, Grumpy, Sleepy.
Little Secrets If you toss a coin into Snow White’s Wishing Well in Disneyland’s
Fantasyland, the song “I’m Wishing” will begin to play. The coins are eventually
donated to California children’s charities.
COURTESY EVERETT A poster from 1947’s Fun and Fancy Free and a still (following image) from 1948’s Melody Time. Though the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein considered 1946’s Make Mine Music to be “absolutely ingenious,”
Walt knew the work wasn’t his best.
Walt photographed his daughters, Sharon (left) and Diane, outside their Holmby Hills home, which he bought in 1950 with an eye toward building the model Carolwood-Pacific Railroad.
Disney worked on a model train in his garage in Los Angeles, circa 1955. The artist’s obsession with trains eventually led to the creation of Disneyland.
Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens was one of the places Disney and his staff visited to get inspiration for Disneyland
On the other hand, they studiously avoided the sleaziness of Coney Island’s freak shows.
Another inspiration was Playland in Rye, New York.
Little Secrets Ask politely at the guest relations office of any Disney park, and they will give you a free button commemorating your visit, your birthday, your anniversary,
your wedding, or other celebration.
Disney in his Burbank office with one of his most important artists, John Hench, discussing the map of Disneyland that Walt called “the $5 million layout.” The most important element was the castle, Walt told artist Herb Ryman, who made the first maps of Disneyland. “Make it tall enough to be seen from all around
the Park,” he said.
COURTESY EVERETT When bankers refused to lend Disney money to build his risky new park, he turned to an unlikely funding source: television. He agreed to produce and host a weekly show, called Disneyland, for ABC. In exchange,
the network helped finance the park. The show premiered in October 1954 and was an immediate hit.
Disney discussed his new park with some Imagineers in Los Angeles in 1954. “Imagineers” is the term Disney used to refer to the film studio creatives who brought their cinematic sensibility to the theme park,
which was the first park to tell a story, like a movie.
Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria was the model for Sleeping Beauty Castle.
Disney and animator Ward Kimball discussed a model for a television project called Tomorrowland, a series of science-based specials, in the 1950s.
Artist William J. Koch touched up a model of the Los Angeles basin, part of “The World Beneath Us,” a show featured in Disneyland.
TOM NEBBIA Walt’s hideaway inside the park, a Victorian apartment above the fire station on Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. Here, Disney and his wife, Lillian, are seen, circa 1963. “He would often spend nights there so that he
could spend full days at the park experiencing the rides as guests would,” Disney expert Jim Korkis tells LIFE. “The apartment is still there, and if you walk past it at night you’ll notice that a light is left on in the
middle window in his memory.”
Just before the park opening, Walt strolled through Sleeping Beauty Castle—the smallest castle in all the Disney parks, reportedly because Disney remembered hearing that European castles had been built to
intimidate peasants, and he wanted his to be friendlier.
Little Secrets Look for the plaque in the walkway before Disneyland’s Sleeping
Beauty Castle that marks the location of a buried “Time Castle”— a concrete vault
containing mementos from the park’s 40th anniversary in 1995.
The California Years How Walt changed America’s entertainment landscape— literally—by building the first theme park that told a story
Children running through the gate of Sleeping Beauty Castle, the centerpiece of Disneyland. “I don’t want the public to see the world they live in while they’re in the park,” Disney said. “I want them to feel they’re in
another world.”
On July 17, 1955—a day that Disney employees would later dub “Black Sunday”—the temperature in Anaheim hovered around 100 degrees. That didn’t deter the masses of people who were desperate to visit Disneyland, however. Traffic near the park was backed up for seven miles, and the lines that snaked around the entrance were filled with people who had been waiting since two a.m. After the gates finally opened, the park that had been designed to hold 15,000 people was crammed with 28,000, many of whom had sneaked in or used counterfeit tickets. “The principal problem seemed to be getting through the place,” LIFE wrote. One ticket-taker later complained: “People! People! People! We would open for 20 minutes and then close for 20 minutes.” The park initially featured about a dozen attractions: Autopia, a band, a railroad, the
Jungle Cruise, the King Arthur Carrousel, the Mad Tea Party, the Main Street Cinema, the Mark Twain Riverboat, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventure, and the Storybook Land Canal Boats. Compared to today’s options, the lineup was modest and relatively low-tech, but almost nothing went as planned. For starters, women’s high heels sunk into Main Street’s freshly poured asphalt; Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride was shut down because of an electrical malfunction; stands ran out of food; and desperate parents passed children over strangers’ shoulders so that the kids could ride the carousel. Not a single Autopia car was running by the time the park closed, says Sklar: “It never dawned on them that these things had to run 12 hours a day.” The gaffes weren’t limited to park operations, however. The event was documented
by ABC in what had been touted as the most ambitious live TV show ever. Hosted by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan, television personality Art Linkletter, and actor Robert Cummings, it was supposed to be covered by an unprecedented 29 cameras, but only half of them worked. At one point, Walt stared into the camera, saying “I’d like to read these few words of
dedication: ‘A vista into a world of wondrous ideas signifying man’s achievements . . .’” When he was interrupted, he looked up, confused, and said, “I thought I got a signal.” Actress Irene Dunne tried unsuccessfully to christen the Mark Twain Riverboat with a bottle that wouldn’t break. The live animals used throughout the park refused to behave, and a gardener accidentally sprayed Davy Crockett star Fess Parker with a sprinkler as he rode an unruly horse. “Help me get out of here before this horse kills somebody!” the actor screamed. Guests suffered as well. “One of my friends happened to be on the drawbridge going
into Sleeping Beauty Castle when the TV show shut everything down, because something was going on in Fantasyland,” said Marty Sklar. “Well, it turned out that Frank Sinatra was on the drawbridge, and my associate said that he didn’t remember hearing language like that anywhere before. In other words: No one got preferential treatment.” When the TV show’s director asked an art director what he could shoot in
Tomorrowland, he was told, “We’re going to be pouring cement.” (A sidewalk leading into Tomorrowland ended abruptly, because they had simply run out of money.) At the end of the ABC show, Walt and Linkletter walked arm in arm toward Fantasyland, their microphone wires dangling awkwardly behind them . . . the last gaffe of a day filled with them. The revolution had been televised—badly. It hardly mattered, of course. An astronomical half of the U.S. population watched the
special, and one million people visited the park in its first 10 weeks—despite the bad
reviews. (“Walt’s dream is a nightmare,” one journalist reported.) In fact, Disneyland proved so popular that, for the first time since Snow White, the studio was flush, with all its creditors paid off. The troubles continued, however. The use of live animals kept backfiring, for one
thing: Mules refused to move, ponies ran riot, and visitors who caught the live fish that stocked the waters off Huckleberry Finn’s Fishing Pier were forced to lug them through the hot California sun—no refrigeration in sight. These things would soon be fixed, but other issues were beyond Walt’s control. The
park’s success led to skyrocketing local land values, for instance, attracting crass commercial concerns that cheapened the surrounding area. “At Anaheim,” one Disney officer later told LIFE, “we lost control of the environment.” Disney would never make this mistake again. The improvements and additions began immediately. In the next few months, the
Casey Jr. Circus Train and Dumbo the Flying Elephant attractions were added. The following few years saw the addition of the Pirate’s Lair on Tom Sawyer Island, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes (replacing the politically incorrect Indian War Canoes), the Alice in Wonderland ride, and the new sailing ship Columbia. “Disney didn’t have a lot of red tape to deal with, so he was able to make changes rapidly, which helped the public generally forget the failures,” says Disney expert Rob Pimentel. “We all tend to remember the classics, but most people have long forgotten the failed Mickey Mouse Club Circus—thanks in part to Walt’s ability to quickly adapt or drop a project when it didn’t work.” One of the park’s most iconic attractions was conceived in 1958 while Disney was
overseeing the filming of Third Man on the Mountain on Switzerland’s Matterhorn. Inspired by the alpine peak’s grandeur, Walt sent postcards to the Imagineers saying, simply, “Build this.” Constructed at 1:100 scale but seeming much bigger thanks to forced perspective, the
ride eventually featured careering bobsleds in the world’s first tubular-tracked roller coaster, which revolutionized similar rides throughout the world. The attraction opened on June 14, 1959—the same day as the Monorail, a futuristic mode of aboveground transportation that had been inspired by Walt’s recent trip to Germany. That same year, the iconic Submarine Voyage opened. These were all impressive, of course, but the future of the park was for the birds—mechanical ones, that is.
In the aftermath of World War II, American soldiers who had served in the South Pacific returned to the U.S., bringing stories that fueled a vogue in all things Polynesian. These included restaurants such as Trader Vic’s, which served tropical mai tais; James A. Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1947 novel, Tales of the South Pacific;
and South Pacific, the hit 1949 Broadway musical inspired by the book. Not to be outdone, Disney decided to open a Polynesian restaurant in Disneyland. During an early brainstorming meeting, Imagineer John Hench suggested filling the
restaurant with birds. Impossible, Walt said: They would poop in the food. “They’re not real birds,” Hench told his boss. “They’re stuffed birds.” “Disney doesn’t stuff birds, John,” Walt said. “No, they look like they’re stuffed birds,” Hench countered: “They’re little mechanical
birds.” That was the beginning of the Enchanted Tiki Room, the first Disney attraction to use
what came to be known as “audio-animatronics.” The groundbreaking technology had begun as far back as 1949 when Disney and his family were vacationing in Paris. One day, Walt returned to his family carrying a bag full of mechanical toys. “It’s amazing that you can get such interesting movement from a very simple mechanism,” he said. His growing interest in animating three-dimensional objects eventually led to
something called Project Little Man. In 1951, Walt asked two employees to create a doll-like figure of a man that could move and talk. They hired Buddy Ebsen (now best known as Jed Clampett from the ’60s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies) and filmed him doing tap-dancing routines, hoping to replicate his movements. The project eventually stalled, but the concept was revived when Disney needed a
giant squid for a crucial scene in 1954’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. “The script called for a lifelike monster big enough to destroy a submarine,” Disney later said. “And obviously you can’t hire an actor like that through central casting. So we had to create our own two-ton squid.” Initial attempts proved unsuccessful. “We built the first one strictly as a mechanical
prop, but Walt didn’t like the way it moved,” effects expert Bob Mattey told Starlog magazine. “The second one had tentacles that operated by means of vacuum and air pressure.” Later, hydraulics triggered by electrical inputs were used to animate the lifelike
animals in Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise, but the Enchanted Tiki Room’s breakthrough involved sound. Instead of using electricity, the birds were set in motion by an audiotape, which also synced the movements to a soundtrack. (Hence, the term audio- animatronics.) Cutting-edge computer science was involved as well. “There’s an outfit in Washington called DARPA that makes military equipment available to the public when it’s no longer a secret,” said Sklar. “The Enchanted Tiki Room attraction was programmed and sequenced with the equipment that ran the Polaris missiles on submarines.” As a result, the Tiki control room was larger than the attraction itself, “though now you could do the same thing with your cell phone,” said Sklar.
The end result featured 200 chatting, singing birds and flowers—undeniably charming, if more than a little stereotypical. “My siestas are getting chorter and chorter,” a Latin American parrot named José crowed. “Oh, look at all the people! Welcome to Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room. Hey, Michael, mi amigo, pay attention—it’s cho time.” Impressed by the final results, Walt said, “This is too good for a restaurant,” so it was overhauled to become a full-fledged attraction—one of the most popular in the park. This was just the beginning. One year after the Enchanted Tiki Room premiered, four
audio-animatronic Disney exhibits debuted at the 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair. Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln featured an uncannily realistic talking model of the President, whose face had been cast from an 1860 life mask of the great man himself. (The development process was fraught with problems that culminated when malfunctioning hydraulics caused the 500-pound Lincoln to smash a chair.) The Carousel of Progress showed audio-animatronic figures living in “a modern all-electric city,” while the Magic Skyway featured moving dinosaurs, and It’s a Small World showed singing children from different countries and cultures. After the World’s Fair ended, all four shows were brought to Disneyland. To this day, the crowning achievement of audio-animatronic technology remains the
Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which opened in 1967. Located in Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, which had been added to the park the previous year, it was originally supposed to be a walk-through wax museum, but the success of the Carousel of Progress inspired something far more ambitious. The last attraction Walt supervised to completion before his death, Pirates was based on a script written by Disney stalwart Xavier X. Atencio about the ransacking of a village by Spanish buccaneers. During one of many test trips through the ride with Walt, Atencio expressed concern
that there were too many characters talking at once. “Gee I guess it’s pretty hard to understand them,” he said. “Don’t worry about it,” Walt said. “It’s like a cocktail party. People come to cocktail
parties and they tune into a conversation over here, then a conversation over there. Each time the guest comes through here, they’ll hear something else. That’ll bring them back time and time again!” Distinctly different effects were used in the Haunted Mansion, which opened in New
Orleans Square in 1969. “By the late 1960s, audiences had come to expect Disneyland to utilize robotics,” Jeff Baham, author of The Unauthorized Story of Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion, tells LIFE. “So a ghost organist that could move his head and arms realistically while playing a pipe organ was no big deal, but an effect that makes that organist disappear right in front of your eyes—well, that’s where the Haunted Mansion
really stunned its audience.” The secret, Baham explains, involves using a pane of glass that is positioned so that
the image it reflects seems to interact with the three-dimensional set behind it. Thus the mansion’s ghostly organist—reflected in the pane of glass—is made to disappear by simply turning off a light, eliminating the reflection. Unlike audio-animatronics, this technique was hardly new. “In 1862, inventor Henry Dircks sensationalized the effect by marketing it as a way to portray ghosts on stage,” Baham says. “The following year, scientist John Pepper popularized the effect by using it during stage performances of Charles Dickens’s The Haunted Man.” To this day, images created by reflections in glass are known as “Pepper’s ghost.” When Disneyland celebrated its first anniversary, more than 4 million people had
visited the park, often coming from all over the world. Eventually the park attracted not a few heads of state. Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Queen of Nepal, and the Shah of Iran all visited. In June 1959, Disney took Vice President Richard Nixon and his family for a ride on the newly opened Monorail, but the train took off before the Secret Service agents who were guarding Nixon got on board. “They were running trying to jump in it,” said Imagineer Bob Gurr, who was driving that day. “Nixon got a kick out of it.” During a U.S. tour in September 1959, Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was eager
to visit Disneyland but was barred for security reasons, causing the communist leader to explode. “Then what must I do?” he ranted. “Commit suicide? What is it? Is there an epidemic of cholera or something? Or have gangsters taken hold of the place that can destroy me?” Capturing the imagination of the world surely wasn’t enough for the ever-restless
Disney, who soon turned his attention to new challenges once again. In the late 1950s, he and his team began looking for a spot to open a bigger, even better park. “The past 10 years have just sort of been a dress rehearsal,” Walt said in 1965. “We’re just getting started.” From the beginning, this search—dubbed Project Future—was shrouded in secrecy.
After all, if news leaked that Disney was buying property, land values would skyrocket, so his scouts traveled under assumed names and often switched airports to avoid being followed. (“If they were doing that now, they would be on the FBI’s watch list,” according to Louis Mongello, author of The Walt Disney World Trivia Book.) Potential locations included Niagara Falls, Baltimore, and St. Louis. Gussie Busch Jr.,
then head of the Anheuser-Busch brewing company, torpedoed the latter’s prospects by offending Walt over dinner, according to Richard Foglesong, author of Married to the Mouse: Walt Disney World and Orlando. “Any man who thinks he can design an
attraction that’s going to be a success in this city and not serve beer or alcohol, ought to have his head examined,” Busch said. Goodbye, St. Louis. Hello, Florida. Having decided that an area near Orlando was the
best location for the park—it was near crucial freeways, for one thing—the Disney company used dummy corporations to purchase 27,443 acres of swampland. On November 15, 1965, Walt held a press conference in Orlando to announce his
new project, but he was deliberately evasive. When the state’s governor, Haydon Burns, asked, “Will it be a Disneyland?” Walt replied: “I’ve always said there will never be another Disneyland.” No, but there would be a Disney World.
Whereas Disneyland had been built on 200 acres at an initial cost of $17 million, Disney World would be built on 27,400 acres for $400 million. More importantly, Disney World would include more than its theme park, to be called the Magic Kingdom. Initially, the resort would also offer the Fort Wilderness Resort campground, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and the Palm and Magnolia golf courses. But Walt’s real interest lay in plans for the ambitious EPCOT Center, a fully
functional utopian city. “By far the most important part of our Florida project—in fact the heart of everything that we’ll be doing in Disney World—will be our Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” he said. In a nation rife with civil unrest, the ever-optimistic Walt felt that EPCOT could change the way people lived, thereby shaping civilization itself and becoming in the process his greatest achievement. “Fancy being remembered around the world for the invention of a mouse!” he exclaimed. Inspired in part by Disney’s New York World’s Fair installations, EPCOT was
designed to showcase cutting-edge companies’ latest inventions. “When he went around to see the innovations produced by different labs—RCA, IBM, GE—Walt kept asking, ‘When can I buy a product with that technology?’” Sklar said. “EPCOT was focused on telling the public about new things, reflecting optimism for a better future.” To that end, EPCOT was about setting an example, says Sklar: “This was true of
almost everything Walt did. Once, when a marketing team announced a campaign to promote the Disney parks as ‘escapism,’ my friend John Hench, who designed Space Mountain, got so upset. He said they’re not about escapism at all—they’re about the reassurance that things can be done right.” In November 1966, Walt checked into St. Joseph’s Hospital for spinal surgery, hoping
to relieve the lingering pain from a polo injury he sustained in the 1930s. But doctors soon discovered a walnut-size tumor in his lungs—probably the result of a life’s worth of chain-smoking unfiltered cigarettes. The growth was malignant and had spread
throughout his left lung. After surgery, Disney collapsed at his home on November 30 and was rushed back
into the hospital. Though he was given perhaps two years to live, he was, as usual, planning for the future—even imagining the map of EPCOT on his hospital ceiling. “There’s the route where the highway will run,” he told Roy, pointing. “And there’s the route for the Monorail . . .” He had more than EPCOT on his mind, of course. “He had motion pictures in the
works,” said Sklar. “He had Walt Disney World; he had the idea for CalArts, a school of all the arts.” But all the willpower and imagination in the world couldn’t stop the disease—and on December 15, 1966, Walt Disney passed away. The man with the soul of the dreamy paperboy slogging through snowy Kansas City
would, of course, live on in the wishes that his heart had made and that his will had tirelessly realized. But what would happen to Disney World now that he was gone?
A mechanical giraffe peered down at children taking the Jungle Cruise in Disneyland’s Adventureland, circa 1955.
Walt conceived the Autopia car ride as a safe way to teach children to drive, but the first kiddie test-drivers wanted nothing more than to crash into each other.
The King Arthur Carrousel. The carousel’s antique hand-carved horses had been rounded up from amusement parks all over the country, but since Walt wanted them all to seem like they were galloping or
charging, some of their legs were reshaped.
Disneyland’s opening-day parade.
Characters waited to join the parade. “The parks provide a key factor in the Disney synergy, driving more people to see the movies, buy the merchandise, listen to the music, and become familiar with the characters
and the stories,” says Disney expert Jim Korkis.
Little Secrets Guests who know to search for hidden images of Mickey Mouse
throughout the parks often overlook the hidden Donald Ducks. His face can be
found (among other places) on the chair near the never-ending hallway in the
Haunted Mansion.
Disney and actor Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) appeared on horseback in Frontierland.
Frank Sinatra with his son, Frank Sinatra Jr., on the Autopia at Disneyland.
Actor and future President Ronald Reagan helped host the ABC coverage of the park’s opening.
Walt and Mickey riding Disneyland’s replica of Casey Jr.’s train from Disney’s 1941 animated feature Dumbo. During its first test run, the train nearly tipped over as it chugged up a hill—another near mishap at
the launch of the innovative new park.
Though the 1951 movie Alice in Wonderland was a commercial disappointment, it inspired several park attractions—including the Mad Tea Party (shown here) and Alice in Wonderland, an indoor and outdoor
ride that opened in 1958. “The way I see it, Disneyland will never be finished,” Walt said. “It’s something we can keep developing and adding to.”
The Dumbo The Flying Elephant ride was based on Disney’s hit 1941 animated feature, Dumbo.
Disney examining an artist’s drawing of the Monorail, a futuristic mode of aboveground transportation inspired by Walt’s trip to Germany in 1958.
Disney employees climbed the Matterhorn, a 1:100-scale model of the Swiss mountain, which opened as an attraction in 1959.
Disney worked with a mechanic on two tiny figures that form part of a miniature barbershop quartet.
Little Secrets The Enchanted Tiki Room is the only park attraction with a bathroom,
reflecting the fact that it was originally planned as a restaurant. The center fountain began as a coffee station.
TOM NEBBIA Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room was the first of the park’s audio-animatronic attractions. “It’s another
dimension in the animation we have been doing all our lives,” Walt said. “It’s a new door . . . a new toy . . . and we hope we can really do some exciting things in the future.”
The 1964–1965 New York World’s Fair showcased four Disney audio-animatronic attractions.
TOM NEBBIA It’s a Small World, the Carousel of Progress, the Magic Skyway, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
TOM NEBBIA They all eventually found a home in Disneyland.
The buccaneers were prepped for Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
This iconic attraction is a prime example of the controversial changes that have been made to classic rides over time: Certain politically incorrect elements have been eliminated, and after the ride’s film franchise
became a hit, Johnny Depp’s character, Jack Sparrow, was added to the lineup.
Walt’s desk surrounded by figures of Disney characters after his death in 1966. “He was a happy accident, one of the happiest this century has experienced,” broadcaster Eric Sevareid said after Disney died. “And judging by the way it’s been behaving—in spite of all Disney tried to tell it about laughter, love, children,
puppies, and sunrises—the century hardly deserved him.”
The World After Walt How Roy Disney carried on his brother’s legacy by
building a bigger, better park on Florida swampland
Visitors watched fireworks over Walt Disney World. The park’s elaborate nightly pyrotechnic shows have names, with the latest (the 18-minute “Happily Ever After”) replacing the long-running “Wishes” in May 2017. Fans sometimes camp out for hours (both in and outside the park) to see the show from the best
vantage point.
The burden of dreams now fell on Roy, who had always been the stable voice of fiscal responsibility to Walt’s obsessive visionary, but what would he do in the absence of his brother’s genius? “The world believed that was the end of the company,” Roy’s son, Roy E. Disney, later said. “It was not a good time to get big loans, and by then [Roy’s] conviction that he was not a creative guy had become so strong that tackling such ambitious projects scared him.” Nevertheless, even though he’d been planning to retire, the 73-year-old Roy stayed on
to launch the new park. “Personally I had my doubts,” he later said, “but I knew I had to do it for Walt—because if I hadn’t, he would have given me hell when I died.”
First, Roy changed the original name of Disney World to Walt Disney World—“So people will always know that it was Walt’s dream,” he said. Then he raised $400 million dollars to pay for the park’s construction, one of the largest and most expensive projects ever mounted at the time. The effort was no walk in the park. “Walt, what have you gotten me into?” Roy once asked himself as he toured the grounds in a jeep. Construction on the resort began in May 1969. “There was nothing there,” Imagineer
John Hench later said. “We had to install everything from a power plant to a laundry.” Since the area was largely swampland, the first challenge involved eliminating the water. Fifty miles of canals were created to dredge the muck, and the mile-wide Bay Lake was drained of mud before being refilled with water. Meanwhile, the man-made Seven Seas Lagoon was created by digging up 7 million
cubic yards of dirt, which was then used to create the Magic Kingdom’s ground. This was elevated over a series of so-called utilidors: a network of “underground”—actually ground-level—tunnels that serve as a control center and allow employees to pass through the park without being seen. This was only one example of how Disney World improved upon its predecessor.
Decades before we collectively worried about climate change, for instance, the park was created with an eco-friendly focus that minimized pollution, accessed solar energy, and preserved the surrounding ecosystem. Even in his absence, Walt’s people carried on his characteristic attention to detail.
“After he passed away, the Imagineers sort of ‘deconstructed’ what a Disney theme park attraction was and tried to recreate it,” Jim Korkis says. “As John Hench said, ‘Walt did it by instinct. We do it by experience.’” Take Liberty Square, for example. Mirroring the Colonial era it purports to embody,
its window shutters sag, since leather straps replaced the metal hinges that were removed from windows to use as ammunition during the American Revolution. The light brown path in the middle of the square’s road represents the river of sewage that ran through the streets of the era’s cities. “Disney even attempted to recreate the era’s lack of indoor plumbing,” says Rob Pimentel. “The land’s only bathrooms are in the two restaurants that are legally required to have them!” By the time the park was finished, it had its own postal system, waste-water treatment
plant, and zip code. It even had its own government of sorts—the result of Roy’s sway with the Florida legislature. On October 1, 1971, Roy proudly presided over the resort’s grand opening, standing
beside an employee dressed as Mickey Mouse. “The new site is in Florida, but the air is pure old Disney,” LIFE wrote in a cover story. “Who else could be responsible for this carefully crafted vision of the American past, the intricate, hokey, hugely expensive
assemblage of lives and places that never were?” The park embodied, the magazine added, “the businesslike use of fantasy, the no-nonsense approach to nonsense.” Only a few months after the opening, Roy was looking forward to his long-overdue
retirement when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage in his bedroom. On December 20, he died in St. Joseph’s Hospital—the same place where his brother had passed away— having likely succumbed to the exertions involved in realizing Walt’s “impossible” dream.
What if they opened a theme park and nobody came? Well, that’s what happened at Walt Disney World—at first. Unlike the overflow crowds that had greeted the opening of Disneyland, Disney World was consistently only about half full during its first few weeks of operation. Some thought the location was a problem because the East Coast had never been a bastion of Disney fandom, but it soon turned out that people had stayed away because they were worried the park would be too crowded. Before long, Disney World was packed. “The park became successful so quickly that for the next four years we were running just to keep up with the demand,” Sklar said. In both Florida and California, the “plussing” continued. In 1972, a seventh area, Bear
Country, was added to Disneyland, replacing Frontierland’s Indian Village. (It was later renamed Critter Country.) This was eventually followed by Space Mountain (one of the world’s first indoor roller coasters) and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the late 1970s. The early ’80s saw the introduction of such new technology as “Smellitizers,” hidden diffusers that added distinctive scents to the park experiences (a salt-sea smell fills Pirates of the Caribbean, for instance, while a musty odor infuses the Haunted Mansion). Not all projects went according to plan, of course. “Sometimes the Imagineers
stumbled after Walt’s death,” says Korkis. “Walt wanted every attraction to be accessible to everyone regardless of height, weight, age, or physical restrictions, but that isn’t true in many of the attractions that were launched after he died.” Take the Splash Mountain flume ride that opened in 1989: “Older guests and young children enjoy the audio-animatronics characters and songs, but the final drop—advertised as the highest, longest, fastest water flume drop ever—prevents some of them from riding,” Korkis says. “Teenagers love the thrill of the drop but go into diabetic fits over the sugary cuteness of the first part of the ride.” Sometimes quality suffered as well. “Walt would not open an attraction until it had
been thoroughly tested many times,” says Korkis, “but that was not the case after he passed away.” He cites the Rocket Rods at Disneyland, which were not adequately designed for the existing track and quickly stopped working, as did the Yeti in the Expedition Everest roller coaster. The largest and most complicated audio-animatronic
figure ever made, the mechanical monster reportedly malfunctioned only a few months after the ride opened in 2006, creating a safety hazard. Since then, the Yeti only appears to move—thanks to strobe lights, which led some to derisively call it “Disco Yeti.” The huge success of Walt Disney World put EPCOT Center on hold—temporarily,
at least. “It would have been difficult to think seriously about EPCOT in those early days, let alone get any work done on it,” Sklar said. But after planning Space Mountain in the mid-’70s, the Imagineers were free to focus on Walt’s final dream. “Our first move was to hold a series of meetings in Florida,” said Sklar. “We held meetings about energy and about health and about communications. It was pretty extraordinary because we were able to bring in all these dozens of experts and there were very few of them who didn’t believe that Disney had an important role to play as an agent of change, and as a communicator who could bring people together.” But Disney’s original concept of a utopian community soon proved problematic.
What sort of real rights would its citizens have, when the Disney Corporation insisted on controlling everything? Before long, Disney’s vision morphed into a theme park with an educational focus. (Some of Walt’s initial idea was eventually realized with the opening of the town of Celebration, Florida, in the mid-1990s, though a murder and declining property values eventually proved that it was hardly a utopia.) Opening in 1982, EPCOT Center, as it was initially called, covered 260 acres and was composed of two lands, Future World and World Showcase, which featured such didactic attractions as Impressions de France, Living with the Land, and O Canada! These were no match for the thrills of Space Mountain, and the initial demand proved underwhelming. (EPCOT’s 45-minute ride celebrating fossil fuel was never going to be high on most kids’ vacation bucket lists.) EPCOT had been Walt’s last dream, and new ones were hard to come by in his absence. Before long, the company became more about real estate than innovation or creativity. “It seemed to be in the grip of ‘What would Walt do?’ paralysis,” Kim Masters, author of The Keys to the Kingdom and editor at large at The Hollywood Reporter, tells LIFE. “Everybody wanted to keep things exactly the same, so of course it started to drift.” In 1984, some of the old spirit returned with the arrival of CEO Michael Eisner,
president Frank Wells, and chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg. In addition to reinvigorating the company’s animation division and releasing long-unavailable film classics on DVD, the regime ramped up the development of the parks. Crucially, they also partnered for the first time with other movie studios and filmmakers—a trend that began in 1987 with the opening of Disneyland’s Star Tours, a motion simulator based on Star Wars. This continued with Roger Rabbit’s Car Toon Spin in 1994 and Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple in 2006.
The core Disney brand was hardly neglected. Opening in 1989, Splash Mountain features characters from the studio’s Song of the South. (The controversial 1946 film has never been released on DVD because of its racial stereotyping, which the ride avoids by changing the film’s “tar baby” to a sticky beehive.) New attractions were also devoted to Goofy, Winnie the Pooh, Donald Duck, and of course Minnie and Mickey Mouse. The first Eisner-era park, the Hollywood-themed Disney-MGM Studios opened on
135 acres in Walt Disney World in 1989. Fueled by the acquisition of rights to the MGM/UA film archive, it included attractions based on such movie classics as The Wizard of Oz in addition to the Disney stalwarts. Just as Main Street, U.S.A. had represented an idealized version of a small-town thoroughfare, so Disney-MGM Studios (later renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios) became “the Hollywood that never was and always will be!” as Eisner said during the grand opening. Some saw the park as a crassly commercial attempt to compete with Universal
Studios, which had announced its own imminent movie-themed park in Orlando. Eager to launch first, Disney officials opened the park with only four attractions, though others were soon added. In 1994 the park came into its own with the addition of an ersatz Sunset Boulevard and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Visitors to the tower ride get into an elevator that’s dropped 130 feet (about the height of a 13-story building) by being pulled down faster than gravity would—a literally hair-raising experience. Also launched in 1989, Typhoon Lagoon became Walt Disney World Resort’s second
water park (after Disney’s River Country). Featuring six-foot breakers, a 50-foot geyser, and one of the world’s largest wave pools, it proved so popular that a third water park, Blizzard Beach, was added in 1995. Three years later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in the resort. Part zoo and part
theme park, it is nearly five times the size of the Magic Kingdom and features two artificial world villages, one representing Africa and the other Asia. The former is filled with the likes of Kenyan sand boas and tarantulas, while the latter is home to Expedition Everest, a roller coaster ride through a replica of the world’s highest mountain. Rafiki’s Planet Watch, a Lion King–themed area, is devoted to conservation; DinoLand U.S.A. is home to a ride that plunges visitors into the Late Cretaceous Era; and a newly added world was inspired by James Cameron’s Avatar series. (More on that later.) In 2001, Disneyland expanded, too, with the addition of California Adventure, a 55-acre park that company officials predicted would be the most popular of them all. Could it become “the most jam-packed theme park on earth?” the Los Angeles Times asked. The answer was no: Visitors complained that the preponderance of stores made it seem like a mall and that it didn’t focus enough on children. Built on
the former site of Disneyland’s parking lot, California Adventure also failed to block views of the surrounding area, preventing the immersive experience that defines the other parks. Disney officials responded by closing the park for a five-year overhaul in 2007. The
park now includes Grizzly Peak, which celebrates California’s outdoors; Paradise Pier, a glorified version of California’s famed seaside parks; A Bug’s Land, inspired by the 1998 film A Bug’s Life; a land based on the 2006 film Cars; and Hollywood Land, which speaks for itself. The park’s highlight is arguably Soarin’ Around the World, which began as an attraction that made visitors feel they were hang gliding over Los Angeles’s Hollywood sign, San Franscisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and Yosemite’s Half Dome peak, among others sites. The ride now covers six continents and is also featured at EPCOT and Shanghai Disneyland. Soarin’ is a prime example of the cinematically inspired new technology that began
with the 1987 opening of Disneyland’s Star Wars–based Star Tours (this was also one of the first attractions based on a non-Disney brand). Unlike the vehicles that physically transport guests through rides, such as in Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, the Star Tours vehicles don’t actually go anywhere. Instead, the illusion of motion is created through state-of-the-art optical, motion, sound, and olfactory effects. This approach has become increasingly popular in the parks—as has the emphasis on
interactivity, which helps Disney appeal to a public increasingly accustomed to such media as video games, Korkis notes. In the 1990s, for example, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin gave guests the chance to shoot at targets with a laser pistol, leaving them with a final score they could compare with those of fellow riders. Most recently, 3-D game-ride hybrids like Toy Story Midway Mania let guests compete in a series of carnival games. And Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Haunted Mansion have added interactive elements to help guests pass the time while waiting in lines. The most significant new technological development began in 2001, when the
company spent $1 billion on MyMagic+, a project focused on improving the parks. This resulted in the development of the MagicBand, a wrist device launched in 2014 that uses Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) sensors to arrange your transportation, unlock your hotel room, give you access to chosen attractions, pay for your food, and help personalize your experience. Old-line Imagineers have carped about the increasing emphasis on technology, which
brings the intrusive outside world into the otherwise pristine parks—something Walt himself was determined to avoid. “If I’m supposed to be living with fairies, fairies don’t
have iPhones or MagicBands,” one detractor told Fast Company. The new technology has hardly replaced Disney’s emphasis on old-fashioned
hospitality, however. If you ask at any park guest relations office, for instance, they will give you a free button commemorating your visit, birthday, anniversary, wedding, or other celebration, reveals Korkis. And don’t worry about lugging your souvenirs around: “If you’re staying on a Walt Disney World property, they’ll send them to your hotel for free,” Pimentel says. “If you’re not staying on the property, the merchandise can be sent to a pickup spot at the front of the park. Just tell the clerk you want to use this service.” Following Disneyland’s precedent, all the parks contain secrets that can be unlocked if
you know how. Several restaurants feature secret menus with items like ice cream nachos or alcohol-spiked Dole Whip, Korkis says. “You may need to do a little Internet research to determine what is currently available, though asking at the restaurants sometimes works as well,” he says. Every Disney theme park has food offerings that are not available in the other parks. “For instance, at a special location at the end of Disneyland’s New Orleans Square, guests can buy a nonalcoholic mint julep to wash down Mickey Mouse–shaped beignets.” Many of these innovations were developed during Eisner’s regime, but in 2006 he was
removed from his position amid considerable controversy. He was quickly replaced by his deputy, Bob Iger, who has overseen the company’s phenomenal growth, fueled in large part by the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel Entertainment, ESPN, ABC, LucasFilm (the Star Wars franchise), and—most recently, in 2017—20th Century Fox. Iger has also expanded the parks’ global reach—something Walt himself was reluctant
to do. “After the opening of Disneyland, Walt was approached by foreign countries wanting him to build another Disneyland,” says Korkis, “but he was uninterested since he understood the challenges of other cultures.” He had reason to be concerned—as the opening of Tokyo Disney would soon prove.
After Walt’s death, his brother Roy almost single-handedly oversaw the creation of Walt Disney World, seen above under construction in November 1969.
Walt Disney World’s Contemporary Resort hotel is shown under construction.
The hotel’s Grand Canyon Concourse lobby features a 14-story atrium, a monorail terminal, and a 90-foot- tall mural celebrating the American Southwest.
The Walt Disney World staff posed in front of Cinderella Castle just before the park’s grand opening. The park may never have opened if it hadn’t been for Roy, who carried on the Disney legacy after his brother’s death. The man Walt called “the real Disney” is now memorialized in a statue showing him with Minnie
Mouse in Walt Disney World’s Town Square.
Mary Poppins star Julie Andrews (center) performed on Main Street, U.S.A. during the opening of Walt Disney World. After seeing Andrews perform in Broadway’s Camelot, Disney cast her in the title role of the
1964 classic, which became the studio’s biggest hit since Snow White.
Little Secrets In Walt Disney World’s Splash Mountain, a gopher shouts
“FSU!”—a reference to Florida State University, the alma mater of one of the
attraction’s creators.
Debuting in the Magic Kingdom in 1975, Space Mountain was one of the world’s first indoor roller coasters. Though Walt himself had initially shied away from thrill rides, the Matterhorn bobsleds fueled a vogue for
roller coasters—eventually including Space Mountain.
KELLY VERDECK Here: Guests blasted off into the wild blue yonder.
HENRY GROSKINSKY Three plastic-and-vinyl farmers at a 1930s crossroads store waited to be programmed, and workers (above
and following) prepared for the opening of EPCOT.
During final stages of construction, workers bolted aluminum panels onto the frame of Spaceship Earth, the 180-foot-high geodesic sphere that forms the centerpiece of Walt Disney World’s EPCOT.
Mickey Mouse–shaped hydroponic pumpkins growing in a park greenhouse.
The popular Soarin’ over California attraction (here, Napa Valley) gave rise to Soarin’ Around the World, found at Disneyland’s California Adventure, EPCOT, and Shanghai Disneyland. The international edition makes visitors feel like they’re flying over such landmarks as the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of
Little Secrets Every Disney park has food offerings that are not available at any other park, and some have secret menus. Do an Internet search before your trip—or just
ask an employee.
The Kilimanjaro Safari at Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998 in Walt Disney World.
The Star Wars Launch Bay is where guests celebrate all things intergalactic at Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World. Inside, guests can play the latest Star Wars interactive video games and explore galleries of
rare memorabilia.
NEARMAP AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY An aerial photograph shows Walt Disney World’s Mickey Mouse–shaped solar facility, which opened in 2016
to help provide power for EPCOT. The bird’s-eye view of the famed cartoon character is one of many “hidden Mickeys” that guests can find throughout the parks.
Tokyo and Beyond How Disney executives built parks in Europe and Asia—
despite the occasional typhoon
Minnie Mouse performed at a New Year’s event at Tokyo DisneySea in 2001.
In 1978, Japanese executives approached the Disney company with a proposition: They wanted to build the first international Disney park in Japan. Initially the Mouse House brass balked—in part because the country was susceptible to typhoons and other natural disasters—but Japanese officials insisted that people would come anyway. (This was borne out when more than 15,000 guests eventually showed up during a storm warning.) Thanks to the offer of cofinancing, Disney eventually agreed, and in 1983 Tokyo Disneyland opened in the city of Urayasu, just east of Tokyo in Japan’s Chiba province. As Walt had suspected, adapting the Disney brand to other cultures proved
challenging. “The Japanese said, ‘Don’t try to tell us stories about ourselves, because you can’t do it,’” said Marty Sklar. “But our chairman wanted to be sure that schoolchildren came, so he made us do a show called Meet the World, a history of
Japan—and how do you tell the story of the Second World War at Disney in Japan? It was a disaster.” Nevertheless, the park proved enormously popular. Attendance during its first decade was greater than the population of the entire country, leading to the opening of a water-themed successor, Tokyo DisneySea, in 2001. Opening in 1992, Disneyland Paris proved more problematic, beginning with the fact
that the park was located only about 20 miles outside of Paris. “We had to go into an environment where art and artistry and culture have traditions going back thousands of years,” Imagineer Tony Baxter said. “How do you compete with all those real castles along the Loire?” (The answer: make the castle less realistic and more like an illustration from a children’s book.) The resort’s hotels suffered, too: Disney officials hadn’t considered that visitors could easily commute from any number of world-class accommodations in the City of Light. As a result, the park struggled—not least in the court of public opinion. Britain’s The Independent called Disneyland Paris “America’s cultural Vietnam, a punishment for the hubristic over-reach of its commercial colonisation of the globe.” Disney executives tried to avoid these charges when they launched a park in Hong
Kong by significantly incorporating indigenous culture. This included the use of feng shui, an ancient Chinese system designed to help humans live in harmony with their environment—specifically when it comes to optimizing the flow of the life energy called qi (pronounced “chee”). The park was built in consultation with a feng shui master, for instance, who (among other things) told Disney to re-angle the front gate by 12 degrees, supposedly increasing the park’s chances of success. Similarly, a bend was put in a walkway near the entrance so good qi wouldn’t flow into the South China Sea. Other native touches included an incense-burning ritual that was conducted after the
completion of each building. The color red (considered lucky in China) is emphasized throughout the park, while the number four is conspicuously absent—particularly in elevators—because it’s traditionally associated with death. “It used to be Disney was exported on its own terms,” Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, told the New York Times. “But in the late 20th and early 21st century, America’s cultural imperialism was tested. Now, instead of being the Ugly Americans, which some foreigners used to find charming, we have to take off our shoes or belch after a meal.” The same cultural sensitivity drove the creation of Shanghai Disney, which opened in
June 2016 at a cost of $5.5 billion. “They spent a year traveling around China, talking to people, finding artists and designers and architects to add to the staff,” Sklar said, “so instead of Americans designing a project in China, it’s become a truly international
project. It’s beautifully designed, with a lot of new ideas based on things that Walt started in Disneyland.” What would Walt think about how his parks have developed in the years since his
death? “I always refused to answer that question—until we opened Hong Kong Disneyland,” said Sklar. “That’s when I said that Walt was an impatient man—and, if he were around, he would probably say, ‘What took you so long?’”
Thanks to canny corporate acquisitions and expansion into new media (the Disney Channel and Broadway), the Walt Disney Company is now the world’s largest entertainment company. Still, a third or more of the company’s revenue remains driven by the parks. “Without the income from the parks, the company might have had challenges surviving and expanding during some difficult times,” says Jim Korkis. Like any other business, Disney faces ongoing challenges. Attendance declined at 13
of 14 Disney parks worldwide from 2015 to 2016, according to a New York Times report. Thanks to a new ticketing system that increased prices during high-volume periods, profits remained up—the parks raked in $3.3 billion in 2016, up 9 percent year over year—but the decline in global attendance was nevertheless unprecedented and no doubt worrying. Future success largely rests on continued synergy with blockbuster films. In 2017,
Pandora: the World of Avatar (a $500 million land inspired by James Cameron’s film series) was an immediate hit when it opened in Animal Kingdom, with eager patrons standing in line for up to three hours. Toy Story Land, an 11-acre park devoted to the popular Pixar series, is slated to open at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 2018. The new land will feature oversize elements that make guests feel they’re as small as toys and attractions inspired by characters from the films—such as the Slinky Dog Dash roller coaster and Woody’s Lunch Box, a food stand. In 2019, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, spanning 14 acres, is scheduled to open in both
Disneyland and Disne