Episode 4 of our serial looking at the life and legacy of Walt Disney.
In the late 1930s, Walt Disney took his daughters Sharon and Diane to Griffith Park in their hometown of Los Angeles. There, he sat on a park bench and watched his girls gleefully circle around on a carousel. That day, and every day for the next two decades, he would fantasize about a land where children and their parents could have fun together in a picture-perfect world of imagination. By the 1950s, he finally had the business clout, financial backing, and talented staff to turn his dream into a reality.
Welcome to Episode 4: “Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy.”
The year was 1948. The Disney studio had made it through World War II by the skin of its teeth. Walt was ready to get back into the world that had made him an icon: feature length animation. His first postwar animated feature would be “Cinderella”, a musical based on an old fairy tale about a beautiful young woman living with her wicked stepmother and stepsisters. But after getting the wheels moving on the project, Walt put his best crew to work on the project, and then he stepped back, and was noticeably distant from its development. He was nearly 50 years old, and the turmoil of the wartime years had taken its toll. The 1940s had run him down so much that he even hired a full-time nurse to check in on him every day.
Hazel George would become one of his companions and closest confidants for the rest of his life. She would massage his neck, back, and hips, which he had injured in a polo accident. She would apply a hot pad to his injuries, give him a glass of scotch to take the edge off, and lend him a sympathetic ear.
During one such session, he confided in her that he was worried about the future of his studio, and the direction it might take once he had left “After I die”, he said, “I would hate to look down at this studio and see everything in a mess”. Hazel, employing a snarky wit that few people dared to use with Walt, answered back “What makes you think you won’t be using a periscope?”, implying that he may, in fact, be looking UP at his beloved studio from the afterlife.
But during one of these sessions, Walt said something that troubled Hazel. He said mournfully “I now realize that I’m never going to make anything as good as Snow White”. She was concerned about Walt talking this way; he was the type of man who was always looking forward, not back. She knew that he needed to clear his head.
Hazel convinced Walt to take a vacation. It had done wonders more than 20 years earlier, when he and Lillian toured the east coast and Cuba following Lillian’s miscarriage. In July of 1948, Walt boarded a train at Union Station bound for Chicago to attend a railroad exposition. He convinced one of his best animators, Ward Kimball, to come along, saying “You have more damn fun than anyone else I know.” During the long train ride, Walt felt the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders. In 1923, the train had been his ticket to freedom and a new start in California. Now, it was the vehicle that would unleash his inner child. Walt and Ward sipped scotch for hours as Walt uncharacteristically spilled his guts and told Ward his entire life story, starting in Marceline and ending in Burbank. He rode up front with the engineer and blew the horn as the train rolled through hundreds of miles of prairie. By the time he got to Chicago, his spirits were soaring. He was as giddy as a schoolboy, and he had found a new obsession.
Cinderella premiered in February 1950 in Boston. Critics loved it. They hailed it as Disney’s long-awaited return to his craft, and labeled it a must-see. It was a commercial success, too. Roy had hoped it would gross $4 million; it made $8 millon.
Walt was happy to have the financial cushion. But he was far too distracted by the world he was assembling in his backyard. He had created a ⅛ scale working railroad on his property in the Holmby Hills. The level of detail and perfection was pure “Walt”. There were perfectly crafted trestle bridges. Tunnels that weaved their way underneath Lillian’s colorful flower beds. His workshop was a perfect re-creation of the childhood barn that was in their backyard in Marceline.
He’d done it on Hyperion Avenue. He’d done it in Burbank. And now he was doing it in his own backyard; creating his own world. As it turned out, he hadn’t been able to have full control over his staff. But this was something different. It was perfect. It was safe. It was comfortable. And it was his. He played host to world famous Spanish surrealist Salvador Dali, who immediately understood what he was seeing. Dali, who was no stranger to creating worlds of his own, understood that this was not just a grown man playing with toys. It was a creative genius in search of an ideal. He marveled at the world Walt was creating and told him “Such perfection does not belong to models.”
Walt was three steps ahead of him. By 1952, he was making huge life decisions to put into motion his greatest venture yet. He sold off his Palm Springs vacation home. He borrowed $100,000 against his life insurance policy. For the first time in decades, he formed a new company; at first, he called it WED Enterprises, for his initials. It would later become known as Walt Disney Imagineering. Their home was a small, inconspicuous studio on the Burbank lot. Their project? A theme park that would occupy 13 acres of land adjacent to the property, where children and their parents could immerse themselves in a world of imagination, far bigger and better than what Walt had crafted in his backyard. At first, he called it “Mickey Mouse Village”. But in short order, he renamed it Disneyland.
Despite never having had any success at talking Walt out of anything, Roy and Lillian both objected to the idea. At the time, amusement parks were dusty, smelly, and anything but family friendly. They were the types of places where dangerous rides were operated by equally dangerous characters. Where you’d see bearded ladies and sword swallowers, and eat food that would create a hurricane in your bowels. Disneyland would be none of those things. After all, he had already done it in Kansas City with his Alice shorts. He took a real girl and put her in a picture perfect fantasy world. It wasn’t a stretch that he could do the same thing in real life. But there was a serious obstacle; the hefty bills that would come with the project. Luckily, the 1950s had brought the whole wide world into everyone’s living room with one revolutionary invention: the television.
The television generation, better known today as the baby boomers, were prime candidates for an escape into a perfect land of fantasy. They were the biggest generation in American history, and they were growing up quickly. And nearly all of them had a TV in their living room.
Walt had been trying to break into the world of TV since the 40s. He had done it once, with a one-off special, “One Hour in Wonderland”, which aired on Christmas Day of 1950, partly serving the purpose of promoting the upcoming feature film “Alice in Wonderland”. It was a smash hit; by some estimates, 90% of Americans who had their TVs on at that moment were watching it. The New York Times gushed “Walt Disney can take over television anytime he likes”.
Three years later, he was ready to take them up on that offer. He traveled to New York to pitch to the three major broadcast networks. But a contract with Walt came with a big caveat; any network who gave the greenlight to the Disneyland TV show would also need to bankroll Walt $5 million to build his kingdom. NBC balked at such a huge commitment. So did CBS. Roy would spend months trying to convince the perennial third place network, ABC, to take the project on. Finally, they gave in. Walt would later joke, “ABC wanted a program so damned bad, they bought me a theme park!”
Uncle Walt would build up anticipation by talking to his friends every week and showing off the world he was building just for them. The Disneyland TV show was the ultimate viral marketing. Most importantly of all, Walt didn’t talk down to kids. He always spoke to them like they were his peers. Children were, and always had been, at the heart of the Disney experience. Parents might have been the ones who would actually drive the family car to their Disneyland vacation, but Walt wanted them to know that the magic would always belong to them, too.
Walt had quickly concluded that the small lot in Burbank wasn’t going to be nearly enough. He set his sights on 160 acres in Anaheim, a small, rural, citrus growing community 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. It was a huge endeavor. The project called for 5,000 cubic yards of concrete, 1 million square feet of asphalt walkways, and acres and acres of flowers and landscape. The entrance to the park would be a ¾ scale model of an idyllic 1890s main street. And it goes without saying that there would be a real live steam locomotive on a mile-long railroad track circling the park. And a 20 ft berm that would make sure the real, imperfect world would not intrude on the happiest place on earth.
6 weeks from the opening date, panic was setting in. The entrance to the park was not yet landscaped. Main Street was unpaved. The castle was unfinished. Construction crew tripled to 2,500 men. Costs soared to $17 million, more than triple the initial budget. In the final weeks of the project, there was a plumber’s strike in Orange County. This left Walt with a labor shortage, and he had to make a choice between finishing the water fountains and finishing the bathrooms. He chose the bathrooms, stating “Guests can drink Pepsi Cola, but they can’t pee in the streets”.
Despite the pressure and around the clock work, four days before Disneyland opened, it was time for a different type of celebration. July 13, 1955 marked Walt and Lillian’s 30th wedding anniversary. They held what they called a “Tempus Fugit” party, Latin for “Time Flies”.
Their guests filed into the still-unfinished park, and a Dixieland Band welcomed them onto the maiden voyage of the Mark Twain, as they sipped mint juleps on the Rivers of America. Then it was time for dinner and dancing, and Wally Boag’s first ever performance of the Golden Horseshoe Revue. That show would ultimately run more than 30 years, the longest running revue in the history of show business.
When Boag performed as Pecos Bill, the guests watched as a 54 year old entertainment mogul climbed from his balcony onto the stage to engage in a make-believe gunfight. At the end of the night, Walt and Lillian climbed into the backseat of their daughter Diane’s car for the ride home. Walt was still in full-blown “big kid mode”. He curled up his map of Disneyland, tooted it like a horn, and practiced his opening day dedication speech. Suddenly, the car was silent. Diane turned around to find that her father was fast asleep, with his dream world rolled up in his magic-making, overworked arms.
The next morning, it was back to work. ABC was planning for it’s biggest live TV broadcast ever. On the 16th, the painters geared up to pull an all-nighter. The boss himself donned a paint mask and helped to spray paint the 20,000 League Under the Sea walkthrough attraction. At 3:00 AM, Walt was still marching through the park, barking orders.
The big day was upon them. July 17, 1955. It was unusually hot in Anaheim; temperatures would climb to over 100 degrees by the afternoon. Word reached them that traffic was backed up more than 7 miles on Harbor Blvd, just to enter the park. Those who were fortunate enough to get inside early, got to hear Uncle Walt give his, now legendary, opening day speech
Nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to ABC to watch as the day unfolded. But live TV was still in its infancy. Correspondents and cameramen spread throughout the park had a lot of trouble communicating with each other, and the broadcast was…more than a little messy.
Beyond the broadcast, there were other hiccups. Mr Toad’s Wild Ride overloaded the park’s power grid. A gas leak shut down Fantasyland for a few hours. Vendors ran out of food, and women’s heels began to sink into the still soft asphalt. But, none of it mattered to Walt; Sharon and Diane said they had never seen their father happier. His dream was a reality.
The next day was Disneyland’s official public opening. Crowds were at the gate starting at 2 in the morning. The rough edges were eventually smoothed out, and the park hosted 1 million people over the course of the next 10 weeks.
A plaque at the entry to Main Street USA summed up what Walt’s kingdom was all about. “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” In Frontierland and Adventureland, you look behind. You escape to a simpler time, when the land wasn’t yet conquered and all that mattered was hard work, grit, and being true to yourself. In Tomorrowland, you look ahead, to a world where technological and political progress have allowed us to set aside our petty differences and work toward a better and more beautiful world. In Fantasyland, you look within. To a world where bravery, honesty, and purity will lead to your very own happily ever after.
In July of 1956, a year after Disneyland opened, the town of Maceline invited Walt to returned to help dedicate a park that was being renamed in his honor. He shocked them by accepting the invitation. Even though he had spent far more time in Chicago and Kansas City, he reclaimed Marceline as his hometown. It was, after all, the inspiration for Main Street USA where, for the first time ever, the world could experience pure, perfect Americana. And the town of Marceline took great pride in the fact that Disneyland had been built from the imagination of a hardworking, scrappy, Midwestern kid who, boarded a train carrying a suitcase filled with art supplies, and endless dreams.
Foreign dignitaries and heads of state put Disneyland it on their “must visit” list when they were on diplomatic trips to the United States. The word was out: if you wanted to experience American ideals, dreams, and fantasies in one day, Walt’s park was the place to do it. Even Soviet Premiere Nikita Kruschev, who’s country was locked in an ideological Cold War with the United States, demanded to see the park while on a trip to the United States in 1959. US officials feared that the crowds would pose a security risk, and barred the visit.
By 1959, more than 5 million people walked through Disneyland’s turnstiles, almost 3% of the US population at the time. Walt spent many of his days at the park; it wasn’t uncommon for him to descend from him apartment atop the fire station in his slippers to check in on the crew before the park opened to the public. Dressed in shabby clothes and a hat, he would even wait in line among guests to hear their conversations, always looking for ways to further improve the park. One evening, Walt and Lillian were at a friend’s house for a dinner party. His host told him that he had become so popular, he could run for president. Walt shot down the idea immediately. “Why would I want to be President of the United States? I’m the King of Disneyland.”
On New Year’s Day 1960, there were two facts about Walt Disney that no one could deny. The first was that his name had become synonymous with magic and imagination. The second was that he was officially an old man. And like all old men, he knew he would be gone in his physical form sooner rather than later. He began to set his sights on his legacy. And when a man with as much cultural clout as Walt Disney creates his legacy, the results are something for the ages.
Join us next week as we look at the ways in which Walt set us up, as he said in his Disneyland dedication, to “savor the challenge and promise of the future”.