ABC’s “Dateline Disneyland”

Ch. 3: “Project Mickey” from Divestment to Disneyland

J. Begakis 

One week before Disneyland opened its gates to the public on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney invited select members of the press to stroll his park grounds and experience firsthand all its wonders.

Among this first group of Disneyland guests was one vocal skeptic of the theme park’s timeline for construction, Hedda Hopper, the Los Angeles Times journalist who previously told Disney that he would never make the ambitious July opening date. However, after five hours at the park, it seemed to the once doubtful Times writer that Disney had made it.

A few days after Hopper’s sneak peek at Disney’s latest entertainment venture, she wrote, “there aren’t enough adjectives to describe the wonders of this playground.” Disneyland, the columnist continued, “is not only the world’s eighth wonder, it’s the ninth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth.”[i]

Disneyland’s opening day ceremony was a star-studded television affair. ABC film crews captured the pomp and circumstance for a summer broadcast special, “Dateline Disneyland.” Walt Disney, host of the ABC weekly primetime show “Walt Disney’s Disneyland,” welcomed guests to the theme park with an on-camera dedication speech.

“To all who come to this happy place; welcome. Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past…and here youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America…with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” – Walt Disney. Disneyland, Anaheim, CA. Jul 17, 1955.

“I would like to be kind,” one Washington Post journalist wrote, “and say that the show wasn’t too bad. But why tell a lie? It was terrible.” Jul 17, 1955, was “a production nightmare.” The Washington Post columnist covering opening day ceremonies continued, “how many times were there camera shots of [Art] Linkletter, [Robert] Cummings, and [Ronald] Reagan without sound?”[1]

Broadcast snafus aside, when crowds of families and young children rushed in, Disneyland was quickly overwhelmed by its visitors. Average wait times were over one hour long, and several attractions remained unfinished. A gas main broke inside Fantasyland. Rides had temporary breakdowns, and some of Disneyland’s corporate lessees were forced to close restaurant operations and troubleshoot construction problems.[2]

According to opening day accounts, Disneyland’s Park staff witnessed melting asphalt on Main Street U.S.A, flooding on the Mark Twain Steamboat, and a veritable flood of families storming rides inside Fantasyland.[3] Meanwhile, Walt Disney was “rushed from one part of the park to another” by ABC film crews and “didn’t realize the failure of the opening until he read the press accounts the following day.”[4]

The same Washington Post writer, who described his disappointing visit on opening day, wrote, “I kept waiting and waiting for some of Disney’s redoubtable magic. Where were the cartoon characters who have rightfully taken their places in our culture?” A representative of Disneyland Inc. replied to the journalist, “Well, they’ll be on ABC starting in October.”[5]

Alternatively, as one member of the first Disneyland Inc. management team, Van Arsdale France, later put it, “there has always been a conflict between ‘show’ and ‘business’ in the show business of Disneyland.”[6]

Despite everything that went wrong at the park on opening day, “Dateline Disneyland” showed only the “joy and inspiration” of Walt Disney’s “happy place.” [7] American television audiences tuned in to ABC in the summer of 1955, eager to catch a glimpse at Walt Disney’s latest endeavor. On television, Disneyland appeared to audiences just as the Los Angeles Times writer described. Families across the country watched from home admiring and aspiring to be part of “the spirit of Disneyland.”[8]

Following opening day and throughout 1955, the theme park continued to appear wonderfully successful to the American public.[9] On ABC, Disney carried on teasing park attractions as he marveled at the feats of his Imagineers.

Yet from the earliest construction days to opening day, and five years after the Jul 17 ribbon-cutting ceremony, relations between Disneyland Inc. and WED grew progressively tense. Disneyland attractions were fraught with operational issues stemming from disputes between management and outside investors.

Between 1954 and 1960, Disneyland Inc.’s management obstructed in-park maintenance because executives were unwilling to authorize the closures of sponsored attractions. C.V. Wood, then Vice President of Disneyland Inc. and General Manager of Disneyland, limited WED’s access to the park, preventing Imagineers from finishing, fixing, and troubleshooting various attractions.

WED was blocked by the park’s operating company, Disneyland Inc., on the grounds that Imagineers needed management approval to work on in-park rides and attractions. Because Disneyland Inc. and WED were separate companies, the Imagineers could not sidestep the park’s management. And as a 17% shareholder of Disneyland Inc., Walt Disney could not overrule executive-level decisions.[10]

Even though disorder was irreconcilable with the Disney experience the theme park was designed to embody, soon after it opened, Disneyland was in danger of devolving into a chaotic corporate relations circus. For Walt Disney, “[Disneyland] had always been about control,” writes the biographer, Neal Gabler. It was “about crafting a better reality than the one outside the studio, and about demonstrating that [Walt Disney] had the capacity to do so.”[11]

However, the Disney brothers’ 1954 deal with ABC to produce a television show in exchange for joint ownership of Disneyland Inc. created the very sort of disorganized chaos that the WED Imagineers designed Disney’s “better reality” to conceal.[12]

Walt Disney went on to refer to opening day at Disneyland as “Black Sunday.”[13] And the five years that followed “Dateline Disneyland” hardly gave Disney a reason to celebrate. From corporate ownership to outside investors, Disney’s first theme park was no longer his WED designed “Project Mickey.”

No, opening day was not a celebration for Disney and his Imagineers. Rather July 17th, 1955, marked the beginning of a five-year-long struggle to buy out ABC, acquire Disneyland Inc., reestablish the Imagineer’s creative control, and save “the spirit of Disneyland.” [14]


Jennifer A. Begakis 

Ph.D. Candidate at Cornell University

University of California, Berkeley

Notes:

[i] Hopper, Hedda. “Disneyland Preview Reveals Wonderland.” Los Angeles Times. Jul 16, 1955.

[1] The Washington Post and Times-Herald. Jul 19, 1955.

[2] “Disneyland Opens Gates to Thousands: 15,000 on Hand in Mile-Long Lines as Turnstiles Start Disneyland Open to Public; 15,000 Line Up for Tickets.” Los Angeles Times. Jul 19, 1955.

[3] Thomas, Bob. 1976. Walt Disney: an American original. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[4] Ibid. Thomas, Bob.

[5] Ibid. The Washington Post and Times-Herald. Jul 19, 1955.

[6] France, Van Arsdale. Copyright: University of Central Florida Special Collections.

[7] S., R. “Disneyland Dedication from Coast.” New York Times. Jul 18, 1955.

[8] Ibid. New York Times. Jul 18, 1955.

[9] The Wall Street Journal, Feb 04, 1958.

[10] Foster Collection. Copyright University of Central Florida Special Collection.

[11] Gabler, Neal. Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. New York: Knopf, 2006. 479.

[12] Ibid. Gabler, Neal. 479.

[13] Ibid. Thomas, Bob. 272

[14] Ibid. New York Times. Jul 18, 1955.

image notes on request

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