Disneyland: Walt’s Impossible Dream (32 Min, 533 Points)

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Walter Elias Disney and his older brother Roy Oliver Disney started their company back in 1923. Initially known as the Disney Brothers Studio, it was later renamed Walt Disney Productions, and today it is simply The Walt Disney Company. The stories and characters they created became world-famous, and tourists flocked to Hollywood to visit the Disney Studio, hoping to find something magical. However, Walt’s studio was just ordinary offices and soundstages surrounded by well-tended lawns and rose gardens. He needed something to buffer their disappointment.

In the early 1940s, Walt thought of creating a themed corner of the studio where visitors could meet their favorite characters. This idea eventually grew into an 11-acre park across the street. In the early 1950s, Walt had been offering rides on his backyard live-steam railroad in Holmby Hills, and the sheer number of visitors prompted him to take the idea of a little Mickey Mouse Park more seriously.

Roy Disney, who was CEO of the company, was skeptical about opening an amusement park. Even Walt’s wife, Lillian, questioned the idea, saying, “Why would you want that? Amusement parks are so dirty and dangerous!” Walt simply responded, “That’s just it, mine wouldn’t be.” Reluctantly, Roy agreed to set aside money for research, and Lillian went along with it.

In early 1953, Imagineer Harper Goff explained to Walt that the park’s designs exceeded the 11-acre land parcel across from the studio. When the Burbank City Council denied his request to build an amusement park, Walt admitted it was time to look for land elsewhere. To secure financial backing, Roy knew a pile of papers with descriptions of the park wouldn’t be enough to make a convincing pitch, so he asked Walt to have artwork commissioned to help potential financiers visualize the concept. He called upon one of his studio’s best artists, Herb Ryman, to create the rendering of the park over the weekend. Ryman initially declined, but Walt, ever persuasive, convinced him by offering to stay with him throughout the weekend to complete the artwork.

The resulting artwork depicted the park with four themed lands: a jungle area representing the land of adventure, a futuristic city representing the land of tomorrow, an old west town complete with a riverboat representing the frontier, and a large medieval forecourt with a fairy tale castle as the park’s visual icon, representing the land of fantasy, complete with a carousel to pay homage to the idea that started it all. Surrounding the park would be a miniature railroad that would surpass any steam train hobbyist’s greatest dream.

Roy arranged for Walt Disney Productions to allot $10,000 towards the research and development of Disneyland, but when Walt needed more money, Roy suggested creating a private company that would own the rights to Walt Disney’s name. This way, Walt could license the name to Walt Disney Productions, providing weekly funding for the project. Walt created Retlaw Enterprises in 1950, licensing his name to the bigger company and receiving a weekly income of $3,000. Unsatisfied with an architectural firm’s park designs, Walt turned to his friend, the famed architect Welton Beckett, for advice. Beckett advised Walt to use his own people, leading to the creation of WED Enterprises (Walter Elias Disney) in 1952, where his team of Imagineers would dream up all the future attractions for Disneyland.

While Roy managed to get some financial backers, including Bank of America, he wasn’t having much luck. Walt offered television studios the opportunity to help fund his park in exchange for starring in a television series called “Disneyland.” He continued borrowing money, taking out $50,000 from his life insurance and selling his Palm Springs vacation home. When his wife Lillian discovered he had spent over $100,000 of their money, she was livid. Walt reminded her that once the park opened, they would receive a 15% return on any merchandise sold with his name on it.

Walt hired Harrison “Buzz” Price from the Stanford Research Institute to find the land required for the park. Buzz scoured five counties and eventually found a 200-acre parcel of orange and walnut groves in Anaheim, CA. Walt purchased the land using money from Bank of America but still needed construction funding. Roy returned to New York to request more money, and ABC television network, looking to compete with other stations, agreed to fund a large portion of the construction in exchange for Walt starring in a weekly TV show and giving them 35% ownership of the park. With this funding, Disneyland had a total of $17 million, though few involved were fully convinced it would be a success.

On July 16, 1954, site leveling began. Walt was adamant that the park would open the next year on July 17, an impossible deadline. Horticulture Imagineer Bill Evans suggested keeping some orange and walnut trees to save money on fully grown trees, but a colorblind bulldozer driver mistakenly removed many of them. The groundbreaking on Disneyland happened on July 21, 1954, with retired Navy Admiral turned Naval Architect Joe Fowler managing the construction.

Original plans placed True Life Adventureland on the east side of the park, but Bill Evans discovered a line of mature Eucalyptus trees that could protect jungle foliage if Adventureland was placed on the west side. Inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark, Walt tasked Bill Evans with planting a 60-acre themed park to look like it had been there for ages, exhausting nurseries from Santa Barbara to San Diego. Evans split the landscape design with Imagineer Ruth Shellhorn, who designed the more civilized areas like Main Street, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland, while Bill handled the exotic landscapes of Adventureland and Frontierland.

Roy Disney worried about the park’s profitability, fearing merchandise sales alone wouldn’t carry the financial burdens. Third-party retailers and park sponsorships eventually eased these concerns. Swift meat packing company agreed to operate the Market House on Main Street, opening the floodgates for around 40 other companies to sign up.

Excited to show off the park’s progress, Walt invited his friend, television host Art Linkletter, who initially thought Walt was out of his mind due to the park’s remote location. The first building completed at Disneyland was the Main Street Opera House, used as a lumber mill and machine shop to construct the rest of the park. The next building was the firehouse next to City Hall, where Walt and Lilly had a tiny one-bedroom apartment.

When it came to Tomorrowland, Walt wanted to showcase near-future innovations, leading to the creation of Autopia, inspired by California’s new freeways. Fresh out of school, Bob Gurr was hired as an Imagineer to design the cars for Autopia, a challenging task that required durable, easy-to-drive vehicles. Bob’s ability to think on the spot led to his involvement in other ride vehicle projects around the park.

Disneyland’s magic kingdom relied on the shape of its landscape. To prevent guests from seeing inside the park from the outside and vice versa, a system of berms was created, some towering 30 feet high. In Frontierland, the Rivers of America was lined with clay to prevent water absorption. The City of Anaheim annexed 800 acres surrounding the park for public works, and new powerlines supplied enough power to light a small town. Disneyland’s gutters drained into the park’s major outdoor waterways, a system still in use today.

Funds for Disneyland ran thin, and Walt mortgaged his remaining home to complete the Mark Twain Riverboat. Despite protests from his wife and brother, Walt insisted the park open on July 17, 1955. Construction crews tripled in size closer to the opening day, with many operations running around the clock. Walt personally oversaw the progress, offering advice and instruction along the way.

On July 4, 1955, Walt held a US Independence Day party at the nearly complete park, offering rides on the Disneyland Railroad. The Disneyland Railroad was the most expensive attraction in the park, fulfilling Walt’s lifelong railroad enthusiast dream. Two locomotives, the C.K. Holliday and the E.P. Ripley, were built in 5/8ths scale and named after founding members of the Santa Fe Railroad, which sponsored Disneyland’s trains.

Just four days before the park’s unveiling, Walt and Lilly celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary in the Golden Horseshoe Saloon in Frontierland. During the final stages of construction, Walt often stayed overnight on weekends to oversee progress. Despite numerous setbacks, Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955.

Opening day saw a record-breaking viewership of 90 million for the live telecast. Traffic lined up for miles, and 28,000 people packed the park, exceeding its capacity. Despite numerous issues, including overheating cameras and overcrowded attractions, the park drew in hordes of visitors every day that summer. Disneyland was a success, reaching one million visitors in just 90 days.

Walt Disney continued to change and add to the park over the years, never satisfied with the status quo. He referred to Disneyland as his block of clay, continuously sculpting and shaping it to fit his vision. Walt enjoyed the park for 11 years before dying from lung cancer in December 1966 at the age of 65.

Disneyland started as just a park but became a quintessential part of Americana, attracting celebrities and heads of state from around the world. It was a place where people could escape their woes, experiencing magical adventures and creating lasting memories. Walt Disney’s ability to create an emotional connection with his audience ensured that when you wish upon a star, your dreams can come true, just as they did for him.

See Course Summary

The Magical Journey of Disneyland: From Dream to Reality

The Genesis of Disney’s Dream

  • Founding the Company
    • Walter Elias Disney and his brother Roy Oliver Disney started the Disney Brothers Studio in 1923.
    • Renamed Walt Disney Productions, now known as The Walt Disney Company.
  • Initial Studio Tours
    • Early tourists were disappointed by the ordinary studio offices and soundstages.
    • Walt Disney envisioned a more magical experience for visitors.

Birth of Disneyland

  • Early Concepts
    • In the 1940s, Walt conceived a themed corner of the studio for visitors.
    • This idea grew into an 11-acre park across the street from the studio.
  • Backyard Inspiration
    • Walt’s backyard live-steam railroad in Holmby Hills inspired serious consideration of the park idea.

Overcoming Skepticism and Challenges

  • Convincing the Skeptics
    • Roy Disney and Walt’s wife Lillian were initially skeptical of the amusement park idea.
    • Walt assured them that his park would be different—clean and safe.
  • Securing Funding and Land
    • Roy set aside money for research and later secured financial backing.
    • Harrison “Buzz” Price found the perfect 200-acre site in Anaheim, CA.

Designing and Building the Magic

  • Imagineering and Construction
    • Imagineers like Harper Goff and Bill Evans played crucial roles in the park’s design.
    • Construction began in July 1954, with a strict deadline to open by July 17, 1955.
  • Innovative Landscaping
    • Inspired by Tivoli Gardens, the park required extensive landscaping to create its themed environments.
    • Bill Evans and Ruth Shellhorn split the landscape design duties.

Facing Financial Hurdles

  • Raising Additional Funds
    • Roy Disney negotiated with ABC for additional funding in exchange for a TV series and park ownership stakes.
    • Walt mortgaged his home and borrowed from his life insurance to cover costs.

The Final Push

  • Racing Against Time
    • Crews worked around the clock to meet the opening deadline.
    • Innovative construction techniques were employed to expedite the process.

The Grand Opening

  • Opening Day Challenges
    • July 17, 1955, saw 28,000 visitors, exceeding park capacity.
    • Despite numerous issues, including overcrowding and malfunctioning attractions, the public was enamored.
  • Live Telecast
    • ABC’s live telecast used 29 cameras and reached 90 million viewers.
    • Celebrities like Art Linkletter, Bob Cummings, and Ronald Reagan hosted the event.

Disneyland’s Early Success

  • Immediate Popularity
    • The park reached one million visitors within 90 days.
    • Despite initial setbacks, Disneyland became a beloved destination for families worldwide.

Walt Disney’s Legacy

  • Continual Innovation
    • Walt continued to add and improve attractions, always seeking to enhance the visitor experience.
    • He viewed Disneyland as a dynamic project, constantly evolving.
  • Lasting Impact
    • Disneyland became an integral part of American culture, offering a magical escape for visitors.
    • Walt Disney’s vision and creativity ensured that Disneyland would remain a place where dreams come true.


  • Enduring Magic
    • Walt Disney’s Disneyland continues to captivate and inspire, a testament to his unwavering dedication to creating a world of magic and wonder.