One could say without much argument the Walter Elias Disney was one of the most influential people of the 20th century, or perhaps, even in history. He was a dreamer, showman, and a creative and innovative genius, a man not afraid to follow his dreams to fruition, even when the experts, friends and even family said it couldn’t be done. And many can say he was clairvoyant, for he seemed to know what would work, what the people would embrace. He knew sound cartoons, color cartoons and even a full-length animated feature films would be a success, despite the “experts” decrying “Failure.” But Walt’s biggest dream beyond doubt was his dream of Disneyland. The story behind this iconic play land has many twists and turns, and here is how a new technology helped Walt realize his dream.
The accepted tale of Walt’s park is that he came up with the idea of a place where “Parents and Children” could have fun together while taking his daughters Diane and Sharon to Griffith Park and sitting on the sidelines while his daughters rode the merry-go-round. However, years later and interviews with many of Walt’s friends and family show that his idea of a “Disneyland” was years in the making.
Animator Wilfred Jackson said that Walt spoke of the idea for an amusement park at the premiere of Snow White. Rudy Ising from the Laugh-O-Gram days, remembered Walt saying during a visit to the Electric Park amusement area, that “One of these days I’m going to build an amusement park, and it’s going to be clean!” Ben Sharpsteen heard Walt talk about a park in 1940 during a demonstration of the new Fantasound, when Walt had plans to put up displays across from the studio to “Show people something when they visited the Studio” In another instance, Disney legend John Hench remembered Walt walking up and down the studio parking lot for the boundaries of his Mickey Mouse Park. Whenever and wherever the idea came to Walt, it was a long road before we all could love Disneyland.
There were many factors behind Disneyland, starting with a memo in 1948, describing a small park Walt wanted to build at his Burbank Studios facility, a place for his employees to rest, eat lunch and play a little baseball. But this never came about. But there were other components behind Disneyland, principally Walt’s state of mind. After the bitter animators strike in 1941 and the War, which took its toll on the studio, Walt missed the old Hyperion studio, he longed for the days when there was teamwork and collaboration, working on the Mickey Mouse cartoons, or Snow White. He knew the spirit would never recover from the strike. Walt always loved trains.
As a boy in Marceline, he and Roy would wave to their uncle Mike, an engineer on the train. Walt got a job later as a news butcher, selling fruit, candy and soda to passengers. He even traded his goods to the conductors and engineers to show him how to operate the locomotive. This love of trains is a big factor in the formation of Disneyland. And after seeing Ward Kimball’s real steam engine in his yard, and meeting fellow train enthusiast, William “Casey “ Jones, Walt wanted a train for himself.
Before the memo on the Mickey Mouse Park in 1947, Walt began collecting miniatures – Boats, figurines, furniture, machinery, bottles and more. He even had his friends and workers help him search. These were ostensibly for his train layouts, but Walt also had the idea for displaying a miniature village, depicting scenes from Americana which he would make himself, place them in large display cases to be shown around the country. He did this in secret, he did not want it associated with the Studio, and after all it was his idea. With the help of artist Ken Anderson, he set up shop in the animation building, and Ken drew background scenes of typical Americana life.
But like all of Walt’s ideas, they grew exponentially. He had sketches of a blacksmith shop, a group of women conversing, a general store and more. Walt also realized that he could not construct all this by himself, and the scenes had to move. With his love of windup toys, a sketch artist named Harper Goff and a sculptor named Christodoro, an experiment ensued. Walt hired actor Buddy Ebsen to perform a short tap dance, film it and see if a mechanical figure that Christodoro made could duplicate the dance. Although the experiment was not a complete success, it was the beginning of Walt’s foray into audio animatronics. These tableaus’ were christened “Disneylandia” which Walt described as “Visual Juke boxes” But this Disneylandia was a means to an end, it was the test for the real amusement park, Disneyland.
In the spring of 1948, Walt talked about having a scale model railroad train circling the studio, with scenes along the way. After returning from the Chicago Railroad Fair in August, Walt was looking for a locomotive for this village. He could visualize not just the train, but the park surrounded by it. This park now morphed into a Main Village, a Railroad station, a small town, stores and an opera house. Walt even saw a movie theater and an ice cream and hot dog stand. There were other branches, a western village and an old barn, and an Indian encampment. But the plans were put aside due to production matters at the studio.
Since Walt did not have the resources or time, he launched Disneylandia, a way to test the waters for his future Disneyland. After a trip through Europe, and a visit to the Tivoli Gardens in Denmark, Walt returned and talked about nothing else but his park. He had Harper Goff draw plans and sketches of his park, which now included an island and small lake. Designing the park, Walt was like in the old days, rejuvenated and energized. As the plans burgeoned, a submarine ride, spaceship replica and canal boat were added. But this was going to be expensive, and Roy, the keeper of the books wasn’t very enthusiastic. He did not want to use the studio’s resources for Walt’s park.
And it was Roy who gave Walt the resources and the shield he needed to stay away from the studio. Roy realized that Walt in order to protect his rights and those of his family, form an entity with him in control, and in December 1952 “WED Enterprises” (WED-Walter Elias Disney) was formed, using Walt’s own money. WED had complete freedom to develop the technology necessary to create the rides and attractions he had in his mind. Walt set up the company in an old bungalow inside the studio.
Walt needed funding and a staff. Lillian’s brother-in-law Bill Cottrell was the first employee, followed by Marvin Davis and art director Dick Irvine. Layout artist John Hench and other animators, machinists and layout artists soon joined. Walt and his team began to design Disneyland. Walt was very happy. He viewed WED as he did the old Hyperion Studios. He owned WED, as he did the studio before it went public. Walt called it his sandbox. Disneyland evolved into a giant movie set; a western town, a cruise ride modeled after the film, “The African Queen” (Jungle Cruise), a Main Street, (The Marceline of his youth), a future land, Tomorrowland, all radiating from a central Castle, what Walt called a “Weenie”
Walt now needed funds and a location for the park. After much searching, he settled on a 160 acre tract in Orange County, called the Ball subdivision. Now he needed money to build the park. As usual, Walt made big plans, but never gave much thought on where the money would come from. But he had a plan…The new medium of television. Walt had been enamored by television since the 1930’s. He immediately realized the vast potential of the new form of media say, “Television is the coming thing!” As usual, he was largely along in this respect. Most film executives believed it to be the enemy of the motion picture. Walt believed it would be a boon help to advertise the movies. He and Roy both agreed that they would take full advantage of its potential and to advertise future studio endeavors.
Walt first incursion into television was an hour long Christmas special, sponsored by Coco-Cola on NBC with Walt Disney, as he hosted a scene from the forthcoming film, “Alice in Wonderland” plus several cartoons. This was a tremendous success, with Jack Gould of the New York Times stated… “Walt Disney can take over television any time he likes!” and further stated that the show was “One of the most engaging and charming programs of the year” This gave Walt and Roy the impetus and knowledge they needed about television and its value as an advertising medium. A Gallup poll which stated that the program created a new perception of Alice proved them right.
Walt realized that a regular series would infuse the studio with a reliable source of income, and attract sponsors to his Disneyland. Walt approached the networks, NBC, CBS and ABC. Talks with NBC and CBS petered out, but ABC, which at the time was the weakest of the three, showed interest. ABC chairman Leonard Goldenson had for the longest time tried to forge an alliance with Disney for their upcoming fall season, for he saw the family values of Disney a perfect match for his struggling company. ABC wanted a series that would appeal to growing segment of “Youthful” families. Goldenson made many deals for loans to back Walt and his park. ABC needed a Disney show badly, and on April 2nd, 1954 they had their Disney television show.
It was a complex contract for three years of 26 one hour programs each year, but this was the infusion of monies Walt desperately needed. The format of the series was to incorporate a fifteen minute program called “The Mickey Mouse Club”, promotions for Disney films, footage from the True-Life adventure series, a thirty minute “World of Tomorrow” program illustrating man’s past and future. But the most important segment was the ongoing progress reports on the Disneyland Park. When ABC and Walt Disney Productions announced their arrangement, it was promised that the network will show a totally new concept in TV programming, utilizing both live and cartoon action. Walt knew the show had to be laudable of the Disney name.
The new series dubbed Disneyland was slated to start in October, with Walt as its host giving him time to advertise Disneyland and obtain sponsors to advertise on the network. The show although cobbled together quickly, made its premier on October 27, 1954 and was an instant hit! With Walt describing Disneyland, and a collection of cartoons, live action films, stories of the latest Disney productions and previews of future programs, sponsors began lining up.
Critic Jack Gould of the New York Times wrote… “The rest of the television industry may decide to suspend operations between 7:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Wednesday nights” Variety magazine predicated that Walt Disney “Will prove a dominant figure in this season’s television picture” The critics were correct. Disneyland was viewed by over 50 percent of the viewing audience. Its ratings continued to climb and the viewership kept increasing. Even the repeats outdrew all other programs on television. By April, Newsweek was calling the show “An American Institution” and Disneyland placed ABC into the top of the ratings.
But even with Walt Disney as the show’s host, what really made Disneyland a huge hit was the show “Davy Crockett” Walt wanted a segment on American Hero’s to tie in with Disneyland’s Frontierland. He thought that Crockett, frontiersman, Indian fighter and hero who died at the Alamo would be perfect fodder. After hiring an unknown actor, Fess Parker to play the role, Davy Crockett debuted on Disneyland on December 5, 1954 and immediately became a national phenomenon. In addition to the Ballad of Davy Crockett, the show became a cult classic. Kids bought the record and millions of dollars of Davy Crockett merchandise, rifles, knives, jackets and most popular, Coonskin caps. Davy Crockett helped the Disneyland audience swell over forty million. The show was the turning point for ABC and for Walt’s Disneyland Park.
Walt Disney, the dreamer and genius again proved why he was the man to be reckoned with. He always believed in tenaciously fighting for your dreams, no matter what the odds. He did this time and time again, starting with the Iwwerks-Disney business attempt, to outsmarting Charlie Mintz when he took Oswald from him, to sound cartoons, color cartoons and more. We all thank Walt for his legacy he left to the world and to his stubborn will to never give up!