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Disneyland Turns 50

Though Disneyland turns 50 in July, it is the park's timeless quality that makes it the destination of choice for young and old alike.

Disney with assistant at Adventureland c.1960
Photo caption
Disney, right, wanted real animals for his ride but settled for an imagineered menagerie.


There is only a certain demographic still kicking, a rather mature population by now, that remembers an American history before interstate highways, franchising, and backseat DVD players. We know who we are: We did 300 miles a day in the back of a poorly ventilated Chevrolet station wagon, Dad wild at the prospect of an alligator farm just ahead. We raced to an aggregation of reptiles that was arguably educational, but not likely to be all that much livelier than the croc collection just behind. Does that feel like a long time ago?

It is—almost exactly 50 years ago. That's when, on July 17, 1955, Walt Disney opened his namesake park, altering far more than 160 acres of Anaheim orange groves. His institution of themes—Frontierland, with its paddle wheeler and a log stockade, or maybe Fantasyland, with its turreted, crenellated castle—was a transforming leap from the carnival midway. The motifs radiated from Main Street, each an avenue toward an improbable destination—Dumbo here, a rocket ride there, a cruise through the jungle over there. Early on, the whole place was populated by walking cartoons, so that you might stumble across Goofy or Minnie Mouse. Around the entire park chugged a locomotive, which might have been responsible for the overwhelming impression that you, for as long as your tickets held out, were visiting somebody's rather elaborate toy train layout.

Since then the landscape of family entertainment has tilted toward a comforting conglomeration, becoming predictable, safe, and reproducible. If you wanted—and they say 500 million have over the years—you could visit Disneyland any time and the park would meet the same glorious expectation of wholesome satisfaction. Walt's park remains a familial rite of passage, a visit becoming proof of citizenship. It's a travel responsibility in the way that a trip to the Liberty Bell used to be.

Some critics have complained about Disneyland's kind of mass-market entertainment ever since the park opened, as if the misadventures from more spontaneous and, in the case of Dad, cockeyed outings were somehow better for the soul. But just as soon as the country got a little dough in its pocket and a little time on its hands during the postwar boom of the early 1950s, it voted for mass-market everything. And entrepreneurs and even government obliged, laying coaxial cable coast to coast, paving the interstates, creating fast-food outlets, and chalking out subdivisions and the first shopping malls.

You will not lose your lunch on the Pirates of the Caribbean, but try visiting Disneyland without a trip on it.

To get nationwide exposure, Disney leveraged a partnership with ABC, presciently agreeing to provide programming in exchange for some of the financing of his park. He noted, famously, "Dreams offer too little collateral." Running the TV show, which was originally called Disneyland, as a kind of infomercial, he created an absurd, countrywide anticipation for this otherwise local marvel. And once the park opened, he shrewdly edited the experience to foster an impression of inspiration on demand. That is to say, he didn't show you the lines.

When you consider the historical confluence of the 1950s—a growing middle class, the sheer number of children begging to be entertained, the anxiety of the cold war, not to mention the growing ease of travel—Disney's plan for a hermetically sealed theme park seems like a no-brainer.

That Disneyland has survived half a century, its mythology intact and mostly undisturbed, is the real miracle. And it's testament not so much to Walt's financial calculation, which was by no means casual, as to his culture of imagination. Disney, already successful in movies and cartoons, simply wanted some land where he could animate his inventory of stories. They've had more staying power than the whirligigs that are the tent poles of our other circuses, as it turned out. They've had more spirit, too.

For the most part, Walt's park has remained a neutral nation in the entertainment arms race. Let the amusement parks engage in vertiginous one-upmanship. Disneyland, the mother of all theme parks, did not have a thrill ride until the Matterhorn opened in June of 1959. Its three-dimensional storytelling has simply removed it from comparison with all other parks. It relies more on its cast of audio-animatronic standbys (crooning parrots, say, in the Tiki Room or fur-capped Cossacks dancing the gopak in It's a Small World) and its strolling cartoons than it does on the few jolting attractions it has added over the years. Put it this way: You will not lose your lunch on the Pirates of the Caribbean, but try visiting Disneyland without a trip through its watery underworld.

Disney, for all his pining for a perfect world, didn't ignore the authentic. He did kill Bambi's mom, remember.

Even at the newer Indiana Jones Adventure ride, during which you might experience a bit of car sickness, the pretext of the ride is not so much its jarring twists and turns as it is Indy's mission. The best Disney rides are cinematic equivalents, true narrative experiences. The Jungle Cruise is not a boat ride; it's a rather nutty patrol through croc- and cannibal-infested waters, which you may or may not survive.

Still, Disneyland will always be under fire for its template of conformity, something that was actually an attractive idea in the 1950s. Look closely, though, and you see that the park has maintained an odd balance all this time, presenting a level of safety and sanitation on the one hand and mischief and mayhem on the other. The fairy-tale ambience here, some subversiveness there. Relentless civility versus a taste for chaos. Familiarity against surprise.

Disney, for all his pining for a perfect world (embodied in his depiction of a turn-of-the-century Main Street), did not entirely ignore the authentic. He did kill Bambi's mom, remember. He did permit, perhaps encourage, the occasional sense of danger. On a recent trip there, I was pleased to see a youngster being forced into the Haunted Mansion by his parents, the kid's limbs rigid in terror. Excellent.

Perhaps the kind of people that Disney wanted around him, the kind who animate ducks with foul tempers, simply could never fully operate under the principles of antiseptic perfection that seem to govern the park. In March I attended a behind-the-scenes tour, where a lot of people with "Creative Director" in their titles previewed new shows, parades, and rides for the 50th-anniversary celebration. Many of them wore suits, had short haircuts, and, for all their individual talents, appeared subsumed in a weird groupthink culture. They were, above all, "cast members," as they must be at Disney.

On the other hand, each one of them seemed quite insane, an anarchist at heart, delighting in tweaking every little concept, trying to get away with something. One guy, with the park-closing music for his sound track and using only his hands and body, enacted the new 18-minute fireworks display. He danced back and forth, his fingers trailing colorful showers ("Red, green, blue!" he cried out). He was sweating through his suit for the pyrotechnic finale.

A woman who was presumably just as high up in the organization, but who was much calmer than Fireworks Guy, strode back and forth describing the changes in the retooled Space Mountain, an indoor roller coaster that rockets through the cosmos. They had found a way of manipulating the lighting to make the new loading platform seem to rotate. In tests, passengers were hitting the deck, looking for grab bars. "The effect was total disorientation," she said as she paced, slapping a pointer in her palm. "So we were very excited about that."

This might have comforted Disney, given that he was first and foremost a cartoonist. Would he also have appreciated the ability of the smart-aleck guides who pilot his Jungle Cruise boats to prick his fabled reputation for obsessive quality control? Every once in a while, embedded in the trademark groaners, a guide will let loose some mild corporate mockery: "Well, it's the end of the ride and now we return you to the magical, mystical place I like to call . . . in sick as much as possible." The jabs are easier to shake off when your park continues to be such a draw—its12.7 million visitors in 2003 made its attendance second only to the much bigger Walt Disney World among U.S. theme and amusement parks.

There are things to wonder about, no question. Next time you're in line at the Indiana Jones ride, you might pause to think of the geniuses in Scientific Systems who have created this magnificent, illusory labyrinth. The park routinely posts wait times at the attraction's entrance, but no amount of warning can overcome your disbelief. There are only a few people ahead of you. How can that possibly portend a 50-minute wait? About 40 minutes later it may occur to you that the brilliance is not in crowd deception but in the day-eating line itself. You're going to have to come back again tomorrow, aren't you? Well, you could check into one of the three hotels on the park grounds.

But it is not very sporting to complain of such manipulation when so much is offered in return. A one-day ticket, which is an all-you-can-ride smorgasbord, now costs $53 for adults. This still amounts to a bargain.

Disney's branded utopia did not survive exactly as Walt wanted. When you look at his old TV shows, which he used mostly to pump up prospects for his park, you notice how much stock he put in the past. Main Street, so incredibly detailed, all at five-eighths scale, was obviously dear to his heart. He even maintained an apartment there over the firehouse (where they keep a lamp lit to this day). Yet nowadays Main Street is simply a place to rush through on the way to Thunder Mountain or the Sleeping Beauty Castle.

Still, Walt had the right idea, building attractions with compelling story lines and finding a balance that approaches magic. If you care to argue the point, just travel the 100 yards next door, where his company has created California Adventure, a more modern-looking, less congested sister park on the old parking lot. It's the one place you can see the Disney corporation sweat. The rides seem off-the-shelf, with little narrative, and patrons appear confused by the relative expansiveness. Visitors hurry back to the congestion of the original, more childlike version, the confinement of that first undersize plot demanding as much wit as the rides themselves. Here, one "land" folds intimately into the other, Frontierland giving way to New Orleans Square, which surrenders seamlessly to Critter Country.

The real Disneyland, where the past and future are purposely confused, in much the same way that the distinction between grown-ups and children is blurred (they both drive those little Autopia cars, right?), can hardly be criticized for insisting on such an unlikely world, where everything works, the streets are clean, and Snow White and the Mad Hatter talk back. The kids fly rocket jets! They go to "infinity and beyond" with Buzz Lightyear! And they actually meet Mickey! And anybody who calls it a summertime shortcut, as if we'd all be better off visiting the giant redwoods, misses the point. If any of us, at any time, could have thought of a better place to be than Disneyland (alligator farm?), Dad would have taken us there.

Words with Walt

Walt Disney died in 1966, yet nearly every aspect of the park that bears his name also bears his indelible imprint. Recently, Via editor Bruce Anderson stepped into what Walt called "a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time" and talked with the park visionary over a cold one at Club 33 in Disneyland's New Orleans Square.

Question You were the main man in film animation. Why the park?

Answer I was always trying to think of a place to take my two small daughters on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon—a place where I could have fun, too. At an amusement park the only fun provided for a father, besides having his bottom dropped out from under him on the roller coaster, was the same he enjoyed all week: buying the tickets.

Question Get out of here. You saw a cash cow, didn't you?

Answer Most of the people I talked to thought it would be a financial disaster—closed and forgotten within the first year.
A lot of people don't realize that we had some very serious problems here, keeping this thing going and getting it started. I remember when we opened, we didn't have enough money to finish the landscaping and I had [landscape designer] Bill Evans go out and put tags with Latin plant names on all the weeds.

Question How is your park different from other amusement parks?

Answer When I started on Disneyland, my wife used to say, "But why do you want to build an amusement park? They're so dirty." I told her that was just the point—mine wouldn't be.

Question How do you see the park changing in the future?

Answer Disneyland is something that will never be finished. It's something that I can keep developing. It will be a live, breathing thing that will need change. A picture is a thing, once you wrap it up and turn it over to Technicolor, you're through. Snow White is a dead issue with me. But I can change the park, because it's alive.

Question The park has had a truly remarkable run. But won't Disneyland seem dated, like bell-bottoms or coonskin caps, in another 50 years?

Answer Fantasy, if it's really convincing, can't be-come dated, for the simple reason that it represents a flight into a dimension that lies beyond the reach of time. In this new dimension, whatever it is, nothing corrodes or gets run down at the heel or gets to look ridiculous like, say, the celluloid collar or the bustle.

Walt Disney's answers were taken from the April 1960 issue of Reader's Digest and from The Quotable Walt Disney.

Photography courtesy of Disneyland


This article was first published in July 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.