And what a year! In 1955, Walt Disney's dream of a theme park, the first of its kind in the world, came true. Disney historian Jim Korkis' entertaining tale of an American pop culture icon is power-packed with details, and the most thorough account of Disneyland's early days ever published.
As Walt Disney once said: "it takes people to make the dream a reality". Korkis never loses sight of the many people who built Disneyland, from famous Imagineers to obscure ticket takers. From their stories he crafts the epic adventure of how Walt conjured magic from an orange grove, with all the politics and the pixie dust, and the thrill of doing what no one had ever done before.
Just a few of the highlights from Disneyland 1955:
KORKIS IS YOUR "K-TICKET" TO DISNEYLAND...1955!
Chapter 1: Inspirations for Disneyland
Chapter 2: The Mickey Mouse Park and Disneyland Prospectus
Chapter 3: Disneyland, Inc.: ABC-TV
Chapter 4: Disneyland, Inc.: Western Publishing
Chapter 5: Anaheim
Chapter 6: Disneyland’s Cast of Characters
Chapter 7: The Men Who Landscaped Disneyland: Jack and Bill Evans
Chapter 8: The Woman Who Landscaped Disneyland: Ruth Patricia Shellhorn
Chapter 9: Dateline: Disneyland, July 17, 1955
Chapter 10: Disneyland’s First Snow White
Chapter 11: When Did Disneyland Open: July 17 or July 18?
Chapter 12: The Story of the Disneyland Tickets
Chapter 13: Disneyland 1955 Highlights
Chapter 14: These Many Worlds
Chapter 15: Main Street, U.S.A.
Chapter 16: Adventureland
Chapter 17: Frontierland
Chapter 18: Fantasyland
Chapter 19: Tomorrowland
Chapter 20: Mickey Mouse Club Circus
Chapter 21: In Their Own Words: Memories of Disneyland 1955
Chapter 22: In His Own Words: Walt Disney on Disneyland 1955
Chapter 23: Disneyland 1956
Appendix A: The United States in 1955
Appendix B: Walt Disney Productions in 1955
I started working at Disneyland on July 27, 1955, about a week and a half after the park opened.
Watching the opening on television on July 17, just three months after my nineteenth birthday, it looked like a fun place. Living nearby, I thought I would go out there and see if I could get a job. I got one, as a full-time ticket taker on the Jungle Cruise attraction in Adventureland.
I was soon promoted to a Jungle Cruise skipper and eventually a foreman on the ride, spending two and a half years there before going off to other adventures like director of Epcot Center and vice president of the Magic Kingdom. It was never boring, and I would never change a minute of it.
Those early days in 1955 were amazing. The park was brand new and there was a lot of stuff going on. It was fun to walk down Main Street and see all the people already having so much fun. That’s one of the things that made Disneyland so exciting: it entertained so many different guests every day.
One of the biggest differences at that time was that Walt was there. He was there just about every weekend and every Wednesday for the Park Operating Committee meeting. He was very hands-on with the running of Disneyland. We all learned about what Disneyland culture was and how to behave through watching and listening to Walt.
He insisted that the people were not customers but guests, just like guests in your house. Take care of your guests and they will take care of you. They are the ones paying your salary.
Walt was actually a quiet, down-to-earth kind of guy. One foggy night at the Jungle Cruise, he was just walking around checking out his park like he often did and came over and sat down with us. We all sat there, smoked, and just talked. He was always receptive to hearing what we thought about the ride and the park and the changes we suggested.
If he was working, he would usually wear his old gray pinstriped pants, a leather jacket that looked like he got it out of the Goodwill, and a straw hat. I remember him in that outfit when he was building Tom Sawyer Island.
But if he was just out there visiting and meeting guests, he’d wear his blue serge suit and his Smoke Tree tie, and the guests would crowd around him if he wasn’t careful and we would have to help him slip backstage.
He was popular with everyone and just a nice guy. He loved to talk to the guests and hear what they thought about the park. He loved to talk to the employees. That’s one of the things that made Disneyland so different in those early days. The boss was there and you really wanted to please him.
It was a new adventure for all of us. We were the pioneers blazing a new path for something that had never been done before. We learned quickly from our mistakes and went out and made new ones.
Disneyland was out in the middle of nowhere. There were still strawberry patches and orange groves surrounding it. People came to the park dressed up in hats and gloves. Even the kids were dressed up because it was something special, something different than a usual amusement park.
My fondest memory of working at Disneyland in that first year was meeting the most wonderful girl who would become my patient and supportive wife for fifty-seven years. She was the night manager of Waltha Clarke’s Hawaiian Shop, a lessee located right across from the Jungle Cruise. They sold bathing suits and Hawaiian shirts and straw hats.
It is hard for me to believe that it has been sixty years since Disneyland first opened. I can still remember it so vividly and all the many friends I worked with at the park. It was a different place back then, and I am so proud that I was a part of it all.
I am happy that Jim Korkis has decided to write about that first year. Jim wasn’t there, but through his massive research and interviews with those of us who were, he has been able to share with new generations what it was like when Walt walked the park.
I have always been surprised and impressed by the depth of Jim’s knowledge of Disney history and how he can prod so many half-forgotten memories out of me. Diane Disney and others have enjoyed his historical books because they are so accurate and entertaining.
In person, he has always been eager and appreciative to hear my stories. I am glad he wrote all that stuff down.
With so few people still left who were there at Disneyland in 1955, this book is a wonderful trip back in time that preserves the memories, facts, and fun that we all experienced. And, boy, did we have fun!
I never intended in my entire life to ever write a book about Disneyland.
I love Disneyland. I grew up in Southern California, so I visited the park frequently as a kid, a teenager, and an adult, and have many fond memories. I eagerly collected information about what the park was like when Walt Disney was alive.
However, there are a ton of books already out there written about Disneyland, and some of them are excellent. Early in 2014, I realized that in another year we would be celebrating the 60th anniversary of Disneyland and knew that over the last three-and-a-half decades I had interviewed many people who had shared with me interesting stories about what the park was like in 1955.
Documentarian Ken Burns once stated that history is actually biography. Not just the biographies of the big famous figures like Walt, but of the average person who was involved in making it all happen on a day-to-day basis.
I figured I could just cull some snippets from those interviews and share them in a book and readers might be entertained. Over two-and-a-half years later, I was still struggling with the manuscript.
As I started to gather the quotes, I realized that I needed to also include some background information so that readers could better understand what these people were discussing.
Nomenclature was much different in the early days of the park. Some things were only there briefly and needed explanation, as did relatively obscure people who had made significant contributions.
What was the parking lot like? Exactly which amusement venues directly inspired Disneyland? What gave Walt the idea for putting live baby alligators at the queue entrance to the Jungle Cruise? Who wrote Walt’s opening day speech? Why did managers all wear gray suits and orange ties?
Dozens of similar questions troubled me and the answers didn’t exist even in the most excellent of books about the earliest days of the park. Six decades had passed since Disneyland first opened and that information was getting lost every day as people died or their memories became clouded with age.
Documentation was not as easy to confirm as I had first hoped. Early publicity material produced by Disney was often a mixture of fact and wishful thinking. There was disagreement over dates, spelling of names and locations, and more.
People were so busy getting Disneyland built, opened, and maintained that much of the information and changes were never recorded and only some of it could be recovered through the memories of the people who were actually there. Some of those memories were faulty.
Many familiar tales are not repeated in this book, like the building of the railroad or women’s high heels sinking into newly laid asphalt on Main Street or horses being spooked by the whistle on the Mark Twain riverboat. These stories are readily available in so many other places that it made little sense to include them here when the space could instead be used for previously unrecorded stories.
Even just concentrating on the early months, there was still not enough room to include everything from my files. There is enough left for another book. This is not a definitive narrative, but an entertaining, and informative glimpse into that special time that focuses on the people who were there.
A 1950s Disneyland employee handbook states:
Disneyland is people. Our assets may show up in financial reports in terms of buildings…land…equipment and facilities…but the most important asset is our people. Disneyland begins with people…the guests who come to find happiness and pay for the continuance of the dream. It continues with people…the individual human beings who create happiness and preserve the dream.
In the movie Back to the Future (1985), Marty McFly goes back to Saturday, November 5, 1955, in his time-traveling DeLorean. Disneyland opened at 10am to guests on that day and the temperature in Anaheim was 83 degrees after a summer of record highs. The park had already significantly changed since its opening nearly four months earlier, and was preparing for even greater changes over the next few months.
This book shares what Marty might have seen if he had made a detour from Hill Valley to Anaheim on that fateful day. It is a grab bag of nuggets of information, memories, quotes, fun facts, anecdotes, and strange stories. It is meant to be a companion to other histories of the park, filling in some gaps, correcting some myths, and concentrating on the people.
Walt’s Disneyland really was, and still remains, the Happiest Place on Earth. Most people, including those who worked for Walt, felt it would be lucky if the place lasted through its first year or two. It not only survived but thrived and became not just a part of American culture but international culture. This is the story of how it all began, often told by those who were there.
I was only twenty-three years old and working full-time at Channing Wallace Gilson Industrial Design in Hollywood when in mid-1954 I was asked if I was interested in doing some work on the side at night and on Saturdays for a project Walt Disney was building.
I got caught up in the excitement of the Disneyland project and found that my temporary project soon became my new full-time job. Many others from those days have a similar story.
It still seems like yesterday to me, but it has been over sixty years and many of those people I knew and worked with are long gone and forgotten, so I am grateful that some of their stories are being preserved in this book.
It was different six decades ago. You were expected to go beyond your comfort zone, learn quickly how to do new things and solve problems. There were no committees, just Walt, and he was everywhere and checked everything and gave you the support you needed to make his dream come true.
I was trained as a car stylist and came up with the design for the Autopia cars and the parking lot trams in 1955. Walt didn’t want to buy things “off the shelf”. He wanted things that were better and uniquely Disneyland.
I was not an engineer, but I had to learn quickly because the parts had to be custom-machined and I was the one that had to draw all of those designs.
I made mistakes. Kaiser Aluminum was one of the sponsors at Disneyland, but aluminum makes terrible bumpers for Autopia cars. They deform and do not return to their original position as a steel spring would. They dragged on the curbs, leaving streaks of scrapings. We discovered all of this on opening day because there had been no time to do sufficient testing at the studio as we were rushed to make the deadline.
There were faulty speed governors, unpadded steering wheels that knocked out children’s teeth when they smashed into them when the car was bumped, and axle and brake damage, among other things. The cars were breaking faster than I could fix them.
It wasn’t just the Autopia that was facing problems of things not working as they should. Nobody had ever done a place like Disneyland before and many things were being attempted for the first time. It was often chaos, but Walt kept the show going with a smile and a calmness that it would all work out somehow. That was reassuring.
It is amazing to me that all these things were fixed within the first six months, some by the end of that first summer. It never occurred to us that it was impossible and it never occurred to us to just give up. By the start of January 1956, we were introducing new things into the park that had new problems and we fixed those as well.
I have always enjoyed the writing of Jim Korkis. In his articles and books, he has done his research to capture the accuracy and spirit of Disney history. One of the things that he focuses on is that history was not just names, events, and dates, but people. Disney history in 1955 was about the hundreds of people and their stories that made magic for Disneyland guests.
Inside these pages, he talks about Thomas “Mitch” Mitchell, the first fire chief of Disneyland and his 1954 Willys Jeep with a front-mounted pump and fire apparatus kept near the white administration building backstage; and Trinidad Ruiz, with his distinctive white mustache, who was attired as a White Wing on Main Street and swept up after the horses; and swaggering, cigar-smoking Nat Lewis who handled the balloon sellers throughout the park; and Emmert Brooks who ran the Candy Palace on Main Street and set such high standards in service and product that Walt preserved their relationship for a decade after other lessees were phased out.
These names are probably unfamiliar to the casual Disney fan, and thank heaven that Jim interviewed some of the members of Club 55 over the decades to obtain that type of information and later share it so that they will be remembered.
There are many books and articles about early Disneyland. I wrote my memories in the now out-of-print Design: Just for Fun (2012 APP-Gurr). As always, Jim found stories and information that haven’t appeared in print elsewhere so that people can understand that those first few months of Disneyland were like a constant fire-drill and that some of what we accept today as treasured “traditions” were just us making it up as we went along.
Former president of Imagineering Marty Sklar once said that he liked Jim’s articles on Disney history in the quarterly Disney Files magazine produced for Disney Vacation Club members because “they bring back memories for me”.
I am grateful that Jim took the time to compile all this information to bring back memories of one of the happiest times of my life. You will be informed and entertained that the birth of Disneyland was like a three-ring circus. It was Walt’s dream and he was the one who guided us all in the same direction and to the same destination, but it took a lot of talented, wonderful people to make it happen.
Jim Korkis is an internationally respected Disney historian who has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for over three decades. He is also an award-winning teacher, a professional actor and magician, and the author of several books.
Korkis grew up in Glendale, California, right next to Burbank, the home of the Disney studios. As a teenager, Korkis got a chance to meet the Disney animators and Imagineers who lived nearby, and began writing about them for local newspapers.
In 1995, he relocated to Orlando, Florida, where he portrayed the character Prospector Pat in Frontierland at the Magic Kingdom, and Merlin the Magician for the Sword in the Stone ceremony in Fantasyland.
In 1996, Korkis became a full-time animation instructor at the Disney Institute teaching all of their animation classes, as well as those on animation history and improvisational acting techniques. As the Disney Institute re-organized, Jim joined Disney Adult Discoveries, the group that researched, wrote, and facilitated backstage tours and programs for Disney guests and Disneyana conventions.
Eventually, Korkis moved to Epcot as a Coordinator for the College and International Programs, and then as a Coordinator for the Epcot Disney Learning Center. He researched, wrote, and facilitated over two hundred different presentations on Disney history for Cast Members and for such Disney corporate clients as Feld Entertainment, Kodak, Blue Cross, Toys “R” Us, and Military Sales.
Korkis has also been the off-camera announcer for the syndicated television series Secrets of the Animal Kingdom; has written articles for several Disney publications, including Disney Adventures, Disney Files (DVC), Sketches, and Disney Insider; and has worked on many different special projects for the Disney Company.
In 2004, Disney awarded Jim Korkis its prestigious Partners in Excellence award.
If you have a question for Jim Korkis that you would like to see answered here, please get in touch and let us know what's on your mind.
I was about 15 when I interviewed Jack Hannah with my little tape recorder and school notebook with questions printed neatly in ink. I learned to develop a very good memory because often when the tape recorder was running, people would freeze up. So, I sometimes turned off the tape recorder and just took notes which I later verified with the person. I always gave them a chance to review what they had said and make any changes. I lost a lot of great stories, although I still have them in my files for future generations, but gained a lot of trust.
I was very, very lucky. I was a kid, and it never occurred to me that when I saw their names in the end credits of the weekly Disney television show that I couldn't just find their names in the local phone book and call them up. Ninety percent of them were gracious, but there were about ten percent who thought it was a joke and that maybe one of their friends had put me up to phoning them.
It was like dominoes. Once I did one interview and the person was pleased, he put me in touch with others. After some of those interviews were published in my school paper and local newspapers, it gave me some greater credibility. Later, when they started to appear in magazines, I got even more opportunities.
JIM: You know, one of the proudest things for me about my books is that not a single factual error has been found.
To do my research, I start with all the interviews I've done over the past three decades, some of which are some available in the Walt's People series of books edited by Didier Ghezz. When necessary, I contact other Disney historians and authorities to fill in the gaps. And I have amassed a huge library of books, magazines, and documents.
When I moved from California to Florida, I brought with me over 20,000 pounds of Disney research material. The moving company that had just charged me a flat fee was shocked they had so severely underestimated the weight, and lost thousands of dollars. That was over fifteen years ago and the collection has only grown since that time.
About The Vault of Walt Series
JIM: I was fortunate to grow up in the Los Angeles area at a time when I had access to some of Walt’s original animators and Imagineers. They shared with me some wonderful stories. I wrote articles about their for various magazines and “fanzines” of the time. All of those publications are long gone and often difficult to find today.
As more and more of Walt’s “original cast” pass away, I realized that their stories had not been properly documented, and that unless I did something, they would be lost. Everyone always told me I should write a book telling these tales and finally I decided to do it.
JIM: She actually contacted me. Her son, Walter, loved the Disney history columns and articles I was writing and would send them to her. I was overwhelmed that she enjoyed them. She was appreciative that I tried to treat her dad fairly and not try to psycho-analyze why he did what he did.
She also liked that I revealed things she never knew about her father. As we talked and I told her I was doing the book, I asked if she would write the foreword. She agreed immediately and I had it within a week. She even invited me to go to the Disney Family Museum in San Francisco and give a presentation. She is an incredible woman.
JIM: Obviously, the ones about her dad were a big hit. She especially liked the chapter about Walt and his feelings toward religion. She told me that it accurately reflected how she saw her dad act.
JIM: That’s like asking a parent to pick their favorite child. I tried to put in all the stories I loved because I figured this might be the only book about Disney I would ever write.
One chapter that I have grown to love even more since it was first published is the one about Walt’s love of miniatures. I recently found more information about that subject, and then on the trip to Disney Family Museum, I was able to spend hours examining some of Walt’s collection up close.
About Who's Afraid of the Song of the South?
JIM: I wanted to read a “Making of the Song of the South” book, but nobody else was ever going to write it. I wanted to know the history behind the production, why Walt made certain choices, and as many behind-the-scenes tidbits that could be told. I didn’t want to read a sociological thesis on racism.
Fortunately, over the years I had interviewed some of the people involved in the production, had seen the film multiple times, and had gathered material from pressbooks to newspaper articles to radio shows of the era.
There are a lot of misconceptions about Song of the South. I wanted to get the facts in print and let people make up their own minds.
JIM: I thought I knew a lot after being actively involved in Disney history for over three decades, but writing this book showed me how little I really know.
For example, I learned that it was Clarence Nash, the voice of Donald Duck for decades, who did the whistling for Mr. Bluebird on Uncle Remus’ shoulder. I learned that Ward Kimball used to host meetings of UFO enthusiasts at his home. I learned that the Disney Company tried for years to make a John Carter of Mars feature. I learned that Walt himself tried to make a sequel to The Wizard of Oz. I learned that Disney operated a secret studio to make animated television commercials in the mid-1950s to raise money to build Disneyland. And so much more.
Even the most knowledgeable Disney fans will find new treasures of information on every page of this book.
JIM: Walt Disney was not racist. That is one of those urban myths which popped up long after Walt died, and so he was unable to defend himself.
In my book, I make it clear that Walt had no racist intent at all in making Song of the South. He merely wanted to share the famous Uncle Remus stories that he enjoyed as a child, and he treated the black cast with respect and generosity.
Many people don't realize that the events in the film take place after the Civil War, during the Reconstruction. So many offensive Hollywood films made at the same time as Song of the South, even one with little Shirley Temple, depicted the Old South during the Civil War in an unrealistic manner. Walt's film got lumped in with them, and he was a visible target for a much larger crusade.
With John Cawley:
Despite popular belief, Disneyland did not spring forth from Walt's famous imagination fully formed. He drew inspiration from many sources, among them the Henry Ford Museum, a kiddle park run by a guy named Hurlbut, and a cemetery.
The Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village began as a personal collection of American historical objects obtained by entrepeneur Henry Ford. Greenfield Village was founded in Dearborn, Michigan, on October 21, 1929, as an educational and historic landmark, maintaining the buildings and stories of America’s past for future generations.
Greenfield Village houses nearly one hundred historic buildings in a village setting, including the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory, and Noah Webster’s Connecticut home. In addition, there was a 1913 Dentzel merry-go-round and an operating stern-wheeler riverboat.
Walt first visited Greenfield Village on April 12, 1940, and spent the day enjoying himself. He visited a second time on August 23, 1948, with Disney animator Ward Kimball during a trip they took to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Walt had tintype pictures of himself taken both times as a souvenir.
Disney wrote a memo dated August 31, 1948, about his plans for an amusement venue which included ideas inspired by Greenfield. He described a main village with a railroad station, an opera house, a movie theater, a horse car, a magic shop, a kids’ clothing store, and other structures he had seen there.
Skilled at woodworking, Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut began building miniature trains. By 1943, he had sold several trains to amusement parks. Around the same time, he opened his own small amusement park in El Monte, California, in the parking lot of Crawford’s Market located at Five Points. The market had been there since 1937.
The small amusement area featured one of Hurlbut’s trains and had a tiny car ride, a boat ride for children, pony rides, a carousel, a ferris wheel, and other attractions. It was to be a showcase for potential buyers of his rides.
In a conversation with author Christopher Merritt, Hurlbut recalled:
I saw this man on my property. When he was there the second or third time I thought he didn’t look like a customer. So I spoke with him and told him it looked like he was interested in the amusement park business. He was a really nice fellow so I sat down with him and he asked about rides.
The man, of course, was Walt Disney, who visited several times and brought over some of his Disneyland staff to Hurlbut’s shop.
Hurlbut started working for Walter Knott around 1955, operating a Dentzel Menagerie carousel at Knott’s Berry Farm that he had kept in storage. Hurlbut went on to create memorable rides for Knott’s Berry Farm, including the Calico Mine Train and Timber Mountain Log Ride.
Hurlbut also owned Castle Park in Riverside, which opened after the Knott family sold their park. It featured a miniature golf course and arcade, with amusement park rides added in 1985. Hurlbut sold the park in 1999.
Hubert Eaton took over the management of Forest Lawn cemetery in 1917. He envisioned it not as a cemetery, but a memorial park “devoid of misshapen monuments and other signs of earthly death, but filled with towering trees, sweeping lawns, splashing fountains, beautiful statuary, and … memorial architecture”. The grounds are adorned with 1,500 statues, some of which are replicas of famous works of art.
Forest Lawn is a popular tourist attraction, with nearly one million visitors each year, because of its beauty and serenity, as well as the many celebrities interred there. Prior to the opening of Disneyland, Forest Lawn was the most popular tourist attraction in Los Angeles.
Walt’s mother and father loved spending a day just walking the grounds. Forest Lawn also presented various religious shows. It was later discovered that visitor patterns paralleled, on a smaller scale, those of Disneyland.
Continued in "The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion"!
Once the site of somniferous orange groves, Anaheim rode Mickey and company to civic success.
In the mid-1950s, Anaheim was a small, quiet, rural community, where agriculture was the primary industry. The city jail had only two cells and the 42 police officers had to supply their own cars when on duty. A brochure from before Disneyland was built described the city as:
No better place to Live. Anaheim. The City of Beautiful Parks. In the Heart of the Southland.
In 1955, the city had a population of about 15,000 people. Today, the population is nearly 340,000.
In the early 1950s, the city was four square miles. Today, it is approximately forty-two square miles. In 1955, the year Disneyland opened, 3,300 more acres were included within the city limits. By the end of that year, Anaheim was four times the size it was in 1953 when Walt first started looking at the area.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, Anaheim had only five small hotels and two motels, with a total of 87 rooms. There were 34 restaurants in the city. Today, there are thousands of rooms and hundreds of restaurants.
Anaheim had twenty-seven independent industries employing 1,400 workers. A decade after Disneyland opened, there were 460 industries employing 48,500 workers.
With the immediate success of Disneyland, the streets surrounding the park became a chaotic and tawdry hodgepodge of motels, hotels, restaurants, liquor stores, bowling alleys, cheap souvenir shops, and other tourist traps.
Many of these places tried to align themselves with Disneyland by creating superficial design elements, primarily on their signs, to suggest the theme of Hawaii, outer space, and the Old West, among others. At the time, Anaheim had no restrictions on signs, zoning laws, or a master plan for expansion. By 1959, twenty-five motels were pressed together in the perimeter around the park aggressively promoting themselves as within “walking distance of Disneyland”.
Walt referred to this “Glitter Gulch” area as a “second-rate Las Vegas” and made him want land where he could control the space around his park, resulting in him going to Florida a decade later.
As Anaheim’s city manager from 1950 to 1976, Keith Murdoch remembered that the city was as interested in having Disney just as much as, if not more than, Disney was interested in locating its theme park in Anaheim, The city wanted to raise its profile and attract some major businesses. He said:
We were looking to improve the economic status of the city by attracting new industries. We looked at Disney as another industrial opportunity.
On August 19, 1966, the Disney company received from the First American Title Insurance & Trust Company the “chain of title” tracing Disneyland from the original land grant to the present.
Disneyland was located on parcels of land in the Rancho San Juan Cajon de Santa Ana, which had been under the jurisdiction of the King of Spain in 1769. After becoming part of Mexico, the area was given to Juan Pacifico Ontiveras in 1837.
After California became part of the United States, the government officially confirmed that the land belonged to Ontiveras. He later sold 1165 acres at $2 an acre to the founders of Anaheim in 1857. Nearly a century later, that same land would cost Walt over $4,000 an acre.
In June 1953, Walt hired the Stanford Research Institute to make two surveys. One would find the ideal location for Disneyland. The other would determine the economic feasibility of building Disneyland. Disney paid $23,000 for the site study and a four-month feasibility study.
Charles Luckman, one of the architects that Walt had hired to construct the never-built Mickey Mouse Park in Burbank, recommended Harrison “Buzz” Price, head of the Los Angeles office of SRI. The project manager was C.V. Wood Jr., but it was Price who was the “numbers” guy.
By late August, Price had narrowed down the potential areas, but also concluded that Los Angeles was becoming increasingly decentralized and land too expensive for any area there to be viable.
In addition, Walt had immediately ruled out any location near the beach, since he felt that he’d lose as much as half his potential audience to the free fun of the Pacific Ocean. Walt also feared that dripping wet swimsuit-clad guests might then stop off at his park, causing maintenance issues.
Price identified Orange County as having the best climate as well as being where the center of population seemed to be moving, especially with the new Santa Ana Freeway then under construction that would supposedly be finished late in 1954.
Price also had to take into account a good location for television transmission because Walt intended to broadcast from the park. One of the caveats was that obstructions such as power lines couldn’t be in a direct line from the park to the antennas atop Mount Wilson in the San Gabriel Mountains.
Anaheim City Manager Keith Murdoch, working with Earne Moeller, the manager of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce, outlined two possible sites. Both were mainly orange groves with few buildings.
One Saturday, on the way to the first site, Walt passed a Catholic cemetery that had fallen into disrepair and was unkempt. He immediately rejected the site, not wanting Disneyland visitors to drive by it, despite assurances that it would be cleaned up. He liked the second site and decided to put down a deposit on some of the land there.
Afterward, on their way back to Burbank, Walt and his team stopped at Knott’s Berry Farm, one of the few places Walt knew in the area, for lunch, and had an enthusiastic discussion about the possibilities of that site. At a nearby table was a realtor from Garden Grove who listened intently to the conversation and then on Sunday obtained options on some of the key parcels in hopes of making a fortune.
That killed the deal on Monday morning, and Walt forfeited his deposit. Murdoch searched and found two other locations, but both of those failed to materialize.
Finally, a clever Murdoch found a block of land held by only seventeen owners who were thinking of selling it to a housing subdivision. The only problem was that Cerritos Avenue, which went from Harbor Boulevard all the way to the Pacific Ocean, ran right through the middle of it.
With willing property owners, the street could be closed and abandoned, and the area was very close to one of the pins that SRI had put on a map of potential sites.
“If you can close that street, we’ve got a deal,” Walt told Murdoch.
The street was closed. The orange-growing business was going through hard times and the owners welcomed this opportunity to get out. For the most part, they knew it was Disney that was buying the land and they felt they were getting a good deal.
The price would be relatively inexpensive, at an average of $4500 per acre. The total cost for just the land was $879,000. Its purchase by Disney would not be announced officially until May 1954.
Walt liked the cooperative nature of the Anaheim city government and the growth possibilities of the area. He felt that it would be a good home for his park, and he was right.
Unfortunately, the scheduled public ground-breaking ceremony had to be canceled because of the threat of a protest demonstration by a handful of local residents led by two Garden Grove businessmen who wanted to stall the annexation of the Disneyland site.
Despite these issues, construction on Disneyland began July 21, 1954, when the first trees were removed, leaving approximately 257 working days to build the park.
Earlier, on January 5, 1955, the Disneyland plot of land officially became part of the city of Anaheim and was granted access to all of the necessary infrastructure, from sewage to garbage collection.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, county officials predicted that by 1970 Orange County’s population would be 720,000. Thanks to Walt’s Magic Kingdom, the county hit that number in 1961, nine years ahead of schedule.
Continued in "The Unofficial Disneyland 1955 Companion"!